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PART 3: “MARJOE”
meet Marjoe Gortner, eight year old Bible Belt star…
“We’re here to make a film about Brother Marjoe, praise the Lord.” The words sounded awkward — almost as if we were speaking in tongues. It felt bizarre to be calling strangers “Brother” and “Sister.” My co-directing partner Howard Smith and I had never spent much time in churches, let alone the revival tents and auditoriums of the Pentecostal faith. He was Jewish; I was technically Christian but my father, with a straight face, preferred to identify himself as a Druid. Yet there we were, in 1972, embarking on the Holy Roller circuit, navigating the Bible Belt, recording American evangelicals in their hyperemotional religious rites as if they were an obscure tribe in Pago-Pago.
Our guide was a fire-and-brimstone minister named Marjoe Gortner. A charismatically handsome man in his late 20s, he frequently performed as a guest preacher for congregations across America, wherever the born-again movement had rooted. What his audiences didn’t know was that he was leading a double-life. He hung out and smoked dope with his hippie friends in LA for half the year, and then when he ran out of money he would go back to preaching, changing on the plane from tie-dye to mod-style suits and ties, changing his persona to “Brother” Marjoe.
He had been a Bible Belt star most of his life. His parents, both itinerant evangelists themselves, noticed his gift for mimicry and his phenomenal powers of recall when he was 3. They set out to transform him into a preaching sensation, a “miracle child.” He was taught lengthy sermons, complete with gestures and lunges, and was ordained at the age of 4. They kicked off his career in 1949 by having him perform a marriage while a Paramount newsreel camera rolled. That got him into Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the “World’s Youngest Minister.”
Marjoe and his parents toured the country for eight more years, raking in offerings from eager crowds, some $3 million by his own reckoning. Receiving his sermons from heaven, delivering souls, healing the sick, he seemed like God’s little angel, or — as his father put it ingenuously — “a preaching machine.”
After a time, the act broke down. Marjoe’s father absconded with the money, the prepubescent boy was too old to be a novelty anymore, and his rage surfaced. He left his mother and lived off the kindness of nonreligious strangers in California for the duration of his adolescence. Then he found himself drawn back to the flame — the spotlight, the adulation, and of course the cash — of the evangelical circuit. His audiences never knew that his belief in God was nil, and the host preachers had no idea that he had, in his other life, joined with legions of hippies.
When he reached his late 20s, Marjoe tried to make a break for once and for all. In 1970, he arrived in New York to become an actor. He thought it would help his career if he gained a little publicity. He approached my partner Howard Smith, hoping to interest him in his story. Howard had a syndicated FM radio show in which he interviewed celebrities. What he and I learned about Marjoe’s incredible story convinced us to make a documentary feature about him.
In 1972, the film was finished in time for the Cannes Film Festival. Roger Ebert saw it at an out-of-competition screening in rented theater. “The real sleeper this year is Marjoe,” he wrote. “It generated the most electric response of anything at the festival.” Film audiences seemed entranced by Marjoe, who sang like a canary about the cynicism of the religion business and the chicanery of his fellow preachers — including himself. As another critic wrote, “It proves that not only is Elmer Gantry still alive and well, but that the reality is more absurdly repulsive than the fiction.”
Shortly after, the movie opened across the northern United States. The press was unbelievable: nearly every major national publication — Time, Newsweek, Life, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Esquire — ran stories and photos of this brash young sellout. Folks in the Bible Belt, however, never got to see the film. The distributor was too afraid of the furor it would cause, so he refused to open it in any city south of Des Moines. But anyone watching the Oscars in 1973 couldn’t have missed it, because it won the Best Documentary Feature award for Howard and me.
Flash forward 30 years. The evangelical sect has grown from this fringe cult to a huge, vibrant mass movement. It is in one’s face 24/7. According to a Barna research poll in 2001, four out of ten Americans reported that they consider themselves “born-agains.” The president and his administration have shown a keen interest in the evangelical agenda.
