Boomer: Well, well, well. Here we are. The world is in utter chaos, and we are a rudderless nation in the middle of dealing with a global pandemic by reopening too early. Meanwhile, a strong and moral resistance to centuries of racial inequality and police violence is being met with more militarized police violence, garnering so much attention that even Uncle Jed is questioning his long-held Lost Cause beliefs and moms and dads across the country are being radicalized against fascism in a way unseen since WWII, calling for the abolition of “policing” as we know it. But why are we leaderless? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the greatest weakness of church-going Americans is that they can be manipulated by a man who espouses their faith but is in fact nothing but a con-man and a snake oil salesman?
Marjoe is a 1972 documentary produced and directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan about the life and “ministry” of Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe is (as we are told more than once) the fourth in a line of evangelical pastors, and his parents Marge and Vernon Gortner, were real pieces of work. After spending his entire childhood from age 4 to 14 as a gimmicky “child” preacher, complete with the cadences of the Evangelical movement then and now (“And the wrath-uh of God-uh” etc.), the now-adult Marjoe is on one last tour through the revival-style meetings happening throughout 1971 America, tailed by a documentary film crew. Along the way, he reveals the way that the movers and shakers of the contemporary revival scene scam, guilt, and browbeat their congregants and simple believers in order to rake in the all-mighty dollar.
Marjoe’s life is not all that different from that of any other child celebrity: haunted by child abuse, being used as a source of immense wealth from which he does not directly benefit as an adult, the pressures of maintaining a public persona that supports a certain narrative. He cites examples of being mock-drowned by his mother (so as not to leave marks and bruises on him that might be noticed due to his presence in the public eye) among other examples, which is horrifying. Creating the narrative that God reached down from Heaven to give him a divine mission to convert the unwashed masses (“the teenagers, the narcotics, the dopeheads”), his parents put him in front of an audience before an age most would be in kindergarten. As a result, there was never a time in his life where Marjoe Gortner ever truly believed the message that he was preaching, as he was exposed to the truths of the revivalist circuit as a pit of liars and confidence artists from before he could read.
Horrifying as his childhood is, the doc doesn’t treat Marjoe as a brave exposer of the truth. There’s definitely a human being in there, and he’s humanized to an extent, but when it comes to remorse, he feels more guilty that his rhetoric has to be so laden with fire and brimstone, wishing he could use more love-oriented language than the punishment-avoidance conversion technique of the Southern Evangelical movement. In a lounging position on a waterbed from which he pontificates about the various gimmicks of different religious leaders within the movement, he never seems anything other than at ease with himself, no doubt a result of having to get over the innate fear of public speaking before losing any baby teeth. There’s no remorse when he pours bills out of a brown paper bag and recalls how much bigger the “take” was in his youth. He’s just pulling the lid off of a large scale sleight of hand grift because his particular gimmick is on its last legs. Whether he’s coaching his film crew about how to interact with the True Believers that they will encounter along the way, imitating the way that a particular matriarchal church leader hisses into the microphone in an early form of ASMR, or casually agreeing to go with one of the hosting church families to their Brazilian “farm” (possibly referring to a practice that continues to this day), he’s never not performing, either in his life as Brother Marjoe or Marjoe the narc. There’s a disconnect, always.
Marjoe won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1972, but shockingly for a film that won such an award, it was lost for decades. During its original release, the film was never released further south than Des Moines, Iowa, which is ironically where the church behind the Thief in the Night Rapture series was located, and where those films were shot (Thief likewise came out in 1972). Other than a rare (and shoddy) VHS release, the film was largely forgotten until the original negatives were rediscovered in 2002 and released as a DVD in 2005. Although it gets a little thin in parts (sometimes containing long shots of entire church musical numbers), there are some truly great images in this film that imbue it with a fair amount of comedic irony. There’s never any menace, and Marjoe’s outing of not only himself but his cohorts as morally bankrupt scammers convincing little old ladies to send them their “cookie jar money” is never treated as a threat, just an inevitability. And yet, nearly half a century later, this malicious predation on the financial security of middle and lower class people under the banner of their faith is not only still happening, it’s happened at such a scale that it managed to reach the White House. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
Brandon, one of the things I noticed on this watch was a similarity between the shooting style of some of the party scenes and the nonsexual parts of the parties in Funeral Parade of Roses. There’s definitely an element of Gonzo documentarianism on the part of the film crew (love the shot of an usher pocketing an offering) as they immerse themselves in this society that runs parallel to but separate from the mainstream. Where do you stand on this kind of punk aesthetic, either in documentaries in general or Marjoe specifically?
