Reflections On “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”

I finally got around to watching Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the HBO documentary about Scientology.  It was everything everyone said it was.  The truth really is stranger than fiction.  I’m not going to do a full review, there have been plenty of others, and the film is still too new in my head to give it any kind of overall analysis.  There are just a few quick points and questions I wanted to address:

  1.  Watching the movie you see an alternative reality, where people believe things that can only be described as batshit insane.  Yet, many of these people are highly functioning members of society.  What widely held beliefs do we hold in our society that appear absolutely ridiculous to those viewing us from afar?  I don’t mean ones that differ from other societies, there are plenty of those, but ones that are provably false, yet a great deal of Americans put faith in them.
  2. Many of the people interviewed, the high ranking former Scientologists, that now have retired from the church, look back upon their former life with disbelief.  If we were to be removed from our current station in life are there things that we would view as absurd?
  3. When something looks and feels like a propagandist rally, it probably is.  There are creepy spectacles where the leader of the modern church, David Miscavige, and Tom Cruise speak to a stadium full of people in tuxedos and ball gowns.  Fireworks go off, people wave flags, inspirational videos are shown.  It looks like a megachurch combined with a political party convention combined with a sports rally.  All of these things are things in which every day America people have to suspend disbelief to participate in.  Sure, a sports rally is largely harmless, but you are essentially pretending that the action on the field somehow matters in your life, which unless you have money on the game, it doesn’t.  I think the other two examples are self-explanatory.

My point is that the church of Scientology is ridiculously absurd.  But at the same time, it is just an exaggerated version of many of the things that inhabit everyday life.  In fact when compared to some of the televangelists that John Oliver recently spoofed, it really isn’t any more absurd.  People in this documentary do horrible things to other people in the name of belief.  So many of the ills of mankind are based on a belief of some kind, but because they are more accepted, are not recognized as absurd.  The prison of belief.  One of the things that makes the documentary so powerful is that it is explicitly about Scientology, but it is also implicitly about the way that people get carried away by belief.  I would bet that even those of us that think we have a realistic view of the world have some pretty ridiculous notions if we look hard enough.  Hopefully this documentary will make people look at their own lives and not just the lives of the freaks on view.  That being said, the things Scientologists believe in are really, really, really fucking insane!

A Great Survival Story

I am in San Antonio waiting to soundcheck.   I was just talking to Keith about survival stories, as he is now reading In the Heart of the Sea, which tells the true story of the whaleship Essex, that was sunk by a sperm whale and is the inspiration for Moby Dick.

While talking about that story, I remembered one of my favorite documentaries, which is also a tale of survival.  It is Little Deter Needs to Fly, directed by Werner Herzog.   Deter Dengler, the Deter of the title, is a German American pilot during the Vietnam war.  He is shot down early in the war and not only escapes a prison camp, but also must survive in enemy territory and the jungle itself once he escapes.  Dengler is in the film and is a one of a kind character that you can’t help but like.  In fact Herzog,  who is not know for his sentimentalism,  was so enamored by him that he went on to direct a feature film, Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale.   While the dramatized version is excellent, it is really the documentary and the time spent with the real Deter that will leave a lasting impression.   If you can find either one they are worth seeing.  The documentary itself is really worth taking the trouble to dig for.

Music as Visual Art

Hammer Dracula

Lately my musical listening has drifted to bands that would be considered by many to be heavy, loud, by some to even be called discordant or non-melodic.  These would be some of the hardcore, punk, and heavy metal bands that I love, many since I was a kid.  Fugazi, Anthrax, Black Flag, The Misfits and many others have been on constant rotation through my headphones.  (These bands are all wildly different, but share crashing drums and loud guitars.)

I know there are many people that love a lot of the same music that I do that have no time for this kind of stuff.  But again I want to try and get you to view music the same way that I do, as something more akin to film or painting or any other kind of visual art.  There aren’t many people that have time for comedies, but rule out horror films completely.  There aren’t many people that like oil paintings, but who don’t have the time of day for sculptures.

