Southern Movie 29: “Wise Blood”

You already know you’re going to watch something out-of the-ordinary when you see the Janus Films logo at the start of a movie. And if you know anything about Flannery O’Connor, the mid-century Southern fiction writer, then you know – even if you didn’t read her 1953 novel of the same name – that 1979’s Wise Blood is going to be way out there anyway.

After an opening sequence that features light, acoustic old-time music playing over black-and-white images of Southern squalor, rebel flags, and apocalyptic religious roadside rhetoric, the story of 1979’s Wise Blood begins on a bright winter day. The movie’s protagonist Hazel Motes (played by Brad Dourif) is coming back home to small-town Georgia after serving in the war. Picked up by a man in a beat-up green truck, Hazel remarks that he doesn’t remember the interstate being there, and the man replies that it has only been there for a year— “just long enough for everyone to leave on it.” The man drops Hazel off in front of his family’s now-dilapidated, two-story farmhouse, which he explores methodically before leaving a scrawled note on a chifforobe that he will hunt down and kill anyone who steals it. Next, he visits the graveyard to pay his respects silently to a weed-covered grave whose epitaph says, “Gone to be an angle.” [spelling error intentional]

Next we see him, Hazel Motes is in a store in town and has changed into a clean suit. The proprietor asks him what he will do with himself now, and Hazel replies, “I’m gon’ do some things— I’m gon’ do some things I ain’t never done before.” To that, the storekeeper reiterates the assessment that everyone has left town, that there is nothing left there. Their other brief interchange consists of the storekeeper asking whether Hazel was wounded, remarking that he wasn’t wearing a Purple Heart. Hazel tells him awkwardly, “I didn’t want people to know where I was wounded,” and leaves it at that.

Hazel then boards a train going to Taulkinham, the fictional city in the novel, and sits across from a friendly older woman who attempts to make polite conversation after noticing that Hazel has left the $19.95 price tag on his suit. Of course, Hazel behaves awkwardly again, telling her too that he is going to do things he has never done before, leering at her with a spooky expression, then leaning forward to inquire threateningly, “I bet you think you think you’ve been redeemed.” The lady attempts to return the conversation to normalcy by responding that life is an inspiration, after all.

Off the train, Hazel sees written on a bathroom wall a woman’s name and address for the “frienliest bed in town” [spelling error intentional again] and he goes outside to take cab to her house. Now in town, the country hep-cat cab driver asks if Hazel knows the woman, and when he says no, the driver responds that she doesn’t usually get visits from preachers. Hazel tries to explain that he isn’t a preacher, but the cabbie won’t listen and keeps talking about how Hazel must be one, not only because of his suit and hat but also the look on his face. As the car arrives at the house, the two men finalize their conversation with Hazel gritting his teeth, scowling, and extolling the know-it-all, “Get this, there ain’t but one thing I want you to know, and that’s that I don’t believe in anything.” But the cabbie will have the last word: “That’s the problem with you preachers. You’ve gotten too damn good to believe in anything.”

Inside the house, Hazel finds an obese woman in sloppy make-up, cutting her toenails on the bed. Still awkward, Hazel tells her that he is there for “the usual business,” but wants her to know, “I ain’t no goddam preacher.” She says she’s fine with that, as long as he has four dollars.

At about fifteen minutes into the movie, the film’s story is taking shape, and we meet the other characters in this quirky scenario. Hazel is downtown watching a street salesman demonstrate a potato peeler to a crowd of stone-faced people, among them a wild-haired boy in a purple shirt and neon green tie, who the salesman picks out of the crowd. The boy’s name, he shares, is Enoch Emory. Next, a blind street preacher (played by Harry Dean Stanton) and his homely daughter wander into the small crowd, with him shaking a tin cup and her handing out “Jesus Saves” flyers, as the potato-peeler salesman gets angry. When the daughter hands Hazel a flyer, he stares into her face as he tears it up, and she replies knowingly, “I seen you,” then pouts and tells her father that it’s time to leave.

Hazel buys a potato peeler and begins to stride down the street, following the pair, with Enoch following and chatting relentlessly. Down the sidewalk, Enoch tells a rambling story about being adopted by a woman who talked about Jesus all day long and about how he flashed her so he could get away. Once Hazel catches up to the preacher and his daughter in front of a large church, the men argue over whether Hazel has followed them, and Hazel gives the girl the peeler, which she tries to refuse. Hazel then begins to heckle them and the passersby, angrily shouting to ignore the preacher and live their lives without Jesus and Christianity.

