Wednesday 5 February 2020

Cult Cinema #23: Subsocieties of Control

[This essay will go in my section about deprogramming, along with Faults, Holy Smoke and Ticket to Heaven. It refers closely to the last of those, as Split Image and Ticket to Heaven are based on the same source material. It's one of the last entries in the Cult Cinema series; there's maybe a couple more to fill out an obvious gap or two, but essentially it's more or less ready to be a book.]

Split Image (1982)

Canadian writer Josh Freed's book Moonwebs: Journey into the Mind of a Cult was published in 1980, based on his 1977 involvement in the abduction and deprogramming of a friend, named Benji Miller in the book, who had fallen into the Unification Church's clutches. Freed frames his narrative with a thorough outsider investigation into the history and influence of Sun Myung Moon's religious, political and financial activities. It hit the zeitgeist – Jonestown hadn't long happened, and the Moonies were at their peak – and Ticket to Heaven, the “official” film adaptation, came out in October 1981, which is a pretty swift lead-in for a theatrical film. It shows, frankly. I wonder how Josh Freed felt about it. On the one hand, his book got a new tie-in edition off the back of the movie's release. On the other, the film sticks closely to the narrative part and ignores the background. And of course in Ticket to Heaven, while its cultists call their distant, absent leader “Father” as the Moonies did, and while the cult members (like the real ones) don't know that they're Moonies, we don't know that they're Moonies either, because the filmmakers, presumably afraid of litigation, don't ever mention the group by name, which arguably defeats the point of the whole thing.

Ted (Wake in Fright) Kotcheff's Split Image, also made with Canadian money, released twelve months after Ticket to Heaven did. In a lot of ways it is pretty much the same film, and shares a lot of details with Ticket to Heaven, at least on a superficial level. They're just too close together for Split Image to have been plagiarised; but Split Image was absolutely inspired by Moonwebs. In fact there are details from Josh Freed's book that appear in Split Image and which don't appear in the “official” adaptation – for example, the distressing anecdote that the Moonie women in the 70s groups became so malnourished and sleep-deprived that they stopped having periods (framed by the cult as a good thing), which Freed mentions, comes up in dialogue in Kotcheff's film, but not in its predecessor.

Split Image and Ticket to Heaven have almost exactly similar plots, and this makes sense, since they both adapt the narrative sections of Moonwebs. In this film, the young man, here college gymnastics champ Danny Stetson (Michael OʼKeefe) again gets recruited by an attractive young woman, going by the name of Rebecca (Karen Allen of Raiders of the Lost Ark fame). Again, he goes to some meetings and then goes to a retreat, where spartan diet, heavy social pressure and sleep deprivation get him and make him a believer. He gets given another name, Joshua, and like David in Ticket to Heaven, a severe haircut. Danny, like David, winds up in a van, selling roses to people under false pretences to raise money for the group.
Danny calls his parents, like David, to say he's never coming home. Just as in the other film, the parents (here Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Ashley) hire a cult deprogrammer, here called Charles Pratt (James Woods) to kidnap him and bring him back to the family. The techniques to change the erstwhile cult recruit back are no less brutal and direct here.

The similarities are manifold, but Split Image, although the less widely seen of the two, is a much better film, and paradoxically, this is because it does not have the agenda of Ticket to Heaven, which entirely exists as an exposé of the Moonies, even if it's an exposé of the Moonies that doesn't have the guts to, you know, actually mention the bloody Moonies.

Split Image isn't adapting Moonwebs, it's drawing on the material to make a character drama, and weirdly, because it's not constrained by the agenda of the book, the film makes choices that are at once more thoughtful and more satisfying. It suits a fictional narrative for the cult leader not to be absent and invisible, for instance. Ticket to Heaven tries to solve that problem by providing Meg Foster's character as a sort of proxy, but Kotcheff can give us Peter Fonda as Kirklander, who reliably gives us Peter Fonda as a cult leader, and if you don't think Peter Fonda as a charismatic cult leader is worth your time, I'm not sure I know you.
In Moonwebs, Benji's family and friends are approached by a guy with a “smack 'em around” MO, who they turn down, in the end getting the help of several people to bring Benji round. In Split Image, when Charles Pratt approaches them, he talks them onto taking him on. Pratt is introduced earlier in the film; working for another concerned parent, Pratt attempts to kidnap another young man and Danny, not knowing who he's with, foils the attempt and rescues the boy, immediately gaining the gratitude and friendship – genuine gratitude, genuine friendship – of the cult members.

