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#1 Persona

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Posted 12 September 2009 - 06:58 PM

Holy guacamole, and great tongues of fire!

I feel like I just a had a "religulous" experience. I tripped on Jesus music, revival tent ministry and mass manipulation all at once! I also came away feeling uplifted and swindled, both at the same time.

(Gee, I wonder whether I might be back in the throes of pentecostalism.)

The life of the evangelist Marjoe Gortner has been mentioned twice on the boards before -- both here, where I first heard of him from the Lonnie Frisbee doc, and here, in the Houston Chronicle's writeup on Saved -- but there's no dedicated thread to 1973 Oscar winning docementary. So here we go.

The raw footage of Marjoe as a four-year old boy playing "Onward Christian Soldiers" on his accordion, pronouncing fire and brimstone sermons as the prodigy "boy preacher," and even (GASP!) marrying a couple in a church as a six year-old, really set the tone for grasping Marjoe's unique and problematic thinking. It's hard to believe he grew up in these vast Christian settings, coached by his mom to wail and preach, not even acquiring a real faith but just parroting the system in which he was taught how to succeed. He became a showman at a very young age, a charlatan with enough skills to make money for his parents (he claims over three million dollars, money that he never saw) and also performing in this way to receive the parents' love. It was a performance-based love, and Marjoe never felt he was loved for any more than the green be brought in and the hanky-waving fervor for which he learned to amazingly preach to the adults all around him.

Fast forward some twenty-or-so years, and now we see Marjoe ready to come out of the closet, so to speak. Like candid camera, or the wizard behind the curtain, Marjoe now brings a full film crew with him as he tours the pentecostal church circiut of the early 70s. The crew is fully aware of who he is and the business of what he is doing -- the church people will find out sometime after the documentary is released.

It's really interesting to watch Marjoe as he teaches the film crew about how to conduct themselves as they film the (loud and "powerful") worship services. He even instructs them not to freak out when people begin uttering in strange languages -- he describes tongues as the grand zenith of a pentecostal worship service, and even instructs the camerman to make sure he zooms in on the spoken heavenly languages.

He also instucts his crew to not smoke, to get haircuts and to sexually stay away from the believers. "You cannot get involved with these chicks at all... That's a rule that I established," Marjoe says. "I never take out a girl from the church or in the church. I stick with airline stewardesses."

I believe there were two reasons for the sexual warning: The first, because for years he'd been "ministering" and he wasn't yet ready to risk his credibility among the church people. The second point, and this is debatable, is that Marjoe really does care about the born agains in his audience. He goes so far as to claim that part of the reason he wants to make the film is so that some in these evangelical communities might grow. When the crew asks him, "What will happen when they find out?" Marjoe replies, "Well, I'm hoping that they will see, you know, that it's not necessary to look to some person to like, you know, jerk you off -- to get off -- and put your belief in."

The music plays a huge part in every revival meeting setting. When people are whipped into this holy, hynotic, trance-like musical bliss, they are, at the end of the night, more emotionally ready to empty their wallets into Marjoe's baskets. In one of the most blasphemous scenes -- the one incorporated into the Lonnie Frisbee film -- Marjoe is seen dumping a huge wad of money on his hotel bed and "praising Jesus" for it.

I guess the use of music to stir up the crowd is nothing new, especially in relation to how most churches want at least a <i>bit</i> of this stirring incorporated into their services, and how tribes and cultures have always used music in their rituals from the beginning of time. But somehow, I don't think there were offerings for money taken at the end of a tribal drum circle thousands of years ago. I guess back then music may have led more to the sexual cravings, which makes just as much sense as the passing of the plate... Then again, maybe the sex in those settings wasn't typically considered immoral, which would place these evangelical fakes at a lot more immoral than older generations that used music in this way... Hmm. I'll still be mulling that thought over.

I did feel sorry for the good church folk as Marjoe strutted the aisles proclaiming the good news, knowing he wouldn't live and couldn't believe a word of it. But the optimist in me wondered how many times Marjoe may have been used by God and didn't even know it. Having just come off the Lonnie Frisbee viewing, in which God seemingly brings salvation to a kid on LSD, who then brings perhaps thousands to Christ while still struggling to get off the drug (we know at the beginning of his Christian journey that he was still on it), one wonders if it's not possibble that God can work through any broken vessel He chooses, even a hypocritical unbelieving one.

There was something in me that liked the freedom with which the congregants were able to blatantly dance and worship in front of their creator. So childlike, so trusting. So innocent and really in love with God and in desire of His goodness. I wish for these kinds of worshippers that they could have all of this without the background blows of exploitation and manipulation. Having come from (some of) this background myself, and having left it long ago, I've come to the conclusion that my wish will never come true. Sadly, there's just too much humanity currently in us crazy humans.

Regardless, I found that I liked the Marjoe character in all of his hypocrasy and inauthenticism much more than the preacher in one of the tent meetings who, over and over, kept reminding us that once he really dedicated his life to God, he was given a Cadillac. Eek. I didn't like his message at all. I'd take Marjoe's fake message over that guy's real one any day.

