October 31, 2012

“L Ron’s got the tech” (Mock Up on Mu)

Scientology-critical movies? Before Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, itself delayed in New Zealand until possibly next year, there was Craig Baldwin’s Mock Up on Mu (2008), a found-footage epic that replayed the dark mythology of Scientology’s creation as both historical fact and improbable conspiracy. Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard’s official history of himself cast him as a military secret agent ordered to break up black magic covens in Southern California after World War II; the unofficial or suppressed history, relayed in books like Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky, has him as an active participant in rituals borrowed from occultist Aleister Crowley, working closely with rocket scientist and Satanist Jack Parsons and witch and future artist Marjorie Cameron on something called The Babalon Working (see Chapter 6 of Atack: “His Magickal Career”). At least two books have been written about Parsons, a handsome genius who died in a lab explosion. Wasn’t one of the books optioned by a genuine movie star? Until that movie happens, Mock Up on Mu will do as an appropriately eccentric Parsons biopic.

A found-footage artist, Craig Baldwin is still best known for Tribulation 99, which I wrote about back here. In the films that followed, Baldwin has blended his own melodramatic low-budget footage – real actors speaking real dialogue – with the off-cuts that he edits into rapid-fire secret histories. The blend was still a little clunky in Spectres of the Spectrum; Mock Up on Mu is less comic, more narrative-based and, despite appearances, more rooted in fact (Erik Davis, who knows the secret histories of California, wrote about it here). And while it can seem like a crazy, obsessive film about craziness and obsession – “too much science too soon will drive you insane”, someone says, and the same is surely true of occultism and perhaps even Baldwin’s movies – there is a genuine point.

The plot? Fifty years after the moon landings, L Ron Hubbard is running operations from his lunar base. He wants what Parsons has, and sends Cameron back to prison planet Earth to get it. The corporation Lockheed Martin is embodied by a person – a middle-aged servant of the military-industrial complex seduced in a strip club during a comparatively light Las Vegas montage (usefully for Scientology, Vegas is full of “celebrities who need to be detoxified”). Crowley seems to have been trapped underground with Flash Gordon; L Ron Hubbard is represented by, among other creatures, Ming the Merciless. Actual Crowley recordings and actual Apollo mission footage mix with material from 50s and 60s sci-fi cheapies, monster movies, westerns and thrillers (and occasionally, they are things you recognise: Logan’s Run, North by Northwest, the Star Trek series, the original Melies’ Trip to the Moon), while Parsons is reinvented as a free energy evangelist and Crowley as a proto-beatnik who gives the film its ultimate, uplifting message: “Make love, not war.”

In other words, there is a political dimension. Baldwin has added a few disclaimers at the end for those who might have started on this without doing their homework (and good luck to those viewers). One such disclaimer reads: “Lockheed Martin is a pastiched character, but is still a very evil reality …” That concerns the occupation of space and the arms race. But when the film dips into Scientology lore, it can be hard to tell if Baldwin is sending the religion up or simply taking it at its word. That is, if there is a difference.