Though J.R. ‘BOB’ DOBBS AND THE CHURCH OF THE SUBGENIUS throws in that now infamous quote from L. Ron Hubbard, the one about how the real money is in starting a religion not writing science fiction, this (mostly) playful, always thoughtful documentary is an unusual cautionary tale, but not for the usual reasons. Yes, it’s about a cult, but one that has a sense of humor about itself and the whole concept of organized anything. Oh, and it makes money for its founders. Not Scientology money, but still. The cautionary element rises menacingly not from the group profiled, but rather what happens when society abandons absurdity as release and distraction.
Amid moments of sacred noise and tent revivals, actually devivals, the Church of the Sub Genius provided refuge for outsiders back in the 1970s, with its heady brew of science, religion, and satire that grew exponentially, much to the bemusement and alarm of its founders. Embracing conspiracy as a tenet of its theology, it allowed the flexibility of allowing the individual to embrace any conspiracy, from alien visitations to being way too hot on a bus. The goal was to achieve the vaguely defined slack, which is different for every believer, a Zen-like state of inertia fueled by a cheerfully anarchic sensibility.
Filmmakers Sandy K. Boone and Jason Wehling skillfully blend clips from the old days with contemporary interviews with founders Reverend Ivan Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond, as well as other members of the SubGenius Foundation (few of whom use their real names) to tell the improbable story of two Dallas misfits whose mutual devotion to comic books and Captain Beefheart eventually leveraged their fascination for pamphlets from fringe groups into a religion with undeniably powerful, if decidedly niche appeal. Yet, for all the eccentricity, there is a compelling tale of how a cockeyed idea can find its way to influence pop icons like Penn Gillette, David Byrne, and The Residents via a serendipitous moment. Or was it fate that led to the publishing contract and a book about a theology with a prophet culled from a piece of clip art being shelved in the religion section, not humor?
They quickly fell upon the essential truth that religion isn’t about what its followers loved, but about what they hate. And that schism is a necessary component of a religion’s evolution> Hence the Ivangelicals and Holocaustals, who take diametrically opposing stances on how to deal with the “normals”, as in anyone who drifts through life without questioning the status quo, and who isn’t a member of the church. It’s a perfect mimicry of organized religion (and by extension society at large), and the SubGenii enjoy the meta-joke, the sense of belonging, and the outlet for suppressed feelings of alienation by channeling them into humor.
The result? The group for people who can’t join groups. A stage for people who don’t want the spotlight. A phenomenon that attracts people who are in on the joke, but who are as fervent as any true believer of a religious fanatic. That it filled a need is undeniable as evidenced by its staying power (you can join the Facebook page if you can define slack). As follower Nick Offerman puts it, the church delivers medicine for those who are open to it. Following up his observation with the catch phrase of its founders, it you can’t take a joke, f*ck you.
J.R. ‘BOB’ DOBBS AND THE CHURCH OF THE SUBGENIUS begins with the church’s view of the apocalypse, an event compared to Santa’s arrival. It’s an apt view, considering that it involves aliens rupturing (not rapturing) believers (wh0 have paid $30) to eternal life via a spaceship full of sex goddess at7 am on July 5, 1998, every year.. As in, every year on July 5, it’s 1998 for the believers, some of whom gather with hope for the official ceremony, and walk away, unruptured, grave of face, but inwardly delighting in a ritual that externalizes their angst, transmuting it into a joke. The documentary carefully charts the ups and downs, of the church’s fortunes as it negotiated a world that increasingly couldn’t take a joke, and then reassessed its role after the towers fell. As we see members ponder how the world changed around them, the idea floats to mind that while their innocence and naivete, which allowed the SubGenii to flourish organically, failed to prepare them. Hardly a surprise, but there is in this observational film a wistfulness about it that is more damning for those who couldn’t take a joke, or worse, couldn’t recognize one that was so obvious. One comes away with the feeling that the church is a yardstick by which the society at large can be measured by its reaction to it. And this cautionary note: when Irony fails, orange-tinted leaders take charge. Take heed. And seek your slack if you can.