by SPENCER T. CAMPBELL
dir. John Huston
John Huston’s Wise Blood is a film without a memory. Early on, its protagonist, Hazel Motes — played like a lit matchstick by Brad Dourif — declares, “I’m going to the city, to Taulkinham. I don’t know nobody in Taulkinham.…I’m gonna do some things I ain’t never done before.” This line is one of the few accurate predictions in a story chock full of sham prophets, disappointments, and deceptions: once in the city, Motes will do an awful lot that he’s never done before. He will preach a new, nihilistic faith ("The Church of Truth without Christ Crucified"), be seduced by a preacher’s teenage daughter, kill a man, blind himself with lime, die. But the line might also serve a tag for the film itself, which operates in a shocked present tense, treating everything that happens as an event with neither precedent nor consequence. The individuals of Wise Blood are apparitions that speak to each other with intensity, even conviction, but little sense of history or motivation — as though everything they said were a non-sequitur.
Taulkinham is a purgatorial freak show, a livid surface upon which characters swirl and react, but do not interact. There is a sense of history that flecks around its edges, but the prevailing impression is that Taulkinham is a place where everyone flares into being and diminishes without leaving a mark. Even Motes’s death comes lightly, falling with barely a shiver at the end of the film.
This is in stark contrast to Flannery O’Connor’s novel, a grotesque, comic allegory that has its protagonist play Catholic saint to an audience of Southern Protestants. Satiric and wicked as the book can be, its primary impulse is to show the forces pushing Hazel Motes ineluctably toward devotion, no matter how stridently he renounces his belief. O’Connor famously describes Jesus moving “from tree to tree in the back of [Hazel’s] mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark….” The association of faith and darkness here clearly prefigures Motes’s self-blinding, but more important are the correspondences this image draws between interiority, history, belief and space. Jesus resides inside Hazel, but also behind him; to give himself to faith is to turn around and step backward — into himself, his past, the faith that abides within him, however furiously he disowns it.
Huston’s film makes no attempt to evoke Motes’ interiority. The chief difference between the book and the movie is the obvious one: the novel deals in depth, the film with surfaces. Huston takes this basic difference and applies pressure to it, forcing his adaptation into a subtle but thorough-going subversion of its source material, and bringing it in line with the lost-man movies of 1970s existential American cinema: Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, etc. Wise Blood is a novel that asks us to plunge inside and back in order to find meaning, but it is a film that wants us to glide along its surface and discover that nothing lies inside.
This distinction is easy to miss, since the events depicted in the movie scarcely diverge from those in the book. In the essay accompanying the Criterion release of Wise Blood, Francine Prose sounds what has become the common note about the film: "In spite of himself, he had made a film about a Christian in spite of himself, groping his way toward redemption." As an avowed (one might say cranky) atheist, Huston was not the obvious interpreter of O’Connor’s novel. He signed on to the project only after producer Michael Fitzgerald (a devout Catholic and the son of O’Connor’s literary executor, the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald) had raised all the money to fund it. Huston then proceeded to shoot the movie with a kind of sour-pussed blindness to the source material, apparently under the impression that he was filming a cross between Don Quixote and Green Acres. In Huston’s vision, the troubled young man at the center of the story is the victim throughout of derangement, a madness planted in him by his holy fanatic grandfather (portrayed, almost too suggestively, by Huston himself). And this plays out as a zany satire of the zealous South, in which Motes renounces Jesus to preach the Church of Truth without Christ Crucified, but relents in the final act, committing acts of self-mutilation in the name of asceticism, and passing, one guesses, at last into unclouded oblivion.
Huston had envisioned these sequences as the film’s last belch in the face of religion, an acrid joke exposing the absurdity of belief. In his view, by the end of the film, Motes’s mental disease has finally aligned itself with the notion that humanity’s debt of sin must be settled in self-sacrifice. He dies not so much a saint as a sucker. But the punchline, as Prose notes, is that these scenes refuse to unfold this way. No matter how tawdry, there is a dignity, a resolve, to Motes’s death, and here even Huston ends up a convert: "According to Huston biographer Lawrence Grobel, a hasty script conference about Hazel’s fate persuaded Huston that at 'the end of the film, Jesus wins.'"
