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I’ve always been fascinated by cults, probably because I’ve never actually believed in any one thing (or person) enough to blindly follow it off a cliff. I’m also staunchly and proudly anti-authority, so giving one guy (and let’s be honest: for various reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion, the leaders of these things are usually dudes) complete control over my life seems…well, like about as much fun as getting devoured by ants, to be honest. Cults are fascinating things, however, because regardless of my personal belief in them, plenty of other folks do believe in them. As I like to say: live and let live…provided, of course, that the other person is just as willing to live and let live in return. The inherent problem with almost all cults (or call them “Utopian communities,” if that makes you feel better) is that they usually end up butting heads with “polite” society, usually in some pretty violent ways. I’m sure we’re all familiar with Manson and his “family,” but the Branch Davidian and People’s Temple cults are probably better examples: I think that most cults start from a (relatively speaking) “normal” mindset but I’ll never be convinced that ol’ Charlie didn’t have his trajectory plotted out from day one.

The Source Family, a fascinating product of the hodge-podge mindset of ’70s-era Los Angeles, was a cult: I don’t really think there can be much beating around the bush on that one. As led by Father Yod (formerly Jim Baker), the “Family” exhibited all of the classic signs, including the liquidation of all members’ personal assets, in service of the group; communal living in (progressively smaller and smaller) compounds; polygamy and relationship management (Yod would often “assign” wives to men, regardless of previous arrangements/relationships/desires) and an often adversarial relationship with the outside world that involved run-ins with law enforcement and strained community ties. As seen in The Source Family (2012), a documentary about Father Yod’s group put together by surviving members of the Family, however, there was a lot more to them than just their similarity to more infamous cults. In the end, a lot of this had to do with the fascinating, polarizing figure that was Jim Baker…aka Father Yod.

Regardless of what he ended up doing with the cult, Baker was a pretty interesting fellow: before he was Father Yod, he’d been a top-notch fighter pilot, fitness guru and successful restaurateur. He was a hunky ladies’ man who once killed two men with his bare hands and robbed at least one, if not more, banks. After falling in with the “peace and love” movement, in his early 40s, Baker opened The Source Restaurant in sunny Hollywood, CA. The Source would go on to some notoriety as the favorite hang-out of various little-known celebrities like Steve McQueen, John Lennon, Goldie Hawn, Joni Mitchell and the members of Yes: you know, no big deal. At one point, according to the documentary, the Source Restaurant made more money per square inch than any restaurant in the United States. Let that sink in for just a minute, ladies and gentlemen. This guy, at least on the outside, was not your typical cult leader.

Baker assembled the Source Family teaching from a number of popular California trends/customs of the time, including health food, hedonism, drug use and Eastern and Western mysticism: in many ways, the Source Family’s tenets were kind of a “greatest hits set,” as it were, although Baker, now rechristened Father Yod, was always the de facto center of the organization. Yod would marry 19-year-old Robin, who would become Mother Ahom Aquarion (all member of the group legally changed their last names to Aquarian, making this sort of like a nutty, ultra-official version of the Ramones…which is kinda cool, if you think about it) and the two would lead their group through a number of changes, not the least of which was the eventual introduction of polygamy into the Source Family, along with concepts like “ritual magic” and “sex magic.” Yod would end up with thirteen wives, much to the consternation of Mother Ahom, and the group would begin to seem, quite suddenly, like a more traditional cult. After being “forced” from their longtime home in California, the group picked up stakes and moved to Kauai, Hawaii, where things would remain less than ideal. Once Father Yod died (in a very strange incident that, depending on who you ask, either sounds an awful lot like suicide or a colossally stupid decision), the group would continue on, for a time, under the tutelage of Makushla, one of Yod’s thirteen wives. Upon dissolving, the members would go on to do everything from award-winning stem cell research to continuing the work of their freak-folk band, Yahowa 13. Some would stay with the group, such as Isis Aquarian, while others would look back fondly, from a great distance. Unlike the People’s Temple, however, there was no great flame-out, no mass “exodus”: things just seemed to sort of peter out after Baker’s death. For all intents and purposes, the Source Family was a fascinating, ultimately unsuccessful experiment in creating a true counter-culture society.

