Though they’d already existed for some years, televangelists really emerged as a cultural force—and particularly a political one—in the 1980s. During that decade, President Reagan energized a “Moral Majority” while less-conspicuously pushing through tax cuts and deregulation that would eat away at his middle-class base’s economic stability—things they were too busy condemning gays and loving Jesus to notice.
Nearly every such high-profile religious leader of the era eventually went down amidst flames of financial fraud and hypocritical sexual scandals. None more spectacularly than Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, if only because their empire was such a cartoon of garish excess even by the standards of televangelic peers. They were like a Frankensteinian version of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, carved out of folksy plastic—especially “the little woman,” with her grotesque gobs of makeup forever running from the tears she was forever breaking into on-camera. No one was surprised when it turned out he was cheating on her, with a rainbow coalition of sex partners, it seems. Even less so that PTL (aka Praise The Lord) Club’s incessant fundraising fraudulently bankrolled a luxurious lifestyle.
Jim went to prison in 1989, emerging five years later to start cashing in on his tale of sin and purported redemption. He is, in fact, still milking that cow, despite having lost a recent lawsuit over his sale of silver supplements as a bogus cure for COVID. Ex-wife Tammy died in 2007, somewhat bewilderingly absolved of her own trespasses in large part because she was adopted as a mascot by some of the gay community. Admittedly, she had dared to be publicly supportive of gay people and persons with AIDS when that was very much against the prevailing “born again” tide.
But it irked me 21 years ago when the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye basically gave her a free pass for being a kind of funny drag queen (the film was even narrated by RuPaul). And it kind of irks me now that the new, dramatized version of that story likewise just glides over unpleasant questions like “Did she know her husband was committing massive fraud?” I mean, how did she not know? That money funded her own bottomless thirst for tacky splendor, which this campy recap duly revels in.
Nonetheless, this The Eyes of Tammy Faye is entertaining and well-crafted, as far as it goes. Which isn’t too far, given that it’s based on the documentary, involving some of the same creative personnel. The director, however, is previously-unaffiliated Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, The State), so you know it’s going to have a primarily comedic tilt.
Introduced as “the Ken and Barbie of televangelists,” this Tammy (Jessica Chastain) and Jim (Andrew Garfield) meet at a Christian college in 1960, where their mutual penchant for attention-getting, savior-clutching exuberance makes them a natural match, even if it alienates everyone else. That extroversion soon lands them on regional TV, where they make a splash incorporating puppets into children’s religious programming, and creating The 700 Club (even if that gets stolen whole by unamused benefactor Pat Robertson). Despite other setbacks, eventually they have their own network, multiple shows, records, theme park, and semi-private life of Liberace-level acquisitive excess. Until, of course, it all comes crashing down.
This Eyes is mostly focused on Tammy Faye, repeating the notion that she was just a girl who wanted to be loved (because Mama was sparing with that emotion) and thus easy prey to pills, backstabbing, and a husband who betrayed her and their good works. If you can swallow that, perhaps you’d like to buy this bridge as well? Anyway, Chastain’s effectively mannered, makeup-heavy turn limns a victim just too preoccupied to notice millions disappearing into thin air. Uh-huh. A different movie might have questioned the reliability of that alibi, but this one prefers to pretty much avoid such matters entirely. It’s a colorful, brightly paced and broadly (but well) acted film that will probably result in some Oscar nominations, because it is the kind of thing Oscar likes.
Still, as the US gets yanked ever closer towards theocracy, you might well wonder if we can afford such inspirationally lite treatments of religious grifters. Somehow the Bakkers’ ilk are bigger power-players in our culture than ever, with concepts like “megachurch” and “prosperity gospel” since added to the lexicon of uniquely American hypocrises, twisting Bible lessons into new pretzel shapes. No matter what new scandals erupt (and they always do), there seem to be an endless supply of suckers willing to believe anyone offering salvation, even as their pocket is being picked. The Eyes of Tammy Faye just wants to have fun with some rather silly people. Maybe, however, it should have risked bumming us out by taking seriously the destruction they wreak.
Other major arrivals this weekend include the 14th annual
SF Iranian Film Festival, which offers a mix of shorts programs and features encompassing narratives, documentaries, animation, kid pix and more. This year’s event is virtual-only, with individual selections launching on a schedule this Sat/18 and Sun/19, then most continuing to be available to ticket or passholders On Demand through Sept. 26. For full into, go here.
It should also be noted that regular area theatrical venues continue to re-open: The Alamo Drafthouse is reportedly already back in business, while this Friday brings the return of East Bay venues The New Parkway, the Albany Twin and Piedmont Theaters. Pretty much all the above will be playing The Eyes of Tammy Faye, among other recent releases.
You may have to do a little more sleuthing, however, to find these considerably-less-wide new releases:
While ladies like the late Mrs. Bakker were busy complicatedly resisting Satan via simultaneous worship of Yahweh, Mammon, and self-promotion, other women were embracing the social changes of the “turbulent Sixties” and subsequent Me Decade. Some among them sought a simpler life by going “back to the land,” though not necessarily giving up a certain guilt-free hedonism.
