Sunday, April 15, 2012


Cinema Project's April presentation pairs together two very different portraits of religious fervor rooted in American culture.  Peter Adair's 1967 documentary, Holy Ghost People, focuses its attention on a small Appalachian church in West Virginia as its Pentecostal congregation communes with the spirit.  Also on the program is Dan Graham's Rock My Religion, an audio and video collage from the early 80s that attempts to align foundational religious movements of the American past with the devotional and spiritual connotations of the rock and roll experience.

A still from Holy Ghost People

Adair's film falls firmly within the cinéma vérité tradition, evoking comparisons to the best work by the Maysles and Frederick Wiseman.  As the piece opens, individual members of the church describe their practices of speaking in voices, snake-handling and drinking strychnine as a means of invoking ecstatic religious experience.  The film quickly moves into a worship situation; the service rapidly shifting from a simmer to a convulsive boil of singing, writhing and improvisational dance as Adair's cameras quietly capture the congregation's fervent acts of devotion.

A still from Holy Ghost People

Holy Ghost People is a hypnotic viewing experience that deserves inclusion in the canon of great American non-fiction cinema.  It's mandatory viewing for anyone interested in religion, subcultures or subjects based in Americana.  Plus, the church music captured in the piece is, believe it or not, exceptionally groovy.

A still from Rock My Religion

Graham's film is a far more experimental work, stitching together its video components with musical and spoken elements in an intentional stop/start pattern, suggesting at first the disorganized ramblings of a wandering consciousness.  It's a potent mix that revels in the sideways proving of Graham's thesis; drawing parallels between Ann Lee's Shakers and the quasi-religious relationship between rock music, its icons, and its fans, via less than conventional means.

A still from Rock My Religion

Rock My Religion is a mysterious object that befuddles as much as it intrigues; there are sequences throughout the work when two messages (one spoken, the other conveyed in text) unfold simultaneously, playfully disallowing full comprehension of what's being forwarded.  The best sequence might very well be when Graham layers the strains of No Wave-based punk over images of "holy rollers" overtaken by the spirit.  It's a heady, sometimes confusing piece that, with its jarring edits and unexpected juxtaposing of material, constantly dares the viewer to extrapolate beyond what's being presented onscreen. 

Cinema Project presents Rock & Religion: The Medium of Worship at the Hollywood Theatre on Tues., April 17th and Wed., April 18th at 7pm.  More info on the program available here.

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