I suppose I knew a bit about Scientology going into this thing. Ms. Hipster actually read the book on which this documentary is based and she’d occasionally turn to me while reading it at night and read me passages with total what-the-fuckedness in her voice. To me they were shocking individual stories, but total throw-aways without the larger context of the full narrative. This doc, produced beautifully, as always, by HBO fills in these gaps between those sensational stories told through archival footage, interviews with former high-ranking and/or celebrity members and some recreations and read correspondences. I’m not certain one could call it exhaustive, as you’d probably need something more on the level of The Jinx to tell the full story in minute detail, but it certainly fleshes out the narrative and gives you a good sense of why the church is as controversial as it is.
The interesting thing about the interviews they get in this thing, which are really at the heart of most good documentaries, is that they snag guys who were way up there in the organization. It always feels in these docs that they only get some plebes complaining about the leaders in the ivory tower. But here were the guards of that tower sitting and talking in very regretful tones about what they did to members and nonmembers alike. And from person to person beyond regret is the shame they all share. The shame that they were stupid enough to be fleeced by what they deem charlatans. Shame that they ruined other people’s lives and lied and lied and lied some more about it. But mostly that they, as smart people, were so stupid to believe Hubbard’s and David Miscavige’s line of bullshit. Of course as an outsider, Scientology seems like utter nonsense — a made up religion dreamt up by a megalomaniacal science fiction writer who at first was in it for the money, but ultimately for the power and an assertion that he was a true believer in his own creation.
Of course like most documentaries, this one has a point of view. And that view is certainly not favorable about Scientology or its dealings. The insinuations that we take away are that Hubbard was a complete sham teetering on the precipice of insanuty and that his successor, David Miscavige, is a violent thug bent on keeping his very wealthy empire in tact. At any cost. We hear story after story of escalating abuse, from what would be considered very harsh hazing all the way up to out-and-out assault of members. Paranoia that involved ex-communication and harassment to forcing members to separate from their families and public smear campaigns of ex-members. The biggest insinuation is that actors like John Travolta and even Tom Cruise are only still part of the church because all of the information that they’ve exposed in “auditing sessions” over the years (which are basically recorded psychoanalysis flimflam using a special e-meter to measure levels of whatever) are being held over their heads blackmail fashion, as they, like any shrink session, probably contain items that would potentially end their careers.
The funniest thing about the religion that I discovered is that at lower levels, members are really only exposed to the self-help or self-improvement part of the program. It seems relatively innocuous when viewed from the inside. Director Paul Haggis seemed to put it best in terms of his understanding of Scientology as something that allowed him to examine himself and sit and talk through what he thought might be blocking him and not allowing him to achieve his goals. And Travolta, who struggled to make a mark in show biz, but coincidentally or not, apparently started booking everything he went out for after joining the church. And then, like most people, rather than attributing that success to himself, he superstitiously kept with the church in order to keep his hot streak alive. You wonder, then, what he was thinking when his showbiz life went into the toilet in the 80s? Was Scientology letting him down, or was he trapped, as the doc concludes/insinuates? But then, when you rise through the levels and reach a certain arbitrary point in your evolution as a Scientologist, you are brought in to the super-secret stuff about the religion and its formation and are given copies of Hubbard’s old, hand-written notes about the formation of human kind. And that’s when it gets batshit insane. I believe it’s Haggis who said he was kind of unaware of all the crazy stuff and then started to read about the aliens and the volcanoes and the thetan ghosts that invade your body and he was like, “This doesn’t make any fucking sense!” So I wonder why there is a whole class of people, who on the surface seem like pretty darn smart people (including one individual from my high school class who makes a couple appearances in the film) who continue to be snowed even after being exposed to the ridiculousness. It can’t be mere dependency. There has to be some benefit or reason for them to stay when being rational has gone out the window.
Anyhow, as one who is not a huge fan of organized religion on the whole, I’m not shocked by some of the revelations in this film, but I am disturbed that they continue to go unpunished and that this and other churches get tax exempt status when they are so clearly meant to build wealth for their leaders and those who benefit from access to its riches. Though, I am glad to hear that despite their monolithic ownership of properties around the world, their membership is dwindling. I imagine we have books and films like this to thank, as well as modern technology and its sunlight-like ability to expose and quickly disseminate audio and visual testimonies about secrets that would otherwise be, well, secrets.