There are good and bad oil paintings, sculptures, horror films, and comedies.  There are good and bad recordings in any genre, but I cannot think of any genre, in the most basic sense, that is all good or bad.  Much like there are different ways of putting together colors or images, there is different ways of putting together sound.  Sound is a visual thing.  My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is like an ever shifting psychedelic kaleidoscope, as colors swirl and melt into each other.  Whenever I hear Marianne Faithfull’s version of Trouble in Mind I think of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks.

Meanwhile different kinds of heavy metal, punk, and hardcore sound like other films or artwork.  The Misfits, sonically and by design, remind me of something like the old Hammer Horror Films.  Some heavy metal, though of course this genre, like any, can be ridiculously varied, reminds me of the kind of imagery associated with German paintings that came out of World War I.

Even if a certain kind of music don’t bring up specific visual associations, different kinds of music are awash in different colors.  Even if you don’t see music as being “colorful” most people would know that certain kinds of music sound better at day or night, on a beach or in a city.

Try to get past your immediate emotional reaction to any piece of music and think about the image that would go with it.  The only kind of music that I don’t like is music that only communicates, with terms that Werner Herzog would use to describe bad filmmaking, “vanilla emotions” or the, “truth of accountants.”  You just might find whole new worlds opening up.

More Posts On This Subject Include: Music as Paintings

More Posts On Music Include: Heart of the Congos and Great Music Criticism

More Posts On Hardcore Music Include:  Rites of Spring and the Political Without Politics

The Aviator – A Review and Reflection

The other night I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator for the first time since seeing it in theaters in 2004.  I was struck by how good it was, much better than I remember it being when I originally saw it.  This is Scorsese’s account of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).

I seem to remember it mostly for its first half hour, of when it gives a kind of synopsis treatment of early Hollywood.  It seems the work of a lesser filmmaker, tying to recreate a historical moment, without providing us any kind of insight into the actual moment.  It looks good, but it is emotionally empty.  The first section of the film almost plays more like a music video than a fully realized film with strong characters.

However, once Scorsese really starts showing us the struggle behind Hughes’s outward can-do facade, the movie really starts to become interesting.  You start realizing that the same things that allow Hughes to succeed are the same things that will eventually destroy him.  Hughes struggles with an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.  This personality trait drives him to be a perfectionist in the world of aviation and film, cause him to later be a shut-in that can no longer function in any kind of normal capacity.

That the film doesn’t adhere to the normal biographical film structure is a huge plus.  Scorsese is too smart for this.  The final shot, which leaves the viewer with a shot of Hughes obsessively repeating a phrase makes the film depart on a haunted note, that hints at what is to come, while leaving just enough ambiguity to make it work as symbolism rather than just strict biography.  Although Scorsese provides viewers with a possible explanation for Hughes’s insanity, he never overplays this hand either, not allowing simplification of the mystery of the human condition.

If the film follows any traditional narrative it is that of the classic tragedy, where the hero’s strengths are exactly what destroy him.  Before the last moments of the film, the hero’s strengths allow him to rise for one final triumph.

Although Hughes’s demons are largely the result of a inner struggle, the film also seems to be commenting on how society tries to destroy the dreamer.  Hughes dreams bigger and bolder than everyone around him and for the mundane everyday nature of commerce and bureaucracy try to bring him down.  We like to tell ourselves the narrative that we reward hard work and bold ideas, but we really only reward those a great deal of the time if they fall within a pre-established order.  If someone doesn’t kneel before the powers-that-be, those powers, which have the backing of the majority, will try attain retribution.

It’s also interesting that the very things that Hughes struggles with, outside of his own personal demons, are the same thing that haunts our society today, which is the unholy alliance of big business and government.  When big business is allowed to corrupt our government, the results are not only bad for the individual, but for society at large.  When we look at the freak power that is now the Republican party, we see these forces at work in our own time.  In a way this film is not only an interesting character study, but timely as well.