What the above story really underlines is how unusually faithful the film is to the novel’s broad story and many particulars. This probably has something to do with its origin as a sort of Fitzgerald family project: after securing the rights to the book from his father, Michael Fitzgerald hired his brother, Benedict, to write the script. Their mother, Sally, handled set and costume design. The Fitzgeralds had known O’Connor personally (Sally Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing O’Connor’s biography when Flannery died), and conceived the film out of respect for her work. Perhaps as a consequence of their fidelity, the chronology of the movie matches that of the novel almost exactly, and virtually all of its dialogue is a word-for-word transplant grafted directly from the page to the screen. Poetic license seems never to have occurred to the Fitzgerald brothers. The differences in plot and talk amount to a few demure compressions.
But the script’s exceptional devotion to its source material is the wrong yardstick by which to measure Wise Blood. Although the story of Huston’s begrudging "conversion" draws a neat ironic squiggle for the film’s footnotes, it underplays the degree to which he carries O’Connor’s plot to a very different existential conclusion. Jesus may “win,” but only in Hazel Motes’s mind, and Huston is committed never to let us in there.
Take, for example, a scene near the very beginning of the film, in which Motes stumbles through a dilapidated farmhouse before heading off to Taulkinham. The house is more than just a shambles: it’s post-apocalyptic, a welt on the landscape. Its walls are singed, soaked, splintered, spooked. Its décor makes a monument to disrepair. What happened here? The film gives no indication; nor does it go out of its way to relate Hazel to this building by way of any expository detail. This is the closest that the film will come to giving Hazel a home, and, even here, it seems perversely bent on denying him a biographical connection with it.
Hazel stumbles around, still wearing his army uniform (another biographical tease, since the war he’s returned from will never be named) and finally scribbles a note on a piece of furniture: “This shiffer robe belongs to Hazel Motes. Do not steal it or you will be hunted down AND KILLED.” Then he visits his grandfather’s tombstone, which sits crumbling out back. These are the only threads to tie this place to Hazel’s previous life — it’s no coincidence that both allude to death. Wise Blood is a film that wants to disavow its characters’ history, severing it like a diseased limb.
Contrast this to the same sequence in the book. O’Connor packs a short story’s worth of background detail into a few sentences: “There was nothing left in the house but the chifforobe in the kitchen. His mother had always slept in the kitchen and had her walnut chifforobe in there. She had given thirty dollars for it and hadn’t bought herself anything else big again.” O’Connor dives from backstory directly into Motes’s psyche, and through that into still deeper background: “He thought about the chifforobe in his half-sleep and decided his mother would rest easier in her grave, knowing it was guarded. If she came looking any time at night, she would see. He wondered if she walked at night and came there ever. She would come with that look in her face, unrested and looking, the same look he had seen through the crack of her coffin.”
When O’Connor handles this scene, only the thinnest membrane separates Hazel’s experience of his environment from contemplation and memory. In this respect, O’Connor’s Hazel has a properly Modernist mind. The Modernist consciousness always inhabits at least two places at once; sensation, thought, and memory are separate-but-inseparable facets of a single subjective experience. Its present is a pliant surface always giving to memory, while its external world holds the keys to its subjective interior, and vice-versa.
For O’Connor, this is more than a stylistic choice. Along with its close cousin, metaphor, she envisions the Modernist consciousness as fiction’s way of grappling with the problem of faith. And O’Connor’s faith is persistently troubled. Like Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor saw the believer’s mind as a site bedeviled by struggle, beset by civil war. In faith, the reasoning mind struggles, paradoxically, to ascertain that which is essentially mysterious, irrational. The devout writer’s job is to portray this struggle experientially.
