Some taste the blood of Christ all week long, so much that they become haunted by the Sunday offering. Short story maestro Flannery O’Connor was such folk. Now bear with me! – I’m not here to blast the Catholic faith. But I’ll still argue that, in O’Connor’s case (as with the founding Puritans and Calvinists), any faith and hope in Christ must have transformed into her fear of, and preoccupation with, sin. The reason why is moot for my discussion here, but her fatal case of lupus is as good a reason as any.
The title character of her absurdist tale “Parker’s Back” is so preoccupied with his own suffering that he tattoos a giant head of Christ upon himself. More famously, O’Connor made the haunting psychopath “The Misfit” in her “A Good Man is Hard to Find” into something of a Christ figure. A reflective if warped fellow, bare chested and in a black hat, the Misfit brings an ironic redemption for an elderly woman lost (literally and spiritually) during holiday. “It’s no real pleasure in life,” he tells his cohort at the story’s finish, and the remark suggests that fate will cast down faith any day.
O’Connor’s debut novel Wise Blood, brief and episodic as it is, is never confused about its mission. As a character study of Hazel Motes, the work investigates the meaning of faith and how far it can go. Motes returns from the Army devoid of faith and soon perturbed by a blind preacher who reminds townfolk of their predilection to sin. In impulsive reaction, Motes begins preaching for the Church of Christ Without Christ, in an attempt to free himself from his own impending guilt. If we didn’t know that O’Connor was devout, the novel could read as a scathing attack on conservative faith, as can Faulker’s harrowing Light in August. But like her literary predecessor Faulkner, O’Connor had other goals in mind.
Wise Blood concerns the psychology of faith and the actions and consequences it can bring upon us. Regretfully, it is not as effective as the author’s short works, since the novel is more of a baggy monster than its length can afford. The novel still contains a steady tone of dread. It progresses as Motes establishes his intentions, suffers, suffers some more, then submits to a self-inflicted tragedy. O’Connor wasn’t fond of the term “southern gothic” – she jested that her macabre gems were nothing outside of realism – but her works suggest that the real heart of darkness is life in the post-bellum south, pre-Civil rights, identity lost and a far path to rediscovery.
Those familiar with O’Connor’s novel would regard John Huston’s adapting it as a worthy stunt. Soon enough, we realize that the filmmaker hardly worried over being faithful to O’Connor’s intention. After striving to be a visual artist, Huston cut his teeth as a scriptwriter and adapted scads of classics for the big screen. With 1979’s “Wise Blood,” in his later years, he films a script he acquired from other writers, and his directorial decisions prove to be as offbeat as the source novel.
Huston stays true to the novel’s events but draws from the story all the black comedy he can find, trusting his own instincts. His Hazel is an ironic hero instead of a symbolic harbinger of doom. Played by Brad Dourif, the chilling Billy Bibbit in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Motes comes off as an everyman, though with slightly devilish eyes hinting that some perversion is bleeding through. He tells a woman on his train ride back home from the service that he’s about to do “stuff I never done before,” though we soon realize he could mean no more than going to a brothel for what he has yet to have.
Finding his parents’ deceased just prior, Motes leaves the prostitute to wander around town, where he encounters Enoch Emery (Dan Shor), also yet to find his way. This youngster tries to engage Motes, likely seeing a kinship in his determined eye. When Motes resists, Enoch drops the titular catchphrase, telling the other that he thinks his blood is wiser than everyone else’s – essentially, that he’s holy than thou, and Motes isn’t about to be called holy by any one.
For Huston’s blind preacher awaits, played by Harry Dean Stanton long before he’d embody Roman the Prophet in HBO’s “Big Love.” As ideological as he may seem, Stanton’s Asa Hawks is a piece of the “realism” that O’Connor espied in her South. Stanton physically reflects a defeated spirit – why he’s worked well in parts diverse as “Paris Texas’s” wanderer and “Pretty in Pink’s” luckless pops – but the actor summons a power from his vocal presence. When Stanton shoots insult from behind his facade, the nervy rage of Dourif’s Motes gets its fuel source. Thus begins Motes’ descent a la Huston, here as ironic absurdism.
Motes steps atop a platform to preach the word, but the scenery out before him seems bargain basement – and I don’t mean low budget. Transitioning O’Connor’s tale to the contemporary South is like setting Huck and Jim adrift onto the late-20th-century Mississippi; a move by Huston more curious than thought out. The script stays close, while Huston wanders away, and casual racial slurs – more of O’Connor’s realism – seem out to maul viewer sensibility in Huston. We are in odd territory.
Dourif seems to take the direction well and lets out some irony from his man on the verge. In a part conceived for Tommy Lee Jones, Dourif shows no falsity as an emotionally naïve man who believes that a once-flashy car now reduced to a shitty shell will bring legitimacy. The last rites before his demise come when a cop pulls him over, looks deep in his eyes, and removes from Motes this prized possession. The move is a prolonged shot that rips into Motes like a saw and plays as down-home absurdity that Huston seems to enjoy.
Motes seems to get some breaks, but can’t recognize them. Hawks’ daughter Sabbath Lily, an entertaining Amy Wright, has taken a liking, while Motes holds her long gaze against her. The whole town seems to know she’s born trash, likely slutty, but more than enough to help Motes begin a new life.
He is lost, wandering the town, looking for something where there’s a whole lot of nothing. Enoch is his unwanted Sancho Panza, and perhaps a version of Motes unmasked. His moves for vindication are carnivalesque and almost too absurd to be ironic. Suffice it to say that he sheds his own skin for another kind.
We see Motes true descent when he encounters yet another false prophet (William Hickey), who’s hired on by Ned Beatty’s street huckster. In this Southern gothic prime, Beatty may be the most grotesque presence in the film. Just when we try to shake memories of his debut, “Deliverance,” he’s no longer the victim of strange lands, but its carnival barker, happy to sell false belief. He’s the salesman of this heart of darkness, that archetypal role that strives for the American dream. While Stanton’s role is blind, Beatty’s sees too far and well, with skills outweighing his moral sense. His clarity of things shallow collides with Motes’ loosing hold at the depths. Hence, Motes self destructs in an ambiguous move, the motivations of which even the screenwriters and the director disagreed over.
Hence we have what may be the most headscratching of Huston’s works. Luckily, Criterion included a curious 1982 episode of “Creativity with Bill Moyers,” in which Huston appears as an instinctive mind, one who helped define cinema classicism with “The Maltese Falcon” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” but could one day film Little Orphan Annie. The set also includes new interviews with the screenwriters, brothers Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald, whose father was O’Connor’s literary executor. In another new interview, Brad Dourif asserts his contributions to shaping the story in an almost acidic tone (I guess the Huston mythos is hard to live under). The booklet essay by novelist Francie Prose seems more like cheerleading than criticism, as if the novel was destined to become Huston’s.
The treat of an extra is audio of O’Connor reading her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” one of the greatest ever written. Hearing an occasion as rare as this reminds us of the duality of the American literary tradition, at once so grand yet so simply human. Her voice crackling from an analog reel sounds as alive as the finely restored feature presentation.