Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wise Blood (1979)

On the day he returns home from the war, Hazel Motes is so eager to shed the skins of his past that he throws away his Army uniform in a general store trash can. When he arrives at the doorstep of the homestead he once lived in, there are no friends or family members waiting for him--and the only thing inside that he thinks is still worth killing for is a creaky old chifferobe. Nobody lives out in the country anymore: everybody has long since taken the interstate out into the city. Nothing left out here, really, except failing Bible Belt institutions that have little more to offer townsfolk, other than to spread the Christian word. Each and every road sign and small business is still advertising for Christianity in one way or another--even the local Dairy Queen.

It is the America that Flannery O'Connor presented to us in her 1952 novel Wise Blood, and it burns devilishly (and comically) in John Huston's masterful 1979 film adaptation. Hazel Motes, as portrayed by Brad Dourif in one of the last great performances of the 1970's, has reached the sort of midlife crisis that all men who live in the Bible Belt must dread: he has lost his faith. In God, in Jesus, and especially in his fellow man--he talks again and again of starting up his own church, and yet he is the most resistant soul on the face of the Earth. He scares off a kid who offers him friendship, and viciously bites back when a fellow preacher offers him business partnership. We are not surprised, then, when his church never acquires a single follower, when his only two "relationships" with women are dismal failures, and when his utter contempt for people does nothing but rub onto others. When he is pulled over by a cop on the highway, it is not because of his driving or even because of the poor condition of his car but because, in the cop's own words, "I just don't like your face."

All of the people in this movie are losers. They are not people you would want to know in real life: they are fakes, racists, opportunists, eccentrics and blowhards. Some of them are lonely souls who sincerely don't want to be these kinds of people at all; it's just that by not having control over their environments, their environments have taken control over them. In his 1972 classic Fat City, Huston cast Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges as small-town boxers with parallel stories: Keach was the aging boxer struggling for a big comeback, and Bridges was the teenage boxer who ultimately gave up his career to live life as a young family man. In Wise Blood, Huston again tells parallel stories, and contrasts Hazel Mote's story with the story of Enoch Emory (Dan Shor), an eighteen-year old who pretends to be an all-knowing holy prophet when, deep down, he is scared, lonely, and in terrible need of a friend. By the time the film is over, these two men will be so disillusioned with societal rejection that they will both try to transform themselves into unnatural creatures: one man will blind and maim himself in an attempt to achieve a martyr status, while the other man will flee from the world by retreating into the miserable confines of a gorilla costume.

Hazel does not start out in Wise Blood as an overzealous preacher; in fact, his transition to this role sort of happens by accident. When he boards a train and sets out for the city of Taulkinham, he is unsure of what he will find there, but he is hopeful for the chance to finally make something of his life--apparently the war did not do this for him. "I'm gonna do some things I ain't never done before!" he excitedly tells strangers. But even before he reaches the city Hazel has already committed his first big mistake: his new, black hat is the kind of hat that only a preacher would wear. He takes offense when a taxi driver asks him if he is a preacher, and he and the taxi driver get into one of those pointless religious arguments that leads to nowhere constructive. "There ain't but one thing for you to understand," Hazel barks, "and it's that I don't believe in anything."

Alas, Taulkinham is no different from any other city in the Bible Belt. The traffic cop gives pedestrians long, politically correct lectures about how they should obey red lights. The landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce) is prejudiced against Catholicism and other "foreign" religions, and only rents out a room for Hazel on the condition that he is a Protestant. The blind preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton, in the same year he appeared in Alien), who peddles the streets, is not even blind--that's just his way of getting attention. Hazel becomes a bit obsessed with Hawks and his oddball daughter Sabbath (Amy Wright), and intensely challenges their perspective of Christianity, to which Hawks reacts with hilarious disgust ("now, you listen to me, boy: Jesus is a FACT!"), and to which Sabbath reacts with swoon. She has never seen a younger man question her father like this before, and gets dreamy-eyed. "I'm just crazy about him!" she squeals in private. "I never seen a boy I liked the looks of any better!" While outside, Hazel is beginning a new church (free of charge) on the streets, right on top of the hood of his car. It will be called the Church of the Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified.

And of course, there's Enoch Emory, who is thrilled to see somebody like Hazel rebelling against the religious norms of the city, only to discover just how aggressive of a man Hazel really is. Watch the scenes between Hazel and Enoch carefully--particularly their first scenes together. Huston speedily tracks his camera along the sidewalks, frantically making sure to keep up with the two characters as Enoch bores Hazel out of his mind with his life story: "My daddy made me come!" he whines. "I ain't but 18 years old, and he made me come here! And I don't know nobody, and nobody will have nothing to do with me! They ain't friendly!" Hazel tries to make Enoch go away, which only prompts Enoch to observe of Hazel that "you ain't from here, but you ain't friendly, either! And you don't know nobody, either!" It is also interesting that Enoch claims to work at the local zoo, and yet he behaves at the zoo like a true juvenile: he makes faces, insults the monkeys, and doesn't even wear a uniform. For all we know, Enoch doesn't work at the zoo at all.

