Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Church of One Man: Wise Blood

John Huston's "Wise Blood" is a confused film, much like its central character Hazel Motes (played by Brad Dourif). A film written and produced by Christians (one of the writers co-wrote the snuff film extravaganza "The Passion of the Christ") and directed by a devout atheist, this film demonstrates how important is to the art of film that having answers to life's big questions will never be as interesting as the quest for them. This film goes off the rails in what it attempts to accomplish (a running theme for this review and the next movie I will write about), but remains an almost perfect depiction of how two schools of thought clash with one another can produce self-contradicting and lasting works of art.

"Wise Blood" is based on a book by Flannery O'Connor. The film begins with Hazel Motes returning from an unspecified war. Actually, the film seems to be simultaneously taking place in several decades. From the film's opening scenes, you sense there is something off with the tone, as the town Motes decides to stay in is filled with gothic grotesques that are depicted with equal parts mockery and compassion. It is clear Motes carries a great chip on his shoulder about something, though we cannot place exactly what that is. We only have brief flashbacks to Motes' childhood where we see his grandfather (played by Huston) preaching onstage not unlike a carnival barker.

When Motes encounters a blind preacher, Asa Hawks (played by the ever-reliable Harry Dean Stanton), and his young daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks (played by Amy Wright) on the street preaching the word of God, he becomes angrier and taunts them. At that moment, Motes decides to form the "Church without Christ" to counter Hawks' brand of religious hucksterism. In Motes' "religion", people shouldn't need the story of Jesus Christ being crucified to do the right things in life. Motes takes to the streets, much like Hawks, to preach this though he doesn't ever reach that many people except Enoch Emory (played by Dan Shor), a young man with obvious mental issues of his own. Although Motes also shows obvious disdain for Hawks and his message, he clearly lusts after the daughter Sabbath, who makes no bones about being a loose woman.

"Wise Blood" is a film that find equal parts fascinating and clumsy. The movie seems to be constantly at war with itself over the notion that Motes may either be brave or foolish to start a church that does not adhere to mainstream religion. You get the sense that Motes hates God, but cannot imagine life without him. If God wasn't there to dismiss, then what would Motes have to live for? That was probably my way into this film, which is sometimes thwarted by Huston portraying the characters with a certain level of satire that I, honestly, could not completely disagree with.

It is not a surprise to discover that the preachers depicted in this film are revealed to be frauds at one point or another. What makes it interesting is that Hazel Motes is not exactly so righteous himself. That he feels the need to start a church to counter the messages Hawks and other religious hucksters put out there reveals how obvious it is that Motes is turning his own religious torment into a public battle that he wants everyone else to witness. In essence, he becomes a zealot of non-belief attempting to convert others and inject his beliefs, influenced by his personal experiences, into the lives of those who never asked for it.

This becomes obvious during two sequences, the first where Motes preaches that we need a "new Jesus". Enoch, being perhaps the Church without Christ's only follower, takes this literally and steals a mummy the size of a baby and leaves it to Motes as an offering The second sequence is when Motes is propositioned by another preacher Hoover Shoates (played by Ned Beatty) to team up with him to turn his Church without Christ into a more profitable racket. Both of these scenes result in Motes becoming angrier, though one wonders whether this has to do with his anger with God or with his increasing distaste to with how everyone he sees distorts and exploits religion to control others for their own selfish purposes. Perhaps, deep in his mind, Motes believes that he would be a truer servant of God than any of these people.

I cannot say that I would go down the path that Motes does in the last third of th
e film, but I did admire him for willing to demonstrate how willing he was going to take the act of atoning for one's sins. He seems to understand that religion is more about the struggle with your own morality rather than passing judgment on others, which preachers like Hawks and Shoates would never put themselves on the line like that. After Motes commits one particular amoral act, he eventually holds himself up to the same morals he would hold anyone else.