O’Connor’s stylistic manifesto "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" declares, "if the writer believes that our life is and will remain mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself... The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted." A novelist interested in the mysterious (which, for O’Connor, always means the divine) must therefore write with a peculiar double-vision, seeing depth in every shallow thing.
The surface of this fiction will look strange, even grotesque, full of pocks, growths, and lapses. Once pressed, however, it will plunge the reader full-tilt into the mysterious, the lunatic divine. This type of novelist is "looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees."
In a way, the novel Wise Blood dramatizes the gradual convergence of these two points in the character of Hazel Motes. Motes' attempt to reject religion realizes itself as a zealous commitment to immediacy, to common sense. “I’m a member and a preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way,” he declares to an audience of disbelieving believers. “No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach!” Motes, ironically, is at his maddest when he preaches common sense.
In O’Connor’s spiritual model, any point of view that stops at what’s in front of it will apprehend only a distortion of the truth. To be down-to-earth is to go only halfway; the spiritual (and literary) perspective seeks the infinite through the immediate. This is a solitary, subjective conception of Christianity — to an outside observer, a person haunted by faith will look insane. Hazel Motes achieves authentic insight only after blinding himself, an act that estranges his few companions. "If there’s no bottom to your eyes," he tells his landlady just before death summons him, "you see more." Imagine a Don Quixote whose windmills are also real giants.
How does this spiritual ethos translate to the screen? It doesn’t. Not in Huston’s adaptation, at least. In Wise Blood, Huston takes every opportunity to suppress the novel’s manifestations of depth — history, interiority, spirituality. Taulkinham becomes a kind of amnesiac limbo for Hazel Motes and the other characters to float through, instead of the crucible of belief that it is in the book. This creates as an odd flattening effect, perhaps best seen in two of Huston’s more flamboyant stylistic decisions in the film.
Huston self-consciously blurs the period setting, retaining elements of O’Connor’s early 1950s, but confusing them with contemporary signifiers. He dresses the players in period garb, lets them speak in O’Connor’s voice (language so antiquated and stylized it’s bronzed), arranges a few key scenes around a mid-century movie premiere, and even rushes Motes into Taulkinham on a steam locomotive. But he makes no attempt to disguise the location shots of late-1970s Macon, GA, lets incidental characters (many of them local non-actors) wear contemporary clothing, and drives them all around in 60s- and 70s-era cars.
This lapse has a financial explanation: Fitzgerald simply could not raise enough money to set the whole film in the 50s. And the steam engine, according to Brad Dourif, was contracted at deep discount, and used in the film as a matter of convenience. But I think it is reasonable to guess that Huston reveled in the historic schizophrenia these compromises attain. By muddying its temporality, Huston severs the movie from a larger sense of historical context. Motes’s uniform, for example, pretty clearly denotes the Korean War in O’Connor’s novel, but Huston’s film transforms it into a question mark. Has Motes returned from Vietnam, Korea, Europe, or somewhere else?
The fuzzy periodization raises questions about the motivations and convictions of all the story’s characters. Both the novel and the film have a tendency to veer uncomfortably close to delighting in their portrayal of idiots run amok, but O’Connor’s book at least grounds them in a definite historical moment. The grifter tactics relied on by many of the characters, not to mention the stew of prophecy and belief in which Taulkinham seems mired, make one kind of sense if we imagine the film’s main characters were born at the height of the Depression. The characters seem odder, more singular and freakish, if we imagine that the film takes place in the late-70s, and that its characters grew up in the relatively more affluent 50s. (This does not even touch on the subject of race, which the film itself only glancingly notices, but whose Southern context is of course very different in 1950 than in 1979.)
Hazel’s relationship with Sabbath Lily Hawks is a good example of the strangeness the film’s undecided setting imposes on its characters. Sabbath Lily — wonderfully portrayed by Amy Wright as a kind of squirming, engorged naïf — is the teenage daughter of Asa Hawks, the sham preacher that Motes makes his first nemesis in Taulkinham. Sabbath Lily’s innocence never really comes into question. She makes it clear right away that she has designs on Hazel’s pants.
