Welcome Back, Marjoe! Relic of Days When Christianity Rocked

The latest idiocies from Pat Robertson cast a new light on a long-lost document about the God Biz. I’m speaking

The latest idiocies from Pat Robertson cast a new light on a long-lost document about the God Biz. I’m speaking of the Oscar-winning 1972 documentary Marjoe, unavailable for some time now, recently rediscovered and opening again on Jan. 13 here at the I.F.C., with a DVD release soon after.

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It’s a film I have a special relationship with (full disclosure to come), having been a colleague of the filmmakers at The Voice when it was made (I had no part in the making of it). Marjoe’s co-producer-directors, Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, were friends as well, but before I get into even fuller disclosure, let me talk about what suddenly occurred to me about Marjoe when I saw it again—this time on a screener DVD of the print that Ms. Kernochan (a screenwriter who has gone on to win a second Oscar for a documentary short called Thoth) recovered from a near-forgotten archive.

I had a whole different take on the film this time, a whole different take on the kind of evangelical world that Marjoe set out to expose. It seems to me the film exposes something else now, something about the innocence of that world compared to the Politics of God that dominate the contemporary evangelical world—indeed, the rest of the world as well. In the more naïve time during which Marjoe was made, it was a world subject to the same hustling and corruption as the rest of showbiz (with a greater hypocrisy factor, maybe). Nonetheless, in some ways, the God Biz was better when it was merely a cash machine back then. When it offered believers value for their cash rather than “values” for their cash. When it offered relief from their sins and surplus assets and gave them either the illusion of sanctity or the excitement of entertainment in return. Before preachers decided they had God personally advising them on politics for the sake of the faithful.

MARJOE, FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T HEAR OF IT, was seen at the time as a groundbreaking, iconoclastic (to some, blasphemous), behind-the-scenes look at an evangelical preacher, Marjoe Gortner (first name a combo of Mary and Joseph, get it?). He’d been a kind of child star of the holy-roller circuit, a fourth-generation Pentecostal traveling-tent-show evangelist. He’d preached and led crusades in short pants, even performed a wedding ceremony at age 5, gave it up when he was 14 and then, in his 20’s, went back on the circuit, this time as a total cynic. First for the money, and then— when the hypocrisy sickened him, he claims—in order to expose the fraudulence of the scene. He elected to leave the business but go back on the road, back on the circuit, one more time, but this time with a difference—a very big difference.

He made a decision to betray his entire culture by putting on shows for unsuspecting folk (unsuspecting of his motives), whipping them into ecstatic frenzies and then allowing himself to be filmed counting the cash and exemplifying the crass with his preacher cronies, claiming to reveal the greed and manipulation behind the entire traveling-gospel circuit.

He basically became a mole on behalf of the filmmakers, a very public mole within the evangelical circuit. He’d cause tent-show worshippers to faint from his rhythmical ravings and then, with the cameras rolling, expose the tricks of the trade in conversation with his fellow Heaven ’n’ Hell hucksters.

Typically, he told of how he’d found a certain special ink that only turned red when activated by moisture, and how he’d paint a cross on his forehead with this invisible ink before he’d start preaching—and lo and behold, when he got all sweated up from ranting and raving about Jesus, the credulous worshippers would see, yes, a red cross emerge on his forehead, an apparent bloody stigmata.

Then there would be scenes of Marjoe and some tent-show hustlers talking about how it was all about the cash, about their real-estate investments, the phony charities, the casual contempt for the suckers who bought it all.

Remember, this film came out in 1972, just before the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers made talk-show evangelicals into celebs and then, suddenly, into brilliant political minds able to tell us what God thinks on every puny piece of legislation that comes before Congress—that is, when they’re not wishing hurricanes and death on people the way Pat Robertson does, most recently on the citizens of the town of Dover, Penn., whom he consigned to doom for rejecting creationism in schools, and Ariel Sharon, whose affliction Mr. Robertson attributed to his Gaza withdrawal. Oh, and don’t forget that he also believed that America basically deserved 9/11 because of gay rights and other “transgressions.” Can’t somebody in his flock tell Reverend Pat to shut his pie-hole?

IN ANY CASE, MARJOE REMAINS—to my mind—a remarkably audacious, brave act to have made this film (not necessarily by Marjoe, who was vainly seeking to make himself a movie star but seldom got beyond basic cable and forgettable films). But rather by the filmmakers, who were not just saying what everyone had been saying about the tent-show revival circuit since Elmer Gantry, but actually documenting the backstage calculation of it all.

Still, seeing it now, it struck me what a relatively innocent racket the God Biz used to be. It was entertainment for excitement-starved rural populaces in an era before even basic cable became a constitutional right. (It’s not?) On one level, it was a show for those who couldn’t get to Broadway, and in its way better than most of what did get to Broadway.

But it was something more, too. What struck me seeing it after three decades was this eternal paradox: Fake preachers, fake charismatics of any kind, can nonetheless deliver real, altered, sometimes exalted states of being. What fascinated me about the film this time was not its exposé of the preachers, but its attentiveness to the flock, who—fleeced though they were about to be—clearly got something, some seemingly higher state of being from it all.

