Saturday, May 19, 2012

John Huston | Wise Blood

savage demands
by 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.

    For the most part, Huston downplays the shocking encounters between these figures, steering his narrative away from what might have been absurdly exaggerated types at the best, and campy versions of Southern degenerates at worst. Certainly a work in which the central character, preaching against organized religion, argues for a new “Church of Christ without Christ,” in which“the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way” in the midst of world quite literally fermenting in religiosity, is a hard line to tow in a medium that generally pushes everything off the cliff of realism. Add to that a blind preacher who can see all too well, his daughter, determined to marry Motes (“I'm just crazy about him. I never seen a boy I like the looks of any better.”), a lunatic friend, Emery Enoch, with the mind of child, who steals a mummy from a local museum to present Hazel with the symbol of new church and later steals a gorilla costume and attempts to shake hands with the natives, and, finally, a landlady determined to get Hazel into her bed, and one immediately perceives the director’s immense talent to be able to transform these “freaks,” as O’Connor herself might have called them, into figures about whom we still care.

     Huston seems to have, in particular, sustained our belief in the hero, Hazel Motes, who raised to be a kind of preacher, cannot resist the task, despite his desperate attempts to denounce his and his community’s beliefs. Throughout, the film focuses  on his faith in a world in which he proclaims is doomed. Despite every evidence to the contrary, Hazel continues to sing the praises of the run-down car he has purchased (“This car is just beginning its life, a lightning bolt couldn't stop it.”) up until the very moment a passing policeman sends it to its death in a local lake (in the book, the car’s end is even more ignoble). Hazel may try to free himself of disciples, yet he quickly finds a willing believer and follower in the simple-minded Emery. Although he seems basically disinterested in the opposite sex, he immediately attracts the eye of the prostitute, Leona Watts, the embraces of Sabbath Lily, and the motherly fondles of Mrs. Flood. If Asa Hawkes does not have the nerve to blind himself as evidence of his beliefs, Hazel does, ending his life as a blind man whose body is ravaged through his self-imposed bodily tortures and his suffering through a stormy night out of doors. In short, Hazel’s whole life gives lie to his credo: “I don't have to run away from anything, cause I don't believe in anything.” Huston convinces us that, in fact, Hazel believes in almost everything, that he cares enough about the truth to even kill for it.

    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.

     In the end, consequently, Hazel Mote’s last gasps, while the chattering Mrs. Flood plans out his future in her bed, seem quite meaningless; in Huston’s world he has just been, after all, another fool, a kind of kooky con-man, who, as the chorus of Iowa hucksters of The Music Man might proclaim, “doesn’t know the territory”—while the fact is that Motes knew his world better than even he might of imagined, recognizing the savagery of its demands.

Los Angeles, May 18, 2012

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