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Film Review: Marjoe

March 11, 2013 1 comment

Marjoe (1972; Directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan)

As his father relates in a later portion of this documentary film, Marjoe Gortner comes from a long line of preachers. But merely continuing the family business does not have quite enough aura to it. No, Gortner, Sr. tells a prayer meeting crowd that his prized preaching son was singled out by the Lord himself (while taking a bath, no less) to save souls as a Pentecostal revival preacher. He was chosen, and at the tender age of 3 ½ years.

Chosen he may have been, but as Marjoe (his odd name is a portmanteau of Mary and Joseph, the mortal parents of Jesus) tells it in the Best Documentary Feature of 1972 (per the Academy), there was nothing divine about his being marked for this calling. Famous in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a child preacher whose flamboyant verbosity in the name of Jesus belied his kindergartener appearance, Marjoe raked in what he estimates to be $3 million for his parents (who never gave him any of it, he claims) from gullible believers.

The boy evidently never believed a word of the fire-and-brimstone nonsense he had been drilled by his ambitious and pious parents to memorize, and rebelled against their vision for him in his late teens (the act’s novelty had also begun to dry up, and the meeting bookings did as well). The Marjoe Gortner who speaks to the production crew in a hotel room at the beginning of the film comes across as a standard hippie golden-boy, his curly blond locks, beanpole frame, and handsome confidence suggesting both a lankier Owen Wilson and Roger Daltrey in the Tommy film era.

Like Tommy, Marjoe offers a critique of charismatic religious leaders, but does so from the inside. Struggling in other career efforts as a young adult, Marjoe returns to the ministry in order to make money. The money, he finds, is pretty good; the Pentecostal faithful are quite willing to part with their dollar bills (and their $10s and $20s and higher denominations, too) for a preacher of any skill, and the skilled Gortner (who steals hip-jabbing stage moves from Mick Jagger) giddily counts out a pile of cash in a hotel room for the camera. Smith and Kernochan’s lens is repeatedly drawn to other preachers and ministry functionaries with fistfuls of dollars as well; subtle, it ain’t, but there’s little question that, to whatever extent it is or isn’t about the faith, the business is certainly about the money.

That the film shows all of this should make it pretty clear that Marjoe Gortner is not long for the Pentecostal ministry circuit. Indeed, Marjoe is his kiss-off exposé of what he views as the disingenuous crookedness and greed of this influential corner of American religion at the very least. If we are more familiar now with the racket that is evangelical revivalism, then it’s because a new generation of oily televangelist salesman have been busted with a hand in the holy cookie jar (or worse, in some cases). Marjoe offers what must have been a striking glimpse into a then-largely-unknown and little understood subculture. With the relentless sermons on salvation and damnation, the speaking in tongues, and the hand-laying healing of believers, it’s a bizarre portrait, even if we feel like we know it all well enough by now.

But Marjoe is not just a depiction of the Pentecostal faith; it’s a depiction of a well-paid conman in its midst. It is possible, with a comfortable acceptance of cognitively dissonance, to find the terms and the expression of belief in the ministry to be fantastically wacko while also feeling a little uncomfortable with how Marjoe Gortner exploits that wacko nature for his own financial gain.

Marjoe himself was quite uncomfortable with it, to be fair, which is why he decided to get out, and with this parting bang of a documentary, too. Exposing his deceitful career in the ministry was no guarantee of other such shysters being likewise exposed, nor of the basis of belief in the church being undermined. No one can begrudge his decision to end the charade and get out (although his father does not seem aware of his son’s lack of religious dedication when he introduces him at the aforementioned meeting). But one can begrudge Marjoe Gortner’s willingness to carry the charade on in the first place, and this can be the source of some viewer discomfort in what is otherwise a fascinating and insightful document of an enthusiastic religious movement.

Note: Russian subtitles aside, this is the full film on Youtube, with sound in English.

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Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks: Intellectual Distance and Emotional Ruminations

One of the things most worth appreciating about American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter is his considered, thoughtful tone. Ritter has been criticized for the impeccable, highly-crafted composure of his songs and their surrounding production on repeated occasions by the indie-cred gatekeepers at Pitchfork, who place inordinate value upon the appearance of rough-around-the-edges spontaneity that animates fashionable music in our present moment. This purported unconscious artlessness, of course, is no less constructed than Ritter’s conscious artfulness, but the fundamental assumptions of the subculture must of necessity be preserved and left unchallenged, bogus though they may be.

