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  J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs and the Church of SubGenius Slacking Off
Year: 2019
Director: Sandy K. Boone
Stars: Douglass Smith, Steve Wilcox, Paul Mavrides, Harry S. Robins, Nick Offerman, Richard Linklater, Penn Jillette, etc
Genre: DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: You might know J.R. "Bob" Dobbs. Or at least you might have heard of him or seen his face. The epitome of nineteen-fifties suburbia in one grinning, creepily friendly, pipe-smoking, self-advocating visage, his picture was a popular meme around the eighties and nineties in certain underground publications and videos, tapes and pamphlets, all connected to the shadowy Church of SubGenius he was the figurehead of. Their motto was "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke", and according to their creators and representatives of Bob on Earth, the Reverends Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond (not their real names), that's what this whole space age religion they had dreamt up was: one big joke. But some folks can take a joke just that bit too far...

SubGenius was a very eighties cult phenomenon, the sort of thing that made Devo a band of the moment, or Repo Man one of the must-see movies of the decade - for a certain type of person. What type? The kind who didn't fit into the new conservatism that was spread across Western culture as a reaction to the hippy sixties and self-actualising seventies, where if you did not conform you were the enemy. That sense of social restriction would ebb and flow until the twenty-first century, when the conspiracy theories of the radical left mixed with the reactionaries of the far right, creating an unholy new way of thinking that saw paranoia as the way to get things done; propagate that and you could run entire nations, hell, the whole world.

The point made by Sandy K. Boone's Kickstarter-funded documentary was that SubGenius kickstarted this new paranoid conservatism where if you were not with us, you were against us, and the prime irony was, the entire premise was indeed a joke. By adopting fringe mania and the aggressive selling practices of popular religion and combining them with Ufology and outsider art, they wished to comment on what they regarded as a world going mad by going mad themselves, only on their own terms. Yet they found they had either sparked the new methods of thinking in the wider community as everyone wanted to be the aggrieved victim, but without the sense of humour about it, or had merely surfed a wave of contrarianism that somehow became the de rigueur beliefs to get through your days post-September 11th 2001, one of a collection of turning points that demonstrated that joke wasn't funny anymore.

Naturally, with this amount of SubGenius members participating in the documentary to put their stories on the record, they tended to make the organisation sound a lot more important than it was. If you were in the know, say, sending off for their literature or even buying their "Bible", then it felt like an affirmation that you were smarter than the sheeple who went to church on Sunday or voted in conservative governments over and over no matter that those authority figures were looking after number one, and anyone less fortunate was in trouble. It was a good gag, and there are plenty of examples here with amateur footage of the SubGenius stage shows and clips of their radio programmes, not to mention a visual approach of cut-up archive footage that approximates the style of the original "Church's" clip art appropriation. But since they attracted the outsiders, they come across as more a microcosm of how fanaticism came to replace rationality, be that in politics or pop culture, more a symptom than a trigger. For that reason, an engrossing film, but overestimating its influence when it was more like a cork bobbing along on an ocean of utter, populist madness.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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