Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Scientology? Non merci

Scientology: Pimp my Church

The French legal system proved today that they have the balls to take on the inexplicably popular institution of Scientology, and I must applaud their government for their healthy mistrust of the organization as its prominence has grown over the last few years. After a thorough investigation, six leading members of the Paris branch were today fined over £500,000 and given suspended sentences after being found guilty of organized fraud, following their harassment of potential members and extortion of money from vulnerable people.

While the 'Church' of Scientology has thrived Stateside (every time I read a reference to its founder as a science FICTION writer, I still snigger at the number of idiots taking it all as gospel), its spread in Europe has been met with a few more reservations - backwards and alien-based ideology aside, the main point where the Sci-bots tend to trip up is their unfortunate tendency to drain the life savings of their members. For the greater good, of course.

Many people in staunchly secular France want to ban Scientology outright, leading to heated discussion on whether such a thing is even possible. Legal representatives today said they could not impose a ban as the organization would continue with or without legal permission and would be harder to monitor - it is already officially considered a sect there, and authorities had been keeping a close eye well before two women sparked this case having complained about being swindled out of between twenty- and fifty-thousand Euros each. Two years ago Gloria Lopez's family accused Paris-based Scientologists of brainwashing and intimidating their mother into spending hundreds of thousands of Euros to support their teachings, leading to the deterioration of her mental health and her eventual suicide in December 2006. Lopez was typical Scientology prey - recently divorced, vulnerable, lonely and looking for direction.

It might be a good thing that celebrity mania has brought Scientology to the attention of the public - while they, unlike Gloria Lopez, have the money to fritter, we can all hear their ramblings for what they are: nonsense. Incredible, bizarre, alien-descending, silent-birthing, tax-dodging nonsense. So why do people jump on the bandwagon? You don't stand to gain much, unless you count sci-fi fairytales, but you do stand to lose money, often in the thousands. The celeb quotient might be a clue; while many ultra-famous actors lose perspective and turn to hard drugs or liquor, some have found the same rush in immersing themselves in an alternative or strict faith (Kabbalah was the milder precursor to Scientology in this way). I think drugs actually might be the lesser of the two evils, as while Ozzy, Amy and Lindsay may spend their golden years slightly muddled but glad they got over the phase, where does it end for Tom Cruise and Will Smith? They will just spend more, preach more and refuse to hug their injured children (yes, really) with no real pressure on them to let go of the madness. At least your average celeb junkie has rehab.

There is a lot of darkness behind the humour when it comes to Scientology. This conviction of organized fraud betrays the business behind the religion - wanting to spread your word is one thing, actively targeting the vulnerable and those with more money than sense is no laughing matter. There is also a sinister level of silencing power and intimidation to their spin department - famous for crushing serious accusations and jovial satire with their endless legal funds, they even scared the ballsy South Park creators into crediting only 'John and Jane Smith' for their Scientology episode. They have since meekly agreed not to re-run it in America and it was never aired in the UK.

This financial blow to the Parisian branch of Scientology may simply make its leaders more careful; I can only hope they slip up enough for some serious regulation to be enforced. I think the decision to let them continue practicing in France is the right one, but there should be more information out there, and more warnings about the debt and psychological pressure suffered by many members. As Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time last week proves, sometimes giving such people a platform only exposes their motives and the shaky foundations of their beliefs.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Matters of life and death

In this month's ELLE (out today) is a really interesting arts piece that I helped to compile. It's called The Film That Changed My Life, and features 25 actors, writers, artists and directors describing the moment they saw a movie that opened their eyes to something, inspired them to get into a creative industry or simply became a lifelong favourite. It was really interesting requesting and gathering responses, and seeing what sort of films really affect people.

Some are art-house, some classics, some cult, and a few are pop culture hits that may not be cool, but they've stood out in people's minds. When we were putting it together, some of the ELLE editors were asked for their ideas, and it was actually much more of a thinker than you'd imagine. The thing our contributors found tricky was the 'changed my life' part - sometimes the films that we relate to the most are not favourites because they are profound or make any huge comment on life or relationships. Often they are just obscurely charming, brilliantly scripted or beautifully shot. Most of the responses we got (particularly from directors and film festival presidents) were cult films, groundbreaking or simply daring and quirky. I loved the honesty of those who just cited something more 'pop' that defined their youth, stood out in its mainstream genre, or that they could just watch over and over again. You'll have to buy the mag to see what I mean (it's a fab issue, Cheryl Cole's the cover star and it's a great interview.)

I had a think at the time about what my choice would be, but again, the life-changing criteria really stalled me. I don't know how many candidates from my DVD collection could really be considered revolutionary... Dirty Dancing, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Shakespeare in Love... (yes, I'm a total chick-flick whore.) But I thought of one after I read the feature in all its glory - and that is Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. I have such a connection with this film, as I've been watching it since childhood - every year, once a year, on Christmas Eve. A 1940s classic endlessly parodied and referenced, it is the definitive feelgood film. While the premise may seem corny, it's certainly more charm than cheese, and moments are really harrowing as well as uplifting. It was filmed just before my dad was born, and it seems a delightful little opener to the beginning of my immediate family's existence, as we cosy up together every 24th December and laugh and weep at exactly the same moments. You come away with a fresher view on the world, and that can't be said of many cinematic moments.

'Life-changing' seems an excessive label to apply, but I am one of life's cynics (well, more 50% hard cynic 50% hopeless romantic - a tough combination) and I really need a narrative like this to remind me of what's good now and again.The story of how George Bailey, an American average Joe, touches and alters the lives of everyone in his small community is heart-rending and glorious. The humour keeps the schmaltz at bay, the many charming characters make you wish you lived in Bedford Falls, and the not-quite-perfect courtship of Donna Reed's Mary by James Stewart's awkward George is my absolute favourite on-screen romance. I just wanted to be Donna Reed in that film, she's luminous in black and white and just looks incredible (even when they try to make her look like a spinster librarian in George's alternate reality, she's pretty hot.) I think maybe it's not so much the life-changing function of cinema that's important, but a changing of perspective on life. The small-town hero of George Bailey proves that no matter how much of a failure you think you are, or how bad things seem, there is always a bigger picture. The people you love and who love you are what define you in the end, not how much you've travelled, how rich you are or if you've changed the world.

Speaking of how bad things can get, I must just mention a really sad news story - Matt Lucas's ex-husband Kevin McGee was found hanged the other day after months of depression and drug abuse. The real modern tragedy of the story was the morbid facebook status he wrote hours before his suicide - 'Kevin McGee thinks that death is much better than life' - which will certainly haunt his friends and family. But can a passing post on a social networking site be relied on as a cry for help? It seems more tragic than anything that his depression was made this public. The saddest part of the story in my view, however, is the Daily Mail's choice to use quote marks in their front-page headline today. I could be wrong, but "The Little Britain star's 'husband'" seems like a snide comment on their gay marriage stance, in the poorest possible taste. Although they divorced last summer, the pair's civil partnership lasted for nearly two years (one of the most high- profile gay marriages and the first gay celebrity divorce since civil ceremonies became legal in 2005) and as their friends and spokesmen have referred to it as a marriage, I think it's a bit of a cheap shot by the Mail to demean the relationship when reporting an untimely death. 'Ex-husband' or even 'Ex-partner' would have sufficed. They should leave the politics out of it, and recognise it as a personal bereavement which should be reported in a dignified way.