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!

Public Image Ltd. “Album” – John Lydon, Ginger Baker, and Steve Vai Collaborate

One of my favorite bands, that I have written about from time to time, is Public Image Ltd.  Fronted by John Lydon, former Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols fame, they have continuously pushed the boundaries of music.  If you listen to their catalog, it simply doesn’t sound like anyone else’s, even if certain songs, or parts of songs, are grounded in particular genres.  Punk, dub, world music, rock, and electronic music all play a role at various time periods in the bands history.  I shouldn’t really call it a band.  Although the project started as a band and has been a functioning band recently, the only consistent member has been Lydon.

Tonight I have been watching the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker.  The documentary is about drummer Ginger Baker.  Baker is most famous for Cream and Blind Faith, though he has a long and varied career.  It made me think of his work with Public Image Ltd.

One of the most famous Public Image Image Ltd. albums is Album, or Compact Disc or Cassette, depending on the format at the time of its release.  (Though it is now predominately known by the first title.)  It’s a truly strange release that brings together not only Lydon and Baker, but also virtuoso guitar player Steve Vai, among others.  That is not exactly a trio of musicians that you imagine having something in common, other than the fact that they are all people that have tried to push the boundaries of music in one way or another.

If I’m honest, this is not my favorite record of theirs, though it definitely has its merits.  On several of the tracks producer Bill Laswell pushes them towards heavy metal, though it’s not typical metal by any means.  On these tracks the musicianship and Lydon’s one of a kind personality shine, but music itself isn’t as adventurous as a lot of the PIL catalog.  My favorite two tracks are at opposite ends of the spectrum.  The most famous track is the single Rise, which has an African music element, but also incorporates Vai’s unique guitar tone and brief moments of darkness that contrast the major key African elements.  The last track is great as well, and also perhaps the strangest.  The song Ease starts out with keyboards and a didgeridoo, followed by the bulk of the song, which has a majestic rock quality, almost Middle Eastern in sound.  The song closes with an epic solo by Vai, the likes of which is not heard throughout most of the PIL discography.  I’m not even sure if the song is any good, but it is definitely great.  Something that starts with a didgeridoo, then features Lydon singing over almost a Led Zeppelinesque middle passage, and closes out with a solo by Vai, is not like anything else I have ever heard.

Although there are other PIL records I prefer, the sheer fact that Lydon was so willing to reach out into new territory time and time again is inspiring.  And even if I would advise one to start elsewhere with their catalog, I think this one should be added to your collection at some point.  It’s a true one-off, that could only have been created at it’s unique time and place in musical history, by a group of freaks trying to do something new.  I’m always interested in hearing people go down the road less traveled.

More Posts On Public Image Ltd. Include:  Careering

More Posts On John Lydon Include:  John Lydon Exposes Fake Media Behavior

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

9 Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame

9 Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame

The link above is to a Cracked article that has clips from old horror movies from early in movie history.  The title is theirs.  However, I think the clips are interesting.  They are visually striking and some of them are quite artistic.  Plus, in looking at them you realize that there is this whole world of lost history out there, things that many people saw that you aren’t even aware of.  It’s like looking through a portal into another time and place.

Michael Mann and David Milch Interview

David Milch and Michael Mann Interview For Luck

Lately I’ve been diving back into the world of Michael Mann, culminating in his masterpiece Heat.  I want to comment on that film at some point, but I’m still collecting ideas, putting my thoughts together.  I have also been watching the show Luck, which was on HBO a couple years back.  It’s a show that centers around a racetrack and the personalities that surround are a part of that world.  Mann was a producer and director of the pilot.  The show was created by David Milch who is one of the most interesting minds and greatest writers in television.  Deadwood, a show he created, is one of the high-water marks of television for me.  It is as close to Shakespeare as we are likely to see in our time.  I think anyone that wants to understand our country should visit that show.  Anyway, while looking up information on Luck, I found this interview with both Milch and Mann.  It is short but fascinating.

True Detective Season Two Has David Lynch Influence

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True Detective Season Two Has David Lynch Influence

As a huge fan of David Lynch and a growing fan of Nic Pizzolatto, writer of True Detective, I found the above article over at Slate an interesting read.  A sample:

Mulholland Drive

Some have already remarked on the fact that a street sign with the words “Mulholland Dr.” on it is prominently featured early on—indeed, there’s a big, fat close-up of it—in the first episode. Not only that, but the car passing by the sign in question is carrying the dead body of Ben Caspere, the city controller whose death sets off this season’s featured investigation, and the episode repeatedly cuts to its journey. In Mulholland Drive, the crash of the car in question set off the plot of thatmovie, and the film repeatedly cuts back to its journey. Also, we don’t know that the figure of Caspere is dead at first—he’s got sunglasses on and is sitting straight in the backseat, next to a not-entirely-un-Lynchian black crow mask, which of course will return in episode two.

Heat Soundtrack

One of the first movie soundtracks I ever loved, that wasn’t strictly pop music, was the soundtrack to Michael Mann’s Heat.  Moby, U2, and Brian Eno do make appearances, but vocals are kept to a minimum.  The music is mostly hauntingly beautiful, with occasional forays into tense discord.  Rarely do film and music link up so well together.  Mann’s film is full of shades of blue, modern and sleek.  The music has the same sleekness, full of ambient soundscapes that recall a city in the wee hours of the morning.  The music rarely tells you how to feel.  It is instead full of wonder, opening the door to a higher emotional state.  The same piece may be lonely, beautiful, or tense, depending on the mood that you listen to it in.  Above is a Michael Brooks instrumental called Ultramarine.   It is a good piece to listen to because it features several elements that appear elsewhere on the soundtrack.  It has percussive textures like Brian Eno’s Force Marker, a beautiful theme like Moby’s God Moving Over the Face of the Waters, and an overall ambience to it like much of the soundtrack.

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.

Chromatics – Kill For Love and Theme From Lost River

I just got done writing a review of Ryan Gosling’s Lost River.  The music plays a huge role in the film.  Above is the theme song from the movie by the band the Chromatics who also contribute to that films soundtrack.  I also posted the title song of their great album Kill For Love.  They are a band I have really fallen in love with over the last couple years.  There are many bands in recent years that use the 80’s as a kind of stepping off point for their sound.  However, I think the Chromatics succeed where many others don’t.  They are great at not only creating great mood pieces, but also at writing great pop songs, something that is trickier than it appears.  And though some may view what they do as style over substance, I think they always deliver on an emotional level.  Song after song they are able to create a beautiful haunted quality.  And although they definitely use certain retro sounds, I believe they combine them in a unique way.  If you listen to their records enough you will notice certain sonic hallmarks which identify the band as having achieved their own sound.