Monday, July 20, 2009


Did Jose Mojica Marins ever read Flannery O'Connor's 1952 novel? I have to ask because I see just a hint of affinity between Ze do Caixao, the blasphemous undertaker we know as "Coffin Joe," and Hazel Motes, the blasphemous preacher of Wise Blood. Hazel has no interest in finding the perfect woman to bear the perfect child or anything like that, but there's something about his small-town heresy and his more modest will to transgression that reminded me of the Brazilian menace.

Did John Huston ever watch At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul? This I doubt; the influence doesn't go both ways, and maybe not even one. It's no more likely that screenwriters Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald saw Marins at work. If there's something in the movie that reminds me of Coffin Joe, it must be inherent in the novel. But one thing Huston & Co. do to enhance the strangeness of O'Connor's story is to set it, probably for budgetary reasons, in their present day, the late 1970s. I didn't realize this was the case at first. The opening has Motes just out of the army and hitchhiking to his old family home, only to find it abandoned, then shopping for a $19.95 suit in a small-town clothes store, then riding a train into "the city," Taulkingham. Once he got off the train, I began to notice people with Afros and others not in period gear. Then I realized the film wasn't in period. But Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes looks as if he strode straight out of 1952 and into 1979. He didn't, though, and that makes him (arguably) a Vietnam veteran, though the moviemakers' probably faithful conception of him doesn't really make much of that detail.

Hazel has money and a determination to do something he's never done before. I don't know if shacking up and sleeping with a fat whore counts as novelty for a veteran, but it's a start. It doesn't stop his oppressive dreams of the childhood days when he toured with his grandpa (the director), an itinerant preacher and punished himself for glimpses of naked carny ladies by walking with stones in his shoes. The only cure for that, it seems, is to become a preacher himself or, better yet, preach against preachers. He founds the Church of Truth Without Christ, the Truth being that Christ was a liar who may well have been crucified, but not for our sake. Here's some typical Motesian theology:

Where you come from is gone. Where you thought you was going to weren't never there. And where you are ain't no good unless you can get away from it. Your conscience is a trick. It don't exist. And if you think it does, then you had best get it out in the open, hunt it down, and kill it.

He's provoked into prophecy by the presence of a purportedly blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) who travels with his daughter, to whom Hazel is conflictedly attracted. His initial confrontation with Asa Hawks attracts the attention of Enoch Emory, an 18-year old imbecile exiled from the sticks by his dad for offenses unknown to the moviegoer. Enoch has a hard time coping with city life because "people aren't friendly," and neither is Hazel. Huston treats Enoch as a comedy relief character, and Alex North's score definitely does, but he may be the most disturbing character in a film full of misfits. He steals a shrunken mummy from a museum because Hazel preaches that people need a "new Christ." He spends hours in the zoo haranguing monkeys because he suspects that they think they're as good as he is. He becomes obsessed with Gonga, the Jungle Monarch, a guy in an ape suit working the town to promote a movie. Seeing how kids rush to shake the monkey's paw, he finally steals the suit and romps through town, though he is ultimately disappointed to find himself somewhat less popular than Gonga. He has the "wise blood" of the title, which he claims gives him the ability to know things without learning them.

Dan Shor as Enoch, mummy thief and ape impersonator who only wants to be friendly, in Wise Blood.

Meanwhile, Hazel's mission seems to be to dispel people's illusions about a just or benevolent universe. You wonder whether the war had anything to do with his attitude, but the film won't tell you. His obsession with the blind preacher's daughter has led him to move into the same boarding house they live in, after assuring the landlady that the Church of Truth Without Christ is definitely a Protestant denomination. The worm turns at this point and the daughter, Sabbath Lily, begins to pursue Hazel, hoping he'll become her meal ticket when her dad moves on.

Hazel's career plan is threatened, however, by Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), who likes what he sees he of Hazel's preaching and thinks he can improve on it to his own profit. When Hazel won't go along, stubborn in his conviction that you can't buy the truth, Hoover hires a rummy (William Hickey) to dress up like Hazel and stand in for him on a car roof while Hoover works the streets for money. The rummy gets a $7 suit and $4 for a night's work, but it's the last money he'll ever see.

