J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs And The Church Of The SubGenius (2019)

We’re living in the upside-down world. The jokers are in charge. Supporters are cults. People are living in feedback loops, their responses programmed and manipulated by the powers of big data. It’s a time almost beyond parody, desperately divided less by “Outsiders vs Straights” than “want to live vs. don’t want you to live”. 

This is a world that reflects the invented doctrines of The Church of the SubGenius. It started as a playful version of “us vs. them”. But that doesn’t seem like something to joke about now. It’s an ironic, subversive cult that isn’t a cult, a religion that isn’t a religion, one that’s part pop culture, part science, part performance art. It’s a group saying that human made organisational systems are flawed and telling people to think for yourself, be your own leader. “We know we think for ourselves and that’s more important than you thinking like me”. Is that thinking, that release, that escape through ironic comedy something we need now?

Sandy K. Boone’s film J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius looks at that question. It traces the origins and growth of this group in the late 70s and 80s. They were made up of the “non-sociable, popular, or normal”, the weirdos who felt alone and needed a rebellion against the normalisation and commodification of the ‘greed is good’ era. They found it in what was basically a precursor of internet forums: the discovery of people with shared interests through mail-outs. These were darkly comic, line crossing pamphlets packed with all the fringe beliefs the founders could find, a prophet created from clip art, and inside jokes which you either got immediately or didn’t. Their motto: “fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke”. Basically imagine if Mad Magazine invented a religion. A few mailouts grew to tens of thousands, meetups, and local and national media coverage into the late 90s. The film meets the characters of ‘the church’, explores its beliefs of ‘The Conspiracy’ and ‘Slack’, its ups, downs, and deliberate schisms, and how it reflected and adapted (or didn’t) to the changing world over the years, growing until founder Ivan Stang felt the need to break character in his appearances to avoid leaving behind another Mormonism or Scientology.

Told through interviews with the founders and followers, the film skillfully reflects the early artwork style of the church in its use of found sounds, clip art, and montaged archival material. It’s definitely interesting subject matter – especially as something I’d never heard of before – but at a time when the internet means subcultures morph at the speed of fibre optics, and without any input from those that have analysed the movement and its beliefs, the film struggles to convey the sense of just what was so intoxicating (apart from drugs) about the church to its followers, and how for some it moved beyond parody to a genuine belief system. Instead you’re really left with the feeling that you had to be there – never the best qualifier for a properly good joke.

J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs And The Church Of The SubGenius
Director: Sandy K. Boone’s
Rating: ★★★ 

[This post first appeared on Filmblerg]

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