Jonestown as Genre: Ti West’s "The Sacrament"

In The Sacrament, the conflation of media publicity and private lives, which was always present in the Jonestown massacre, now becomes the main subject.

By Donal HarrisDecember 3, 2013

Jonestown as Genre: Ti West’s "The Sacrament"

TI WEST'S NEW FILM The Sacrament is intellectually complex and formally daring, but at first it is unclear why, exactly, it exists. Produced by the horror luminary Eli Roth, and currently making its way through the midnight slots on the festival circuit alongside Roth’s cannibal movie The Green Inferno, it’s a strange fit in the horror genre. It takes the form of a faux documentary based on the 1978 Jonestown Massacre. Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), two hip and cynical Vice correspondents, follow their friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley) to visit his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) in Eden Parish, a remote agrarian commune. And, just like Jonestown more than 30 years ago, the seemingly peaceable commune implodes under the slightest pressure of outsider skepticism.

The Sacrament certainly does not stand on its original material. Jonestown is the most well known mass suicide in American history, and like the Rolling Stones at Altamont, or the Manson Family murders, it circulates as short hand for the violent end of 1960s idealism. Certainly, the path of Jones’s “Rainbow Family” from seeming bliss in Indiana and California, to total destruction in Guyana isn’t that simple. And there have been no less than a dozen films and miniseries that have tried to document, dramatize, recreate, psychologize, gain access to, and make sense of the underlying forces that would make more than 900 seemingly rational, well-balanced people follow Jim Jones into the woods, and then commit “revolutionary suicide” in the name of his church.

However, West’s film doesn’t do anything surprising with this plot. Despite the gesture toward contemporaneity in the conceit of a “Vice Guide to Jonestown,” the new media angle doesn’t add much to the story. An NBC film crew accompanied US senator Leo Ryan on his trip to interview Jones in Guyana in 1978, and Jones’s paranoia that they would misrepresent his community was one of the sparks for the final catastrophe. So the immersionist take on Jonestown was there in the beginning, recorded in real time.

But two shots near the end of this film let on that West has different goals in mind than simply reexhibiting or updating this atrocity, even if on the surface that’s what The Sacrament does. After all of the things happen that one expects to happen in a movie about a secretive commune led by an embezzling conman who calls himself “The Father,” we are left with a scene of a brother and a sister. Patrick is being restrained by Caroline, the bubbly yet substance-prone cult member who invited Patrick to visit and now is orchestrating a mass suicide. Patrick is bound and gagged, sitting in a chair behind a desk at the far end of a makeshift office. Caroline stands over him with a syringe full of poison. There is no question about what is going to happen, no surprise or suspense when that act does happen.

What is interesting about this scene, and what opens up the possibility that The Sacrament is about its predictable treatment of an almost endlessly regurgitated subject, is the role of the camera. Caroline stole it from Patrick when all the mayhem started, and it is one of the two recording devices that Patrick, Sam, and Jake brought with them to document the trip. Up until this point, the three male leads have controlled the image making. As professional documenters and urbane young adults of the 21st century, they think everything they do and say is worth recording, archiving, and saving for posterity. It is a character trait that serves the film well, because The Sacrament doggedly insists on its own documentary status; everything we see is supposed to be something that someone actually recorded while the carnage was going down.

So when Caroline — who we just saw alongside the Father railing against the fascism of interventionist journalism and the media — enters with Patrick’s camera, sets it on a table, and makes a home movie of her fratricide, we are aware of an irony. It isn’t that Caroline and the media-averse cult end up directing the film about their own demise, but the slightly more disturbing fact that no one is directing it. While she fulfills the commands of the Father by preparing her adopted family (and her biological one) for “revolutionary suicide,” the camera sits on a table and passively rolls, recording this all-too predictable outcome all by itself. The point-of-view of the camera has gone from outsider (Patrick) to insider (Caroline) to no one (table). This isn’t an isolated occurrence. A little earlier Jake hides his camera behind a fallen tree while running from machine-gun toting mercenaries. We watch from his point of view, when he hides behind the log from the mercenaries’ as they pick it up and record one another; then from no one’s point of view, as they set it back down and resume the slaughter. We go from one kind of dread to another: as the killers approach, we think that Jake is done for, only to realize he left the camera — and us — behind as bait.

