For anyone who takes special joy in the defrocking of the overfrocked, there can be no more gratifying film than Marjoe. Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith's 1972 documentary won an Oscar for basically blowing the lid off of the Pentecostal-tent-revival industry, which at that time was still thriving. (The simultaneous advent—as it were—of cable TV and megachurches did it in for good.)
For years, the film has languished out of print, available only on crumbling VHS cassettes. Now that Docurama has released a spiffed-up DVD, the film's great meta-con has never looked or sounded better. By "meta-con," I mean that the filmmakers expose the mass bilking of true believers by what Marjoe Gortner, the film's incredible star, calls "the religion business." But because Marjoe (that name's a hybrid of Mary and Joseph, by the way) is an avid participant in the filmmaking, Marjoe is simultaneously bilking the bilkers. It's a hidden-camera exposé in which the cameras are in plain view. Gortner, a handsome live wire with golden locks and a silver tongue, had been doing his "preacher hype" since the age of 4, when his parents began pimping him out as "the world's youngest ordained minister." He claims to have earned millions of dollars for his parents before becoming disillusioned by the church and dropping out in his late teens. The film captures his undercover comeback tour, staged specifically to blow the whistle on the chicanery of the churches, where the laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, and cripple healing was all in a night's work.
Marjoe is an impeccable idol smash, right down to the fat old preacher smoothing out crumpled dollar bills behind a desk while the cretinous crackers in his congregation swoon in the aisles. And Marjoe himself makes a perfectly charismatic figure to debunk the charismatic church—the movie turns on the same panache that made Gortner such a Bible belt sensation. Again, the target is a very specific branch of the faith (the one that believes God gives you Cadillacs when you ask him correctly), but the film reaches deep into the never-stale idea that all religious practice is founded on mass delusion. It should be required viewing in all public schools.
Obviously, it won't be. One thing that will at least be seen by public-school students, however, is the controversial "Trapped in the Closet" episode of South Park (featuring a character called Tom Cruise), which played in the U.S. but which Comedy Central's legal department axed before it could air in Europe. It's widely available online (duh), and it delivers the funny, smart, dumb, and true just as the show's been doing for the past 10 years. (I know.) What obviously started as a one-line gag evolved into an opportunity to let construction-paper kids deconstruct Scientology, and state for the record—much as Marjoe did more than 20 years ago—that no institution predicated on myth (no matter how absurd) should be safe from the great human gift of skepticism.