Thursday, January 04, 2007

God's Angry Man (1980)

[Requested by Tom Sutpen.]

The Werner Herzog documentaries I've seen tend to be mesmerizing on the strength of their astonishing visuals and Herzog's recontextualization of such. So it's kind of odd to see one that's mesmerizing simply because of the man being profiled. There's very little Herzogian intrusion in God's Angry Man, but there doesn't need to be -- Dr. Gene Scott is an extraordinary enough man in his own right. He's a televangelist, but he's a breed apart from the phony cash-grabbing sincerity of Swaggart, Bakker and Co.; one of the most compelling things about Scott is that he comes off as a genuine believer. (At one point, he sits in silence, refusing to speak until donations start to pour in, then violently erupts with, "It has nothing to do with money at this point!" It says a lot that I believed him.) He's a fascinating, contradictory figure: ferocious when on camera and low-key when off, steadfast in his belief and devotion to his audience yet exhausted by the same and longing to break free from the constraints of expectations. It's this last point that proves to be the emotional fulcrum of the film, as well as the one that launches Scott into the pantheon of quintessential Herzog figures -- here we have a man who opens a sermon with, "When I yell, I want to be heard," who stubbornly battles with the FCC in the face of overwhelming odds, who berates his audience for donating money after a tantrum with the line, "Why didn't you do it because you love God?"... and secretly, all he wants is to live in peace. It's this striving for something beyond oneself, the urge to transcend one's circumstances, that slides Scott in with Walter Steiner and Timothy Treadwell and Dieter Dengler as subjects worthy of a Herzog study. He may be "too good to be really bad and too bad to be really good," but that just makes him a man. This is what Herzog's silent, empathetic gaze captures, and it sparkles for all to see.

Grade: A-


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