photo manipulation & text by nacrowe
for years i had a vague association of what i understood to be the obscure 1980s highly IDIOSYNCRATIC communal art project/quasi-religious/cult parody THE CHURCH OF THE SUBGENIUS with some of my favorite artists including DEVO and PAUL REUBENS (of PEE WEE's PLAYHOUSE fame), but beyond that i knew very little. so i was thrilled to watch the recent JR "BOB" DOBBS & THE CHURCH OF THE SUBGENIUS (DARK STAR, 2020) documentary and learn more about its origin, intent and its two main architects/accomplices IVAN STANG and PHILO DRUMMOND. i really had no idea that there was a whole community of likeminded artists including filmmakers ALEX COX (REPO MAN, SID & NANCY) and RICHARD LINKLATER (DAZED & CONFUSED, SLACKERS), cartoonists R. CRUMB and MATT GROENING (THE SIMPSONS), actor NICK OFFERMAN (PARKS & RECREATION), philosopher ROBERT ANTON WILSON, magicians PENN & TELLER and musicians DAVID BYRNE, THE RESIDENTS and FRANK ZAPPA among many others.
from what i could gather from the film, for all of the parodied RHETORICAL FLOURISHES, CADENCES, MANNERISMS and cyclical SELF-REFERENTIAL LOGIC that defines TELEVANGELISM, there is a value to the effort. at its core the whole endeavor seems to be about COMMUNICATION and COMMUNITY BUILDING. not for money or a RELIGIOUS SOCIOPOLITICAL EXPANSIONIST AGENDA, but seemingly for unfettered SELF-EXPRESSION and the search for SELF-GENERATIVE MEANING. of course by playing with the "us versus them" vocabulary and SELF-AGGRANDIZING MYTHOLOGIZED IDEOLOGY routinely utilized by CULTS and religious sects, they ran the risk of being treated like a cult or new religious sect by the population. or worse, converts. what makes this film interesting is how STANG and DRUMMOND navigate those waters of maintaining a parody religion over time, especially when things get hairy, as in the aftermath of 9/11 and the later rise of DONALD TRUMP. at those points irony was dead and the CYNICISM apparent in the population had seemingly far exceed the parodies and gentle prodding of THE CHURCH OF THE SUBGENIUS. during these periods the MANUFACTURING OF CONSENT and TRIBAL SECTARIANISM in the population through internet-enabled PROPAGANDA made for a DYSTOPIAN REALITY indeed.
at one point is the joke not funny anymore and essentially LIFE IMITATES ART.
im happy that the film ends with the two founders MOVING FORWARD and EVOLVING with the times. it makes me feel that that instinct to PROD, REJECT, LAUGH, PARODY, INVESTIGATE and ultimately THINK is an ART unto itself and when that is ability is given over to an AUTHORITY FIGURE, that is when it all ends. lights out. so im glad that the film closes with them not giving in to TRUMP. because sometimes i fear i have.
JR "BOB" DOBBS & THE CHURCH OF THE SUBGENIUS is definitely a strange film but well worth checking out, whether or not you are a genius or a subgenius.