Monday 23 January 2017

Cult Cinema #1: Sound of My Voice (2012)

This is the first of a new, short series about cults in movies and TV. First up is Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij's Sound of My Voice.

What with the work I'm putting in on The Age of Miracles (MS nearly done editing btw) and other work commitments, this blog has, as I'm sure you've noticed, slowed down somewhat.

But! It's time to get back on the horse, and while We Don't Go Back is going strong, I thought I'd launch a couple of spin-off series, for the simple reason that as I go on, I find that there are films that interest me but which aren't really in the circle I chalked out for myself. For the time being, I'm planning on posting three posts a week for the time being, the first on Monday or Tuesday, the second on Wednesday or Thursday and the third between Friday and Sunday. One of these, for as long as the series continues at least, will be a post for We Don't Go Back, and at least one will be for one of my two spin-offs.

So, welcome to Cult Cinema, where I explore films and TV about, well, cults. Or New Religious movements, if you prefer. I've already covered The Passion of Darkly Noon and Martha Marcy May Marlene as part of the We Don't Go Back series, and you should consider that post as a prologue to this, in the way that Mork from Ork first appeared in an episode of Happy Days. It's a personal enthusiasm for me. I grew up around the more obscure fringes of religious belief, and with my experience of hardline conservative evangelicalism, it has fostered in me a deep interest in This Sort of Thing. I'm really fascinated with how people adopt beliefs, how charismatic leaders own people's lives. How movements control us.

I'm not going to write about movie Satanists, or witch cults, or Lovecraft and sub-Lovecraft cults; some of those have and will come up as part of We Don't Go Back. My focus is on alternative religions, New Age movements and their charismatic leaders, on brainwashing and the ways they control us. 
Brit Marling as Maggie.
I already have a bundle of movies about cults, the people in them, all lined up, all jumbled up with my folk horror movies. I didn't even realise how many I had until I really looked.

One I didn't have until recently was Sound of My Voice. I bought it last week because I'd seen The OA, which is a surpassingly weird series that appeared as if by magic on Netflix a few weeks ago and which I watched with my Beloved over the space of a weekend. It's not a particularly coherent or necessarily all that good a piece of television, but it's a really interesting one. And I looked up the star and co-writer, Brit Marling, and the director and co-writer, Zal Batmanglij, and found that they were the team behind Sound of My Voice.
She's amassing followers. She's dangerous.
Pulling back a bit. I do this thing, right, where I read about a film and I think, I really have to see that, and then I forget all about it. Sound of My Voice came onto my radar about a year ago, and then I had to clean the kitchen and boom, gone, erased from my consciousness. The OA, in all its Castaneda-cribbing absurdity, reminded me that Sound of My Voice existed.

It's included with Amazon Prime, so if you have that, what are you waiting for? I watched it, and then bought a copy for the library because I loved it, and then I watched it again with my Beloved, and I still loved it.

It is a well-performed, ambiguous sort of film, which I like a lot. One caveat: do you like the sort of American films that get shown at the Sundance Festival? Because Sound of My Voice is Sundance as all hell. If films like this annoy you – and I mean, low key conversations, extreme close-ups, tactically deployed indie music, hand-held cam montages showing people cycling to school in the morning sun – this film will annoy you. 
She's just defending you.
So. Here are Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), and Peter is a primary school teacher and his partner Lorna is a wild-child turned health freak, and every evening, Peter and Lorna go off and take part in a cult. They go to a house, and there they take off all their clothes and have a shower and put on hospital gowns, and then they're blindfolded and driven to a basement, where, after performing the most involved secret handshake you've ever see, they can sit in a circle and listen to Maggie (Marling), their leader, who is preparing them for something (what exactly isn't made explicit, but it involves knowing how to use a handgun) and who claims to be a time traveller from 2054.

Except it's more involved than that, because Lorna and Peter are not believers. They're making a documentary about cults and Maggie's little cult is a perfect example. They have worked for months infiltrating this set-up and they're finding the difficulty of filming frustrating and difficult.

Maggie is compelling. She comes in barefoot, oxygen cylinder hooked up to her nose, and she tells her story. And she tells her followers to close their eyes and listen with their hearts. And she starts to tell her story.
Maggie's flashback.
This is something Marling does in The OA too, and in both narratives this immediately creates an extra layer of detachment between the storyteller and us. You cannot listen to her in the same way as her diegetic audience (that is, the people shown listening to her on the screen) can. They're in the room with her, but also, they have to close their eyes, and if you close your eyes and listen with your heart, whatever that means, you miss the visual flashbacks to Maggie's story that her followers cannot see outside of their mind's eye. On the other hand, we're shown her story as she tells it, and while there's no reason for us to believe it, we have an image, and the diegetic audience don't have that. Back on the first hand, the only things we have visuals of are the things that are believeable and explicable. So who knows? Either way, we experience Maggie's story in a way that her cult members can't; the people in the room with her, the diegetic audience, experience her story in a way that we, the extradiegetic, viewing audience, won't.
Oh my life/ Is changing every day/ In every possible way.
And because we won't do this, and we're not expected to do this, it immediately puts us into a position where we're not inclined to believe Maggie. And when she feeds her believers apples and then tells them to throw them up, when she makes them do ecstatic dance, when she feeds them live earthworms, when she makes unreasonable demands and flips from kooky warmth to something hard and ice cold in a second flat, we enter a default state where we assume she's a liar.

