In 1873, while under the influence of chloroform and laughing gas, writer John Addington Symonds claimed to have spoken with God. Although Symonds was understandably overjoyed by his time spent with "the undemonstrable but irrefragable certainty" of the Almighty, he was deeply shaken once he regained consciousness.
He insisted that "a violent deepening of despair" and "a sense of being mocked and cheated" stayed with him. He also posed this scenario: "Only think of it. To have felt for that long dateless ecstasy of vision the very God, in all purity and tenderness and truth and absolute love, and then to find that I had after all had no revelation, but that I had been tricked by the abnormal excitement of my brain."
I thought about Symonds' remarks constantly while watching The Source Family, Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille's new film. The Source Family may look like a Ken Burns-infused historical documentary about the rise and fall of a relatively harmless cult of personality in 1970s California, but the more these estranged Family members speak about their experiences, the more affecting the film grows as a meditation on misplaced faith. Every one of these kindly middle-aged folks bear the invisible scars of spiritual gamblers who bet it all on a cosmic sure thing, lost the shirts off their backs, and lived to tell the tale.
Two-thirds 56 Up and one-third Inside Scientology, The Source Family does more than just play catch-up with a bunch of hippies. The film's numerous interviews and extensive home-movie footage also tell the story of Jim Baker, aka "Father Yod," aka Yahowa, the Source Family's benevolent patriarch. A handsome, restless health-food nut with a Grizzly Adams beard and a late-night DJ's voice, Yod (pronounced with a long "o," as in "hoax") quickly gained an impressive following of young people in the Los Angeles area. His Sunset Strip restaurant became a celebrity hangout — and, years later, the butt of one of the best jokes in Annie Hall. Like many figureheads, Baker's journey toward transcendence got bogged down in the muck of his patchwork philosophy; his desire to transcend this world turned into a desire to stockpile a harem of teenage girls. (Typical.)
Other personal failures and artistic shortcomings may have led him down that less honorable path as well. As the soundtrack proves repeatedly, Father Yod was a self-styled musician entirely free of musical talent. His off-key caterwauling on such self-penned ditties as "Expansion," "Contraction," and "Penetration: An Aquarian Symphony," are sub-sub-Grateful Dead noodlings that quickly lose any aura of mystery or meaning.
Amazingly, his former followers, who were given (and, in some cases, still use) names like Sunflower, Orbit, and Isis Aquarian, continue to discuss Yod in hushed, reverent tones. The numerous juxtapositions of their present-day selves with photos and footage from their beautiful, long-haired youth is weird and thrilling; one memorable photograph shows the exterior of a Los Angeles home where Joni Mitchell-type earth goddesses in flowing white gowns sprout like daisies. Ah, but they were so much older then; they're younger than that now.
The Source Family
Special screening Thursday, September 19th, 7 p.m.
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
$8, $6 for Brooks members and students with valid ID, free with VIP Film Pass