The Principles: Directed by Maria Demopoulos & Jodie Wille, Starring Father Yod, Isis Aquarian and Ahom Aquarian.
The Premise: A documentary about Jim Baker, a successful restaurant owner who reinvented himself as “Father Yod,” a spiritual guru and cult leader in the midst of the free love ’70s. What follows is polygamy, discordant psychedelic music and a doomed hang gliding ride to the other side.
Is It Good?: Pretty good! The rhythms of the editing and storytelling are about as standard as they come, especially if you’ve seen a documentary in the last ten to twenty years; but the story of Father Yod and his sex/health food cult is good enough to push past any gag reflexes you may have towards the paint-by-numbers approach to the material. That’s because, for me anyway, the nature of the story walks such a fine line between tragic and hilarious. The sympathy I may feel for the people duped into Yod’s scheme is often dashed when their current (for 2012) talking heads tear up in the middle of a story about how Yod once started arrhythmically pounding on a drum in the middle of a jam session, completely destroying the song, or…could it be…setting it free? The depths of naiveté on display are astounding, until you remember that there was something genuinely good natured about the desire to expand consciousness. These people just fell in with an exploitative creep who abused his power in an effort to marry and fuck (not in that order) a lot of women that were less than half his age. See? That’s kind of funny if you’re not too busy weeping, right?
That dramatic tension all stems from—who else?—Father Yod, whose story is so outlandish, it begins with him karate-chopping a man to death and ends with him living on a Hawaiian compound, convinced that he’s God. It’s like something out of Vonnegut! The biggest problem with the film is the lack of insight into Yod’s psyche. As mentioned, there are plenty of evangelical members of the cult on hand to tell their side of the story, but we never get to the center of Yod. Even the footage we see of him—shot on the compound by one of the cult members—place him at a distance. If he’s not sitting at the head of a yoga class, separate from the rest of the group, he’s standing in the center of it, the frame existing solely to capture him/his essence. Was his spiritual journey as real as his apostles’? Was his declaration of Godhood a true (drug induced) feeling or yet another distancing technique? The typical characteristics of cult indoctrination (isolation, sleep and food deprivation, etc) aren’t properly explored in the film, so it’s hard to say. We know Yod murdered a man, robbed banks and slept with at least one 16-year-old girl, but as an audience, we’re not given any clear motivation for this behavior. I called him exploitative earlier because his actions bear that out, but by the end of the film, I’m not sure I know where it all comes from. Entitlement? Boredom? A corrupted path on the way to enlightenment? Who knows? We know he’s just a man, but what kind of a man?
Random Anecdotes: There is footage of a what appears to be a stillbirth somewhere in the middle of the film and it engendered one of the most visceral reactions I’ve had during a movie in a long time. While the person telling the story telegraphs that everything turns out fine, the image of that motionless body suddenly screaming back to life is unforgettable. Unless you’re a doctor, I guess.
This is cruel, but Yod’s death scene is maybe one of the funniest I’ve seen in any movie this year. He decides he wants to try his hand at hang gliding and then morosely alludes to his impending death to anyone he passes while on his way to doing so. The 53-year-old takes flight, only to have the wind literally taken out of his sails, plunging him into the ocean off the coast of Hawaii. When his hubristic ass is fished out of the water by his followers, he announces matter-of-factly, that his back is surely broken. It didn’t help that my fiancé correctly pointed out how much Yod looked and sounded like a Will Ferrell character. This one, for example:
Is It Worth A Look?: Totally. As of the writing of this review, The Source Family is streaming on Netflix, so subscribers would do well to give it a spin. Though it should be said that I’m personally fascinated by cults, cult leaders and the psychology of the people who not only join, but stay with these groups, so if there’s a mark for this kind of material, I’m it. Take whatever I say here with a grain of salt.
Cinematic Soulmates: Martha, Marcy May, Marlene; The Sacrament; Jonestown; and this…