I was recently drawn to a British film, Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked’ (1993) after reading the briefest of plot summaries and seeing a single film still. That night, I had a dream about that movie and conjured an idea of what it would be like. I bought it the next day, and upon viewing it, it appeared exactly as I had imagined. A desperate tale of a misanthropic fire-and-brimstone anti-cleric on a rampant journey to change people’s ideas, rallying against the Good Book to a backdrop of social decay and misery.
Wise Blood had this effect on me too. Many years ago while working night shift at a supermarket, I took a break and sat in the staff room. This movie was playing on the TV. I saw Harry Dean Stanton – a particular favourite actor – on screen and was drawn in for a whole 15 minutes while I drank black coffee and ate Oreos. When my time was up I had only the name of a cast member to go on, and discover the name of this interesting movie.
The next day I looked up the movie on the internet and found it, but almost instantly forgot about it. Although this probably didn’t matter; at this point as I would have been unable to obtain it anyway, due to it never being brought to DVD at this time.
Recently I spotted it in a local shop, and remembering the title picked it up. It was full price, and I don’t normally pay full price for a DVD as they can be picked up for less than £3 if you look in the right places. I kept coming back to this one particular outlet to buy it, waiting anxiously for a sale or a price change. It never came, so I just bought it anyway.
I’m pretty glad I did. It’s strange how, like Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked’ I was drawn to this movie, as there are many striking similarities. Hazel Motes is every bit as miserable and callous as Johnny, and the people that he meets are every bit as misunderstanding, uninterested or interested for all the wrong reasons as their counterparts in the other film. It is a very sad tale, fleshed out with strong characters and set in the God-fearing deep South.
The director John Huston is fast becoming a favourite of mine; notoriously agnostic, he shows this as the film contains a great deal of religious iconography used in quite cynical ways. Judgement, guilt, primates, lying, idolatry, false prophets, they’re all here in this miserable old Georgia town.
I recently read a criticism of this movie which took exception to the novel’s timeframe. Hazel Motes is supposed to be a world war two veteran, but the film is set in some sort of strange melting pot of decades. In addition to a particularly archaic potato peeling invention being peddled by an archetypal street salesman, everything seem to be very cheap; a man can rent a room for $20 USD a week, buy a (very old 1958 Ford Fairline) car for $225 and a suit for $7. But, diametrically, we have black people walking the streets in sportswear and aviator sunglasses, mingling quite ordinarily with white folk in gas stations and on streets…distinctly modern and of course perfectly ordinary in our time. Unfortunately I don’t believe this was deliberate. Although I suppose one could make the excuse that this is a 1970s tale, and perhaps Motes is a Vietnam vet, it’s just that everything in this backwater squat is conservative and old-fashioned, just like the Church the inhabitants follow?
Overall, an excellent movie, which will undoubtedly stay with me for its many great moments, ambiguous moments, amusing moments, and deeply moving moments. Huston’s late-period masterpiece.