This is a Netflix four out of five stars. It would be four-and-a half, but Netflix doesn't allow 1/2 stars. The reason it falls short of a FIVE is that the film needed to delve deeper into Marjoe's adult relationship with his parents. I really wish we'd have been offered more of a glimpse of this family, now grown up. When his dad shows up to be in a service with him, we never fully know whether his dad is a fake or a real believer... And his mom isn't even heard from in Marjoe's adult life. Is she dead? Did they divorce? Where is she now? We just don't know. And his dad mentions that Marjoe is the fourth generation evangelist in their family, so what I would have liked to know is, Was great-grandpa that was a missionary to Liberia a fake too? And was grandpa a fake in whatever evangelism he did, or was he the real deal?

Edited by Persona, 06 February 2010 - 10:12 AM.


#2 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 06 February 2010 - 02:31 AM

Whoa. I'd forgotten I once made this connection.

But FWIW, one of the cinematographers on this film, Richard Pearce (he also worked on early '70s docu-classics like Woodstock and Hearts and Minds, both of which won the Oscar for Best Documentary just as Marjoe did), went on to become a director of fiction/dramatic films ... and one of the films he directed was Leap of Faith, the 1992 film that starred Steve Martin as a tent-evangelist con man.

If memory serves, I read an interview with Pearce (or maybe one of his producers?) back then in which he said they brought in real Pentecostals as the extras, because you can't fake speaking in tongues; you have to get the real deal. That struck me as an odd thing to say, as though he were somehow trying to get the Spirit to move when the cameras rolled (does God take direction like that?).

But I guess he may have based that decision on his experience making movies like Marjoe.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3rLoDPpB9I http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOsf_Fp6EwQ

Edited by Peter T Chattaway, 06 February 2010 - 02:35 AM.


#3 Persona

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Posted 06 February 2010 - 10:06 AM

I've nomintated Marjoe for A&F t100. Please see it, it is available at Netflix. It's an awesome documentary showing a conflicted heart in Marjoe, who has grown up being taught to fake religion, knowing that the movie, when released, will be not only a warning sign to people he has duped, but also, perhaps, a launching pad for a new career for himself. Toward the end of the film you can see his uneasiness with everything he is going through. You know that this is the experience of a not so ordinary life. You wonder where this leaves Marjoe and whatever real bit of faith he might actually possess. It's an awful, beautiful and hypnotic documentary, one that takes a look at the fevered pentecostal experience and examines it from many different points of interest, as opposed to something like Jesus Camp, which is extremely one-sided in its approach.

Edited by Persona, 06 February 2010 - 10:08 AM.


#4 Christian

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Posted 06 February 2010 - 10:37 AM

Nice recomendation, Stef. The library has three copies. I'm number 1 in the Holds queue. Once we can dig out from our 18 inches (and counting) of snow, I'll pick up my copy.

#5 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 06 February 2010 - 11:09 AM

FWIW, I watched the whole thing on YouTube. It's posted there in 9 segments; the clip above is segment 5.

#6 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 07 February 2010 - 11:10 AM

Just for the record, I watched Marjoe (1972) two nights ago, and then, last night, I finally got around to watching that Criterion edition of Gimme Shelter (1970) that I've had sitting here for a while.

It was an ... interesting ... double-bill of sorts.

Both documentaries are about performances with a spiritual component, you might say (and Marjoe explicitly tells the filmmakers that he borrows some of his moves from Mick Jagger), and in both films, things go bad in one way or another. In Marjoe, the corruption is largely behind-the-scenes, since Marjoe himself is basically a con man who doesn't believe in what he's doing, but he does it for the money (and, in this case, for the filmmakers). In Gimme Shelter, the problems flare up in public in a big, big way, as the Hell's Angels -- who were supposed to be serving as security guards -- get out of hand, first knocking out the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane and then, ultimately, stabbing a gun-toting audience member to death.

Both films also bring the filmmakers into the picture in a big, big way, instead of keeping them behind the camera -- but one film emphasizes the role the filmmakers played beforehand, while the other emphasizes the role they played afterwards: Marjoe begins with Marjoe meeting the filmmakers and telling them what to expect as they try to blend in with the Pentecostal churchgoers, whereas Gimme Shelter features Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts (and others? I don't remember any others) visiting the filmmakers in the editing room and watching the footage of their concerts, including the moment when that one audience member waved a gun and got stabbed.

Side note: As noted above, at least one of the cameramen on Marjoe went on to direct feature films. Meanwhile, one of the cameramen on Gimme Shelter -- though I've read that his camera jammed early on, so none of his footage was used -- was George Lucas. Whoa.

#7 John Drew

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Posted 07 February 2010 - 03:57 PM

Just for the record, I watched Marjoe (1972) two nights ago, and then, last night, I finally got around to watching that Criterion edition of Gimme Shelter (1970) that I've had sitting here for a while.


If you ever get a chance to watch Gimme Shelter in a theater, do so. This is one of those films that has a certain build up of dread (for lack of a better word) that doesn't translate well to a small screen. Perhaps it is because by the time the Stones take the stage in Altamont, the camera crew is filming almost everything from the stage, and the audience basically becomes a member of the group, viewing the huge crowd slowly turning into a mob as darkness falls. On a large screen this is very unsettling.

Edited by Baal_T'shuvah, 07 February 2010 - 07:34 PM.


#8 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 02 September 2011 - 08:17 PM

Just discovered that the entire film is up at Google Video, without any breaks:

http://video.google....629120699935619