‘Marjoe’ Movie Review

Marjoe, *** Stars

Marjoe is a documentary on con artist evangelism from 1972 that won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. …How come we still haven’t learned our lesson?

And surprise, surprise, Marjoe snookers the American South, the Bible Belt. According to Wiki, “…the movie was not shown widely in theaters in the Southern United States, based on the fears of the distributor over the outrage it would cause in the Bible Belt.” The very people who needed to see this film are the very ones it was kept from.

Of course Pentecostals, Charismatics and any other denomination prone to emotionalism will say that while Marjoe was a fake, the experiences were real. BUT Marjoe was a fake! He was trained to be the perfect child evangelist by his parents who gave him the stupidest name ever (a combination of Mary and Joseph). His mom choreographed all of his actions on stage for dramatic effect. At home, if he didn’t do right he got punished by a pillow over the face.

Later when Marjoe left his child evangelism and from all appearances joined his fellow peers in the hippie scene–drugs and rock and roll, he decided to go back because he needed to make money. And as misguided as that was, he certainly earned it. Believers got their religious experience, they felt the Holy Spirit and they renewed their faith–because for Christianity to work, you have to keep coming back and back for that emotional spiritual high like a drug.

It’s a shame all those little old ladies with the fat dangling from their underarms weren’t such sexual prudes because all they were doing is the same as their younger counterparts–going to a concert. Marjoe himself said he was influenced by how Mick Jagger moved his hips. And instead of feeling sexual lust, those old ladies wanted to feel something just as effective–the spirit coursing through their bodies like an orgasm so they could shake and fall back faint. Their husbands had long since stopped touching them and to get a compassionate hand on the face, head or shoulder was like being naughty without breaking the rules.

Okay, enough of my interpretation of those experiences. Marjoe is an incomplete, but fascinating look at how tent revivalism works behind the scenes and the angst of someone who is so good at what he does but knows it’s morally wrong. He doesn’t believe in the faith he preaches but he knows why it rationally works. At one point he says to the camera that the little old ladies collapse in the spirit (slain in the spirit) because they’ve worked themselves up in a frenzy just by waiting in line to get on stage (ever feel butterflies in your stomach?) and then while they’re already shaking from the excitement of being spotlighted and touched by the star of the show it doesn’t take much to give them the cue to fall back. There’s nothing supernatural about it.

What is devastating is that Marjoe is working with several other evangelists who apparently do believe in their message (?) and yet they are the first ones to count the offering money (the take) before the patrons have even left. It’s all about working the audience and then calling in the money. This is the TBN crowd before TBN hit it big with the likes of Benny Hinn.

At the end of the movie, Marjoe’s girlfriend is asked by a cameraman if she thinks Marjoe is a con artist? Marjoe’s girlfriend deflects the question by chastizing the cameraman (who she knows on some level) and saying something to the extent, “How could you ask that?” The answer is obvious. Marjoe is a con artist but his subjects have already conned themselves. It’s almost hard to see the crime at times because if he did come out on stage and say it was all fake they wouldn’t believe him.

Marjoe was nearly lost as a film as it was only on VHS, a poor version, and was out of print. In 2002 the negative was found in a New York City vault and restored. It would be nice to see this minor classic shown on mainstream cable as it shows the exploitation in action from the early seventies and clips from when Marjoe was a kid. I honestly only found out about this film while listening to an audio version of Christopher Hitchen’s God is Not Great where he refers to the child abuse of Marjoe.

PositiveAtheism.org has an article on Marjoe Gortner where the authors actually visited the former evangelist. One of the most insightful quotes from the article is Marjoe’s own observation, as it seems he still had respect for his believing audiences: “During his years on the Bible Belt circuit, he came to see the Evangelical experience as a form of popular entertainment, a kind of participatory divine theater that provides its audiences with profound emotional rewards.” He goes on to say that these same people don’t go to concerts, to movies, to dances, etc, and they’re looking for an approved-of emotional release which the rest of us take for granted. They participate in a form of social entertainment that they do not recognize as entertainment. Like I said, they’ve conned themselves.

BTW: Read the last paragraph in the Positive Atheism site article. It is very telling story about human nature and how to work “belief” when you’ve already exposed yourself as a fraud. This is an experience Marjoe shared from lecturing at colleges.

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