Viewer’s Discretion: ‘Strange Angel’ and ‘Theory of Obscurity’


In the 21st century, there are multiple disciplines being sold that promise hopeful seekers a way to optimize their ambitions into reality, to realize their best selves, but so many of these philosophies are not new, merely transformed into current-speak. If you reverse engineer their conceptions, you find that a lot of them go back about 100 years to a golden era of self-help hucksterism sold through mysticism and rebellion.

That’s what the series “Strange Angel” focuses on, specifically a Thelema cult in Los Angeles as experienced through rocket engineer Jack Parsons (Jack Reynor). Parsons was a real guy, as was the Thelema cult, a concocted religion of Aleister Crowley that wrapped self-actualization within pagan sex cult trappings. “Strange Angel” shifts its focus between Parson’s quest to create a rocket that could go to the moon and his flirtations with Thelema, as introduced to him through his shifty new neighbor Ernest (Rupert Friend), a Kerouac-type who has embraced Parsons as the work he needs to do to move forward in the cult. The interactions with the cult begin to affect his work on the rocket — negatively, sometimes, but also by Parson’s reckoning very positively in a will-to-power sort of way, and along with the challenge of corralling his straight-laced wife (Bella Heathcote) into the spiritual mix, Parsons works to self-actualize all the sections of his life into a whole, by way of Crowley.

What’s fascinating about “Strange Angel” is that it chooses to present this story in terms of standard television drama. There are some hallucinatory moments, some surrealist flourishes, but for the most part, the saga of Jack Parsons is presented in the same way that any other person’s narrative might unfold. And if it owes a nod to “Mad Men” for its period drama appeal, it doesn’t exhibit quite the same artfulness. But the pagan and Wiccan groups of the era were in direct contrast to the aches of a repressed society, and they predated, say, the hippie movement of the 1960s, all the while remaining more hidden from sight. There is a direct line between those groups and the spiritual indulgences of 21st-century America, and “Strange Angel” does a great job in translating that line into a digestible context that I suspect, if it’s allowed to continue, will increase in its insight.


There are certainly many things I expected from a documentary about the mysterious experimental band The Residents — and not one of them was a feel-good movie. And yet, if you’re going to tell the story of this very strange, decades-spanning project that started out as a musical one and evolved into a multi-media endeavor that was often ahead of its time, a good feeling is what you’re most apt to get out of it, especially if you’re there to advocate for letting weird be weird and allowing people to do their own thing.

You know the band even if you don’t know you do — they’re the big eyeball heads with the top hats and tuxedos. Behind the iconic image is a rich and insane musical heritage that challenges many ears it happens to reach and feels like home to many others. The band first gained public attention in the early 1970s, coming out of San Francisco with an album cover that mocked the Beatles and offered sounds unlike anything heard at the time. They’ve not slowed down in all those years.

The film unfolds through a series of interviews with their associates at Ralph Records — associates who are possibly them, probably, maybe — as well as chats with people they’ve influenced. It’s also a rich compilation of visuals the band has produced and archival performance footage, including the very first Residents concert ever. It’s also a celebration of people embracing technologies before they completely master them and just playing around with the fullest enthusiasm. Even if you don’t enjoy the music of the Residents, this film is a must-see for any creative person who doesn’t feel a part of something. The lesson of it? Build the thing you want to be part of. It’s a beautiful message from one-of-a-kind creators.

Originally published at

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