Hey, Barbecutie

#52filmsbywomen 16 – Marjoe

Posted on: August 13, 2016

marjoe

No. 16 –Marjoe (Sarah Kernochan, Howard Smith, 1972)

Marjoe is bad, not evil, and this unusually structured, Oscar-winning documentary doesn’t need too many stylish techniques to tell his strange, compelling story. Marjoe Gortner – his first name a portmanteau of “Mary” and “Joseph” – was a child prodigy in the bizarre world of Charismatic Christianity, and his parents toured him around the USA showing off The World’s Youngest Preacher to adoring crowds. However, Sarah Kenochan and Howard Smith’s documentary sees Gortner at a much different time in his life, when, tired and cynical, he decides to reveal himself, and the entire Charismatic Christianity movement, with its faith healing and speaking in tongues, as a fraud.

The film begins with Gortner narrating a general overview of his life to date and his early entry into the world of evangelism, as trained by his parents in the overenunciation and rolling Rs of the preacher lingua. He was a controversial figure, performing a marriage ceremony at 5 years old, prompting accusations that the child was a sideshow act or at worst, a grotesque corruption of what Christianity should be. His memories are intercut with footage of him surrounded by the film crew, shaking us out of our expectations of the documentary form, as we see Gortner relaxed, fooling around with the young radicals with long hair and flares, a shooting schedule hastily scrawled on a crumpled page. Gortner briefs them on how to infiltrate a tent revival without standing out too obviously, as the truth becomes clear. Gortner is ready to expose the lie he has been living. Gortner had approached Howard Smith with the idea of a behind the curtain look at evangelicalism, but Sarah Kenochan convinced Smith to attempt the film themselves rather than pass the idea to the more experienced Mayles brothers. Kenochan struggled throughout the production, despite being its driving force (Smith wasn’t a filmmaker but a journalist), as she was dismissed as Smith’s younger girlfriend. If things are bad now, imagine being 25 in 1972 and trying to control a mostly-male crew of hippies and burnouts.

The remainder of the film intercuts between Gortner’s memories, the footage of the tent revival, his conversation with the crew as he outlines the tricks of the trade, and personal footage of Gortner’s non-preaching life, where he looks and acts like any other young, famous counter-culture man in the 1970s, with a string of admirers basking in his glow. Gortner enjoys the attention, or else he is so used to being in the spotlight that his default mode is to command a room regardless of the audience. He is charming, self-aware, arrogant and at times vicious, and yet there is a wall there, even when recounting the horrors of his youth, how his mother would beat him making sure the marks wouldn’t be visible to the press or hold him under water if he made mistakes in his memorised sermons. His façade rarely breaks, and the preacher persona is second nature to him. He easily slips into the dialogue for the camera crew, mocking his own performances and predicting everyone else’s, boasting about stealing moves from Mick Jagger, and showing off for his new girlfriend as he pretends to cast out demons from their labrador. His sermons are learned, not felt – they are just a performance for him, whereas his audience is feeling it so deeply that they believe he can heal their ailments. He describes the secret codes his mother used to guide his sermons, saying “glory be to God” to signal he was running long, and choreographing his routines, opening arms each time he says  Jesus, taking an emphatic step forward when he refers to the devil. Gortner seems more like a retired child star than an interlocutor of Christ.

Gortner hates the church, not the people. He relates to the congregations he visits and the joy they feel in his words. He enjoys the singing and celebration of the Pentecostal services, what he calls the “glory je to besus” angle, rather than the fire and brimstone. He says he feels guilty that every time he quits preaching, he returns for one last tour once the money runs out, and the documentary appears to be a deliberate attempt to severe his connection to the Charismatic movement altogether. He sees religion as an addiction, not just for him, returning to the guarantee of money and adulation every few years, but for the worshippers that surround him. He outlines how the church celebrates individuals who have sacrificed to donate money, giving special prayer slips to people who skipped meals so that they can give the money to Gortner or his fellow preachers. But at times his boastful nature overwhelms him, and he lapses into a dismissiveness that verges on cruelty. One scene sees him post-performance, shirtless on a bed counting the collection money, the sound of crinkling notes overwhelming the soundtrack. He laments that he doesn’t earn as much now as when he was an adorable child, and how his mother used to sew extra pockets in his suit for the admiring old ladies to fill with dollars. He mockingly performs the laying on of hands on a pretty girl, and reveals faith healing as psychosomatic, that once one or two people are convinced, other people follow.

At least Gortner is well aware of this hypocrisy. He complains how hard it is to switch between worlds, that people comment on his flamboyant clothes. We see him recline on a waterbed and laugh along to drug references. For all his guilt towards his followers, he has absolved himself of his childhood deceit, since he had no input and no choice. He criticises his father frequently, that they have no relationship, he is distant, and makes no attempt to communicate with his son. These are the only moments in the film where his façade seems to peel away. Late in the film, he attends a service where he is introduced by his father. Gortner‘s demeanour is totally different, sitting stoically as his father recounts a tale of Gortner as a boy, receiving baptism in the bath. Gortner reacts as though it is a typical, embarrassing dad story, but there is a great tension underneath. He has previously revealed to the camera that he never believed in a God. Even as a child, religion was a business.

The film won the Oscar, but it faded quickly from public memory, in case you hadn’t noticed that the Pentecostal movement’s as strong as ever. This is perhaps due to its lack of a release in the South, but definitely not helped by the fact that for a long time the film only existed as a poorly aged copy of a copy of a print. While Kernochan fought for years to be properly credited for the project, it was her temerity that ensured the film continued to exist. After buying back the rights, she was contacted by the Library of Congress who by chance had a pristine copy. Marjoe had risen again.

Throughout the film, Gortner returns to a scrapbook of newspaper clippings of his childhood infamy, maybe showing it off to the crew, maybe nostalgic himself. He explains that his parents earned millions of dollars off his performances, but he never saw any of it. But he says he has let go of bitterness towards parents and his involvement in the Charismatic movement. After all, now he believes in karma.

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