Although it is not the case in most places on Earth, it is hard to live in Los Angeles, especially in Hollywood, and not be aware of the Church of Scientology. It has stamped its name, hugely, on some of the city's most visible classic buildings, including the former Christie Hotel, the former Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, the former Chateau Elysee and the former Hollywood Guaranty Building.
There was a time you'd see members of the church out on Hollywood Boulevard, offering free personality tests to passersby; television ads were frequent. If Scientologists are in some ways more visible now, they are in other ways less. In "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," premiering Sunday on HBO, the roots and progress of the organization — its deterioration, some older adherents say in the film — are the stuff of the documentary by Alex Gibney.
The HBO work does not contain much that isn't already in Lawrence Wright's similarly titled book on which the documentary is based. What is new is the medium on which the information is delivered.
To rebut the Gibney film, which first played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Scientology created a website, http://www.freedommag.org/hbo. The church characterizes the documentary as "one-sided, bigoted propaganda built on falsehoods."
Apart from some blurry dramatic re-creation and a few fanciful images to illustrate the church's less advertised beliefs — its science fiction-style creation myth involving a galactic tyrant, a 75-million-year-old-world resembling 1950s America, overpopulation, tax audits, volcanoes, hydrogen bombs and the attachment of disembodied aliens to human newborns — Gibney's presentation is, given his hot topic, sensibly low-key.
There is order and selection, of course — to say that this is storytelling is not to impugn its parts — but much of what he has to show you is remarkable in or out of this context. Gibney lays out the more earthly origins of the church and its creator, L. Ron Hubbard — "LRH" to his followers — which are in their way as curious as any of Hubbard's inventions. (Discoveries, the faithful would say.)
Much of what might be called the practical business of Scientology was carried over from Dianetics, whose tenets Hubbard laid out in what became a huge bestseller. The practice was to face bad memories (or "engrams") to be rid of them, similar enough to other forms of self-help programs and, indeed, to psychiatry (Hubbard's objections to the contrary).
At its conclusion, Hubbard says here, "an individual has erased his reactive mind, his unconscious mind is gone and he is totally alert and totally capable."
Scientology, which Hubbard created after Dianetics had run its course, added a many-step program that would bring a seeker to the state called "clear" — and, in the bargain, reveal to her or him the church's intergalactic back story.
It's well-known that Hubbard started out as a writer of pulp fiction, including science fiction; but, notwithstanding his oft-repeated assertion that (as given here in the words of his unacknowledged second wife Sara Northrup) "the only way to make any real money was to have a religion, a religion where he could have an income and the government wouldn't take it away from him in the form of taxes," he seems to have truly believed that he had discovered a force for world-changing good.
Some of what Gibney has to show — most notably films of Scientology meetings led by the church's leader, David Miscavige, horribly kitschy and aesthetically pompous — can just seem, to an outsider, ridiculously hilarious, but not particularly unsettling. (Tom Cruise, ladies and gentlemen.) Indeed, from the outside, the rites and rituals of the church can seem a little absurd, including the "e-meter" that supposedly measures "the mass of thoughts"; the "billion-year" contract signed by members of the inner-circle Sea Organization; the unquestioning reverence for Hubbard as the sole source of these revelations.
More troubling, and the bulk of his case, is the testimony of former Scientologists, some of them high-ranked, some of them claiming inside knowledge. Defenders of the faith will say that they are lying now when they say they were lying then, but they seem quite credible and composed to me — amazed at the people they'd been, astonished by what they couldn't see, ashamed at their actions or inaction.
'Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief'
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
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