On the madness of Dr. Gene
When I was a child and life was simple, one of my favorite forms of entertainment on the dawn of a dreary Sunday morning was watching the myriad television evangelists work their magic before the eyes of the world. I grew out of it by the time I hit puberty, but I’d still like to think I was a discriminating viewer then, young as I was. Consequently I wouldn’t watch just any New Testament hustler on just any channel. For instance, I knew enough to stay away from the network affiliates, since all they ran were the expensive, snore-inducing pageants put on by the likes of Robert Schuller. To me, those Hour of Power galas were the evangelical equivalent of a Joshua Logan movie: overstuffed and strictly for the nursing homes. No, the really cool shows to me were a rogues’ gallery of Assemblies of God television ministries you could find on relatively down-market independent stations, for whom they proved more lucrative than a morning’s worth of test patterns.
Here you had such artists as Kenneth Copeland and his Believer’s Voice of Victory hour, W. V. Grant, laying hands and making the lame to walk again from his Eagle’s Nest Cathedral in Dallas (this was before he got sent up on a one-year tax evasion jolt); there was The World Tomorrow, featuring the grandmaster of apocalyptic doom, Herbert W. Armstrong (half as old as time and running on sheer Book of Revelations fury), then my absolute favorite performer in those days, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, whose honky-tonk piano styling and prurient method of railing against sin never failed to delight and, yes, fire my youthful imagination long before I learned what he was up to in those motels around Lake Charles and Baton Rouge.
I never got to see Dr. Gene Scott or his nightly Festival of Faith, the subject of Werner Herzog’s remarkable 1980 film, God’s Angry Man. Far as I know it never hit the Boston market, though reportedly he could be seen and heard in over 150 countries. In his three decades as a broadcaster he attracted a large number of viewers for whom his program was never intended — what we generally call a cult following — and his cross-section of fans were legion, if not exactly ready to give their hearts to Jesus anytime soon. It’s certainly a testament to the stamina (if not the downright perversity) of anyone if they could endure three to ten hours a night of a visibly enraged man with a fine, snow-white Charlie Rich pompadour and an icy stare hectoring his audience in television land to get on the phone right this minute and empty out their bank accounts to keep his ministry on its feet. And this is by no means an exaggeration. A good deal of Herzog’s 44-minute film is taken up with scenes of Scott live on the air, angrily rifling through pledges from viewers that were just called in — none of which are ever less than three figures — eventually flying into a hardcore Old Testament fury at the foul stinginess of the apostate public when he sees they haven’t coughed up that extra thousand he told them he needed.
In other hands, scenes like these would be used to advance the ever-fashionable cliché of television evangelists as mammon-obsessed charlatans (which many have been; that’s undeniable), but Herzog’s portrait of Dr. Gene Scott isn’t concerned with exposing hypocrisy in an Elmer Gantry manqué. In fact, as a whole, the filmmaker accepts his subject as a fundamentally honest man, despite his loony, hair-raising demands for money night after night and all that they might imply. God’s Angry Man is neither an exposé nor a malediction, and Scott is never branded a crackpot — which is not only the easiest road Herzog could have gone down but also the most decrepit. Far from your typical flannel-mouthed Bible racketeer like Jim Bakker back in the day, Scott is relatively candid about what he’s doing, both on the air and off (“I am too good to be really bad and too bad to be really good,” he admits ruefully). And for all his volcanic on-air bluster, he reveals a great deal of genuine vulnerability when he’s interviewed by Herzog. Slumped in the back of his limo or sprawled in a chair at home, he speaks in a measured, contained voice, and he rarely strays beyond two subjects: the state of his ministry (not good, according to him; though his detailed inventory of its assets makes it sound like a thriving mid-level Fortune 500 company), and the bitter isolation brought on by the life he’s chosen.
He’s an educated man (a doctorate in education from Stanford University), with more money and almost as much will as God Himself, but he has no personal possessions (everything’s in the name of the ministry), no friends or immediate family, no life but the gospel and his Festival of Faith, and no time he can call his own. What he has is enemies. For years, ever since he took Southern California by storm in the mid-’70s and started raking in all those tax-exempt greenbacks from viewers (a later report in the Los Angeles Times estimated the take as something like a million dollars a month), both the IRS and the FCC were on the case in a crusade to shut down his operation. If that wasn’t sufficiently Jobian, he has the lunatics to deal with . . . but of course there’s no avoiding them. I mean, it’s axiomatic that if you do a live television show every night that frequently lasts into the wee small ones, you’re bound to get some beleaguered yo-yo in Pacoima thinking you’re the one that’s been sending the coded messages through his neighbor’s lawn mower. To hear Dr. Scott tell it, these distressed souls represent a real segment of the audience, and in the face of their inevitable threats no amount of caution is too much. His greatest wish, he tells Herzog, is to be able to one day leave it all behind, even though he knows that day will never come. He lives, therefore, in a perpetual state of siege.
