Near the beginning of Hallelujah!, Athey describes the "frenzy" he felt after learning he was HIV positive and might not have much time "to leave my mark." This is the thinking still ingrained in him from long ago, as he muses about how he might be remembered: "Was I just some stupid fag who died of AIDS? Or was I just this damaged boy who was never a minister, who rebelled and lashed out at himself, so, between drugs and promiscuous sex, he contracted a disease and died? There's this frenzy to make it...mean something. And how can you do this without God? How can you do this without spirituality?"

Athey's shows illustrate a quest for redemption in a world without God and, at this point, Saalfield's film offers a rare chance to see them at all. Since 1994, the controversial Athey has worked mostly in Europe. So we see him performing in Mexico City and Zagreb, and hear him and his troupe speak articulately about their "demonstration of pain to represent how they feel about this life."

The film doesn't really humanize Ron Athey, however. His Pentecostal background gets short shrift, as does the painful escape from it. Maybe spirituality is the last real taboo, or at least embarrassing to acknowledge among scenesters. But the real redemption story is one of the things omitted from Hallelujah! Self-mutilation was just the beginning of Athey's downward slide. He also spent about 10 years as a junkie and repeatedly tried to kill himself. But then the young man trained to have visions finally had one that redeemed him. In his dream, he saw himself tattooed with black tribal designs, facing a man tattooed just as he was. They levitated together and "elation washed over me. The image was planted that I could be whole."

Ron Athey: ''Someone has to be in pain for all of us.''
Sylvia Plachy
Ron Athey: ''Someone has to be in pain for all of us.''

Athey began to get his tribal tattoos, kicked heroin, and, in the end, he did become a sort of grandiose minister. For those drawn to the pierced tongue and the dog collar, he speaks to the transcendence of pain as few others can. "I'm programmed to carry a message," he says in the film. "The message isn't programmed, but that I'm a vehicle is the most important thing in my life. It's more important than my life.

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