[This post written for the John Huston Blog-A-Thon at Icebox Movies]
When Adam Zanzie over at Icebox Movies commissioned his blogathon for John Huston, my unfamiliarity with the director's work both compelled me to join in for the purposes of education and to refrain in order to leave analysis to those who had actually analyzed the director. Indeed, Adam's entire retrospective hinges on the question of Huston's status as either an auteur or a studio hand, someone who moved from project to project and was simply damn good at handling whatever landed on his desk. I cannot say whether Huston was an auteur, for I have seen few of the director's films, and the ones that I have were seen so long ago as to be a faint memory, only The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre sticking in my mind with clarity.
But to play along with the overall conceit of Adam's blogathon, and to give myself a springboard, I mulled over the overarching question almost immediately by considering the subject of his 1979 film, Wise Blood. Huston started in the industry as a screenwriter, yet a closer look at his credits reveals that many of his directed films were adaptations. He sorted out the twists and turns of The Maltese Falcon, Huston's first time behind the camera, into a sharply defined portrait that brought out the core of the Sam Spade character and then matched that character so perfectly to Humphrey Bogart that the actor built his career off the role. But that was only the start: Huston would direct numerous other adaptations, some he reworked himself, others refashioned by hired screenwriters. A number of these adaptations came from hit novels of fleeting popularity, but look at some of the authors Huston reworked: Dashiell Hammett. Melville. Joyce. Arthur Miller. Flannery O'Connor. These are not ordinary writers but some of the finest of the last two centuries.
I bring this up because there occasionally rises the question of whether an artist can stake claim to being an auteur by working with the products of auteurs in other media. As Hitchcock told Truffaut, he would never adapt a literary masterpiece because he could not improve upon a work that was already a magnum opus, and furthermore that all great works of art are great because they cannot be separated from their medium. Now, plenty of accepted auteurs, including Hitch, didn't write their own movies, but they also left identifiable stamps on their work and carried pet themes with them, turning the written words of others into finished products that looked and sounded like artistic trademarks. It has long been my belief that such an effect, reliant entirely upon the execution of the film, demonstrates that a great film can be made from a great book, provided the director brings his or her own creative stamp to the material.
Watching Wise Blood, Huston's adaptation of O'Connor's first novel, I knew immediately that, whether an auteur or not, the director clearly envisioned the source material in his own way. The Gothic surreality of O'Connor, incidentally my favorite writer, does not inform the aesthetic of Huston's film. Instead, he delivers her grotesquerie in stark, realistic terms, colored in dusty yellows and rusted reds. O'Connor's occurs in the beginning of the 1950s as everyone returns home from Korea and lingering assignments to new Army bases in Germany and Japan, but as can be plainly seen in her passage, the economic recovery wasn't as complete as simplified history would have us believe. Deep in the South, faded billboards and broken-down cars litter towns populated by impoverished zombies; you would think from looking at such sights that America had lost the war and the Axis had nuked us instead.
Huston, on the other hand, sets the story in contemporary late-'70s America, choosing to shoot the film in Macon, Ga., mere miles from O'Connor's hometown in Baldwin County yet completely overhauling the setting. The effect, however, remains much the same: the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America is if anything more intimidating and lost than in the economic boom of the '50s. O'Connor's novel questions the commercialization of religion, making the time of Huston's choosing, just before the Me Generation would vote for Reagan and spend the next decade in pure capitalist bliss, all the more appropriate for the subject material.
Following an opening set of black-and-white still photos of perfunctory evangelical messages pasted on signs across the South (including one on a Dairy Queen marquee), Huston begins the film proper with a shot of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), freshly returned from serving in the Army, standing in the middle of a barren street in a small town and hitches a ride with the first (and only) car that passes. Hazel remembers a dirt road in the place of this interstate highway they ride on, and the driver informs him that it's just been paved, and that it's been there just long enough for everyone in town to have driven away on it. Upon reaching his old family home, Motes finds it deserted and heads out back to see a headstone bearing the name of his grandfather, a tent revival preacher who raised him. Suddenly, Hazel's demeanor changes completely.
