Skip to main content

Welcome to Church!

Going Clear: 
Scientology and the Prison of Belief
(2015)

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is a typically first rate piece of documentary filmmaking from HBO and director Alex Gibney (an Oscar winner for Taxi to the Dark Side), based on Lawrence Wright’s scientology exposé of the same name. Notably, Wright is one of the talking heads in an engrossing, fascinating, densely packed piece, and he sets out that an exposé was not his intent; he merely intended to understand what it was the church’s members got out of their religion. If Going Clear has a fault, it’s that it’s transparently one-sided, and so is in danger of coming over as pure polemic but, with its interviewees mostly high-ranking ex-members owning up to their own misdeeds in the name of the L Ron Hubster, it’s difficult to see this as other than straight up.


At times, as Gibney introduces us to L Ron Hubbard’s exotic and inventive history, Going Clear takes on something of the fascinatingly immersive patchwork histories Adam Curtis is apt to weave, just without an overriding philosophy he’s trying to glean from it. The use of sound, archive footage and narration is creative and illuminating (elsewhere there’s a spot of dramatic retelling, which feels ill-fitting), and anyone familiar with Hubbard’s oft-cited motivation to start a religion as the best way to make money will only be surprised at how unashamedly this is underlined.


Along the way we encounter his World War II record (relieved of his command when he accidentally shelled a Mexican island), dip into his flirtation with Jack Parsons and the rocket man’s Babalon Working rituals, which will be familiar to any Robert Anton Wilson fans, cover his prodigious science fiction publishing career, and subsequent reworking of fictions for the benefit of humanity as Dianetics, his SeaOrg and its sadistic work practices, his devout dedication to tax evasion (making Scientology a recognised church being crucial to this, albeit it happened after his death and followed the Church’s slew of lawsuits against IRS members; the IRS agreed for an easy life, essentially), and his own paranoia and potential for madness.


Wright’s perceptive conclusion is that, while Hubbard indeed wanted to make lots of money, this wasn’t a mere scam to him. He cites L Ron spending hours every day on the e-meter auditing himself, and his belief that he had a particularly powerful Thetan attached to him. In Wright’s view, the Church was his own form of self-therapy, and its adherents gradually descend into the same mental space as its somewhat potty founder; “Scientology is a going into the mind of L Ron Hubbard, and the more you get into it, the more like L Ron Hubbard you become”.


The doc has frequent moments of humour, and in particular there’s Paul Haggis recounting his stunned disbelief being given the secret Hubster manuals to read once he attained Operating Thetan (OT) status, and how none of it made any sense, with its talk of a Xenu the Galactic Overlord, hundreds of thousands of Thetans climbing into our bodies and the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago being just like the ‘50s (“What the fuck are you talking about? What the fuck is this?”)


While the origins make for a fascinating history, the heir incumbent of the church, David Miscavige, is where the main meat is found. The confessionals of former second-in-command Mark Rathbun and head of the Office of Special Affairs Mike Rinder (who left soon after the 2007 Panorama documentary into the church’s activities, in which he was the main talking head) dish the most dirt, and paint a damning portrait of Miscavige’s own monstrous paranoia and edicts, including the establishment of an effective prison system.


While Rathbun and Rinder’s insights are sobering (particularly the harassment of the former by Church members after he left), and the insights into families split apart as some are declared Suppressive Persons, such that all ties are to be severed, are disturbing, it’s the more Hollywood-tinged elements that provide the spice and colour. I’ve mentioned Haggis, but Jason Beghe is absolutely hilarious (“All scientologists are full of shit” he claims, noting that they go around saying how great they are while suffering from terrible migraines), a little less off-the-wall than his Richard “mangina” Bates in Californication, but a real live wire (and one of the biggest active denouncers of the religion).  He ponders how many people would join the church if they were told on day one what it actually believes; “Oh yeah, so why is Tom Cruise paying a thousand buck s to have invisible aliens pulled out of his body?


