MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo: Magnolia Pictures
On Demand, Amazon Video, iTunes, Microsoft Movies, CinemaNow, Google Play, VUDU and other streaming services.
Directed by John Dower. Documentary. Not Rated.
On DVD and Blu-Ray, Amazon Video, iTunes, Microsoft Movies, CinemaNow, Google Play, VUDU and other streaming services; HBO GO, HBO NOW.
Directed by Alex Gibney. Documentary. Not Rated.
One of the most vexing conundrums for people of faith is to differentiate between a “religion” and a “cult”. I knew a United Methodist pastor whose adult daughter had turned to Mormonism. He refused to think of The Church of Latter Day Saints as nothing less than a cult. Other persons I know think of the LDS as simply a distinct American approach to Christianity. Can both positions be right?
Is a cult defined by the charismatic appeal of its leader? The size of its membership? The demands of its requirements? Its insistence on loyalty and the threat of punishment to those who stray?
The story of Scientology is a fascinating one. Two recent films – this year’s My Scientology Movie and 2015’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief provide insight as well as discomfort.
Scientology was created in 1950 by L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy, with the publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. According to a blurb on the book cover: “The fact is, there is a single source of all your problems, stress, unhappiness and self-doubt. It’s called the reactive mind – the hidden part of your mind that stores all painful experiences, then uses them against you. Dianetics gets rid of the reactive mind. It’s the only thing that does.”
Postwar America was filled with anxiety and the proliferation of alternative ways of thinking, and California (and Hollywood) drew thousands of persons seeking success and positive ways to get ahead. The practice of Scientology incorporates a battery-operated device called the E-meter to help its followers learn how to combat the mind’s reactivity. The device is hooked up to a person and a professionally trained auditor leads then through a series of questions (and a process that can take years and thousands of dollars) to reach the status of “going clear” in which a person comes to realize their immortal soul (or thetan).
Famous celebrities who embrace Scientology include John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson); all three credit their success to this belief system. An outspoken critic of Scientology is the actress Leah Remini (The King of Queens), who created a television series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath to disavow her involvement and to warn others.
If you are to watch just one documentary on Scientology, Going Clear (based on the book by investigative reporter Lawrence Wright) is the film to see. It not only provides a clear-eyed tour of a faith that prizes its secrecy, but reveals a history of intimidation and occasional brutality used to promulgate its doctrine. Scientology was not granted official status in the United States as a religion until 1981; L. Ron Hubbard’s disciple David Miscavige was the first head of the church and he continues to lead the church today. Going Clear speaks extensively to several key leaders who have left the church and it makes for compelling viewing.
My Scientology Movie features the British television personality Louis Theroux who travels to California on a personal quest to interview David Miscavige and learn more about its teachings. This film is a cross between the investigative reporting of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the films of Michael Moore (Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11).
Theroux’s film does not benefit from the supplemental footage of Going Clear. Once it becomes apparent that he will never get his interview with Miscavige, we spend most of the movie listening to a dialogue between Theroux and Marty Rathbun, a prominent former leader/auditor who is also interviewed in Going Clear. Marty claims to be over Scientology, but his actions and reactivity to Theroux tell a different story. This is fascinating and creepy, but less satisfying than the larger cast of characters in Going Clear.
Both films are unrated, but share in the West Coast’s love of crude and constant profanity. Many of the personages in both films seem nonplussed at swearing a blue streak. You may find yourself a bit more plussed.
Four halos: An illuminating and thorough overview of a pervasive and oppressive religion.
Three pitchforks: Abuse, intimidation, brainwashing, and much swearing.
Three halos: A personal exploration into a controversial religion.
Four pitchforks: Abuse, intimidation, brainwashing, and even more swearing and crude language than Going Clear.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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