The Good, Plato reminds us, is always beautiful. But, of course, the Beautiful is not always Good. Before the show degenerates into incoherence, CNN's documentary Holy Hell seems to demonstrate that moral -- the beautiful con-man at the center of Holy Hell looks great but he's wicked. Unfortunately, the program is so poorly constructed that its really compelling, even astounding, footage ends up meaning less than nothing. The documentary is infuriating because its subject is so fascinating and because of the wealth of remarkable imagery that never coalesces into anything meaningful. The pictures are so impressive that the viewer is tricked into watching the show and, then, finds that it is bait and switch -- despite all the wonderful footage, there's nothing there.
In the early 1990's, a charismatic, if weird-looking, man founded a quasi-Buddhist cult. The cult involved much orgiastic singing and dancing, lots of sex, and meditation about some isle of bliss called the Buddha-Field. The leader of the cult is called "Andreas", although confusingly, he shows up under another name at the end of the film, Michel. Andreas is small, but built like a Venice beach muscle-man -- he has enormous eyes and an erect posture and he pouts and preens like Zoolander. When Andreas speaks, he mumbles platitudes that he can scarcely pronounce (like everyone in the show, he seems perpetually stoned out of his mind), has some kind of foreign accent that you can't quite place, and glares alarmingly at his interlocutors as if to probe their souls with the searchlights of his dark eyes. Of course, as time progresses, the cult becomes less about the Buddha-Field and more about pleasing Andreas. He commissions ballets that his apostles practice endlessly only to perform the finished piece one time for other cult-members. There are lots of amateur theatricals, dancing on tropical beaches, and strolls through paradisiacal woodlands. Because Andreas is a narcissist of the first order, everything is professionally filmed and, so, as a consequence there are apparently hundreds of hours of footage showing the cult-leader interacting with his disciples -- he has a throne carried for him by his congregation and sits on it on the beach at Malibu where he dispenses his wisdom. Cult members are required to have abortions if they get pregnant and their sexual partners are determined by Andreas; all exertions are made to please the holy man. MTV-style videos proclaim the virtues of the cult and its members are almost all exceptionally handsome or beautiful -- big-bosomed California beach-girls and movie-star handsome young men, everyone parading around half-dressed in the golden light of the Golden State. Andreas, in particular, is always topless and wears harem-pants that accentuate his genitals and we see that he is never without elaborate make-up and false-eyelashes; at one point, someone says that Andreas was once an actor in porno-movies although this information is never developed. As the film progresses, Andreas has innumerable plastic surgeries and ends up as an uncanny figure, an ageless deformed hermaphrodite walking slowly as if with fused vertebrae, his face melted into an expressionless lemur-like mask.
All of this is fascinating and grips the attention. But the film doesn't deliver the goods. In its last third, we get the big "reveal" -- Andreas is a homosexual with an interest in teenage boys and, all of the gorgeous kids, that we have seen cavorting with him have been sexually abused. But from the film's first few minutes, it's completely and obviously apparent that most, if not all, of the men are stereotypically gay -- we can hear it in their voices and see it in their gestures and affect. Further, Andreas is also obviously gay, some kind of exotic transvestite, and, so, the big "reveal" is a bust, a disappointment -- breathlessly, we are merely told what we have already surmised. (More interesting is the role of the vast number of glamor girls in the cult -- why were they involved and what was their function?) Andreas seems misguided and a complete and thorough boor, but it's never really proven that he did anything too bad except exploit a group of exceptionally dim-witted morons. The former cult members, various talking heads who appear on the show, most of them weeping for reasons that are never quite clear, are handsome but so incredibly stupid that it's impossible to ascertain what they are saying -- they denounce Andreas, sort of, but, then, seem to want to defend him. We don't see Andreas taking money from these fools and the sexual exploitation would seem to be an obvious given a situation in which no one wears much clothing and most of the cult's dogma seems to be communicated in hot tub sessions. Although Andreas is wholly despicable, it's certainly not clear that he is any worse that his dullard followers -- they also seem to be ridiculously self-indulgent and narcissistic. But the worst element of the show is that the ominous music and portentous visuals set the viewer up with an expectation that something spectacular is going to occur -- Andreas is going to kill someone or order a mass suicide or his followers are going to kill him. But nothing at all happens. There's no climax and no dramatic arc. Some of the cult-members leave only to be replaced by new apostles. Andreas is helped to move from southern California to the beaches of Oahu and there he seems to thrive. Sure, he gets older and weirder-looking but, then, don't we all? Furthermore, at the end of the movie, the cult-members who have been denouncing Andreas throughout the two-hour show, all shift gears and start to praise him. Everyone hugs and sheds tears and basically tells the audience that the Buddha-
field was great and that, although some of the people have spent more than 22 years in Andreas' thrall, that time was well-spent -- in other words, even Andreas' enemies can't quite bring themselves to the point of a principled denunciation: at the film's climax, a woman speaking to the camera, not her former holy man, calls him some names and, then, gives him the finger -- this is the extent of the film's critique: some swear words and an obscene gesture. (The former cult-members are now doing such things as putting on sex-positive shows for "faeries", traveling about the country extolling the benefits of medical marijuana, making independent films -- chiefly, it seems, the one we are watching -- and doing massage and "body work.") CNN's approach to this material is the epitome of "bait and switch" -- it's suggested that we are going to see something really horrific and vile, but, at the end of the film, we get protestations that the Buddha-Field was pretty much okay and when one of the former cult-members confronts his guru with a hidden camera, Andreas is asked lamely "Are you being a good boy? -- I'm being the best boy, Andreas mumbles -- and, as the material gets thinner and thinner and thinner, the commercial get thicker and thicker. In the last half-hour of the show, at least 15 minutes are devoted to ads.