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POP CULTURE: The Secret’s Secret

A DVD that teaches irrational behavior, awesomely

Greg Beato

Past generations may have kept this information closely guarded, but, luckily for us, the contemporary self-help hucksters are eager to share. In The Secret, a slickly produced cult-hit DVD that has sold approximately 500,000 copies since its release last April, a dizzying dream team of personal-transformation specialists, spiritual messengers, feng shui masters and moneymaking experts explain the "law of attraction," which basically states that if you think really, really hard, say, about tenderly cavorting with Salma Hayek on a soft, fluffy bed of Google Series A Preferred stock, you will actually emit a magnetic signal to the universe that will make your vision a reality.

Sound too good to be true? "It’s supported by science," armchair physicist Larry King concluded recently. And if your idea is preposterous enough to enchant Larry King, well, then, success is imminent. Made for around $3 million, The Secret has grossed approximately 10 times that. A companion book is a New York Times best-seller; a movie sequel is in the works; there are workshops to attend, newsletters to subscribe to, merchandise to buy. Theoretically, the official "Secret Lamp,” which reminds you that "the Grand Genie of the Universe is serving you in every moment of your life," should show up on your doorstep if you think about it hard enough—but if that doesn’t work, you can get one by shelling out $49.95.

And that’s The Secret’s real secret, of course—it gets people to behave irrationally. For most of the 20th century, self-help charlatans labored under a common constraint. Their primary medium was books, but their target audience—the lazy, the impatient, the credulous—were exactly the kind of people who didn’t read books. In the mid-1980s, the advent of infomercials helped liberate the charlatans from the tyranny of books, but for some reason infomercials have remained more textual than visual—in most of them a talking head presents a series of ideas in linear, only occasionally visual fashion.

The Secret, however, is emphatically cinematic. Driven by images and emotions rather than logic, it’s far more compelling than traditional infomercials. Calling it the Citizen Kane of infomercials is perhaps too grandiose, but it is definitely, say, the Unsolved Mysteries of infomercials. Its first few minutes unfold at a breakneck pace: There are torch-wielding Roman soldiers, gloomy inner sanctums, old white guys of more recent vintage staring menacingly at the camera, whinnying horses, chanting monks, ominous rumblings. What this has to do with acquiring your dream home is never quite articulated, but so what? It’s gripping stuff. Even when the talking heads show up, The Secret rarely loses its pace. The camera never lingers on any scene or any speaker for more than a few seconds; the whole thing is so facilely edited it always seems to be moving forward even as its tag-team gurus say the same thing over and over.

In the ’90s, A-list hucksters like thunderously perky life coach Tony Robbins and tiny-classified-ads tycoon Don LaPre were inescapable TV presences, and while their water-torture promises of instant wealth and happiness were preposterous, they were also infectious and helped create a national mood of high-octane optimism. Why couldn’t we get rich quick simply because we really wanted to? Dotcom mania ensued, and for a few glorious years, all boats were lifted. If there’s anything our current bleak era needs, it’s a little irrational exuberance; perhaps The Secret is the Grand Genie of the Universe’s answer to our prayers.

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