Friday, July 24, 2009

Mark of the Beast

By David Luhrssen
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Aleister Crowley was the product of a rigid, fundamentalist, Protestant sect, and a family that banished joy as sinful. Like many products of a too-strict upbringing, he rebelled in his teen years. For Crowley, however, the rebellion never ended. Long before his death in 1947, Crowley gleefully cultivated a reputation as the “wickedest man in the world.”

The British documentary In Search of the Great Beast 666 (out July 28 on DVD) is a critical examination of a man who overstepped every boundary and left death, depravity and insanity in his wake. The heir to a great fortune, Crowley traveled to every continent save Antarctica in search of new experiences through sex, drugs and the occult. His voluminous writings were often paradoxical; his deeds often contradicted the more benign statements of his philosophy. After exhausting his inheritance, the prodigal sorcerer sponged off a succession of wealthy benefactors lured by intimations of forbidden power. According to the documentary, his lovers included George W. Bush’s maternal grandmother as well as the mother of director Preston Sturges. Sturges, an adolescent during his mother’s affair, recalled Crowley with repugnance.

In Search of the Great Beast is fascinating for the material it covers, even if it suffers from repetitious use of graphics and an unconvincing, “You Are There” series of interviews with a cast of costumed actors playing Crowley and associates. The unconventional content would have benefited from a more conventional documentary form, given the murky sources any biography of Crowley must rely on.

Playing up his role as a black magician to a tabloid media hungry for scandal, Crowley actually seemed to draw sinister forces, along with rich people with abundant money and leisure time. Erudite but megalomaniacal and lacking human empathy, Crowley predicted a fiery apocalypse that would result in a new age under an occult new order headed by himself. With the civilization shattering conflict of World War I, his prophesy seemed fulfilled—all except for his own leadership in the dark new world of mass murder to come. Crowley died a junky, living his last days in a modest rooming house on the contributions of a small but not insignificant international network of followers.

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