1In the DVD extra, actor Brad Dourif comments on his character’s strain of eccentricity and the way John Huston saw it: “Although he thought that in the end Hazel Motes had had some kind of existential revelation, he is a devout atheist, […] he didn’t like religion. […] The third act is all about Hazel Motes’s turn and his movement toward his commitment to be this saint, to really go the whole distance, to really devote himself to this idea of God”. His last words may well summarize Flannery O’Connor and John Huston’s attempts to come up with some dark, Gothic and comic variation on the “idea of God” in Wise Blood. Literally framing “Hazel the desperate believer” (Tarantino, 15), Huston inscribes on screen with surprising restraint O’Connor’s Gothic South of religious hysteria. His documentary-like but also paranoid capture retains the same strange and humorous quality as that of the author who used to say, “[t]he religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It's full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments” (Flannery O'Connor : Collected Works, 1107).
2The inscription of southern religiosity by a devout novelist is already complex, often iconoclastic and fraught with humor, but how is it captured on screen by a self-proclaimed non-believer ? And which kind of strange unenlightened prophets and con men does the filmic narrative bring to the fore ?
3As early as the credit titles, John Huston *materializes on screen the southern mixture of grim humor and evangelical religiosity O’Connor so often described in her interviews or essays. Before the actual beginning of the filmic narrative, the various billboards and road signs already function as visual tropes playfully splicing spiritual aspiration with commercial culture. From the outset, Hazel Motes’s journey is then doubly marked by a desperate search for enlightenment and for money-making. In a forest of spiritual signs, his ability to read these signs, whether visible or invisible, in his own iconoclastic way, pushes him further into the heart of the American wasteland. Four specific shots herald Hazel’s incongruous itinerary through the Bible-Belt’s customized redneck religion. Each time, the “hybridity” of the sign represented mirrors the dual nature of this fervently religious and irremediably mercantile South. The first one, part road sign, part ad for a Baptist church and the Coca-Cola brand and the third, which features ads for the “Dairy Queen” brand and for “Brazier Foods” whose motto happens to be “Repent. Be baptized in Jesus name” foreground in a very direct manner a landscape riddled with charlatanism and the commercial dimension of homespun worship. The type of “welcome” it offers is ironically inseparable from consumer society’s standardized goods (here sodas or dairy products). The implication seems to be that somehow religion is also for sale, readily available for anyone ─ a concept which literally materializes on screen with the second and fourth shots respectively featuring a Last Supper wall-hanging on a country fair trailer and a plastic phone with the words “Jesus called” written above on some kind of Christian memorial site. The literalization process O’Connor constantly used in her fiction writing also proves to be a source of humor in Huston’s movie. In some highly ironic way, the visual construct duplicates fiction’s function, to be what O’Connor called “an incarnational art” (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 68). Anyone, everywhere, can gain direct access to God, the whole point is to explore how a few dubious heroes try to sell access to salvation and how in this “ironic tale of believing and not believing […] when taken to the precipice, [it] results in the same type of constriction” (Tarantino, 16).
1- In the heart of the heart of the religious South
2- Last Supper wall-hanging on a country fair trailer
3- Values of spirituality and a mass-produced culture of abundance
4- A strain of grim Southern humor : direct communication with God on someone’s memorial site
4From the beginning, the hero’s trajectory is given a weirdly Gothic quality, halfway between the grim and the grotesque. On his way back from some unspecified war in the second half of the twentieth century, Hazel literally stands at a crossroads. The desolate shots of the dilapidated family house and the abandoned cemetery with Hazel’s grandfather’s grave unequivocally inscribe the erasure of the place of origin in rural Georgia. The spelling mistake on the tombstone in “gone to become an angle” causes once again death and comedy to collide. Huston oddly traded the novel’s post-World War II period (O’Connor started writing the novel in 1947 and struggled with it for at least five years) for this unspecified post-War era. His insistence on the consumerist dimension of religion selling like any other asset in America in the 1960s and 1970s seems to reflect the profound changes American society had been undergoing at this period, from the impact of the recent Civil Rights movements to wider access to mass consumption. He frames the travelling preacher in a flashback structure which presents Jerusha Motes as the negatively-connoted origin of his grandson’s crusade. The old man has drummed the concept of sin into Hazel from an early age so that the latter now feels compelled to leave for the city to spread the gospel of antireligion and get everyone else to reject religious guilt. The whole sequence uses the same style of visual grammar of emptiness, desolation and omnipresent religious fervor as John Ford’s 1940 The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad returns to a similarly deserted farmhouse during the Great Depression, just like Hazel Motes in what looks like post-Vietnam America.
