Wise Blood

Last night, I watched “Wise Blood” (1979 film production) as derived from the Flannery O’Conner novel of the same name. I say derived because the time of the story has been changed and, after watching the film, I suspect other changes and omissions, enough that Flannery, were she still alive, might want to distance herself from this production.

Probably because I am from the south, Memphis to be exact, and because my work has taken me to Macon GA where the filming took place, and possibly because the neighborhoods and houses shown in the film brought back childhood recollections of my own, I enjoyed that part of the film.

But the main character portrayals were completely unfathomable. Other than insanity and idiocy, I saw no other rationales being offered for their actions. And while humans do go nuts and sometimes do bizarre things, I’ve found that when you understand the mental aberrations and the effects of physical afflictions, people’s actions still make sense, albeit in a twisted kind of way.

But in this film, that didn’t happen.

The main character’s childhood was obviously being blamed for his hatred of the church. But I found the flashbacks to his tent revival childhood and Bible-thumping preacher-father played by John Huston who also directed the movie, insufficient to explain what has brought the main character to a strange anti-Christian fanaticism, the eventual murder of a stranger, and then the intentional self-mutilation of blinding himself with quick lime. Those strong actions need powerful motivation to be convincing but the movie just doesn’t provide the necessary background.

I can’t decide if the problems I had with motivations were a failure of the producers who recast the time frame to the late 1960s, the acting — Hazel Motes portrayal was overly explosive, the directing and editing which included things I felt were borderline contributions to the story, or the screen writers simply relenting to the time and low-budget pressures of film by omitting important background.

I should add, however, that Flannery sometimes leaves me wondering what point she is making. Her work as a Christian author is deep and often disturbing, but I’ve never had much trouble understanding why her characters are the way they are. Flannery always includes enough details so you can usually understand what these odd characters, especially the main characters, are thinking and, therefore, their motives and actions. But in this film, three of the characters including the main one had me stumped.

As the movie played out, I kept hoping for more background to explain their motivations, some “all too human” set of rationales that would explain their actions but it never materialized. These three characters all had me scratching my head at different times and asking, why would they do that?

Maybe the rationale is on the cutting room floor or in the screen writer’s eraser rubbings?

Regardless, the critics gave the film top honors so perhaps they already knew the story and were, therefore, overlooking what I thought were critical omissions. But my cynical side thought that, at least for some of those critics, it might be something akin to the children’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” where, because of the subject’s lofty position, everyone was afraid to state the obvious.

Personally, I thought the screen writing, directing and acting were all to blame and, with that many failures, I also suspected that the ultimate blame should probably fall on the producers and the financing. Introduced on Turner Classic Movies as a “low-budget” production that took several years to gain support, I was actually pleased with the scenic and cinematic aspects.

Unfortunately, some of the accents and expressions didn’t ring true but, then again, that’s a common failing in most Hollywood portrayals of the deep south that may only be noticeable to someone who’s grown up around those particular sounds, expressions and mannerisms. But with so many characters with just plain inexplicable behavior, I conclude there was a most likely a single unsurmountable defect that damaged the production in multiple ways.

I now have Flannery’s novel on order. I want to understand the motivations of the characters. I love her work, even the horrifying insight she sometimes portrays in human character.

I have faith that, once I’ve read her original, I’ll then understand the movie.

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