But that is as it must be. He’s not, after all, some itinerant snake handler putting on a gimmicky hellfire freak show and hawking prayer cloths from a canvas tent on the outskirts of Natchez, Mississippi. Nor is he just another televangelist (indeed, he once sued Time for referring to him as such). His calling, as he sees it, is to use the awesome instruments of communication wrought by the godless twentieth century to deliver unto a gazillion viewers all over the globe the Revealed Word of God six nights a week; to mark upon each and every one of them the sign of His soul, as it were. And he will not be halted in this quest, not by anyone.
It’s no surprise, then, that Festival of Faith is saturated by his bunker mentality. The production crew, the middle-aged matrons working the pledge lines, even his slightly creepy troupe of White Gospel singers all seem aware that they’re handmaidens to the vision of a man long ago separated from his rightful mind, and whenever Herzog’s camera moves away from Scott for a minute or two to focus on the people around him, the whole thing starts to look like a hostage tape. Herzog shot much of God’s Angry Man in Scott’s studio during a typical broadcast, keeping his crew and his camera at just enough of a distance to take in the overall environment of simmering paranoia while keeping Dr. Scott and his wild eruptions front and center.
Environment has always been a crucial component in Herzog’s tales of mad dreamers at war with the order of the universe. In Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the later Fitzcarraldo (the film Herzog was preparing when he made God’s Angry Man), and to a lesser degree his more recent Grizzly Man, Herzog used their physical settings to achieve near miraculous harmonies of perspective; bringing us into the minds of his visionaries — to the point where we can nearly see what they see in all its insane, doomed grandeur — yet at the same time use the environs to ground us in the real world, keep us at a distance from which we can measure just how deluded these men really are. He takes a slightly different tack in God’s Angry Man, where of necessity the setting is practically claustrophobic in comparison to the verdant expanse in which Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are played out.
The only meaningful difference between the missions of Dr. Gene Scott and, say, Klaus Kinski’s Don Lope de Aguirre is one of scale, that’s all. The mythical El Dorado Aguirre seeks may indeed exist only in his mind, but he sees it with a clarity without comparison in the temporal world, and he’s prepared to find and conquer it to the last drop of blood in the last Conquistador under his command. Similarly, Gene Scott’s determination, his belief that he can surmount the opposition arrayed against him to spread the Word with every nickel he can bully his audience into forking over evinces the same ruthlessness, a willingness to take as many people with him as he can, whether his quest should end in catastrophe or not. It may not be as physically arduous as finding El Dorado or bringing opera to the jungles of Peru, but the dimensions of his fever-dream obsession (and the madness of it) are roughly analogous.
Of course, anyone who’s seen Les Blank and Maureen Gosling’s film Burden of Dreams knows full well that Werner Herzog himself has not been a stranger to such obsessions — albeit with a self-awareness his madmen generally lack. In that film, detailing the insanely turbulent creation of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog insists after one of the many disasters that halted the production and would have caused most filmmakers to surrender, “If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams. And I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.” Dr. Gene Scott, no less committed to a course that outwardly seems just as perilous (if not doomed), quietly tells his audience, with a seething rage on the verge of detonation, “I will not be defeated tonight.”
But unlike Herzog, who triumphed spectacularly, Dr. Gene Scott was eventually defeated. He passed away on February 21, 2005, at the age of 75; still going relatively strong (the FCC succeeded in briefly terminating his broadcasts in the ’80s), still maintaining a presence by using the Internet to stream his broadcasts, old and new, 24 hours a day. From all reports, his Festival of Faith just got crazier and crazier as time passed. The demands for money remained every bit as strident, if not more so, but the broadcasts reportedly lost their focus on the Blood of the Lamb and Building an Army for Christ. Now he chomped cigars on the air, talked about UFOs and Pyramids, profanely excoriated his ex-wives and started honking a saxophone with abandon. These days, when television evangelists are nothing more than white-bread insurance salesmen selling a backward far-right social agenda, totally bereft of the showmanship that held me spellbound as a child, the latter-day Dr. Gene Scott sounds joyfully subversive and, I have to admit, almost worth every penny I never pledged.