Parodies of Self-improvement, New Religions
Bernstein and Ritchie's modified screenplay based on Jenkins' book includes a storyline with "satiric jabs" at new religions, self-improvement and the Human potential movement. A form of Rolfing is also parodied in the film by Lotte Lenya, whose character Clara Pelf is seen as a spoof of "a Rolf like masseuse". Big Ed Bookman is seen crawling around on all fours practicing something called "creep therapy" or "movagenics". Movagenics is seen in the film as a way for an individual to find their "lost center of consciousness". Big Ed Bookman is also shown proselytizing for "Movagenics", a fictional group in the film which TIME Magazine referred to in its review as both a cult and a new faith.
The film includes a parody of the Werner Erhard and Erhard Seminars Training, with B.E.A.T. as a stand-in for est. In American Film Now, Friedrich Bismark is simply described as "the Werner Erhard character". The Grove Book of Hollywood describes Bert Convy as a "Werner Erhard-lookalike", in his portrayal of Friedrich Bismark. Barbara Jane Bookman's guilty feelings for not "getting it" after completing her B.E.A.T. seminar are seen as a reference to: "how creeds like est put nonbelievers on the defensive". The book also notes that: "The film captures the peculiar mixture of spirituality and pragmatism that surrounded est", and also describes the minister's capital gains tax advice to Friedrich Bismark at Shake's wedding as "sardonic". A 1977 review in TIME Magazine refers to Friedrich Bismark's B.E.A.T. as "an est-like movement", and notes: "the Ritchie-Bernstein version of an est seminar is done with marvelous malice". Psychiatry and the Cinema characterizes the film as a "devastating parody" of the est training.
After Semi-Tough's release in 1977, Bert Convy was contacted by a number of est followers, as well as by Werner Erhard. After Convy appeared on The Tonight Show and discussed his experiences attending Erhard Seminars Training in preparation for his role as Friedrich Bismark, he received a letter from Erhard stating: "it would be great for us to get together". Of the est seminar itself, Convy recalled that when another attendee complained of a headache during the course, the group leader told him to "experience it", and when another attendee wet his pants, he was told to "experience the warmth". In a scene from the film, a woman exclaims to Friedrich Bismark in the middle of a seminar: "I peed in my pants and it felt good." During actual filming on Semi-Tough, Convy received a late-night phone call from actress Valerie Harper, known in Hollywood as a devoted student of Werner Erhard. She related to Convy that Erhard was "pleased" with the role, and she wished him success in the film. Convy suspected that her real reason for calling was to subtly pressure him to go easy on his parody of Erhard in the film. Harper is mentioned by name in the completed film.
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“All religions have based morality on obedience, that is to say, on voluntary slavery. That is why they have always been more pernicious than any political organisation. For the latter makes use of violence, the formerof the corruption of the will.”
—Alexander Herzen (18121870)
“The parody is the last refuge of the frustrated writer. Parodies are what you write when you are associate editor of the Harvard Lampoon. The greater the work of literature, the easier the parody. The step up from writing parodies is writing on the wall above the urinal.”
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