Bonus Features: Marjoe (1972)

Our current Movie of the Month, the behind-the-scenes Christian evangelist exposé Marjoe, is one of the more captivating specimens of the “Direct Cinema” movement of the 1970s. It recalls both a politically subversive, Maysles Brothers-style documentary and a subversive take on the concert film, gawking at the stage performances of a lapsed Christian preacher who doesn’t believe his own sermons but needs to keep the show on the road to in order to pay the bills. Since both the 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—the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself: a bizarre, charismatic creature who was trained (read: tortured) from a young age to be a kind of sideshow performer in the name of the Lord. As a result, recommending further viewing for Marjoe fans must take into account Gortner’s idiosyncratic characteristics as a screen presence more so than the circumstances of the film itself.

It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary Marjoe 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. At the time, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. It may have taken home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but if you lived anywhere south of De Moines, Iowa, chances are you never got a chance to see it until it hit home video decades later. Because of the film’s uniquely 1970s politics and the distinct peculiarities of Marjoe Gortner himself, it’s difficult to recommend many films that entirely overlap with its subject or mood. Unfortunately, though, Gortner is not the only sideshow attraction preacher out there with a morbid life story to tell.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its eccentric, politically subversive wavelength.

Jesus Camp (2006)

One of the most electrifying sequences in Marjoe is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the hippie documentary crew on how to act while socializing among Evangelicals, as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. This unspoken culture war between documentarian & subject immediately reminded me of the 2006 doc Jesus Camp, which chilled me to my core when I first saw it in college. Jesus Camp is careful not to tip its hand in revealing its political POV, at least not as overtly as in Marjoe‘s hotel room debriefing. Instead, it allows the Christian Evangelists it documents to define the battle lines as they see it. In their own words, the Evangelists claim they are engaged in a genuine Culture War with secularists, declaring “We want to reclaim America for Christ.” For once, it’s not the countercultural hippie artists who are being honest about the moral combat perpetrated by well-funded Christians with a pathological persecution complex; the fascists just openly, proudly admit what they’re up to.

Much of what makes Marjoe Gortner such a fascinating subject is that he was profoundly fucked up by an abusive childhood that trained him to be a sideshow Child Preacher in order to fatten his parents’ pockets. By the time the documentary catches up with him, however, those abuses are in the distant past, represented only by a few scratchy audio recordings & still photographs. Jesus Camp documents Evangelist indoctrination of young children in real time. Threatened with eternal damnation in torturous Hellfire if they don’t speak in tongues or if they dare enjoy secular pop music (or any other minor indulgence that doesn’t directly honor God), the children of Jesus Camp are deliberately warped by the adults around who run their Christian-themed summer camp (most notably head camp pastor Becky Fischer, the most infuriating villain in the history of cinema). The adults proudly boast that they’re indoctrinating the kids to become “prayer warriors” to fight in an ideological army for George W. Bush & the Republican Party – the exact kind of militarized Christian voter devotion that now keeps Trump in office all these years later, despite him being the least Christian man alive. The children are scared out of their little minds and just follow along as best as they can, lest they burn in Hell forever for minor infractions against God’s Will.

The icing on the cake in this pairing is that one of the central subjects that arises in Jesus Camp is a child preacher who uses his youth as a gimmick to draw attention to his sermons. Seeing how that schtick worked out for Gortner in the long run, I sincerely hope that kid got out okay after the cameras stopped rolling.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)

Not all Evangelists are as villainous as Jesus Camp‘s Becky Fischer. If Marjoe Gortner’s any proof, they can even be weirdly lovable (even if still mildly terrifying). Case in point: Tammy Faye Bakker, former televangelist and unlikely queer icon (thanks to her public embrace of gay men during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in the 80s & 90s). From her trademark spackled eye makeup to her Evangelist puppet shows to her former Christian water park empire, Tammy Faye Bakker is a kind of nightmarishly unreal public figure, but she’s also unexpectedly sweet & adorable once you get past her eccentric surface. Her own documentary is not as prestigious or artfully crafted as Marjoe Gortner’s, but it may function as better PR, as it allows her to charm the audience for as long as she feels like chattering.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a shamelessly trashy documentary that allows Tammy Faye Bakker to tell her rise-to-televangelist-fame story in her own words, while also openly having campy fun with the details. Made by the same production company that has since sunk all its efforts into the RuPaul’s Drag Race empire, World of Wonder, the film has a deliberately cheap, made-for-TV tone. It effectively feels like a spoof of sensationalist true-crime reporting on 90s television, right down to RuPaul living his full Behind the Music fantasy as the narrator. The movie catches Faye after the most incredible chapters of her life have closed (as opposed to Marjoe, which documents Gortner while he’s still active on the Evangelist circuit), but her bubbly, bizarro personality and her history as one of the very first televangelist celebrities more than makes up for its timing. She even offers a universally detestable villain for the audience to hiss at while describing the figures behind her professional downfall: Jerry Fucking Falwell, the devil himself.

