Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Philip K. Dick ’16: Sympathy for the Devil

The Process Church of the Final Judgement has been repeatedly linked to Charles Manson and his followers, but it seems this was rather unfair to the cult. However, they truly started out as a Scientology schism group, making them plenty scary enough. Yet, the former members do not remember it that way. The so-called church was just a part of the 1960s. The cult’s rise and fall are chronicled in Neil Edwards’ bizarre documentary Sympathy for the Devil: The True Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgement (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Philip K. Dick Film Festival in New York.

Everyone basically acknowledges the Process Church was essentially, strictly speaking, more or less a cult, but as cult’s go, it was relatively harmless. They may have fleeced some silly rich members, but they were nothing like Jim Jones’ socialist Peoples Temple or Charles Manson’s evil flower children. They argue they were wrongly demonized as Satanists due their strange Trinity of Jehovah, Satan, and Lucifer, sometimes expanded into a quartet including Jesus. According to the former Processeans, it was really all about the ultimate forgiveness and reconciliation of Heaven and the fallen angels. Satan and Lucifer were also somehow separate and distinct, but there is really no point in getting hung up on that.

Of course, the Processeans played their roles to the hilt, parading through London’s fashionable Mayfair district in black capes. Charismatic former Scientologist (and official Suppressive Person) Robert De Grimston was the cult’s front man, but former members consider his wife Mary Ann to have been the real brains of the operation. It seems she was the one who decided they had to relocate to Mexico, where adventures ensued.

Obviously, the former members are remain uber-defensive when it comes to Manson. Maybe he picked up parts of their doctrine or maybe not, but they were certainly inviting extreme personality types. All of Edwards’ interview subjects clearly think the lack of a mass grave with the Process Church’s name on it vindicates them on all counts and by the standards of the 1960s counter-culture they are probably right, but they are still weird.

How weird were they? Weird enough to attract the attention of John Waters, who duly sits for interview segments. Even if you are incredulous about all facets of the Process Church, their story is absolutely train-wreck fascinating. Edwards tells it well, teasing out many wonderfully strange details and conveying a sense of their milieu through era-evocative animated sequences.

This is one doc that is never dull. Even if the Process Church truly was as benign as cotton candy, their story is all kinds of creepy. Edwards talks to most of the people who were there, giving us a full flavor of their ideology and times. Highly watchable and debatable, Sympathy for the Devil is one of the most provocative docs of the last two or three years. Highly recommended for the innately skeptical and individualistic, it screens this Friday (1/15) at the Cinema Village, as part of this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.