wed 22/05/2019

Werner Herzog: Huie's Sermon and God's Angry Man | reviews, news & interviews

Werner Herzog: Huie's Sermon and God's Angry Man

Werner Herzog: Huie's Sermon and God's Angry Man

Director retrospective matches venues to movies

A familiar Herzogian weirdness was on display at last night's Herzog documentary double bill. And not all of it was cinematic. The organisers of the Herzog retrospective had matched up out-of-the-way venues to specific Herzog movies, and these movies to suitable companion acts. Last night’s two documentary portraits of American evangelicalism, Huie’s Sermon and God’s Angry Man, were separated by a live gospel choir, which cajoled and corralled the audience into spiritual, vocal and happy-clappy fervour. It totally out-Herzoged Herzog and transformed a night of edgy, recherché cinephilia into an evangelical love-in.

Weirder than any of this, however, was the reaction of the audience. This thoroughly middle-class, thoroughly Left-Liberal atheistical bunch not only began quite freely to join in the interval sing-song, but also seemed to be engaged and stirred by the mad, Hitlerian, whirling dervish-like bullshit coming from the mouth of African-American pastor Huie Rogers of the Greater Bible Way Temple, Brooklyn.

In the beginning, I could see the attraction of Huie and his choir. Their effortless singing, dancing, their super cool shuffle down the aisles to a lazy blues swing, the way Huie's talk could become song and his song, seamlessly and hypnotically, talk, was temporarily mesmerising. Ignore the cassocks and we could have been watching a seriously classy Saturday-night act. But Herzog lets the fundamentalist Huie hang himself, just by sticking with the sermon and following his initially benign routine turn sour and shouty.

Huie starts to detail the wrongs that had to be righted in the world: homosexuality, transexuality, artificial insemination, to which rallying cries the elderly black ladies behind him, spinning in their seats with spiritual excitement, get to their feet with a loud, “Amen!” Herzog unfolds all this lunacy in real time, so we get a full sense of the power and persuasive possibilities of the charismatic preaching, as well as its bare, brutish, fascistic nastiness – not that the audience members around me, all gyrating to Huie's beat, seemed to notice this.

“Wasn’t that great!” exclaimed the leader of the Gospel choir that followed the film, “Come check out our church. We have the same thing every Sunday!” The film that came after their intermission act, God’s Angry Man, was far less objectionable than any of this, yet it provoked far more angry guffawing. (The acceptance of African-American evangelicalism and the visceral hatred of white evangelicalism among the Liberal-Left is one of those very strange facts of life.)

Well-groomed white preacher Gene Scott, the angry man of the title of the movie, is a hugely successful tele-evangelist. He shouts at the camera and demands money for his church. “Not one more word until that $1,000 comes in!” he snarls at the screen, folding his arms and falling back into his chair. Not very normal, not very nice, but actually all seemingly in aid of quite a decent cause. According to Scott, the money is for the church and their good works. Herzog insinuates that shenanigans might lie underneath this treasure chest, but no evidence is given. And the few bits of conversation that Scott offers off screen are self-effacing, self-aware and humble. So what are we to make of of him? Sympathy? Astonishment? Disgust?

Above all else, I was left with a distinct sense of déjà-vu. The familiarity of the subject matter of both films - mad Christians, being mad - was wearisome. It's not Herzog's fault - he made both in 1980, well before most Europeans got to know about this curious phenomenon - but the fact remains: we know all too well what loony evangelical preachers and tele-evangelists get up to. Lunacy. They work themselves into a lather and shout at the top of their voice about the wickedness of the world and the coming of Christ. Most of us know this and are no longer amazed or excited by the weirdness of this. Though maybe we should be. What we certainly shouldn't be doing is blithely swinging along to their beat - however catchy it is.

 

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