Though she is not a household name, Susan Kernochan does have a couple of Oscars sitting on her mantle piece. Oddly enough they are not for her screenplays. As a writer, she has been responsible for numerous box office hits, including What Lies Beneath, Nine ½ Weeks and Sommersby. No, her awards came from the documentaries she has helmed. In 1973, she won the Academy Award for Best Documentary for a film she made with Howard Smith about child evangelist turned adult huckster, Marjoe Gortner. Almost 30 years later, she won another trophy for her insightful look at New York City street performer SK Thoth. Now, Docurama has decided to release both films on DVD, and the results are beyond belief. Not only do these movies confirm Kernochan's skill as a documentarian, they highlight two incredible men who deserve to have their story - and their essence - seen and celebrated.
When he was a young boy, Marjoe Gortner was thrust into the religious limelight as the world's youngest evangelical preacher. With a domineering mother and cold, distant father, Marjoe found himself on the national circuit, preaching to untold congregations ready to receive the Word. In his teens, he decided to quit, and saw his life shift and stagnate. Not knowing in which direction to go, Marjoe decided to reenter the revival arena - and with good reason. The cash was ample, and the performances were easy. As an adult though, Marjoe learned that religion had become more about the greenback and less about God. He was now a shill, selling salvation for the price of a prayer card. Gathering together a documentary crew, Marjoe decided to expose some of the more shameful practices that go on behind the pulpit at churches across America. Yet along the way on his "farewell to faith" tour, Marjoe has a revelation. Maybe this is his calling after all. Maybe this is why he was put on this Earth - for good or bad.
When he was a young boy, Stephen Kaufman was an isolated and lonely child. The only son of a bi-racial couple, the mixed race youth and his two sisters where the target of scorn and ridicule, meeting head on the inconceivable bigotry of a pre-Civil Rights America. In his teens, he decided to kill himself. He took a bottle of sleeping pills and prepared to end it all. But a voice from somewhere in the ephemera told him it wasn't his time, He had more to do, it said, and Stephen lived through the suicide attempt. Suddenly transformed, he tapped into his family's history of musical performance and began developing this gift for voice and violin. Merging said skills with an imagination full of ideas, Stephen started an amazing transformation. From shy, insular child to outgoing performer, he even reinvented his name. Thus Thoth was born, a divine spirit put on this Earth to spread a message of peace and serenity through song and dance. Taking up residence in the streets of New York, Stephen uses Thoth as his own unique messenger, one that regularly inspires those who see him.
Though the subjects they deal with are as divergent as conceivably possible, there are still a lot of similarities in Marjoe Gortner and SK Thoth's life stories. Both grew up in the shadow of important, well-known parents (Gorter's were preachers, Thoth's mother was the first black percussionist for a major symphony). Each one went through an awkward phase in their teens when life seemed meaningless and without direction. And at the time their individual documentaries were made, both seemed settled in their future calling. Marjoe Gortner went on to be an actor, preacher and proponent of de-programming as a means of breaking free from the mind-controlling conceits of religion. SK Thoth expanded the call of his solo street act and saw wider acceptance of who is he, what he does, and what that stands for. Both men deserve the acclaim that accompanied their Academy Award winning documentaries, and Docurama deserves kudos as well for releasing them both on DVD. Looking at each one separately, we can start to see what makes them both so timeless, and so equally telling. Let's being with:
Marjoe - Score: ****1/2
When it was first released, Marjoe caused a scandal. Certainly today, in 2006, the concept of crooked and unscrupulous preachers fleecing their flock, using flim flam tactics to raise untold amounts of cash is a tired old cliché. Scenes of the devoted in the throws of the Holy Spirit as men in the backroom count coins is a well worn maxim about modern religion. Heck, even The Simpsons have used it as the basis for their satire. In the light of our modern technologically advanced society, the tent revival and the 24 hour prayer meeting are novel conceits, left to the backwater burgs of our Red State, Blue State nation. But back when evangelist turned actor Marjoe Gortner allowed cameras to follow him around as he restarted his (financial) life on the meeting circuit, what he exposed was deity-based dynamite. Gortner showed how much of a business religion had become, pointing out the simple, straightforward ways that the church and its elders shames people into paying for cars, clothes and property in far off lands.
The film begins with excerpts from Gortner's youth, and a couple of passing comments from the man himself that will resonate for the rest of the story. Gortner discusses how he memorized all the religious rituals (including the wedding ceremony) with the help of some rather abusive schooling from his mother. He states that he probably made $3 million over the course of his young career, and how he never saw a dime in his adulthood. He then deconstructs the process, pointing out how your plea has to have a purpose (money to save teenage drug addicts, for example) and then how you have to find the place - and preacher - who will go in with you. The rest is pure performance, and no one was better than Gortner. The film allows us to see the difference between Marjoe and many who he works with, and the dichotomy is electric. Gortner is fire and brimstone with a beneficence at his core that makes people think he cares. The rest are just plying Jesus with Satan for the scare tactic.
