Saturday, June 06, 2009

Jhon Huston's Wise Blood

Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood is a most unusual book, which leaves me admiring and revolted at one and the same time. I've reviewed it here and referred to it on many occasions. And so, when I saw that the John Huston film version of 1979 had been re-released, I had to give it a go.

Well, it's every bit as odd as the novel. The opening credits set the scene perfectly, with a montage of wonderful photos of signs outside southern churches proclaiming the power of Jesus and the need for redemption and all that nonsense. There are spelling mistakes galore, wittily parodied by the credits, with the director being Jhon rather than John Huston. Apparently, most people didn't notice...

In an interview included in the DVD, Brad Dourif, who played Haze Motes, made the astonishing claim that Huston thought that Haze, at the end, was having an existential crisis. 'No,' Dourif finally said to him, 'I don't think that's right. I think he's finding God.' Huston didn't believe him but went away to think about it, and discussed it with the Fitzgeralds, who are, of course, O'Connor's literary executors and who knew her well. The next day Huston relented. 'God wins,' he said. But I find it astonishing to think that someone could read Wise Blood and not take it as anything but deeply religious. When filming was finished, apparently Huston, an atheist, said 'I think I've been had.' Remarkable.

Also in the interview extras, Michael Fitzgerald repeats the story I've read before that, while she was writing Wise Blood, she read Oedipus Rex (actually, Fitzgerald's father was doing a translation of it while O'Connor was living with the family). She was so struck with the story that she re-worked and re-wrote Wise Blood to include the famous self-blinding section at the end. I was going to suggest that this shows the weakness in Wise Blood: while, in Oedipus Rex, the self-blinding is a natural response to the horrors that had preceded it, in Wise Blood it seems a disproportionate act. But I've changed my mind on that. After all, Haze did kill the preacher. Therefore, it is a logical (at least in fundamentalist Christian terms) response.

But nonetheless, I think this does suggest a problem that both the novel and the film share. It's one of pace, I think, of the gradual unfolding of events. What should be happening as Haze undergoes his crisis (existential or otherwise) is that he gradually becomes more and more unhinged, and we can see that he is losing the battle with himself and his demons. But in both the book and the film he starts off pretty much crazed already, and carries on in the same way throughout. There isn't enough shift in the dynamics of the piece, in the pacing or the drama, to reveal the torment he is undergoing. Thus, when he finally does a desperate act - the murder - it lacks impact.

What Huston's film does do impressively, though, is reveal the humour in O'Connor's story. I must confess that I always get so angry when I'm reading it that some of that wicked, waspish humour fails to register. But Huston brings it out deliciously. In this, he is helped by a terrific cast. Harry Dean Stanton is suitably shady as Asa Hawks and Amy Wright's portrayal of Sabbath Lily is a brilliant mixture of innocent and minx. I wasn't quite so convinced by Dan Shor's Enoch Emory, but then I am not convinced by Enoch Emory full stop, and I think it would be difficult to make him that credible.

All in all, it's a very faithful version, and a fascinating film. Definitely worth a look.

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