Circling back to our subject, however, we must note that Josh Ritter’s craftsmanship when forming albums of songs mirrors that of a novelist (which he also is). He and his collaborators edit, shape, and discard themes, ideas, feelings, and other artistic elements as if whittling away at drafts of a manuscript. This is the process of all artistic creation, of course, whatever its fuzzier appeals to more ephemeral muses. But Ritter’s final product shows a polish, a complexity, and a style of folk song poetry that aligns it closely with literary releases.

In the past, on his finest records like The Animal Years and So Runs the World Away, Ritter has applied his rich and nuanced songwriting skills to macrocosmic American themes of politics, religion, science, landscapes, and the permeable, unstable boundaries of history. What he has not always applied it to (and this is perhaps more what irks critics like those in Pitchfork’s employ) is his own life, experiences, and emotions. His youthful work displayed some lovely but clearly removed reminiscences of small-town experience (“Me & Jiggs”, “Kathleen”), certainly; and finely-detailed tragic love songs like “The Temptation of Adam” and “The Curse” may well have transmuted personal heart pangs into evocative metaphors. All these songs are undoubtedly touching, despite their crafted nature.

But Ritter has undeniably come to prefer the perspective of the intellectually-involved observer to that of the emotionally-enmeshed confessor (which was never a big part of his repertoire anyway). His greatest composition, The Animal Years’ mighty epic “Thin Blue Flame”, was conceived of as a modern American Dante’s Inferno, a floating dream of love, hate, faith, and disbelief. In the song, Ritter’s narrator looked down on a wide sweep of hope and failure and beauty and cruelty with ruthless clarity, but always already as viewed from a safe distance above, as if peeking over the cusp of a lofty cloud; there is something of Peter Brueghel in this vantage point, overwhelming and impressing us with human and natural detail but remaining at a safe, bemused remove from its muddy implications. One gets used to referring to Ritter’s voice as that of a narrator, rather than belonging to himself.

Josh-Ritter-The-Beast-in-Its-TracksThis is not a problem on The Beast in Its Tracks, Ritter’s latest album and his characteristically meticulous examination of the end of his marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Dawn Landes. There is zero doubt that the subject matter concerns an intensely personal emotional hurt felt by one Josh Ritter, folk singer, rather than by some fictionalized version of himself. Yet Ritter has carved out a niche as a measured, careful writer, and Beast is written from that niche as much as his wider-focused previous work was. As infused with melancholy as songs like “A Certain Light”, “Bonfire”, and “Lights” are, there is both a complex thoughtfulness and an inescapable smile lurking behind the pain, and indeed mostly overtaking it. Even “Nightmares”, with its mildly Boschian invocations of unconscious Hell imagery, has a skip in its acoustic step.

Even a broken heart cannot compel Ritter to discard joy or fairness or rationality; the charming, shuffling lead single “Joy to You Baby” is an admirably magnanimous statement of his essential positive outlook. By his admission in interviews, his songs on the subject for the album were written not from inside the impact zone of the immediate sting of his divorce but from a distance that has allowed for healing, contemplation, forgiveness, and a rejuvenating romance with another.

Most of these stages, feelings, and developments are alluded to, explored, and complicated in the album’s best cut, “New Lover”. “There are things I will not sing for the sting of sour notes”, Ritter sings in the first stanza, and the album is mostly free from recriminations or angry jabs. But in the space of the same song, Ritter show that even he can’t always resist the meaner impulses that come with heartbreak, reluctantly acknowledging that at its sharp conclusion that if his former lover was lonely and loveless, “I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy, too”.

The Beast in Its Tracks, though not as properly superb a record as his more literary folk efforts, is perhaps a stronger statement of Josh Ritter’s considerable ability as a musical conjurer of tone and emotion than anything he’s done. It re-contextualizes the tired and often bitter pop music mainstay of the breakup album, introducing a tone of calm rumination to a genre of songs that tends towards accusatory absolutes while acknowledging the contradictory emotional and mental push and pull of a romance on the rocks. Even with his heart worn quite evidently on his sleeve, Josh Ritter pays great heed to the needlework on his musical garments. As if his devotees would have expected anything less from him.

