Sometimes I don’t know when to stop. Sometimes I let others talk me into horrible ideas. Last night was a case where both came into play.
Based on some back-and-forth banter from the Hermetic House of Life Discord server, I ended up participating in an online watch-party with some of my friends for Mitch Horowitz’s “The Kybalion”. Yes, the author of Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation is a loud and proud proponent of the New Thought book The Kybalion (about which I’ve said so much before and about which many others have, too), and just a few weeks ago (on January 11, 2022) released his 1hr15min movie about the book. According to the movie’s IMDB page:
This film is an adaptation of the 1908 occult manuscript, The Kybalion – and explores the 7 principles of Hermetics. It is a surreal documentation of the supernatural world around us.
Although one attempt to get me to watch the movie got a polite decline from me (I had an appointment to get stuck in the blood pressure testing machine at the local quasi-fancy grocery store), I eventually succumbed to the wiles and hopes for cheerful banter over such a movie in a MST3K-like setting. A few days later, me and a number of my compatriots got together and…
Well, I made a livetweet thread about it, detailing my and my friends’ reactions to the movie. Such an odyssey can be found to start here (just check out the replies):
Now, by all accounts, Horowitz has done some pretty good stuff before, and it’s not like he’s some newbie occultist freshly entranced by woo. However, after going to bed in something of a fugue state and waking up in a state of anger that I let myself get swindled into such a horrible way to spend an otherwise pleasant Saturday night, I can only take the creation of this movie as more evidence that taking The Kybalion seriously as being some font of mystical knowledge rots your goddamned brain. Unless Howoritz is making some sort of ironic cash-grab at the expense of gullible people, I can think of no other way one could undertake such an endeavor in so poor a manner unless one were so bereft and bereaved of their critical thinking skills.
A variety of things I have said since last night but before writing this post regarding this movie:
Mitch Horowitz’s “The Kybalion” was an assault on the senses and I feel personally victimized by it. I can unironically say the book was better. The movie has as much to do with the Kybalion as the Kybalion with Hermeticism. Save yourself; don’t watch it.
if you or a loved one suffers from “The Kybalion” or Mitch Horowitz’s soi-disant adaptation of “The Kybalion”, you may be entitled to compensation
I demand retribution for the violence inflicted upon me this night, this violation that “The Kybalion” movie committed against the supreme commandment of the Orange Catholic Bible: “thou shalt not disfigure the soul”
The other night, I (somehow) failed to make instant pudding. Yes, just a standard packet from a box of Jello sugar-free pudding mix, that’s all. (I’m still working through my pudding cache, yes, thank you for asking.) I was trying to be sly and spread the pudding powder evenly over the bottom of the bowl first and slowly add milk while mixing to get it to come together nicer, but that approach had the exact opposite effect, resulting in vaguely banana crème-flavored milk with a thick, crumbly, half-gelatinous uneven layer of gunk stuck to the bottom of the bowl that I couldn’t get whisked into the rest of the milk again. I drank what I could of the milk and threw out the rest because I wasn’t gonna chew through half-jellied half-congealed half-flavored blancmange. That gastronomic misstep came together more coherently than, and was altogether a more pleasurable experience than, Mitch Horowitz’s “The Kybalion” movie.
After opening up with a several-minute-long sequence of iPhone-quality trippy visuals with Horowitz reading every ur-Kybalion quote from The Kybalion in order, the movie breaks down into a sort of cycle:
- The relevant quote from The Kybalion introducing one of the seven Hermetic principles
- A psychedelic ritual enactment (ostensibly some sort of “Alchemical Wedding”) featuring a naked man and woman presided over by some sort of masked mysterious shaman-esque figure
- Horowitz talks at the audience introducing the principle and summarizes at an extremely high, terse level what The Kybalion says about it, interspersed with modern takes involving string theory or quantum physics
- A monologue by someone in the sense of it being a one-sided interview
It’s clear that the ritual enactment sequences were meant to metaphorically describe the principle immediately stated before each skit, and each interview (with a psychic, an alchemist, a medium, an NDE expert, a hypnotist, a Tarot reader, and an astrologer) was somehow supposed to explain, elaborate, or touch on its associated principle. Except in perhaps the most tenuous or tangential of ways (and that really only for the latter two interviews, if I squint hard enough), neither the ritual enactment sequence nor the interviews had anything to do with The Kybalion or its principles. After the seventh interview is wrapped up, Horowitz talks for a few more moments, and then the movie abruptly ends.
Hand to God, that’s literally the whole movie.
But that summary of the content of the movie doesn’t touch on the cinematographic quality of the movie. According to the movie’s own website (emphasis in bold mine):
What if there was great wisdom and boundless power available to us, but hidden in plain sight? The Kybalion is a documentary film adaptation of the widely popular but underground occult text of the same name, which explores the “Seven Principles” that govern the universe. Occult historian Mitch Horowitz takes us on a metaphysical journey of how we can apply these principles and unravel their mystery. Mitch argues that the ancient philosophy of the occult may hold exactly the keys modern people are seeking to a universalistic faith of inner development, karmic values, and personal power. Along the way we meet alchemists, artists, mediums, and scientists working within the parameters of these principles. The film, presented as a dark and mysterious enigma, sheds new light on ancient wisdom and gives viewers who wish to expand their consciousness valuable tools to do so. Director Ronni Thomas, (themidnightarchive.com) makes the film an otherworldly and cinematic journey spanning the monuments of Ancient Egypt to a surreal and uncanny other world. The Kybalion will be available January 2022.