Brandon: I don’t know if “punk” is the first cultural touchstone that came to mind here, if only because the movie was so entrenched in the youth counterculture of its own time: hippies. Even Gortner’s desire to shift his sermons away from the language of Fear towards the language of Love feels very much tied to hippie-dippy sentiments, but that’s not to say that the political thrust of the film is toothless or purposeless. One of the most electrifying sequences is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the documentary crew as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. As he explains they can’t smoke, have sex, or literally let their hair down while attending the tent revivals, you get a clear sense of just how different the two worlds that Gortner alternates between truly are, drawing clear cultural battle lines between The Hippies and The Evangelists as two opposing factions. That rundown also gives the film a genuine thrilling purpose as political insurgency, a reminder that loosey-goosey “Peace & Love” hippie ideologies actually had strong roots in direct, genuine political action through student-movement protests. They were more or less punks with a different wardrobe & soundtrack (and apparently smoked the same abundance of cigarettes), so it makes sense their cinema would share similar D.I.Y. sensibilities.
It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary this movie would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. As Boomer mentioned, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo at the time that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. Even just recording & broadcasting in plain, no-frills terms the financial side of evangelist preaching was met as an anti-social political act that had to be extinguished. Although Marjoe does not touch on our current, global moment of protest in opposition to systemic racist injustice (outside the aforementioned Christian voter base that keeps Trump in office, despite him being the least Christian man alive), that kind of fearless infiltration & subversion of a powerful, corrupt institution very much resonates as an admirable document of political action. That only becomes more apparent as you get a sense of how limited the means & resources of the hippies behind the picture would have been compared to the big-money evangelists they intended to expose, which the film contrasts in Marjoe’s backroom money-counting in church vs. the low-key hippie party scenes he floats through when he’s off-duty.
In terms of style, the gonzo approach reminded me most of the Maysles Brothers documentaries of the era, often referred to as “Direct Cinema.” Given that this was made just a couple years after the Maysles’ landmark door-to-door Bible shilling doc Salesman, I have to imagine Marjoe pulled some influence from their intimate, handheld cinema verité approach to documentary filmmaking. That’s to be expected. What really surprised me as the film went on, however, was how much it also reminded me of a concert film. Gortner was trained (read: tormented) from a young age to be a live entertainer, and once the film settles into its groove it really becomes fascinated with taking in his performances in full, as if this were a document of a charismatic rock n’ roll singer’s farewell tour. Allowing his lengthy, somewhat repetitive sermons play out in full was a risk, as the film might have felt like actually being in church if the audience were allowed to become bored (which is how I remember what it was like being in church, anyway). Gortner is such a peculiarly entertaining presence (especially once you realize he doesn’t believe a word he’s preaching) that the film more or less gets away with that gamble, though. Marjoe ultimately feels like a Maylses-style concert doc with gleefully subversive politics, which is to say that it’s very much of its time in countercultural context & aesthetics.
Since both this movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—it seems to me that the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself. It’s easy to see why someone would want to build an entire feature film around him; he’s damn peculiar, truly one-of-a-kind. Hanna, what do you see as being Marjoe’s most distinguishing, most fascinating characteristics? What’s most captivating to you about him, either as a performer or as a latent political subversive?
Hanna: I think the thing I found most captivating about Marjoe is that, despite the fact that he’s a dope-smoking radical who disavows organized religion, he commands attention in the way I imagine a prophet would, whether he’s writhing onstage or calmly discussing the corruption of the holy circuit with the shaggy-maned camera crew. Marjoe’s tender vulnerability in quiet moments is touching; he is completely honest about his relationship with his parents, his movement away from religion, his inclinations towards showmanship, and his own culpability in the exploitation of God-fearing old biddies. In his role as a preacher, he is totally enrapturing and convincing, even when the subject of salvation is a (very confused) black lab. I found myself believing in him in every frame, even when he was praising a God that I knew he didn’t believe in, which was an uncomfortable feeling as a very secular, politically left human. There is some kind of ecstatic divinity in showmanship which, like all things, can be used to gain power over people, and Marjoe was built to harness that from the beginning.