The WOW boys have almost too much fun while playing up Tammy’s inescapable camp value. They even use her vintage puppet characters to announce the chapter titles between her rambling anecdotes. Not every documentary has to be as politically fired-up as Marjoe or Jesus Camp to be worthwhile, however, and at least this one’s puppet show goofballery appears to have been the inspiration for Drag Race‘s beloved puppet challenge (Tammy Faye offhandedly uses the phrase “Everybody loves puppets” in a scene where she’s pitching TV shows to a bewildered producer who doesn’t know what to do with her).

Starcrash (1978)

While Tammy Faye is oddly charismatic in a similar way, there’s no substitute for Marjoe Gortner himself. I was delighted to discover after watching his own documentary that Gortner was able to leverage the film’s notoriety into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s. His hammy, off-kilter charisma is perfect for cheap-o genre filmmaking, which are always benefited by eccentric oddballs who audiences would never see in better-funded, better-regulated productions. Besides, it’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where Gortner’s acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store. We were so close to making that happen!

The jewel of Gortner’s B-movie repertoire seems to be the Roger Corman production Starcrash, a shameless Italian knockoff of Star Wars. Even among other eccentric personalities (and legitimate actors) like David Hasselhoff, Christopher Plummer, and Caroline Munro, Gortner stands out as a captivating oddity. There are space aliens, metallic giantesses, and retro-futuristic bikini babes all over the picture, but it’s Gortner’s Orphan Annie curls and weirdo charisma that always draws the eye whenever he’s onscreen. The movie makes as much use of his weirdo charisma as it can, casting him as a telepathic, superpowered space alien with a laser sword (not to be confused with a lightsaber). Even the booming voice that overdubs his dialogue only accentuates his unconventional screen presence. It reminded me of when Muppets in Space explained Gonzo’s origins as a space alien who crash landed to Earth; it’s the first time his presence on this planet really made sense.

While it can be a little boring in patches, Starcrash is mostly fun, delirious late-night trash. It has no original ideas or clear sense of purpose (there’s a Millennium Falcon on its official poster), but goddamn if it isn’t beautiful. It’s so cheaply, gaudily lit & costumed that it stumbles into some genuine psychedelia that any cheap-o space adventure movie should envy. Gortner’s presence only enhances that entertainment value, which I believe would be true even without knowing the backstory of his Evangelist past. Something about seeing him in space just feels right; I wish he could have travelled there more often.

-Brandon Ledet

Show Dogs (2018)

Show Dogs is the most bizarrely problematic talking animal film I’ve seen in theaters since the Kevin Spacey talking cat pic Nine Lives two summers ago. It’s so problematic, in fact, that its own studio has since censored scenes of the film deemed dangerous for children’s well-being, something I learned was going to happen a mere hour after I left the cinema. Dangerous, censored, transgressive art is far from the first descriptor that leaps to mind when you set expectations for a children’s movie starting Ludacris as a rapping Rottweiler, but the original unedited version of Show Dogs is now effectively a renegade, outlawed production officially deemed morally unfit for public consumption. Its uncensored form, which screened in theaters nationwide only for the span of a week, has been orphaned as a lost art scene moment, a cinematic event. Banishing its real-world evil back into the pits of Hell was a necessary action Global Road Entertainment should be proud of taking, as the message its deleted footage was sending kids was genuinely risking their safety. Its deletion is also beneficial to adults looking to the ill-advised production for a stray whiff of absurdism, raising the film’s value from sub-Air Bud atrocity to a The Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail. Show Dogs is now one of the premier cinematic events of 2018, if not only for what footage it’s lost.