Obviously these characters are not Hazel's idea of intelligent people--but that doesn't excuse his mean-spirited reactions towards them. There is a painful scene in which he explodes at Enoch for failing to know where Asa and Sabbath Hawks live: in a rage, he grabs Enoch by the coat, shakes him, screams at him, calls him a liar, and throws him on the ground. Does Hazel not even consider that Enoch is just trying to make a good impression? That all he wants to do is be his friend, and that he wants to help Hazel in any way he can? Hazel is equally unkind to Sabbath, who tries to make a pass at him during a walk in the woods--and Hazel responds by running off and driving away without her. And where Enoch and Sabbath both take extreme fascination in a doll-sized mummy from the museum, Hazel looks at it with indifference and, later, repulsion. After they give it to him as a possible "new Jesus" mascot for his church, not only does he refuse it, but he smashes it against the wall and tosses it out the window.

Much of these descriptions probably make Wise Blood sound like a depressingly angst independent film, but it is not. The film has several moments of comedy, not just to give the audience a break from some of the story's more angrier elements but also because--as Huston no doubt must have understood at some point--the humor helps make the portrayals of the Deep South civilians look a little less patronizing. Take, as an example, Enoch's theft of the doll-sized mummy from the museum, which is not treated like a suspenseful heist (like something out of, say, Huston's own The Asphalt Jungle), but is instead filmed with absolute wit and absurdity, like something out of the silent comedy era. Or when Sabbath attempts to seduce Hazel in a Mary Magdalene fashion by writhing around in leaves while telling of a supposedly cursed baby ("nobody cared if it lived or died") that drove its grandmother to suicide; Amy Wright is exceedingly funny in this scene and, what's more, sexy. Or the scene in which Enoch sneaks into a "Gonga" truck and Huston's camera cleverly follows the truck on the road in an unbroken, 30-second take--before Enoch emerges from the back of the truck in the Gonga costume.

Hazel may in fact be the only character in the film lacking a sense of humor. He's got a serious church to run, after all. In one of the film's most memorable bits of dialogue, he preaches to pedestrians: "Where you come from, is... gone. Where you thought you were going to... weren't never there. And where you are, ain't no good... unless you can get away from it." But this speech is interrupted by the nearby sermons of Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), a religion profiteer who is literally ripping off Hazel's church concepts for his own church; the only difference being that Hoover does not take these concepts seriously and is only in it for the money, which he gains by charging each of his followers a dollar. And as opposed to Hazel's church, Hoover's church is entertaining, complete with guitar music and a poor man (William Hickey) who is paid to stand on top of Hoover's car and recite raspy, lively sermons.

The poor man is only doing this because he has no other way to make a living, but Hazel is too bitter to understand this, and it results in the film's saddest sequence: in which Hazel tailgates the poor man at night, wrecks his car, forces the man to take off his preacher clothes, and then murders him. William Hickey, who would later play the mafia don in Huston's Prizzi's Honor (1985), has a truly harrowing death scene here in which, as he is dying on the road, all he can do is muster up regrets about the ways he treated his parents. He begs Hazel for help. But Hazel is too full of hate in his heart at this point, and he just leaves the man to die. There are a lot of scenes in Wise Blood that amaze me and make me laugh, but this is the only scene that makes me feel like crying. Hickey's performance here could very well be the single most unforgettable supporting performance in the film.

The score by Alex North is jovial and very much in tune with the song of the South. The screenplay by Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald is said to be very faithful to the original O'Connor novel (unread by me), perhaps because of the helpful input by the film's costume designer Sally Fitzgerald, who was more familiar with O'Connor's material than anyone else working on the production. Huston directed the film during a turning point in his life when he realized that old age was starting to catch up with him. He was forced to sell his Irish estate St. Clerens because of his inability to keep venturing on fox hunts, had moved to Mexico, and had been suffering multiple near-death experiences.