Categories: Literature, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Django Unchained

March 5, 2013 1 comment

Django Unchained (2012; Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus is a companion pieces to dozens of other movies, simultaneously. It is most proximally a companion piece to the stylish, stark, and violent spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, and directly references Sergio Corbucci’s notable genre entry Django. It is next a companion piece to Tarantino’s previous film, the densely cinematic, sneakily brilliant Nazi revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds, which reduced almost unintelligible historical traumas to a series of action-movie paybacks and prominently featured a then-unknown Austrian-German actor named Christoph Waltz as a voluble but dangerous hunter of fugitives. And it is finally a companion piece to 2012’s two other prominent films about the Civil War era, Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, sharing the former’s steely spine of moral repugnance at the thought of slavery and the latter’s vividly gory vision of the institution as one whose sustaining brutality requires usurping brutality in response.

But Django Unchained renders the contradictions and horrors of the slave system of the antebellum South as an inflated cartoon, and not in a beneficial way. I wrote a Master’s thesis once, in the shady depths of an abortive academic past, which argued in part that employing the emphasized surreality of the cartoon could serve as a form of amplification through simplification, pushing certain key elements of history to the fore in a way that conventional representation does not.

This seems to be Tarantino’s intended effect in Django, as it was (much more successfully) in Inglourious Basterds. But this time, his treatment of a much thornier and less acknowledged instance of large-scale social darkness comes out of the tail end of his complex cinematic machine of referential intertextuality, theatrical verbiage, comic tableaus, and excessive ultra-violence as a mistimed joke. What saved Inglourious Basterds from a similar self-parodic misfire was the intensive program of mass-culture denazification that has thoroughly repudiated nearly every dangerous implication of the National Socialist ideology. This was a historicizing process largely accomplished post-war through film, as Tarantino proved to be well aware, and his film reflected this fact with the imaginary mass extermination of Party grandees in a cinema-turned-incinerator at its climax. Essentially, the destruction of Nazism was a fait accompli, and Tarantino was just piling on, cinematically speaking.

But even if slavery is long abolished in America and widely acknowledged as a Very Bad Thing Indeed, it is hardly a revelation that the ideological basis and tribal-regional identification that animated it is far from buried. This has proven especially true in a contemporary United States in which the first African-American President has been vilified in terms both deeply ideological and troublingly racially-coded. Django Unchained, alongside the more serious-of-purpose Lincoln, was greeted critically as a prestigious strike against the persistent zombie beliefs of Lost Cause revisionism. In one fell cinematic swoop (or perhaps two), we were told, these films were correcting the historic imbalance of Hollywood classics like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind that evinced an unfortunate bias towards Neo-Confederate sentiment. Lengthy silence from the movies on the subject of the Lost Cause was to be swept away by a newly-robust burst of liberal sabre-rattling, emboldened by Barack Obama’s progressive ascendency.

I have touched on the ways that Lincoln does and does not fit this characterization. But for all of its demonstratively rebellious black-on-white aggression (“Reparation this, bitch!”), Django Unchained is in some ways more a reflection of benevolent but paternalistic white uplift of the African-American oppressed than even Spielberg produces. The titular slave badass of few words (a commanding, swaggering Jamie Foxx) is bought, freed, and trained for vengeance, after all, by a relatively-enlightened white European, Dr. King Schultz (Waltz, copping his own charming Basterds turn and being rewarded richly for it once again).

I appear to have become soiled with the plasmatic excretions of some unfortunate wretch. I would be much obliged by the loan of your kerchief, sir.

Although masquerading as a dentist, the verbose Schultz is a bounty hunter (going after nothing but nasty white men, where most who practiced his occupation in the antebellum period would have been capturing escaped slaves, most likely), and requires Django to identify a gang of targets that were his overseers at a previous plantation. Impressed by Django’s acumen with a firearm and boundless taste for retribution against slavers, Schultz takes him on as an apprentice in his craft. As they collect wanted corpses and the resulting cash rewards over a winter in the West, Schultz learns of Django’s still-enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and promises to help to extract her from the clutches of her owner in Mississippi.

