[Originally published in The Weekly, May 28, 1980]
I preach that there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there’s no truth…. Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place.
—Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, chapter 10
Throughout his career, John Huston has kept faith with a vision of mankind as a valiant, fumbling lot, and life as a mostly doomed quest after holy and unholy grails: truth, riches, peace of mind, personal and cosmic vengeance, kingly selfhood. His Homo sapiens is a quirky, charming, exasperating, sometimes weirdly noble species occupying a tenuous ascendancy in the evolutionary scheme of things. The director contemplates his protagonists’ foibles and virtues, triumphs and catastrophes, with equal indulgence, but he never suspends the rules of the existential game, never reaches in to prop his people up or knock them down. He just watches, sees the way things are, shows them as clearly as it is in his power to do, and then shares with us his sad, ironical smile.
Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a fierce-eyed cracker who returns from an unspecified modern war, pensioned off because of an unspecified wound, to find the family homestead in ruins and his Georgia village permanently bypassed by the highway. Changing his Army uniform for an $11.98 suit at the general store, Hazel entrains for “the city” determined “to do some things I never done before.” These all have to do with his violent need to establish “a place to be,” not only in space—a klunker car and a rented room will serve for that—but also in spirit, which only a dismantling of the entire Judaeo-Christian worldview will achieve.
People keep telling him he looks like a preacher (“It ain’t only the hat. It’s a look in your face somewheres,” a cab driver remarks), and soon he accepts that role—but as prophet and sole member of The Church Without Christ. He rages against the notion that mankind requires Redemption, for there was never any Fall; if people are in sin it’s because sin existed before they ever committed it, and therefore sin is meaningless. “Jesus Christ is a trick on niggers.”
If Hazel Motes had not existed, John Huston would have had to invent him. The director describes himself as “not a religious man,” yet myths of Original Sin, of “ancient evils, ancient ills,” have haunted his work from the first—from the primal malignancy of the Maltese Falcon, through the tapping of the Unconscious in Freud, to his drily existentialist rendering of Genesis in The Bible—just as Christ stays with Hazel Motes as a “ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.” (Huston cast himself as Hazel’s hellfire-and-brimstone grandfather, seen in a couple of brief flashbacks.)
Wise Blood is an extremely faithful translation of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel (which is as ready-made a scenario as was Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon), and it is also an exemplary late-Huston work. Not only is Hazel Motes a definitive quester, and his shrunken-horizons pilgrimage a classic instance of the Huston journey; the tale and its other key characters are also consistent with Huston’s penchant for characterizing human relations as a process of separate souls temporarily intersecting and finally glancing off one another’s trajectories.
Enoch Emery (Dan Shor), the country-bred moron who will do anything to make a friend in the city, keeps up a desperate, sideways-skipping run alongside Hazel as he lunges fixedly down several city blocks, himself dogging the trail of a blind evangelist named Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), who has inspired Hazel’s determination to preach anti-religion. Huston tracks their parallel yet worlds-apart course in a single, unbroken traveling shot that soon has the viewer nearly as giddily breathless as Enoch. It is a tour de force (reportedly realized on the first take), yet not in the least ostentatious. “This is what happens,” Huston seems to say, “and this is the cleanest, most logical way to present it.”
A moment later, Hazel has caught up to the preacher and his perverse lovechild Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), interrupting their leafleting for a religious debate that keeps getting twisted into a one-upmanship duel between the two men and an elusive, ambivalent flirtation between Hazel and the girl. The sallow, adzelike planes of Brad Dourif’s face jut into frame from the left, the round-cheeked, mushroomy whiteness of Amy Wright in stocking cap perches smugly opposite, and in the center Harry Dean Stanton just faces between them—blindly faces the camera, faces us—with his impenetrably black glasses and a grin that may bespeak demonic amusement, may just be the rictus produced by the quicklime scars that brand his cheeks. The sense, the implications of the shot flex and shift from one second to the next. The camera simply gazes.
Huston’s style has always been realistic, at a glance, but it is a realism fraught with a foraging, ever-curious appetite for peculiarity. (Except for the leads, his cast is composed of Macon, Ga., nonprofessionals: the sheriff is a real sheriff, the whore works the bus station, etc. All are vividly effective.) In this he is the perfect film translator for O’Connor, whose literary world, though often experienced by readers as a nonstop freakshow, was to her a matter-of-fact place. “In my own experience,” she wrote, “everything funny I have written is more terrible than it is funny, or only funny because it is terrible, or only terrible because it is funny.” The same might be said of the obsessive seekers after the Maltese Falcon, Fred C. Dobbs and his paranoid encounters with a man in a gold hat, the pathologically compelled romantics of Reflections in a Golden Eye, or the wasted pugs of Fat City killing time between fights.
Huston doesn’t invent his various peculiarities: he simply finds them, and then he puts a frame around them. Neither O’Connor nor he had to dream up an American South where the Stars and Bars hangs beside “The Last Supper,” Dairy Queen signs announce Baptist revivals, and a plastic telephone is cemented to a tombstone inscribed “Jesus Called.” Oh yes, there is one: another tombstone, bearing the name of one of Hazel’s forebears, and the epitaph “Gone To Become An Angle.” The angle is Huston’s: at once oblique and direct; an off-kilter way of seeing, which horribly, comically, proves to be merely the way things are.
Copyright © 1980 by Richard T. Jameson