Austin Film Festival 2015: “Sympathy for the Devil” answers the question “What is the Process?”

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"Sympathy for the Devil"

If they have heard of it at all, most Americans know the The Process Church Of The Final Judgement (or the Process Church) as this obscure cult Charles Manson was kind of into.

As director Neil Edwards’ wildly entertaining (especially if you have a weakness for stories of ’60s subculture) documentary “‘Sympathy For The Devil – The True Story Of The Process Church Of The Final Judgement” points out, that was both a very small part of the story and the tail end of it.

Edwards sets the stage nicely: In the beginning, there was World War II; as one observer points out “We really didn’t win the war; America won the war.”

On some level, Britain was still struggling with this fact 20 years on when two breakaway Scientologists, a charismatic, Jesus-looking fellow named  Robert DeGrimston and his less visible but probably smarter partner Mary Ann MacLean (who may have been a hooker from Glasgow) set up something called The Process Church Of The Final Judgement in London in the mid-60s. Edwards has interviews with neither, as they are both dead,

"Sympathy for the Devil"

“Sympathy for the Devil”

With stark black clothing that stood out in the mod rainbow of Swinging London and sporting a mix of post- Scientology brainwashing techniques (group criticism) and a sort of modern Gnostic, fallen-world spiritualism (the pantheon was Jehovah, Lucifer and Satan, with Christ as an emissary for all three) the Process seemed to exist (at first) mostly to separate rich, landed Brits from their money.

Another big fan: American musician/Parliament-Funkadelic czar George Clinton, whose druggy, freedom-loving sense of the bizarre meshed nicely with Process propaganda.

The Process also had a brilliant sense of graphic design and marketing: their symbols were just close enough to swastikas to make people a little nervous, their still-amazing-looking magazine was filled with editorial/absurdist cartoons constantly asking “What is the Process?” cartoons that Edwards animates with Monty Python-esque flair. It was the sort of nonsense with a spine that proved a massive influence on the young Brits such as industrial music pioneer Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.

But as sometimes happens with cults (or religions of any sort), the hardcore sought to separate themselves from the dabblers  and a bunch of them headed for Nassau, then the coast of Mexico, in 1966. “The only way to enjoy hard things is to throw yourself completely into them,” one member puts it; making a spiritual colony from the ground-up is pretty hard and it was an extraordinarily intense time, especially when they barely survive Hurricane Inez after it veered off course (a stroke of luck for which they took credit — let’s hear it for meditation!)

Upon returning to London, Like the Source Church in California, the Process even opened a restaurant (not nearly as successful as the Source’s) and flourished for a bit, the mixture of sincerity and nonsense proving a potent mix for young Brits looking for something cool to believe in.

Like many rock bands that make it big in England and think it’s time to conquer America, things began to go slightly south after landing in the States.

Initially, it was a revelation. A place like New Orleans was freak-tolerant in a way that London could never be. But Manson’s endorsement ruined everything: He was not a cool bad guy but an actual terrible person, and the Tate-LaBianca murders were the first time anyone had heard of the church. By 1974, it was over. The founders had divorced, the Process in tatters.

What’s fascinating is that we’re only talking about a period of 10 or so years at the absolute most — those really were different times.  Edwards lays all this out via talking head interviews with former members mixed with archival footage and the aforementioned animations. It would have been nice to hear a tiny bit more from Genesis and Clinton, both of whom clearly loved their time involved in the Church.

Nevertheless, “Sympathy” viewing for anyone interested in  English-speaking underground culture.

“Sympathy” plays again 7:30 p.m. Oct. 31 at the Hideout Theater.


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