Beyond his natural charisma, Marjoe’s an absolutely effective subject because he’s a true infiltrator into the corruption of the Pentecostal circuit, having lived and breathed the gospel of Godly performance as a child. I’ve seen documentaries that are similar to Marjoe in the past, where an investigative reporter infiltrates a community either as a show of empathetic curiosity or as a straight-up exposé. In the live taping of Darren Brown’s Miracle, for instance, Brown simulates the illusory healing of a gospel revival for his crowd to prove, with a smirk, that it’s all bullshit. This approach is effective, and independent critique of any system is obviously important, but it means something totally different for an insider to step out and expose the rot of a tightly-knit and corrupt community, especially when that insider benefits from the corruption. When Marjoe went into detail about the practices that preachers pushed to get a buck, I felt like I was in a war behind enemy lines.
All of this is complicated, obviously, by the fact of Marjoe’s participation as a preacher all these years, knowing that his paid performances and claims of Godliness are immoral. He even admits to dipping back into preaching when he’s running low on cash, just because he doesn’t really know what else to do. We catch him at just the right time in his life, when his hypocrisy is at a boiling point; he enjoys the showmanship and the spectacle of the Pentecostal church, but can’t reconcile the moral implications of his capitalist evangelism. He says he wants to shed a light on the exploitation of parishioners in these churches through the documentary; Britnee, do you think he succeeds in redeeming himself? What do you think about the tension between his politics and his preaching?
Britnee: My thoughts on Marjoe as an individual constantly changed throughout the documentary. At first, I thought he was going to be this badass who would expose the cruel world that exists behind the scenes of evangelicalism, but that’s not really how it went down. He never showed true remorse for the scamming that he was partaking in during the documentary. In a way, he seemed to be proud of how smart he was for getting away with it. There were moments where I started to think that his followers were foolish, and if they were willing to throw their money at him so willingly, then that’s on them. But then I spent some time reading the crowd. The documentary does focus intently on the crowds at all of Marjoe’s events, and it’s clearly purposeful. The crowds are made up of the elderly, the disabled, and people who show how hard life has ridden them through the expressions on their faces. These are people who are desperate for hope, and Marjoe has no shame in lying to them to take what little money they have to offer. If he was truly trying to expose the crimes of the evangelical world, he would have revealed the truth to his followers at some point during the filming of the documentary. He never really redeems himself in the way that I expected him to.
Being the star of this documentary gave him the same high as being the star of his revivals, and I found this so fascinating to watch. Marjoe loves attention so much that he doesn’t really care what he needs to do to get it. He didn’t agree to do this documentary because he wanted to do something good; he did it because it was a documentary about himself. I’m currently watching The Comeback, and Marjoe definitely has his share of Valerie Cherish moments. This isn’t exactly his fault, since he’s been groomed to be a scamming showman since the age of four. Our early childhood years are so important to the way that we develop mentally, and he was robbed of any chance of being an empathetic human being by his parents. I don’t think that Marjoe is a good, genuine person, but I don’t hold that against him because he never had a chance to be one.
Hanna: I found Marjoe’s rockstar aspirations to be pretty fascinating, because he does a good job of exuding that raw physical sensuality while yelping his praises to God. Don’t tell me you don’t love those hips, congregation! In another universe, Prince might have been an A+ preacher.
Brandon: I was delighted to discover that Marjoe was able to convert his hammy charisma into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s, including a starring role in the Italian Star Wars knockoff Starcrash. It’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where his acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store.
Boomer: My favorite (and also most infuriating) visual is from the church near the end, in which the lady preacher is talking about how hard up her church is and is really, really milking the congregation for their tithe . . . only for the camera to zoom in on her jewel-encrusted brooch
Britnee: Other than the occasional Universalist service, I don’t really attend church. I also grew up Catholic, where the services were extremely quiet. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to attend an evangelical service, but I’m too scared to do it. Mega churches and evangelical preaching have always made me uncomfortable. I get a horrible knot in my stomach just by seeing a picture of Joel Olsteen or passing by a megachurch. Watching Marjoe sparked the curiosity in me again to know what that experience is like in person. Does the charisma of these preachers come across stronger in person than they do in the YouTube videos I’ve watched? I’ve fallen down the Kenneth Copeland YouTube rabbit hole since his wild COVID-19 video was posted, and I am just blown away by the idea of anyone giving a penny to someone like this. I guess not much has changed since Marjoe.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
-The Swampflix Crew