This very Northern California story from the writing/directing team of Mario Furloni and Kate McLean has Krisha Fairchild (of Trey Edward Shults’ terrific 2015 drama also called Krisha) as Devi, a Humboldt County pot grower whose solo operation has survived decades operating covertly, eluding the forces of the law. But her fragile, premium-grade operation may not survive the forces of market capitalism, as marijuana’s new legality suddenly make her prey to regulatory expenses and corporate competition somehow more risky than being flat- out felonious ever was.
Though a little underdeveloped as a narrative, Freeland nonetheless potently captures the character of both its pushing-70 heroine and her dying-out culture—the hippie dream (she first arrived in Humboldt as part of a communal experiment) now receding into history. Most of us have known people like Fairchild’s richly realized Devi, who’s grown tough by necessity yet still retains the Summer of Love’s stubborn idealism. The film’s considerable pathos derives from the sense that we may not meet her like again. Even (or especially) with her once-forbidden product now freely sold, there is no place left for the painstaking, solitary proprietor—big money requires a big machine, not a stubborn individualist. Dark Star Pictures is releasing Freeland to limited theaters this Fri/17, then On Demand platforms on Oct. 19.
Prisoners of the Ghostland
Nothing could be farther from the succinct miniature of Freeland than this first (mostly) English-language feature from Sion Sono, the Japanese director whose filmography over the last 35 years or so encompasses such culty objets as Suicide Club, Strange Circus, Exte: Hair Extensions, Antiporno, The Whispering Star, Tokyo Vampire Hotel, and the four-hour Love Exposure. He’s like Takeshi Miike in his penchant for baroque genre mash-ups, only less prolific—but then, nobody is as prolific as Miike.
Prisoners has Nicolas Cage as a hero named Hero (uh-oh) who’s sprung from a bank-robbery prison stint to find the missing daughter (Sofia Boutella) of the white-hatted bad guy Governor (Bill Moseley) of a studio-lot burg called Samurai Town that’s equal parts postwar Tokyo red light district and Wild West shoot-em-up. Outfitted with combustive collars for his neck and balls (should he misbehave or fail in his mission), he’s sent off into the dystopian-desert Ghostland, which is more like every Road Warrior knockoff—plus doses of Jodorowsky, Terry Gilliam, Burning Man, MGM musicals, and anything else that came to mind.
You cast Cage to signal “Wacky good time ahead.” But that doesn’t work so well when everyone is busy living up to his line “You people are all fucking nuts.” Resembling several prior Sono joints but particularly the rap musical Tokyo Tribe, Prisoners offers constant costume-party eccentricity and climactic flash without any meaning or narrative momentum.
So while just about any given image plucked out of context might make this look fascinating, so much empty eye candy in a shapeless pile is just decorative, in the wearyingly shrill tradition of such auteurs as Ken Russell or Baz Luhrmann. The tiny scrap of plot is just the same boilerplate “Only one man can save us all” fantasy that drove everything from Mad Max to The Matrix and beyond. Yes, this movie is “fun,” in the same very loud and colorful way that being stuck inside a pinball machine would be. But after nearly two chaotic hours, it may make you pine for the watching-paint-dry austerity of a Bela Tarr. It opens Fri/17 at the Roxie, New Parkway & Shattuck Cinemas.
The Nowhere Inn
Also trading in deliberate too-muchness is this very meta construct that starts out as a recap of a purportedly abandoned documentary about indie pop star St. Vincent aka Annie Clark. She’s asked “my best friend” Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney and “Portlandia”) to make that film, which will peel back the curtain and offer fans something more than (nonetheless plentiful) concert footage. But what Brownstein finds behind that curtain is, well, not good movie material: Though it may seem strange that this would surprise her alleged BFF, Clark offstage lives a pretty boring and normal life. When she becomes aware of her director’s frustration, however, she decides to play the commanding, sexualized diva role 24/7. This eventually drives Brownstein crazy, while dragging the film down a rabbit’s hole of alternately satirical and surreal artifice.
Written by the two performers playing versions of themselves, but actually directed by Bill Benz (also of “Portlandia,” as well as “At Home With Amy Sedaris”), The Nowhere Inn is a hall of mirrors that is sometimes like the Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary I’m Still Here, sometimes like Mulholland Drive. Which is to say it’s a self-conscious stunt that has aspirations towards being Dark. It’s got some ideas (including springing Dakota Johnson as St. Vincent’s alleged lesbian lover, and a Texas sequence right out of David Byrne’s True Stories), even if they don’t string together very well, or lead anywhere in particular.
I found it a long, sporadically clever 91 minutes. But if you’re more than a casual enthusiast for either lead performer, you this may well be your new favorite movie ever—the playfully mindbending, Escher-like cinematic in-joke equivalent to St. Vincent that Head was to The Monkees. It’s opening in limited theaters and launching on streaming rental platforms this Fri/17.