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Unspeakable: The Life & Art Of Reverend Steven Johnson Leyba (2002)

DVD Cover (B.P. Productions)
Genres:
Biography (Non-Fiction), Documentary, Performance Art, Religions & Belief Systems, Shockumentary, Spirituality & Philosophy
Director:
Marc Rokoff Marc Rokoff
Starring:
Tuula Ala Tuula Ala
Blanche Barton Blanche Barton
Durk Dehner Durk Dehner
Charles Gatewood Charles Gatewood
Bennie Johnson Bennie Johnson

7.5 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Review by Chad
Added: January 27, 2009
Unspeakable is one of those films that comes across my desk every so often, films that I take a quick glance at and immediately decide that I'm probably not going to enjoy. My reasoning varies from film to film, naturally, but in this particular case, there was a number of things working against it based on the DVD cover alone. For starters, it's a documentary about a fellow named Steven Johnson Leyba. Who? That's what I said. Secondly, it appears that this guy is an artist of the expressionism variety (or "sexpressionism" as he calls it), but yours truly? Not a big fan of the finer arts to say the very least. Rounding out the pre-viewing disappointment was the fact that this guy is a Reverend in the Church of Satan. Now, I personally don't follow any sort of religion or teachings and therefore wasn't offended by the Satanism aspect in the slightest, but... well, I don't want to slander anyone's beliefs, so I'll just say that I read the Satanic Bible back when I was thirteen, thought it was pretty neat, and moved on. Nevertheless, I do make a habit of watching just about everything that is sent my way, and thus, here I am writing this review about ninety minutes after popping in the disc.

As you may have gathered from the above paragraph, Steven Leyba is a Reverend in the Church of Satan who was personally ordained by founder Anton LaVey. He's also a painter, performance artist, and a Native American who is extremely proud of his heritage - hell, you may have even seen him during his appearance on Geraldo. He expresses all of these facets of his life through a series of one-of-a-kind books (some of which weight more than sixty pounds), and trust me when I say that these books make the Necronomicon look like a children's coloring book. Each page in these books contain Leyba's artistic works, but these aren't just your usual drawings and sketches: no, these pieces are composed of random pornography, Satanic imagery, metaphors for the plight of the Native American man, and lots of bodily fluids... lots of bodily fluids. You see, Leyba uses his own blood, feces, urine, and semen to add that certain something to his art, and through the magic of various preservants and whatnot, he's able to keep his fluids fresh for years to come.

Did I mention that his wife Leslie saves her used tampons for Satan and that she keeps them neatly tied up on an altar in their bedroom? Did I breeze over the scarification, bloodletting, and watersports rituals that the couple perform in public venues? How about the Apache Whiskey Rite, a little number that involves Leslie using a full bottle of Jack Daniels as a strap-on to convey the "fucking" of the Indian by the white man? How about... oh, screw it. These two are oddballs, and though I can't say that I agree with everything that they stand for and believe in, I have to admit that they made fascinating subjects for a documentary.

Much of the story is told by Leyba himself, but there are also some other talking heads who pop into play from time to time. The most notable of these is Blanche Barton, a "High Priestess" in the Church of Satan who is apparently fairly instrumental in the operations of the modern era of the Church. I can't say that I'm familiar with her, but then, I don't exactly follow the religion either; tell me that so-and-so is a member of such-and-such football team and I'd be just as clueless (I'm not much a fan of sports either). There are also soundbites to be heard from Leyba's contemporaries, friends, and family, but admittedly, only the pieces involving his family were of much interest.

I mentioned that I didn't have a whole lot of interest in this title prior to popping it in, and let me explain why. See, I was sort of expecting the "Down with God, hail Satan!" outlook that seems to be so prevalent in most representations of Satanism mixed with a good deal of the "I do shocking things to get the attention that Mommy never gave me" mindset. That's not what I got. Leyba is an intelligent man who just so happens to perceive "normal" a little differently than you or I; whereas most of us would consider the Mona Lisa to be a work of art, he thinks that painstakingly arranging pictures of vaginas into a woman's portrait before pissing blood on top of it is art at its finest. Who am I to disagree, especially when the final results are oddly intriguing?

Speaking of which, there is plenty of explicit material in here. In the aforementioned scene, Leyba's wife pokes needles into the head of his erect penis so that he can - quite literally - piss blood onto his art, and the camera doesn't shy away from a single moment of the act. You'll also watch as his wife carves pentagrams into his back with a scalpel before pissing on the wounds, and then bare witness to her gathering the blood / urine combination in a bowl and allowing her loving husband to drink it all down. Shocking? Yes. Cheap shock value? To an extent, but not nearly as much as you might expect after merely reading about it on here. The man has a unique way of expressing himself, but again, who am I to label his vision as mere exploitation for the sole purpose of attention?

As for the talking heads that I mentioned earlier, Blanche Barton is by far the most prevalent "head" to pop up throughout the running time. She uses her time to explain the various facets of Satanism while also talking about Leyba, and though there were some audio issues during her pieces (the background noise indicates that they were recorded a few feet away from an active playground), I can't say that they were unwelcome. You won't learn much about the religion if you've ever read up on Satanism, but for those who haven't, her pieces are damned near required listening as they explain how Satanism isn't about human sacrifices and a horned demon who lives in the center of the earth.

His family also provides some very interesting insight into his choices in life, especially his grandmother: while she seems to accept her grandson for who he is, you can't help but get the feeling that she wishes that his art was a little less controversial and his performances a little less bloody. Other family members aren't quite as supportive, and again, this is where things really get interesting, though I do wish that this angle was explored more than it was. I can't say that I was terribly impressed with the other lads who showed up to offer an insight into Leyba's world, but thankfully, they each only got a scene or two to express their thoughts.

I'm going to have to give this one a recommendation. It's not a perfect film and it did have its fair share of problems, but it managed to get me interested in a man who I had never heard of as of yesterday and it left me wanting to know more about him. Isn't that what a good documentary is supposed to do: enlighten, inform, educate, and provoke a reaction? It also encouraged me to seek out his official site in search of more samples of his work, and after finding them, I can't say that I was disappointed. Though I thought I would be before pushing "play" on my DVD player, I can say the same thing about the documentary at hand: I wasn't disappointed in the least, and I was actually pleasantly surprised by how entertaining the whole thing was. 7/10.
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