“An artist should paint as if he were in the presence of God”
— Leonardo Da Vinci
John Huston was never one to shrug off the massive challenge of adapting dense literary masterworks for the big screen. His final film, The Dead (1987), was an elegiac take on James Joyce’s sweeping colection of short stories, The Dubliners, and in his career he found time to squeeze in such tricky film versions of novels such as The African Queen, Under the Volcano and The Man Who Would be King.
Wise Blood, which takes on Flannery O’Connor’s sprawling tale of zealotry, passion and confusion, might be Huston’s most complex literary adaptation, and indeed his most faithful. Unfortunately, it might also be his least visionary, lacking the gut-punch of Fat City, or the florid locale of his 1952 take on Moulin Rouge.
Huston’s talent for adapting the kind of material that producers found to be un-filmable most likely lays in his ability to see through the layers of obtuseness and straighten all of the ambiguousness of a piece into something more filmic. According to author Francine Prose (who wrote an excellent essay included in Criterion’s new edition), Huston did this first with Dashiell Hammet’s “convoluted” The Maltese Falcon, and continued to figure out how to place these literary puzzles pieces into a coherent film for the rest of his life, enjoying success with adaptations of authors ranging from Carson McCullers to Herman Melville.
Lean and uncompromising, Wise Blood is the “hilarious and disturbing” story of Hazel Motes (a perfectly-cast Brad Dourif), a young man who is obsessed with God. O’Connor, a devout Catholic in real life, wrote a novel that dealt with the topic of religion in a bold way – exploring both the absurdity and the seriousness of salvation and redemption through finding Jesus Christ—except Hazel’s path to righteousness involves destroying piousness and tradition in favor of creating something much more formless.
Traditionally, those who challenge ultra-conservative religious customs are labeled dangerous or deemed cultish, and both Huston’s protagonist and the film itself could be looked at in these kinds of terms. O’Connor simplifies this sentiment in a famous quote: “grace changes us and change is painful.”
The extras for the film boast the only known recording of O’Connor reading her own fiction (A Good Man is Hard to Find), in which her deceptively genteel-Southern demeanor is deconstructed to reveal a dry, sardonic sense of humor and the beautifully plaintive descriptive sensibility (especially of the grotesque) that infiltrates her writing is brilliantly captured. “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader,” she explains. “Unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
Meeting up with a David Lynch-like cast of oddities and weirdoes, Hazel is determined to destroy his connection to God, going to such lengths as creating his own anti-church: The Church without Christ (“where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way”). Huston and his cast, including Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright and Ned Beatty as a stock company of charlatans, explore the pure nihilism, ego, paranoia and desperation of religion without ever disrespecting the source material or pandering to any specific audiences.
In an extensive PBS interview with Bill Moyers included on the extras disc, Huston says “the actor is in the presence of God. The audience is God to the actor and he gets immediate approval or disapproval. He knows pretty much where he stands with God.” The film does not take sides in the fight between religious fanatics and anti-religious fanatics, yet does a capable job of presenting enough evidence so that the viewer decide for themselves if the whole thing is just a sham or something deeply personal and intimate.
Prose suggests that Huston and his team were inspired by the great photographs from Depression-era master Walker Evans, whose spare images captured and evoked soulfulness in a time of desperation with the same lean visual qualities mirrored in cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s rendering of the Deep South post-war climate in which Hazel preached. A complete box-office bomb, Wise Blood was made with a shoestring budget with non-union workers, and relied heavily on the dreamily prosaic imagery for artistic credibility.
Just as Huston’s Under the Volcano seemed inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s atmospheric photographs of prostitutes and the poor of rural Mexico, the director succeeds in evoking a similarly sparse, atmospheric milieu in this exceptionally American, specialized world where “religion” can be a personal experience and a for-profit enterprise, as well as pornographic. The stillness of the images, the eerie quiet in Hazel’s face, echoes the ennui captured in Fisher’s stark photography, but ratchets the tension up with a dash of surrealism, which, it can be argued, is also a presence in Fisher’s work.
In fact, much of Huston’s oeuvre can be seem in these kinds of photographic terms – the worlds he created were always respectful of the visions of the authors he chose, utterly cinematic, yet singularly “Huston” – lean, gritty and full. Wise Blood is a kindred spirit to Huston’s bleak masterpieces like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Misfits (which have, in turn, inspired other tremendous work from generations of directors , but falls just shy of being a masterpiece in it’s own right.
There are a lot of ideas happening, and a precise directorial focus, but overall, Wise Blood, though a complex and often fascinating misfire, isn’t one of the great director’s most notable achievements. It does, however, cement Huston as not only one of the greatest adapters of literature, but also, surprisingly, one of the most artistically experimental.
Image (partial) courtesy of the Criterion Collection