I was working at Duart Labs in Manhattan, finishing up another documentary, a short about a street musician, Thoth, another galvanizing performer like Marjoe. This performer, however, sought spiritual deliverance through presenting a solo opera, singing all the voices while playing violin and dancing, and providing percussion with bells and whistles tied around his ankles. (This film would go on to win my second Academy Award in 2002.) Marjoe, meanwhile, had disappeared. My Web site, sarahkernochan.com, had brought me increasing inquiries about the film, mainly because people seemed interested in evangelicals again. And I had nothing to tell them.
Joe Monge, who heads Duart’s video department, happened to mention that they’d been clearing out their vault of film materials. Duart struck the original theatrical prints of Marjoe. I casually asked him to look and see if there was any remnant of the film in their archive. He returned with an inventory. They had everything. Original 35mm blow-up, 16mm negative, magnetic tape, mix, out-takes, TV spots, trailers. I was staggered. And resolved on the spot to rescue the film.
At that point, I brought in Hollywood attorneys Alan Wertheimer and Darren Trattner. They helped me trace the ownership to a small company, which had bought Marjoe as part of a larger film catalog. The problem was: They were bankrupt. The catalog was in receivership, and nothing could be purchased from it because Sony Film Corp had a lien on the holdings of the company. On top of that, the company’s president was walled up in Florida and not talking to anyone.
It took two years. But the day came: I signed a single piece of paper making me the owner of this ancient documentary. Now what? As if — pardon my spirituality — from God, an e-mail arrived on the same day, funneled through my Web site. A company called New Video, which distributes mostly documentaries, and especially Oscar-winning ones, wanted to know who owned the rights to Marjoe. They wanted to put it out on DVD.
More invitations arrived. At the time of this writing, and thanks to my film rep Ira Deutchman at Emerging Pictures, the film is playing for a limited time at the IFC Center in New York and in theaters in Florida and Delaware.
What will Marjoe mean now, after all these years? I am hoping that the DVD will reach those parts of the country in which the film was never released. The Bible Belt especially. I hope people of other faiths will understand where the power of the evangelical movement has come from, understand the lure of the music and the promise of a life-altering spiritual experience. I hope they will see, too, that this ecstatic union with Christ is also … sometimes … commandeered by ruthless and greed-fueled “servants of God” — the ministers who have, since the year Marjoe was made, erected a formidable enterprise sprawling over the media, corporate America, and the Beltway, with no notion of stopping until the United States becomes one big mega-church.
One preacher not profiting from this success will be Marjoe Gortner. Instead, he came clean. Will anyone listen again?
“MARJOE” 1972 directed by Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith
South Bronx street life circa ’79…
The roots of the film lay in a lengthy 1977 Esquire article written by Jon Bradshaw about two gangs who operated in the South Bronx – the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads. “I’d always liked non-fiction and I read that piece,” Gary Weis tells the Guardian down the phone from California. “Bradshaw was a guy who wrote about Baader-Meinhof, went to Angola … one of those hard-drinking journalists who went to crazy places. I hadn’t really thought about doing it as a film, but then one week Raquel Welch was the guest host on Saturday Night Live (Weis was the show’s in-house film maker) and her manager was Carolyn Pfeiffer, who was living with Bradshaw. And later that summer I was asked by NBC to do three longer films for their late-night time slot, so I did a couple of comedy shows and then suggested we do this piece on gangs.” This was quite a change from his best-known previous work, The Rutles’ Beatles spoof All You Need Is Cash, co-directed with Eric Idle. Weis’s original route into the gangs’ milieu was via community organiser Joan Butler and Bob Werner, leader of the NYPD’s Youth Gang Task Force and the kind of cop you would generally assume only existed in the imaginations of late-70s screenwriters and the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage video. Sporting a bandit moustache and Aviators, he’s first encountered unwinding on a firing range, claiming that he’d requested a transfer to his current precinct because his previous stomping ground was “too quiet”. At one point later he’s cheerfully advising an aspirant felon as to why his theoretical plan to kill a cop and “just do seven years” is fundamentally flawed: “Because your life would end right on the scene.” And