Rather than give himself to grief, Hazel looks liberated but also unhinged. He buys a train ticket to the nearest city, Taulkinham, and he tells several people, "I'm gonna do some things I ain't done before" with dark conviction. The first sign of what might be motivating Motes comes in the form of a flashback to his grandfather's fiery sermons, but his true state of mind starts to clarify when he buys a suit and hat that make him look like a preacher, only to viciously lash out at those who mistake him for one. "I ain't no preacher," he tells a cab driver with such force that you worry Hazel might strike the man, who unwisely continues to press the point until Dourif draws his mouth so tight that he's nearly hissing through closed lips that "I don't believe in anything."
To this the cabbie wryly responds, "That's the problem with preachers. They've all gotten too good to believe in anything." It's a sharp line, but it perfectly sets up the city into which Hazel wades. Populous but spare, Taulkinham is dotted with churches and those religious billboards, yet no one in town seems to care anything for Jesus. A blind man, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), wades into a crowd gathered by a salesman and starts begging for "dollars for Jesus." But the salesman is simply enraged that someone else would try to steal his crowd, though the gathered people are just as uninterested in giving to charity as they are buying the vendor's unimpressive potato peeler. Surrounded by rusted entreaties to the Lord, no one in town actually cares enough about religion to contribute to a blind preacher. This apathy is recalled throughout the film, particularly in a scene where Hazel stops in the middle of the road to glare at a "Jesus saves!" message on a rock until traffic builds behind him. When a man gets out of his car to ask Motes to move, the young man can only seethe at the rock and tell the man of his religious hatred. The other driver doesn't react at all, only repeating his request. Even in the Bible Belt, where people always talk of their religion and constantly air grievances over breaches of their delicate sensibilities, no one seems to mind outright atheism.
Yet Jesus still holds a certain draw over people, and Motes cannot abide to see Him lingering in the minds of others as He does in the man's own. So, Hazel elects to form his own religion, the "Church Without Christ," one that promises not to burden mankind with ideas of original sin, thus circumventing the need for a Christ figure to save us. For Hazel, raised by his fire-and-brimstone grandfather to have such fear for original sin -- which the old man illustrated by hiring a stripper to play Eve -- that he often wet himself in sermons and placed rocks in his shoes as a means of constant punishment and atonement, Jesus has become representative of sin. If Jesus existed in order to die for sin, than a denial of his existence allows one to believe that humanity does not have to atone for damnation.
It sounds optimistic, but O'Connor, possibly the most openly religious great author of the modern age, would never allow such a sunny view of atheism to hold sway. In her novel, as it is in the film, Hazel's crusade against Christ brings him closer to Him than ever, albeit in the most horrific manner possible. For the author, atheism cannot work because Jesus acts as the balancing act for the world's evils; without him, mankind has no guide outside of the sins of the flesh, sins that Hazel ironically embraces for all of his preaching against their existence. He shacks up with a prostitute, a bloated mess whose seductive pull over Hazel and several others may be the result of her gluttony appealing to their sense of greed. Sabbath Lily, Asa's daughter, appears virtuous and plain, but this is just an act, and she reveals her true nature to Motes by writhing on the ground in unbound sexuality like an unsaved Mary Magdalene, or perhaps the snake in the Garden of Eden.
Yet where Hazel cannot see his own sin, those around him commit various transgressions knowingly. Asa only pretends that he cannot see, having promised to blind himself with lye to win converts and donations years earlier. Sabbath Lily uses her virginal look merely to heighten her sexual appeal. Even Enoch Emory, the young, lonely man who follows Hazel out of loneliness, has a darker side to him, pursuing a human connection to the point of desperation (though Huston replaces Enoch's creepy isolation with comic relief in the film's most glaring flaw). People pay as much attention to Hazel's sermons as they do of proper Christian services, but a preacher named Hoover Shoats (Ned Beatty) spots Motes railing from his car hood and decides to promote the man. Part of Hazel's new religion stresses that you don't need to donate money, and Shoats demonstrates why the young man feels so strongly about this when he jumps in front of Motes and starts working the crowd into giving him money. This preacher sees dollar signs, commercializing Hazel's deeply personal attempt to purge himself of his childhood trauma and tainting this new religion the same way that Shoats and people like him ruined Christianity.