As Hazel leaves the ugly scene he has just caused, Enoch follows again, still chattering and imploring Hazel to be his friend. Yet, after Hazel tells him to go away, Enoch explains that he has the “wise blood,” the gift of prophecy, something inside him that tells him that he has to do things. Hazel seems momentarily interested, but again tells the boy to leave him alone, that he has a girl and is going to visit her. Returning to the slovenly prostitute’s house, he finds another man leaving, but Hazel seems unfazed, and undresses to go to bed with her again.

That night, lying in her bed, Hazel has a series of dream-flashbacks about his childhood. The child Hazel first sneaks into a carnival sideshow to view a nearly naked woman lying in a casket, then we see him packing stones into his boots as a voiceover about hellfire plays in the background. Distraught, Hazel gets up and dressed, and leaves.

After buying an old car in yet another awkward and confrontational encounter, Hazel hits the highway. Not surprisingly, the car peters out— right next to a hillside with a message about Jesus painted on the rocks. Hazel momentarily has another flashback about childhood; in this one, he wets himself in his chair while listening to the hellfire-and-brimstone preacher (played by John Huston) whose voice we heard in the dreams. His daydream is interrupted though by truck driver asking him to move his car, which is stalled right in the middle of the two-lane highway. Hazel then asks which way to the nearest zoo, and the trucker replies, “Is that where you escaped from?”

At the zoo, Hazel catches up with Enoch, who is busy taunting some monkeys. Hazel isn’t interested in the animals, but does want to know where the street preacher Asa Hawks and his daughter live. Enoch offers to take him, but wants to show him something first, and the pair go to the museum next for Enoch to show Hazel a black, withered voodoo-style shrunken person. A frustrated Hazel is not interested and only wants that address— the problem is: Enoch lied and doesn’t actually know where they live.

However, fortuitously, the father and daughter walk by as he is searching for the house, and Hazel finds it for himself. Instead of simply inquiring for them at the boardinghouse where they live, Hazel rents a room in the house for himself. When the woman asks what he does for a living, he replies, “Preacher.” Hazel doesn’t wait long before he knocks on their door, starts an argument, and gets rejected by Asa. It is during this part of the movie that we find out that Asa Hawks isn’t really blind and that his daughter Sabbath Lily is very interested in Hazel.

Now established with a car and a place to live, Hazel Motes sets about the work of preaching in the streets, trying to convert people to his Church of the Truth without Jesus Christ. He bitterly exhorts the crowd to give up on the Christian Savior and replace Him with something more directly meaningful in the modern world. He even goes back to the Hawks’ room and asks why Asa is blind if Jesus can heal blind people. When Asa shows him the newspaper clipping of his evangelistic stunt to blind himself, Hazel scoffs and leaves with the clipping. But Sabbath Lily follows him, and hides in his car. The pair take a long ride into the country and walk in the woods where she throws herself at him in yet another awkward interaction. Meanwhile, across town, Enoch has broken into the museum case and stolen the shrunken figure, and downtown, Hazel is joined by another street preacher (played by Ned Beatty) who wants in on the new church, declaring that they are partners now. We see a strange convergence coming.

Later that evening, Hazel gets back to his room, turns on the light, and finds the supposedly blind preacher’s daughter barely dressed and in his bed. She informs him that she is staying, and Hazel puts up only scant resistance. In the morning, here comes Enoch with the shrunken figure, which he gives to the girl, since Hazel is sleeping. Rather than taking it inside to him, Sabbath Lily takes it across the hall to the bathroom, unwraps the nasty thing, and says, “Well, I declare, you right cute, ain’t you?” But Hazel feels differently: when she brings it into the room, cradling it like a baby, he sneers, takes it from her, and throws it against the wall.

Back in town, Enoch is at a local movie theater, where he stands in line to shake hands with a guy in a monkey suit. Each time, he gets to the front of the line, he attempts to converse with it, but is abruptly pushed away— so he gets back in line and tries again. Now that his obsession with the shrunken figure in the museum has come to fruition, when he stole it and donated it to Hazel to use as a substitute Jesus, he is now obsessed with the gorilla suit.