The rapping Rottweiler voiced by Ludacris is an undercover cop from a confusing universe where animals can talk, but humans don’t understand them. Their flapping CGI mouths form full sentences and they hold real jobs in offices and everything, but humans just hear barks & meows and so on. At one point a dog even complains, “Why can’t people understand what dogs say?” I don’t know; you tell us. It’s your confusing universe. Anyway, the toughest cop on the force is assigned to go undercover as a show dog (Hey, that’s the name of the show) in a heist plot to rescue a stolen, abused baby panda from underground dealers of rare & exotic animals. Keeping with the tropes of every buddy cop movie ever, he’s teamed up with another hard-ass hothead (Will Arnett in full TMNT mode), a human partner who must learn to collaborate with the canine cop & trust his instincts. The reluctant partners build a heist team meant to prepare the undercover pup for passing as a primped & groomed show dog, most notably including Natasha Lyonne as a pet stylist (with an incredible sense of style of her own; she looks fantastic here) & Stanley Tucci as a former Best in Show champion chihuahua with a snotty French sensibility. The team pull through to save the day, never discovered as frauds, and return the stolen baby panda back to its family (in captivity, weirdly). They even learn a few life lessons (and scar a few thousand children who caught the film early enough in its run) along the way.

The thread that has been removed from Show Dogs is one about grooming, but not the kind you might expect given the film’s setting. One of the cop-dog’s biggest hurdles in remaining undercover as a show dog is the Judge’s Inspection segment of the competition, in which dog show panelists must physically handle the dogs’ genitals. A street-tough police dog, Ludacris’s canine lead Max struggles to endure this indignity without instinctively turning around to bite the person invading his privacy. He’s coached out of this instinct by Arnett & Tucci, who train him to “go to his happy place,” mentally dissociating while his “private parts” are being handled without his consent. The climactic triumph of the film is a sequence in which he mentally transports to a psychedelic Eden where Arnett & Lyonne tell him he’s a good boy and reenact the climax of Dirty Dancing with him against a background of kaleidoscopic fireworks . . . all while his genitals are being inspected by a stranger. Can you see why this might be a dangerous life lesson to teach impressionable children? It wasn’t lost on the concerned parents of the mommy blogosphere. One (rightfully) alarmist piece written by Terina Maldonado of East Mesa Macaroni Kid gained enough traction to have Global Road Entertainment pull the footage from the film. The “happy place” tactic is explained in that piece to be a very real method that real-life child molesters use to “groom” their young victims into unquestioning compliance, a factoid I can’t believe I typed without vomiting. Maldonado’s account of Show Dogs is extremely (and understandably) fixated on this aspect of the film’s plot, making me assume it was going to be a consistent throughline throughout the film. Instead, it is (or was) contained to a single training montage & a climactic exchange with the dog show judge. At first, the limited amount of “private parts inspection” footage made me question just how potentially impactful the film’s grooming message really was. When the judge’s inspection is met with a dead-silent horror atmosphere where the soundtrack is overwhelmed by the dog’s pounding heartbeat, however, there’s nothing you can qualify the exchange as but a rape scene. In a kids’ movie. About talking animals. Evil, but also incredible that it ever screened at all.

The dark truth about Show Dogs is that even with the genital molestation/”happy place” narrative thread removed, the film is still deeply flawed on a moral level. At its heart, this is a film about toxic masculinity (You thought it was about adorable talking animals? Fool!), but it’s also a perpetuator of toxic masculinity. Max is “a street dog with a temper” that has to learn life lessons like “Maybe it’s not the worst idea to get some help,” which is a much more adorable sentiment to convey to kids than the one that’s been censored into oblivion. What’s uncomfortable about his gradual change of heart is the way this “alpha” dog (speaking of canine terms that have evil cultural contexts elsewhere) is characterized in opposition to the implied frivolity & vanity of the show dog world, something more femme than his masc sensibilities can handle without embarrassment. It’s weird enough that other dogs allude to the size of Max’s dick, that a lady-pigeon (voiced by Kate Micucci) fawns over his gruff masculinity in lines like “He can flip this bird any day,” and that he’s taught humility in a scene where Arnette & Lyonne wax his anus (again, without consent). What’s really fucked is where he & Arnett finally bond when the owner chooses to not force him to breed against his will with an over-the-top flamboyant pup voiced by RuPaul. Now, in-film, RuPaul’s character is gendered as a female dog, but the gag plays as bizarrely homophobic anyway, as his over-the-top vocal performance (which includes a number of Drag Race catchphrases) disgusts Max in a way that reads distinctly as gay panic humor. Like with all of Show Dog’s sins against good taste & morality, its homophobia & toxic masculinity are bizarrely complex to the point of absurdity.

