Feb 22, 2013

Wise Blood

 It must be a sick joke of sorts for a serious actor to be best known as the voice of a killer doll, but such is the case for eccentric character actor Brad Dourif (Blue Velvet, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans); a talented man who always feared being typecast as a player of disturbed and deranged characters, yet made the career mistake of getting involved with the Child's Play horror franchise (with the original 1988 Child's Play being the only film where the actor did more than just providing his voice, acting as Chucky's human progenitor, serial killer Charles Lee Ray). Indeed, although Dourif is rarely known for playing lead roles, especially in famous films, he does play the anomalous anti-hero in John Huston’s (but credited as “Jhon Huston”) fiercely farcical celluloid ‘low comedy’ Wise Blood (1979), a relatively faithful adaptation of Flannery O'Connor’s 1952 Southern Gothic novel of the same name. Criticized throughout her career for concocting so-called ‘grotesque’ characters, Wise Blood was a literary work that had this claim leveled at it and Huston’s idiosyncratic and iconoclastic film is no different as an ostensibly heretical yet strangely holy work that portrays the American Deep South as a place populated by two people: charlatan Christian preachers of the bastardized protestant persuasion who always have some master scam and the everyday philistine citizens that embrace these con men of Christ. Technically an American-West German production (Der Ketzer or Die Weisheit des Blutes in Krautland and Le Malin in France) and filmed mainly in and around Macon, Georgia, the Deep Fried South featured in Wise Blood is the sort of sordid and unsophisticated degenerate dead civilization that Baltimore anti-Christ/wordsmith H.L. Mencken wrote about where medieval metaphysics is the norm, so certainly things turn strange for a community of unreformed Confederates when a disillusioned ex-G.I. returns to the Bible Belt and radically rebels against his upbringing, thus becoming a nihilistic preacher who starts a ‘Church of Truth without Christ’ (and without a brick and mortar church) where, “the deaf don't hear, the blind don't see, the lame don't walk, the dumb don't talk, and the dead stay that way,” and proudly and petulantly proclaims in a peeved manner, “I don’t believe in anything” and that, “sin is a trick on niggers.” Of course, being a passionate pessimist and subversive skeptic in "The Sahara of the Bozart" (as Mencken called it) is bound to drive one crazy or so the perturbed protagonist of Wise Blood finds out as he does everything in his means to subconsciously crucify himself. 

 A man with a very large and in charge chip on his shoulder, Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) – an ex-soldier who apparently earned the Purple Heart for his service in the Second World War, but is disappointed to discover his family home in Tennessee is abandoned – immediately begins to develop an all-consuming bout of megalomania when he arrives at a small Southern town via train. After a taxi driver remarks that he looks like a preacher due to his 'preacher hat' and curious brand of charisma, Motes ‘finds his calling’ on the path of the godless as an absurdly agitated and antagonistic anti-Christ proletarian prophet who dedicates his life to discrediting the word of God and his only bastard son.  Luckily, Motes does not have to look hard to find his first disciple, Enoch Emory (Dan Shor) – a half-retarded zookeeper who hates and verbally taunts a monkey in the zoo because, “he acts like he thinks he’s as good as me or you,” – obsessively follows him around upon first meeting him because he, “don’t know nobody” and no one will have, “nothin’ to with him.” Of course, Hazel is not exactly the most handsome nor humble man, so he finds himself sleeping with obese Southern Belles from hell, which result in nightmares about how he misspent his youth as the grandson of a carny huckster preacher (ironically played by lifelong atheist, director John Huston). Intelligent yet uneducated and charismatic yet anti-social, mad Motes is on a futile campaign against crooks of Christ that starts with a debunking of pseudo-blind preacher named Asa Hawks' (Harry Dean Stanton) supposed blinding via lime and defiling his bastard daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright) after he moves into the same boarding house in which they live. Of course, Hazel becomes turned off when he discovers that Lily is a lecherous nymphomaniac who was deflowered a long time ago because after concluding that she was born a bastard and would be going to hell as a result, she decided might as well engage in her fair share of sins of the flesh. After Hazel reveals that Hawks did not have enough gall to actually blind himself, he leaves town, thus leaving his daughter Lily in the carnal care of the nihilist prophet. Meanwhile, dullard boy wonder Enoch Emory steals a mummified shrunken dwarf from a display case in a degenerate museum because he is convinced it will make for a stupendous ‘baby Jesus-like’ prophet icon for Hazel’s church. In a scene parodying the famous ‘Madonna and Child’ icon, Lily cradles the dried up dwarf in her arms as if it is her baby while a blanket is draped over her head, which inflames Hazel, who smashes the mummy to pieces and throws it out the window. When a local conman named Hoover Shoats (Ned Betty) – who initially tries to go into business with the ‘Church of Truth without Christ’ but the anti-priest (who is not interested in cash but spreading the gospel of the godless) turns him down – starts a rip-off of Hazel’s church entitled “The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ” featuring a drunk wino modeled after Hazel as the pseudo-religion's prophet, the young godless preacher is quite enraged, murderously so. One night, Hazel follows the rag-to-riches derelict in his car (which is just like Hazel’s) and runs him off the road, orders him to strip, and then violently murders the man by running him over multiple times. Needless to say, Hazel, despite his spiritual iconoclasm, is a ‘true believer’ and maybe the only truly ‘religious’ man in town (aside from Enoch). On top of killing a bum and having his beloved car destroyed by a sinister yet hospitable police officer, Hazel becomes withdrawn like a monk and does what Asa Hawks never had the gall to do – blinding himself via lime and living as a self-flagellating sinner, thus discovering ‘humility’ for the first time in his life. 

 Oddly enough, director John Huston disagreed with the ‘meaning’ of the ending of his own film Wise Blood. While star Brad Dourif and most other viewers of the film tend to agree that unholy heretic Hazel finally “finds God” in the end, albeit in an exceedingly grotesque way, stern atheist John Huston apparently disagreed with this interpretation, but in the end, it is without question that the the anti-priest inevitably adopts a life of asceticism and abstinence where all worldly pleasures of the flesh, including the ability to see, are fully revoked in a most unwavering manner. As the now-blind Hazel tells his landlady, “You can’t see,” but he indubitably seems to believe he can as a lapsed nihilist. Of course, anyone who has ever met an atheist ‘true believer’ sort – the type of close-minded individual who genuinely believes they know the truth and has a pathological, almost perverse drive to proselytize to everyone about it, especially happy Christians, because they want everyone to be just as miserable as they are as a godless prophet with the key to the universe – one could argue that John Huston cannot see the world outside the narrow lenses of his orthodox anti-religious religion of self-satisfied atheism, but he surely made a sardonically spiritual film with Wise Blood; a work more holy and theological than his religious epic The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), a cinematic work that depicted the first 22 chapters of the Book of Genesis. Very possibly the only worthwhile ‘Southern Gothic’ film of its time and certainly one of the most overlooked works of John Huston’s long and cinematically fruitful career, especially considering the auteur was already over 70-years-old when he directed it. I guess Huston had some of that ‘Wise Blood’ – an instinctive worldly knowledge and weltanschauung of what direction to take to take in one’s life that does not need spiritual nor emotional guidance – that rhapsodic retard Enoch Emory spoke of, but I am sure the unbelieving atheistic auteur would have fervently denied it. 

-Ty E

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