Oh hey, it’s that time of year again where we get another Woody Allen movie. What better way to celebrate than to tell people not to watch it and recommend a documentary to watch instead? Even for one of the director’s latter-day films, Magic in the Moonlight is especially airy and forgettable. It involves many of the philosophical ideas with which Allen is so enamored, such as the search for meaning in a godless universe, but makes none of them stick. Which is a shame, since the film’s story, about a 1920s magician who seeks to debunk a young psychic, had potential. As an alternative, check out Marjoe, another film about exposing religious fraud, albeit in a radically different context.
While Moonlight is set amidst the spiritualism craze of the early 20th century, Marjoe deals with revival evangelism, which was the choice avenue for hucksters of that era (and whose spirit continues to a certain extent today). The title character, Marjoe Gortner, was a brief sensation in the late 1940s as a child preacher. At just 4 years old, he was preaching complex sermons to the masses, his parents claiming him to be a divinely-touched prophet. In reality, he was just preternaturally gifted in mimicry, memorization and stage acting. Even as a tot, Gortner didn’t believe a word he spoke. When his voice cracked, his gimmick was gone, and his abusive parents absconded with the millions he’d raised, and he spent his adolescence as a hippie.
He returned to the preacher game as an adult, modeling himself after rock stars, to great success. But his conscience weighed on him, and so in 1971 he decided to end his “ministry.” First, though, he took filmmakers Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan with him for one last tour.
For Gortner, the film was a confession. He goes before crowds of thousands and electrifies them with holy fervor, then he bleeds them for cash. In the aftermath, counting bills on his hotel bed, he casually explains his methods. Like all the great debunkers, he knows the tips and tricks of the trade because he has been in the game himself. Like a medium who uses a wire to levitate a candle during a seance, revival preaching requires a great deal of sleight of hand, though usually of a more verbal than physical nature. You don’t come across as suspicious if you only ask that people put the biggest bill in their wallet into the collection plate.
Much of the film is an alternation between the tent meetings and the back-room expositions. The revival scenes are a vivid antecedent of every documentary depiction of religious mania en masse that would follow, such as Jesus Camp. The contrast between Gortner’s thunderous stage presence and his calm, matter-of-fact everyday manner is rather chilling, especially given his continued admittance that he’s scamming these people. Yet he remains sympathetic, both due to his recalcitrance and his revelations about his upbringing. For instance, his mother apparently would punish him by smothering him with a pillow or by drowning him, since she couldn’t leave bruises that would show up on stage.
Marjoe won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, but it has dropped away from sight and mind since then, which is a real shame. The film was even out of print for a while, before a negative was rediscovered in 2002. It would make a certain amount of sense if the movie, very much a product of the ’70s counterculture, had been allowed to die on the vine by the reactionary ’80s and early ’90s conservatism. After all, it is one of the least flattering portraits of religion in all of nonfiction film — which is saying something.
Smith and Kernochan (who, holy shit, was only 24 at the time) have both led careers that weave between documentary filmmaking and other pursuits in the decades since. Smith, by the way, died just a few months ago and is likely to go on to be one of the most unfortunately overlooked departed of the year.
Magic in the Moonlight is only vaguely about debunking false prophets, as it soon spins into Allen’s well-worn love of sappy, slightly creepy romance (Colin Firth and Emma Stone, y’all) and the glorification of insufferable men. Marjoe, however, uses counter-religion as a way to explore how the allure of faith works over the masses, and how canny people exploit faith for their own ends. It’s one of the great, near-forgotten documentary works.