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The Boston Phoenix Conversion Course

You'd expect Scientologists to be spacey and intense. You might not expect them to make such a bad movie.

By Mark Bazer

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  The folks at the Church of Scientology really blew it. They couldn't have asked for a better person to recruit than me. I am a lonely, girlfriendless, insecure, boyfriendless, emotionally unstable, clinically depressed, acne-ridden, small-penised, bed-wetting-prone, physically unattractive pile of nothing with a bit of a gut going, who styles himself a writer, but always writes run-on sentences, and repeats words in his sentences. I am also a huge movie fan. So you can imagine my excitement when I walked out of Newbury Comics the other day after picking up the new issue of Aquaman and got handed a free ticket to the film Orientation, playing at the Church of Scientology. The ticket didn't mention who was in the movie, though I figured it starred John Travolta, partly because he's a Scientologist, but mostly because I couldn't think of a movie that's come out lately that he hasn't been in. Add a potential love interest in Kelly Preston, supporting roles from Tom Cruise, Anne Archer, and Nicole Kidman, and a funky soundtrack by jazz musician Chick Corea and Shaft-man Isaac Hayes, and we're talking a virtual shoo-in for an Oscar.

I know what you're thinking. You're shaking your head and thinking I'm a fool for even imagining that the Scientology film would be any good. You're sitting up there on your rational-minded perch, making that old argument: "There's no way the film can be as good as the book." But when it comes to Scientology, I am a blank slate -- or, as John Stuart Mill said, a tempus fugit. And the reviews I'd read of the movie had been astounding. On the official Scientology Web page, someone going by the initials D.R. wrote, "It's a very moving film that will mean a great deal to anyone who sees it." Another critic, B.J.B., also writing on the official Scientology Web page, commented, "This film really impressed me by showing the broad scope of Scientology." And Jeffrey Lyons of Sneaking into the Movies said, "It's a smash 'em up, rip-roaring, nonstop, sizzling adventure for the whole family. The best film I've seen today!"

So I put aside the negative reports about Scientology I had read. Much of the media would have you believe that Scientologist leaders brainwash their followers, that they force helpless saps to hand over all their money to the Church, and that they drowned a judge's dog in a swimming pool. Being in the media, though, I know not to believe everything I read (especially if I've written it). I am also a cat person. So I was willing to give Scientology the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was no more full of crap than any other religion.

I entered the Church of Scientology on Beacon Street and was greeted kindly by a woman sitting at a desk. Inside, the church is quite nice, and certainly cleaner than the Coolidge. I was about 30 minutes early for the 1 p.m. showing, but the woman told me the film would start immediately. I asked if I had time to buy popcorn, but she told me they didn't sell it. (Oddly, I spotted a liquid butter machine in the corner.) She gave me a questionnaire to fill out, asking me to write down my name, my address, and my mother's credit card number. I was brought into a small theater with comfy seats. I was alone, save for one young guy who told me he had seen the film before.

The lights dimmed, the film began, and glorious music came on. "Religion is as old as man," a narrator said as I stared into the blinding heavens. But "Is Scientology a religion? Let me assure you it is," spoke a squeaky-clean, impeccably dressed, plasticky-looking Guy. Only two minutes into Orientation, and this movie had more in common with a turkey-jerky infomercial than with a religion. Now, I may be a loser, but I'm not a sucker. Already this film was too cheesy to bear -- and I liked Phenomenon.

The Guy told us he would be taking us on a tour of a Scientology church and the people in it. Finally, I thought, it's Travolta time. No such luck. First stop: the bookstore, where the Guy asked the store manager which books she could recommend to "these fine people" (me and the other guy in the theater). "Ron's books are very popular," she replied. "They're going to want them sooner or later," she said, turning to face the camera. "And they sell out pretty fast."

Our next stop was with the Director of Processing. He's a middle-aged guy who looks a bit like Richard Nixon and is in charge of the personality-improving charts. His charts work like this: The gray line low on the chart represents a person before a 12-hour auditing session. The red line at the top represents a person after the session. See how simple it is to improve your personality? All you need is a red marker. The problem remained, though, that the man telling me about personality improvement was one of those guys who liked to show us his gums when he smiled. Part of the advantage of being a loser is that I can recognize other losers. And this man, I can assure you, has never been on a date. Why would anyone in their right mind look to him to improve their personality? And where the hell was Travolta?

After a complete tour and a brief conversation with an L. Ron expert ("I can see that Ron wrote in many different genres -- Western, detective, science fiction. He also wrote for Hollywood, didn't he?" "Why, yes, he did"), the Guy laid it on the line. "You stand at the threshold of your next trillion years. You can either live them in shivering darkness or in the light. The choice is up to you." Then we met some happy Scientologists. A plumber, a lawyer, an accountant and . . . an actor. It was Vinnie Barbarino himself. "What has Scientology helped me with?" Travolta asked, grinning. "A better question is what it hasn't helped me with." Next up: Kirstie Alley. "Without Scientology, I can honestly say I would be dead." In other words, we have Scientology to thank for Veronica's Closet.

As the movie ended with more glorious music, and the lights came on, I still had no idea what Scientology was. I know that they want us to believe it's a religion and not a cult. I know that Scientology promises to improve one's personality and even one's IQ. I know that not every Scientologist is a good actor. But, um, are the media reports and the tales from ex-Scientologists untrue? How do these audit sessions really help improve our social skills? And why did they get someone who had never taken an acting class to host the movie? For these answers one must delve deeper into Scientology -- and into one's pocketbook, as a 21-year-old told me in a one-on-one meeting after the movie. When I told him I'd have to think about whether I wanted to spend the $40 on a training book, he chuckled, and said, "Well, I think you should do something, not think about it." Funny, the movie didn't ask me to think much, either. I may not have a girlfriend, a life, or smooth skin, but I do have a brain. And I'm not about to let that go . . . unless you've got free passes to Howie Long's Firestorm.

Mark Bazer is on staff at the Boston Phoenix.

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