There are plenty of standard, cheap camp thrills to be found in Show Dogs’s minor joys as a 2010s, theatrically released talking-dog movie, a leftover relic from another time. I could try to sell this movie to you as an absurdist joy for watching Ludacris’s talking cop-dog perform impossible acrobatic maneuvers through cheap CGI or deliver hacky one-liners like “This is ludicrous!” or “I’m about to take a bite out of crime.” The truth is, though, that minor pleasures like Shaq voicing a Zen sheepdog named Doggy Lama or CGI dogs dabbing are just background noise for the film’s main draw: its propensity for real-world evil. Even with its “private parts inspection” narrative rightly removed, Show Dogs still has a genuinely menacing, toxic undertone that’s impressive in both its audacity & its cluelessness. Although its absurdist joys are minor, it’s a movie that must be seen to be believed (especially its original, intact “grooming” cut), as it’s tough to fathom how this many people, from the executives at Global Road down to the on-set catering crew, allowed it to happen. It’s more of a man-made disaster than a feature film in that way and all we can do as audiences is rubberneck at the wreckage. Don’t allow children to gaze at this atrocity, however; what they see could be scarring.

-Brandon Ledet

Hurricane Bianca (2016)

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three star

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It’s honestly not at all fair for me to make this comparison, since Bianca Del Rio (the drag persona of local boy-made-good Roy Haylock) was already a success long before she appeared on the show, but the campy drag queen comedy Hurricane Bianca feels like a sketch from RuPaul’s Drag Race stretched to a feature length film. The comedy sketches have never been the highlight of that show, which is more about fashion artistry & reality show competition than drag-themed SNL skits, but every now & then the right performer can make them worthwhile. Bianca Del Rio was already a fully developed talent by the time she arrived at (and won) Drag Race, so selling the comedy in the show’s aggressively corny bits was second nature to her. She actually might be the most over-qualified queen in the history of the show to helm a feature length broad comedy like Hurricane Bianca, which is even below such prestige-free ventures as SNL‘s Superstar & It’s Pat! movies in terms of production quality. Cameos & bit roles from Drag Race standouts like Willam, Alyssa Edwards, and RuPaul himself (out of drag, as a weatherman) only reinforce the film’s general expanded Drag Race sketch vibe and your enjoyment in (and patience with) Hurricane Bianca might depend largely on how much fun you have with that aspect of the show.

Presented as a storybook fairy tale (or, in the film’s terms, the tale of a fairy), Hurricane Bianca stars Haylock as a queer high school teacher from NYC who’s forced to find work in rural Texas to make do. Headed by an unusually hateful Rachel Dratch (applying her trademark SNL-style mugging to her role as a bigoted bully), the group of Conservative Texans this hopeless nerd science teacher/failed stand-up comedian interlopes reject him outright as a pariah (“There’s something queer about him. I just can’t put my finger on it.”) and our put-upon hero once again finds himself jobless. Then, in a plot straight out of an aborted Adam Sandler screenplay, the teacher gets re-hired at the same school as a woman, adopting his meant-to-be Bianca Del Rio persona almost 2/3rds into the runtime. Del Rio presents a dichotomy where drag equals confidence and the teacher transforms from a timid nerd to an instant queen bitch. Her Don Rickles insult-clown routine destroys the false superiority of Dratch’s evil bigot antagonist and the teen bullies who do such delightful things as take “Smear the queer” selfies with the one openly gay student in their school, whom they abuse daily. Strangely mirroring the third act of The Dressmaker, Hurricane Bianca gradually transforms into an absurd revenge fantasy in which drag queens have their day and the evil Texan Christians are put in their place by such cartoonish weapons as Bugs Bunny gags & surprise swarms of bees.

It’s difficult to say if Hurricane Bianca works as a starmaker for Del Rio, since it is such a for-fans-only proposition. The film is so cartoonishly silly & unapologetically queer that it’s bound to appeal to a very limited subset of camp-minded dorks, likely the exact crowd who would have followed Bianca’s career closely enough to hear about this very minor release in the first place. It very much feels like a SNL movie or a WWE Studios production in that way and, as a trash-gobbling dork myself, I would love nothing more than for Drag Race as a brand to keep making small scale movies that appeal only to its own insular audience (starting with Alyssa Edwards’s Ambrosia Salad character from this film, preferably). Within that limited scope framework, Hurricane Bianca is a resounding success. It provides Del Rio with a larger platform for her insult comedy, gives Haylock an excuse to appear out of drag to hopefully expand his familiarity, and actually has a surprisingly political bent to it between its sillier moments, especially in the way it spoofs the bigotry of Texan Christianity & attempts to provide hope for queer high school students who are continually bullied by their peers. I can’t say that if you aren’t already on board with Del Rio that you will be surprised & won over by what Hurricane Bianca provides. If you’re already a fan & you don’t often find yourself fast-forwarding through the sketch comedy bits on RuPaul’s Drag Race, however, you’ll likely have a gay ol’ time.