This means that unlike the cult deprogrammer in Ticket to Heaven, Linc Strunc, Pratt appears as a threat to the cult, and when he appears, it's a thing set up that needs no explanation.

Pratt, as played by Woods, is sleazy and seedy, and also lonely and tragic. He's an asshole, and he knows he's an asshole. He will die alone. But during the deprogramming process he realises that Danny's family is hollow, too (he asks Danny's little brother what he wants in life and the boy simply wants to be rich, nothing more). And this is the point where the film, ironically, preserves the spirit of the book more than Ticket to Heaven does.

Split Image does not hide the fact that there are reasons people join a cult beyond cynical brainwashing processes. In Kirklander's cult, Danny finds meaning, real meaning. Freed goes into the ambivalent morality of deprogramming, recognising that essentially deprogramming is just another sort of brainwashing and that some people subjected to it come out traumatised and broken. Split Image, unlike Ticket to Heaven, shows the aftermath of the deprogramming, with Danny back in the bosom of his family, but grieving for the experiences, connection and meaning of his time in the cult. And missing Rebecca (whose real name is Amy), who he is, far from being just a duped victim, genuinely in love with.
The romance subplot is perhaps a formulaic step that Ticket to Heaven doesn't take, but what it does do is provide a shorthand for a real emotional connection that the cult provided Danny with, and in story terms it allows for a coda where Danny goes back for Amy and they escape together. And that's a formulaic happy ending, but one that's more real than the simple “Oh, he's deprogrammed now, everything's back to how it was,” ending, because that is not how it works. You don't reverse a soul-twisting trauma with another one. You don't save someone from a conversion – deprogramming doesn't always work – unless there was some core of wanting to begin with.

In these discussions of cults and bad religions, I've repeatedly come up against this as the dividing line between what gets it right and what gets it wrong. And that's the heart of it, isn't it? In film and on TV, the systems of control, of belief, of faith and abuse, appear in a lot of ways, and often those portrayals fail in fundamental ways. Often they fail us. But when they show us something true, something real, they can be powerful and transformative.

A Postscript on the Subsocieties of Control

Cult Cinema went to places I didn't expect it to go. What started as another film by film survey has turned into an examination of belief and the social structures that enforce it, and these structures extend beyond simple belief and even beyond religion. Josh Freed compares Moonie boot camps to the Hitler Youth boot camps where they'd indoctrinate children by forcing them to be casually cruel to animals (a thing that provides the starting point for Taika Waititi's recent Jojo Rabbit). The Basic Training of the USMC (as portrayed so memorably in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket) has some of the same characteristics. It breaks people.

You might also think of the online radicalisation of the hard right, the way in which these groups have capitalised on Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US to make hay. Gilles Deleuze, in his 1992 essay Postscript on the Societies of Control, suggested that a society of control would achieve it by mechanistic methods, through surveillance, through medicine, through the jackboot. But Deleuze only has half the story, and in fact while he was entirely correct that what he called Societies of Discipline would be replaced by Societies of Control, what he missed was how technology would enable control, and that it was more subtle than he imagined, and that it would ensure we were under the thumb by allowing us to exert profound social pressures on each other, social pressures that, through the use of technology as a tool, could be subtly manipulated by our ruling forces. Sun Myung Moon's own religion may be on its last legs without its self-proclaimed messiah, but the techniques he codified live on, and we apply them on each other every day without knowing it. Deleuze was only half right. The computer is not the tool of control. It is the means by which the tools are used, with ever increasing speed and effect.