These twin scenes of unmanned cameras (especially hand-held digital ones) epitomize the found footage genre which, along with the plotless torture porn of Saw and Hostel, have dominated horror flicks for at least a decade. Films like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and the Paranormal Activity franchise premise their aesthetic on the idea that people will watch anything as long as there is a jump scare every few minutes, no matter how shitty it looks. Not only this, but they bank on the fact that anyone can stand around, take video, and turn it into a movie — even if it’s shaky, grainy, dark, and out-of-focus. Found footage, in this respect, is the denunciation of a rarified director-as-artist. When we can all take our own videos and make our own movies, then who needs the auteur?  Why invest in someone else’s technical expertise and careful control of the frame, when all you have to do is hit the red button and shoot?

According to auteur theory, the director leaves an individual style imprinted on the most corporate of the contemporary arts — “corporate” in terms of big money financing, but also in the more general definition of an individual identity created out of collective effort. Found footage questions film as both corporate and auteurist: it shows how movies can be made on shoestring budgets, and it does away with directorial and cinematographic beauty. But The Sacrament seems to suggest something slightly different regarding these claims. The two scenes above exaggerate the conceit of found footage — “Look! Anyone can direct a movie!” — so far as to negate it — “So can no one!” It takes the populist vision of found footage to its logical end: if we don’t care about directorial intervention, then why have a director at all? If we don’t care what a film looks like, then just let the cameras roll and walk away. These two instances offer the exact opposite approach to mediated violence from the famous scene of visual restraint in Reservoir Dogs, when the camera pans away before Mr. Blonde chops off the policeman’s ear. In The Sacrament, when Caroline sets the camera on the table and we watch her inject the poison into her brother’s neck, there’s no Tarantino behind the lens telling us where not to look.

Certainly West isn’t the first to play with the idea of a director-less film. Long ago, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera pretended to be a day in the life of a camera, and more recently Lars von Trier’s The Boss of It All used a computer program, Automavision, to make directorial decisions. Yet it’s an interesting move for a director who has spent the last 10 years branding himself as an auteur in a milieu that historically cares more for grotesque content than innovative form. In this world, West has become the horror director known for undermining every convention of the genre. In an interview with Lena Dunham, he complained that horror has devolved into another form of pornography, in that “it becomes just one kill or cum-shot after another,” and “there is no time spent on the ‘real life’ aspect anymore.” Eli Roth, a producer on The Sacrament, has played a major role in establishing this standard with Hostel and Cabin Fever (West directed the ill-fated Cabin Fever 2, but disowned the film because of studio intervention). If horror is porn, then Roth is the king of cum shots.

West is part of a group of LA-based filmmakers who have spent the last 10 years or so trying to upend that model of horror. LA Weekly recently baptized their collective output “Mumblegore,” a name that (however preciously) captures the minimalist plots, relatively light bloodshed, and fully developed characters that one finds in films with unsubtle titles like A Horrible Way to Die and The ABCs of Death. The group often uses the same leads (AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, and Joe Swanberg are all mainstays, and each are deservedly on the verge of mainstream success) and even act in each other’s films (West plays a pretentious director in Adam Wingard’s and Simon Barrett’s excellent home invasion thriller You’re Next). By setting up its own production companies and taking advantage of digital distribution streams like Video on Demand, Mumblegore has carved a financially sustainable third space outside contemporary horror’s twin tendencies of plotless dismemberments and hand-held anti-aesthetic. Though working in one of the lowest-brow of genres, and rarely receiving wide release, they make movies that are often called “classicist.”

Up until this point, West has been the most classicist of this club, citing Bergman and early Polanski as reference points. Especially in his most recent films The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, he so aggressively reinserts “real life” that it’s easy to lose sight of the other aspects of horror, both in terms of narrative arc and editing. He relies on long tracking shots, wide-angle stills, and extraordinarily slow zooms to upset the tone and pace one would expect of a film with “devil” in the title. In key scenes, the camera tends to linger several beats too long, and it throws off the rhythm of suspense — in a good way.

But he also stretches out the narrative tension that horror films rely on to ludicrous lengths, creating one long crescendo of dread. West drastically slows down the pace of narrative exposition so that one could watch 95% of his last two movies without realizing what you’re afraid of. Which isn’t to say his movies aren’t scary, because they are —they’re terrifying. But they produce that effect by patiently building a fictional world in which everything could be a monster, even though nothing is. He puts characters in situations — a dark hallway in a strange house, or the laundry room of an old hotel — where you know something terrible should happen, and then he lets you stew in expectation without providing the cathartic scare. Slow build, no release. That is the Westian model for horror.

