The allure of cults has always escaped me. Collectivism, communism, various forms of communal religious experience, even The Borg on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” not so much; since I don’t lump especially egregious forms of each in with the garden variety pejoratives often associated with cults and their members, perhaps I’m giving in to convention. Yet whether the flavor of the month is eastern inflected or based on the ramblings of a burly sci-fi writer, I don’t have the time of day. Especially anything proselytized by folks like Jim Jones or David Koresh or Aleister Crowley I could do without, but the extreme examples always grab all the headlines. It’s not just in “Martha Marcy May Marlene“ that one may glimpse modern culthood. Where previously unforeseen spiritual clarity and emotional intelligence in some newfound way is promised alongside a simple, back to the basics lifestyle, the cynical, post-aughts side of my consciousness always veers toward thinking I’ve encountered a scam. I’m sure Father Yod would be no different.
And yet one can’t help but watch “The Source Family“– Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulous’ doc about the gold standard of early 70’s so-cal spiritual cults, founded by ex-marine and successful vegetarian restauranteur turned hippie guru James Edward Baker aka Father Yod aka Ya Ho Wa — and not find the man at its center a fascinating figure, one worthy of a feature doc. Born on the fourth of July in 1922, Baker’s life including being a teenage weightlifting champion (he was once dubbed the strongest boy in the world) and a decorated World War II veteran and martial arts expert who had a penchant for killing people with his bare hands and starting successful, celebrity-patronized restaurants with money earned from bank heists. He remains however, at least from the vantage point of jaded postmodernity, a not terribly persuasive spiritual leader.
The film, being distributed by Chicago’s always hip Drag City outfit (they’re responsible for unleashing Harmony Korine’s “Trash Humpers” on the world if you recall), is tough-minded enough about the costs of various forms of idolatry, substance abuse and cults of personality, the type of behavior The Source Family thrived upon. Its ex-practioners, mostly compromised of still motley if mellowed (and shaven), AARP eligible whites, come across as all having paid a price, whether it’s sanity or simply time. You feel a bit bad for them, even if its clear they were once beautiful and high, with far fewer wrinkles and plunging hairlines. The film wisely refuses to judge these individuals, or their leader, for their sins and provocations however; it’s open minded enought to take their talk of spiritual liberation at face value, to place it within the context of its time, and to have a lot of fun along the way.
After founding The Source Family with his wife and co-spiritual leader Robyn, Yod and his followers moved onto a large estate he bought that had at one time been the home of the Chandlers, the family that founded the Los Angeles Times. It was a hippie xanadu, where marijuana was called the sacred herb and taken religiously, LSD use was a fact of life and people changed their names to things like Magus and Sunflower. Reciting their tales of transcendent, drug addled spiritual clarity alongside stories of not being able to use antibiotics to treat debilitating ear infections for “religious” reasons, the deadening normality of these people comes to light; there was no lasting enlightenment awaiting any of them. Good on Wille and Demopoulous for not making fun of them though; although they followed a man who ultimately died after flying a hangglider off a cliff in on a windy day in Hawaii, the positives they were able to pull from the experience are given equal weight. This isn’t an especially seminal or groundbreaking work, but “The Source Family” is a comprehensive and fair-minded look at the life and times of an inspired, mystified and possible deranged man. [B]
“The Source Family” is now playing. Check here to see where it is near you.