Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Better In Your Head?--WISE BLOOD

Flannery O'Connor

"You don't have to believe nothing you don't understand and approve of. If you don't understand it, it ain't true and that's all there is to it."

SPOILER ALERT, greatest novel ever written.

Hazel Moats is a forcefully spiteful child of God who seeks to squat and drop in every room of his Dad's house. Time on the battlefield turned him atheist, which probably wouldn't have surprised his traveling preacher grandfather. Hazel can't ask the man, though, or any other family member for that matter. Each and every one has gone on, below and beyond, sending Hazel into a spiral of desire and dislocation. He boards a train to some other godforsaken open air tomb in Tennessee, eventually winding up at an address he spotted on a bathroom stall.

Everywhere Hazel wanders he's mistaken for a preacher, what with his twelve-dollar suit and sharp black hat, not to mention the invisible heritage. A harsh encounter with a blind, scarred preacher name of Asa Hawks (and his young companion, Sabbath Lily) inspires Moats to create "The Church of Christ Without Christ," a sort of "empirical truth strikes back" that denies sin and redemption, and thus, Christ. A church "where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way" proves a hard sell; people have since time immemorial sought what is established and reassuring, taught from young to equate curiosity with death.

Possibly the only person Hazel's sermonizing has a genuine effect on is eighteen-year-old Enoch Emery, a toiler at the local zoo who escaped an abusive home only to find a town full of grumpy and distant folk wary of making connections. Their loss; Enoch boasts "wise blood," the innate, worldly knowledge on how to live, no spiritual endeavor required.

Hazel shows up at the zoo, curious to learn where the blind preacher resides, which further convinces Enoch that something huge is about to go down. He leads Hazel to a museum, wherein underneath some glass lies a shrunken mummy. Far from riveted, Hazel takes it upon himself to locate the preacher and his companion, at a place that just happens to have a vacancy.

Eager to prove himself an extraordinary blasphemer, Hazel takes to the town square, standing on the hood of his car, shouting at righteous Christians who will say and do whatever necessary to prove the breadth of their righteousness. A con man's attempt to butter Hazel's biscuit goes left, and soon he faces competition in the form of another preacher in a dark suit and hat shouting unconventional antireligious thought from the hood of a car. Asa Hawks turns out a deceitful SOB, too, and he skips town, leaving behind Sabbath. She convinces Hazel that a man could do worse things than put a banana in her fruit salad, but theirs is a doomed union.

When Enoch heard Hazel announce the need for "a new jesus" in order to advance the COCWC to further glory, his vital tubing began pulsing with incomprehensible purpose. He--and only he, Enoch Emery--can and will deliver unto the Church what it demands. He shows up at Hazel's door with the bundled "new jesus," which Sabbath takes to the bathroom for further inspection. It's the shrunken mummy from the museum. Since she's a three-fourths fuck-up like everyone else in the novel, Sabbath finds its shriveled face "right cute" and decides it would be funny to show Hazel their new "baby." The sight through his mother's prescription glasses--of an unholy Madonna and child--disgusts the ailing man, and he destroys the faux-child.

Enoch follows up his monumental act of bravery by exacting revenge on a guy in a gorilla suit that told him to go to hell. Hazel follows up his stupendous act of violence against slapdash religious imagery by hunting down the fraudulent street preacher, a father of six named Solace Layfield, and running him over.

God'll get his, though; when an asshole cop makes Hazel drive his junker to the top of an embankment, get out, and watch as he pushes it over, that's the hand of the Lord right there.

The grandson of a preacher man, the boy without a family, the fanatical truth seeker, the leader with no followers, begins the long walk back home. He will succeed where Asa Hawks failed. With a bucket of water and quicklime, Hazel Moats blinds himself.

Soon it is only he and the landlady, Mrs. Flood, living at the house. She can't grasp why anyone would blind themselves. She herself would just end her life rather than intentionally worsen it. He's hiding something, but what? Why? If she can't solve any of the mysteries, she can at least marry Hazel, collect his government checks and commit his crazy ass. But then, since she's three-fourths a fuck-up like everyone else in the novel, she develops deeper feelings.