This “slow burn” approach also lets him explore other types of stories within a horror film. As he says of The Innkeepers, it’s “a romantic comedy until the ghost shows up,” which is only for the last five minutes or so — and even then, you’re not sure that there was ever a ghost. And barring the final 15 minutes of truly unsettling satanic rituals, The House of the Devil explores a college student’s desperate search for rent money, resembling the quiet naturalism of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy more than The Last House on the Left. West builds entire films out of the first 10 minutes of a typical slasher; nothing happens right up until something truly vicious happens, just like real life. It makes sense that his take on Cabin Fever did not go over well with the studio.

So when he bills The Sacrament as a movie that the audience won’t expect, as he has since its premiere in Venice, he’s right, but maybe not in the way he means it. Yes, it straddles the line between horror and something else, but no more so than Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion or a host of other films. What’s more unexpected, I think, is its normalcy. From the opening text scroll attesting to the veracity of the filmed events, to the visitors’ growing optimism about Eden Parish’s off-grid agrarianism, to the creepily charming Father, to the close-ups of cyanide-laced fruit punch, this is exactly the movie an audience familiar with Jonestown but unfamiliar with West expects to see. It hits every plot point and meaningful character development right when it should. The sociopathic Father is charismatic and terrifying, his devotees made human by their backstories. Sam’s wife is pregnant, and he worries about how to be a good dad, making him the Father’s perfect foil. Plus, the film highlights the arrogance of Vice’s brand of immersionist journalism, questioning Sam and Jake’s role in the carnage. All of this develops smoothly, cleanly, and without surprises.

The Sacrament is unexpected, however, in that it leaves behind West’s slow burn aesthetic, and it seems to consciously distance the director from his genre background. Even during the press tour of The Innkeepers he told of plans to venture outside of horror. If The Sacrament fulfills this promise, then it does so in a counterintuitive way. His first non-genre movie is the only one that sets up and knocks down every narrative and visual convention, removing everything that could be considered “Westian.”

At first, The Sacrament is disappointing because it seems too normal — which I realize is a callous thing to say about a reenactment of the largest loss of US civilian life before 9/11. But that’s part of the vexed problem of expectations, both for a film genre and an individual director. This kind of film is supposed to end with a field full of dead bodies, but a Ti West film isn’t, and yet here they both are. Maybe now that West has stopped making horror flicks, he’s finally going to start mowing down his characters. It’s difficult to situate The Sacrament in West’s oeuvre for these reasons, though maybe not if it’s just a bid for a mainstream career.

But those two scenes of rudderless documentation, when the camera is left to record without an individual behind it calling the shots, force us to consider how documentary and fictional treatments of Jonestown mythologize the event. The representations end up taking on a life of their own. The fact that the camera is controlled first by the journalists, then by the cult, and finally by no one — and that each contributes to the edited images we see — introduces the ritualistic dimension of watching and retelling the story of Jonestown that The Sacrament takes part in. It re-centers the never-ending treatment of the Peoples Temple as its own problem; it accents the simultaneous desire for and fear of media spectatorship that both Caroline and the journalists exhibit.

In The Sacrament, the conflation of media publicity and private lives, which was always present, now becomes the main subject. As West tells it, Jonestown is a single iteration of ritualized, recorded, pseudo-religious bloodletting, an example of what Mark Seltzer refers to as the “pathological public sphere”: over and over, we gather around public displays of wounded bodies and wounded psyches. The fact that West sets it in the present — or maybe in the very recent past, as Vice would seem to represent the zeitgeist of the late 2000s — emphasizes the fact that Jonestown is not without precedent or antecedent, and neither is the media’s representation of it.

The repetitiveness and predictability of this mediated violence is necessary for the undirected camera to jar rather than be a gimmick. We need to know what’s going to happen, and we need to have seen it happen over and over again, so that that the only dread is that no one is directing and no one is watching — that there is no stamp of authorship, nothing unique or original. At these points we realize the sacrament referred to in the title isn’t simply the profane Eucharist of poisoned Flavor-Aid. The film is not a critique of mass delusion or of interventionist journalism — especially the latter, as all statements of this kind in the film come from the Father, and it is utterly absurd to blame the visitors for trying to stop him from brutalizing his congregation. The personless point-of-view turns the story into its own sacrament, a rite of passage that precedes the individual, but also brings the individual into the fold of the community through a set of shared practices. It is Jonestown as genre: uncannily horrific, predictably realist, endlessly reproducible.


Donal Harris is an assistant professor of English at the University of Memphis, where he teaches American literature.

LARB Contributor

Donal Harris is an associate professor in the department of English and director of the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities at the University of Memphis. He is the author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!