On her way to becoming one of the most respected documentarians working today, Penny Lane has a reputation for her skill at using archival material. Her 2013 masterwork, Our Nixon, repurposed candid Super 8 footage shot by aides of President Richard Nixon to contrast with the paranoid, bigoted man that Americans grew to know through his secret Oval Office recordings. Her 2016 follow-up, Nuts!, delved into home movies, news reels, and excerpts from a biography to tell the story of early 20th-century huckster John R. Brinkley.
While her current film, Hail Satan?, marks the first time that Lane has filmed contemporary events as they developed, her deftness with archival material is crucial to the appeal of this story of the birth and growth of the Satanic Temple. The organization — known as “TST” by its members — was born from a 2013 press conference in which an actor dressed in a black robe and horns praised Florida Governor Rick Scott for his support of prayer in schools, citing the fact that this opened the door for Satanic prayer likewise entering learning institutions. Building from there, TST became known primarily for its legal challenges of any instances of Christian religion intertwining with government, most famously by proposing that a statue of occult deity Baphomet accompany a Ten Commandments monument in Arkansas. Lane sources a wide variety of archival material ranging from media appearances (usually featuring the Temple’s co-founder Lucien Greaves) to a decades-old animation of Adam and Eve in the Garden to an episode of Geraldo entitled, “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” Through these archives, she brilliantly illustrates how TST uses the tools of the opposition to its advantage.
However, the most powerful archival material by far is footage of TST’s “public actions,” protests that engage performance art to counter enemies in the religious right. In the film, the Temple’s members paint activism as a crucial component of their Satanic faith, and their public actions are the most effective realization of this relationship. In press conferences, black masses, and more, they repurpose the symbols and practices of their enemies to vividly illustrate their opposition. When the film reveals that — to most TST members — Satan is an allegorical figure of rebellion and opposition rather than an object of worship, the importance of these public actions as a keystone of their Satanic practice becomes apparent, and Lane delves into a wealth of archival footage recorded by Temple members to share these performances in detail.
One figure stands out in this footage and in accompanying interviews as crucial to the development and execution of these performances. Raised by a theater director mother before studying art history at the University of Michigan, Jex Blackmore — former National Spokesperson and director of TST Detroit — brought a deep knowledge and practice of performance art to the Temple in its early days.
“I feel that all activism is performative. All politics is performative in general,” Blackmore explained in a recent phone interview. “Certainly all religion is performative.”
What’s most compelling about the Temple’s public actions is that they appear to come from a place of complete joy and excitement about the work being done. Throughout the film, Greaves is rarely seen in public without a barely contained, crooked smirk as he discusses or executes the work of TST, and sporadic laughter peppers Blackmore’s discussion of the process leading up to a performance. And from Blackmore’s descriptions, the hard work that goes into each event sounds genuinely fun as like-minded people come together to creatively address injustice. “Hours and hours of work”— including rehearsals, scripting, ordering supplies, sign-making sessions, risk assessment, and more — go into actions that might not last longer than 10 minutes.
To counteract a nationwide Planned Parenthood protest on April 23, 2016, TST staged a performance that perfectly evokes the mixture of absurdity, profanity, and creativity that makes these actions so powerful. In a performance entitled “The Future of Baby Is Now,” a group of the Temple’s members arrived at two separate protests in Detroit and Ferndale, Michigan, dressed as what can only be described as BDSM babies. With their faces covered in grotesque rubber masks simulating the visages of crying babies and various leather accessories covering their diapered bodies, the performers writhed, spread baby powder, and brandished whips while a mock priest in sunglasses performed blessings over the whole affair. In a video of the performance in Ferndale, Blackmore stands to the side with a black sign spangled with glittery words reading, “No more lives sacrificed to fetal idolatry.” Planned Parenthood protestors — toting signs with debunked slogans like “Planned Parenthood harvests baby parts” and gruesome photographs claiming to portray the process of abortion — watch shocked, occasionally interjecting with prayer or denouncements.
Blackmore shared that this idea came to TST from a “long brainstorming session and a few bottles of wine.” In addition to the typically vigorous preparation that goes into TST’s performance pieces, participants also worked with sex workers and voluntary slaves from a local fetish dungeon to perfect the BDSM style of the piece. By fastidious design, the piece is the diametrical opposite of the action it is counterprotesting while still holding some aspects in common.
“We realize that standing and handing out pamphlets saying, ‘It’s a woman’s choice,’ is not very effective, and we’ve seen it so much it’s exhausting. It doesn’t seem to get us very far,” Blackmore said. “We really wanted to recontextualize the protest itself. They were performing in a way that exposed the grotesque and the absurd. So we wanted to draw a parallel to the fetishization — which is how we saw their perception of the fetus, this obsession and this invention of age and time — in a way that really created a mirror of what they were doing.”
Although the group planned their counterprotest to take place in the same physical space as the anti-abortion demonstration, TST’s intended audience was not present in that physical space; however, they will continue to witness the public action thanks to the Temple’s recordings.
“The audience is not necessarily the people who are physically in the space where we’re performing,” Blackmore explained. “Our intended audience is usually people reading about it online or in the newspaper or through social media. It’s not just documentation to save it for posterity. We document all of our work because the documentation becomes the work in and of itself in the way that it lives in these other places and the way that people interact online with it.”
With the recordings of this and other public actions providing the most fascinating throughline in Hail Satan?, the Temple’s performance art is currently reaching its widest audience yet. Lane’s predisposition toward the archival makes it possible for an even greater number of individuals to engage with TST’s message of the dangers of tacitly allowing church and state to intermingle. In this way, the union of Lane and TST presented through the film is truly a match made in Heaven (or somewhere adjacent).
Hail Satan? is currently playing at IFC Center (323 6th Avenue, West Village, Manhattan).