And why shouldn't we? She says she's from the future. And not a single thing she says is verifiable. Her predictions of 2054 are vague and lacking real content. A follower asks her to sing a song from her time. And she sings a sweet, catchy little song and they all sing along, and it's lovely and moving, and then Lam, who's sitting in the middle, says, as politely as he can, that it's actually "Dreams" by the Cranberries she's singing. And sure, cover versions have always been a thing, but the really telling thing is that after verbally humiliating him, Maggie has Lam dragged out of the room, never to come back, and then in a blank, matter-of-fact sort of way Maggie asks Lam's wife Christine what she's going to do here, and Lam appeals to Christine desperately, and Christine stays sitting there and lets them drag her husband away. And you know that Christine has just chosen the cult over her marriage and that she and Lam are done.
You may go now, Lam.
And that's one of the ways you know you're know you're in an abusive movement, when they ask you to throw over the people who love you for the movement. When you put the leadership of your group ahead of a loving family. And it is abuse; you have this woman who's telling you implausible stories and making you eat and vomit and cry. And she controls you.

Any group, religious, political or whatever, that does this is a cult.

And Maggie's charismatic leadership is calculated. The film shows that. She can be the warmest, sweetest person in the world, but if she's not getting her way, if she's not maintaining control, she turns. She hardens, bullying and threatening eviction into the darkness. And then, Maggie asks Peter to bring her a kid from his class.
Abigail Pritchett.
One specific little girl, named Abigail Pritchett. Who is a bit odd, possibly a little autistic, and who has type one diabetes (it's not spelled out, but she falls asleep at odd moments, displays erratic behaviour, and her dad gives her an injection at bedtime, and the most obvious explanation of those two things is diabetes, and yes, you can infer a more sinister explanation of what's happening to her, but then that's part of what this film does – it shows rather than tells, and without certain information it's easy to draw sinister conclusions, just like in real life). When a woman who says she's a federal agent comes to ask Lorna help her trap Maggie, she implies that asking for a kid is a thing that Maggie does.
Did you swallow his poison?
The film lays it all out there. Goofy nonsense like the rigmarole the members go through to gain admittance, the dancing, the baroque secret handshake the cult members share, a lot of these things receive plausible and implausible explanations and we're being set up through the course of Sound of My Voice to take the plausible explanations, and the film shows the toll that Maggie's bullying and manipulation and tactics for control take on Lorna, and especially Peter.

And this means that when, right at the end, we receive a single piece of circumstantial evidence that Maggie might not be as dishonest as we thought, that threatens the whole edifice of understanding that the film has built up. It feels catastrophic.
That isn't as big a spoiler as it seems. Having an "...or is she?" twist at the end is the single most predictable twist that a film like this can take. But because Sound of My Voice has all but bent over backwards to make it look like Maggie is an opportunist, a manipulator, and abuser and a liar, what would have otherwise be obvious becomes the sort of ending that has had film critics howling in frustration.

And it's frustrating to begin with because of course, Maggie is still a manipulator, an abuser and a bully. And you could read the ending as an absolution of that, but I don't think it's that simple. I think it's complex and powerful and I think it works. It's not a wishy-washy ending, and it's not even ambiguous.

Because the most obvious reading of the story is still that Maggie is lying about everything, but at the same time when that single piece of (explicable, circumstantial) evidence appears, it appears in front of Peter. Peter is in the action, and Peter doesn't have all the information we do, and we've already watched him being broken down emotionally and reduced to tears by Maggie in a raw, brutal sort of way. In quick cuts we see Peter relive the whole set of experiences that brought him here, and boom, there's the look on his face. He's a believer. She has him.
"Who was she?" "I don't know."
The film's set up to lead you to think that Lorna's going to be the one who ends up compromised, but of course it was always going to be Peter; Lorna's been through rehab and therapy and has been through all the tricks. She's been vaccinated. Peter, with his reliance on himself and his scepticism towards therapy, doesn't have the faculties to resist.
Peter: You people. You people make me laugh.
Lorna: Who is "you people"?
Peter: You people! You people who spend a fucking fortune on therapy!
Lorna: You could use some!
Peter: Rehab!? You think, like, what, you put in these man-hours you're somehow entitled to a degree in psychology? And you're now this expert? When the truth is, after all those hours, you little fuck-ups are now arriving at the place the rest of us have been all our lives!
Pull with the left hand and push with the right.
And this is how the film works. It represents how a charismatic leader can turn a sceptic into a believer. And this is important because with Brit Marling being the producer and the co-writer and everything, it's the most natural thing in the world to assume that the film is about her. And of course it isn't, it's about Lorna and Peter, about the breakdown of their relationship and Peter's journey from being an infiltrator to being completely under the spell.

I've written before about the experience of conversion (and my experience of conversion) and I think that what I like about this film is how it represents the use and abuse of cult techniques, and how they break someone down and make them a follower.

Was it intentional? It doesn't matter. Many of the same tricks, reused in The OA, don't work, and I think The OA, which, being on Netflix, is already much more widely seen than Sound of My Voice, and nowhere nearly as good, is an unfortunate context for a film that is absolutely worth your time.