Tuesday 14 July 2020

Cult Cinema #29: The Art of Obvious Wisdom

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing
Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

Yeah, it's a mouthful. Let's just move on from that, except to affirm that Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh is the sort of movie that would have a title like that, a quirky American indie comedy, which is tonally in the vein of something like Little Miss Sunshine, or Life After Beth, or maybe Being John Malkovich, a film which draws its comedy from eccentric people being eccentric, but not eccentric in that curated, stylised way that Wes Anderson has, more grounded than that. The sort of film that chooses a song by The Flaming Lips to play out over the closing credits.That's what we're talking about.

Spoilers, as usual, from the start.
The quirk starts from the very beginning. Before even the credits start, we see a grainy video of cult leader Storsh (popular Kiwi director Taika Waititi) sitting on a bathroom floor in a bathrobe, with a spiral on his forehead, playing a guitar and singing a ditty about eternity. He turns to the camera, still strumming the guitar, and speaks directly to us.
Storsh: Life is a journey, and as we move along the path, we move closer to the light that awaits us. But I say, why wait? Why not launch yourself into that instantaneous eternity right now? It’s like, let’s say you love peppermint ice cream. And they say, well, you can have peppermint ice cream, but only if you wait like seventy-five or eighty years. But then you look and there’s a whole tub of pine nut peppermint ice cream, the Haagen-Dazs stuff, the expensive stuff, right there in the freezer! What are you gonna do, are you just gonna look at it? No, you’re gonna eat it, right? That’s what death is. It’s eating that peppermint ice cream on your terms.
And then we get the film production company logos, with him playing the guitar over the top.

And while this sets the tone, because Waititi is hamming it up a little, and playing up the quirk, this is also an effective parody of cult leader stuff, the sort of stuff that hooks people, and draws them in. It sounds kind of nice and lovely, but of course he’s just telling you that you should kill yourself. And this is a classic tactic, the way to sugarcoat terrible things so that your potential marks might eat them. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as Mary Poppins had it, and although this is a coincidence, this was basically the central principle of the insanely fascinating and spectacularly moustached twentieth century cult leader GI Gurdjieff, of whom Poppins creator PL Travers was an acolyte.
(Not pictured: magic carpet bag.)
Here’s a real world example, a quote from a promotional video which was posted back in 2016, showing a scripted conversation between self-help guru Keith Raniere and Smallville regular Allison Mack.
Raniere: Authenticity has no additional layers of artifice, no trying to be something that you think you should be. It’s just a pure state of being. So one would say authenticity is being as you are and expressing as you are, at least to some degree. And “As you are” is of course the sum of your whole past. So when someone’s being authentic you get the feeling that not only that there’s a person there in the moment, but somehow you reach into their very essence and you meet the unique individual.
Mack: I don’t know why, that makes me want to cry. That’s beautiful!
(And let's not even get into how that's either a set made up to look like a house or a house that
looks like an unconvincing set, and I don't know which is worse, but it's also oddly on brand.
So on the surface there’s little in that to disagree with, right? It all makes sense. But there are two things that struck me about this insight.

First, it’s just shallow. He’s essentially saying, you can be a whole person by being a person. Don’t mock that: this is actually a work of calculated genius, a central part of the con-artist’s playbook. Because getting people to think that really basic stuff they knew already is deep spiritual wisdom makes those people vulnerable to you. They hear what you are saying and go “Holy crap, I see it!” because, how hard is it not to see? Stuff like this is much more effective at getting people on your side than giving them real spiritual wisdom, because real spiritual wisdom is really, really hard to process. Faking it is significantly easier than putting in the work and doing the real thing, and it gets you much faster results.

The second observation concerns what’s missing. Because in a fifteen minute video where this basic point (namely “in order to be a person, you need to be a person”) is restated in various ways over the whole length of the thing without any significant degree of elaboration, not once is the question of how we relate really touched on. You’d think that in a talk about seeing the real person you’d have some discussion of love, of what we owe each other. No. That’s entirely absent. About two minutes of internet research leads me to discover that Raniere of course subscribes to Randian Objectivism, simultaneously the most vapid and morally repellent of popular modern philosophies. But it’s also another easy sell for a prospective cult leader, because it just allows you to concentrate on being a selfish little shit and tell yourself that it’s virtuous.

And it worked for Raniere, who ran a cult called NXIVM for several years, largely composed of capable and smart professional women who Raniere moulded into a harem of hot brainwashed sex-slaves and controlled so absolutely that he convinced them to have their initials branded on their bikini lines. And then the law caught up with him and he and Mack went on trial for human trafficking and Mack took the fall. 

And that's why I'm not linking the video. Although it's still up on YouTube if you really want to find it.

