Thursday 7 February 2013

I've got that old time religion in my hoard

Marjoe (1972) may have won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, but Cinema 5 did their damnedest to release the film as stealthily as possible, and all but buried it afterwards. There was a 1983 VHS release, but the film itself was thought lost until the negative was rediscovered in a vault, restored, screened and released on DVD in the 2000s. Which is obviously to the good: you won't watch a documentary like Marjoe this side of glory, so it'd be a shame if it was lost forever.

It's hardly surprising, though, that the distributor feared a backlash and virtually declined to release the film in the Bible Belt. Featuring an entirely faithless evangelist raking in the cash from Pentecostal congregations and casually sharing the tricks of the trade, Marjoe was sure to infuriate both the duped and the protagonist's, er, colleagues. But Marjoe wouldn't be very interesting if it was only an exposé. Its power comes from the real questions it asks about faith, showmanship, suffering and ethics.

Marjoe Gortner began preaching in tent revival meetings at the age of four, after his ambitious evangelist parents discovered his flair for the dramatic and confidence in front of crowds. Billed as 'the youngest ordained minister in history' and ruthlessly drilled in money-making tricks by his parents, Marjoe travelled the revival circuit and appeared on television until his mid-teens. When his father absconded with the family's money, a disillusioned Gortner drifted to the West Coast and immersed himself in hippie culture for several years. Lacking the education or formal training for a 'normal' job, in the mid-sixties Gortner went back to what he did best: he began working as a preacher again.

This time, though, he kept the money himself, and was able to work just six months a year thanks to donations and the sale of prayer cloths and other paraphernalia. It was a living, but Gortner was tired of it, and hoped to change careers to acting. So when he travelled the American South preaching, prophesying, and healing the sick one last time in 1971 he allowed a team of documentary filmmakers to follow him around, constantly sharing the tricks of the trade behind the scenes - unbeknownst to congregations, other preachers and even Gortner's own father, all of whom were given the impression of a straight documentary.

Certainly, Marjoe's greatest asset is its morally ambiguous protagonist. Gortner's transformation from his 'real self' to screaming revival preacher - complete with a totally different cadence and inflection - is astonishing. By showing off his acting chops and everyday persona, Marjoe doubles as an audition tape for Gortner's anticipated career in showbiz (his record, for which he exploited his renewed post-Marjoe fame, flopped but he was able to carve out a moderately successful career in genre films and television). So there's real doubt, I think, as to whether such an expert self-publicist ever lets us see the 'real' Gortner. But he's so darn likeable it hardly matters.

Gortner cheerfully admits that even as a child he never believed in God, but enjoyed the attention and did as he was told. (He still uses the story of his prophetic calling made up by his parents in later meetings.) Like many people who aren't required to subscribe to doctrinal statements, Gortner holds pretty vague beliefs in reality: he'd like people to love and forgive each other. He'd even be content to preach Jesus, he says, if he didn't have to go on about hell. He doesn't think he's a particularly moral person, but not actively malevolent either: 'I'm bad, but not evil'.

There's no denying, though, that Gortner is essentially a fraud, using mass psychology and carefully engineered religious ecstasy to persuade people to open their wallets. Asked point-blank if he is a conman late in the film, Gortner's girlfriend gets a little embarrassed. It's not just Marjoe who is living a double life, though. His preacher colleagues may genuinely believe in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but they also know the importance of a well-executed meeting to their bottom line. I prefer Gortner's open lack of faith, in fact: after all, it's not the cold that Jesus warns, it's the lukewarm.

Fred Clark distinguishes between two types of Christian conservatives: true believers, who sincerely believe in the amalgamation of Christianity and conservatism peddled by the Religious Right, and hucksters, who are in it for the money and the power. Marjoe suggests a third type: the semi-true believer, who has faith in the work of the Holy Spirit but also in the power of emotional manipulation to fill the pews and his coffers. This type, surely, is found everywhere in modern evangelicalism and is the raison d'être of the church growth movement.

In Marjoe, itinerant preachers emerge as a community resembling magicians, sharing tricks of the trade. There's a lot of fascinating stuff. For example, Gortner mentions creating the illusion of a glowing cross on his forehead by smearing his skin with transparent dye that would react with his perspiration during the sermon. Then there are the movements he's adapted from Mick Jagger and his strategic use of repetition, shouting and surprise to induce religious trance and falling over ('being slain in the Spirit') when he lays hands on people coming up during the altar call. Similar tricks are in use today.

I've only been to a couple of charismatic worship services and they freaked me out, so, being unadventurous, I returned to what I liked best: silently judging people in a traditional church setting. There's no denying, though, that Gortner's servies fulfil real needs: joy, peace and healing, even if it is only for a few hours, for people who are otherwise downtrodden and sick. (Another preacher gives a nauseous sermon in which he thanks God for his brand-new Cadillac - go prosperity gospel!)

In that sense, perhaps Gortner can't be considered a fraud at all: don't attendees get the exact same experience with him as they would with a more sincere preacher? (And, theologically speaking, is not God's spirit quite independent of human machinations, and hardly frustrated in his work by a fraud?) Preying on people in the vulnerable state induced by religious ecstasy - however legitimate, even beneficial that experience may be in itself - is not improved morally by the sincerity of practitioners. Give me an honest fraud like Marjoe Gortner over a semi-true believer any day.

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