Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Seeing Belief: a visual aid to a brilliant book

There’s a moment in Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Disbelief when Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigate journalist who authored Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Disbelief, explains, “My goal wasn’t to write an exposé. It was simply to understand Scientology, to understand what people get out of it, you know, why do they go into it in the first place.” That’s pretty much the difference between Gibney and Wright, between this new HBO documentary and Wright’s masterfully calibrated, sensitive and expansive 2013 book: Gibney’s in it for the exposé. His approach is far more blunt than Wright’s. Which, it turns out, is just fine, because the documentary, though its title is inexplicably foreshortened, forms a welcome audio-visual aid to the book, and because, frankly, there is sooooo much to expose. 

Mr. Hubbard

Where to begin? I’d suggest you begin with the book, of course, which wasn’t released in Canada (I ordered mine from the US), but perhaps the reverse will work just as well: think of the doc as a teaser. The basic trajectory of doc and book are in any case the same, using the highly publicized 2011 resignation of Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis from the Church of Scientology as a framing device, tracing the batshit crazy life of galactically prolific science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and examining the transformation Scientology undertook when Hubbard died and an equally crazy if less creepily charismatic man named David Miscavige took the celestial reigns and conquered the Internal Revenue Service, who has been demanding millions from Scientology and finally had to cry uncle when Scientology finally managed to get classified as a religion, thus apprehending their financial holy grail: tax exemption! Along the way we hear testimonies from various former Scientologists, such as actor Jason Beghe, John Travolta’s liaison Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, and Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder, who both worked their way to Scientology’s upper echelons. They confirm every litigious thing you’ve ever heard about Scientology, the kidnapping and child labour, the coercion and torture, the billion-year contracts and other elements of the Church’s risible mythos. Along the way we also, through archival footage, meet a gentleman by the name of Tom Cruise, the all-powerful evil robot with the eerily strained laughter, who, after shedding his infidel spouse Nicole Kidman, became Scientology’s favourite son and reaped all the benefits. 

Mr. Haggis

Gibney makes several problematic choices in how he assembles the material, a fairly obvious example is the way he’ll make a hard cut from Miscavige giving a dumb-sounding speech at some expensively tacky Scientology event to an audience bursting into applause, creating a relationship between what’s said and its response that may not represent what really happened. Gibney focuses almost exclusively on the most sensationalistic incidents reported in Wright’s book—though there are so many jaw-dropping stories to choose from that those hungry for dirt will still find their appetites sated should they read it. You won’t leave Going Clear feeling any lack of outrage, but you may, alas, feel slighted with regards to fascination. Gibney shows less interest in the allure of Scientology holds for so many perfectly intelligent, credible, ambitious people, something Wright illuminated beautifully and respectfully. In short: see Going Clear, but also read Going Clear. There’s a far more complex—if no less damning—story to be found here. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A film for all seasons

When I think of The Merchant of Four Seasons I think of bodies that bend or extend across the frame in fleeting ecstasy or, more often, distress: the newly abandoned hero’s arm reaching across his kitchen table; his long-bodied wife straddling another man in sexual release; the hero beating his wife on a bed as her legs kick at the air; a woman collapsed on the floor of an apartment building’s foyer before a delicate crossroads of light. Arms, legs, torsos are meticulously arranged in the poses of melodrama, while emotions are tampered, bottled up or bottled down: when I think of The Merchant of Four Seasons I think of our hero, hunched drunkenly over the head of a barroom table, holding court before a huddle of drunken sycophants. This is the story of a breaking man, raised middle class but drawn by dubious sentiments to the working class, unloved and incapable, by lack or by temperament, of loving others.

The Merchant of Four Seasons was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s breakthrough, made and released in 1971, following Fassbinder’s fateful discovery of the Hollywood films of German émigré Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life) and, along with it, the realization that his contribution to this New German Cinema could inhabit an ideal middle-ground where artifice yields deeper truths and audiences could have their hearts moved without sacrificing the stimulation of their critical faculties. The film is now available in a superb DVD or BD package from the Criterion Collection.

Hans (Hans Hirschmüller) returns home following a tour with the French Foreign Legion to an unwelcoming mother. Hans’ career as a police officer was destroyed when he was caught accepting sexual favours from a prostitute and he takes up work as a fruit vendor, the sort that roams the streets, calling out the prices of his wares, filling paper cones in exchange for coins. Rejected by the love of his life, he married Irmgard (Irm Hermann), a woman with whom there seems to be little in the way of real affection, and whom he in turn neglects and turns violent with. He has a young daughter, Renate, who seems always to be bearing witness, absorbing trauma. The film is set in the 1950s, so by the time Fassbinder made it Renate would be a woman about Fassbinder’s age. Perhaps The Merchant of Four Seasons is meant above all for Renate and all the other children of post-war Germany, a generation of fractured families and a fraught national history that no one talks about.

There’s a lot of misery and banality in all this, I suppose, but there’s also the beauty of eloquent storytelling, sudden bursts of vibrant colour, engrossing flashbacks that appear unannounced, filmed exactly the same as the present-tense scenes, collapsing time so that we realize this is all about the now, not the past. The Merchant of Four Seasons is an exquisite film, sad and bold. It’s the favourite Fassbinder film of Fassbinder’s old friend and fellow Münchner Wim Wenders, who supplies Criterion with a very good audio commentary track. Also worth checking out are new interviews with Hirchmüller and Hermann, who tell great stories of how Fassbinder swooped in and changed their lives, and an interview with scholar Eric Rentschler, who speaks well, is very smart and very passionate, and gives one of the strongest, most succinct descriptions of Sirk’s influence on Fassbinder as I’ve come across.