This owner, Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), comes across as a Southern dandy at first, but reveals a vicious streak (and a white-supremacist interest in phrenology) when Schultz’s dissembling scheme to buy Broomhilda arouses his suspicions, or rather those of his devoted but whip-tongued senior house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Perhaps I ought to preface the revelation that their conflict results in a bloodbath of Peckinpah-esque proportions with a spoiler warning, but come now. This is Tarantino, people. Surely by now you know full well that the bloodbath is coming.

So, yes, there are gallons of goopily-spurting human bean-juice (seriously, these slave-owners and their minions are chocked full of the stuff, like engorged mosquitoes), “cool” homage shots, and precisely-chosen soundtrack cuts (plenty of Leone’s master composer Ennio Morricone, as well as some hip-hop and Johnny Cash). Tarantino, as always, lays out his core points in lecturing dialogue scenes, and two in particular encapsulate his basic point on slavery and his chosen response to its moral repugnance.

Candie’s aforementioned phrenological white supremacy is expressed in a nuanced, threatening soliloquy, accompanied by the skull of Stephen’s domestic predecessor, a hacksaw, and a hammer. The brutal arrogance at the heart of the slave system is imparted memorably by DiCaprio, at least until the implicit threat in his words becomes disappointingly explicit. This scene makes it clear that the issue isn’t that Tarantino doesn’t grasp what makes slavery such an important offence in American (and human) history; he grasps it, all right, but then tightens and squeezes his grip on it until it’s ready to burst.

An earlier scene between Schultz and Django truly summarizes the core values of Django Unchained, however. Pointing his rifle at a bounty target pushing a plow, Django hesitates when he notices that the man’s son is nearby. Schultz tramples over the human objections of his pupil; this is a bad man, a stagecoach robber and murderer, and we can gain by shooting him. “This is what I do”, Schultz tells him. “I kill people and sell their corpses for cash.”

King Schultz, in this way, is not much more righteous than Calvin J. Candie: both profit from a trade in human flesh, and the ethical distinction between the two men is only razor-thin. But like Schultz, Tarantino blusters his way towards the painless ethical trump card of bloody revenge in Django Unchained. There are deeper and more difficult problems inherent to the trauma of slavery than can be simply killed away, and this is not a film that is able to face up to them with regularity. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as they say, and this outing sees Tarantino’s formidable filmmaker’s eye blinded by the easy promise of righteous anger.

Categories: Film, History, Politics

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #4 – Jordan Rides the Bus, Run Ricky Run & You Don’t Know Bo

March 3, 2013 1 comment

There is little question of how success is generally measured in sports. More than anything else it might be, high-level athletic activity is a business of repetitive accumulation: of goals, points, home runs, touchdowns, awards, championships, stacked on top of one another to make a pile higher than the next. There may be moments of style and wonder along the way, but these are merely the cherries on top of the heaping sundae of amalgamated success. Unlike so many others walks of life, in particular our personal or emotional purviews, the terms of success in professional sports are undeniable and quantifiable. There are clear-cut winners and losers, champions and also-rans, statistical milestones to reach and even firm expectations to be fulfilled (or not). Sporting heroes may sometimes amaze with their acts of physical prowess, but they establish a legacy with accolades and achievements.

But what happens when an athletic star refuses to conform to the expectations of sustained, determined accumulation of success? What if a sports hero of sublime talent decides that following this path laid out for them will not fulfill their hopes and dreams, will not bring them personal or spiritual completeness? Or what if their particular ability is so galactic and outsized that it threatens the ideal of a lengthy athletic career? Do we have room in our considerations of sporting achievement for these kinds of figures, and if we do not, can we make room?

Bo knows abs.

Three of ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentaries focus on stars who raise these questions. All of them are African-American, and all of them took high-profile hiatuses from the game they excelled at smack dab in the middle of their prime, albeit for idiosyncratic reasons. In You Don’t Know Bo, director Michael Bonfiglio examines the briefly blazing phenom Bo Jackson, who was a standout athlete in both the NFL and Major League Baseball before a freak hip injury cut off his astronomical potential. Clips of his exploits (including football runs both bruising and lightning-quick, 500-foot home runs, and ridiculous outfield throws) are interspersed with reminiscences from Jackson himself and those who played with and coached him, as per the standard sports doc M.O.