And inevitably there’s the juicy gossip. Although no one is coming out and saying anything directly about Travolta or Cruise, there are clear enough pointers as to why and how neither has broken ranks; as much as the Church can bring its weight to bear when accusations hit the news and protect the member, so it can threaten that member with all the dirt it has accumulated during the course of decades of auditing.


Travolta’s one-time best friend ponders “I often wonder what could possibly keep him there” amid headlines shown of lawsuits brought against him. Travolta, in footage shown, comes across as not all that bright, truth be told, whereas Cruise, as (I think) Beghe puts it “drank the Kool-Aid”. We see footage from the Church’s big gala events, hosted by Miscavige where he wheels out buddy Tom, the leading face of the church who received a “Freedom Medal of Valor” in 2004. We hear how Miscavige, a contemporary of Cruise who looks increasingly desiccated every time we see a more up-to-date piece of footage, engineered wayward Tom’s breakup with Nicole and disapproved of “how perverted” his sex life was.


Gibney neatly draws to a close with his interviewees’ exit dates of from the Church, most of them members for several decades or more, and notes that the Church’s active membership is now fewer than 50,000 people, but it has accumulated a vast store of wealth and property through its mercurial methods. It’s speculated where its future lies, now it no longer has a public affairs guy (and appears to have no intention of installing someone).


Going Clear isn’t perfect, as compelling and fascinating as it is. There’s no sense of balance, perhaps understandable given all the leading pro-lights turned down the opportunity to set out their side of things (the Church claims they proposed some 25 individuals to talk, but Gibney turned them down as he feared they were simply put forward to smear his own interview subjects). Also, the sense we get of what its ex-disciples got out of it is limited to the wow-seduction-factor, and it would be interesting to hear more of what/if they felt when they were actually there. For example, Beghe’s comments about having out of body experiences (“I went exterior!”) suggest something in their technique was doing something of note, even if the much-vaunted optimal mythic place of telekinesis and telepathy is framed as so much bunkum.


Crucially, just as we get to the point where Rinder comments on Scientology’s ability to control in relation to other religions Going Clear draws to a close. Because a broader sense of perspective is also needed. Not that Scientology isn’t nutso and loopy, but how nutso and loopy is it in comparison to other and longer established religions, cults and sects? Is it so scrutinised just because it happens to have a couple of high profile celebrity proponents, and garners its justified opprobrium because it is more tangibly crazy (its mythology being less ingrained and so less mundane)? For most people Scientology isn’t an everyday-encountered and mundane belief system, so its outré-ness still provokes a reaction. 


One of the interview subjects comments, “When you’re in the organisation, all the good that happens to you is because of scientology. And everything that isn’t good is your fault”. You could pretty much claim that as the operating principle of any religion ever, so it may not be in bad company there. Or, as someone else says, “You take on a matrix of thought that is not your own”. Scientology’s paradigm is merely a little easier to recognise and mock than the ones most of us sleepwalk through everyday.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…

A man who doesn't love easily loves too much.

Twin Peaks 2.17: Wounds and Scars
The real problem with the last half of the second season, now it has the engine of Windom Earle running things, is that there isn’t really anything else that’s much cop. Last week, Audrey’s love interest was introduced: your friend Billy Zane (he’s a cool dude). This week, Coop’s arrives: Annie Blackburn. On top of that, the desperation that is the Miss Twin Peaks Contest makes itself known.

I probably don’t mind the Contest as much as some, however. It’s undoubtedly lame, but it at least projects the season towards some kind of climax. If nothing else, it resolutely highlights Lynch’s abiding fascination with pretty girls, as if that needed any further attention drawn to it.

Special Agent Cooper: You made it just right, Annie.
I also like Heather Graham’s Annie. Whatever the behind the scenes wrangles that led to the disintegration of the Coop-Audrey romance (and it will be rather unceremoniously deconstructed in later Coop comments), it’s certainly the …