I think it’s about time for some of that fuller disclosure I promised, although it will take us back to the Village Voice culture of the time—a subject of no compelling interest, perhaps, to the wider world, but a culture that, when I think back on it, was far more engaged than I realized with emerging and marginalized religious and spiritual phenomena. There was, of course, the gifted Don McNeill, who wrote about counterculture spiritual cults; there was Paul Cowan, who opened himself up to the complexities and self-questioning he faced when he wrote about fundamentalist communities. I know one of the stories I remember most fondly was one I did while traveling through the Hopi reservations and discovering a bitter feud within the Hopi religious leadership, in which one faction was being sadly Svengali’d by some phony flying-saucer prophet into believing that aliens were coming to fulfill the apocalyptic Hopi prophecy of the End of Days. And then there was the one I did about the cult that believed that a banjo player in Jim Kweskin’s jug band was God. (What if he was?)

Anyway, take, if you choose to, my praise of Marjoe with a teaspoon of salt, because I really have a feeling of gratitude to Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan unrelated—on the surface, anyway—to the film. They were very welcoming to me when I arrived at The Voice, having recently fled Yale Graduate School—where, it’s true, I had immersed myself in the religious and metaphysical poetry of the 17th century, but was otherwise unprepared for the onslaught of New York’s downtown hip culture in the 70’s.

I was a poor little lamb who could easily have been fleeced by some cult Marjoe (as had a few Voice writers before me), were it not for my friendship with Howard and Sarah. Howard was the veritable Homer of hip Village culture. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of every feud and scandal in Bohemia (he knew Yoko when she was still a fledgling member of the Fluxus group, if you know what I mean)—which he would recount in hilarious detail. And he could enumerate every cult or movement leader’s frailties and betrayals of ideals. And Sarah, though my own age, had already developed a totally cool, appraising eye for phonies. In a way, their skepticism was saying that every variety of guru, from Jerry Rubin to Timothy Leary, anyone who claimed to have The Answer (and believe me, there were a lot of them), was a kind of phony evangelist, a Marjoe even before they met Marjoe—a hustler at some level. So when they did meet Marjoe himself, one is tempted to say that it was a match made in heaven.)

In fact, Sarah was the very first person I glimpsed at The Voice when I walked in for my job interview with Dan Wolf, the founding editor. I think she’d just begun working on Howard’s then-legendary hip-maven “Scenes” column: She was an intimidating six-foot-tall, blond, Sarah-Lawrence-turned-bohemian-goddess type (check out her Web site at www.sarahkernochan.com). But to my surprise, she was kind to me; she didn’t question my right to be there in all my grad-school dorkiness.

Anyway (is that enough full disclosure?), it was Sarah who rediscovered the lost Marjoe print. It was surprising to me to learn from her a few years ago that it had been lost—that all screenable prints had been lost, at least. (One deteriorating, unwatchable copy existed in the Motion Picture Academy Archives.) The film got terrific reviews when it came out. Richard Schickel, then at Life, called it “a wonderful work” and wrote, “I left Marjoe grateful for an absorbing film and convinced, ironically, that I had been in the presence of a truly amazing grace, a wonder and a mystery.”

And it won an Oscar—what more can you ask? But apparently, the original print negative had been lost since the 70’s. It was only when Sarah was finishing Thoth at the DuArt post-production labs here in the city that she happened to recall that DuArt had worked on Marjoe—and finally discovered all the original materials in their vault.

Watching that print this time was almost like seeing another movie for me. Or was it another me seeing the same movie? A more complex movie, or a more complex me? Both, probably. This time, the star wasn’t Marjoe, but all those people he’d make shiver, shake and faint with ecstasy, religious or otherwise. It made you wonder whether their experience, however cynically induced, was more intense, more real, more valid than that of the cynic who induced it. Made you understand the appeal of a charismatic, even a phony charismatic. Made you see the potential danger of such a frenzy-inducing orator, but also, in this case, its relative harmlessness. Made you wonder where it all went wrong. Made you wonder if what went wrong was giving a false authority to a book, to the letter rather than the spirit. Made you wonder how so many—of so many faiths, not just Marjoe’s—have traded their intelligence for a mess of pottage served up by the likes of Pat Robertson.

I e-mailed Ms. Kernochan (now married to theatrical eminence James Lapine) to ask her if the film’s import had changed for her in any way. She replied that she had a similar feeling about the disjuncture between the Pentecostalist experience and the political exploitation of evangelism: “I believe many of the people are having a genuine spiritual experience …. I think the most important thing Marjoe says in the film is that the experience, the release, is good for them and that it’s a shame that it so often is married to intolerance.” She added the piquant detail that one of the preachers they filmed “was arrested for running a stolen car operation after the movie came out.”

IT WAS EXACTLY A YEAR AGO that I wrote a piece for The Observer (“Disaster Ignites Debate: ‘Was God in the Tsunami?’,” Jan. 10, 2005), in which I lamented the way that people would dopily give God credit for every “miraculous” rescue, perfectly happy to envision Him reaching out an interventionist hand, yet unable to criticize a God who, by that logic, could as easily have intervened to save a hundred thousand innocents. Lamented those, like our friend the Reverend Pat, who are content to see God slaughter innocents to punish people purportedly condemned by his reading of the testaments.

It’s the difference between the benign illusion of the believers you see in Marjoe and the malign use of holy books to terrorize believers and nonbelievers alike.

I’ll take Marjoe over Pat Robertson any day.

Welcome Back, Marjoe! Relic of Days When Christianity Rocked