Tuesday 10 May 2011

Wise Blood (1979)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Dan Shor, Amy Wright, Mary Nell Santacroce, William Hickey and John Huston
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Here's another of many films that I discovered through the joyous Moviedrome series hosted on BBC2 back in the day by filmmaker Alex Cox. It's a strange puppy, as hinted at by the deliberate misspelling of John Huston's name as an actor and as a director. It's a meditation on the strange ways Americans have played with religion, taken from the novel by Flannery O'Connor and aptly illustrated by the signs that accompany the opening credits which stretch kitsch to the level of a phone being stuck next to a tombstone reading 'Jesus called'. Huston, born to the industry as the son of Hollywood star Walter Huston, who he would later direct to an Oscar in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, stamped his authority with his very first film, The Maltese Falcon. As the years went by, he made a number of pictures that don't seem to hold any pretense at commercial viability but remain powerful nonetheless. This is the epitome of them and that's a good thing.

I haven't seen it for decades but it's stayed with me. Part of it is Brad Dourif's palpable intensity, which drips off the screen even more here than it did in his Oscar nominated role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest four years earlier. Watching afresh it seems almost unbelievable that he doesn't burst out of his skin, there's so much pent up energy radiating from the man. He's Hazel Motes, a man who returns home from service in the army, presumably in Korea, to find his house empty and so dilapidated that it may stay upright only through the power of art. A new interstate has caused most folks to move, including his, so he catches a train to Taulkinham, where, as he repeats to people he meets, 'I'm gonna do some things I ain't never done before.' What this boils down to are things we ain't never seen before, or at least I hadn't, the southern gothic flavour of Flannery O'Connor's source material being as exotic to this young Englishman as Fu Manchu.

O'Connor is an important figure in American literature, even though she only wrote two novels, along with shorter material and non fiction. Born in Savannah, Georgia, one of only three cities I've visited in the US that felt old to me, she wrote predominantly in a southern gothic style that fit easily alongside that of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, more prolific writers whose works were frequently filmed. The southern gothic genre uses macabre or grotesque imagery to comment on life in the American south and Wise Blood is a glorious example of this. All the main characters are fascinating extrapolations from real Southern values and beliefs, grotesque and vehement but also quintessentially human. A lifelong Roman Catholic, O'Connor also examined religious beliefs, especially Protestant heresies, by torturing her characters with their concepts. Hazel's bizarre approach to Christianity stems from Jansenism, condemned as heresy in 1655.

Like most in the American south, Hazel Motes was born to religion, his grandfather being a fire and brimstone preacher. A skewed view of belief leads him to reject it utterly, becoming a nihilist. If belief is always flawed and sin is always punished, the only road to salvation is to believe in nothing. Motes finds a purpose in Taulkinham opposing a blind preacher by founding the Church of Truth without Christ. In this church the blind don't see, the lame don't walk and the dead stay that way. It all seems natural, even a cabby believing that he's a preacher, not just from his hat but from the mere look on his face. Motes has more faith in American engineering than he does in God and his car becomes his home and his church, to live in and to preach from. Of course nobody listens, except a manic young man named Enoch Emery who latches on to him because his inherited wise blood tells him that he's a man to follow.
Exploring the wild beliefs of the American south wouldn't seem to be an obvious subject to bring in movie audiences in 1979 but the casting choices are so perfect that it becomes magnetic. I'm still trying to figure out all the religious connotations, even after reading up on O'Connor's novel, but Wise Blood was a unique ride when I first saw it and it played the same way once I found it again. Brad Dourif is one of the great character actors of our day, however bad some of the films he finds himself in manage to get; but however many great roles he plays, Hazel Motes is always how I see him in my mind's eye, preaching insanity with utter conviction and railing against the world in the process. He latches onto Asa Hawks like a mollusc, hurling challenges at him. 'What the hell kind of a preacher are you not to see if you can save my soul?' he demands. It's hardly surprising Emery latches onto him in turn, because he radiates purpose and intent.

