Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds hitting Apple TV+, we’re highlighting some of the iconic director’s best documentaries.
With their tacky suits and blatant hypocrisy, televangelists are easy targets for parody. Even Werner Herzog, that great stone-faced chronicler of existential despair, can’t resist taking a couple potshots in his 1981 short film “God’s Angry Man.” The film profiles Dr. Gene Scott, the Los Angeles-based TV preacher who became a media lightning rod in the late ’70s and early ’80s—thanks in part to his late-night time slot, which drew, as Scott calls them, “night people” to watch his program, The Festival Of Faith, presumably while smoking the devil’s lettuce. Scott was being investigated by the IRS and the Federal Communications Commission when Herzog filmed this 43-minute documentary for German TV. Both agencies took a pointed interest in where the hundreds of thousands of dollars Scott claimed to raise every week were going, exactly—charges that Scott answered with nonsensical ranting and an “FCC Monkey Band” composed of wind-up chimps.
The federal government holding a TV preacher to account seems downright quaint in our current era, when the proliferation of the so-called prosperity gospel has made the line between con man and holy man thinner than ever. And although he was a regional oddity compared to big-name TV preachers like Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, and Billy Graham, Scott was, for all his eccentricities, part of the emergence of evangelical Christianity on the national political stage. With that came the rise of old-time religion as big business, a theme that Herzog deftly (and sometimes sarcastically) explores throughout the film. In one segment, Scott describes, while sitting in the back of a limousine, the many subsidiaries of his church like he’s the CEO of a multinational corporation; in another, he sits in petulant silence while the cameras roll, refusing to preach another word until another $1,000 in donations comes in. All the while, he talks in a hushed, even tone that seems to contradict the film’s title. But an intensity burns behind his narrowed eyes, and eventually, he erupts on live TV, first screaming at viewers to donate, then exploding with anger that they didn’t cough up the cash sooner. Let the circus begin.
Scott doesn’t appear to have a guiding ideology except for the almighty dollar. In fact, we don’t hear his beliefs on much of anything in the film, except for how unfairly persecuted he is. But simply condemning him would be too easy for a filmmaker like Herzog. This is the director of Fitzcarraldo, after all, and Scott is an example of one of Herzog’s most enduring fascinations: the larger-than-life visionary tormented by his own quixotic genius. At first, Scott is on even when he’s off camera, bloviating about the media and spiritual warfare and all the persecution he’s faced for preaching God’s word. But over time, he relaxes and trusts Herzog a little bit more, confiding that his greatest dream is to just pack up one day and disappear. “I’m too good to be really bad, and too bad to be really good,” he confesses, in that low, intimidating tone. By the end, one might conclude that Scott is either a sociopath cynically raking in tax-free bucks off of the backs of the poor or an intellectual and biblical scholar who’s been forced into a state of permanent fundraising by other peoples’ debts.
Which one you decide to believe is up to you, as “God’s Angry Man” is filmed in classic fly-on-the-wall vérité style. Herzog fixes his camera in long, wide shots observing Scott at work, contrasting them with close-ups of him at home in suspiciously luxurious surroundings. (Scott insists it all belongs to the church, and it probably does, for tax reasons.) Herzog seems especially tickled by Scott’s painfully square backup band, The Statesmen, cutting between their kitschy renditions of revival hymns and Scott reading out donation amounts in a steady monotone. He even gives the musicians the last word, cutting away from Scott throwing a Jolly Chimp toy on the floor of his studio to a singer—his wide eyes bulging out of his deep sockets—performing a slowed-down rendition of the 1979 country single “Rusty Old Halo.”
The song is about the belief that, to quote Matthew 19:24, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Considering we just watched Scott spend a good portion of the documentary begging for money (and, when that doesn’t work, berating them into it), the irony is obvious. Or perhaps it’s emblematic of the purgatory in which Scott finds himself trapped. This contradiction is never resolved in “God’s Angry Man,” nor can we ever be sure if Scott’s confessions are true. The man behind the stiff hair and polyester suit remains a mystery, a myth, a cipher—which, of course, makes him a classic Herzogian figure.
Availability: “God’s Angry Man” is currently streaming on YouTube.