Lee Boot Discovers the Source of Happiness and the Meaning of Life
“After we finished making the pilot for this film, we looked at the whole thing, and it went together fine, made sense and all that, but it was just too remote,” says Boot, the writer, co-director, and on-screen narrator of the film. “It wasn’t like you felt someone was really telling you a story that they cared about. It was too much like a lot of educational films that I see. So I just thought, How can I get closer to relating how I feel about this information? That’s really what that character in the boxer shorts does.”
In a costuming decision that most documentarians might consider counterintuitive, Boot decided to insert scenes of himself, alone in an empty room, talking to the camera, wearing nothing but a pair of black-and-white striped underpants.
“A lot of people tried to talk me out of it,” Boot says, without a sign of self-effacement. “I’m still not necessarily comfortable with me standing there in boxers.”
Yet with visible earnestness and unvarnished zeal, Boot appears periodically in Euphoria striding around in his skivvies, unspooling long, unscripted riffs about how your brain works, what its capacities are, and how you can make the most of it to lead a more rewarding life. And the only reason that none of this comes off as callow gimmickry is that Boot is palpably sincere in his vision—as a filmmaker, as an educator, and as an artist.
“[Those scenes] came directly out of the fact that I didn’t feel like the first attempt was expressing my own journey with this information,” Boot says. “It just felt too remote to me.”
That, basically, is Euphoria taken whole: a movie that detonates the old patterns of educational film by replacing instruction with inspiration, lessons with metaphors, and, above all, the dry didacticism of health-class movies with what Boot openly describes as his passion for his subject. And indeed, Euphoria is more than some tarted-up Nova episode about gray matter; it’s a homily about believing in yourself, finding your inner abilities, and dowsing out what really makes you happy. Boot bolsters his argument with tutorials about neuroscience and psychology, but on-screen he makes his case with all the verve of a tent-revival evangelist. “I wouldn’t be telling you all this,” he says in the film, midway through a primer on neuron function, “if I didn’t feel that the reason some people don’t do what they like is that they feel like their brains aren’t good enough.”
A succinct point, but it’s one that took Boot years to pin down. Euphoria has its roots in his training as a video artist—he moved to Baltimore from upstate New York to attend Maryland Institute College of Art in 1980—combined with his longstanding fascination with the biology of the brain. “I kind of had a neuroscience hobby,” says Boot, who currently serves as associate director of the Imaging Research Center at UMBC. “I don’t think it’s real rare for artists to get involved in how our minds work. So I kept making this video art that was very much based, in content, about the brain.”
These twinned interests got Boot involved in a variety of art projects, including Webform, a 1996 mixed-discipline exhibition at the Contemporary Museum, in which scientists and artists alike were invited to compare the internet to the human brain. But he soon found a new purpose for his work at his day job, teaching film to high school students at Baltimore County’s Carver Center for Arts and Technology. Soon Boot saw that teaching kids about the power of their brains could have effects felt far beyond the science-class lab.
“What made me decide to take this [work] out of the cloistered world of gallery video was that my students really didn’t have any information that they were working from, in terms of how their minds work, motivation, or anything else,” he says. “So when I showed them my video, which I’d do every now and then as a teaching film, they really gravitated toward it, I’m gratified to say, as opposed to the health videos they were seeing.”
Capturing the attention of teenagers was encouragement enough, and in the late ‘90s Boot applied for a science education grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop his ideas into a film. In time, the acceptance letter came, along with some private funding (the entire project cost about $1 million). He assembled a team that included production workers, scientific advisers, and co-director John Chester, and at last the path was cleared to make an educational film like no other—a science documentary with a self-help subtext.
Specifically, the film’s thesis goes, the more you know about your brain, the easier it is to find your personal pleasure centers and stimulate them over the long term. This rings to some ears of ’80s-era public-service ads and their “natural high,” but as models for filmmaking Boot wanted to steer as far away from them as possible.
“They [anti-drug ads] are always telling people what not to do,” he says. “And we said, ‘What if we talked about what you might do instead?’”
In this regard, Euphoria carries a central message that is nearly Zen-like in its simplicity: Real, long-lasting pleasure stems from living a meaningful life. The more you devote yourself to things that have meaning for you, the happier you’ll be, and your brain can take you there, even if you think that everyone else is smarter than you.
“Unless people believe that they can do what they’re trying to do, they won’t try,” Boot says. “They won’t do it. And so the reason that we put so much about the brain’s power in the film is to empower people to think that they can really pursue what they find meaningful and engaging, and that their brain’s gonna be there for them.”
So that’s why, in Euphoria, you find Boot standing in the middle of the Maryland woods talking about neurons. (Your brain is wired with 1 quadrillion neuron connections, he explains, so if each branch of your neurons were a branch on a tree, your brain would be a forest two and a half times the size of Texas.) That’s why you find him, in another scene in a Baltimore brownfield, kneeling over a stack of frozen beefsteaks with a cordless screwdriver, trying to fashion them into a sculpture of an angel. (He fails miserably—an illustration, he says, of what can happen if you approach your body and your spirit as mutually exclusive materials.) That’s why he interviews a dozen people who have found pursuits that engage their brains (including Contemporary Museum board chief Michael Salcman and sound artist Nicole Shiflet). And that’s why you find him marching around every now and then in his underwear, exhorting you to put your brain to good use, because “what success really means is emotional success.”
For sure, it’s all a very long way from Carl Sagan telling you that you’re “made of star stuff.” Even the most die-hard PBS viewer or fan of the National Geographic Channel would be hard-pressed to find an educational film anything like Euphoria, and that’s just what Boot intended. Rather than simply making a statement, he wanted to make contact, with nothing to get in the way of his naked enthusiasm.
“This film is very much a documentation of my own journey through these ideas,” Boot says. “So if there’s any genuine moment where I convey some of my own passion for the ideas in the film, it’s only because of that.”
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