In a telling scene that marks the midpoint of the film, Sabbath Lily persuades Hazel to drive her into the woods, where she presumably intends to have her way with him. In the car, she delivers a long monologue that amounts to a calculated confession of her perversity. Wright plays this scene feisty and syrupy, leaving no doubt that she means the speech to be part of her seduction routine:
Do you read the papers? Well, there’s this woman in it named Mary Riddle that tells you what to do when you don’t know. I wrote her a letter and asked her what I was to do. I said, ‘Dear Mary, I am a bastard, and a bastard shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, as we all know. But I have this personality that makes boys follow me. Do you think I should neck or not?...' Then she answered my letter in the paper. She said, ‘Dear Sabbath, Light necking is acceptable. But I think your real problem is one of adjustment to the modern world. Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in life….’ Then I wrote another letter. I said, 'Dear Mary, What I really want to know is: Should I go the whole hog or not? That’s my real problem. I’m adjusted OK to the modern world.'
OK, but what constitutes the modern world for Sabbath Lily? Depending on which of the film’s period clues we choose to follow, she was either born between the wars or just before the Summer of Love. To be the bastard child of a preacher, to write the local paper with questions about the ethics of going “whole hog,” and to seduce a grown man — the level of scandal these transgressions imply depends on their degree of perceived sinfulness, and this is, in large part, a factor of historical circumstance. Huston’s decision to deprive these characters of historical context undercuts the story’s religious subtext. O’Connor is too lively a writer to let her characters sit on the page as pure allegorical symbols, but each of them certainly represents something: saint, sinner, temptress, innocent, lost soul. Released from their historical footholds, they have a harder time fitting snugly into these categories.
It is not that Huston portrays these characters as more plainly human, exactly. In fact, the contextual decoupling has the opposite effect, flattening the characters, making them seem sketchier, more conditional. There are times in which the movie seems like little more (or less) than a parade of freaks, and one has a difficult time imagining these people living lives outside the credits.
But this is part of the point: to ratchet up the ambiguity until the people onscreen appear phantasmic, unreal, unsettled. It is almost as though Huston, sensing the spiritual conceit of the novel and the script, retaliates, not by swinging the other way and producing a work of didactic realism, but instead by merely refusing to put his foot down. This would help explain the film’s smallest pleasure, its soundtrack, which alternates between a ponderous instrumental version of “The Tennessee Waltz” and zippy, zany original intrusions that seem designed to replace a laugh track. Even at its sweetest, the film’s score sidles in with remarkable self-consciousness (it is too loud, too sappy), never failing to draw attention to itself as a film score. The effect, once again, is to heighten contextual ambiguity. Are these real people? If so, why the swelling strings? Even if we take this to be an artificial story — what kind of story is it? Is it a philosophical film, a melodrama, or a boggy comedy? The soundtrack refuses to settle, always charging in and tossing its characters back into the air.
Even Wise Blood’s sole gesture to a definite past — its use of flashbacks — feels yanked from its grounding context. The flashbacks, which are candy-pink, as though seen through the eyelids, occur three or four times over the course of the film. Each time, they feel as startling and unprovoked as images from a dream. O’Connor uses her flashbacks both to provide basic exposition and to build Hazel’s interior, showing the continuity between his experience, thought, and memory. We learn about the tyranny of Hazel’s grandfather, the trauma of his mother’s death, the persistence of sexual temptation inside him, the shame and punishment he has endured as a result of sexual exploration. Though Huston’s images depict nearly all of this backstory, they do so in a manner somehow both abrupt and unexplanatory. They are shot at extreme angles through the pink glaze, and Huston muffles the audio, making it gauzy, dreamlike, inconclusive.