The love of another human being means as much to Hazel as a grappling hook to a seal. He is no longer in denial about his sinful nature, and is embracing the spiritually restorative properties of self-harm. He wants nothing more or less than to be left alone to continue on his path.
Mrs. Flood is unable to let him alone. She offers Hazel her friendship. He walks off. What kind of a man, she wonders. The cops bring Hazel back after two days, unaware that he has died during the drive from the drainage ditch where they found him.

The book's concluding paragraphs must be read to be believed.

Though arguably more celebrated for her short stories, Flannery O'Connor also wrote two novels in her thirty-nine years: Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. Both recount the quirky, unsettling experiences of spiritual misfits who obsess over earthly suffering and the promise of redemption. No one from any part of the world, in any era, has ever written more brilliantly on the topic of religion. O'Connor wrote so boldly, so honesty, she could make absolutist assholery seem a lovely trait. Reading her work is the moment of biting into what you think is a plain donut only to discover that it is, in fact, filled with jelly. 

Director-John Huston
Writer-Benedict Fitzgerald & Michael Fitzgerald

"You think he's dead?"

"Ask him."

Oh Jesus, hon.

A quarter of a century after Wise Blood left readers dazed, aspiring screenwriters Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald decided it was time to bring the iconoclastic tale of crackers gone crackers to the big screen. Who else but them? True, neither man had a credit to his name, but their father Robert held the title of literary executor for Flannery O'Connor's estate. Legendary director John Huston (no stranger to adapting beloved novels) agreed to helm the film if the Fitzgerald brothers could raise the budget. They did, so he did.

If you've read the book, you know the movie. Huston and the Fitzgeralds had no desire to reinvent he cheese wheel. Hazel Moates (Brad Dourif) is a 22-year-old Tennessean fresh from serving his country hitches a ride to his family's home, only to find it's been abandoned. He takes a train to another ugly little town to start the next phase of his life. "I'm gonna do something I ain't done before," he tells anyone who'll listen. (Like blink?) A meeting with a sightless street preacher named Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), and his much younger female friend Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright) sets Hazel on the path to hubris and heresy. A local teen named Enoch Emery (Dan Shor) is instantly taken by the lanky man with the black hat and grey suit who walks like a scared rooster.

Hazel has little time to waste. He finds a temporary home with Leora Watts, a butterball of a whore (who probably blew golden infinity bubbles) and buys a junky ride. Followed by a patina of religiosity, Moats begins preaching the word of "The Church of Christ Without Christ." He moves into the same building as Asa Hawks and Sabbath Lily. A hell of a thing; a huckster calling himself Onnie Jay Holy (Ned Beatty) pops up and offers to help Hazel with "the religion business." He can work the crowd like a cowboy Dwayne Johnson and earn some scratch to boot. Hazel responds with his standard boorishness, and is then somehow taken aback when OJH makes good on his vow of revenge by interrupting one of Hazel's street sermons with a bootleg version of Moats himself.

Enoch is off getting humiliated by a fat guy dressed up in an ape costume--all he wanted was a Pepsi! Of the heart! His vow to provide Hazel's church with a suitable Christ figure goes much better, at least until said figure winds up smashed against a wall and hurled out onto the street.

A man with no family or friends is 98% more likely to run over a doppelganger with his car. LOOK IT UP.

The odds of the same man burning the sight out of his eyes are not available, thanks to insufficient data.

Hazel's landlady, Mrs. Flood, is a bit thrown by having a blind, cattle-hearted tenant who walks on rocks. She lays down the law: marry her and start acting like a halfway social beast, or skedaddle. So he skedaddles into the pouring rain, and after two days the cops find him lying in a ditch, alive and unwilling to move. By the time they deposit him at Mrs. Flood's doorstep, he's already home.

There's one reason to watch Wise Blood, and that's Brad Dourif. His clear-faced, fierce-eyed turn as Hazel Moats is just marvelous. It's worth enduring Dan Shor's gratingly dopey Enoch and a soundtrack better suited for The Apple Dumpling Gang.

What we have here is a bit more than simply comparing book to movie; it's also comparing the devout Catholic who felt a blatant admiration for fundamentalist Protestants to the avowed atheist who wore no size love for Southerners.