5- The Motes’ dilapidated family house in the Georgia countryside
6- John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, 1940. The Joads’ deserted house in the Dust Bowl
7- The Grapes of Wrath : a tenant’s house being destroyed by a Caterpillar during the Great Depression
5Fleeing to the city to spread his own gospel, Hazel becomes in a way a religious migrant worker illustrating O’Connor’s fundamental motif of displacement from one’s roots. The Jeffersonian agrarian dream has once again been destroyed, exacerbating the character’s desperate need of some form of spiritual nourishment. The vanishing view of the independent farmer as superior to the worker and of farming as a way of life shaping society’s ideal values addressed by Steinbeck and Ford in 1939 and 1940 also shapes Huston’s movie. As the country store owner says, “Hardly anyone left around here anymore. Everybody done left or… died”.
6The flashbacks framing Jerusha Motes-John Huston preaching the word of God have some foreboding chromatic range. Filmed through an odd purple filter as if to translate the way in which memory has reprocessed their vivid descriptions of judgment and eternal damnation, they provide the necessary background to explain Hazel Motes’ possessed eyes and fiery torments.
8- John Huston as Jerusha Motes, a fire and brimstone preacher in rural Georgia
7The intensity of Brad Dourif’s gaze captured consistently by screenwiter Benedict Fitzgerald and director John Huston provides extreme conciseness of character and operates as an essential element of typage. Even before the viewer can learn about the things Haze says he is going to do and has “not done before”, it transports him into a world of evangelical outbursts heralding Motes’ own.
9- Hazel Motes to a woman on the train : “I reckon you think you’ve been redeemed”
8But ironically in Hazel’s quest, the focus is not on repentance any more than the brand of religion he is intent on starting is predicated on sin. It actually steers away from the usual theology-peddler’s consoling notions. The hysteria and passion emanating from his haunted look and his own new “Church of Christ Without Christ” “the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption” staunchly root him in the present dimension. There is no guilt to be sold, no atonement to be sought and, paradoxically, no money to be collected. Motes’ contrary precepts help build the portrait of a peculiar street corner Salvationist who has not been saved by the blood of Jesus but instead, pretends he has been set free by his merely human “wise” blood. In a farcical inversion, his iconoclastic principles rewrite a grotesque version of biblical salvation and of man’s freedom on earth :
Where you come from is gone. Where you thought you were going to was never there. Where you are ain’t no good unless you can get away from it. Your conscience is a trick that don’t exist. And if you think it does, then you had best get it out in the open, cut it down and kill it.
9The frontal way in which Huston frames the listeners enhances their gullability and fascination for the prophetic vision but also the sense that, along with the freaks among them, they are somehow integral to the peculiar southern city and landscape. Filming them in the same way as the crowd which first gathers round the potato-peeler pedlar in Taulkinham, the camera constructs them as grotesques consuming religion as they would any other object. The deformed mug of a typically southern freak calls to mind John Boorman’s iconic face of the Banjo Kid dueling with Drew at the beginning of his 1972 Deliverance. The visual echo is strengthened by the fact that actor Ned Beatty who plays the part of the bogus parson Hoover Shoates, aptly-rebaptized Reverend Onnie Jay Holy, already used to star as Bobby, the city man brutally raped by degenerate hillbillies in Boorman’s cult movie. In one distinctive shot, Huston makes the most of the freak’s seminal functions in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, to be “a gateway to reality” and to the mystery of the South and of our position on earth in general (Mystery and Manners, 54) as well as to “be sensed as a figure of our essential displacement” (Id., 45). By focusing on the intense energy displayed by the preachers and the familiarity of the onlookers, the camera captures the religious haunting at work, which O’Connor charts in virtually every single one of her writings :
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South, the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. […] I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. (Id., 44)
10- The grotesques listening to Hazel preaching
11- Another Georgia grotesque in John Boorman’s 1972 Deliverance
12- The misshapen Banjo Kid in Deliverance
10In Huston’s Wise Blood, the inscription of the grotesque operates as a mirror image of Hazel’s fundamental alienation.
