Monday, November 29, 2010

WISE BLOOD (1979): "The Church of Christ Without Christ"

Flannery O’Connor would have to be considered one of the most perceptive (and peculiar) American writers of her generation.  J.D. Salinger, Ken Kesey or Norman Mailer wrote isolated works that were equally stunning, but the astounding lapses of judgment of these three writers makes it difficult to trust their assessment on most anything.*  O’Connor was far from being the perfect artist.  The characters in her stories seem wooden, and the endings often farfetched.  Yet the letters she wrote that were posthumously published in The Habit of Being show an astuteness that is remarkable for someone who was forced into isolation because of her physical disabilities.  O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39 from Lupus, and she spent most of her life staying with her mother who ultimately became her caregiver.  Unlike John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, intelligent writers whose observations are confined to the college campuses in which they teach, O’Connor’s violent, darkly comic and passionate works indicate to us a writer that has a pulse.  Outside of Dostoyevsky, I can’t think of another novelist who wrote so intently about religious faith.  Somewhere along the line, the fire and brimstone sermons from her rural Georgia began echoing in her head.  She wrestled with the extreme Protestantism of the South, and the smug Secularism of the North.  She never provided an easy alternative for either one of these phenomena.
And so we have Wise Blood, a novel that was improved upon in a movie by the same name through the direction of John Huston.    Hazel Motes is played by Brad Dourif (most famous for his role as Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest).  He has just returned from the war (either the Korean War or World War II) to his home in Tennessee and would like to make sense out of what he’s just experienced.  Hazel exudes no joy whatsoever, and this probably didn’t just start with his experiences in the military.  Hazel undoubtedly was given a religious upbringing that he has never stopped resenting.  Probably it was the kind of religious training where the rod was never spared.  Shortly after returning home, Hazel becomes acquainted with a preacher on the streets by the name of Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton).  Asa proclaims that he blinded himself to show his devotion to Christ.  As Hazel is later to discover, Asa did no such thing.  What Asa really was doing was pretend to be blind to get people to contribute more money.  Asa also has a fifteen-year old daughter named Sabbath Lilly (Amy Wright).  Sabbath is an awkward adolescent with a severe hunger for boys.  So desperate is she in her hunger that she even shows a fascination for Hazel.  Hazel is put-off by the antics of Asa (and what’s happened to Sabbath), so he’s determined to do something about it.  Rather than give into the religious hucksterism that is going on around him, he is determined to gather in his own congregation for the “Church of Christ without Christ.”  Hazel buys a dilapidated car upon which he stands to give his sermons, puts on his suit and hat, and goes to town with his message of contrariness.  Hazel refers to Jesus as a liar and purveyor of evil, and proclaims that he’d rather be converted to “nothing instead of evil.”
Ironically, instead of separating himself from the preachers of Christ’s message that he grew up with, Hazel is mistaken as a preacher by almost everyone he meets.  Though the message Hazel delivered may have sounded different, Hazel’s demeanor and dogma of his message are identical to that of the most puritanical of ministers.  And while accusing the other churches of being filled with hypocrites, swindlers and frauds, Hazel’s own congregation – however small it may be – is made up of the same kind of characters.  (One character played by Ned Beatty wants to be Hazel’s promoter obviously to make money on the side.)  And the ones that do buy into Hazel’s message are the most demented and troubled of souls.  One is so desperate for attention that he wears a gorilla suit to frighten people in public; this same person steals a mummy on display in a museum because he’s convinced it is the next “Jesus.”  Hazel, in an effort to escape even more madness, tries to flee the city but is stopped by the local Sheriff.  The Sheriff, a corrupt local official, who is none too fond of Hazel’s rabble-rousing, ends up pushing Hazel’s car into the lake.  Thus, Hazel is forced to remain where he is.
From this point on, Hazel’s behavior (never what one would call typical) becomes even more bizarre.  Hazel proclaims that he is “not clean” with regards to the message that he has been preaching.  He lacerates himself with glass and barbed wire.  To prove his real devotion and to repent for the clumsy way in which he has presented his message, Hazel does what Asa only pretended to do – he blinds himself.  Having done this, and now in his twisted mind achieving the grace that he always claimed did not exist, Hazel soon after dies.  No one watching this movie could imagine Hazel dying other than pathetically.