yet, despite his position, Werner seems able to stroll around the area, even being invited to the block party that closes the film. “When we first went to meet them,” Weis recalls, “Werner would climb into their building with his gun drawn, then bring the guys out for us. He’d leave us in the car. It looked like Dresden.” Even Butler describes her own neighbourhood as “a land of nowhere”. Neither of them are exaggerating. If nothing else, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s serves as an excellent corrective to all those complaints you started hearing about 10 years ago that the city had been “totally cleaned up and lost all its character”. The film is a stark reminder of the damage that had been wreaked on parts of New York throughout the 70s; the depopulated districts, burnt-out buildings and human waste serving as the end point for a decade of mismanagement and unaddressed social problems. The spirit of these dark, troubled times was captured in a Daily News front page from October 1975 after the president vowed to veto any attempt to bail out the city from bankruptcy – “Ford To City: Drop Dead”. (In reality, Ford never actually said those words and two months later would approve federal loans, but the sentiment stuck in the popular memory.) And while announcing the 1977 World Series from Yankee Stadium, commentator Howard Cosell supposedly declared that “the Bronx is burning” as roving cameras panned over streets alive with fires. In the 1981 cop film Fort Apache, The Bronx, Paul Newman came to a similar conclusion. More than 30 years on, Weis still recalls leaving Manhattan for filming. “It was really like a foreign land. We gave it that title because it was 80 blocks away from where Tiffany’s was on Fifth Avenue and these guys never, ever left the Bronx. All the buildings were boarded up, a lot of the buildings were burned down.”
Left living in the wreckage were two predominantly Hispanic gangs – the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads. Decked out in a strange combination of biker denim and bandolero chic, both gangs now look anachronistic, almost romantic. “I think the look all derived from biker stuff,” muses Weis. “They called themselves a motorcycle club, but didn’t have the money for motorcycles. I did feel scared around them on occasion, but really it was a different time. Now it’s about money and drugs, but to me the film looks more like West Side Story. They were tough guys but it almost looks nostalgic.” To a modern audience, much of the film’s impact comes from Weis’s light touch. There is nothing in the way of narrative or moral judgment imposed on the film: cleaving more to the Direct Cinema techniques then being pushed by the likes of the Maysles brothers (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter etc), Weis simply records the Skulls, the Nomads, the police and the citizens as they are. “I just went in,” he says. “I didn’t have an agenda, no social commentary, and they picked up on that. They weren’t stupid.” Indeed, it was the few parts of the film where Weis deviated from these principles that ultimately proved to be its undoing. “Obviously, we couldn’t film them actually breaking the law, as they wouldn’t do anything in front of the camera that was a robbery. So what happened was, when we heard those stories about what they’d done, we recreated them and filmed them pretty quickly, so we had a dramatisation to put in there.” Nowadays, this sounds like fairly standard reconstructive documentary behaviour. But these vignettes saw the film embroiled in an internal dispute over the fact that it had been made by the entertainment division rather than the news division, and it was duly shelved. “It was frustrating,” admits Weis with magnanimous understatement. Much of the fascination in watching 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s lies in seeing a selection of now-lost worlds. The gang culture portrayed may be violently amoral, but it precedes crack and the routine carrying of guns. The film also sits just before hip-hop arrived and self-documented much of the city around it; a street party is soundtracked by Chic’s Everybody Dance and the Bar-Kays’ Let’s Have Some Fun, along with some embryonic MCing. But perhaps the most striking difference between now and then is that the director benefited from having subjects who weren’t precociously aware of a need to “perform” for the camera, manipulate their emotions to grab a few more minutes of the final edit or contrive their own story into a predetermined “journey”. For the most part, Weis’s ultimate success as a film-maker rests in the fact that the people in 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s look like they couldn’t care less whether he filmed them or not.
“80 BLOCKS FROM TIFFANY’S” 1979 directed by Gary Weis
go to Classic NY Street Gangs for lots of info and photos from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s…