"I just kind of chase down what I find interesting or perplexing," Hail Satan? director Penny Lane says by phone from New York. "It's the kind of topic that forces me to challenge my own preconceptions on a subject and update my views if I find I'm wrong. I love the feeling of finding out that I'm wrong. I think the people who love my films also like that feeling."
Her documentaries often use animation and offbeat humor to illustrate the sinister traits of Sea Monkeys entrepreneur Harold von Braunhut (Just Add Water), the career of journalism pioneer Nellie Bly (Nellie Bly Makes the News), the home movies of Richard Nixon cronies (Our Nixon) and the life of Dr. John R. Brinkley (Nuts!), who in the 1920s and '30s claimed he could cure human impotence by implanting goat gonads and who founded one of the first nationwide broadcasts of country music.
With Nuts!, Lane begins the film by depicting Brinkley's life the way he was presenting himself to the world (through a commissioned biography) and then slowly revealing his fraud. The cartoons help explain how he hoodwinked people and how he inadvertently brought about his own downfall.
"Not everybody likes to have that feeling that they're wrong. They like to have their beliefs confirmed by the media they consume. Not to toot my own horn, but I feel that I do it in a way that's very fun and entertaining. It's successful in that people are challenged, but they're also smiling. It's not a punishing, grueling experience to find out you were wrong in my art," explains Lane, whose parents really did name her after the Liverpool street where Sir Paul McCartney grew up.
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
Her latest movie Hail Satan?, which opens today, recounts the origin of the Satanic Temple. The group made a name for itself here in Little Rock by holding a large rally at the state Capitol to display an enormous bronze statue of the demon Baphomet to go along with the monument of the Ten Commandments, which stands nearby.
The whole idea sounds like a prank, especially because the Ten Commandments monument was knocked down within a day of its unveiling. (Little Rock has been the home of several ministers of the mock faith the Church of the SubGenius, whose savior J.R. "Bob" Dobbs offers his followers the magical quality of slack. Killing Bob playwright Brooks Caruthers lives here as does Pope Sternodox, aka Michael Keckhaver.)
The gag seems even more amusing because Baphomet normally sports two female breasts, but Satanic Temple followers thought that sight could offend people, so the chest on the statue is modeled after singer Iggy Pop's torso.
"Iggy Pop's chest is one of the great icons of the 20th century," says Lane with a giggle. "My impression of the SubGenius is that it's a parody religion. I don't know; maybe I'm wrong. I don't know if members of the Church of the SubGenius get together to do community service or other kinds of good works. All of that is at play in the Satanic Temple even though all the while there is a kind satirical, performance art kind of element to the work they do. There is a lot of deeply held religious belief behind those pranks."
STARTED OUT AS A JOKE
As Hail Satan? documents, the Satanic Temple did indeed start out as a joke, poking fun at Florida politicians who wanted to use state money for monuments in favor of one religion at the expense of others. When then-Gov. Rick Scott received an endorsement from them for one of his policies, it didn't seem like good news.
Lane explains, "If you think about the very first scene of the film where they have a couple of random actors from Craigslist with cheap costumes at this kind of press conference where there's nobody there, and they're pretending to be from an organization called 'The Satanic Temple.' It doesn't exist yet. It's just kind of a joke. When you contrast that with the scene in Little Rock last summer in 2018, just about five and a half years later at another rally and another set of Capitol steps. There are hundreds of people, and there's a bronze monument that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make."
In addition, last month, the day before Lane and I spoke, the IRS granted the Satanic Temple a tax-exempt status. In addition, the Satanic Temple also has a set of rules called the Seven Tenets and has a membership process. To be admitted, a potential member must pay $20 for an ID card.
"I'm not sure how many times you can make the same joke over and over again," Lane says. "Having crazy people freaking out is good for a couple of scenes, but then you've got to find something else to do. I think the amazing thing about the Satanic Temple is that there's so much underneath and behind and beyond these jokey public performances. That's the reason I knew we had a film. If it had just been these guys kidding around, I would have gone on to some other topic.
"It makes people uncomfortable to acknowledge that because what the people would like to do is say, 'Oh, these people are just a bunch of jerks. Let's just ignore them. They have nothing interesting to say.' If nothing else, my film makes it clear that that argument is not true. You have to acknowledge they're not simply trolls."
While the Satanic Temple may have regulatory legitimacy, the organization doesn't represent all who view the Prince of Darkness as their lord and savior. For example, the Church of Satan, which Anton LaVey founded in 1966, refuses to recognize the Satanic Temple as fellow travelers. It's reminiscent of biblically-set Monty Python comedy The Life of Brian, where the Judean People's Front wants nothing to do with the People's Front of Judea.
No wonder the Romans remained in power.
"The Church of Satan is still very much around, and it doesn't really recognize the Satanic Temple as being Satanist because the Satanic Temple has taken some of the ideas from LaVey and then changed them and has come up with new ideas," Lane says. "The Church of Satan has ... every day on Twitter ... [been] making it their full time to job to let you know [Satanic Temple members] aren't really Satanists because the Church of Satan are the only true Satanists. One of the most basic arguments of my film is that if you want to know what a Satanist believes or what a Satanist does and what a Satanist is like, you should meet some Satanists and not rely on Geraldo Rivera and televangelists to tell you what a Satanist is, like I did when I was a kid."
In addition, Hail Satan? includes a scene where popular Detroit-based Satanic preacher Jex Blackmore delivers a speech that appears to call for the death of President Donald Trump. The leaders of the Temple quickly disavow her.
"She says the words, 'Execute the president.' She doesn't say which president. It's not a very specific call. Nobody in that room could have interpreted that as a literal call to violence. It was clearly a work of performance art," Lane explains.
(Before Lane finishes her remark, a siren wails in the background: "As I'm explaining why what Jex said was not illegal, the police come and get me.")
"From the point of view of the Satanic Temple, they couldn't have one of their very public spokespeople doing that kind of performance. In their minds, it was simply too dangerous for the rest of them. Within the Satanic Temple, it's like a new religion. The boundaries, values and activities that are and are not sanctioned are very much in flux and up for debate. It's a brand new thing, so I think you see some growing pains in the film," she says.
A MOVING TARGET
Hail Satan? is unique in Lane's output because she spent three years documenting the Temple in real time. Brinkley, Nixon, Bly and von Braunhut were long dead by the time she started making movies about them.
"Hail Satan? is the first feature film that required me to track a story as it unfolded over time. Most of my previous work is historical or even archival, and it's just a different set of challenges. The first thing is really just negotiating trusting relationships with my subjects that would allow me to get access to the kind of scenes that I want to put in the film," she says.
"It's a really big organization, and it's full of lots and lots of people. We had to explain what we were doing and what we weren't doing. It's not a chore, but it is work that you have to do if you're not sitting at home pulling archival materials out of a box."
MovieStyle on 05/10/2019