As if that weren't enough, it's also comparing two titans in their respective arenas. With only two novels and thirty-two short stories to her credit, Flannery O'Connor is arguably the pound-for-pound, word-for-word greatest writer to ever work with the English language. John Huston's resume--director of thirty-seven films, writer or co-writer on twenty-seven films, and dozens of acting credits--combined with his reputation as the cerebral Hemingway of cinema qualifies him as one of the truly massive talents to ever work in the motional arts.

And maybe if Huston had written the screenplay for Wise Blood, the movie wouldn't have missed the target tonally.

A tremendous part of what makes O'Connor's work so extraordinary to this day is her grasp of the bizarrely comic. While the Fitzgerald bros seemed to understand that fine enough, they lacked the author's grave respect for the restorative power of sin. Walking away from Wise Blood--or much of her text--with one's distaste of religion more pungent than ever is not uncommon. Such a reaction is distinctly at odds, however, with what O'Connor herself believed: human beings are fallen, yet redeemable through God's grace. We may not deserve God's grace; in fact, you can take it to the notary public that we don't, given how frequently we submit to our most aggressive impulses, how rapidly we weaken under the influence of blandishments. Yet, grace is what we receive. Great tragedy--and comedy--lies in the ways grace visits the people in O'Connor's stories: sudden, bizarre, violent. She sought to shock by reminding readers that salvation must always be preceded by punishment.

Heady shit. So I'm not going to condemn Huston's film for falling short. But I'm not going to deny the ways in which it does.

First, the prioritizing of setting over character. Wise Blood was shot on location in Macon, GA, meaning it pretty much nailed the post-nuclear landscape hinted at in the text. Not that the characters are underdeveloped, just diluted.

Hazel Moats is a moissanite rod decorated with porcupine quills, a generally inept socializer who slightly atones by also being a snappy dresser, a young man with an old soul, who lurches around from one spot to the next. The reader sees him first on a train, weirding out a woman. The viewer sees him first in the uniform of a soldier. We assume he did the USA proud. We see him walk through the remains of his past. We assume he is heartbroken. Our own hearts go out to him, or at least, that's the aim. Having lost everything, his retreat into brazen self-denial makes sense.

Hazel in the novel is a piranha, whereas Brad Dourif plays him as more kin to a stingray with tail envy. I found his performance difficult to tear my eyes from; the very act of speaking seemed to stretch the bones underneath his skin.

Enoch is watered-down like "last call" beer, thanks to the omission of any scene from the book that revealed him as a peerless waitress-repulser. Huston wants us to see "ee bummings" as an endearingly child-like freak, instead of a creepy, insecure murderer. And what's with not including the scene where Enoch sticks his head into a cabinet? Just remembering it makes me snuckle. (That's snort-chuckle.) Or the colorblindness test described when Enoch stops by a soda fountain?

I recommend the film. It is, likely, the best result any fan of the book could ask for. Even though the playfulness lacks, the energy crackles, and Brad Dourif gives one of those perpetually overlooked performances.

Who's Hazel Moats anyway, thinking he can evade Christ? He'd sooner sidestep carbon dioxide. Christianity is an integral part of American society, a pervasive influence on everyday life, so that even someone who views the story of God as pure populace-placating myth cannot ever truly live free from it. I'm not saying religion is to blame for mental illness; I'm saying that religion is to blame for the grossly inadequate care available to the mentally ill.

Of all the killer lines in the book, this one resonates with me most lugubriously: "Where you are is no good unless you can get away from it."

Mrs. Flood is a wonderful example of so many Christians, now as then: parochial, avaricious, and unquestionably kind.

Still, how hard is it to respect a fellow human's wish? Hazel Moats simply wants to suffer for his salvation, and he's understandably resentful of intrusions and prejudgments from Mrs. Flood (who seems to believe that having access to his thoughts and feelings is her birthright).

Wise Blood was written and set in the 1950s South. Hence, the "n-word" is used repeatedly. If you are a reader unwilling and/or possibly unable to make concessions for context, avoid Wise Blood.

If you could become an angle, what angle would you become? Obtuse, for me. Being greater than while being also simultaneously lesser than is pretty much the story of me.

Odd-ass stories centering around religion are just part and parcel of hailing from the American South. Ask me about the cow and my brother's baby toe next time you see me (but not the first time you see me).

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