By Darin Skaggs
The Criterionist podcast might be dead. Maybe. I’m more of a writer than a speaker anyway. I do have my other podcast, The RoseBuds, which I do every week with my friend. Anyhow, I do love analyzing movies, including those from the Criterion Collection and found myself having the desire to talk about movies coming out more recently, which is troubling when you know you have 850 more weeks until you get there. So I have decided that every once and a while here on my blog I will post a review about a Criterion movie, which ever one I want. Sometimes I will probably force myself to do a random one because without the podcast I would probably would not have checked out and found a love for movies like Tokyo Drifter or the TV show Fishing With John. So here is the first of, hopefully, many reviews from The Criterionist starting with John Huston’s 1979 film Wise Blood.
In the late sixties and early seventies is where filmmakers found themselves given a new kind of artistic and creative freedom as the Hayes code which restricted films to showing violence, nudity and offensive language was finally lifted. In its place movies were allowed to do mostly whatever they wanted and the movie was given a rating on how explicit it was. This let movies do more revolutionary things like Mike Nichols’ The Graduate be blunt about sexual relationships and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde used realistic violence to leave a big impact on the audience. Other films like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H got the honor of film’s first F-bomb. Plenty of classic filmmakers got to explore some new filmmaking types. Alfred Hitchcock found himself being able to get away with more racy sensual scenes. John Huston who made such films like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure in the Sierra Madre back in the forties got a few movies in after the fall of the Hayes code. One of those films is 1979’s Wise Blood based off the novel by Flannery O’Conner. Here Huston doesn’t take on violence or sex, but takes on a theme he could not really before because some could be easily offended and that is, religion and the religious.
Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes with a stellar, committed performance by Brad Dourif who is an army vet from an unknown war who is returning home. Frustrated at the world or himself or some unknown force he moves in the town of Taulkinham where he encounters a street vendor who is interrupted by a blind preacher asking for money. He immediately starts a feud with the preacher and affection for his daughter. He begins to preach on the streets a new kind of church “The Church Without Christ.” He is desperate; there is no clear motivation for why he decides to do this. He might be doing it out of revenge, success, self-pity and it is even possible that he truly believes it.
John Huston along with screenwriters Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald take a look at religion, but more importantly the people that are in charge of it. Hazel plays the part of a preacher who has no idea what he is talking about. There is a preacher Asa Hawks played by Harry Dean Stanton who has blinded himself to prove his dedication to the church. Hazel is skeptical, it seems he is skeptical of most things but this time he ends up being correct. Every religious figure in this town is not totally in the right, including a success hungry man named Hoover Shoates, played by Ned Beatty, who tries to team up with Hazel and ends up competing with him, hiring a broke man on the street to preach next to Hazel and get more followers.
Every character here is something to behold really. Harry Dean Stanton really makes the Hawks character really slimy and unlikable. He wants to find a group who needs him. Everyone does in a sense; Lily clings to Hawks and then when he is shown up she clings to Hazel. Hoover needs to succeed and will do anything to get it. The most interesting character is Enoch Emory, with the great, committed performance by Dan Shor. He plays a guy looking for a friend the whole movie. He goes around constantly talking to Hazel, who is clearly not listening. He takes him to a museum, trying to force a friendship. He even steals a shrunken human from said museum because he might think it would be a nice symbol for Hazel’s Church Without Christ that not only is an attempt to find friendship from Hazel, but he forms an attachment to the figure as well. His final taking of a gorilla suit of a famous gorilla TV star and begging for handshakes is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film. Along with religious cynicism, the whole film is also about trying to form connections where there are none, where there will be none.
Hazel’s journey throughout the picture is astonishing. He begins as an angry, cynical man who hints that he got his private parts damaged during the war. This is later hinted at with a couple of scenes that could lead to a sex scene, but do not. When Hazel gets into town he finds an address on a public bathroom wall claiming it is the “The Friendliest Bed in Town.” He goes there a few nights, it seems just so he has a place to stay. There is one time where the woman hints at wanting a sexual experience. He begins to undress, but before anything could happen it cuts away. He seems to find some feelings for the young daughter of Hawks, Lily who is played by Amy Wright, she even finds herself sleeping in his bed. In one scene they are kissing and he says he wants her, but it cuts away suspiciously far from any real sexual encounter. Like I said this happens in the late seventies where it was fine to show a sex scene. With that knowledge it seems those scenes went wrong and ended awkwardly. It is not clear if that is what is making him the cynical preacher. Does he blame God for what happened to him? Is that why he creates a church that is “Without Christ” or is just a bad idea to get people to like or respect him? There is no clear answer, we just know a damaged man creates a church and fails to get anyone to really follow it.
It is no secret when Paul Thomas Anderson made There Will Be Blood he was influenced by John Huston. Using Sierra Madre as how to create a barren waste land where people still live was an aspect in both of those films. Here I see our main characters, Hazel Motes as a mix of the two giant figures in Anderson’s film. He works as the stubborn preacher like Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday character when he is on the street desperately looking to change people’s lives and have them follow him as well the power house Daniel Plainvew played by Daniel Day-Lewis who is out to prove people wrong and make no friends, and like Hazel we never really know why. Even the word “Blood” is found in both the titles of the movies because in There Will Be Blood Plainview after decades is fed up with Sunday and kills him. A sad ending for an unlikable character, but here in Wise Blood the same happens and even worse for our main guy he has to destroy himself. Just like before with his preaching’s we have to wonder why he does this. Is it self-hatred like Plainview hates Sunday or is it for his faith so he can prove he is dedicated unlike the preachers before him. Wise Blood is an under looked, fantastic movie. It is a great edition late in Huston’s career and an essential viewing.