Screening Room: ‘Kingdom of Silence’

In Rick Rowley’s documentary Kingdom of Silence, a bevy of diplomats, security experts, and fellow writers come forward to tell the story of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered by the Saud royal family after his critical columns in the Washington Post.

My review of Kingdom of Silence, which starts on Showtime tonight, ran at The Playlist:

While Khashoggi’s presence brings an unusually impactful human touch—particularly the aching style of his writing, read in soulful beats during a few more mournful segments that seem to carry in them all the tragedy and thwarted promise of the modern Middle East—where “Kingdom of Silence” is most effective is using his story as a personal mirror to the geopolitical dramas that crash all through this movie…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Build Your Space

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright is one of our greatest living nonfiction writers. One of the reasons for this is that he spends the time doing the work. By work, he means doing an incredible amount of background investigation. Even his recent novel The End of October (about a pandemic, curiously enough), is mined from a ridiculous amount of research.

To be productive, though, it also helps to have a good writing space. Wright made his own, to spec:

I have a wonderful office that I’ve built in my house. David Remnick came to dinner one night and he called it “Writer Porn.” It’s something I’ve made especially for writing, and a desk I designed especially for writing. I have a white board, where I sketch outlines of projects. The most distinctive thing is my writer’s desk, which I had built about 30 years ago. It’s a bit Star Trek-y. It has wings curved around so I can have my manuscripts left and right, facing me. It’s a wonderful design for a writer and I’ve never seen it replicated. 

We can’t all make our own desks. But a comfortable, productive place helps us relax, focus, filter out the noise, and focus on the work.

New in Books: ‘Going Clear’: Lawyers, Guns, Money and Scientology

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L. Ron Hubbard conducting a Dianetics seminar in Los Angeles, 1950.

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Last month, Lawrence Wright published Going Clear, his sprawling history and examination of the Church of Scientology. It’s a massive and thoughtful piece of work that could end up being the go-to work on Scientology for years to come, in the same way that Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven has been for the Mormon religion.

My essay on Wright’s book, “‘Going Clear’: Lawyers, Guns, Money and Scientology,” was published this week at PopMatters. Here’s an excerpt:

[L. Ron] Hubbard gathered followers to his self-improvement cause through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and money poured in. Then came the Sea Organization, or Sea Org. Starting in the late ‘60s, an increasingly disconnected from reality Hubbard became convinced that the British, American, and Soviet governments wanted to harness Scientology’s psychological insights for their own uses. With three ships under the 57-year-old Hubbard’s command, Sea Org cast off in 1967 with “no destination or purpose other than to wander” the high seas, free from government control.

Hubbard roamed the world like some maddened commodore, exciting rumors that he was an operative for the CIA, drinking heavily, fantasizing about taking over Rhodesia, and searching for a lost underwater city that only he knew about. Crewing the ships were a youthful band of believers who had signed contracts pledging themselves to Sea Org “for the next billion years.” (The last is one of many details Wright seeds the book with that beg to be taken as comedy, but ultimately can’t.)…

In addition to the history of Hubbard and the Church’s founding, Wright also digs into its celebrity aspect, particularly via the experience of Paul Haggis, writer/director of everything from Crash to various episodes of The Facts of Life.

You can read an excerpt from Going Clear about Haggis’s experiences here.