Wise Blood [DVD]
Director : John Huston
Screenplay : Benedict Fitzgerald & Michael Fitzgerald (based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1979
Stars : Brad Dourif (Hazel Motes), Amy Wright (Sabbath Lily), Harry Dean Stanton (Asa Hawks), Mary Nell Santacroce (Landlady), Dan Shor (Enoch Emory), Ned Beatty (Hoover Shoates), William Hickey (Preacher), John Huston (Grandfather)
Based on one of only two novels written by Flannery O’Connor in her short lifetime, John Huston’s Wise Blood is a baffling tragicomedy of contradictions, which on the surface is precisely what O’Connor wanted the story to be. Unfortunately, the translation from page to screen mutes much of O’Connor’s theological complexity, even though the screenplay by brothers Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald (whose father was O’Connor’s literary executor) is remarkably faithful to the novel, right down to much of the dialogue.
Part of this may be a case of what works on page doesn’t always work as well on screen, particularly when grotesquerie is involved. It is somehow easier to become involved in the lives of strange, eccentric, and self-absorbed people when reading about them, whereas their physical embodiment on the screen can become so off-putting that the underlying themes get drowned out; you just want them to shut up already. Another problem may lie with Huston, who would seem to be a perfect choice to helm the film given his tendency toward adapting great and difficult literature (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, James Joyce’s The Dead, etc.). Yet, there is a striking issue in having Huston, who was an agnostic, adapt a novel whose core revolves around a profound argument for the necessity of Christ in the world. This is not to say that only someone who shared O’Connor’s worldview could have successfully brought the novel to the screen, but Huston’s fundamental difference of vision hobbles the material’s thematic weight and accentuates the strange at the expense of the spiritually moving (this is perhaps why his 1966 big-budget debacle The Bible: In the Beginning ... was such a, well, debacle). In essence, the film transforms a Catholic work that satirizes Protestantism into an agnostic work that satirizes faith itself, and there is world of difference between the two.
The story begins with the main character, a young man named Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), arriving by train in his small Southern hometown only to find his home has been long abandoned and all of his family has passed away. He buys a blue suit and a hat reminiscent of the type worn by itinerate preachers and heads to the fictional big city of Taulkinham. After being constantly mistaken for a preacher, he decides to become one, albeit not one who preaches the Bible, but rather a blasphemous rejection of Christ and the idea of salvation. Hazel’s angry, visibly violent denunciation of Christianity is explained via murky, reddish (hellish?) flashbacks of his grandfather (played by Huston), a fire-and-brimstone tent revivalist who made the young Hazel walk with rocks in his shoes.
O’Connor’s idea is that Hazel is trying to avoid the pain of sin by denying that he has a soul, but the way Huston directs Dourif, Hazel comes across like he is just pissed off; his “passion” is bitter, and he’s not searching for anything because he’s already made up his mind. Dourif’s performance has been largely praised, but it revolves entirely around clenched-jaw rebuttals and seething anger, rather than the sense of anxious spiritual searching that forms the core of O’Connor’s literary works. Thus, when Hazel eventually has his “moment of grace”--an absurdist sequence in which a sheriff pushes his beloved claptrap car into a lake--it is downplayed to the point of nonexistence, and Hazel’s subsequent behavior, in which he becomes an ascetic and eventually martyrs himself, has no sense of redemption, just folly.
Along the way Hazel encounters numerous eccentric characters that are the very definition of “Southern gothic.” In contrast to Hazel--whose rejection of Christ may be blasphemous, but at least it is genuine--we have two false prophets who represent the fleecing of organized religion. First there is the supposedly blind preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), who tries to foist on Hazel his teenage daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), a Baby Doll-esque nympho-vixen. Then there is Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), an opportunistic huckster who tries to use Hazel’s idea of a “Church of Truth Without Christ” to make money and eventually replaces him with his own stand-in preacher (William Hickey). The preponderance of hypocrisy in the film derives directly from O’Connor’s novel, with the same purpose of showing how easily spiritual values can be distorted into simple commerce. The only character in the film who has any sense of genuineness about him besides the deeply conflicted Hazel is Enoch Emory (Dan Shor), a slow-witted young man who has been abandoned by his father and immediately latches onto Hazel as a kind of father figure whom he desperately wants to please, at one point stealing a mummified body from a museum to give to Hazel as a “new Jesus.” Yet, he is also treated as a bumbling object of ridicule, which may reflect Huston’s general appraisal of absolute conviction, however formed.
While O’Connor’s novel was set in the early 1950s, a particularly crucial time for the conflicting identity of the American South, for budgetary reasons Huston had to shoot the film in a contemporary mold, meaning that most of the cars are from the 1970s and there is no attempt to hide the more modern buildings in downtown Macon, Georgia, which stands in for Taulkinham. At the same time, though, the content of the film is not updated, so attitudes (especially racial attitudes), entertainment (a cheapie exploitation movie called Gonga ballyhooed by a man in a gorilla suit), and prices (when else could you buy a suit for $12?) remain firmly rooted in the early 1950s. Critics who praise the film see this as an effective blending of time periods to create a kind of timelessness, but that seems to me a kind of willful misreading akin to those critics who justify the embarrassingly bad composite shots in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) as symbolically motivated. The conflicting time elements are more distracting than anything, and it makes you wish that the filmmakers had simply updated everything in the film.
Thus, while Wise Blood is an intriguing film and certainly never a boring one, it doesn’t quite work, either. O’Connor’s spiritual conviction is what makes her penchant for grotesquerie, satire, and absurdity more than just a “jolt” to the system. Her stories carry real meaning because they come from a deep well of faith that O’Connor believed clarified her outlook on life. In adapting Wise Blood, Huston’s contrary take on the material reduces most of it to strange, sub-Coen Brothers caricature that, especially when underscored with Alex North’s deliberately hammy hillbilly music, never amounts to much more than a condescending tragicomic satire of spiritual emptiness.
|Wise Blood Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||May 12, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of Wise Blood was taken from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. Given the film’s low budget and age, the transfer looks quite good, aptly reflecting the image’s slightly soft appearance without losing sharp detail and its generally muted color palette. The flashback scenes with John Huston as the revivalist grandfather are purposefully murky and purplish, looking like old Eastmancolor stock that has started to bleed red. The digital restoration has given the image a clean look, with few signs of age or damage. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic track and sounds very clear and lifelike.|
|Along with the original theatrical trailer, there are three new video interviews included on this disc. Star Brad Dourif (13 min.) reflects on his experiences working with Huston and how he got the part despite having initially been called in to read for the role of Enoch Emory, while screenwriters Michael Fitzgerald and Benedict Fitzgerald discuss in separate interviews (20 min. and 13 min., respectively) their work on adapting the novel and the independent nature of the film’s production (basically, the kind of thing that rarely if ever happens now, especially with a filmmaker of Huston’s standing). Fans of Huston will enjoy the inclusion of a 26-minute episode of the PBS program Creativity hosted by Bill Moyers that focuses on the legendary director’s career. The most intriguing supplement on the disc, though, is an incredibly rare recording of Flannery O’Connor reading her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Recorded in 1959 at Vanderbilt University, it is the only known recording of her reading her own work.|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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