In 1972, Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith’s Marjoe was enough of an eye-opening sensation to make news of itself and Oscar winners of its creators; then, presidents did not hold prayer meetings in the White House, and 24-hour evangelical TV stations did not broadcast coast-to-coast. Honest- to-God Pentecostals were a subcultural stratum educated documentary watchers had never seen before, and the movie is frank about its mondo- Jesus perspective, gazing upon the howlers, shakers, tongue speakers, and weepers as if they were the leaf-clothed Liawep “lost tribe” of Papua New Guinea. In 2006, this condescension seems only mildly differentiated from “exotic” travel docs of the 1930s (as opposed to the gimlet-eyed rigor of Werner Herzog’s 1980 featurette God’s Angry Man)—that is, unless you worry in the dead of night, like I do, about the bottomless capacity for Americans to ignore fact and embrace bullshit.
The film’s focus, Marjoe Gortner, is by now something of a quasi-celebrity icon: Notorious in mid-century as the “world’s youngest ordained minister,” Gortner returned to preaching in the late ’60s as a simple source of easy shuck money. (From there, in a life path suggesting the need for a Marjoe 2, Gortner became a recording artist and B-movie actor specializing in rapists and psychos; in 1976 he was battling fake giant rats in a film version of H.G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods.) Gortner’s participation in Kernochan and Smith’s movie is a crucial matter: Lookin’ to get out, Gortner admits he’s a fraud and atheist, and derisively briefs the film crew on the meetings’ conservative norms and codes before they commence. When the holy-rolling is in full swing, only the crowds of middle-American spirit receivers are oblivious to Gortner’s hucksterism.
The old promotional footage of Gortner and his mom (who trained him, abusively, from toddlerhood in the art of Christian crowd madness) has an eerie, Ed Woodian mutant aura, but the hypnotized Nixon-era supplicants Gortner anoints as an adult are only nominally less otherworldly. Gortner was self-disgusted enough to go public and therein ensure his departure from the lifestyle for good—but was he an insincere aberration, or are evangelists all con men? Once Pat Robertson earnestly stumps to his 800,000 nightly devotees that Hugo Chávez should be murdered in cold blood, you have to ask, does it matter?