More Reviews From The 14th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival

by on June 17, 2015

Throughout Neil Edwards’ “Sympathy for the Devil: The True Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment,” the question “What is The Process” is constantly asked.  Darryl Leach’s animated answers to that question turn out to be misdirections or non-answers.  Too bad the query wasn’t lettered in a 1960s Marvel Comics style.  It would have simultaneously evoked conspiracy, mystery, and outsiders’ conception of the church in equal measure.

The Process Church of the Final Judgment, or “The Process” for short, has been publicly alleged to be associated with the Manson Family killings, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and even the Son of Sam killings.  Edwards’ film is intended in part to debunk these claims by interviewing Timothy Wyllie, Hope Thornton White, and other former members of the Process.  Lest the cynical viewer assume that this will be a cinematic hagiography, critics of The Process such as Robert Irwin are given equal time to have their say.

Edwards takes the viewer into the intriguing roots of what critics referred to as a mind-bending cult.  Founded by Robert de Grimston and his wife Mary Ann, the Process dedicated itself to the simultaneous worship of Christ and Satan.  Its central logo, seen in some critics’ eyes as a modified swastika, consisted of the heads of four “p”’s joined together at 90-degree angles.  In an era of colorful tie dye and psychedelic-colored dress, the Processans’ all-black outfits gave them an air of religious thuggery.

The popular image of The Process as a sinister devil-worshipping cult is shown to be a PR own goal that its members had little interest in correcting.  Their in-your-face style of public outreach was less about sabotaging expansion of the church and more an exercise in Social Darwinism applied to weeding out untrue believers.   A Black Mass the Processans held wasn’t so much an attempt to raise the Devil as it was raising some audience members’ hackles.  But printing an article by Charles Manson definitely got the conspiracy theorists talking.

The Process may have espoused controversial ideas, but Edwards shows the church’s roots ran deeply into the period’s cultural zeitgeist.  The threat of atomic destruction certainly made it easier to believe in groups that honestly talked about the coming Apocalypse.  The failure of conventional religion made organizations looking into the occult feel fashionable.  Anti-establishment youth of the time knew The Process’ opposition to The Grey Forces of social conformity and mediocrity put the group on their side.  Famous visitors to The Process included Beatles manager Brian Epstein, singer Marianne Faithfull, and Funkadelic’s George Clinton.

Putting aside the misrepresentations of the group by reporter Ed Sanders and others, was The Process ultimately an exercise in exploitation?      Edwards suggests whether you believed in the church’s teachings or not, you can’t deny the salutary effect on those who gave their best years to The Process.

***

Involvement with a Satan-worshipping cult is not among the reminiscences of Danny Fields captured by Brendan Toller in his wildly entertaining film “Danny Says.”  The viewer does hear stories about Fields’ interactions with such people and bands as Jim Morrison, The Ramones, The MC5, Nico, and John Cameron Mitchell.  Given that these incredibly colorful people Fields met (and sometimes promoted) timelessly defined alternative rock culture, the suspicion arises that Fields secretly made a deal with the devil to have such an amazing life.

The early part of “Danny Says” actually grounds Fields’ incredible encounters in more earthbound causes.  One was a passion for rebelliousness adopted from his sisters.  The scope of Fields’ taste for rebellion, though, would eventually be more daring than his sisters’ penchant for eating shrimp on Fridays.  Another source was Fields’ continual awareness of alienation from his peers.  Whether the context was Fields’ bar mitzvah, life at the University of Pennsylvania, or even Fields’ sexual identity, conformity and mediocrity would not be part of Fields’ DNA.   The final thread of Fields’ life tapestry turned out to be his desire to find and associate with people who were doing something unique.  That desire led Fields into the world of Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Glorified fan as a sobriquet for Fields turns out to be a partially accurate descriptor in Toller’s film.  A love of what the Wayne Kramers and Tommy Ramones of the world did with music underlay Fields’ attention to their work.  Personal aggrandizement through profiting off his connections, in particular, never enters into it.

The better label for Fields’ role in music history is that of cultural catalyst.  At his best, Fields had a gift for navigating the interstices between nurturing unique creative vision and commercial viability.  The Doors’ “Light My Fire” became a commercial sensation thanks to Fields’ suggestion.

Fields’ gift for supporting individualized musical voices plus a little chutzpah could be translated into a Publicity Director position at Elektra Records or the editorship of a teen music magazine.  What that gift couldn’t do was save a musician from their own vices.  Despite the passage of years, Iggy Pop doesn’t seem to realize in an interview that irregularly producing material and peeling the roof off a rented van were not strong incentives for Elektra to retain The Stooges.

It’s probably an exaggeration to say Fields’ championing of The Doors or The Ramones demonstrated the man had a gift for hearing time’s judgment on a musician’s artistic worth.  Toller’s film could leave a viewer with the mistaken impression that Fields’ musical taste was never in error.   What Fields’ promotion of The Cockettes’ disastrous New York City premiere demonstrates is that unique artistic approach and commercial success don’t always intersect at the same moment.  Somebody like Fields can cause artist and potential audience to interact.  What he can’t ensure is the spectacle of the resulting reaction.

(“Sympathy For The Devil: The True Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment” screens at 9:15 PM on June 17, 2015 at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF).  For advance tickets, go to http://sfindie.com/festivals/sf-docfest )

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