' ' Cinema Romantico: Going Clear

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Going Clear

When Lawrence Wright, author of “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief”, the text that gives Alex Gibney’s documentary its title and backbone, is asked why he wrote the book, he explains it was not so much to offer an argument for or against Scientology so much as reach a greater understanding of it. In a world of whippet-quick judgment, that’s admirable. Gibney, on the other hand, enters his film already having passed harsh judgment against Scientology. Oh, he presents an overview of L. Ron Hubbard’s transnational cult – er, religion, sure, but he provides it in the manner of, say, Robert Christgau providing an overview of Def Leppard’s “Pyromania” as “music” – that is, in a tone so snide you can sense his eye rolls without ever seeing them. This is not an examination of Scientology but an attack, upfront and out loud. And that’s not necessarily wrong. After all, we learn that one of Scientology’s tenets is to attack dissenters. Boy, do they, as the evidence suggests. And like the old basketball strategy that goes “attack an attacking team”, Gibney simply gives as good as so many dissenters have gotten.

Any conversation about Scientology must begin with its founder and Gibney does, tracking LRH from his bungling days in the US Navy to a wandering life that included excursions in the occult and fiction writing before conjuring The Modern Science of Mental Health, a science that he eventually transformed into a religion. Is it really a religion? Who’s to say, though Gibney, rest assured, has little use for the notion that it is, so much so that he hardly wastes time giving thought to what might make someone want to sign up for one of those infamous billion year contracts in the first place.

An interview separate from the film with a younger John Travolta, one of Hollywood’s poster boys, along with Tom Cruise, for the movement, indicates he was drawn in on account of its “joy”. But where exactly is this “joy” of which he speaks? It’s never shown. We are never presented with joyful testaments of faith. Of course, such testaments might have been unfeasible. Current members might be executed for high treason if they talk won’t talk and so all Gibney has are ex-members who want to bash the LRH liturgical formula. The closest we get is infamous ex-son Paul Haggis, the Academy Award winning screenwriter, who recounts his origin story with earnestness, though it remains difficult to detect what kept him in.

Yet what the film lacks in pledges of modern mental health allegiance only to works to embolden Gibney’s overriding argument, one succinctly summarized in the recurring image of Scientology’s Los Angeles headquarters, looking less like The Vatican than Trump Tower, a shiny beacon to capitalism. As the film tells us, Scientology is worth a cool 3 billion despite having less than 50,000 members. In other words, its focus seems to be padding its bank account rather than ministry, and shouldn’t ministry be any religious organization’s foremost aim? Say what you want about Mormonism but they have the chutzpah to go on missions to spread the gospel as they see it. Scientology, on the other hand, is completely cloak and dagger, keeping its apparent belief system under tight wraps, preferring to angrily respond to all accusations against its mission with bristled statements rather salutations of gospel, behavior which inevitably raises red flags which prompts inflammatory documentaries just like this one.

It leads to the sense that anger rather than joy, as Ambassador Travolta would tell us, is Scientology’s governing principal. Look no further than the moment that made it famous, the one that functions as “Going Clear’s” crux, when Scientology was able to goad the IRS into officially deeming it a religion by badgering it with lawsuits. It’s a fascinating moment – the eternally despised Internal Revenue Service actually, improbably becoming likable in the face of LRH's genesis. And it’s the moment that sent Scientology into the financial stratosphere and the moment that Gibney reckons changed the game.

The back half of “Going Clear” deliberately jettisons any sense of Scientology as some sort of spiritual balm, railing against its tax exempt status, contending with a furious anger that LRH’s successor, David Miscavige, has no aim aside from exploiting his followers for cheap wage labor to accentuate his own wealth and maximize his power. None of the information throughout is necessarily new but Gibney isn’t seeking to break ground. Instead he marshals all the information at our disposal to put forth a lawsuit in the court of public opinion, to rattle the cages, to stir things up. It’s a cinematic act of aggression. “They fear freedom,” Mr. Hubbard wrote of those who would challenge his pseudo-philosophical baby. “They fear we are growing. Why? Because they have too much to hide.” Yet, if “Going Clear” proves anything, it’s that Scientology fears freedom, that it’s not growing, and that it has a whole helluva lot to hide.

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