This film is indeed inspiring. Buckets of cash are counted out as the parishioners pass out or speak in tongues. Gortner attends a 24 hour prayer meeting which has an assembly line like call to tithes, and the amount of money/envelopes strewn about the alter is astounding. Toward the end, when we've seen the man manipulate the believers into doling out the dough for various causes, Gortner has a crisis of conscious. Not yet the actor he would soon become, he is a man at a moral crossroads. Does he continue his sacred scam existence, or leave it behind completely. Suddenly, what was just a look behind the financial fallacies of religion transforms into a moving, mesmerizing look at one man's discovery of self. Endlessly fascinating and filled with insight both personal and provocative, Marjoe is one of the best documentaries of all time.
Thoth: Score - ****1/2
Most have probably forgotten it by now, but when director Sarah Kernochan stepped onto the stage to accept her Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2002, she was accompanied by a very exotic looking escort. Dressed like a Mayan medicine man with a head full of dreads and a violin in his hand, it was probably the first time anyone outside New York City (or San Francisco) had ever seen Stephen Kaufman. A street musician who goes by the Egyptian god name of Thoth, this enigmatic entertainer just looked like a subject worthy of a fact-based film - and awards recognition. Thoth calls himself a "prayformance" artist, and is famous for a one-man opera about the imaginary Land of Festad, and its population of brown-skinned Mias. Using an invented language that he created, Thoth sets up inside the tunnels of Central Park and performs. He draws crowds both curious and condemning. He considers himself homeless, though he lives in a room in his mother's apartment and longs for the days when he was part of the West Coast scene.
Though it's only 40 short minutes in length, there is a lifetime contained in Sarah Kernochan's brilliant Thoth. Lucky enough to find one of those obvious, no-brainer ideas, this director does the story right, allowing it to flow freely from the title individual. She never forces or focuses the discussion. Instead, she lets Stephen Kaufman slowly peel back the layers of his public persona and reveal the confused, compassionate man that lives down deep at his very core. It may surprise those unfamiliar with the film to learn that it is as much about racism, intolerance, gender issues and family dysfunction as it is about a one man opera based in a completely made-up language. Thoth is not a freak, but a very thoughtful man racked with a kind of ethereal guilt that had no real basis in anything he ever did or could control. His father, a Jewish doctor, left the family when he was a child, never to see his children again. His mother, a percussionist, fought racism in her profession to the detriment of her career and her kids. In essence, Thoth's entire life has been a question of belonging.
Though it took him a while, Thoth discovered that he belonged in front of people, performing. Listening to the way he describes his work, how he considers it part of his life, not just a job, one begins to understand what Thoth is up to. This is a man who is making his own connections, creating his own essence out of parts of his past and the inventions of his present. Watching him enthrall a crowd - many of whom stand slack jawed at his primal ballet for voice and violin - is like watching him redefine his soul. It is individuality as pure expression, a purging of internal demons as external expectations are challenged and changed. Kernochan also stages some of Thoth's opera in a more professional setting so we can see that he is more than just a street performer. There is something truly magical about what this man is doing. Learning the backstory makes it all that more remarkable.
Since Marjoe was made 34 years ago, it is totally reliant on its film remaster for its visual power. Thankfully, Docurama offers a stellar 1.33:1 full screen image that is near perfect. The colors are bright and vibrant, the details dominant and correctly contrasted. There are some very minor moments of age, and one obvious editing flaw, but the rest of this transfer is terrific. Thoth is another full screen feature, except it was rendered on digital video. Only three years old, it should be perfect and practically is. There are none of the defects we've come to expect with the new technology (flaring, bleeding) and the visuals have a true authenticity and realism to them. Kernochan's camera is also very cinematic, finding challenging ways to highlight Thoth's talent. In total, these are wonderful looking documentaries.
There is nothing memorable or mentionable about the aural offering here. Both films are offered in a plain, professional Dolby Digital Stereo set up with little atmosphere or ambiance. There is nothing really wrong with this kind of sonic arrangement, but those who require more from the medium of DVD may be disappointed.
Marjoe only offers us some text-based information on the filmmakers. Thoth gives us the same, and then adds almost 50 minutes of additional footage from the (in)famous one man opera. Like watching his performance in the tunnels of Central Park, it is a spellbinding bit of added content.
Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, Marjoe and Thoth prove that, when done right, the documentary format can be the most powerful type of cinematic statement a filmmaker can create. Both of these movies manage to make their subjects more than just one-note entities while expanding our understanding of what makes people crave the attention of others. For Gortner, it's a matter of sharing and salvation - with a little cash thrown in on the side. Oddly enough, the same can be said for Thoth. Both men want to move their audience into a response. Both involve the contribution of cash for the enlightenment offered. And while it may seem that Gortner is far more wicked for the way he earns his money, the truth is that both of these individuals are in the game for the right and wrong reasons. That they both begin to see said light at the end of a traumatic and trying tunnel is inspirational and enthralling. These men are more powerful than the message they bring, or the manner in which they offer it. You will not see two better fact-based films than these praiseworthy portraits.