Here the lines between O'Connor, the deeply committed Catholic, and Huston, an equally adamant atheist, meet. Huston attempts to define Motes through existential terms: first he dresses like a preacher, then adopts the role to fit the suit. Later, he begins to morph into a new Christ and changes accordingly. For O'Connor, atheism may be a flawed state of being, maybe even irreconcilable with the nature of metaphysics and the supernatural, but she paints men like Hawks and Shoats as no less vile than Hazel, and even a great deal worse. These snake oil salesmen make their living not by rejecting God but by redefining Him to sell a product. As Hoover says in the book regarding Motes' Church Without Christ, "It's based on your own personal interpitation [sic] of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited." By denying God, Hazel at least has a clear idea of what the deity supposedly is, while Shoats encourages people to convert by sacrificing nothing and forcing God to bend to the rules set by each individual. (Could O'Connor's outlook in 1952 have been any more prescient to the age of the televangelist, of Bible outlets of various translations and of marketed salvation?) When Hazel attempts to cast off the man, Shoats rallies and tells him that he'll simply find someone to play Motes' prophet and run him out of "business." "What you need is a little competition."
Every O'Connor story contains a moment of "grace" -- in a loose, violent, Catholic sense -- and her fury toward Shoats is adroitly conveyed when she hinges Hazel's own moment, or one of them, on the murder of the man Shoats dresses up like Motes. A horrific play on the Cleansing of the Temple, Hazel may well be acting as God's agent in destroying the man, purging the world of a false prophet and setting the man on his path to becoming a perverted vision of Christ before Jesus, in Huston's own, direct terms, "wins."
Working in his more sober style, Huston cannot possibly see the event as graceful even by O'Connor's definition. The hired man, played by William Hickey, is a worn-down, penniless drunk who takes Shoats' money because he needs what he can get. When he speaks, he does so in a halting mumble, suggesting brain damage of some sort. When Hazel catches up to the man alone, however, he rams the impostor's car off the road, forces him to remove his preacher's clothes, and then runs the man over in quick succession. With only a minute or two of screentime, Hickey makes his character so sympathetic and ignorant that to see him murdered so brutally does not spark reminders of Christ's righteous purge but merely disgust. Huston commits to making Hazel into a Christ figure, but he gets the last laugh by portraying this turn as darker than anything in the man's previous character. After running him over, Motes gets out to insult the dying man, who begins to repent for his sins and even begs, "Jesus, help me" while looking right at Hazel, who is so consumed by hate that he leaves the man to die without another word. If Jesus must win, contrary to Huston's own wishes, then the director can at least make it a Pyrrhic victory.
Despite preaching for a new Jesus, Hazel had previously rejected replacements for Christ, going so far as to bash a mummified body Enoch stole to use as Motes' "mascot" against the wall and toss it out the window when Sabbath Lily brings it to him in swaddling clothes as if the Virgin Mary presenting her newborn son. Yet the sickening, chilling interlude with the impostor marks a change in Hazel that causes him to rapidly adjust to the role of the new Jesus he called for earlier. He actually blinds himself with lye, scaring off both Asa and Sabbath Lily by confronting them with true belief, returns to filling his shoes with rocks and screws and even wraps his torso in barbed wire. In a world where no one cares about Jesus, this upstart icon cannot even find someone who hates him enough to make him into a martyr, forcing him to do all the torture himself.
