Marjoe

Marjoe is an Oscar-winning documentary that explores the life of one-time child evangelist and faith healer Marjoe Gortner.  The unusual name Marjoe that his parents gave him is shortened from Mary & Joseph, the parents of Jesus.  As the son of professional evangelists, Gortner was preaching on the Southern tent-revival circuit by the age of three.  Twenty-eight at the time of the film’s release, Gortner freely admits to being a scam artist — but still maintains a compelling charisma, possibly explaining his later career as an actor in B movies and in the 1974 film Earthquake.  I loved the scenes of Marjoe as a young boy.  But the film doesn’t narrate a year-by-year biography; instead it spends a lot of time showing him at the age of 28 preaching as if he was the illegitimate son of Jimmy Swaggart with the stage presence of Mick Jagger.  All the old footage of people praising Jesus and falling on the floor and being touched by Marjoe got somewhat repetitive.  But the charm of the movie is the charm of Marjoe the man.  These interviews with the ‘boy evangelist’ as a grown man are candid and humorously shocking.  He refreshingly admits to being a phony.  He is an honest person behind the scenes.  The film also contains a microcosm of America in showing the Pentecostal Bible belt and evangelism in the south.  I was raised by a Pentecostal mother, but have since left the church.  I say that only to testify that this film is no BS.  This kind of stuff happens all the time, and in your city, believe me.  Though the film was made over 30 years ago, it is just as true today as it was then.  It seems that evangelists of the Pentecostal religion want their followers to be emotional to the point of falling over seemingly cured by their religion.  When people are emotional, they give even more money.  This is no surprise to me, since the Christian religion wants people to have blind faith and not question anything.  While the film is shot in the cinema-verite style, it has wonderful moments of editorial subjectivity (like focusing on an expensive brooch worn by a female preacher saying she doesn’t spend her money foolishly.)  This is especially important now that techniques similar to the scam so brilliantly expounded here have migrated to politics.  This film is amazing and compelling.  I was alternately surprised, delighted, pissed off, and appalled by this film.  While not a paragon of film-making craft, it should be considered one of the great documentaries ever.  This isn’t just a great film, it is a valuable piece of American history that most people don’t know about but should.  This movie is more than worthwhile, it has a point to make.  What it does is show you who Marjoe was and is and the point he is making, which is loud and clear; “You can fool some of the people most of the time” …. or however that P.T. Barnum quote goes.  This is a great doc, a timely story (despite being over 30 years old), and a thoroughly engaging film.  One of the finest documentaries ever made.  Documentary 1972 PG 88 mins.  (See also the film ‘Elmer Gantry’ for a docudrama variation of another corrupt revival preacher, which becomes even more believable after seeing this documentary ‘Marjoe’.)

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