Consider, dear reader, how Twitter has afflicted so many nowadays with a shortened attention span: get used to the rapid flow of 280-characters-max statements in brief that usually can only scratch the most superficial of surfaces, and you have a hard time sustaining focus and attention on anything longer or of substance. Horowitz’s movie is much like that but in a graphic format: outside of the ritual enactment sequences, the whole movie is a series of three- or four-second long clips, spanning everything from Egyptian ruins to Everytown USA to CGI-in-space to timelapses of flowers blooming or withering, spliced together with talking heads (whether Horowitz or his interviewees). And even then, half the shots are in the middle of focusing, go out of focus, or remain out of focus for as long as they’re on the screen, not in the sense of using bad filming equipment but as a deliberate stylistic choice. Even the interviews themselves are filmed in a deeply unflattering way, using almost entirely a series of head-on or profile-only angles that, instead of complimenting their subjects, make them feel like they are either an Orwellian authority instructing the audience or a piteous subject to be analyzed by the audience. Watching the movie is a violation of the sense of sight, and deserves several kinds of warnings that the movie can induce epileptic seizures—but even for those without epilepsy, the constant stream of a variety of visual media is a confusing, disorienting affront to the dignity of the mind. The movie is only “an otherworldly and cinematic journey” in the sense that drunkenly flipping through a TGI Friday’s menu is a culinary review of cooking techniques and food presentation. Even from an amateur filmmaker or documentary enthusiast standpoint, this movie fails even the most basic of cinematographic standards.
For an estimated budget of $100k, I have to wonder: where the hell did it all go? At least some of it must have been spent on flying to Egypt to take some wobbly, blurry shots of a few Egyptian temples, but it seems like most of it was spent on an overstylized, overprocessed mystical skit that can only be described as sophomoric, a stupid person’s idea of a smart presentation of occult content. And that’s what this movie turns out to be: content. Despite its aims and claims, it’s not a documentary about The Kybalion (though it does lip service to classical Hermetic literature and the authorship of The Kybalion by William Walker Atkinson), because the movie doesn’t document anything about The Kybalion except for Horowitz reading a few lines from it and offering his superficial take on it. It doesn’t appear that it was meant to entertain an audience, but if it was meant to educate one, I honestly cannot see how, seeing how there was nothing in these interviews that substantially illustrates the origins, methods, effects, or uses of The Kybalion‘s seven principles. I and my friends were left in a bewildered anguish, left wondering what the purpose of this movie is even supposed to be. The movie seems less to be a documentary adaptation of The Kybalion and more Horowitz getting together with a few of his friends, shooting the shit about misc woo, and then trying to make a movie about it by ostensibly tying it to something Horowitz really likes.
As I said earlier: as with so many film adaptations of books, the book was better. To be clear about my feelings here: the movie is not so bad as to make me feel bad for the original book (because I claim the book would still deserve to be burnt or thrown into the ocean if I didn’t feel so bad about pollution), but I’m still upset and indignant that someone so invested in The Kybalion had a bar set so low and still couldn’t cross it. Over the past century, The Kybalion has had an outsized influence on a huge number of Western esoteric studies and occult organizations, with so many books and teachers incorporating the principles and teachings (such as they are) of The Kybalion, to the point where so many people in the Anglophone West get into occulture or mysticism (or Hermeticism) citing The Kybalion as their gateway book for it, to the point where some claim that “Kybalion hate is ivory tower wizard elitism” or “any occultist who dismisses The Kybalion is faking everything” (actual things people have said to me when I contest The Kybalion‘s use or Hermetic pedigree). Hell, for as much as I find The Kybalion to not even be worth the recycled pulp paper its printed on, I could do a better job coming up with interviews, documentation, and edutainment illustrating its teachings, as bullshit as I find them to be. The fact that what Horowitz gave us, despite the promises of the movie and what it claims itself to be, is a movie that is less a documentary and more a disjointed, disorienting, incoherent mess is not just a disappointment, it is an insult.
As I mentioned above, I’m pretty sure The Kybalion (the book itself) just gives people brainworms at this point. If such an otherwise eloquent, acclaimed occultist and historian as Mitch Horowitz put out such a dumpster-fire as this about a book he has gone on about publicly in lectures and lessons as being fundamental to good living and Western esotericism, then I have to seriously wonder not what he was thinking when he put this movie together but whether he was thinking at all. This movie is not a documentary about The Kybalion, it isn’t a who’s-who of Western esoteric experts, it isn’t a substantial exploration of these oft-vaunted “seven Hermetic principles”—it is a random assortment of New Age feel-good half-woo whose expiry date was several decades ago, presented to the viewer as shiny baubles being jingled in front of a baby. This movie is less mysterious and more mystifying, less mind-expanding and more mind-boggling. Even the original book this movie purports to be about actually had a pretense of substance and made an attempt towards having some; this movie lacks even that, confusing “content” in the place of “substance”. I cannot fathom anyone actually understanding anything about The Kybalion from merely watching this movie (whether the book or the movie itself), but if this was meant to be an illustrative guide to spirituality for the benefit of the masses, then I weep for the work cut out for honest teachers, students, and seekers who have to trudge through such a mire of banal vacuity in our day and age to get to anything approaching spiritual.
Mitch Horowitz’s movie The Kybalion falls solidly on the far side of that hump, being both bad and unenjoyable, and has as much to do with the original book it’s based on as the book itself has to do with Hermeticism. Heck, don’t just take my word for it, consider also this review that one of my colleagues and friends just put up on Letterboxd about it. The only high point of my night was that I got to see my friends’ faces online as we turned our cameras on to commiserate with each other, but even that was ruined by how much we were burying our heads in our hands. Even as a joke, I do not recommend anyone to watch this movie, not while sober or intoxicated, not for the purposes of entertainment or education, because you will be disappointed regardless.