Thursday, May 07, 2009

WISE BLOOD (1979, USA, John Huston)

WISE BLOOD (1979, USA, John Huston, Benedict & Michael Fitzgerald from Flannery O'Connor novel)
"That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to." Flannery O'Connor

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that this is conceivably John Huston's best film, certainly his finest adaptation. While not widely seen, it was widely celebrated by critics for its unfailing faithfulness to what might seem an unfilmable novel – the screenwriter (see also Mel Gibson's Passion) and producer are sons of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald: Dad was O'Connor's literary executor, Mom the editor of the collected letters. Virtually all the dialogue is lifted directly from the page, and it plays well, at times authentic or bizarre, evocative and poetic, or downright funny. Motes swaps his faith in Jesus for faith in an absurdly broken-down car, and confidently proclaims "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified" as the radiator water pours straight through the rusted shell and onto the ground.

A strikingly boyish Brad Dourif is perfection in the central role, bringing an unadorned naivete that combines with a rat-like nastiness to create an unsentimental, multi-layered performance utterly suited to one of O'Connor's most uncompromising, confounding creations. (Intriguing to learn that Dourif ends up as Grima Wormtongue in Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and – this is trivia, now – the baddie in Myst III, a groundbreaking computer game). Where another actor might have "played crazy," his work is uncluttered and direct, an earnest drivenness that will not be deterred – ideal in a film that is essentially about a man on the run from his divine calling. In Mystery And Manners the novelist writes "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted," and Hazel Motes is the ultimate embodiment of that. Even a charlatan of a blind street evangelist can smell it on him: "Some preacher's left his mark on you. Did you follow me for me to take it off or to give you another one?"

John Huston himself plays Hazel's hellfire and brimstone grandfather in lurid flashbacks, and there are other strong performances in the key roles as well as in a number of the peripheral parts. I usually find that non-professional actors detract from the believability of the scene by their self-consciousness, the constant awareness that they are acting. Here that's simply not so: the amateurs are almost without exception both authentic and believable, and add an almost documentary quality that echoes some of the photography, such as the unforgettable opening montage of billboards, gravestones and even Dairy Queen signs that proclaim sin and redemption.

These elements all remain strong decades after the film was made. Others have aged poorly. One wishes Huston had retained the 1940s setting: late-Seventies details jar, and the musical soundtrack – unremarked on in its day, as far as I can tell – is a problem. While humour is essential to O'Connor's voice – she remarks that her tongue is always in her cheek – there are times when the wacky soundtrack is more suited to Green Acres or Hee Haw than a film where the comic turns need a certain ironic, sometimes tragic bite. She's playing for keeps, but too often this music is playing for laughs: imagine the sequence where Hazel's car drives down the hill in silence instead of to the accompaniment of "ain't this cute" banjoes for a sense of the impact such scenes could have had.

Flannery O'Connor is a literary and spiritual force the twentieth century had to reckon with, and her enthusiasts – there are many – should make the effort to seek out this rare film. They won't need to be warned that it's odd, grotesque, eccentric, perhaps even unsatisfying. Lauded by critics and avoided by movie-goers on its initial release, that's just how Ms O'Connor would probably have wanted it. As she herself wrote, "Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it."


Released May 2009 on Criterion
Coming soon to Videomatica


Susan said...

This was too much for me.

Ron Reed said...

I wrote this response to the film a couple years back, and reading it now, I'm surprised how positive I was. What I predominantly remember at this point is dissatisfaction, and my response to people who've been eager to track down a copy of this "lost O'Connor / Huston masterpiece" has been mostly to try and dampen their enthusiasm, or at least lower their expectations. So I hear you, Susan. There's the yin and the yang of it.