Lost River Review

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Last night I saw Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, and I loved it.  If you are a fan of directors like Nicholas Winding Refn or David Lynch, I think you will like it.  It’s definitely a strange fever dream of a movie, and one I don’t think you would like if you are not comfortable with abstraction.  It’s certainly a late night art house kind of a movie.  The whole thing is visually gorgeous, with vivid colors that explode onscreen.  I kept thinking of describing the movie as looking like “melting cotton candy” while I watched it.  Even horrific images of things like houses burning, are darkly beautiful.

The movies takes place in an imaginary version of American, filmed in the depressed areas of Detroit.  Christina Hendricks, best known for Mad Men, plays a mom that is trying to keep hold of the family home.  In order to make payments she takes a job working in a nightclub, hired by an unsympathetic bank manager who also runs the nightclub at night.  It is later observed that even his one act of kindness, providing employment, have malicious intentions.  The club, a place that looks like New Orleans on acid, excels in acts that are full of mock blood and gore that distract its patrons from real nightmares of their days.  What goes on in the basement of the club is even more sinister.

The other plot line centers around Hendricks’s son, Bones.  Bones trys to help provide by finding useful scrap that can be sold.  In doing this he runs afoul of the local gang lord, Bully.

The plot in and of itself may not sound like much, as visuals, sound design, and dream logic play every bit as much of a role in the proceedings as the story itself.  What the camera sees, how things sound, tell you as much as the dialog and the overall story arc.  This doesn’t mean that the general story arc is not clear, even if there are ambiguities, but the movie is more of a poem than a novel.

The performances of many of the main characters are great.  The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out personalities, but in this kind of movie it helps, as it does away with exposition and allows the movie to attain a kind of dream state.  You know who those people are and where they stand in the universe after only a scene or two.  Particularly great is Matt Smith, formerly of Doctor Who, as the psychopath Bully.  Also great is Ben Mendelsohn, who takes a Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet turn at the microphone, as the bank manager/nightclub manger.  Out of the protagonists it is Christina Hendricks that makes the most impact, as she makes the most out of her scenes, and seems visually created to be in this film.  Also great is a cab driver played by Reda Kateb, who makes a strong impression with very little screen time.

There are political overtones in the film, but this is not a political film in any traditional sense.  Kateb’s cab driver talks about the disappointment between how immigrants view this country and the reality that they find here.  One can’t help but be in disbelief of the world that in front of ones eyes, the dilapidated buildings, the seedy gas station, and know that however beautiful it all is in some strange way, due to the colors of the film and its dream like nature, it is equally horrific, especially realizing that this is all filmed in real world Detroit.  The closing scene also is especially meaningful, though I don’t want to spoil it, if one thinks about the symbolism behind it.

However, make no mistake.  This film is first and foremost about creating an emotional experience.  Helped by this is the great music created by Johnny Jewel, and the title song by his band The Chromatics.  Much like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, which starred Gosling and also featured music by the above participants, the movie has 80’s cinema overtones, even if these overtones are more about how we remember certain movies from that period, less than the reality of those movies themselves.

This movie received many negative reviews and was booed by a large part of the audience at Cannes, where it debuted.  However, I think this movie will gain a cult audience overtime.  I understand how there are people that will never like this movie, as it is very unsettling and requires work on part of the viewer to interpret its many charms.  However, if you love batshit insane movies that deal largely in imaginative visuals and ecstatic emotions, then definitely give this one a try.  Despite all of its obvious debts to other works, it still manages to create a unique and compelling world that is worth spending time in.

Not Everything is Equal

I read an article the other day where it was criticizing Simon Pegg because he claimed that sci-fi wasn’t as good as it used to be.  It then went into some argument that critiquing populist art was elitism.  I call bullshit loud and clear.  Pegg was making maybe too much of a blanket claim, but criticism is valid.

Art, like people, should never be judged as a group.  You don’t want to say hip-hop isn’t valid, but classical music is, or art house movies are valid, but summer blockbusters aren’t, etc.  But you can say, “so and so is vapid or such and such has merit”, when it comes to specific pieces.  Opinion always plays a role.  So does understanding.  There have been plenty of times I didn’t get something, only to get it later based on increasing knowledge.  Things also work on different levels.  Something may be excellent escapism and something might be excellent in making you think.  Different pieces for different moods and times.

