Sunday, August 29, 2010

Marjoe. (1973)
Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith

If you find yourself taken this weekend with the documentary-style of The Last Exorcism but feel let down in its Rosemary's Baby run-on, cliched finale -- and if the vérité feels far more fun than demonic images that are elements of fraudulent Hollywood rather than anything remotely spiritually real -- then perhaps you'll be more interested in the film The Last Exorcism riffed on to get noticed, a film which has a similar phony preacher bringing deliverance and counting the cash, but is very much reality and filmed with a concentrated focus.

In going through thoughts on The Last Exorcism, I saw that a friend linked to some writing I did when I first saw Marjoe. It was fun to read my passionate response to the years-old doc. The following was quickly written, and probably not as well thought-out as when I sit down to blog here at Filmsweep. But it had excitement, a sense of finding something unique, and it feels like it convinces that Marjoe is worthy viewing nearly four decades after it was made.

As the next "Non-lollipop Docs" column will be waiting 'til the end of next month, consider this a heads-up on a great documentary that still remains somewhat overlooked.


Holy guacamole, and great tongues of fire!

I feel like I just a had a "religulous" experience. I tripped on Jesus music, revival tent ministry and mass manipulation all at once! I also came away feeling uplifted and swindled, both at the same time.

(Gee, I wonder whether I might be back in the throes of Pentecostalism.)

The life of the evangelist Marjoe Gortner has been mentioned before -- both here, where I first heard of him from the Lonnie Frisbee documentary, and here, in the Houston Chronicle's writeup on Saved -- but there's no dedicated thread to the 1973 Oscar winning doc. So here we go.

The raw footage of Marjoe as a four-year old boy playing "Onward Christian Soldiers" on his accordion, pronouncing fire and brimstone sermons as the prodigy "boy preacher," and even (GASP!) marrying a couple in a church as a six year-old, really set the tone for grasping Marjoe's unique and problematic thinking. It's hard to believe he grew up in these vast Christian settings, coached by his mom to wail and preach, not even acquiring a real faith but just parroting the system in which he was taught how to succeed. He became a showman at a very young age, a charlatan with enough skills to make money for his parents (he claims over three million dollars, money he never saw) and also performing in this way to receive his parents' love. It was a performance-based love; Marjoe never felt he was loved for anything more than the green he brought in and the hanky-waving fervor he jerked out of crowds in preaching to adults all around him.

Fast forward some twenty-or-so years, and now we see Marjoe ready to come out of the closet, so to speak. Like "Candid Camera", or the wizard behind the curtain, Marjoe brings a full film crew with him as he tours the Pentecostal church circuit of the early 70s in prep to expose his true identity. The crew is fully aware of who he is and the business of what he is doing -- the church people will find out sometime after the documentary is released.

It's really interesting to watch Marjoe as he teaches the film crew how to conduct themselves as they film the (loud and "powerful") worship services. He instructs them not to freak out when people begin uttering strange languages -- he describes tongues as the grand zenith of a Pentecostal worship service, and even instructs the cameraman to make sure he zooms in when someone is being "filled with the Holy Spirit".

He also instructs his crew to not smoke, to get haircuts and to sexually stay away from the believers. "You cannot get involved with these chicks at all... That's a rule that I established," Marjoe says. "I never take out a girl from the church or in the church. I stick with airline stewardesses."

I believe there were two reasons for the sexual warning: The first, because for years he'd been "ministering" and he wasn't yet ready to risk his credibility among the church people. The second, and this is debatable, is that Marjoe really does care about the born-agains in his audience. He goes so far as to claim that part of the reason he wants to make the film is so that some in these evangelical communities might grow. When the crew asks him, "What will happen when they find out?" Marjoe replies, "Well, I'm hoping that they will see, you know, that it's not necessary to look to some person to like, you know, jerk you off -- to get off -- and put your belief in."

The music plays a huge part in every revival meeting setting. When people are whipped into this holy, hypnotic, trance-like musical bliss, they are, at the end of the night, more emotionally ready to empty their wallets into Marjoe's baskets. In one of the most blasphemous scenes -- the one incorporated into the Lonnie Frisbee film -- Marjoe is seen dumping a huge wad of money on his hotel bed and "praising Jesus" for it.

I guess the use of music to stir up the crowd is nothing new, especially in relation to how most churches want at least a bit of this stirring incorporated into their services, and how tribes and cultures have always used music in their rituals from the beginning of time. But somehow, I don't think there were plates passed at the end of a tribal drum circle thousands of years ago. Back then music may have led more to the sexual cravings, which makes just as much sense as the passing of the plate... Then again, maybe the sex in those settings wasn't typically considered immoral, which would place these evangelical fakes as more immoral than other cultures and generations similarly using music in religious rituals... Hmm. I'll still be mulling that thought over.

I did feel sorry for the good church folk as Marjoe strutted the aisles proclaiming the good news, knowing he didn't believe a word of it. But the optimist in me wondered how many times Marjoe may have been used by God and didn't even know it. Having just come off the Lonnie Frisbee viewing, in which God seemingly brings salvation to a kid on LSD, who then brings thousands to Christ while still struggling to get off the drug, one wonders if it's not possible that God can work through any broken vessel He chooses. In Marjoe, it is a hypocritical, unbelieving one.

There was something in me that liked the freedom with which the congregants were able to blatantly dance and worship in front of their Creator. So childlike, so trusting. So innocent and really in love with God and in desire of His goodness. I wish for these kinds of worshippers that they could have all of this without the background blows of exploitation and manipulation. Having come from (some of) this background myself, and having left it long ago, I've come to the conclusion that my wish will never come true. Sadly, there's just too much humanity and desire for power in us needy, greedy humans.

Regardless, I found that I liked the Marjoe character in all of his hypocrisy and inauthenticism much more than the preacher in one of the tent meetings who, over and over, kept reminding us that once he really dedicated his life to God he was given a Cadillac. Eek. I didn't like his message at all. I'd take Marjoe's fake message over that guy's real one any day.

This is a Netflix four out of five stars. It would be four-and-a half, but Netflix doesn't allow 1/2 stars. The reason it falls short of a FIVE is that the film needed to delve deeper into Marjoe's adult relationship with his parents. I really wish we'd have been offered more of a glimpse of the whole family, all grown up. When his dad shows up to be in a service with him, we never fully know whether his dad is a fake or a real believer... And his mom isn't even heard from in Marjoe's adult life. Is she dead? Did they divorce? Where is she now? We just don't know. And his dad mentions that Marjoe is the fourth generation evangelist in their family, so what I would have liked to know is, Was great-grandpa that was a missionary to Liberia a fake too? And was grandpa a fake in whatever evangelism he did, or was he the real deal?

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