A few of my favorite things: Scientology (?!), Netflix stress-binging, leisurely reading
Once again, I have several posts percolating but can’t quite find the energy to finish them, as they’re supposed to be more thoughtful pieces. I have, however, been consuming some more culture. Though it’s not like reviews are thoughtless, my thoughts on stuff I like aren’t quite so convoluted as my worries about school shootings or my musings on gender dynamics in higher education (stay tuned for those, though!).
There’s something here for everyone: documentaries, TV, drama, comedy, cults, scandals, biographies, and a sweet little musical teaser at the end. So let’s get on with it!
CLEAR EYES, FULL HEARTS, CAN’T LOSE
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is an Emmy Award-winning 2015 documentary directed by Alex Gibney (now on Netflix Netherlands). “So what?” you might say. We all know that Scientology is cuckoo. By now, the higher level “beliefs” of this multi-billion dollar cult have been laid bare to all and sundry with a pulse: thetans, Xenu, the works. We’ve witnessed Tom Cruise’s wide-eyed mania. We’ve read the articles on the abuse in Sea Org, the abuse of gay people, of any people who fall outside of what a man who came up in the Great Depression considered “normal.” Those of us with a penchant for drama will tut and shake our heads and greedily read whatever big story breaks next.
What makes Going Clear different? Firstly, the people involved. Many of the stories about the dark sides of Scientology come from the lower-level believers. People whose stories matter, no doubt, but who it’s been easier for the organization to discredit. The people in this documentary, however, are top level: Mark Rathbun ( the former right-hand of current Scientology leader David Miscavige), Mike Rinder (the former head of the Office of Special Affairs – in charge of doing the organization’s dirty work), Sylvia Taylor (former liaison to John Travolta) and Hana Eltringham Whitfield (original Sea Org member), to name but a few. These people were embedded in the organization for decades, at the highest levels, often in direct contact with its leadership, and thus were able to witness its behaviors, excesses, and development.
The documentary does not focus on the tenets of the organization, but rather on its roots, its workings, and its development as a business. Weaved throughout are very human stories, of what these people and others did in the name of Scientology, or had done to them (often they admit to having been both victim and perpetrator of abuse, lies, and deceit). Shocking statements happen on occasion – such as when Hana Eltringham Whitfield mentions L. Ron Hubbard used to throw people overboard for minor infractions during the early years of Sea Change, or when Mike Rinder admits to having worked on the children of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, so that they’d choose their father over their mother in the divorce – but are not commented on, and instead left for the viewer to come to terms with. It is, thus, a documentary that gives plenty of food for thought.
In the end, Going Clear provides a clear (ha!) overview of Scientology’s inner workings without succumbing to drama-mongering (the organization does enough of that on its own), beautifully balancing personal narratives and laying bare the pain, suffering, and greed that sprang forth from the very troubled mind of a pulp fiction writer with a tax-related ax to grind.
MASTER OF NONE
This weekend, I had to get through a monstrous amount of work (12 hours of grading on a Saturday), and Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show Master of None dropped just in time to be the carrot I needed to get work done. 20 exams, one episode, and so on. Any show that’s good enough to keep one grading for 12 hours is absolute magic, you must agree. I was already endeared with Ansari from his appearances on Parks and Recreation and his stand-up show, which was also released on Netflix, but I wasn’t sure he could carry a show as the lead. I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Aziz. I was very, very wrong.
To be honest, I didn’t even know he had a show coming out until I read Bim Adewumni’s recommendation on Buzzfeed: “Master of None is a masterclass in how to write people of colour – you just do it,” she writes. And that’s one big part of the show summed up masterfully. Yes, some of the episodes deal explicitly with race, or being a first-generation American. Others don’t. Neither is a bigger part of the show. As such, it is, I would argue, of interest to all.
So what is Master of None about? In a nutshell, it’s about Dev, who’s trying to break out from commercial into movie acting in New York City. Though he’s an Indian-American male character, this white lady of a similar age found Dev infinitely relatable. The bothers of dating in 2015, texting people and never receiving a response, wondering if the time for adventure in your life is over with, constantly seeking for the best and never considering that perhaps you’ve found your best already, being confronted with how we marginalize elderly people: these have all been features in my life, too. And the conversation Dev’s girlfriend and best girl friend have to have with him about the bothers of being born with a vagina? I’ve had with too many men to count.
Though I’ve had few laugh-out-loud moments (but boy, have they ever happened), Master of None plastered a constant grin on my face (when I wasn’t cringing from too much relatability) and made me blast through my work like a Dalek through Cybermen. In short: watch it. At the very least, you’ll get a healthy dose of diverse casting in a fun comedy. At most, you’ll end up crying over “Old People.” Or, you know, relating to whatever part of the show you most relate to. Because it really has something for everyone.
Finally, this will be of interest to probably few of you, but I’m now about 1/3 through (that’s some 300 pages or so) Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. And yes, this biography is what the show is based on. And yes, it’s a real-life biography about a Founding Father, meaning there’s lots of details about personal writings and public speeches given 235 years ago. In the words of Hercules Mulligan, “I’m running with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin’ it.” (Okay, maybe that’s from the show, not the book). Anyway, the instigator of political sex scandals in American politics and having died before nearly all other Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton has been much maligned by history, and everything in this biography screams Chernow’s attempt to rehabilitate him. It is, at times, more of a love letter than a biography (much like John Laurens might have written, maybe), though it never strays from fact. It’s just that, when speculation is necessary, it generally works hard to give Hamilton the benefit of the doubt (except for those times when he was clearly in the wrong).
Is this for everyone? Absolutely not. Though not an American history nerd, I am more inclined towards it than most, and having some understanding of the allegiances and alliances at the time before reading helps. And though I have an extensive vocabulary, I do find myself making ample use of the Oxford English Dictionary shortcut on my e-reader. Moreover, reading this, for me, is like reading the author’s notes of a favorite novel. As the source material for this show I’m still quite obsessed with, Alexander Hamilton provides me both with moments of recognition (“Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him / that’s true!”) and moments of deepening and expansion (of those things that did not fit the narrative or the scope of the show). Finally, there’s lots of Eliza in the book, and you know how I feel about Eliza.
Finally, a bonus rec for those few of you who made it to the end of this: Lana Del Rey’s “High by the Beach” showed up in one of my Spotify playlists and though it would probably work perfectly for summer, its haunting melody is also an amazing companion for the rain pattering away on the window, for darkness that falls too early, and for spicy scented candles.