Emery is played by Dan Shor in his debut on film. He'd go onto TRON, Black Moon Rising and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, where he was memorable as Billy the Kid. For a fresh face to film, he acquits himself admirably in powerful company, bouncing around with more energy than one man should have and enhancing the wild unpredictability of the story. This was still early in Brad Dourif's career too, but he'd already racked up an Oscar nomination. He got plenty of opportunity to use the sort of acting chops that suggests, given that his foil in this film, Asa Hawks, is played by Harry Dean Stanton, hardly a new kid on the block and one of the greatest character actors that American cinema has ever seen. He's a superb choice to play a huckster preacher who pretends to have blinded himself with lye so as to gain sympathy and respect from the God fearing folks he fleeces. While Motes opposes him in every way, he ends up outdoing him as an ascetic.

The leading lady, if she can be called such a thing here, is Hawks's daughter, Sabbath Lily, who is as fake as he is, appearing pure and virginal but being really wild in every way. In keeping with the prominent character actors cast thus far, she's played by Amy Wright who deserves to be known as far more than just Rip Torn's wife. Her power as an actress and her unconventional choices of roles over the decades ensure that she's remembered by everyone who sees her, whether most of the public has a clue who she is or not. Rounding out the principal cast, if Hazel's car can't be seen as such (it's featured prominently and manages to stay heroically alive against all odds), is Ned Beatty, in fine form as Hoover Shoates, a slimy street preacher who sees the potential for profit in Hazel's message and so hires his double to preach next to him and rake in the cash that Motes doesn't want. Needless to say that leads to a memorable showdown as the story runs on.
Beatty's entrance is surreal. He stands watching Motes preach his anti-gospel from the bonnet of his car, then as everyone walks way ambles over and amiably invites them back. He introduces himself with a fake name and proclaims Motes a prophet in The Holy Church of Jesus Christ without Christ. Then he takes over for his own gain while Motes is dumbstruck. This is only one of many touches of genius in this picture, which are often the tiniest things. The graveyard on Motes's family property has a grave for Jerusha Ashfield Motes, 'gone to become an angle'. A museum that furnishes a key prop is always empty, except for a guard who's always asleep. 'There used to be a fire escape there,' a landlord tells Hazel, out of the blue. 'Don't know what happened to it.' His car peters out at one point most of the way up a hill, right opposite a sign that tells him once again that Jesus saves. There are many signs here, not always obvious ones, and Hazel's car leads to a few.

It's interesting to note that the only characters in the film who have any worth are mechanics, who are always right even if Hazel never believes them. All the rest of the cast are grotesques, as befits the southern gothic genre. Defending her use of such characters, Flannery O'Connor once said that 'anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.' The deep south has a flavour of its own, a mythology which is quintessentially American, but which in southern gothic stories is viewed through a distorted mirror. This film is full of shanty towns, folk religion and backwoods accents. It's populated by larcenous car dealers, street hawkers and fire and brimstone preachers. It's riddled with progress and change but nothing ever seems to end up different. Sabbath Lily trusts advice columnists in newspapers, Enoch believes in a fake gorilla.

Given that fundamentalist Christianity has spread from southern Baptists to a more prominent stage in modern American life, especially in politics, it's hard not to draw comparisons. Motes, in his way, is the epitome of the fringes of the American right that circle around the Tea Party. He riles himself up over nothing more than someone else giving something to someone, even if it's Jesus. Nobody owes nothing to nobody in his view, and he'll rant and rave to get his point over to a world that doesn't want to listen. He doesn't care that they don't, because he doesn't believe in anything. He's not an athiest who doesn't believe, he's a believer who doesn't believe that there's anything to believe in. In comparison Enoch Emery believes in everything; and the other characters, Shoates and both the Hawks, only believe in what they can get and they use belief to get it. Everything is religious, even if it has nothing to do with religion. Sound familiar?

It's hard to nail down precisely why this film has stayed with me for so many years. Certainly all the people involved have done magnificent work elsewhere, not least John Huston who had almost four decades of note behind him. His unconventional career as a cinematic rebel fits the material well, as do those of the actors he cast. Dourif, Stanton and Wright have played normal, everyday people, but they really don't do it often. More usually they play bizarre characters like the ones they flesh out here. So why does this film seem so memorable? Perhaps it's because it's the archetype of the southern gothic to me, oozing with texture and flavour and exotica. More famous examples, like A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or To Kill a Mockingbird seem to me more focused dramas with more focused points. Only The Night of the Hunter seems to have the sheer depth of Wise Blood, both of which have so many different ways to be read.

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