Periodically at my church St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church, I host an evening in which I show a film and then lead a discussion afterwards focusing on the finer points of film artistry and how, through the vehicle of art, we as viewers might come to know God more deeply and have a fuller understanding of our own place as human beings. This past Sunday, I showed John Huston’s Wise Blood and in the following post will attempt to distill 45 minutes worth of discussion into a brief essay on this unique and sadly underseen film.
Paradoxically, the film of Wise Blood succeeds because it is an atheists rendering of a profoundly Catholic novel. It is this same paradox which perhaps explains why Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew remains arguably the most moving depiction of Christ yet put to film. Director John Huston’s adaption of the Flannery O’Connor novel is almost startlingly direct, and this is its strength. Whereas a Catholic or even Protestant filmmaker might have been too taken by O’Connor’s near allegory, Huston is uninterested, and instead presents the story with the textural details of the physical world of small town Georgia, emphasizing character, story, and location, rather than theme. Huston’s film succeeds because consciously or not, he recognized that O’Connor’s work exists within the physical world, and her themes exist to serve her story rather than the other way around.
Wise Blood is an unusual film by just about any standards and is perhaps destined to always be a cult favorite rather than a mainstream success. It tells the story of an ambitious young man named Hazel Motes who returns home after being discharged from the Army and promptly begins to preach the Church of Christ Without Christ in which “the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, and the dead stay that way.” Finding himself surrounded by false prophets, charlatans, conmen, and charismatic revivalists (including flashbacks of his fiery preaching grandfather played by Huston himself), Motes’ gospel is one where there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no need to be redeemed, because to Motes, “No one with a good car needs to be justified.” Brad Dourif plays Motes with all of the zeal of O’Connor’s prose, as does the equally compelling supporting casting, including, Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty, Amy Wright, and Dan Shor as a troubled young man who becomes Motes’ only disciple.
Hazel Motes fits squarely within the O’Connor tradition of “Christ-haunted” characters. To her, the South was hardly “Christ-centered” but “is most certainly Christ-haunted” and Hazel Motes might well be the prophet of that vision. The book describes his obsession by saying, “Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on water and not know it and suddenly know it and drown.” The imagery is simultaneously Biblical (referencing St. Peter’s brief walk on the water) and ghostly, the spirit of which is wonderfully captured in Dourif’s performance. It is from such descriptions that I feel the figure of Christ portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ seems more at home in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor than the work of the Gospel writers, and why that film is so successful as a film and questionable as theology.
But the Christ-haunting of Hazel Motes is not simply for dramatic value, and certainly not to promote any kind of religious hysteria, but because the story is about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it. “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Motes must be broken down in order to be rebuilt, and he must lose all that he has been clinging to so that the only hand left to hold onto to save him from those drowning waters is the hand of Christ. Far from being hopeless and brutal as some readers/viewers have claimed over the years, both O’Connor’s novel and Huston’s film affirm that amidst a world of charlatans and competing religious hoopla, there is a genuine faith to be found; a faith that is seldom easy and often painful (anyone who advocates an easy, pain free faith is probably trying to sell you something), but very real and life-changing. O’Connor recognized this, and while Huston may not have, he was smart enough to know a good story when he saw one.