Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Just forget about the dopey scifi origin story, forget Xenu and thetans and whatever. There is a real ugliness, something very nasty and mean at the core of Scientology. It is not just that L. Ron Hubbard was bizarre and grandiose and paranoid; it is also that he preached things like revenge, strategic lying, doing to enemies before they do to you.
"Going Clear" is a masterful piece of reporting about the church’s whole history and it’s a very compelling narrative in part because two major characters, Hubbard and current church leader David Miscavige, seem to be unpredictable psychopaths. For example: Wright speaks with nearly two dozen people who say they have personally been physically beaten by church leader David Miscavige or have witnessed him beating people. Think about that. The guy is the leader of the entire religion.
This book is no polemic; Lawrence Wright is at pains to be fair and even-handed, he gives the church’s lawyers their say and grants the benefit of the doubt to his subjects where I definitely would not. But the very thorough portrait is of an awful, rotten organization, something much more horrifying than the popular image of a goofy Los Angeles aren’t-celebrities-crazy kind of lark. I also feel like I want to boycott Tom Cruise movies, and I am not joking.
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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
YES. Wild slapstick picaresque of a slavery novel, a huge pleasure and a delight that still has some big things to say about America and race and the pre-Civil War era. This is what you want to be reading: A comic story of an accidentally cross-dressing pubescent slave boy who gets caught up in John Brown’s ride through Bleeding Kansas and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Ohhhh yes.
The language is super sharp and crackling and the scenes are so funny and part of it is just the sheer audacity of James McBride for even doing this, writing an insane hilarious irreverent story about John Brown in which Frederick Douglass cameos as a drunken lech and Brown is a half-insane buffoonish figure, right about slavery and completely off his rocker about everything else. I don’t know about its portrayal of Douglass but its Brown is probably actually uncomfortably close.
One of the things this book does very, very well is portray the stolen conversations among slaves and the private assessments of Brown, their masters and white institutions in general. Given the overall tone of the work I’m reluctant to make too much historical claim about these scenes, but these are conversations McBride is clearly interested in and they work very well within the piece. They are the serious purpose behind the comedy, I would say.
This book rules. It also reminds me, as of course it would, of “Cloudsplitter” by Russell Banks, which is a more traditional historical novel about Brown that is one of my favorites. And wasn’t part of Brown’s historical importance in the first place that he got so many people’s attention and inspired so many stories and arguments?
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The most well-adjusted mass murderer in the film is the guy who explains calmly and brutally that it was war and therefore permitted. Adi Zulkadry is a secondary character, really, pictured here on the left, and he is also the only person in “The Act of Killing” who seems to understand that the killers are not the heroes of the scenes they are re-enacting.
Most of the men filmed do not understand this at all. Zulkadry seems like he does understand but just does not let it bother him too much. Which is chilling — worse, really, than the other characters’ surreal obliviousness.
It is a stunning thing for an intensely serious documentary to adopt some of the form and methods of, like, “Punk’d,” but “The Act of Killing” does. It is a documentary about the making of a film that only exists in order to make a documentary about it. But the men in the documentary don’t know their other film isn’t real.
The story here is the most horrifying story imaginable: After a military coup in Indonesia in 1964, there followed years of political and ethnic purges that killed 1 million people, and then the murderers, those in power who gave the orders and the actual executioners themselves, just … stayed around, and still had a lot of power, and in the course of 50 years the society sort of molded itself around those values: gangsterism, brutality, murder. And this means the murderers, old men now, still believe and have always been told to believe that their actions really are something to be proud of.
The subjects of the documentary believe they are making a film about their important historical roles, their great virtues as men of action, anti-Communists, lovers of American gangster movies who were willing to be even more sadistic than the films. Sure, great idea, you imagine the filmmaker saying, for this scene we will dress you up as Jimmy Cagney gangsters, or John Wayne cowboys. You’ll look great. Show us where you did your killing.
It is a trick. They do not look great. They look like monsters. The film’s dramatic tension, and it is taut and spellbinding, one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen, comes from wondering whether anyone, anyone, will begin to see this.