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Raise The Dead

     I'm here to tell you, friends and neighbors, that the placebo works. Say, amen! That's what the befuddled scientists have discovered recently: test after test, the placebo really does make people feel better. Believe you're disease is going away, brothers and sisters, you might be on the pearly road to being cured.

     And better than a pill: the help of God and Jesus! Say, hallelujah! The placebo effect moves from the hospital to the Southern revival tent in James Rutenback look at itinerant faith healers, Raise the Dead, a lovingly made documentary. Instead of criticizing their see-through tricks and sham promises, Rutenback, a Waban-based documentarian, seems to indicate that, in their warped, unscientific way, these shaky Elmer Gantrys are, by laying on hands, actually doing some good.

     When his Holiness-Pentecostal preachers go into their ersatz Jesus act--curing cripples, pulling people out of wheelchairs, sending cancer patients into a state of ecstasy and reinvigorated hope--Rutenback observes without criticizing or commenting. "Revivalism, like jazz music, is a distinctly American phenomenon," Rutenback testifies in his press kit on his movie.

     Rotenback is persuasive (there's no need of preachy voice over, so there isn't any) that there is real community here, everyone gathered together under a revival big top. Even if the sick remain sick, and the dead stay crypt-bound, it's a heck of a lot of joy that all these country people achieve singing and shaking in the presence of the Lord. In fact, Raise the Dead is a bit nostalgic: romanticizing, as the older evangelists do, bygone days after World War II when thousands of souls gathered to pray under a then-mammoth tent. (Before the religion of TV?)

     Raise the Dead gets away with its pro-preacherman POV, I think, because the ministers under scrutiny don't exactly seem money-mongers. In fact, they're quite poor, still on the back roads of West Virginia, none with a greedy, greasy TV show or a 900 number squeezing people's cash. They're down there in the sawdust actually rubbing elbows, shaking withered hands, asking Jesus' help to make these whole. There's not a Pat Roberts or Jimmy Swaggart in the lot.

     The film's central character, Richard Hall, a 79-year-old life-long evangelist, is an especially appealing personage. With his funereal suits, his shiny false teeth, his fake smile which has become over decades a real one, his Pat Reilly hair, he has a kind of clumsy dignity. Flannery O'Connor would have liked him, this ever-passionate soldier of the cross, and I do too.

     Filmmaker Rotenback, also a veteran Boston-area editor(for Nova,The American Experience, the feature, Home Before Dark), seems steeped in documentary history. Am I imagining subtle influences here of some of the best? The Maysles Brothers' Salesman, Jean Jordan and Steve Ascher's Troublesome Creek: a Midwestern, the rural American documentaries of Werner Herzog. Even Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control could be factored in. The way Morris's contemporary lion tamer, Dave Hoover, lives humbled in the shadow of his deceased mentor, Clyde Beatty, so Rotenback's protagonist, Richard Hall, feels that the glory days of revivalism are past and gone, with the car-accident end of the great William Branham.

     Never heard of him? In his heyday, Branham, an illiterate son of a bootlegger, rivaled the slick drawing power of Oral Roberts. Only Richard Nixon's pal Billy Graham--taking over football stadiums instead of tents--drew bigger audiences. Rotenback has uncovered an astonishing piece of faded documentary footage showing Branham at work on a stage, a Houdini of the instamatic Christian cure.

     Let's note the expert cinematography of Stephen McCarthy, who has a real feel for Southern backways images, and a fine soundtrack, moving between Nicholas Cudahy's Herzogian original score and old-time mountain-music records. The Lord praise folklorist Alan Lomax's field recordings of Almeda Riddle!

(February, 1999)

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