Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Source Family (2012): Documentary as cultural analysis

The Source Family (2012)
Dir: Maria DemopoulosJodi Wille
Archivist: Isis Aquarian

In my experience, surprisingly little seems to have been written about the state of subcultures in the strange post-1969 America.  People discuss a general post-Altamont disillusionment with the hippy movement, and the splintering of society into a more cynical era. It's generally accepted that counter cultures were self-destroyed by their attachment to drugs and political rebellion.

To me, the most famous, and most poignant, dissection of the counter cultural state in the early '70s was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Originally written in 1971, and centered between two centers of excess - Los Angeles and Las Vegas - Fear and Loathing was at once lament, dissection, self-reflection, and anger at a society that was now lost to the temptations of consumerism and conformity.  It has a nihilistic rage that has the feeling of an old grizzled guy at a bar lamenting the state of life and how we got here.

Outside of the world of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there is still the story of those who were left behind after the collapse of the 60s.  Where were these communities and children to go, now that they didn't have a mainstream community support them?

One answer is provided by the documentary The Source Family, which outlines the life of Jim Baker, later to be known as Father Yod and later still as Ya Ho Wa, founder of The Source restaurant and leader of The Source Family, a cult commune that lasted all of six years.

The Source started as an all natural restaurant, which was a huge hit among celebrities and regular people alike.  As a restaurant, it made such an impact that it was even featured in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, on Woody's trip to LA.  But, Annie Hall, released in 1977, was made 2 years after Jim Baker died, and The Source Family officially disbanded.

Jim Baker was an eclectic, womanizing, aggressive mountain of a man who had been in the military, studied martial arts, and later moved on to naturalistic foods and eastern meditations and religions.  When he started The Source restaurant, he had been married twice, leaving both, and convicted of murder prior in his life. The blessing of The Source Family is that it doesn't shy away from these facts, and presents them as statements of power or influence.

Upon the founding of The Source Restaurant, Jim Baker also started collecting workers who moved into a house he was renting in the Hollywood Hills.  He started leading the group as a spiritual leader of sorts, and made a post-1969 communal cult with rules that were taken from seemingly all religions and common sense.  Like, respect the sacred herb (marijuana) and don't stay stoned all day.  No caffeine after 5pm.  Eat in moderation.  Largely, it was a hell of a lot of good advice.  There were also meditative exercises, and a lot of just general acceptance.

He collected a large motley crew of youths who were seeking something more out of life and found it in Father Yod.  It wasn't a cult that people were held against their will.  It wasn't even that large of a community.  What it was was a community of people who were following what they believed was right, and a leader who really liked having a following, and all of the perks that came with it.

The Source Family was a group that focused on sex, love, drugs, and rock n roll. The Source Family released several albums that are now coveted by collectors of psychadelic rock, and even mentions Billy Corgan as a collector of these albums.   The women in The Source Family were empowered to choose their mates, except for Baker, who is portrayed as being an object of lust by every woman, and he got to choose among them all.

There was a book about The Source Family, also collected by Isis Aquarian, which archived all of this information and collected opinions by former members of The Source.  Not all members of The Source were as positive about the family as this movie portrays.  And, one of the benefits of the book, and, to a lesser extent, the movie is that it allows for everybody to have their own experience and for those experiences to be as valid as everybody else's experience.

The documentary follows the growth of The Source Family, watch as they get evicted time and again, live life, play concerts, and then up and move to Hawaii, San Francisco, and Hawaii again.  You watch Jim Baker start to suffer because his final creation is also dependent on Jim, where Jim had previously been able to just up and leave whenever he had wanted.  As he had up and left his families prior to creating The Source, and leaves his girlfriend/wife while in the throes of The Source, he eventually seems to want to up and leave The Source Family that he is now the patriarch of.  But, the machinations of the family cause this to be harder, and instead of leaving, Jim merely transports a dwindling number to various other cities in an attempt to set them up with something secure.

The final steps of The Source family happen in Hawaii, in 1975, when Jim Baker takes the ultimate way out. On his fateful final morning, he decides to try his hand at hang gliding with no lessons.  He climbs to the top of a mountain, and eventually plummets to his, ultimately, fatal destiny.  We watch the family care for his broken body, mourn his passing, and be released.

The one part in The Source Family that is missing is the follow-through.  The Source Family is ultimately Jim Baker's story because he was the patriarch.  It is also Isis's story, as the archivist.  But, missing from the movie itself is what happened to the children after Baker dies.  In a follow-up Q&A at the screening I attended, with a few of The Source Family's original members in attendance.  There, they said some went on to be successful, some went in search of another family, moving up to the PNW to find somebody else to follow, others dropped out.  It's the usual variety of a big family.

In the end, The Source Family provides an amazing sociological view of people who need something to be.  The Source provided a home to those who were looking for something that did not exist anymore.  It provided stability until it didn't.  It shows the struggles of a counter culture in a world that is constructed against them.  It does all of these things without being overt about any of it.

It plays like a flip side to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Where Fear and Loathing lamented the destruction of the past, The Source Family is the counter culture that tried to make it succeed.  Where Fear and Loathing raged against the machine, The Source Family did their things despite the machine.  Apart they provide takes on what changed from the '60s to the '70s, but together they provide a potent duality that displays what happened after that flash burned out.

The Source Family collected a LOT of archival footage, making the documentary constantly moving and never dull.  The psychological and sociological implications of the film are never explicitly addressed, much to the benefit of the film.  It gives you enough information for you to make your own observations, while it is affirming its participants and also giving the flaws.  This is a document almost as raw as it should be, allowing everybody to take exactly what they want from the movie, but coming back with a deeper understanding of the time period.  The Source Family makes a perfect, and perfectly flawed, documentary of an era we have little about.

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back." - Hunter S Thompson

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