Admittedly, Huston was never the greatest visual stylist, his narratives and direction of the performances in his films were often top-notch. This film contains probably the best performance of Brad Dourif's career, while also getting strong work from most of the supporting cast who often find themselves nearly tipping over into caricature but just avoiding it. I cannot say that Dan Shor's performance as Enoch Emory succeeds, although the character's absurdity may have made him impossible to play. When a character is this unrelentingly dim (His final scene has him running around town in a gorilla suit. Don't ask.), it begins to nag at you that this person is included in this narrative for simple buffoonery.

As stated earlier, Huston never quite grasps what the tone of the film should be, probably because he may have been trying to adapt the material to his beliefs rather than what the writers/producers (as well as Flannery O'Connor herself) intended to be a story that ultimately becomes more about embracing religion rather than questioning it. The movie never quite commits to satirizing the characters or taking them seriously. The shifts in tone are rather wild and crude, which probably won't encourage anyone looking for easy answers to embrace this film. People with different religious views can watch this movie and begin to detect their beliefs are being mocked.

In some ways, the obvious contradictions of "Wise Blood" makes this a more lasting and interesting film, as problematic as it is. I had never seen it before I watched the Criterion DVD (released earlier this year) a few weeks ago, but my immediate reaction was that this was a film at war with itself, supported by the interviews with the filmmakers on the disc's extras. I always believe a film should serve the story and characters rather than the filmmakers' indulgences. In that way, the film succeeds because it is just as confused with itself as Hazel Motes is, though I am a bit unsure of how much that was intentional. One can read the final scene of the film several ways that either supports or negates everything that occurs before that moment.

If "A Serious Man" wasn't enough for you to think enough about the role of religion in the lives we lead, then perhaps you can visit this curious relic from 30 years ago and try to figure out what the hell they were getting at and ask yourself what does Hazel Motes really believe in?

Wise Blood was viewed on DVD via Netflix.

1 comment:

Adam Zanzie said...

This is a good review, Steven, although I don't agree with everything you say here. The notion that Huston was not a visual filmmaker has always been widely accepted (certainly by cinema auterists like Andrew Sarris and Francois Truffaut, both of whom considered him and Fred Zinnemann to be "anti-cinema" directors), but I've never bought it.

I've been burrowing through Huston's filmography for quite some time now (ever since my early teens, hehe), and so many images from his films stay with me. The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Beat the Devil, The Misfits, The Man Who Would Be King and my favorite American film of all time, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, are all such gorgeous films in their camerawork and in Huston's love for his characters and settings, that I would challenge anybody to explain to me how a film by Ford, Hawks or Billy Wilder (all of whom I admire, of course) could possibly be visually more striking. Even a lesser movie like The Unforgiven contains one of the most colorfully dazzling Native American assault sequences ever captured in the history of Western flicks.

I do think you're correct about how Wise Blood is a movie at war with itself, considering that Huston and the Fitzgerald brothers were not always on the same page, intellectually or religiously (I've always found it ironic how Huston was an atheist and yet also managed to direct something like The Bible in his spare time), but that's one of the reasons why I find this movie so fascinating. Whatever the viewer's own beliefs, or whatever they've thought about in the past, practically ever single religious option is right up there on the screen--and I wouldn't charge that the film is uneven as a result.

One more thing you wrote in your review that I don't really agree with is that the Enoch character is only in the film for sheer comic relief. The way I saw it, Hazel and Enoch have parallel stories: Hazel doesn't want to have anything to do with society, and society doesn't want to have anything to do with Enoch. As a result, they are both these lonely, extremely pathetic souls without religion and without friends. They start out in the picture as normal people and end up abnormal; Hazel becomes blind and maimed, while Enoch becomes trapped forever in a constricting gorilla costume. Have you ever seen Fat City? Huston tells the parallel stories of Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges' characters in that film in a similar fashion.

I'm planning my own write-up on Wise Blood soon--not to rival yours, but to help further spread the word of mouth on this wonderful little gem of a picture.