Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 07, 2015 7:17 am 
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If not quite the whole story, a damning one

There is a book, but there is nothing like seeing things. Watching L. Ron Hubbard, hearing prominent defectors describe their experiences of Scientology in their own words, seeing the Sea Org members in their mock ship captain outfits, watching Tom Cruise and David Miscavidge hug and congratulate each other at a huge rally of the elite in the Los Angeles Sports Arena that as Scott Foundas very accurately put it in Variety "suggests the Golden Globe Awards as staged by Leni Riefenstahl." Those images are worth many thousands of words.

This is an HBO documentary, which debuted at Sundance, and is available streaming, and will be on DVD. Everyone should watch it, but it is not a fun watch. The criticism is that it's not undertaken with a merely positive fact-finding frame of mind like Lawrence Wright's eponymous book, and that (naturally?) it does not contain as much information, still seems odd when advanced at such length by Manohla Dargis' long, muddled NY Times review: what is she getting at? Has she some Scientology in her background, or does she just love the book? There is enough to damn Scientology as an exploitative cult, more than you could get into two hours. What is the need to be nice? The Nazi-style Los Angeles production was in 1992, to celebrate the Church of Scientology's restored tax-exempt status, erasing a government debt of over a billion dollars. This empty ceremony and the preening, giddy manner of L. Ron Hubbard's successor David Miscavige stick in the mind long after the facts and stories fade.

Gibney begins with the origins. L. Ron Hubbard had an overflowing imagination. In the glory days of SF mags, science fiction writing poured out of him, serving as a source of income and publications running up to, allegedly, a thousand books under his name. Later, during the War, he was removed from command of a ship because his imaginings extended to claiming skirmishes that never occurred. He was a liar, a fantasist, and later in life even at his own admission, deranged. He stated that the best way to get rich was to start a religion, because you can't be taxed. So he took his sci-fi fantasies and made them the gospel of a Church. A kind of speeded-up, self-help, empowerment version of Freudian psychology lay behind the Church's processes of "Going Clear." It involved rooting out traumas or what 12-Step Recovery might call "character defects" using repeated sessions of what, in one of the Church's many made-up jargon terms, is called "auditing." This is a one-on-one rooting-out session using an electronic meter that's a pared-down version of a lie detector. (A somewhat similar concept and process is also a feature of Werner Erhard's EST, not mentioned here.)

It's mentioned in the documentary that Paul Thomas Anderson's depiction of Hubbard and Scientology's early days in his film The Master is pretty accurate. Given the unpleasantness of the recitals in Going Clear, it might be more advisable, certainly far more enjoyable, to watch Anderson's film, and see these events transformed into art, with good acting, superbly realized scenes, and beautiful images.

Key fact: Scientology's membership size is diminishing, but not its power. Its wealth is ever-increasing. It is a far-reaching world-wide entity of growing investments, burgeoning property-ownership. Who knows what power this paranoid cult may wield in future? Pay attention. Because unlike the great religions, but typical of cults, the Church of Scientology has no rich core of philosophical wisdom and moral values for the earnest seeker to study and ponder, only a handful of slogans, a handwritten secret text revealed only to initiates and filled with gibberish, and above all a deep, relentless, rather terrifying need to perpetrate itself, control its members, and punish and silence its enemies.

Gibney is one of the acknowledged best documentarians of recent times, and this is a stunning effort, but still not quite on a par with his best, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, because they were essential and timely. As has been said, Scientology was discredited long ago. What is new here: some rare footage of Scientology activities; talking head testimony from over a dozen defectors from Scientology, including half a dozen who were near the top, and tell horror stories of manipulation, threats, endless paranoia from David Miscavige. And all of this detailed (and somewhat exhausting) material is impeccably assembled.

Most memorable is high ranking defector Sylvia 'Spanky' Taylor's account of years spent in "The Hole," a dreary, unsavory concentration camp where willing prisoners are made to sleep on vermin-infested floors and dine on scraps. She was separated from her young daughter, also kept a prisoner, and when she escaped with her, found her sick, her eyes stuck shut with pus. And so on. The horror stories are numerous. There is plenty about Scientology's rigid class system, the well-known use of Hollywood celebrities, who at the top like Cruise or Travolta are provided with royal accommodations and perks, while the Sea Org rank and file employees were paid forty cents an hour.

Going Clear is a warning and an exposé, but above all it is a repository for revealing and hitherto unseen footage of Scientology activities and events, and an opportunity for defectors to tell their stories to the general public.

The Church of Scientology attacks its enemies or detractors with everything it's got, and so naturally there is an ongoing effort to take down Alex Gibney, this documentary, and the people who speak in it on camera. This includes a call to cancel one's HBO subscription.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, 119 mins. The Lawrence Wright 2013 book's title is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. The film debuted at Sundance, as mentioned, 25 Jan. 2015. Limited US theatrical release 20 Mar. 2015; HBO premiere 29 Mar. Metacritc rating of the film on theatrical release: 81. Only Dargis' review brings down the score. Screened online for this review.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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