Like the score, the flashback sequences do more to disrupt the feeling of unity or wholeness than they do to create it. At best, they seem like shards of memory, which point to some past while at the same time illustrating its inaccessibility. There is something cynically comical about the fact that Huston casts himself as Hazel’s grandfather. He stands at the center of these memories, his finger outstretched in a scold, barring entry.
One of the odd repercussions of the film’s ambiguity is to draw attention to a theme that the novel’s religious preoccupation tends to overshadow: if identity is uncertain, then it is up for grabs. The novel wants to suggest the opposite. Hazel may try to deny Jesus, but he cannot shake the wild, ragged figure in the back of his mind. “Some preacher left his mark on you,” one character tells him, and this mark goes deep — Hazel’s fervent protestations lead him only to become what he already is.
Huston’s adaptation rejects this fatalism. Unrooted, contingent, these characters exist in a charged present that allows them to refashion themselves moment-by-moment. The novel drives Hazel toward a predestined end. The film, by contrast, stresses Hazel’s chameleon quality, allowing him to slide without much comment from guise to guise. Now he is a soldier, now he is a preacher-hater, now he’s preaching, now he’s a murderer, now an ascetic. Because the film does not concern itself with depth, none of these personas carries more weight than the others. If “Jesus wins” at the end of the film, this salvation does not feel like the culmination of a journey, but instead another of Hazel’s outfits. O’Connor’s Hazel Motes spends the novel orbiting a denied but central devotion; Huston’s Hazel spends the film adrift, and ends it lost.
Viewed in this light, Wise Blood looks less like religious allegory and more like an exploration of fluid, indeterminate identity. Asa Hawks enters the film a blind preacher, leaves it a sighted charlatan. A mummy from a museum finds itself christened the new Jesus, then adopted as Hazel and Sabbath Lily’s impromptu child.
We first see Ned Beatty — at his smarmy best as the singing, dancing, bonafide hustler Hoover Shoates — heaped at the edge of the frame like a rag soaked in gasoline. After watching Hazel preach and seeing dollar signs, Shoates quickly assumes the identity of a devotee, then just as quickly hardens into Motes’s arch-nemesis. After Hazel rebuffs his invitation to team up and shuck the townsfolk, Shoates finds a local drunk and refashions him — by way of a speedy costume change — into a prophet. And so on: these characters are always in flux, shedding their skins and adopting new identities as opportunity suits them. When they do betray a conviction, it seems impulsive and improvised. Sabbath Lily decides she is ready to run off with Hazel literally on sight: “I’m just crazy about him. I never seen a boy I like the looks of any better.” Watch the way she fusses in front of Motes, as though his very presence made her skin giggle. Huston is at no pains to motivate Sabbath Lily’s infatuation, to explain why she finds herself so suddenly besotted, to let this part of the performance be anything more than one-note. Motivations do not apply in Taulkinham. Awry and unmoored, these characters live in states of emotional non-sequitur.
No character inhabits his fluid identity better than Enoch Emery, an eighteen-year-old wanderer and mental child with a fascination for monkeys, mummies, and Hazel Motes. Enoch latches on to Hazel early in the film, and trails him with a canine loyalty, despite persistent slapping-down from his would-be friend. It is Enoch who introduces Hazel to the shrunken mummy on display in Taulkinham’s sleepy museum, then steals it in a misguided attempt to bring Motes the new Jesus he’s been preaching about (“all man, without blood to waste”). Enoch also witnesses Hazel’s introduction to Asa Hawks and Sabbath Lily, and helps him track down where they live. But something strange happens two-thirds into the film. Enoch — up to now a sad, ardent follower — gets waylaid, his plotline branching from Hazel’s in distraction. What diverts his attention? A gorilla named Gonga — in truth, a man in a monkey suit, traveling from theater to theater to promote the latest matinee movie.
