Few know that Judge Neal Masri's first name is an amalgam of the first names of composer Nelson Riddle and the late, great "Grandpa" Al Lewis. Yep, the Masris are kinda weird.
You keep the faith, Marjoe keeps the money. Catch his act!
Marjoe, a long out of print Oscar-winner for best documentary, finally makes it to DVD. In addition, we also have a much newer feature from one of the co-directors of Marjoe, another Oscar-winner entitled Thoth.
Facts of the Case
Marjoe Gortner was "the worlds youngest ordained minister." He began preaching at the age of four. This film was made in the early seventies when he was all grown up. Marjoe has abandoned his faith by this time and admits to being a fraud. The documentary chronicles his final sermons and his explanation of why he is abandoning the pulpit.
Twenty years on from Jim and Tammy Faye's fall, Jimmy Swaggart's prostitute peccadillo and Oral Roberts's holding himself hostage to God for a million dollars, the thought of a crooked preacher does not seem so shocking. In 1972 when this documentary on the life of Marjoe Gortner won the Best Documentary Oscar, this was explosive stuff.
Marjoe Gortner was born to a Pentecostal preacher and his wife in 1944. He was raised to be a preacher from his earliest days. Even his given name, an amalgam of Mary and Joseph, was tailor-made for the pulpit. Marjoe became and ordained preacher at the age of four. There is footage of him performing a wedding ceremony at the age of six. This creepy footage is particularly riveting as one hears the odd robotic timbre to his voice. Marjoe went on to some fame as a child preacher, working the revival circuit mostly in the South.
Marjoe follows Gortner on a revival tour as a young man in 1972. The gimmick is that he has admitted to the crew that he is a fraud and that he is out to fleece the faithful for as much money as he can. With the glee of a magician revealing all his tricks, Gortner sits the crew down early in the course of filming and tells them exactly what to expect at the revival and how he will choreograph the proceedings to maximize the ecstasy of the attendees and the donations they will give.
There is a great deal of footage of revival meetings. Marjoe works the crowd wonderfully. He slowly builds them up and brings the ceremony to a climax with the faithful speaking in tongues and opening their wallets. The point of all this, Marjoe insists, is to raise the curtain on crooked preachers. However, Marjoe seems to enjoy the attention he is getting from his countercultural crew a little too much. Now that he is reinventing himself as an anti-establishment whistle blower, he seems to be trading one false identity for another.
The more I saw of Marjoe, the more I thought of Robert Duvall's character in his wonderful film, The Apostle. Marjoe is the opposite number of Duvall's character Sonny. Where Sonny was on the surface a flawed man, his flaws masked a deep well of repentance and faith. Marjoe is all flash and slickness barely disguising a core of cynicism and condescension towards his marks.
This film obviously ended Marjoe Gortner's career as an evangelist. He went on to be a television and B-movie bit player. He apparently got a fair amount of acting work throughout the seventies and eighties (look for Marjoe as the psycho killer bad guy in the Kojak pilot).
I kept finding myself going back to the scene early in the movie where Marjoe is teaching the crew how to act at a revival. He sits cross-legged at the center of the room, surrounded by the group of naïve and adoring young hippies who make up his film crew. Seeing Marjoe work his handlers gave me the same thought that I had when watching him enthrall groups of Pentecostal worshipers: I am witnessing a consummate huckster duping yet another congregation of the faithful.
Also included in this two-disc set as an extra is a film by one of the co-directors of Marjoe, entitled Thoth. It was also the 2002 Oscar-winner for Best Documentary Short. The subject of the film is a street performer from New York City who goes by the name Thoth. He performs his own operas in a language entirely of his creation.
There is much footage of him performing while everyday folk on the street stare at him both agape and entertained. He is clearly a unique voice and you can see why a filmmaker would be drawn to him. From his bizarre outfits to his self-made operettas, he is truly a one-of-a-kind individual. The short has a lot of fun contrasting him with the normal people he runs across each day.
Video for this set is a mixed bag. Marjoe is a low-budget documentary, shot on film over thirty years ago. It looks it. Source material is obviously an issue. In the thirty years between Marjoe and Thoth it looks like director Sarah Kernochan switched from film to video. Being much more recent, Thoth has a crisper and more modern looking image. Audio for both is presented in Dolby stereo. Dialogue is clear throughout.
If you consider this a double feature, extras are almost non-existent. The packaging, however, makes it clear that the DVD is for the film Marjoe and that Thoth is a bonus feature. With that in mind, Thoth is quite an interesting film in its own right and makes for a great addition to the already worthy Marjoe. Other than that, we have a brief filmmaker biography for the directors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unique personalities like Marjoe and Thoth are perfectly suited for documentary films. Even though documentary filmmaking is about observing, they are obviously playing to the camera. They clearly enjoy being the center of attention.
Marjoe is an exceptionally well-done documentary. Marjoe Gortner is like a combination of Elmer Gantry and Abbie Hoffman. His weird mix of born again fire and countercultural cynicism makes him a fascinating tour guide through the business of religion in America.
Marjoe the film is found not guilty. Marjoe the man is found guilty as sin.
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Scales of Justice
• Excerpts from Thoth's One-Man Opera
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