Sunday, May 21, 2006
Jonestown: The Life and Death of The Peoples Temple [Stanley Nelson, USA, 86 min.]
Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon [Peter Richardson, USA, 73 min.]
One of the creepiest moments in Downfall was when Magda Goebbels poisons her six children. It wasn't the ignominy of postwar defeat that prompted her, but the fervent belief that a world without Nazism was unfit to live in. Better to hasten oneself to an afterlife than spend a minute in a fallen Eden. A similar compulsion propelled Jim Jones to create, then destroy Jonestown.
Though mostly remembered for having inspired the phrase 'drink the Kool-Aid' [albeit Flavor-Aid was consumed], Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were, at one time, seen as a religiously tolerant, socially progressive organization. Jones was a charismatic revivalist who preached the social gospel, a sort of leftist Jim Bakker with a rad set of shades. An early anti-segregationist, he created one of the first integrated churches in the country and further broke racial barriers by adopting one black and two asian children, raising them equally along with his own son. A bit of an old-school socialist, he developed The Peoples Temple into a self-sustaining commune, one that operated so successfully that, by the time they moved from Ukiah to San Francisco, they attracted the admiration of the Democratic political establishment. Both Jimmy and Roslyn Carter paid him visits and Willie Moscone depended upon his support for his mayoral campaign.
Despite his acceptance and success, Jones harbored a dark, paranoid vision and sought to control every aspect of his church members' lives. As told by the surviving members in Jonestown: The Life and Death of The Peoples Temple, Jones worked them like zombies, abused them physically, preyed upon them sexually, forced them to cut off contact with outside family and friends and caused them to bequeath their material wealth to him. In return they were given a totalizing experience, one in which he would act as their father, lover, savior or god, whichever they needed from him. Seeking to further remove his members from corrupting influence he moved the temple to Guyana where he built his utopia on 3000 acres of land leased from the Guyanese government. Although achieving a remarkable level of sustainability in the middle of the jungle, Jones couldn't relax from the grip of his compulsions and continued to rule like a Maoist. When congressman Leo Ryan visited to investigate reports of captivity and abuse, Jones initially put on a good show. However, when several temple members began making their desire to leave known, Jones went haywire. A party was sent to ambush the departing delegation and Congressman Ryan, along with three journalists and three defectors, was shot and killed. Sensing that the murders wouldn't go unnoticed, Jones ordered the liquidation of the temple, coercing everyone to take a draught of the valium and cyanide laced Flavor-Aid. Although not everyone complied, a total of 913 people gave up their lives, including 276 children.
Although it might be impossible for any film to thoroughly explain such insanity, Jonestown presents the history in an engrossing and chilling manner and one cannot but feel sorry for the surviving participants and witnesses who testify of their shame and sorrow.
Though nowhere near as maniacal as Jim Jones, Steve Lowther has his own desire to shape a community. The nephew of timber baron Rex Clemens, Lowther (along with his brothers) administers a scholarship fund begun by their late uncle in 1959. The Clemens Scholarship was intended to insure that every graduate from the local high school could afford to go to college. There were no qualifications, only a one-page application that took five minutes to fill out. In the 1980's federal endangered species regulations devastated the lumber industry in Philomath. Since then, residents from the nearby town of Corvallis, employees of Hewlett Packard and Oregon State University, have begun to filter in as urban transplants, bringing an information-economy tilt to the old industry town. As typically happens, the brewing culture clash centered around the high school, the lighting rod being Terry Kneisler, a new superintendant from Chicago. As Kneisler sought to freshen up the curriculum, dark rumors began to circulate of highfalutin' notions such as 'environmentalism' and 'diversity' being taught. When wind of this got to Lowther he blew a gasket. In the film he voices his distress that the students are being indoctrinated by the cult of liberalism, just as surely as Germany's children were once indoctrinated by evils of Nazism [yes, he makes that analogy, twice]. Worse yet, the students are beginning to manifest this insidious brainwashing by sporting noserings and unnaturaly colored hair. Some have even taken to riding skateboards. The end is nigh. Lowther takes action, demanding that the school fire Kneisler or the scholarships will be terminated. When the school fails to comply, Lowther makes good on his threat, just as the class of 2003 is preparing to graduate.
Although it is quite easy to be angered by the actions of Lowther, Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon manages to present him, as well as the other participants, in an evenhanded manner. Lowther comes across as an avuncular presence. The kind of relative you wouldn't mind having a beer with once a year, as long as the conversation was kept to sports. His opinions don't come across as Archie Bunkerish prejudices, but the anxieties of a man who knows full well the culture is passing him by. Lowther admits he's on the losing side of history, but he'll be dammed if he doesn't go down swinging. For his part, Kneisler isn't necessarily more sympathetic. He speaks in the measured tones of a pc-academic. The kind of tone-deaf, process oriented bureaucrat who would drive Hank Hill wild. When he banishes the school mascot, a wooden Indian, for being inappropriate, he doesn't realize that ripping out a long-cherished symbol by the roots evokes a psychic toll. Lowther might be a dunderhead for worrying that every fuschia-hued head of hair, sprouting among the student body, is evidence of the imminent collapse of civilization, but Kneisler doesn't help matters by spraying his administrative ammo at every available target. Although being the ones who bear the consequence, the students themselves aren't immune from their own notions of entitlement. Considering the grant a birthright instead of gift, some complain bitterly that Lowther has derailed their future.
In the end, neither side comes off particularly well. After the fund is pulled, Kneisler and a number of his associates scamper to less contentious pastures and the scholarship is reinstated, albeit with new restrictions. Only members of families who work in mining, lumber and agriculture can qualify and the applicants themselves must demonstrate they are of wholesome mind and body by participating in such organizations as 4-H, the Boy Scouts or the Forestry Club. In other words liberals, skatepunks, weirdos, computer geeks and fags need not apply. Needless to say, the number of students applying for the scholarship has dropped. Even those who meet Lowther's standards have been refusing to take his cash on the grounds that they don't care to have their values dictated by some geezer. It's nice to know that in Philometh, Oregon if not in Guyana, there are some folks who won't drink the Flavor-Aid.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of The Peoples Temple
5/29 NWFF 9:00pm
6/1 NWFF 7:00pm
Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon
5/30 Egyptian 7:00pm
6/1 BPH 4:30pm