Like 8mm films of 1960s “happenings” or videos of 1970s performance art, “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius” chronicles a cultural footnote that perhaps should be filed under the heading You Had to Be There. The satirical-absurdist “religion” founded by some Texans actually caught fire among hipsters in the 1980s, influencing some of that era’s more interesting work in various media while providing a pre-Burning Man, pre-internet “secret club” to cerebral misfits of all stripes.
Sandy K. Boone’s documentary is likely to be lost on the not-previously converted, as what seemed the height of snark in the Reagan Era hasn’t dated all that well — nor is its appeal apparent as excerpted and recalled here. But those who remember the gospel of “slack” will make this diverting-enough documentary an in-demand work at genre festivals, as a streaming item and in other forums.
In reaction to the disruptive 1960s being “flipped on its head” in the “too-square-again” present day, two Lone Star State fans of nerd-brainiac rock god Captain Beefheart started creating anonymous quasi-cult screeds for their own entertainment in 1979. Dubbing themselves Reverend Ian Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond, they rebelled against their staid Heartland backgrounds, embraced the tenor of extremist religious literature, and ridiculed the American Dream with a mock religion whose deity was J.R. “Bob” Dobbs — a clip art image of 1950s sitcom dad-like hyper-normality whose lore was deliberately contradictory and absurdist.
Somehow a snail-mail fanbase was born, growing until the audience of like-minded “weirdos” was enough to trigger a 1983 bidding war among major publishing houses for the Church’s first book of collected nonsense. The deliberately obscure, sarcastic mix of pop culture, science and religion inspired Davids Byrne and Lynch, as well as other artists interviewed here, like members of Devo, Penn & Teller and filmmaker Richard Linklater. It was surely no accident that Linklater’s breakout feature was named “Slacker,” spun from the Church’s notion of “slack” as a mysteriously defined abstract encompassing practically all refuge from the hassles of everyday society.
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The Looney Tunes fraternity that SubGenius attracted soon clamored for more than just the occasional Xerox art missive, resulting in conventions and performances that allowed the faithful to gather. These were viewed with amusement (and occasional non-joke-getting bewilderment) by mainstream media, though in retrospect the amateurish wackiness on display seems frequently juvenile and rather lame. A problem the documentary can’t quite avoid is that SubGenius was always funniest in print form — and even then, it helped if the reader was stoned. The videos and radio broadcasts left behind, by contrast, make it appear that the Church was a magnet not for smart, talented people who didn’t fit elsewhere, but merely hacks whose hijinks probably didn’t look all that cute to sober minds even then.
The movement tapered off in the ’90s. Those few unstable personalities who’d taken it seriously as a religion (there were a few) had their faith shaken when a long-promised “X-Day” of spaceships and apocalypse failed to arrive in 1998. The next year, one determinedly envelope-pushing acolyte further tainted the brand with questionable humor about the Columbine shootings that even the SubGenius founders felt was distasteful. After 9/11, then the arrival of President Trump, the movement seemed superfluous — real life had become too daft for parody. Still, a few devotees hang on.
The kind of “culture jamming” the Church pioneered was elaborated upon by many, not least filmmakers like Craig Baldwin (“Tribulation 99”) whose ironical, conspiracy-theory-riddled works attained a level of satirical collage this documentary can’t quite match. Nonetheless, there is passing entertainment value to “J.R.,” among its talking heads, archival footage, brief animations and miscellaneous other elements. As Stang boasts, he and his fellow quasi-worshippers were “Trolls before that term was invented.” While the subversions they wrought no longer seem all that mind-blowing, they do have the nostalgia value inherent in the cutting edge of yesteryear.