There's more to Marjoe
than the exposure of an evangelical fraud. Directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, this Oscar®-winning 1972 documentary operates on a number of levels as it follows Marjoe Gortner, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who had been raised, since becoming an ordained minister at the age of 4, to preach the Gospel to a large flock of believers. It didn't matter that young Marjoe was himself a non-believer, or that he would eventually trade his Bible-belt revival tours for the hedonistic pleasures of the 1960s counterculture. What we witness in Marjoe
is the power of charisma, and the sheer vitality of a born showman whose fervor--regardless of its falseness--had a profound effect on Christians all around the country, to the extent that Marjoe Gortner achieved a kind of spiritual celebrity by the time he exposed himself as a phony in the early 1970s. Smith and Kernochan capture Gortner's essence with such candor that he emerges as an amiable narcissist, betraying his own selfishness and self-loathing yet honest enough to confess the "business" of harvesting cash donations from his Pentecostal audiences. Gortner succeeded in using this film to launch a modest career in movies (including a role in the 1974 disaster hit Earthquake
), and his deceptive preaching was just another form of acting. In exposing himself as a fraud, Gortner deliberately drew attention to himself in the pursuit of celebrity. Ironically, he also succeeded in boosting the faith of his followers, and by acknowledging this, Marjoe
adds yet another intriguing facet of truth to its subject.
It makes perfect sense that Marjoe has been paired in this DVD set with Thoth, Sarah Kernochan's Oscar®-winning 2001 documentary short (40 minutes) profile of S.K. Thoth, a street performer whose persona, like Marjoe Gortner's, is entirely fictional yet genuinely compelling. The former Stephen Kaufman (his father was Jewish, his mother African American) struggled with his ethnic and sexual identity, and Thoth shows how he reinvented himself, renamed after an Egyptian high priest, and developed a one-man opera based entirely on "The Festad," a fantasy world, with its own made-up language, that he's created as a youthful refuge from the racism he endured as a biracial youth in the '60s. A self-described "blessed creature" with a unifying message, the androgynous Thoth (whose gold loincloth costume suggests a hybrid of male/female and ancient Egyptian identities) fascinates his audiences of tourists and Central Park regulars, some regarding him as a charlatan while others accept his ruse a celebration of pan-cultural humanity. Thoth may seem like a New Age phony or simply a loser to some viewers (he barely makes a living, and is largely supported by his mother), but his life, like Kernochan's film, is a fascinating quest for multiple layers of truth. --Jeff Shannon