Viewer's Discretion: Films exam Oregon cult, coming to terms with darkness

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'RAMBLIN' FREAK' (AMAZON, APPLE, VUDU) Neither the title nor the premise of the documentary, "Ramblin' Freak," gives much insight to what the film is about and if you take your cue from either, you're probably going to be wrong.

Sold on Amazon as a documentary about a guy who decides to take a road trip with his cat, your brain is going to fill up with the tradition of goofy guy adventures in documentary film — think Ross McElwee's 1986 film,"Sherman's March," or just about anything by Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. There are plenty of imitators and Parker Smith looks to be one of them.

To be sure, Parker Smith is a bit goofy. And the impetus for his road trip is pretty quirky — after buying a video camera and finding odd footage in that camera, he is compelled to take a cross-country journey to meet the person in the footage.

The guy in the footage is Greg Valentino, a bodybuilder from whose column in Muscular Development magazine this film takes its name. Valentino is known as "the Man Whose Arms Exploded" after steroid over-use helped him create the biggest arm muscles ever seen and then face numerous health issues.

At first, the road trip reads like a quirky excuse for a self-indulgent film. It's got curious, deadpan segments of Smith's lonely moments passing the time on the road between the driving, but as it continues and biographical passages begin to find their way into the presentation, we learn the reason for the journey and some of the heart-breaking details that nag at Smith.

I'm not going to give anything away, but "Ramblin' Freak" becomes an unexpectedly affecting meditation about coming to terms with darkness, and about connecting the dots of unrelated circumstances to create a healing program for yourself. It becomes a hard movie to watch emotionally, but one of surprising depth and compassion.

'WILD WILD COUNTRY' (NETFLIX)

This six-part documentary series has garnered much attention for its audacious story of a cult taking over a town in Oregon in the 1980s and for sheer mouth-wide-open gasping, "Wild Wild Country" deserves what it's wrought. But there's a far more subtle story being told here, one that moves past the traditional good vs. evil narratives to which the presentation of such tales cling. Instead, brothers and directors Maclain and Chapman Way latch onto the human stories and character studies as a way of reigning in the sprawling insanity to its thematic essence.

Focusing on Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his attempt to found a settlement in Oregon and the ensuing war with residents and law enforcement, the Way brothers make use of prodigious footage taken at the time and extensive interviews with the players on all sides of the dispute to tell the story.

Part of its strength is in the area of character study, best realized through the interaction with Bhagwan's personal assistant, Ma Anand Sheela, a possibly sociopathic conniver, who is part-instigator, part-fall guy. Had she used her considerable abilities for positive things, Sheela is precisely someone we might applaud.

There's also considerable depth in the narrative provided by cult lawyer Philip Toelkes, whose interviews display a mix of legal grandstanding and genuine emotion, revealing the kind of broken, searching person that is susceptible to these situations.

The Way brothers are smart not to take sides, but allow all sides to tell their stories. This paves the way for the viewer to see a remarkable collision of gray humanity, particularly regarding the townspeople, whose initial, eye-rolling fear of the other is transformed into justifiable apprehension as the impossible begins to unfold.

In an era when wrapping yourself inside an insular reality is prevalent, where everyone is a mini-guru, where self-actualization and wellness are common buzzwords, where TED Talks and YouTube celebrities and self-help conventions take advantage of the human capacity for having empty spaces that need filling, "Wild Wild Country" is an invigorating, complicated, raucous, cautionary examination of where some of us been and possibly where more of us are heading.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me


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