The door is always left open to screw up in an assessment of something.  Rigidity is a mistake.  But all that being said, you can sure as shit argue that one thing is more worthy than another.

First of all popularity is no proof of validity.   Hitler’s ideas were popular at one point.  Especially in the modern world, when marketing plays such a huge roll in getting above the din, popularity just means exposure half the time.  This does not mean popular stuff is bad, only that popular is not the equivalent of good.

So whoever wrote that article with Simon Pegg is a clown.  You have to try to discern good from the bad.  Everything is not equal. The Kardashians are not Macbeth.   Life is short.  You need to have some kind of measurement of worth so that you don’t spend what little time you have turning your brain into mush.    Again, popular entertainment can be fantastic, but just the fact it is popular doesn’t mean anything.  Elite can infer stuck up, but it can also infer the best.  “They were elite soldiers.”  I wish more people would spend a little time asking for the best, and not settling for the banal:  Putting on whatever comes on TV or the radio without questioning it, drifting into the American night, lost and unaware, primed to lose.

How Apocalypto Relates to the News

When I watch the news I often think of the movie Apocalypto.   This is a Mel Gibson directed movie that deals with the Mayans.  The movie is an insane spectacle filled with ideas and blood.  The characters speak in ancient Mayan dialogue, but the movie is brilliant because it manages to tell the story in ways that are mostly visual.  It is an extremely intelligent piece of entertainment, an action movie with ideas.  It is barbarous, batshit insane, kinetic entertainment.  

Now why do I think of this movie when I see the news?  This is not due to the themes of the movie.  The Mayan empire is depicted as a civilization on the verge of collapse due to environmental calamity and human exploitation.  It came out during the Bush years and the Iraq War.  Gibson even commented that the Mayan rulers were very similar to Bush in his boys.  Sure, the invading Europeans put the nail in the coffin of the Mayans, but the Europeans are aided by the Mayan leaders’ tyrannical rule.  That is not to say that is true in history, but Gibson is trying to draw a parallel through art.  He is saying if we don’t quit oppressing people, if we don’t protect the environment, history shows that we and our way of life is in trouble.

However, none of that crosses my mind when I watch the news.  The greatest emotional quality of Apocalypto is insanity.  When I watch the news and they focus on the trivial and ignore the important, I feel emotionally like I do when I watch Apocalypto.   When I see war and oppression trumpeted as normal, when I see global warming treated as not real, when I see celebrity eclipse the common good, I feel the same as when I watch Apocalypto.  

There is intellectual truth and emotional truth in art.  Even if you argue that the movie doesn’t have the former, it has the latter in spades.  It feels like what happens when the world turns upside down.  It’s why the movie makes me happy, even though it is largely an action movie and a quite dark one at that.  Someone connected to an emotion that is all too common in the modern world.  It’s always uplifting to know someone feels like you do.  If there are others, you might just stand a chance. 

Mad Men, Mad Max, and Music

I’ve been taking some time off with friends and family.  I have many things I want to write about in depth, but just a few brief thoughts in the meantime:

1.  I will need to ponder the Mad Men final for awhile.  I thought it split the difference between Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. It gave the audience some of what they wanted and at the same time was interpretive enough that I think any quick judgment of it is misplaced.  My emotions and thoughts were complex while watching it.  I feel like any kind of summation at this point would not do the material justice.

2.  The new Mad Max is simply fantastic.  It is visually stunning, exploding with unique imagery, full of non-stop action, and batshit insane.  It’s entertainment with ideas and clearly directed by someone with true vision.  It makes other summer blockbusters look like marketing decisions.  I should throw in that it is emotional and subversive too.  But even if you just go see if for pure fun, you won’t be let down.

3.  Went on a walk today with My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, and Chromatics.  Three great bands for enhancing a mood while still giving you space to think.

