Thursday, September 17, 2015

Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan | Marjoe

the religion addict

by Douglas Messerli

Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan (directors) Marjoe / 1972

There are at least two ways of perceiving Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan’s 1972 documentary on the evangelist, faith-healer Marjoe Gortner: to see it as the story of a con-man revealing his tricks and, in the process, trying to con his new movie audience into believing him to be a good actor; or to see it as a sad documentary of an abused child who grew up to regret his continuance of the only career for which he had been trained. In fact, the human being, Marjoe (much like his “combined” name, based on Mary and Joseph) encompasses both of these stories, which is what makes him so interesting to watch.

     If Gortner is a con-man, ripping off some of the poorest of Americans—which, self-admittedly he was, at one point estimating that he had earned nearly 3 million dollars, much of which his father later absconded with, leaving him and his mother in the lurch—he also worked incredibly hard and gave his audiences a great show. As a child, he was tortured by his mother, smothered in pillows and half-drowned if in rehearsals he forget his lines. None of the money he earned during those years, he insists, went to his pockets (although that is obviously to ignore his clothing, meals, and boarding). And, it is hard to know, given the fact the documentary shows only a few momentary clips of his childhood Pentecostal gatherings, if he was a truly effective child performer. But there is no question that the thin, strutting, dancing, singing, shouting, and praying 27-year old we observe in the four gatherings shown in this movie gives the crowd a lot for the 20 and 10 dollars he asks of them. Along with the choruses, the dancing of attending children and even some parishioners, as well as the antiphonal Sprechstimme of the other pastors, the Pentecostal audiences are awarded a grand participatory theater experience that few Broadway musicals could ever match. And then, there’s always the chance, that the church-goers might get the opportunity to fall into a trance, speak in tongues, and roll upon the ground in rapture!
      Nonetheless Gortner feels guilty, and takes the opportunity of joining up with a film crew to reveal both the hypocrisy of his acts and his manipulation of the believers. In these scenes— wherein Gortner gives up his secrets of how he has based some of his dancing movements on the performances of Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones and how to beg for every last penny the faithful have in their purses and pockets, and provokes others to admit (forgetting perhaps that they are on camera) how they use the media to successfully line their pockets with enough money buy Cadillacs, expensive jewelry, and even virgin land in Brazil—the likeable and charismatic Marjoe suddenly is transformed into a cynical, girl-chasing, hippie, dope-head who leaves us cold. In other words, it’s only when he pretending that we can really like the man; as a real everyday figure Gortner is a bore.

     Wisely, the film-makers give us only a few moments of the hipster rolling about on waterbed and speaking empty stone-out babble with late-night friends, and mostly concentrate their cameras on his spiritual performances. Smith and Kernochan, moreover, we blessed with the unexpected appearance of Gortner’s formerly-preaching father at the final event, where we see the usually unperturbed Marjoe sitting in near agony over another face-off with the grandest thief he could have even known—the father that stole not only his money, but his youth, his love, and, one might argue, left him as the hollow man he has become.

     Despite a great deal of attention this film received upon its premiere in New York and Los Angeles, which included winning an Academy Award for the best documentary, the film was not shown throughout most of the rest of the country, and, with the death of its disinterested distributor, Donald Rugoff, was almost lost. Sarah Kernochan—apparently the more involved of the two directors—had only one deteriorated and unusable copy of the film. It was only in 2002, quite by accident, that, while meeting at the building in Marjoe was first processed, someone mentioned to her that they were cleaning out their archives, where she found a negative, trailer, outtakes and other materials which allowed the film to be brought into a DVD. And only recently has the film been recognized for its quality.
     Marjoe Gortner went on to act in 15 later films, but none of them were of significance; his abilities as an actor, it became clear, were minimal. And in retrospect, we realize, that the charismatic boy and young evangelical adult was not acting as much as miming the role of a preacher man. Gortner, apparently, could perform no other role with such vivacity. Is it any wonder, as he himself admitted, that, despite is inability to believe, he had become “a religion addict.” As one woman quietly asked him on his last tour: “Have you ever thought that maybe Jesus really is working through you?” Marjoe’s seeming inability to think things out, ultimately, is what leaves a somewhat bitter taste in this viewer’s mouth.   

Los Angeles, September 17, 2015

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