The thing I love about John Huston, the thing that makes him such a rewarding filmmaker is the fact that he never stopped pushing himself.
While other directors of the studio era stood dumbfounded like deer in the headlights before The 70’s. Getting mowed down in a bloody awful spectacle, which had them feebly turning out a cheap imitation of themselves or two before silencing themselves forever, Huston instead went out and made Fat City. A film so gritty that makes the harsh realism of the movie brats look as artificial as Finnegan’s Rainbow. Huston’s career was that of an innovator, which is why even watching a minor film like Moulin Rouge can be a fascinating experience, just for the way he uses something inconsequential to test the boundaries of what he can do. Unfortunately this dings him in the eyes of some of the more annoying astringently auteurist critics who can’t recognize the drive to push the limit as being an artistic signature in and of itself. And in an artistic period where most directors would be happy to make small reflective pieces, primarily about themselves, Huston suddenly decided to take up adapting unadaptable novels as a hobby.
It’s not as if he didn’t have practice. Huston’s career began with the adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. In his salad days Huston helmed an adaptation of Moby Dick. A work that could best be described as unfortunate (One of my favorite lines about the film, I’m afraid I forget who wrote it, went “Huston saw Ahab as a heroic non believer in God. Everyone else saw Atticus Finch behaving erratically.) He even tried to do a literal interpretation of the entire Bible until the studio realized what the fuck he was doing and made him stop at Genesis. Still this pales in comparison to the ambition with which Huston finished his career. He adapted The Dead as his final film, bringing James Joyce to the screen which anyone will tell you, is a trifle difficult. A few years before he directed Under The Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s sweaty proto Gonzo classic. And before that he directed Flannery O’Connor’s The Wise Blood.
Now that’s a trio that’ll make an English major blanche.
As you might recall I am all about Flannery O’Connor. If forced to choose the one book to take with me to a desert island it might honestly be the complete collection of her short stories. Her work has a beauty and fragility to its language and an honesty and passion in its subject that never fails to shake me. In my review of the book Wise Blood I called it unquantifiable. I think that’s just about right.
I had to wonder how anyone could turn it into a coherent movie. Flannery’s book is all fever dream language, and metaphor. How does one literalize a passage like:
"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 was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown."
The short answer is Huston doesn’t even try to make it coherent. He wades hip deep into material that would make less stout hearted directors faint. You remember the scene in Dead Man were Crispin Glover tells Johnny Depp he’s going to die and then stares unnervingly at him for about five minutes? Imagine that scene blown up to feature length and you’ll begin to understand what Wise Blood is like. Who else but Huston would keep the scene from the book in which a minor character steals a Gorilla suit and runs around attempting to shake hands with people. And not only keep it, but shoot it without once winking. Wise Blood may not work as a film on its own. But as an artifact, or concordance with the novel it’s fascinating.
The only wrong note the film plays is a jarring broad score that ranks as one of the worst and inappropriate I’ve ever heard. Its like leftover Hee Haw music that was rejected for being too cornpone. Its like scoring a Bergman film with a slide whistle.
Give full credit to the cast, who are fully able to tune into Huston and O’Connor’s somewhat disparate wavelengths simultaneously. The Southern Gothic is one of the toughest tones to capture in American art. It has resulted in some of the greatest works of American Literature, Painting, Film, and Music ever made, and some of the absolute worst. The difference is commitment, nothing stinks worse then inauthentic Southerness, what Noel Murray referred to as “A Bunch of college kids from New York dropping their R’s and singing about Coal Mines collapsing.” Huston and his cast sell it. Particularly Doriff a better actor then he is usually given opportunity to show, Ned Beatty knocking it out of the park for the second time this week, and Harry Dean Stanton as the would be Blind Preacher Asa Hawks. (Also William Hickey in a cameo that's pretty much perfect.)
Huston similarly commits tackling his subject head on. He changes the setting to the modern day (Not that you can tell in most shots) and shoots the imagery however grotesque with a straight ahead matter of factness that only adds to their queasy power, you’d be hard pressed to find an image more dislocating then the Madonna and Child Parody Huston creates at a key turning point in the film.
Whether you fine Wise Blood a thought provoking parable on the inescapability of God, like O’Connor. Or a grotesque parody of religious mania like Huston. You won’t see anything else quite like it. As O'Connor herself, "Grotesqueries? We are all grotesqueries."
(All Art work comes from Josh Cochran's site)