Sunday, December 4, 2016

Enlighten us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray

Lawyer's fingerprints pretty much obscure the truth in CNN's new documentary, Enlighten Us -- the rise and fall of James Arthur Ray (2016).  The film seems to have been thoroughly vetted by libel and defamation lawyers and anything uncomplimentary about the flim-flam man protagonist eliminated -- in the absence of a critique of Ray, the film seems more of a study of the narcissism and gullibility of his followers.  The people, mostly earnest middle-aged women living in comfortable mansions, don't have libel lawyers (or didn't think they needed them) and so, what remains after the attorneys have done their work, is a parade of self-justification by the guru Ray and some aggrieved testimonials by Ray's menopausal victims.  The whole thing is toothless and cowardly.

Ray is a swindler who promotes various mystical concepts -- for instance the so-called "spiritual warrior" creed -- as a way to great happiness and wealth.  The son of a "Protestant preacher" -- it's curious that we aren't told the denomination -- Ray found out early that he could use his harangues to motivate people.  In this regard, he seems to have channeled the "hell and brimstone" preaching of his father, an avuncular old gent who doesn't seem to have believed much in the bullshit that he previously proffered to his flock; indeed, the old guy seems to now have become some kind of a disciple of his son.  Ray taught people a secret doctrine:  if you believe that you will be wealthy, you can be wealthy.  It's ancient voodoo -- going back to Dale Carnegie at least, and, probably, practiced in variant forms by Sumerian con-men from the dawn of history.  Ray acquired brief fame by a couple of appearances on the Oprah show, events that are discussed in this film in the hushed tones usually reserved for theophany.  Seeking to capitalize on his fame and tele-evangelist good looks, Ray became selling seminars at $10,000 a pop to wealthy widows.  In these seminars, the participants proved their devotion to their holy man by busting boards with their fists, walking on hot coals, and even bending re-rod between their throats -- there's a video showing two matrons with a bar between them, pushing against the iron rod to cause it to bend under the pressure from their tender larynxes..  As a climax to these Vision Quests, often undertaken in tony resorts like Sedona, Ray would herd his disciples into a ersatz sweat-lodge and steam them like clams or other shellfish.  Unfortunately, one of these exercises resulted the death by stifling of three of Ray's adherents, the holy man taking to his heels to flee the site of the crime.  Ray was charged with various crimes, duly convicted, and ended up spending two years in  a penitentiary in Arizona.  The film recounts his release from jail, his eerily positive attitude, and his efforts, with loving assistance of his parents and younger brother, to reclaim the stage as a motivational speaker.  We see him appearing at some embarrassingly small gatherings, penniless, and without the special effects that previously garnished his stage-appearances.  In what is supposed to be a happy post-scriptum, we see Ray take the stage at a big venue, apparently six months after the principle photography on the documentary ended -- it's a fairly large crowd, not as a big as the mega-spectacles that he once staged, but clearly this con-man is back on his feet and earning again.  The film is not analytical -- it doesn't challenge Ray's claims in any way.  Early in the picture, he announces that he spent years crawling through caves and passageways in ancient temples, has studied the ancient wisdom, and "also attended AT and T college" whatever this is supposed to mean.  But there is no evidence presented that Ray has any kind of education at all -- "AT and T college" seems to have been a couple weeks of training required to run a call center and we certainly aren't shown any proof to establish that the hero scaled the sacred mountains or plunged into the sacred depths as he asserts. 

So how are we supposed to view Ray?  The movie's narrative arc is familiar -- a hardworking man, with the flaw of hubris, rises, falls, and rises again.  We are supposed to admire Ray's pluck and fortitude, his indomitable will to succeed.  But will to succeed at what?  Conning people out of small fortunes by reprising to them the power of positive thinking?  We get one glimpse of Ray's calculating technique -- in one scene, he explains to us the theatrics of right and left in his stage presentations and it's a brief, riveting moment:  everything that this man does, including his hand-gestures, is carefully contrived and managed.  But beyond this moment of revelation, we get nothing else from Ray but self-justification and excuses -- presumably he blames the three people that he parboiled to death for not having the mental capacity to properly resist the steam that he applied to them.  Ray's apostles, many of whom seem to have turned on their old guru, are equally loathsome:  several of the woman blame Ray for delaying their spiritual progress, that is, for impeding them from taking "next step" in their selfish quest for enlightenment.  Watching these women in their million-dollar homes castigating Ray for delaying their achievement of self-actualization makes you wish that he had cooked a few more of them into oblivion.  An uncanny aspect of the movie, and Ray's Wikipedia entry is that the man seems to have no private life -- there is no girlfriend in attendance, no wife, no boyfriend for that matter.  When Ray attends court, he comes with his aged mother and father.  Clearly, a charismatic figure like Ray would have had plenty of opportunities for sex in his professional capacity.  But there isn't even a whiff of scandal about the guy, something that, by its very omission, seems highly questionable and bizarre.  In any event, a quick glance at Ray's Wikipedia page suffices to demonstrate his wickedness -- there were a series of bad accidents that preceded the sweat lodge inferno, the Lakotah Sioux are litigating against him for misappropriation of their holy rituals, and when the inevitable wrongful death suits were filed, Ray channeled the dead plaintiffs and announced that they were having "time of their lives' being dead -- hence, presumably, they owed him additional fees for him showing them the way to paradise.   

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