As a documentary, The Source Family is utterly enthralling: I was pretty much glued to the screen from the first word to the last (the opening is particularly great, featuring a slow-zoom in on a portrait of Yod that ends with a close-up on his intense eyes). It’s a fast-paced, very informative film that’s filled with one neat factoid after another: cult actor Bud Cort was once a member, in good standing, of the Source Family…famous rock photographer Ron Raffaeli discusses how he was asked to join the group but was too busy and thought they were a little too weird…a member describes how he knelt and kissed Yod’s feet the first time he met him, to which Yod, impressed, responded “Far fucking out.” The Source Family was certainly an imposing, photogenic group and plenty of photos from the era bear this out: there’s something rather majestic (if not slightly nuts) about the sight of Father Yod, looking like Rick Rubin as a spiritual guru, leading his huge “family” around on the streets of Hollywood in the ’70s. There’s a nutty energy to everything that’s absolutely a product of the ’70s: it’s impossible to imagine stuff like this happening anywhere but Hollywood, at that time.

I was genuinely surprised by the musical aspect of the Family: I’d never heard of their band before (or the group itself, to be honest) but it’s impossible not to see how influential their sound has been to modern musicians. Hell, you could actually make a case for the entire freak-folk subgenre springing directly from Yahowa 13: even Billy Corgan thinks they were unbelievably influential and who are we to disagree with the Great Pumpkin? One of my favorite parts of the film is the bit where they discuss Yod and the band playing various gigs at area high school lunch hours. The footage of one of these gigs is absolutely priceless: watching Yod and crew freak the fuck out on stage, before a massive crowd of bored teenagers, all while Yod delivers a nearly non-stop “sermon,” may be one of the highlights of my last decade of movie-watching…no joke. The only thing I could think while watching this was: “When would something like this have ever been acceptable? Trying doing this nowadays and see how fast the proverbial shit would hit the fan…I’m guessing almost immediately.

Ultimately, even though I don’t think Baker was anything more than a kooky, ultra-wealthy guy who saw a sure-fire thing and grabbed it with both hands, I had a blast actually watching the documentary. Truth be told, I’d love to see a fictionalized version of this same story: hell, give it to David O. Russell, since his American Hustle-mode would be perfect for this story. This definitely isn’t an unbiased account of the events: while the film does include plenty of commentary from detractors (mostly pretty gentle, bemused kind of reflections, although the bit where one of Baker’s former co-workers scoffs at his desire to be called Father Yod is pretty snarky), it also tends to gloss over lots of problem areas.

I’m troubled, to say the least, about actions like marrying off the underage girls to Family members, in order to circumvent local rape laws: that doesn’t sound kosher, to say the very least. The “family engineering” aspect is also pretty horrible, since that’s what religious fundamentalists use to swap partners around among families, “rewarding” faithful men with more (or different) wives. There is some discussion about how much control the women had over this but it’s also explicitly stated that Yod would often “ask” members to participate in this: since no one refused him, this would be the same thing as requiring it, no? Same thing goes for the groups use of ritual and sex magic: from the outside, it seems kind of easy to assume that Yod’s ritualistic sex with various women and girls (underage or not) had less to do with helping them achieve personal nirvana than with helping him get off. We could always give him the benefit of the doubt but, to be honest, the documentary does a pretty good of muddying up this issue, as it is. Suffice to say that it’s a lot easier to buy Baker as a bored, opportunistic hedonist who stumbled into a pretty great way to run out the last years of his life than it is to buy him as a misunderstood religious guru.

Ultimately, The Source Family is a fascinating, fast-paced and well-made (if obviously biased) account of the life of a true outsider. Hell, when was the last time you heard a religious leader referred to as a perfect combination of Lenny Bruce and Krishnamurti? If Baker often seemed like an all too earthly figure, there’s certainly something other-worldly about his bigger-than-life persona. I might not have been converted to the cause, but The Source Family gave me a pretty great insight into a fascinating time in our history, a time when utopia seemed just around the corner and the possibilities were endless. Baker might not have been able to keep his dreams (or himself) aloft but there’s no denying that the guy lived life on his own terms. For better or worse, there’s something kind of inspirational about that.