11Huston often frames Hazel in long distance shots as he spreads a truth of his own and preaches to a “church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way” (Wise Blood, 54). His own brand of displacement and hopelessness involves harping on the only truth he knows, that “Sin is a trick on niggers. Sin ain’t on [his] books” as he tells dim-witted Enoch Emery who is stalking him. Jesus may have been crucified but by no means was it to redeem anybody. It seems to be the passionate, mad dimension of his message which isolates him from all other religious fanatics and con men. The cinematic Motes inherits from O’Connor and Huston’s intersecting traditions of protagonists battling with the absurd and insurmountable odds, whether it be in the original source stories “The Peeler” and “The Heart of the Park” or films like The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle. British cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s camera frames him as yet another glorious misfit, a freak in his own right. As critic Michael Tarantino underlines, his losing battle against his past, his grandfather and all the religious legacies of the South is materialized on screen in “crystalline images”, “yet there is always some mystery, some obscure crazedness” (Tarantino, 16). Adapting for the screen one of O’Connor’s most recurrent narrative strategies, Huston similarly plays on splicing the literal and the metaphorical. Haze’s strange interpretation of signs – including road signs – and his deranged sermons eventually trigger a chain of events leading him right back to the fire of Hell he’s been trying to escape ever since his childhood. Each religious saying, sign or line from his preaching actually collides with interpolated memory flashbacks to the fiery sermons of Jerusha Motes, his first glance of adult sexuality in a countryside fair tent or with the literal interpretation by simple-minded Enoch Emery of his calling for a new Jesus.
12When Hazel reads a religious inscription on the roadside stating “Woe to the blasphemers and whoremongers. Will Hell swallow you up ? Jesus saves”, he’s immediately reminded of his grandfather chastising him for having sinned.
13- Religious inscription on the roadside, “Woe to the blasphemers and whoremongers. Will Hell swallow you up ? Jesus saves”
13The series of shots illustrates the way in which the literal summons up the metaphorical and vice versa. The materiality of the inscription painted on a boulder and Hazel’s transfixed expression somehow induce the transition to the flashback scene. Atoning for his sins then meant walking with rocks in his shoes and listening to sermons so terrifying that he involuntarily passed water during the service. The color coding and the presence of the young sufferer’s face in the frame signal temporal distance. They also materialize Motes’ general feeling of temporal and spatial displacement. His final trip to the city proves to be a journey away from the self while at the very same time, a continuation of the cleansing process seeded in him by his exploitative evangelist grandfather. The shuttle movement between the two time dimensions visually inscribes the cleft at the heart of Hazel’s psyche, who claims to be no preacher but still preaches on street corners.
14- Before the flashback : the haunted eye of memory
15- Young Hazel chastised by his grandfather for having sinned : passing water and walking with rocks in his shoes
16- Hazel Motes preaching : “Nothing matters but that Jesus Christ was a liar. […] What you need is something to take the place of Jesus. Something that would speak plain. […] The Church Without Christ don’t have a Jesus but it need one, it need a new Jesus.”
14The deranged passion Motes demonstrates while preaching literally becomes his own Christlike Way of the Cross through a self-inflicted Hell. Inverting Biblical lore, he feels as cursed as the most unworthy sinner and will not stop before he has turned himself into a broken down Messiah :
Nothing matters but that Jesus Christ was a liar. […] What you need is something to take the place of Jesus. Something that would speak plain. […] The Church Without Christ don’t have a Jesus but it need one, it need a new Jesus.