I realize that I have used all these words yet devoted none to Brad Dourif's performance. Dourif's presence alone challenges any preconceived notions of Huston's style. One of the embodiments of the old studio system, Huston would be one of the last people I would think to direct a film with Dourif in the lead. Dourif, who came to prominence as the stuttering, infantile yet intense Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is one of the symbols of the more daring edge of New Hollywood, an actor so dedicated to his craft that he actually went back to acting school after being nominated for an Oscar. Where contemporaries like Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper portrayed intense madness on the screen with a subtle layer of drug-addled mania, Dourif communicated pure insanity, an instability that seemed to come directly from him (speaking of which, how wonderful was it to see Werner Herzog play Dourif against his clearest mainstream descendant, Nicolas Cage, in Bad Lieutenant?). Dourif admits that he was not Huston's first choice and only got the part because Tommy Lee Jones was not free, but he brings his frightful dedication fully to bear: his icy blue eyes can barely hold back decades of Hazel's pent-up rage and pain, his frame shaking just as violently as his terrified childhood self. Every inch of him bristles as if connected to a live wire, and the venom in his voice seeps into your pores. My only previous connection of Huston to the New Hollywood movement was his performance in Chinatown, but his appearance was itself a reference and -- when examined in the context of his character in the film -- a commentary on Old Hollywood style and the darker implications of Hays Code films now brought out for all to see.
Reportedly, he and Dourif clashed at several points during the production, from the actor's presumptuous pursuit of the lead role to his protests over a scene Huston loved that Dourif felt killed the flow (the scene was later cut). Yet they find a beautiful, unexpected harmony together, Huston's workmanlike direction gaining an edge from capturing Dourif's fury even as it places us just far enough from Hazel's thoughts to allow us to be repulsed by him just as Huston and O'Connor want us to be.
"Jesus is a fact!" screamed Asa to Hazel in his first encounter, a loopy, stereotypically fundamentalist proclamation of hollow piety, yet one O'Connor agrees with on some level. Even at the beginning, she sows the seeds for Motes' transformation, eying a woman on the train who looks too intently at the price tag on his suit and asking her, "I bet you think you've been redeemed, don't you?" like the vengeful Christ who haunts Hazel's thoughts. By the end of the film, Huston has built upon such moments to turn Hazel into a Jesus who seems to only bring pain to others, not deliver them from it, though even that is giving him too much credit. Only the spinster landlady takes any interest in the mutilated Hazel, and her romantic feelings for him are tinged by budding religious need; when she declares her love for the Stoic, disinterested man, she phrases her statement as if preparing for a baptism, saying, "I've got a place in my heart for you." Motes balks at the suggestion and leaves without a word, but his wounds get the best of him and he dies in a ditch a few days later. Police cart him back to the landlady, believing him unconscious and demanding that he pay her owed rent, and the film closes with her entreating Hazel once more, only for him to lie on the bed sprawled and immobile as she tries to stir him.
O'Connor plays this moment as Hazel's relief from torment, a reunion with the God he hated so long -- O'Connor always forced her characters to die to know full salvation, death of course being a necessity for the afterlife. Huston, however, hints that this may be the start of the new religion, with one person, the one person who loved him, no less, taking up the charge for Hazel's Church Without Christ and using him as the martyr necessary to win converts. Naturally, she will speak glowingly of her idealized vision of Hazel, and if word can take root, Hazel may morph through the generations into a vision of purity to guide humanity. Ergo, Huston darkly and ingeniously postulates that this is the story of Jesus himself. No other figure suffered so terribly to fulfill the strict wishes of his patriarch, and who's to say that Christ wasn't a madman who gripped passers-by and screamed against the current state of spiritual being, heeded by only a small group before his death. It took centuries for word-of-mouth to make Christianity such a force that persecution could not hold them back, and the ending of Huston's Wise Blood turns the entire story on its head: what if Hazel didn't refashion himself into a Christ figure so much as Jesus once grew out of a man like Hazel? Auteur or no, find me another man in his seventies who would make such a film for his 33rd feature.