Light Industry | 155 Freeman Street
A Film of Their 1973 Spring Tour Commissioned by Christian World Liberation Front of Berkeley, California, Owen Land, 1974, 16mm, 12 mins
Lord of the Universe, TVTV, 1974, video, 58 mins
In 1973, the alternative television outfit TVTV turned their cameras on the activities of 15-year-old religious leader Prem Rawat, aka Guru Maharaj Ji, and his hordes of youthful baby-boomer followers as they prepared for Millennium ‘73, a blockbuster spiritual gathering at Houston’s Astrodome. TVTV, which had included members of earlier video collectives like Raindance, Ant Farm, and Videofreex, already gained considerable attention with Four More Years, their earlier piece on the 1972 Republican National Convention, shot nimbly and incisively with lightweight Portapak rigs, but Lord of the Universe marked a turning point for the group and guerilla television more broadly. Produced in conjunction with WNET’s Television Laboratory, it would be the first documentary commissioned for national broadcast made entirely on half-inch video.
“Lord of the Universe was an extraordinary achievement, arguably TVTV’s best journalistic tape,” media historian Deirdre Boyle writes. “The 58-minute work is complex in its structure and devastating in its indictment of a fakir and his unsuspecting victims. If the convention tapes chronicled the demise of the ‘60s, then Lord of the Universe witnessed what became of that lost generation in the ‘70s. Well before the Jonestown massacre and the rise of the reverend Sun Myung Moon, TVTV captured a religious impostor exploiting the vulnerable, in this instance, survivors of the Vietnam War years who now were searching for inner peace or a new leader or simply a shared sense of community—people too burnt out or too drugged to tell a phony from a god. Lord of the Universe also revealed how the guru’s message of world peace, which gathered the fragile faithful into the fold, barely concealed the greed, deception, and hunger for power at the core of the movement he fronted.”
The same year that TVTV interviewed “gurunoids” at the Astrodome, filmmaker Owen Land (formerly known as George Landow) began work on a commissioned portrait of the Christian World Liberation Front, a countercultural ministry in Berkeley. Already recognized as one of the progenitors of structural film with works like Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966) and Remedial Reading Comprehension (1970), Land had by this time had a religious conversion experience. Though he was sympathetic to the aims of CWLF, he was surprised that they would ask him to make a film about their church, and the work he ultimately produced is a remarkable and extremely idiosyncratic record of the hippie proselytizers. Land took the fly-on-the-wall footage he shot of CWLF’s ‘73 tour and dramatically altered it through stroboscopic cross-cutting, rapidly alternating between shots in units only three-frames long.
“It was edited that way to maximize the amount of information on the screen at any given time,” Land told curator Mark Webber in 2004. “I didn’t think the specifics of what was being said (a) was that important in the hierarchy of what I was presenting, and (b) that it would even be possible to cover it all without making an extremely long, talking film.” But form does not simply prevail over content. Where TVTV brought a critical, outsider’s perspective to bear on Millennium ‘73, Land was an invited guest who articulated his milieu through a radical subjectivity. The stuttering phonemes and throbbing afterimages of his film transform an ordinary portrait of religiosity, conveying not merely an image of congregation, but the spirit that animates it.
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