15In keeping with the comic trend of literalization in both novel and film, the body of the New Jesus he’s looking for will not be the grotesque shrunken mummy Enoch steals from the museum for him, but his own. Enoch Emery’s own adventure at the city museum ─ he phonetically pronounces “[mǝvzi :vǝm]” ─ where he steals the “new Jesus” duplicates Hazel’s own sense of displacement.
17- Enoch in secret communion with the mummified « New Jesus » he stole from the museum
16Like the hero, the confused teenager lays claim to the eponymous mystic “wise blood” of the title. He is convinced that it will cause him to accomplish great things and fulfill his “secret need” for some kind of greater revelation, which also happens to be the title of one of O’Connor’s most fascinating short stories. As the blind man tells his namesake in “The Peeler”, another source story of the novel :
“You got a secret need,” the blind man said. “Them that know Jesus once can’t escape Him in the end.”
“I ain’t never known Him, Haze said. (O’Connor, “The Peeler”, 72)
17John Huston’s mise-en-scene carefully charts the scenes of Hazel’s rebellious ministry. Whether preaching on top of his car by night or standing up on the confederate soldier’s pedestal in broad daylight, the documentary-like camera frames him against the backdrop of the real city of Macon, Georgia. Its various symbols of power, from the banks to the museum, shops or drugstores construct the reality of a world which has little to do with O’Connor’s fictional Taulkinham and Hazel’s vision of it. By inscribing a wealth of realistic details in the frame, the director further isolates the hero in a world of his own so contrived, so grotesquely warped and out of touch with the community that even the various preachers, prophets and con men around him look more genuine than he does. Ironically, the aura of charlatanism attached to the others so obviously sticks to him that the fake reverend Onnie Jay Holy immediately wants to participate in the confidence trick. Of course the dark irony of it is that Hazel’s only intent is to tell his own version of “the truth” and thus become a living negation of his grandfather's principles. As people start walking away, immediately before the con man steps in, he tells them in some startling analogy between the truth and himself, “remember the truth don’t look around at every street corner”. The first meeting between the two men takes place at night against the lit-up cityscape. The red neon signs, including the giant garish one “Jesus cares” are all visually encoded to underline the artificial dimension of the performance.
18- Hazel Motes preaching from the nose of his Essex car at night
19- Hoover Shoates alias Reverend Onnie Jay Holy joining in to take part in the “scam”
18The pairing of the two preachers once again inscribes on screen Hazel’s dual personality. Their fierce battle to cover the other’s voice hinges precisely on the notion of truth being diversely interpreted and the porous frontier between sincerity and deceit. Hoover Shoates alias Onnie Jay Holy uses all the tricks of a hard-boiled American huckster and makes clear that his “business” is selling religion. His two names in themselves already testify to some fundamental, inescapable tension and duality. When Hazel refuses to carry out the scam with him, the fake salvationist ironically claims that he is “a real preacher” as he’s been on the radio for three years and that he would “find prophets for peanuts”. O’Connor’s black humor effectively merges with Huston’s ironic detachment. Hazel’s position as the incredulous intradiegetic spectator watching Shoates steal his act duplicates our own as extradiegetic witnesses. And our viewing pleasure is all the greater as we already know Motes’ fight is ridiculously hopeless.
20- A profitable venture : Shoates in the religion business
19Somehow the apparition of his grotesque double, the “prophet” Shoates dresses up to look like him further enacts the filmic narrative’s complete sense of absurdity and hopelessness. In a darkly ironic impersonation of Motes, the counterfeit prophet with his contorted speech mannerisms and deformed silhouette materializes in the frame the way in which the good people of Macon-Taulkinham see the iconoclastic hero.
