A potent body of associations has arisen about the South, attached to vernacular musical traditions found on commercial recordings released in the 1920s and 1930s. For many people, the high lonesome sound of the Appalachians, the haunting syncopation of bottleneck guitars featured in the delta blues, and the a cappella angelic voices in gospel choirs collectively evoke something genuine and unaffected. The performers seem not to have possessed careers, but instead pursued visions, finding in their music some solace in the midst of misery.
At the same time, something unsettling, even alienating, fixes to every note and chord, evoking a world fraught with calamity and chaos, fervent emotions and extreme behavior. The music critic Greil Marcus connects this repertoire with a terrain he deems “Old Weird America.” He writes that an immersion in this environment allows one to uncover “the catacombed archives of utopia and morbidity beneath American highways of practical enterprise and manifest destiny” (Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, 1997, 179).
Andrew Douglas’ Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus takes up a quest for these archives. The British-born Douglas says he is attracted by the “Southern obsession with the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane.” The region’s deeply ingrained religiosity, particularly as embedded in the tenets of Pentecostalism, occupies the film’s core, while the diversions of the barroom take on the character of detours. For his part, screenwriter Steve Haisman sees the South as the forgotten “other” of American culture. He states, “This whole area was so fascinating; somehow it was a raw image of ourselves, or at least something we’ve lost sight or forgotten. Our own world seems so sophisticated and so devouring. It assimilates everything but is at the same time so lacking in a certain content.”
The Florida-born, alt-country singer-songwriter Jim White acts as tour guide in this search for “content.” His conversations with assorted subjects form the spine for a somewhat meandering odyssey down back roads, through trailer parks, past coal mines, and into prisons in Louisiana, Alabama, and West Virginia. The ample musical performances in Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus come from local nonprofessional players as well as denizens of the alt-scene, including the Handsome Family, Johnny Dowd, and David Johansen, who has made his own circuitous musical route from being the lead singer of the New York Dolls to mining the vernacular canon at the helm of the Harry Smiths.
But though the music is enjoyable and the cinematography evocative, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus comes across in the end as an ill-conceived enterprise, recycling familiar, even hackneyed, estimations of the South. How many times have we heard of the collision between visceral pleasures and the eternal verities? Somehow, all Douglas can make of what the Drive-By Truckers call the “duality of the Southern thing” is a series of clichés: if a Southerner is not raising a glass, he’s hoisting a snake; if not shouting out a rebel yell, speaking in tongues.
Another problem concerns the very inclusion of music. None of the performers are identified by name; neither do we learn much about where they come from or why they play this material. Their performances feel uncomfortably staged, the musicians detached from their surroundings. We find them plunked in the middle of the woods, sitting in a motel bedroom, even on a porch mysteriously perched in the middle of a lake.
On one occasion, the Handsome Family plays in a dirt field near some house trailers, as a small boy stands before them. The child’s nonplussed expression and eventual exit from the frame parallel the viewer’s position: just who are these people and what are they doing here? And why does the film fail to identify the celebrated novelist Harry Crews until the final credits? His astute and metaphorically rich anecdotes about the regional mentality (as when he explains why you should bury the eyes of anything you eat with the pupils facing earthward) comprise some of the film’s most memorable moments.
Another, more ingeniously conceived documentary, Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom (1993), also does not identify its participants until the final credits. But Gatlif’s film conveys the association between the musicians and the spaces where they play (they come from the domain of the roma, or gypsy). Douglas, by contrast, plants his subjects in a sphere many people believe resonates with an indissoluble sense of place, yet never shows why. This jail, roadhouse, trailer park, streambed, or truck stop could be just about anywhere off any chosen beaten track.
Still, some moments tell something of the region’s essence, or, at the least, momentarily pull back the veil on an individual’s life. At a religiously-themed truck stop, one of the employees speaks of the loss in her life and the fact that she could only recently visit the grave of her son, years after his death. You almost wish that she might break into a mountain ballad as a means of corralling her heartbreak. But even without the song, her gap-toothed features and world-weary expression illuminate, if only for a moment, that “raw image of ourselves” for which Haisman pines, and of which we have greater need than Douglas and his collaborators can imagine.