May 14, 2018 § 5 Comments
Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot details
Paul Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is about faith and the loss of it. Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of an austere Dutch Calvinist church in upstate New York, is a man in mourning for his dead son and failed marriage. Spurning the romantic attentions of his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and suffering from a serious illness he’s determined not to treat, Toller subsists mostly on alcohol while going through the motions of his job. Not that it matters, as only a handful of parishioners show up at services. In fact, First Reformed survives only because it is supported by a much larger church whose leader, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) regards it as historical monument: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As part of his preservation effort, the well-meaning Jeffers tries to minister to the alcoholic and faithless Toller, to no avail.
In his journal Toller writes: “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Yet both arrive on his doorstep in the form of a young couple who seek his counsel. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and desperately worried about her husband Michael, an environmental activist who pressures Mary to have an abortion rather than bring a child into a world beset by climate change. Rev. Toller sets out to persuade Michael to embrace life, but instead is quickly seduced by his nihilism. Michael’s suicide propels Toller to greater extremes, even as he embarks on a friendship with Mary that progresses into love.
Paul Schrader, who was raised in a Calvinist church so extreme that he didn’t see a movie until he was 17, knows Christianity’s downside well. So did Ingmar Bergman, whose father, a Lutheran minister, meted out punishments at odds with the teachings of Christ. Set in winter, “First Reformed” reminded me so much of Bergman’s films that I mentioned it to my seatmate, who brought up “Winter Light.” Never having seen this 1963 film, I watched it afterwards and was astounded at the similarities, from the plot to the glasses worn by the lovelorn female characters.
Like Toller, Tomas (Gunar Björnstrand) is the pastor of a small country church with a dwindling congregation. Middle-aged and widowed, he ministers with all the passion of an office worker clocking time until retirement. As does Toller, he mistreats his ex-girlfriend Märta (Ingrid Thulin), who remains desperately in love even as he repeatedly rejects her. Speaking directly at the camera, Märta responds:
I see I did it all wrong….Every time I’ve hated you I’ve made an effort to turn it into compassion….Nothing can save you–you’ll hate yourself to death.
Before he can, however, Tomas hastens the demise of a depressed congregant who, like Michael, comes to him at the behest of his wife. Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) is suicidal because the Chinese have threatened to use nuclear weapons. Instead of reassuring him, Tomas insists on confessing his own loss of faith:
If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life, the dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear–all these things would be straightforward and transparent….There is no Creator.
With help like that, why go on? Jonas doesn’t but Tomas does, forging ahead with his ministry because the long-suffering Märta shows up at church when no one else does. A single devoted parishioner is enough, apparently.
Though “First Reformed” has a much more tragic ending, its similarities to “Winter Light” are beyond coincidental. At the screening I attended last week, Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke spoke at length about “First Reformed,” yet neither acknowledged “Winter Light,” much less credited it as source material. Having seen both, I think Bergman’s film is far better–moving, profound and indelible. Schrader falls back on magic realism and violence to drive home the message of “First Reformed.” Bergman, the unequaled master of realism, needed neither.
July 6, 2009 § 6 Comments
Moorcrest stands on a hill overlooking Beachwood Drive. Its hybrid Moorish-Mission architecture, imposing size and prominent location lead many people, even Beachwooders, to assume it is a public building rather than a home. When I was working on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” people kept asking if I had filmed the “temple” on Temple Hill Drive. They were surprised when I told them it was called Moorcrest and always had been a private home. (The Theosophical Society’s actual temple–the Temple of the Rosy Cross–is now part of the Krotona Apartments on Alta Vista Street, just to the south.)
Those who know Moorcrest is a home tend to call it “The Charlie Chaplin House.” While Chaplin did briefly live in Moorcrest, he was a renter and soon moved on, to a house he had his set builders construct for him (the infamously nicknamed “Breakaway House”) in Beverly Hills.
Retiring from the stage, Marie Russak began a new life as a rich Upper East Side matron but soon turned her sights to the wider world, moving to Paris with her husband in 1901. She had become a Theosophist in 1898 and deepened her commitment by relocating to the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras, India in 1906. (No word on what happened to her marriage, as Frank Russak seems to have stayed in Paris.) Her four years in India, where she studied under Annie Besant, not only schooled her in Theosophy but sowed the seeds of a new avocation: architecture.
In India, Marie Russak no doubt saw magnificent examples of the Mogul style that would inspire the Theosophist buildings of Beachwood. The arches, keyhole windows and domes of the Krotona Colony are directly inspired by India’s Islamic architecture of the 16th-18th centuries, the best-known example of which is the Taj Mahal. The Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai), a hybrid of Indian and British Colonial styles, probably inspired the ecclecticism of the Beachwood’s Krotona Colony, whose buildings were as much Italianate and Spanish as Islamic in their derivation.