John Huston again proves in Wise Blood his greatness as a movie director.  As he had done so many times in his career, he was able to take a book with a difficult message or plot and make it discernible on the screen.  The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett would only be remembered as an overly complex detective story if Huston had not turned Bogart into Sam Spade.  B. Traven, known mostly for his leftist sympathies, wrote novels that were mostly political propaganda.  Huston turned Traven’s novel, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, into a compelling story about greed.  Late in his career, Huston turned an audacious story like The Man Who Would be King by Kipling into a film that I think the author would even have enjoyed.  And though I’ve never seen the film, James Joyce’s story, The Dead - the filming of which does not seem possible - is supposed to be incredibly viewable.  In Wise Blood, everyone and especially Brad Dourif, were excellently cast.  Dourif is able to flesh out the utter strangeness of Hazel.**  And Huston gives the entire story the intensity and comic touches needed to bring O’Connor’s message out.
Wise Blood makes the point that a dogmatic religion and a secular society that mocks all religious belief are both responsible for depriving religion and life of all of its joyousness.  Both sides are convinced that they, and only they, are correct.  O’Connor, who is often described as a devout Christian (which often led some to summarily dismiss everything she had to say), was convinced that the Southern Protestants believed no more in Christ’s message than did the most entrenched atheist.  Yet at least without what Christ’s message entailed, these same so-called believers deprived life of everything that was worthy.  That O’Connor would present such a message in a tale so filled with violence and horror showed that she wanted to cover everything and leave nothing out.  It also proved that she could not be so easily labeled.  O’Connor, too, was probably exposed to the same religious teachings as Hazel and was herself trying to work her way through to find a message that she could live with.  With such a vision as she presents in Wise Blood and in so many of her short stories, her struggle must have been a difficult one. 
Only O’Connor could ever have said for sure whether she found the beauty at the end of her short life to replace the religion of her youth.  However, Flannery O’Connor was right in her mystical vision where so many 20th Century Rationalists were wrong.  Bertrand “Lord” Russell’s brand of rationalism contained socialist leanings, while Ayn Rand’s epistemological objectivism led her to embrace capitalism of the most cutthroat kind – both claimed only to believe in the power of reason.  (Actually, both of these writer’s favorite subjects were themselves.  Russell’s three-volume autobiography on his long life could easily have been condensed to fifty pages; and the novel, Atlas Shrugged, which is almost fifteen hundred pages in repetitious length, describes fifteen or twenty superior individuals who all speak like Ayn Rand.  Rand and Russell’s self-romanticization was the one real thing that they had in common with each other.)  O’Connor’s idea that liberation is not so simple, and that arrogance can undo the believer and unbeliever alike seems more accurate.  However offensive Wise Blood may be to the viewer or reader, the story is never complacent or dull. 
* J.D. Salinger wrote the phenomenal Catcher in the Rye, published some average short stories called Franny and Zooey in 1961, and has not been heard from since.  Kesey followed up his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest, with an even better work called Sometimes a Great Notion, but then his “Merry Pranksters” spiked some Kool-Aid with LSD and Kesey was forced to flee the country.  Kesey’s next published work, Demon Box, though well written, testified as to what a pathetic mess Kesey had made of his life.  And Norman Mailer never lived up to the expectation that he would be the heir to Hemingway.  Mailer wrote Naked and the Dead at the age of 26, but he then let the fame go to his head.  Mailer’s pronouncements on race, feminism and drug use have almost always made him seem harebrained.  His stabbing of his wife in a domestic dispute and his campaigning for the release of Jack Abbott from prison (the violent felon and author who was to murder again once he was paroled) attest to the proposition that Mailer does not understand the consequences of his own actions.
** Kramer vs. Kramer won most of the Oscars in 1979.  John Huston or Francis Ford Coppola could have been selected as Best Director instead of Robert Benton; Brad Dourif could have won an Oscar as best actor instead of Dustin Hoffman (for one of Hoffman's less impressive roles); and Wise Blood or Apocalypse Now could have won Best Picture instead of Kramer vs. KramerWise Blood was probably too depressing for the Academy to present it with any award, so instead they awarded a soap opera portraying two parents fighting over a kid in a divorce action.  I guess that’s entertainment.

July 3, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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