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Saturday, May 19, 2012
John Huston | Wise Blood
savage demandsby Douglas Messerli
Benedict Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald (screenplay, based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor), John Huston (director) Wise Blood / 1979
John Huston’s 1979 film, Wise Blood, received mostly positive reviews, many of them arguing how faithful the film is to Flannery O’Connor’s legendary first novel. In many respects, one would have to agree that this film, surely a difficult work to achieve within the Hollywood definition of what is a saleable film—Wise Blood had German and American backing—comes off far better than one might have suspected. Indeed all of O’Connor’s strange players reappear in their compelling and compelled roles in the small, mythical Southern community of Taulkinham, including the war veteran Hazel Motes, the “blind” preacher, Asa Hawkes, his sex-crazed daughter Sabbath Lily, the lonely and lost boy Enoch Emery, the religious-spouting conman, Hoover Shoates (re-baptizing himself as Onnie Jay Holy), and the scheming landlady, Mrs. Flood. And most of these larger-than-life characters are quite convincingly acted, including Motes (Brad Dourif), Emery (Dan Schor), Hawkes (Harry Dean Stanton), Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), Shoates (Ned Beatty), and Mrs. Flood (Mary Nell Santacroce)—particularly given that their roles are so much larger than life.
Also central to O’Connor’s parable, however, is the amazingly childlike faith of Emery, who not only is able to bring Hazel a kind a Christ-child in the form of the stolen mummy (which Sabbath Lily immediately takes to breast, as if she were the Madonna of the ancient Bible tale), but ends the work as a version of Yeats’ “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born anew from his gorilla-like existence. But here, and in other such spots, Huston’s film falls apart as composer Alex North (whose excellent score I recently reencountered in the stage version of Death of a Salesman), after rousing renditions of nearly every Southern-born hymn, strikes up a banjo-twanging hillbilly accompaniment that diminishes Emery’s role and turns him, along with others such as Sabbath Lily and Hoover Shoates, into a bunch stupid crackers. Accordingly, while the film has successfully struggled with the profound contradictions of its central figure, it marginalizes and even mocks the men and women surrounding Hazel who give credence to the powers of his ministry. Emery’s final gesture of shaking hands, while dressed in his gorilla outfit, with a couple waiting at a bus stop—a meaningful attempt to link the miracle of his newfound faith to everyday folk through a simple handshake—is played here for its comic ridiculousness rather than presenting it as an act of absurd significance.
Los Angeles, May 18, 2012