It's strange, then, to see how effortlessly creative a film like Wise Blood still is. Incorrect spelling is one of the film's common themes: Enoch thinks that "museum" is pronounced "muv-se-vum"; the gravestone of Hazel's deceased mother reads that she has gone to become an "angle"; and Huston''s first name is billed as "Jhon" in the beginning credits. And Huston cast real, unprofessional civilians in some of the key roles; hence, the prostitute really was a prostitute, the car dealer really was a car dealer, the highway cop really was a highway cop, and the homeless people really were homeless. As he did in most of his films, Huston also cast himself--he appears in flashbacks as Hazel's grandfather. In one of the flashbacks, a young Hazel witnesses the sight of "Miss Eve" and is so confused by feelings of arousal that he urinates in front of one of his grandfather's Jonathan Edwards-type sermons.

Like Humphrey Bogart's Frank McCloud in Key Largo (1948), Wise Blood is about a veteran who returns home from the war and has no family waiting for him. There is another Huston film, however, that Wise Blood acts as something of a variation on: his banned World War II documentary. The beginning and ending of Wise Blood, as suggested by Huston scholar Lesley Brill, is sort of a reversal of the bookending sequences of Let There Be Light (1946), which began with soldiers who were in traumatized shape, and ended with them making a healthy recovery. Wise Blood begins with Hazel as a healthy veteran, and ends with him in traumatized shape. Fed up with being dissatisfied with the reception received by his church (and other churches), he exhausts all other options and blinds himself with lime oil, wraps himself with chicken wire and punctures his feet with stones. It is during these ending scenes when we can sense that Hazel is starting to transcend, and is actually beginning to grasp the full meaning of his religious evolution.

There was a big disagreement between Huston and Brad Dourif over the ending. Huston wanted to write in an additional scene in which Hazel quarrels with his landlady over matters of rent payment--to which Dourif strongly objected. "No one will care about money at this point in the movie," Dourif remembers telling Huston, in an interview on the Criterion DVD. "The third act is all about Hazel Motes' turn, and his movement towards his commitment to be this saint--to really, absolutely devote himself to this idea of God." I think Dourif was correct, and I am personally glad that Huston cut the scene out. The ending of Wise Blood, as it stands, is one of the most powerful endings I can imagine in a film, precisely because Hazel is not the same man he was at the very beginning. For once he is going where none of his other religious counterparts have gone before.

And at the same time, there is the understanding that despite Hazel's transcending, he can't go on living life this way. Death seems to be the only thing that could bring him to peace. When trapped up in his bedroom with his landlady talking his ear off, he is essentially still being distracted by forces that would choose to compromise his religious transcending. It's no coincidence that there is no fire escape outside his window--there is no escape from the fires of hell. The landlady echoes Sabbath's earlier speech about the cursed baby by reminding Hazel that "nobody cares if you live or die but me!" She feels shut out by his solitary religious practices: "Unless you take what's offered to you, you'll find yourself out in the cold, pitch black! And just how far you think you'll get?" To me this line sounds an awful lot like a ghost of that famous line in Fat City, when Keach mutters to Bridges that "before you can get rolling, your life makes a beeline for the drain". For Hazel and the other characters in Wise Blood, religion offers one way out of the drain. But Hazel is the only one who takes the concept literally--everyone else looks at it in terms of money, and living the American Dream. All except for Enoch, who, last we see him, is running around in the stolen Gonga gorilla costume and reaps nothing from it except perpetual unhappiness. "I only wanted to shake hands," he says to himself in sadness, when people are frightened by his costume.

Howard Hawks once said that he was only interested in making movies about people who were good, and who were professional--he hated losers, and paid no attention to them. Huston, in effect, made films about losers. The Misfits was probably the first film in which he paid a close eye to such characters, and a decade later, Fat City revived this technique just as splendidly. But Huston was also an atheist, which made his choice of directing Wise Blood not entirely as natural as his decision to direct those first two films (though Benedict Fitzgerald's contributions to the screenplay are not so surprising, since Fitzgerald later went on to pen Gibson's The Passion of the Christ). And Wise Blood definitely is not the same sort of project as Huston's other great pictures (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, The Man Who Would Be King), which are glorious entertainments.

No, I think Wise Blood, like The Misfits and Fat City, forays the harsher worldview that Huston would occasionally return to during his career. Even though he did not share the exact religious views of Hazel Motes, there is no question that he was in agreement with him that Christianity as a whole had regressed into a gross form of advertising. Even today, it is still represented by preachers who capitalize on Christ's words and blatantly disregard simple Christian teachings like caring for the sick and the poor. With that being said, Wise Blood is not asking us to like or sympathize with Hazel Motes: he is a bully, a narcissist, and a murderer. But the one thing he is not is a fraud. He knows that the only true way to find God is through one's own self. It doesn't involve charging people money to hear God's words. And although he pursues this goal in a manner that is extreme and could very well lead to nowhere in the end, Hazel at long last is courageous enough to give his whole life up for God--something that nobody else in Taulkinham is willing to do. Not bad for a man who didn't believe in anything.