This plot thread is entirely independent of Hazel’s, and never reconnects. True, Enoch is still a hanger-on, but the object of his devotion has changed. After noticing a line of kids waiting outside a theater in runny-nosed anticipation, Enoch spies the gorilla, gets in line, tamely shakes his hand — then gets back into line and does it again, ultimately following the promotional van to four separate movie houses. By the final handshake, Gonga gets fed up and tells Enoch to go to Hell. Instead, the boy waits until nightfall, creeps onto the Gonga-mobile, bludgeons the performer, and gets into his suit. Enoch’s final scenes are spent as a gorilla on the loose, terrorizing the inhabitants of Taulkinham.
Silly as it is, Enoch’s story is worth deeper consideration. O’Connor makes Enoch something of a counterpart to Hazel, devoting a number of chapters to his point of view and investing him with the story’s eponymous power, “wise blood” (impulses behind which the boy sees a divine hand). Huston’s Enoch is both shallower and trickier. Because very little of the film takes Enoch’s point of view, he initially appears to be a tag-along minor character, no more central than Hoover Shoates, and certainly not as important as Asa Hawks or Sabbath Lily. Which is what makes the Gonga storyline so perplexing. Why would Huston suddenly give a minor character such a goofy subplot, this frivolous intercession into the main story’s climactic scenes? And — even odder — why, after Enoch has stolen the costume, does the film promptly and utterly forget about him? What might be mistaken for sloppy storytelling is actually Huston’s second major stylistic assault on O’Connor’s spiritual message.
Like Hazel, Enoch has drifted in from out of town, an alien among outcasts. “My daddy made me come,” he complains. “I ain’t but eighteen years old and he made me come and I don’t know nobody and nobody here will have nothin’ to do with me. They ain’t friendly.” This is another effect of the characters’ haphazard rootlessness, and what remains of O’Connor’s story when belief is stripped away — an abiding, unbridgeable loneliness. The word ‘friend’ sits in Enoch’s mouth like a sore. “People ain’t friendly here. You ain’t from here, but you ain’t friendly, neither! And you don’t know nobody, neither! I knew when I first seen you that you didn’t have nobody or nothing but Jesus!” Friendship, as a matter of fact, is an ulterior theme in both the book and the movie. It balances precariously alongside faith, a second and sometimes opposed yearning. The word suffers abuse from Hoover Shoates when he tries to jump on Hazel’s preaching: “Listen to me, friends. Before I met this prophet, here, I didn’t have a friend in this world. Do any of you know what it means not to have a friend in the world?” It makes sense that friendship would be the bait in Shoate’s lie, the word he uses to coax listeners into his fellowship, and so ensure his prophet’s profit.
In O’Connor’s vision, friendship represents a temptation that threatens to lure a person away from proper faith. This faith, after all, is a struggle carried out in solitude by the person who has “nobody or nothing but Jesus.” The authentic believer plunges away from external things toward a solitary, internal contemplation of mystery. Everything around him points back to himself, and, by way of himself, to God. Notice that Hazel’s attempts to reject faith take the form of public acts of communication (i.e., preaching), while his devotion at the end is such a lone experience that, in blinding himself, he shuts the visible world out completely. Friendship is the watchword of sham faith in Taulkinham. Social desires are diversions from belief’s stringent path.
What happens, then, when salvation is also taken off the table? Huston is left with a portrait of loneliness and isolation scaled up to encompass an entire town. This film is haunted by the friendless. No one connects. Hazel’s few moments of warmth occur in the arms Ms. Leora Watts — American cinema’s dullest, fattest prostitute — whose address he gets from a bathroom wall advertising “the FRIENLIEST bed in town.” Apart from this, there is hardly a smile shared between two characters in the entire film. Hazel and Sabbath Lily do commit some act of sex, but no affection seems to follow, at least on Hazel’s part. Sabbath Lily and her father represent the story’s sole kin relationship, but their bond, too, is one of opportunity and accident rather than loyalty or love; Asa curtly rids himself of his daughter as soon as Hazel comes into the picture. And, though Hazel’s landlady proposes marriage to him near the film’s end, she does so in a naked spasm of despair: “I got a place for you in my heart, Mr. Motes. I don’t want anything but to help you, and if we don’t help each other, there’s nobody to help us. Nobody. The world’s a empty place, Mr. Motes!” Hazel responds with what must be the ultimate rejection. He runs away without a word, collapses, dies.