Dock Ellis As Icarus

The truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… because we couldn’t go on. But by Ares, what did we have to look forward to but to be discarded in the end like Cleitus? After all this time, to give away our wealth to Asian sycophants we despised? Mixing the races? Harmony? Oh, he talked of these things. I never believe in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams. – Old Ptolemy, regarding Alexander the Great, in the movie Alexander

Last night I watched No No: A Dockumentary, a documentary about the baseball player Dock Ellis.  He was famous for, among many things, throwing a no hitter on LSD.  The documentary was worth watching, really good even, but not exceptional.  The footage and the interviews were fantastic, but something about the way the different pieces were put together, the narrative arc, seemed a little loose and unfocused.

One of the things that I found disappointing, but did not take away from my enjoyment of the film, was the end of the film’s focus on Ellis getting clean and teaching prisoners how to reenter life.  Now this is true to life. I also don’t wish to discount what is obviously a noble pursuit for anyone.  But for most of the film Ellis is Icarus before the crash.  You know, because he is mortal, that his wings will melt, but you can’t help but enjoy watching him fly to close to the sun.  So often society wants the outcome of the Icarus myth.  They show a brief shot of his obituary and the newspaper’s headline says something about how he overcame drugs.  For much of his life Ellis was the black ball player that, during a time of extreme racial prejudice, refused to keep his head down.  He not only was a physical mutant, succeeding in MLB while being extremely high, but also quite fearless in his behavior.  When black ball players were expected to keep their mouths shut, enduring things that can only be seen as outright ignorance, Ellis refused to play by the rules of society.  He was never one of the silent masses, guilty by consent.

Early in the movie the film talks about how black ball players, in certain parts of the country, were supposed to stay in different hotels than the white players.  This is obviously insanely stupid.  Black ball players also had to deal with everything from racial epithets to threatening letters.  Ellis never let this kind of discrimination water down his personality.  He was bold and proud when the world wanted him to be meek, quiet, and safe.

Society, even today, wants people to know their place.  I don’t even necessarily mean this in a racial way.  It wants people to tow the line.  It wants people to apologize for their personal transgressions.  But the world needs people like Ellis.  It needs freaks and mutants that by design or will can’t conform.  Although there are many ways to challenge the absurdity of the world, one way is to match its absurdity blow by blow, to refuse to bend to the will of the ignorant.  For a longtime Ellis out-crazied the whirlwind.

He eventually takes it too far.  As one ages their body can no longer handle the excess of youth.  Society is more powerful than the individual and it eventually will take the edges off someone or destroy them.  Very few, like George Carlin, actually get bolder with age.  Even if you refuse to bend to the will of society, life will eventually defeat you.  But for a little while he was out their defying the powerful, even defying the gods.  He was up there in the clouds, free and beautiful, a mythic character in the flesh.

I’m not saying his later deeds do not deserve commendation.  His work with those on the outskirts of society were noble, good, and worthy of respect.  But don’t for a second discount his earlier accomplishments.  He was a heroic mutant, momentarily shaking off the shackles of the mortal.  I’m glad he was out there, for a little while…

Mad Max: Fury Road Getting Rave Reviews

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Vanity Fair Mad Max Fury Road Review

Vanity Fair and just about everyone else are raving over the new film Mad Max: Fury Road.  It is currently at 98% over at Rotten Tomatoes.  I simply can’t wait to see it.  Here is a sample from Vanity Fair:

Fury Road feels brand new. In a movie season exhaustingly cluttered with never-ending superhero sagas and reboots, Fury Road arrives, despite its pedigree, as a daring, fascinating, thrilling jolt of original energy. It’s invigorating the way a big cinema spectacular should be, reveling in the medium’s towering possibilities, and transporting us to a thoroughly realized world that’s wholly unlike our own.

Over at Huffington Post Marshall Fine raves as well:

Here are some of the names that came to mind as I watched Mad Max: Fury Road:

Federico Fellini. David Lynch. Pieter Bruegel. Ralph Steadman. Stanley Kubrick.