The point of all this is that you can wrap up really simple, obvious stuff as a Powerful and Transformative Life Philosophy really easily if you just know how. Which brings us back to Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh, which, aside from being a title that is a royal pain to type, pretty much takes that moment, so ably demonstrated by its opening scene, and runs with it for blackly comedic purposes.
We meet mid-level advertising creative Claire (Kate Micucci, better known as the voice of Sadie Miller in Steven Universe, and Velma in every iteration of Scooby Doo for the last few years) who has just moved to LA with her not particularly employable partner Paul (Sam Huntingdon). Claire is struggling with a campaign for a cereal called Rainbow-O’s; Paul, never getting dressed beyond pyjamas and dressing gown, is staying in their lovely new apartment, where he’s avoiding applying for jobs and unpacking boxes.

It is a terribly convenient apartment, beautifully situated. They marvel aloud at how cheap it was. The monetary saving becomes entirely explanatory when they discover that this was the apartment in which the cult leader Ronald Storsh abided. The bathroom in the video that opens the film is their bathroom. And their bath was the venue for the suicide that immediately followed the making of that video. Which is why on the first night they’re there, a member of Storsh’s cult breaks into their flat, performs a weird ritual involving quoting Storsh’s writings and performing a short talent revue, and then commits suicide in the bath.

The slobbish, put-upon detective who turns up, Cartwright (Dan Harmon, that Dan Harmon, the Rick and Morty Dan Harmon), resents the fact that all he ever does is clean up the “self-murder” of Storsh’s followers and so he doesn’t really perform due diligence anymore, instead concentrating on working on a movie script he dreams of selling to a studio and getting Vin Diesel to star in.
Most people apparently move out after the first suicide. But Claire and Paul don’t. The flat is too convenient, and they have nowhere else to go. After one cultist leaves behind a copy of Storsh's book, they pick it up and give it a read, and find that there’s a lot in it that chimes with them. “Liberate yourself from the shackles of overthought”, the book says, and that makes a sort of sense, in the way that basic, obvious stuff framed as deep wisdom does (it's a lot grander than “Don't overthink so much”) and Claire manages to use some of the principles of the book to gain some success at work. They find comfort in the book. Meanwhile, some of the cultists’ suicides don’t go right and Claire and Paul wind up being the vehicles for their violent, painful exits. But it doesn’t matter, because Cartwright’s willing to write off any dead body in the bath as a cult suicide, even if they’ve been strangled with a vacuum cleaner hose or stabbed in the back. The realisation that you can get rid of a body, no questions asked, if you paint a red spiral on the forehead and dump the cadaver in the bathtub, proves useful, but for Claire and Paul the real breakthrough comes in working out a way to help the various cultists achieve eternal bliss painlessly, cleanly and happily.

The fact that this is achieved with a big jar of poisoned Kool-Aid is probably the least tasteful part of an already pretty tasteless film.

But aside from that, it's interesting. It makes sense because we see that Claire and Paul are lost. They had to leave Ohio, we discover, because Paul was a bit behind with the laundry and made a bit of a mess at work and caused a zombie apocalypse as a result (no, really). So he's not unemployable because he's a central casting slacker, and Claire isn't so patient with him because she's a central casting doormat girlfriend, he's so unemployable and she's so patient because he's got post-traumatic stress disorder and he's terrified out of his wits of ever going to work again, and they can't move out because there is nowhere else for them to go.

Which makes them precisely the sort of people who wind up in a cult, and precisely the sort of people who you can fool into thinking that your basic platitudes are life-changing wisdom. Because they're ready. And the thing about a religious conversion is that it's a two-way thing.
You have to be ready. There's an explosive chemical inside you that needs the right reagent to detonate, annihilating your inner self in an apocalyptic blast of enlightenment. This is why True Believers of whatever stripe get so frustrated when their Gotcha statements don't seem to have any effect on you. Because it worked for them. It's why you see so many John 3:16 signs at public events. It's why New Atheists keep repeating that stupid Douglas Adams line about fairies at the bottom of the garden, like it's a game changer. Because it changed their game.

And of course the next stage is that you can't hide that they've got you, and so Claire, now a believer, goes beyond applying Storsh's wisdom at work and actively proselytising

This goes where you think it does. After all, the Gateway to Eternal Bliss is the bathtub, just as close as a tub of Häagen-Dazs peppermint ice cream in the freezer.

And that's the thing that Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh gets right. Although it's a indie comedy that falls bang in the middle of in the “almost insufferably quirky” category, it just about manages to escape from that by being, in its own weird way, true, and by having things to say about the way we're vulnerable to slickly marketed platitudes packaged as wisdom.