21- Hoover Shoates and his shabby New Prophet
20To borrow from O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person”, Moates is constantly inscribed on screen as “just another D.P.” The finality of Mrs McIntyre’s statement “As far as I am concerned […] Christ is just another D.P.” (The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, 229) could also fully apply to Hazel’s pathetic predicament. He is forever displaced by someone or something, even when he thinks he has finally resolved the contradiction by driving over the rival would-be preacher. “I ain’t trying to mock you” pleads the double. The doubling motif is irretrievably linked to the representation of the hero even in the last moments of their confrontation. The camera frames him in two-shots with his parodic image, thus materializing on screen the haunting presence of two competing conceptions and messages.
22- Hazel Motes and his Doppelgänger, the bogus preacher in a two-shot
23- The doubling motif : Hazel running over the fake prophet
21Both men prove to be counterfeit variations on the prophets and desperate heroes, which fill O’Connor’s fiction and Huston’s films. Whether they be quacks or protagonists having actual albeit distorted visions, they all contribute to revealing part of “the mystery of existence” (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 99). In Hazel’s case, his obsessional quest to understand “the central Christian mysteries” (Id., 109) keeps unfolding until the moment he dies trying to imitate “blind” Asa Hawks, another evangelical hustler.
22If the hired prophet is a parodic version of Hazel Motes, the ex-preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) is a paradoxical model for the young man. In many ways, he is the epitome of the “prophet-freak” who “is not simply showing us what we are, but what we have been and what we could become” (Id., 118) and of the accomplished con artist. Very early on in the filmic narrative, Asa, who purportedly blinded himself to make converts, represents the mystery of faith for Hazel who is literally obsessed with him :
Jesus Christ cured blind men. How come you didn’t get him to cure you ?
He blinded Paul.
Where did you get them scars in your eyes ?
23To which his teenage daughter Sabbath Lilith answers :
He did it with lime and there was hundreds converted. Anybody that blinded himself in justification ought to be able to save you─or even somebody of his blood.
Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.
24The incongruity of Hazel’s answer matches the narrative’s general movement of descent to the concrete. To Motes who uses it as a pulpit, his beloved car symbolizes emancipation and freedom and is actual proof of the authenticity of his own spiritual values as opposed to the pair’s questionable ones.
24- Hazel confronting con artist Asa Hawks
25But having finally proved Asa’s blindness to be fraudulent, Hazel also discovers the ex-evangelist was once an iconoclast who gave up fighting against mainstream beliefs for, as he tells Hazel, “Nobody ever escapes from Jesus”. The reference to Jesus’s blinding of St Paul on the road to Damascus and his subsequent revelation heralds the hero’s own literal blinding and, possibly, final form of enlightenment in the film’s climactic end sequence. The strange scene where the policeman inexplicably decides to sink Hazel’s car into a pond because he “just [doesn’t] like his face” marks the beginning of the hero’s descent into some self-imposed purgatory.
25- The sinking of Hazel’s car for no obvious reason
26Michael Klein comments on the intradiegetic and extradiegetic spectators’ reactions :
27The patrolman stares, incredulous, shakes his head from side to side, seeing in Hazel the grotesque we saw in the doppelganger. […]
28Would you mind driving your car up to the top of the next hill ? I want you to see the view from there, prettiest view you ever did see.
29We feel a sense of fear and foreboding about the nature of the revelation promised at the top of the hill […].
30Then Huston resolves the tension by suddenly stylizing the image : a low angle perspective, wide angle lense shot of the patrolman pushing Hazel’s car off of the highway, down an embankment into a field. [V]isualized reality again […] attains the clarity of allegory. The revelation further shatters Hazel’s own fragile sense of identity and mission. (Klein, 235)
31Alex North’s merry and disjunctive score further highlights Hazel’s sense of utter powerlessness. Once his “home” has been taken away, he is relegated to the status of desperate grotesque in an imperfect community as yet unredeemed by Christ’s Second Coming. The spiritual wound foreshadows the corporal injuries to come. Like Captain Ahab in Huston’s earlier adaptation of Moby Dick (1956), he sustains all kinds of wounds and literally ends up blind and discarded on some waste lot :
Like Ahab, Motes has been spiritually wounded. [He] is a “right man” (in writer’s A.E. Van Vogt’s phrase) on a righteous crusade. He will not be dissuaded, challenged or mocked. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me !” Ahab roars in Moby Dick. Motes is the same way, and when his quest fails, his violence turns inward and he sickeningly mutilates himself precisely because he has failed─though, in a way, his martyrdom to his own cause turns him into the human savior he has been searching for to replace Jesus in his new church. (McCarthy, 205)
32The straight cut to a close shot of Hazel carrying a bag of lime once again literalizes the process of his dispossession and fall.