In his otherwise excellent study of Krotona architecture, “The Surviving Buildings of Krotona in Hollywood,” (Architronic vol. 8, 1998), Alfred Willis bemoans Marie Russak Hotchener’s lack of architectural training, dismissing her proportions as “awkward” and her interiors as “rather garish.” Further noting that all her houses were “somewhat vulgar,” he concedes that they reflect “their designer’s own middle-class taste but also the vulgarity increasingly evidenced in the commercial and domestic buildings of boomtime Los Angeles in the 1920’s.” That the hardly middle-class Marie Russak Hotchener was reaching for an architectural style as unique and hybridized as Theosophy itself apparently never occurred to him.
June 24, 2009 § 8 Comments
When the Theosophical Society relocated from Chicago to Hollywood in 1912, its choice of Beachwood Canyon was no accident. A.P. Warrington, the head of the American Branch, had dreamed of founding a utopian community where Theosophists of all socio-economic backgrounds could live and practice their religion. While the Society’s International President, Annie Besant, advocated Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico or Mexico, Warrington favored Southern California and considered properties in Alhambra, Pasadena, and West Los Angeles before discovering the ten-acre tract at the southwest corner of Beachwood Canyon. (The tract ran approximately between Argyle and Beachwood [W-E] and Primrose and Graciosa [S-N])
Beachwood Canyon was the Theosophists’ ideal. Not only did it boast a mild climate and spectacular views in every direction, but its location–at the northern edge of Hollywood–would allow members to live an essentially rural life while holding a variety of non-agrarian jobs. Excellent public transportation, via the trolley that stopped at Argyle and Franklin, was a stone’s throw away.
Just as important was the fact that Theosophists would have a year-round growing season for their vegetarian diet. Beachwood’s microclimate supported not only typical fare like tomatoes and beans but exotic tropicals like avocados, bananas and pineapples. The latter two were already being grown on a farm at the corner of Gower and Franklin. (The fact that Beachwood soil was thin and sandy seems not to have troubled the Theosophists.)
Warrington was ecstatic with his find, writing to Annie Besant:
“…I have just bought, though the generous donation of one or two earnest members, ten acres of land in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking Los Angeles, the valley and the sea in the distance….We can make [it] a veritable Garden of Eden, because the….region we have chosen happens to be one of thse rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything, from the most delicate fruits up to the hardy ones.”
Plans were quickly drawn up for the new community, which Warrington named Krotona, after the 5th Century, B.C., school founded by Pythagoras. The highly regarded architectural firm of Mead and Requa was commissioned to design Krotona’s two most significant buildings: the Krotona Inn (now Krotona Apartments), a combination lecture hall-worship space and living quarters for students; and the Knudsen Residence, home to Augustus Knudsen. Knudsen was a prominent Theosophist and the most important of the “earnest members” whose money bought the land for the Krotona Colony.
Augustus Knudsen was a son of one of Hawai’i’s most prominent haole families. His father Valdemar emigrated from Norway to Kaua’i in 1856, where he managed a plantation, Grove Farm, and (apparently) owned brothels during his rise as a sugar baron. By the 1870s, Valdemar was not only one of the largest landholders on Kaua’i, but a noted botanist and ornithologist. His importance is reflected in not only in his classic study of Hawai’ian birds but various place names on Kaua’i–Knudsen Road, Anne Knudsen Park, and Knudsen’s Gap.
Valdemar and his Ni’ihau-born wife, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, had five children. The most prominent, Eric Alfred, was a writer, folklorist, lawyer and politician who served as Speaker of the Hawai’i House of Representatives.
Eric’s brother Augustus Knudsen was also a writer, authoring two engineering books and one on astronomy. After studying civil engineering at MIT, he returned to Kaua’i to manage the family ranch and hold various positions in local government. Drawn to Theosophy because of his experiences with Hawai’ian kahunas and their rituals, he traveled to India and joined the Theosophical Society in 1897. After another decade of ranching and farming on Kaua’i, Augustus Knudsen moved to Los Angeles with his wife and widowed mother. His vocation in Hollywood was publishing an agricultural magazine called Little Farms–and, of course, establishing the Krotona Colony.
Knudsen’s fortune came from Valdemar’s Kekaha Sugar Company. Thus Hawai’ian sugar not only bought the Krotona tract but the magnificent Mead and Requa hillside house that Knudsen commissioned for his family at 2117-2121 Vista Del Mar Avenue. Though the building no longer stands–its address is now occupied by the Krotona Apartments’ parking lot and a couple of small apartment buildings–Knudsen’s Hawai’ian roots are obvious in the original plans. Every room opens onto a terrace and the entire third floor is a lanai. In a Spanish Colonial flourish, Mead and Requa included a central courtyard with a garden.
When the Krotona Colony began, Augustus Knudsen called it “an answer to the demand for a more definite exposition of the work called for in the Third Object of the Theosophical Society–the investigation of powers latent in man.” Whether or not Krotona achieved this purpose, Knudsen played a crucial economic and philosophical role in its development.
