Posted March 30, 2012 by D. K. Holm
If you are wondering what that strangely titled film playing at the Regal Lloyd Center 10 Cinema1happens to be, it’s easier to explain what it is not.People v. The State of Illusion is not a courtroom drama. It is not a political thriller. Nor is it a Michael Moore-esque documentary about the state of America. Don’t be fooled – or enticed – by the misleading title.
The brainchild of one Austin Vickers, an Arizona based attorney turned motivational speaker, People is an infomercial for Mr. Vickers’s Human Process Mastery Institute in Phoenix. There, he runs a “personal leadership program” called Stepping Up To A Life Of Vision, Passion And Authentic Power, does personal coaching, and corporate motivational seminars. In addition, Mr. Vickers, according to his website, is “an avid reader, an aspiring musician, and is passionate about physical health and the practice of yoga, and is a certified yoga instructor.” Unlike an infomercial airing at 3 AM in the morning, or 3 PM on a Sunday afternoon, you have to pay to see this one.
Some may be willing to do so.People is patterned loosely after the wildly successfulWhat the [bleep] Do We Know, the thinly disguised promotional reel for the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, and perhaps the earlier Mindwalk, in which Sam Waterston strolls through Mont. St. Michel discussing with two friends how quantum physics can prove extrasensory perception. In People, Mr. Vickers lectures us on the state of human unhappiness, shows interviews with the likes of wu-wu gurus such as Thomas More, management consultant Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline), Bleepalum Joe Dispenza, and Michael Vandermark2, and tells the fictionalized (or fictional) tale of a “client” of Mr. Vickers who was jailed for manslaughter after killing another driver at an intersection while taking home his daughter from a school play. While in prison, the grumpy inmate is gradually converted to a philosophical mindset in which he realizes that the real “prison” is the self-pitying “story” or narrative of his life that he tells himself.
Mr. Vickers’s philosophy has some commonsense components, while also feeling derived from the work of Dr. Albert Ellis, EST seminars, and eastern religion, that heady brew that in different recipes has dominated pop self-help since the 1950s. In fundamental form, Mr. Vickers’s approach simply says, You may not be able to do much about your problems or impediments, but you can change your attitude to them. This is a truism that has circulated in self-help books since about the mid-1980s. There is little practical advice about how to do this in Mr. Vickers’s film, however. To get that data, you probably have to buy one of his books or tapes, or attend a seminar.
Alternating with the talking heads and the file footage of roiling clouds and depressed people brooding is the story of Aaron Rogers, played by J.B. Tuttle in a performance that starts out rather shaky but gains a level of authenticity as the film unreels. Rogers is an angry, rather sleazy divorcée with a daughter. After the accident, he is a confined to a tiny cell where he rails against the injustices he suffers. He fights with a cruel, taunting guard. Then he is befriended by an old codger who is the prison’s janitor. This janitor encourages Rogers to read a book, ponder a small postcard, and try to find the beauty and self-knowledge that the prison cell offers. Like Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger, he eventually finds peace within his own cranium. However, unlike Meursault, who is executed, Rogers is rewarded for his enlightenment – he is befriended by the guard (they went to the same high school), he is forgiven by the husband of the woman he killed, and is then pardoned by the governor, thanks to the good works he has performed in the slammer.
The movie seems to be sending contradictory messages. On the one hand, Rogers is reprieved, which narratively suggests that his new found faith can be used as a pellet machine in a rat cage. Shouldn’t the good works and forgiveness not be rewarded; that is, shouldn’t they be the ends in themselves? Second, the wise janitor turns out to be a former inmate who when finally released chose to stay in the prison because he couldn’t deal with the much-changed outside world. If this old man’s philosophy is so damned good, why didn’t it help himcope? Also strange is how the movie refuses to reveal the title or contents of the mysterious, small, leather-bound book that the janitor gives to Rogers, a volume that the inmate reads continually and which “changes” his life. No do we learn the source for the postcard image, which looks medieval, and whose lesson is that it is made up of mosaic tiles that don’t make sense individually, but which when seen from afar create the image of the volumptuous woman. Even worse, the general thrust of Mr. Vicker’s, like EST, is to blame the victim for all his faults.
Mr. Vickers is a self-help guru from the Stuart Smalley school of affirmation, but without the pastel colors. I’ve never met a lawyer who didn’t want to be something else, a politician, a novelist, a movie reviewer, whatever. Mr. Vickers has perhaps simply taken his courtroom suavity and grafted it onto a more profitable and / or meaningful quasi-religious movement, mutatis mutandis like the late L. Ron Hubbard. Certainly, like all of us, he is good enough, he’s smart enough, and doggone it, people might like him.
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2 Who is a co-founder of Mr. Vickers’s academy.