26- Hazel walking back to the boarding house with a bag of quick lime to blind himself
- 1 At the time O’Connor was writing Wise Blood, she was visiting her friend Robert Fitzgerald, father (...)
33Resonating both with Asa and Oedipus’s gestures of self-mutilation1, the final section of the film turns the hero into a martyred body possibly open to what O’Connor calls “the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace” (Mystery and Manners, 112). The shots of Hazel in the final sequence all focus on his increasingly static and “Christic” body. The original sense of “grottesco” from the Italian “grotto”─characterized by some ludicrous or incongruous distortion, as of appearance or manner─takes on a literal dimension. The blood stains on his bed sheets partly come from the rocks he’s filled his shoes with in, which visually echoes the earlier flashbacks of young Hazel’s redemptive mortification of the flesh. They also come from an extreme form of cilice, a blood-drawing wire he’s laced around his frail chest which grotesquely evokes Jesus’ crown of thorns. The camera briefly focuses on Hazel’s bloody torso. In a series of striking shots whose intensity very much resembles that of silent film, it mostly frames the landlady’s horrified face before she starts screaming.
27- Horror and disbelief before screaming : the landlady’s first silent reaction to Hazel’s self-mortification
28- Hazel’s blood-drawing wire cilice
34Hazel has turned into a deformed recreation of the wild Jesus who’s been haunting him ever since childhood. Ironically, the older lady keeps on clinging to this monstrous body to ward off lonely old age and despair even though the kind of salvation he can bring her is only short-lived. This passion of Hazel playfully distorts some of the central motifs of the last hours of Christ. His self-mortification “to pay” for his own impurity and no one else’s, his long walk in the rain and collapse by the roadside, lying spread-eagled as if crucified, and his death by the side of a pathetic domestic Madonna are all grotesque variations on redemptive suffering. In this sense, the ending is a literalization of O’Connor’s remark on the “Hebrew genius for making the absolute concrete [which] has conditioned the Southerner’s way of looking at things” (Mystery and Manners, 202).
29- Hazel’s body on a waste lot : arms and legs spread out as if on a cross
30- Death of a grotesque prophet with a sex-starved Madonna by his side
36The haunting quality of the last shots conjures up the specter of a pathetic freak who is no longer a distinct individual but has become “a figure in a parable”, some ironically misshapen version of the American Dream and the Christian myth of salvation :
As the final image of the film fades, Hazel is less a prophet and more a figure in a parable─a contemporary American Dream quest for meaning, value, wholeness, and connection in an increasingly fragmented, nominalist, alienated, commercial, capitalist society. (Klein, 235)
37As the camera slowly zooms out from the odd couple on the bed, the landlady’s voice keeps resonating, “Mr. Motes ? Mr. Motes ! ”, meeting only with dead silence before the fade to black.
38As in Huston’s 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye which also deals with the putrid excesses and passions of the South, the hero pays with his own flesh for his transgression, once again literally since he is brought back by the police on the dubious pretext of not having paid his rent. The director resolutely roots the filmic narrative in the corporal dimension to capture the potential irruption of grace “in territory held largely by the devil” (Mystery and Manners, 118), freaks, fake preachers and con men.
39“You can’t see” Hazel says to the landlady at the end. But Huston and O’Connor before him leave the spectator-reader in the dark as to whether or not Motes actually sees and what he sees. The only visual inscription on screen is that of freakish bodies and two corpses (including a shrunken mummy) almost single-handedly telling the darkly humorous story of interrupted journeys which do have Biblical echoes but also function at the literal level of merely disturbing Southern (tall) tales.