Film Review: Meow Wolf: Origin Story

Radical New Mexico Art Collective Goes To The Movies

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
Meow Wolf: Origin Story
Needs more glitter.
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New Mexico’s homegrown success story, the radical arts collective known as Meow Wolf, continues its rocket ship ride to intergalactic success with a documentary feature chronicling the group’s circuitous rise to fame. Energetically directed by Meow Wolf associate Morgan Capps and Santa Fe Community College adjunct professor Jilann Spitzmiller, Meow Wolf: Origin Story is a certified homegrown sensation from top to bottom. The film now is being distributed nationally through Fathom Events as part of a one-night only screening, taking place Thursday, Nov. 29. The film screens locally, starting at 7:30pm, at Regal Cottonwood 16, Century 14 Downtown and Regal Winrock 16. Fans both casual and hardcore—basically anyone who’s made the trek up to Santa Fe to marvel at Meow Wolf’s psychedelic roadside attraction The House of Eternal Return—are advised to take the opportunity to grow closer to this mysterious band of art monsters.

The group, consisting of well over a hundred artists and countless volunteers, is most famous for that multimillion dollar installation constructed out of an old bowling alley off Cerrillos Road. The extradimensional funhouse known as The House of Eternal Return was a smash success the second it opened and is now allowing Meow Wolf to expand into other cities like Denver and Las Vegas. But the origins of Meow Wolf stretch back decades into Santa Fe’s storied past. Like
The Avengers, but with fewer superpowers and more hot glue guns, Origin Story introduces audiences to a scrum of artist types—Matt King, Vince Kadlubek, Benji Geary, Caity Kennedy, Sean Di Ianni, Corvas Brinkerhoff, Quinn Tincher, Megan Maher, David Loughridge, to name a few—and shows how they combined their forces for the good of humanity.

A mix of founding members and “first gen” Meow Wolfers reminisce about the early days, massed into a quartet of tumbledown houses in Santa Fe, hosting house parties and music shows and painting on every surface they could find. Eventually the group expanded outward into a warehouse space and the legend that was Meow Wolf was formed. From the get-go, members speak of Meow Wolf as an amorphous entity beyond them. Many call it “The Beast,” and talk about it as “this entity that’s using us to channel itself into the world.” Those who’ve immersed themselves in the deep-dive mythology of “The House of Eternal Return” may find a parallel to the exhibit’s “Creative Anomaly,” the sentient extradimensional force whose chaotic energy led to the creation of that fractured abode hidden inside the bowling alley.

But Meow Wolf isn’t all trippy philosophizing. In fact it’s far more about bright bursts of expression. Over the years we witness—thanks to a lot of great archival footage—the creation of several memorable installations. These culminate in the creation of Meow Wolf’s “The Due Return,” constructed inside SF’s Center for Contemporary Arts back in 2011. This full-scale, interactive, interdimensional pirate ship cemented Meow Wolf’s reputation and taught them the value of not merely creating magical worlds, but imagining the beings that inhabit those worlds. Incorporating live actors and a loose storyline into “The Due Return” brought about the realization that “narrative is an access point for people who don’t feel welcome at art galleries.”

Though the film avoids editorializing on the nature of art (art critics and writers were neither consulted nor harmed during its creation), it does touch briefly on the heart of Meow Wolf’s group style. How do dozens of artists contribute to a single work of art? It all boils down to “maximalism,” which one artist describes as “way more stuff than you think is actually going to be pleasing.” This “everything and the kitchen sink approach”—combined with large-scale, long-term, not-for-sale art—gives Meow Wolf its unique creative kick.

Of course, even the realization of their ultimate artistic style and purpose didn’t put Meow Wolf on an easy path to success. Throughout its tale, Origin Story points out the stumbling blocks inherent in transforming an anarchic, “radically inclusive” punk rock art collective into a successful enterprise. Fights arise, factions form, people leave, friendships are tested, broken and mended. And yet, the vision—that mythical “Beast”—persists. There’s even a teary-eyed touch of drama in the story of David Loughridge, whose struggle with mental illness helps reunite the disparate factions of Meow Wolfers just in time for their greatest success.

Eventually, of course, the group comes up with the crazy idea of building a multimillion dollar, permanent, interactive art exhibit. The sweat equity (not to mention the massive financial burden) that went into creating The House of Eternal Return is well covered in
Origin Story’s final third. It’s in this section that we’re introduced to yet another New Mexico treasure, author George R.R. Martin, whose generous and far-sighted financial investment made The House of Eternal Return a possibility.

Intended as a rousing, inspirational tale of outside-the-box artistic success, the film doesn’t dwell on any of the fringe issues that have haunted Meow Wolf—questions of gentrification, commercialization and burgeoning tourism. And, as mentioned earlier, there are no so-called “art experts” to put any of this in perspective. The closest we get is the director of the CCA, who notes that Meow Wolf’s transformative “Due Return” show lured in a wide range of people you don’t normally see in an art gallery.

Perhaps, when the cultural epitaph is carved in stone centuries from now, that’s what the legacy of Meow Wolf will be: an exuberant collective outburst of art that was “radically inclusive” in terms of creators and audience.
Meow Wolf: Origin Story contributes mightily to those ends, spreading the gospel of extradimensional anarcho-punk maximalism to this particular corner of the cosmos.
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