Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kumare: The Borat of Spiritual Gurus

My wife and I saw a rather astonishing documentary last week called Kumaré. It follows the exploits of filmmaker/provocateur Vikram Gandhi as he adopts the guise of a bogus guru (the titular Kumaré) and attempts to acquire followers and inspire religious devotion in them. The experiement succeeds almost too well, with emotions becoming entangled and Gandhi just about losing himself in the process.

Kumaré is an enthralling movie that is also more than a little uncomfortable to watch. We the viewers get to play voyeur to some very personal moments. Spiritual intimacy is the final frontier of the "reality" genre, well beyond the surface-level drama typically on display in The Bachelor and Jersey Shore. Souls are on the line here. Fortunately, Gandhi has a light touch with his subjects. I shudder to imagine what Sacha Baron Cohen might have done in this situation.

Kumaré engenders discomfort for other reasons as well: no one can doubt the sincerity and intensity of the mystical experiences captured in the film, yet the instigator of these experiences is fake. Does that revelation negate said experiences in retrospect? The answer seems to be no, which opens a giant can of worms. The viewer is left wondering at what point religious ecstasy strays into delusion, and whether all spiritual belief is simply the projection onto an external object (the guru, Jesus, God) of our deepest conflicts and desires. The film opens this topic for discussion but does not provide resolution. Ironically, Kumaré--a self-described false prophet--may have been more authentic than many "real" gurus: during his ministry he took no money from his followers, did not engage with them sexually, and dispensed a core philosophy that he (that is, Vikram Gandhi) truly believed in: that people should trust in themselves and become their own gurus. Employing this equation renders the role of the much-vaunted Eastern guru superfluous. Interestingly, this was also the core teaching of J. Krishnamurti: another manufactured guru who ended up becoming a real one.

Of course the elephant in the room is the issue of exploitation. Each of these Borat-style films ups the ante in terms of subterfuge and gasp-factor. In the most extreme instances we get our entertainment at the expense of the unwitting victims' careers and reputations. Kumaré may be the product of a relatively benevolent, playful manipulator, but we can't always count on that being the case. What comes next?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson Takes on The Church of Scientology in "The Master"

I have mixed feelings about Paul Thomas Anderson, mainly due to the fact that There Will Be Blood was THE WORST DATE MOVIE EVER (Okay, yes, the film's title should have clued me in on that possibility). But I am excited about his upcoming film The Master, which is quite clearly based on the bewildering saga of L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology. Frankly I'm surprised Anderson was able to get this film financed, considering the disproportionately large percentage of Scientologists within the Hollywood community. He must be a very resourceful and cunning fellow indeed. The casting is brilliant; I can think of no actor better suited to the role of the outsized Hubbard (named Lancaster Dodd in the film) than Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I was one of the lucky few who managed to find and read a copy of Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller's scathing biography of Hubbard, before the Church of Scientology essentially litigated the book out of print in the US. Filled with tales of black magic, free love, quackery, hypnotism, a Watergate-style break-in, and the, uh, Sea Org, it puts most sci-fi/fantasy novels to shame. Additionally, the story of how the Scientologists incessantly hounded and intimidated Mr. Miller in an attempt to halt the book's publication would make for a great movie in itself.

Thankfully, Miller has gotten the last laugh. Scientology's lawyers may be capable of putting publishers out of business, but so far they have proven unable to squelch the Internet. While US publishers have refused to reprint the book for fear of the inevitable avalanche of spurious lawsuits that would result, curious souls may now read the book online, for free. Needless to say, I recommend Bare-Faced Messiah unreservedly. It is a triumph of investigative journalism.

Of course, it remains to be seen how deeply Anderson's film will delve into the whole tawdry tale of L. Ron Hubbard's life, but at the very least The Master promises to be an entertaining couple of hours at the movies blissfully unsanctioned  by Xenu. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for religious freedom; in the grand scheme of things the cosmology of Scientology is not significantly weirder than what you might find in some other belief systems. But what I can't get behind is this particular organization's history of intimidating ex-members and journalists, and its demands that the current faithful pay out the nose for each successive level of spiritual attainment. That is not how a legitimate religion operates.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Long Musical Shadow of the 1960s

I've recently had the pleasure of watching Cream's 2005 reunion performance (Royal Albert Hall) on Netflix. Never mind why it took me so long, and never mind the diminished energy of these once incendiary performers; there's still no one else playing on their level. Plenty of virtuosos have followed, sure, but Cream possessed a combination of talent, innovation, and songcraft that seemed particular to their era: the 1960s.

Believe me, I don't want to be saying this. I am tired of the 1960s. For Christ's sake, I wasn't even alive then. I have no interest in the social revolution of that decade; it takes a spectacular degree of historical ignorance to enable a generation to believe that they invented free love and mind-altering drugs. Nevertheless, if such hubris contributed to the crucible that gave us The Beatles, Cream, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and so many others, then I am grateful. Most of my favorite bands came afterward but they were all, to greater or lesser degrees, derivative of what happened between 1965 and 1974 (the cut-off year, according to Robyn Hitchcock). The explosion in creativity that transpired during that period also gave rise to a disconcerting question: Where do you go from here? It's a question that has yet to be answered. And don't give me that "What about punk?" rejoinder. Punk was great, it needed to happen, it gave fresh life to the enterprise, but it wasn't seismic in the way that this stuff was. Credit must be given where credit is due.