O’Connor’s novel opposes companionship and faith, seeing salvation in the latter and diversion — even fraud — in the former. Huston’s film finds little hope in religion, but no greater hope in friendship. Belief on O’Connor’s terms is never really an option since these characters have no interior — at least none that Huston lets us see. But friendship is equally untenable.
Huston wants us to look at Hazel and Sabbath Lily as two dead ends, each representing an aborted attempt at escape from loneliness. Hazel tries faith, and seems committed enough. However, if Jesus does win, what are the terms of the victory? Hazel forsakes company, speech, sight, and eventually life. In O’Connor’s arid landscape, this gives him a proper religious orientation. But in a world where only surfaces matter, there is little to suggest that Hazel has not given up everything. Take a look at Hazel’s face after his blinding, when he is able at last to look inside himself without distraction. Here is what the interior looks like in Huston’s world of surfaces: a blank screen. It is no accident that the first shot of Hazel after his collapse is a fake-out meant to make us believe he is dead. Turned toward a vacant interior, there’s little difference between death and life.
But Sabbath Lily fares no better. Huston and Wright transform the character from something of a hussy to a lively, lonely, libidinous young woman aching to connect. Undeniably, the character is both wild and vulgar, but Wright plays her with a sadness, too. She does seem genuinely to want to be with Hazel, and virtually all her screen time is spent trying to reach out to him, getting nothing in return. And her devastation when she discovers Hazel’s self-mutilation is visceral, horrifying. This is not merely someone who has stumbled into a scene of grotesque violence. It is also a person who has had her fantasy of companionship graphically exposed as a lie. In Huston’s Taulkinham, both faith and friendship are false prophecies. The characters are trapped in isolation: they cannot turn inward, and they cannot turn to each other.
Enoch Emery overcomes this apparent dilemma by turning into something else. Whereas he spends the majority of the film, like Sabbath Lily, desperately trying to connect with Hazel, his last scenes reel out in radical isolation. As a movie monster come to life, he is in a sense the ridiculous opposite of a preacher. A street preacher seeks to draw people toward him; Enoch’s final montage follows the gorilla as he frightens people away. In his last shot, he sits on a park bench alone, staring expressionlessly ahead as the camera zooms in.
There is a critical distinction to be drawn between Hazel’s blank face after the blinding and Enoch’s gorilla mask, though both lack expression. Hazel diminishes himself as the end of his story closes in: he sacrifices his vision, digs into his flesh with barbed wire, stops eating, and, of course, eventually gives up even the ghost. By gouging into the surface of his character, Hazel exposes the void within. By contrast, Enoch’s transformation is one of addition, or translation: he slides over to a new identity. Enoch has always been one for dress-up; before heading to the museum to steal the mummy, he spends several minutes in front of the mirror, arranging the goofy wig and mustache that make up his “disguise.” By the end of the film, he has fully embraced his predilection for shifting identity. The final shot of Enoch/Gonga’s unreadable face shows a character who has accepted his nature as a creature of surfaces.
It is possible that Enoch is Huston’s central character — a grim cartoon meant to illustrate the thinness and absurdity of Taulkinham. One imagines him staying in the costume for a while, trading it in when another becomes available — all the while alone, all the while adrift. Enoch Emery represents cynical conclusion that Huston’s reading of Wise Blood eventually comes to. Conviction is a dead end: the pursuits of faith and companionship both lead to desolation. The only alternative is to give oneself to the current, drifting alone and anonymous. By embracing flatness, fluidity and the rejection of context, Enoch illustrates, not the way out of Taulkinham, but the correct way to stay inside.
Spencer T. Campbell is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
"One Way" - Rose Cousins (mp3)
"Go First" - Rose Cousins (mp3)
The new album from Rose Cousins is called We Have Made A Spark.