The closest Hazel gets to anything like Coffin Joe territory in the movie is when he stalks the rummy, forces his car into a ditch, forces the rummy to strip out of his imitation preacher clothes, and then runs him over with his own decrepit car. But despite all his preaching against conscience, our hero begins to feel unclean, and begins to pay a price for his feelings....

Wise Blood is full of disquieting if not quite horrific incidents and characters, yet the music and the promotion treat the story as if it were primarily a comedy. Maybe that's how Flannery O'Connor meant it, too, but Alex North's score veers distractingly from the bittersweet nostalgia of his riffs on "The Tennesse Waltz" to pure goofball effects for Enoch's exploits. Ultimately, after the story finishes with Enoch, it settles into a grimmer mode, though a sardonic temperament might still find it pretty comical. Yet Huston does something interesting with this material. He takes the utterly grotesque, almost cartoonish main characters and embeds them in an utterly authentic location shoot in Macon, Georgia. I can imagine the story being filmed in a more Expressionistic style or with more lurid effects, but Huston's realistic style extends to long takes that let us watch tiny characters lope or run and cars roll or lurch through the landscape.

The payoff is a late scene in which a cop pulls Hazel over "because I don't like your face," and makes Hazel's hapless auto roll down a gradual incline for something like thirty seconds before it ends up in the drink. It's as if Huston were adopting a godlike perspective to mock Hazel's pretensions, but it also reinforces the reality of the milieu in which the often implausible hero makes his personal pilgrimage. Gerry Fisher does a great job with the outdoor cinematography, while Sally Fitzgerald did wonders making the locations or sets look convincingly grungy. This film looks great. I mean it looks nasty, but in a great way.

This is a rare starring role for Brad Dourif and he makes the most of it. Hazel Motes may have been a role he was born to play. Harry Dean Stanton and Amy Wright as the Hawks family do fine work, and Ned Beatty has another of those performances where he storms into a film relatively late in the game and practically takes over by force of will and charisma.

I think it's a great thing about the 1970s that it was a decade in which so many brilliant young directors made their mark, and yet here was John Huston, who'd been directing since The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and writing since the Thirties, keeping up with the times with some great films. I wouldn't quite rank this with his best films of the decade, which are Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King, but Wise Blood is a film no Seventies auteur would be ashamed of, and as the work of a man in his seventies it definitely deserves respect.

Egamimedia has uploaded the trailer for Wise Blood, which treats the film as a far more lighthearted comedy than it actually is. It is okay to laugh, though.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Awesome review! I'm a big fan of O'Connor's writing and Dourif's acting, and once you add the reader/viewer-response connection to Coffin Joe, consider me SOLD. Actually, I'm kind of amazed I never got round to seeing this one, even without the Marins connection. I will be rectifying this soon.

I believe there's a well-known anecdote about O'Connor reading her most grotesque, depressing stories out loud to an audience, and the listener/anecdote teller finding it strange that the author kept cracking up at her own writing. O'Connor definitely had a dark sense of humor that many readers (especially young ones) miss. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is incredibly funny in parts, as well as absolutely soul-chilling.

Thanks for calling my attention to this--I'll be seeking it out post-haste!

The Duke of DVD said...

You had me at Coffin Joe, sir. Dourif is just icing on the proverbial cake. I must own this, ASAP.

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, speaking of affinity, I've heard the same sort of cracking-self-up-with-inappropriate-material story told about Franz Kafka. They sound like my kind of people.

To both of youse (happy anniversary, by the way): I tried to be careful about comparing Hazel to Ze (though you see the latter is embedded in the former!), but I can't deny the impression I felt after seeing Wise Blood. I do think that if anyone tried to Americanize Coffin Joe (and why hasn't someone tried?) he might well end up looking a little like Hazel Motes, if not a lot like Tyler Mane in a top hat.

Rev. Phantom said...

Any movie starring Brad Dourif is a movie I want to see. I love that guy! You have been churning out reviews for a lot of cool sounding flicks--I can't keep up. My must-see list runneth over.

This movie sounds really cool and I'm baffled that I've never heard of it.

Samuel Wilson said...

The Criterion DVD has an interview with Dourif in which he explains that he was originally cast as Enoch but lobbied to get the lead when Huston's desired Hazel, Tommy Lee Jones, ended up not doing the film. That's a tough trade-off. I would have liked to see Jones do the part, but not at the expense of Dourif's performance.