Marjoe

Buy at Powell's

I recently rented Marjoe. (You can buy it from Powell’s via this link, but I actually recommend just renting it from somewhere instead.) It’s a fascinating documentary, but overall it drags. They could have conveyed everything in half the time, and it would have been a more effective film.

The movie came out in 1972 and won the Oscar for best documentary, if you can believe it. That tells more about the state of documentary filmmaking in the early 1970s than it does about the quality of this film.

Don’t get the impression that I hated the movie. I actually recommend it, but only slightly, and only to those who want to get a deep look at the ’70s tent-revival circuit. I don’t know if any of that cultural phenomenon still exists today. I suspect it has been completely supplanted by TV preachers and megachurches.

The documentary profiles Marjoe Gortner, who got his start in life as the world’s youngest fundie preacher, at age 4. His father was a tent preacher, which explains how Marjoe ended up with the same career so early in life. His name was actually coined by his parents as a contraction of “Mary” and “Joseph”.

In addition to telling Marjoe’s backstory, the film follows Gortner on his farewell tour as a traveling tent preacher. He wants to get out of the business, so he wants to leave with a little cash in his pocket. The film’s tagline is “You Keep the Faith…Marjoe Keeps the Money”. With a tagline like that, you’d expect the film to be a hard-hitting exposé on the tent-revival scene. It tries to be, but that part of the film never really succeeds.

The scenes of Marjoe’s early career, such as performing a wedding when he’s very young (age seven or so?) are truly bizarre.

One of the more interesting things I derived from the film was its in-depth portrayals of Pentecostal holy rollerism. Previously, I had never seen anything more than very brief scenes of such behavior, which I’ve always had a hard time comprehending. This film shows long (ten minutes or more) sections of their services. Although many scenes like this are what make the film drag, the length of these scenes finally allowed me to grasp a bit of what’s going on with these people.

The sermon slowly builds in intensity. The preacher is slowly whipping them up. Since everybody is jammed together in the same tent, they’re feeding off of each other’s energy, which reinforces their own rising rapture in a positive-feedback loop. Just like an energetic speaker can incite a crowd to riot, the preacher is inciting this crowd into a fundie frenzy. Then people start falling over and babbling incoherently. This is what they call “speaking in tongues”. It’s what I call epilepsy, and you have to prevent them from swallowing their tongues.

Anyway, as each person falls over and starts writhing orgasmically on the floor, that just increases the energy in the room and gives more people permission to flop around like a landed fish. Pretty soon, the whole place is doing it.

Churchgoing always seemed like a waste of time to me. A few people seem to need it, but most people don’t (since most people don’t attend church regularly). So what drives somebody to ruin a perfectly good day off by going to church? I can’t answer that for most people, but I think I now understand why Holy Rollers do. When people enter the tongue-gibbering phase, they’re apparently in an altered state of consciousness. There must be a flood of endorphins being released at that moment. They must be flying pretty high (in fact, many describe it as “gettin’ high on the lawd!”). If that’s true, then they’re getting a physical reward for attending church. Just like Pavlov’s dogs come running when they hear the food bell, Pentecostals come running when they hear the church bell. They both know they’re about to be physically pleasured.

Here’s an excerpt of the film that I found on YouTube:

(YouTube page is here.)

One Response to “Marjoe”

  1. ericsan Says:

    I get my Sunday morning endorphin high by rollerblading 20 miles on a bike trail, but it looks like chuch could be a good rainy day alternative. Nah, fuck it!