On a personal note, I knew none of this when I moved to Beachwood less than four years ago, though I remember inexplicably comparing the Canyon’s atmosphere to that of Kaua’i, where my family has a 50-year history. It happens that the park named for Anne Knudsen is in Koloa, our home base on the island. A weirder coincidence is that I did all the field research for my undergraduate thesis at Grove Farm Plantation, where Valdemar got his start. Thus when I first encountered Augustus Knudsen’s name while researching Krotona, I experienced opposing emotions: the shock of recognition and relief that my instincts about Beachwood and Kaua’i had a historical basis.
I am indebted to the following resources and authors:
“A Survey of Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony in Hollywood,” by Alfred Willis. Architronic, 1998.
Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths
June 2, 2009 § 1 Comment
Visitors to Hollywood are struck by the presence of the Church of Scientology, which cannily established itself along Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards in the 1970s and ’80s, when the average tourist visit to Hollywood Boulevard lasted less than half an hour and decrepit old buildings could be bought for a song. Scientology’s success in gaining followers from the entertainment industry seems to have been both a cause and effect of its physical location, but no one can deny its philosophical appeal to actors and other creative artists.
The entertainment industry is well-populated by all kinds of seekers, most of whom are not particularly attracted to mainstream religions. Instead, they tend to gravitate toward new, unconventional avenues of spirituality. And while Scientology is the most obvious of Hollywood’s new religions today, it is hardly the first to appeal to a comely, spiritually underserved population.
A look back at the Hollywood’s beginnings proves that alternative schools of religion have attracted creative artists in the film industry since the Silent Era. Once famous–and in the teens, it really did happen overnight–young Hollywood stars found themselves adrift, tempted by alcohol and drugs and overwhelmed by sudden, enormous wealth. All of this was made worse by their social isolation in a city whose elites would have sooner dined alone than with “movies,” whose working class origins and questionable morals made them objects of derision. In the face of ostracism, many film stars preferred partying to spirituality while others kept up the religious practices of their youth. But some branched out into previously unknown schools of thought, including Theosophy.
- The Theosophical Society made its headquarters in Beachwood Canyon in 1911, establishing a utopian community, called Krotona, on ten acres. By Webster’s definition, the Theosophical Society was a cult–“a usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure”–though unlike most modern cults, it wasn’t organized around a single charismatic leader. Instead, the Theosophists had a hierarchical leadership and distinct branches of thought. The Beachwood group looked to the English social reformer and suffragist Annie Besant as its spiritual leader, while other branches regarded the Russian philosopher Madame (Elena Petrovna) Blavatsky as theirs.
Theosophy was based on Indian Buddhism but incorporated elements of all the major religions in its teachings. Its texts were challenging to read and comprehend. But the practice of Theosophy at Krotona–which included outdoor exercise, vegetarianism, agriculture, music, art and philosophy, as well as occult dabblings like seances–was easier to follow and appealed to a variety of Hollywood residents, including such actors as Charlie Chaplin.
The actress Mary Astor was connected to the Krotona Colony by virtue of her parents’ purchase–with her money–of Moorcrest, a mansion on Temple Hill Drive that was designed by the prominent Theosophist and amateur architect Marie Russak Hotchener. Astor’s career ascended quickly after she was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1926; roles in silent films and early talkies followed. Her love affair with John Barrymore brought a greater connection between Hollywood and Theosophy because Barrymore retained Marie Hotchener as his astrologer and her husband Harry as his business manager. Though Astor and Barrymore never married, he seems to have maintained his association to the Hotcheners.
But it wasn’t just actors who were attracted to Theosophy. Other local luminaries who cultivated ties to Krotona included the writer L. Frank Baum and the architects Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra.
During the teens, The Theosophical Society became an important cultural force in Hollywood during its transition from small town to city by sponsoring regular musical and theatrical programs. The most ambitious of these, an outdoor pageant based on Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem about the Buddha, “The Light of Asia,” was a smash hit in 1918. Its success led two Theosophists to the purchase some nearby land for the construction of a permanent civic amphitheater: the Hollywood Bowl.
Nearly a century later, the words “alternative religion” and “cult” conjure negative images of servitude, dogmatism and coercion, but none of these applied to the Theosophical Society. High-minded and intellectual, the Theosophists of Beachwood Canyon not only eschewed such hardball tactics but soon retreated to more sylvan surroundings, relocating to Ojai in 1926 because Hollywood had grown too urban. Their influence waned both because they failed to attract new members and because they tended to reproduce sparingly. But the Theosophical Society’s declining influence can’t detract from the its success in building a vibrant artistic community in what was a tiny backwater only a century ago. Reminders of that accomplishment persist not only in the Beachwood’s remaining Theosophist buildings but in the Hollywood Bowl’s Easter Sunrise Service, as well as every concert held there.
Although both the Theosophical Society and the Church of Scientology began their Hollywood tenures as cults, the differences between them couldn’t be more dramatic. Those who regard alternative religions as a strange new phenomenon can take heart in the fact that Hollywood, in addition to hosting many mainstream churches, has been home to cults since its rural beginnings. In light of its founding by members of the Christian Temperance Movement, Hollywood’s tradition of religious tolerance is nothing short of miraculous.