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I first learned of the Church of the SubGenius in a small counterculture bookstore near the Austin coffeeshops and street corners where Richard Linklater had just filmed Slacker. It was in a building housing a video arcade, a bagel shop and a storefront where impressionable college kids were being targeted by the “free personality tests” of a cult called Scientology. There could hardly have been a better place to thumb through the mysterious mumbo-jumbo of a satirical group that wore cultishness on its sleeve, whose sole real purpose was to mock the nonsense its founders saw all around them. Introducing the real people behind the Church and its fictitious figurehead, Sandy K. Boone’s J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and The Church of the SubGenius is not only a colorful piece of weird-Texas history but a surprising commentary on the current state of the world. That second facet may not be fun to confront, but the nose-thumbing attitude of our heroes will help viewers get through it.
The men who took the names Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond grew up in North Texas during a time when the area was even more white-bread than it is today. One was from a religious family, one wasn’t, but both latched onto the same escapes from normalcy as teenagers — comic books, Captain Beefheart records, pranks. When they met, they bonded immediately, spending time perpetrating hoax calls on CB radio — “We were trolls before they had that term” — and collecting bits of ephemeral propaganda like the fundamentalist pamphlets of Jack Chick.
The apocalyptic tone of that stuff begged to be lampooned, and in 1979, the youngsters spent 60 bucks to print copies of a parody: The “Sub Genius Pamphlet #1” declared on its cover, “The World Ends Tomorrow and YOU MAY DIE” before launching into frenzied, scattered texts about a strange new religion whose god was a piece of clip art. The jokey contents proclaimed “a spazz-church of macho irony!!!,” but also made assertions so bold — about the intelligence of those reading the pamphlet and the soul-sucking agenda of the Normals surrounding them — that it had a certain affirmational value for any self-identified weirdo who discovered it. Miraculously, weirdos did discover it.
Now comes the inevitable reminder: This was before the internet, when there was real cause for amazement when bizarro ideas spread beyond the confines of one city. Boone recounts how Stang and Drummond’s Xeroxed oddity was passed around by new fans; the men started getting mail from around the country, envelopes stuffed with dollar bills and requests for new publications. Soon, the founders of the church realized they needed to stage a proper, Baptist-style revival.
Interviewing the middle-aged men and women who got involved early on and never gave up the act, the film charts the growth of this, what — spontaneously generated, collective act of performance art? There were half-serious public events and plentiful interviews with bemused TV reporters; a date was set for the prophesied end of the world; factions grew up, with angry rival leaders trying to promote a more violent version of the faith. (Mostly in good fun, of course — unlike the “Christian” sects in the real world that have tried to make that faith all about hellfire.)
Artists like Linklater, Nick Offerman, Penn Jillette and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh drop in to help describe the group’s appeal and, in the film’s final third, to explain how a group that embraces weirdos can also have trouble with those who are actually mentally ill. The church whose core motto was “fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” wound up confronting both people and law-enforcement agencies with no sense of humor, and a couple of bad scenes resulted.
More upsetting, though, were broader real-world developments. Seeing what happened with Jim Jones, David Koresh and the like, Stang started trying to make sure nobody took his claptrap seriously. Temporarily breaking character in his interview, he says, “It’s important to me not to leave behind another Scientology, or Mormonism.” That concern has only grown as the world elects leaders who actually believe nonsense as bizarre as anything Stang’s publications ever contained, and who reject the truths our culture is founded on. It’s a hard time for anyone trying to hatch satires that are weirder than our reality. But people continue to seek answers, however tongue-in-cheek, from the SubGeniuses.
Director: Sandy K. Boone
Screenwriters: Sandy K. Boone, Jason Wehling
Producers: Michelle Randolf Faires, Alyssa Spiller Sajovich, Jason Wehling, Suzanne Weinert
Executive producers: Sandy K. Boone, Louis Black
Directors of photography: David Layton, Kyle Cockayne, Fady Hadid
Editor: Lauren Sanders
Composer: Curtis Heath
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions)
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