The difficult fact of the film adaptation of Wise Blood becomes apparent by this point, at about an hour-and-fifteen minutes and with about a half-hour to go: the weird randomness of the characters is getting tired. Enoch’s chatter and Hazel’s gritted teeth and now the addition of third shyster preacher and antics from a gorilla-themed sideshow . . .

As the movie winds down, Hazel Motes has seen his rejected-parter-turned-new-competitor (Ned Beatty’s character) steal his act, and so Hazel follows that preacher’s partner and confronts him down dirt road at night. In yet another bizarre instance, Hazel just stares at the confused man then runs his car into the ditch. The replacement-Hazel says what we’ve been thinking for an hour: “Don’t just stare at me! Say what you want.” The again-awkward, semi-violent confrontation results in Hazel running over the man with his car, then demanding an explanation of why the man was imitating him. When it is clear that the man will die, Hazel jumps in the car and leaves.

Back at his boarding house, Hazel storms out on a pleading Sabbath Lily and hits the road in his car, which is now in even worse shape than when he bought it. On a rural two-lane highway, Hazel gets pulled over by a police officer and, when asked for his license, tells the officer that he doesn’t need one. The officer sardonically asks him to drive a short ways up the road with him to “see the view,” then pulls over again, asks Hazel to get out, and pushes Hazel’s car down a hill and in a pond.

That night, Hazel Motes arrives back at the boarding house, holding a small bag of quick lime. He enters in silence, fills a bucket of water, and goes up stairs. After a moment, Sabbath Lily comes out of the room in her negligee screaming, “He’s blinded himself!”

In the movie’s last scenes, we see the twisted penance that Hazel Motes has decided to put himself through: blindness, a torso wrapped in barbed wire, and rocks in his shoes— the latter two facts discovered by his landlady when she is cleaning. In his melancholy, Hazel Motes silently mopes around, despite his desperate landlady’s suggestion that the two lonely souls agree to look after each other, until he finally walks out in the rain to get away from her. In the morning, two police officers find Hazel lying in the weeds under a train track, and bring him back to the boardinghouse. Once there, he is lain fully clothed in a bed, where his landlady pleads against his silence, “Mr. Motes . . . Mr. Motes . . . ” before the movie fades to black.

It’s a real shame that such a good cast with such a good director (John Huston) took such a good novel and made it into such a bad movie. But I know why. The characters and plots that come from storytellers like Flannery O’Connor don’t work well outside of the form for which they are created. While some Southern literary works can transcend the page and become great films – To Kill A Mockingbird, for example, or John Grisham’s crime novels – other works can’t. Wise Blood is one of the latter type. (I would say the same of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces andToni Morrison’s Beloved. They are more powerful imagined than watched.) Hazel Motes, Enoch Emory, Asa Hawks, and this cascade of conniving buffoons would have been better left alone. One English professor in California put it this way:

The task of bringing such a novel—with its strange mixture of the mundane and the metaphysical, of down-home country materialism and esoteric Christian symbolism—to film is daunting. Yet critics have praised John Huston’s 1979 film adaptation of Wise Blood for its faithfulness to the novel. Cast, setting, plot, even dialogue, seem lifted right off the page. What is more, Huston presents Hazel’s quest for salvation seriously, as a sincere search for faith in a crass and commercial world. Even when he alters the text, he often does so in a way that is consistent with O’Connor’s themes. [ . . . ] Yet a film is not a book (as obvious as that may sound), and while the film is “faithful” to the text, it does not (cannot) tell exactly the same story.

As a document of American South, Wise Blood is hyperbolic in its portrayals and also somewhat troubling in its honesty. To a modern audience, the regular and nonchalant use of the n-word will be disconcerting, while the post-World War II evangelism of the region will seem like a parody— which in a way it is, coming from Flannery O’Connor, whose dark humor can be difficult to navigate. In these Southern Movie posts, I try to differentiate between a movie and the novel it came from, because in reality they are two separate and distinct works, but in this case, that’s hard to do. The stark humor and bitter ironies of O’Connor’s fiction appear through her storytelling, and when the elements of Wise Blood – characters, setting, plot – were removed from her storytelling, they fell hopelessly into a weird abyss of strange acts committed by strange people. Though the blurbs on the movie poster declare this film to be “perfect,” “awesome,” and “fascinating,” it isn’t.

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