-Brandon Ledet

Drag Becomes Him (2015)

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fourstar

One of my favorite aspects of the drag queen reality show competition RuPaul’s Drag Race is that the system works. A lot of viewers believe a (completely believable) conspiracy that the show’s winners are predetermined & cherry picked for success (yet another theory that supports my contention that drag & pro wrestling are essentially the same thing), but I don’t really care if that’s true. My favorite contestants on the show are generally the queens crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar (except maybe in the recent case of Kim Chi), which is good enough for me, no matter what mechanism produces that result. I was curious, then, when I discovered a documentary on Jinkx Monsoon, the winner of season 4, lurking on Amazon Prime, as they were my favorite contestant on their season of the show. Truth be told, Drag Becomes Him is an interesting doc whether or not you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with any regularity. It’s essentially a portrait of an artist who happens to make it big in a crowded field of similar talents. Although ostensibly a vanity project, the film has very little vanity as it mostly shows drag performer Jinkx Monsoon in various stages of undress & overwhelming stress. It’s a low-key document of a significant time in the unglamorous life of a performer embedded in one of America’s most glamorous & most underappreciated art forms. And even as a standalone film divorced from Monsoon’s celebrity, Drag Becomes Him still commands an interesting, unique vision & narrative, a surprising feat for a film obviously crowdfunded & cheaply made.

Jinkx Monsoon states nakedly, both in a figurative & a literal sense, that they desire “to be known as an artist, not just a female impersonator”. A Seattle queen from a very artsy, performance-based scene (as opposed to the appearance-obsessed world of “pageant queens”), Monsoon has a kind of put-on, Old Hollywood demeanor that makes it difficult to differentiate between performer & character. A theater kid type who’s always “on”, Monsoon might be a bit much to have around as close friend, but they’re a joy to watch onscreen & seem to be very sweetly sincere in an art scene that seems prone to very jaded personalities. The film is structured around Jinkx explaining the basics of drag as an art form as they slowly apply makeup & accessories, making that awkward transition from looking like a Buffalo Bill-type psychopath while in half drag to becoming a larger than life persona. Simultaneously, a narrative emerges of both Monsoon’s personal life in a broken home & their professional career from performing at the age of 15 to cutting their teeth at local clubs to becoming an enterprise with several dedicated employees. Drag Becomes Him has the benefit of a wealth of footage from every stage of Monsoon’s career, but the way it juggles all of those narratives without seeming overburdened or reading like an A-B linear Wikipedia article points to a surprisingly adept team in terms of directing & editing. This is a small scale, low stakes documentary, but it’s one done exceedingly well.

One thing I did not expect form Drag Becomes Him was how wild Jinkx Monsoon would come across in their personal life. On RuPaul’s Drag Race they were kind of pigeonholed as a relatively tame personality in contrast with their competitors. Here, Jinkx does sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll as convincingly as any queen, getting stoned & partying in celebration in a newfound high point of their career (and deservedly so). The film has a completely different tone from Drag Race, skewing kinder & more gently sincere, but it does traffic in the same unapologetically gay headspace. The way it openly leers at masculine bodies is refreshing, since this kind of content can often be phonily de-sexed in order to put a wider audience at ease. Still, Monsoon’s life is far from one continuous, glamorous party and the film finds humor & fascination with the inconveniences of the logistics of drag: the indignity & discomfort of tucking, the machinations of taking a piss while buried under layers of clothing, typing while wearing cartoonishly long nails, etc. The only aspect of Monsoon’s life the film skips over is the narcolepsy revealed during their reign on television, which seems like a curious detail to avoid. Everything else is laid bare.

I don’t think you have to be a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race to enjoy Drag Becomes Him. The film carves out its own space entirely separate from the show’s very particular camp aesthetic. I was especially surprised by how it establishes a sort of digital pastel look all of its own that both serves its subject’s personality & helps distinguish the film as a work of art. I do think, however, that you’d be hard pressed to finish the doc without being at least somewhat a fan of Monsoon. They bare so much of their vulnerabilities as a real-life personality & their artistic sensibilities as a drag performer that it’s difficult to leave the film without feeling intimately connected. I entered Drag Becomes Him as a previous convert to all things Monsoon & I left as an even bigger, more dedicated fan. Jinkx is a talented artist & Drag Becomes Him makes a convincing, intimate case for how significant their art form can be.

-Brandon Ledet