The Daily Stream: Arise! The SubGenius Movie Will Give You Slack

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Arise! The SubGenius Movie"

Where You Can Stream It: Night Flight

The Pitch: Do you ever get the feeling that you were different? Special? Perhaps even superior to the boring, normal, pinks around you? That's because you are! You, dear reader, may be descended from the great evolutionary lineage of yeti ancestors, and, as a result, will be able to see the true insidiousness of The Conspiracy, a movement of normalcy so widespread and pervasive that its conspirators don't even know they're a part of it. 

Are you sick of pretending you're normal so THEY will think you're one of THEM? Tired of getting all of the guilt and none of the sex? Well, you can be free. Just send $35 to J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and his Church of the SubGenius, and you will become an ordained minister, complete with an information packet, a lapel pin, and the ability to bless and officially marry people. Keep your card in your pocket on X-Day (July 5th, 1998), as that is when the aliens from Planet X will arrive to take us all away from this wretched planet on their sexy flying saucers. Oh yes, the Conspiracy is so horrid, we don't even know what year this is for sure, or even what planet. It may not be 1998 yet, for all we know. Best to gather with other SubGenii on July 5th of every year to run an X-Day drill. 

...The eff did you just say to me?

The above nonsense is a brief rundown on the central tenets of The Church of the SubGenius, a religion that worships a 1950s salesman named "Bob," and involves a lot of aliens, sub-deities, bizarro iconography, and pop culture saints. The Church was born of an outsider's resentment of the mainstream, a general hate of organized religion, and an abiding affection for kitsch. Among its members are Mark Mothersbaugh, Nick Offerman, Paul Reubens, Penn Jillette, Alex Cox, David Byrne, and R. Crumb. 

One might be able to sense right away that there is something a little "wink wink" about The Church of the SubGenius, and one may be right. The Church of the SubGenius — an actual organization you can join — has been called a "parody religion," founded by puckish punkers Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond (real names: Douglass St. Clair Smith and Steve Wilcox) in 1979. The Church was founded as a deliberate mockery of rising Evangelical Christianity and a lot of New Age spiritualist movements, but also contained within its deliberate jargon, a philosophy of the self, wherein the individual would be permitted to "slack off," and realize — in a Nietzsche sense — their own will to power. That will, however, manifested as one's capacity to sibvert the dominant paradigm and playfully thumb one's nose at the "normals," called "pinks" in SubGenius lore. 

Produced in 1992, "Arise!" was a satirical recruitment video along the lines of what one might pick up from a Scientology outlet on Hollywood Blvd. The video is an extended montage of pop images — what we used to call culture jamming — that introduces the uninitiated to the bonkers, near-incomprehensible thought processes of the Church.

Culture jamming

The video also contains footage from live SubGenius events hosted by Ivan Stang, and featuring some of the weirdest bands you've ever seen. A lot of the live events are devoted to insane, rambling sermons about slack (as in "give me some..."), the Conspiracy, and the identities of various elder gods. 

The Church came into being when DIY media was still in vogue and the preferred communication tools of fringe groups, and a lot of early SubGenius information was proliferated by post; Stang even authored a book about this phenomenon called "High Weirdness By Mail – A Directory of the Fringe: Crackpots, Kooks & True Visionaries." The Church was also one of the earlier adopters of the internet, using now-primitive newsgroups to spread their gospel. "Arise!" may serve as their masterpiece, reading as a combination stoner video, cultural time capsule, and mad screed of a not-really-all-that-dangerous kook. A lot of the scripted ravings in "Arise!" come directly from sermons and missives penned by Stang for use on "The SubGenius Hour of Slack," a radio broadcast that began in the '80s and continues to this day. 

The "culture jamming" philosophy was born of enterprising editors and media enthusiasts who — when video technology finally availed them — sought to find the "truth" in all filmed entertainment. By recutting old movies and TV shows together, one can "unlock" the secret meaning underneath all things, can hear the real ideas being entertained in our entertainment. Or it was just a goof, wherein some clever snips could make an NPR announcer say silly things. Either way, it is a fascinating dissection of recorded arts. If anything, "Arise!" (edited by Cordt Holland) will force you to look at your media consumption objectively, learning not to take casually imbibed information at face value.

The Church's origins

The image of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs may be familiar to those who were paying attention to 'zines and counterculture stores in the 1980s. "Bob" is, in fact, a mere piece of clip art from a 1950s commercial, bought and repurposed by the Church. Enterprising fans and ministers would occasionally work images of "Bob" into their work. "Bob," for instance, can be seen in a DEVO music video. "Bob" was one of the many portraits hanging on the wall on "Pee Wee's Playhouse." Notably, "Bob" appeared in an issue of Marvel Comics, serving coffee to a character named Slapstick (think Deadpool mixed with clown DNA). 

"Arise!," Stang, and many members of the Church tend to drift in and out of parody, sometimes taking the sci-fi delirium absolutely seriously, and sometimes being very frank as to their real world humorous obsessions. Stang has said aloud that the Church is 100% not a joke, but that a lot of its elements are the height of cheekiness (he once said that any religious worth its salt is stuffed with oblique jargon). He also openly notes that the Church takes a lot of its cues from the writings of Robert Anton Wilson, and a 1968 book called the Principia Discordia, an earlier parody philosophy/religion, Discordianism. 

"Arise!" was once circulated on VHS at SubGenius gatherings, but, thanks to advancing tech and the advent of streaming, is now more readily available on the internet. Cast your mind back to the early days of VHS, mentally pop in the tape, and let the insanity wash over you. Who knows? Maybe you'll find "Arise!" to be the sanest thing you have experienced.