But where You Don’t Know Bo breaks with the standard assessment of the career of a tremendous talent that is cut short by injury is with its inclusion of the profusion of barely-believable, half-true folk tales that swirl around Jackson. Bonfiglio seems most interested in these stories, enlisting storytellers like Chuck Klosterman and Michael Weinreb to dub Jackson a mythical superhero, a larger-than-life figure whose aura transcended even his not-inconsiderable media and advertising hype.

Anecdotal tall tales pepper the film’s opening, visualized in comic-book drawn animation, lending Jackson’s narrative the contours of heroic folklore: his college baseball coach claims to have seen Jackson leap over a Volkswagen, rumours abound that he once got in trouble for killing either the local minister’s pig or a pack of wild boars by throwing rocks at them, that he could leap a 40-foot ditch or hit a scoreboard with a football. Even his career-shortening injury itself, his incredible momentum while running disconnecting his entire hip bone, fits into this epic framework. The core suggestion of this examination of Bo Jackson’s legend is implicit: championships and scoring records are one thing, but an athlete that astounds us, that seems to be practically super-human, is something special.

Another athlete that astounded sports fans with his feats while also accumulating stats and championships was Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. Like Bo Jackson, Jordan dropped out of the sport he dominated at the peak of his powers. Unlike Jackson, Jordan did it of his own accord. Ron Shelton’s Jordan Rides The Bus documents the Chicago Bulls superstar’s decision, after capturing his third consecutive NBA title and losing his father to a roadside murder, to leave basketball for baseball in 1993. Chasing a dream his deceased father had for his son to play baseball in the big leagues, Jordan was an underwhelming ball player for the Chicago White Sox’s AA club for one season before returning to the Bulls to grab three more championships.

Jordan Rides The Bus raises alternate, conspiratiorial motivations for not only his brief sport switch but also his father’s death (gambling, evidently, which the oft-lionized Jordan had an issue with, apparently). But it seems fairly clear that his stated explanation was genuine. Shelton’s film does a better job laying out the flow of events and the effect that a worldwide superstar’s presence had on a minor-league ball team in Birmingham, Alabama than it does interrogating Jordan’s mindset (the man himself does not appear except in archival footage, but does contribute voice-overs that sound like sports-cliche-ridden motivational speeches). But the simultaneous hubris and naivety of Jordan’s choice to swing a bat instead of dunking a ball is still striking. It must have come from a personal place, because otherwise, how does it make any sense at all?

In the company of practical living gods like Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan, former NFL running back Ricky Williams cannot help but look distinctly human, for all of his obvious athletic gifts. Wonderfully, what Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni’s Run Ricky Run shows Williams to be is very distinctly human, with all of the oddness and inconsistencies that non-idealized humanity confers. Williams, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the University of Texas and flegdling professional star for the Miami Dolphins, retired prematurely like Jordan, but to follow a distinctive and much more ambiguous search for meaning and fulfillment, away from sports altogether.

As well known for his substance-abuse policy violations due to marijuana use as for his on-field exploits, the Williams that emerges from Run Ricky Run is a man misunderstood and misrepresented by cynical sports media conceptions that labeled him “troubled”. Employing intimate and revealing footage shot by Pamphilon during Williams’ hiatus from the game, a picture emerges of an open-minded hippie seeker trapped in the herculean body of a sports star. Williams reads philosophy and new-age spiritual literature, practices yoga, massage, and holistic medicine, has relationships (and children) with multiple women, and gradually opens up about and comes to understand his parents’ divorce as well as his own report of sexual abuse by his father that led to it.

Although all of these films provide compelling alternate possibilities to the previously-explicated terms of sports success, Run Ricky Run is both the most surprising and the most fascinating of the three. The possibility that Ricky Williams’ peculiar narrative presents is that essentially harmless personal eccentricity can have a place alongside the wealth, fame, adulation, and victorious glory that are the expected rewards of professional sports stardom. Success need not entirely trump personality, even if that personality rejects the typical demands of that success.

Categories: Culture, Reviews, Sports, Television