Regarding my previous post: it's apparently bad form to ruin a movie by giving away the ending. Who knew.
Now before I get to the last Ebertfest movie I want to talk about at length, let me make two completely innocuous announcements. Trust me. In no way will they provide you any information you're not ready to learn.
First: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a lot of fun when seen with an appreciative audience.
Second: Gloria Swanson is a hell of an actress.
There now. That wasn't so bad.
Now -- for any readers who still harbor doubts about my newfound ability to keep my mouth shut, let me assuage those doubts by saying that I couldn't give away the ending of the next Ebertfest movie even if I wanted to. The movie has no plot to ruin.
Well, the movie might not have a plot, but it has a story. It's not a story of personal growth or of beating the bad guy. It doesn't involve anything so small as a hero and villain. The movie is the story of chasing an inspiration, a sensibility, a way of life.
It's a documentary, but it's not about facts. Instead the movie is a collection of stories, of sights and sounds, of places that define the lives lived in them and vice versa. The movie is part travelogue, part religious studies, and part musical extravaganza. In short, the movie is about a culture.
So -- what is it really? Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus just might be the finest film ever made by a British filmmaker about the American South.
The film is credited with a writer (Steve Haisman), and it is filled with marvelous language that might have been scripted by somebody. But many of the small-town Southerners who tell their stories on-camera did not know the movie was anything other than a straight documentary.
The story of the movie itself started one Christmas, when British commercial director Andrew Douglas received a gift: an album titled The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Fascinated, Douglas got in touch with the musician, Southerner Jim White, and asked if he could explain where the music came from.
The result was this film. To explain his music by explaining the South, Jim White agreed to play Virgil to Andrew Douglas' Dante. White provided narration, plus a rusty white Chevy, to guide Douglas on his tour through Southern Hell and on up to Southern Heaven.
During the course of the movie, a man fires his semi-automatic at nothing special. Georgian author Harry Crews explains why you should bury a possum with the eyes facing down. A woman in a restaurant talks about an unrepentant killer who, when he was about to fry, felt the flames of Hell on his feet. Junk rusts on the side of the road, and churchgoers cry and pray with an extravagance they can afford in nothing else.
This movie has inspired a certain share of online unhappiness. Online reviewers protest that the movie doesn't depict the whole South, or the urban South, or the black South, or the educated South. Or it's not the South at all, just an exploitation freakshow of poor white people.
All this misses the point. The movie isn't meant to be a laundry list of all things South, particularly those parts of it that are quainter versions of the North. Instead, the movie looks at whatever it is about the South that inspires musicians like Jim White to make the music they make.
The movie features a multitude of musicians, many of whom are in no way Southern. The Handsome Family comes from New Mexico. David Johansen used to front the New York Dolls, which came from New York. Even Jim White started life in Southern California and moved to the South at the age of five. He hated it and couldn't wait to get away -- but when he got away, the place went with him.
To varying degrees, these musicians all play music inspired by the stories, darkness and sense of humor that comes from the Southern tradition. To that end the movie sticks with the stories of poor, white, small-town folk. In other words, the Southerners most likely to hang on to their traditions.
If there is one thing that defines the South, it is its uniquely Southern devotion to its own sense of tradition. Even, and especially, as that tradition is disappearing.
What is a tradition but something that cannot by captured by outsiders? At Ebertfest, Jim White explained that the "wrong-eyed Jesus" is partly a reference to Orthodox Christian icons. The eyes of the saints and saviors were intentionally painted askew because the divine gaze cannot be truly represented.
To those of us on the outside, salvation always looks a little cross-eyed.
Early on in the film, Jim White and Andrew Douglas pass through a small town in Louisiana. The yards are overgrown, the tiny houses held together by humidity alone. Everything is falling apart. The picture is quiet for a moment, and then Jim White speaks. "In a Pentacostal town like this..."
It's a heart-stopping moment.
Here, there is no such thing as day-to-day life. The people here can't change where they are, and even if they could move they couldn't change who they are. This place, and who they become in this place, stay with them always. They are tightly bound, yes -- but they find a certain power in taking what binds and calling it tradition.
In the small-town South, people have two options: go to church or wallow in sin. (According to Jim White, the Southern middle class has a third option: play golf). Whether they serve Satan or God, these Southerners go at it with the gusto, and the sense of humor, of those with nothing left to lose.
After the movie, and after Jim White played us a couple songs, the Ebertfest discussion panel agreed on one generalization. In black Southern communities, whether one goes to church or not, everybody is still part of the community. In the white South, if you don't go to church, you are shut out.
However, even if you sink that low, you are still a Southerner. As one late-night bargoer says in the movie: "It's not drinking, it's not drugs. It's family."
In this movie, music is both soundtrack and performance. The Handsome Family duo stands on the porch of a floating house and sings about losing a sister. Memphis musician Johnny Dowd sits in a Louisiana barbershop full of customers and sings a duet with a beautician about a killer, and the noose the killer has a date with. Then, with his own music still on the soundtrack, Dowd tells the story of a man whose sent his wife into a coma at the exact moment a husband doesn't want his wife to go into a coma. Heavy stuff that demands you make your peace with it.
Even the songs about salvation sound mournful -- as though the craving for salvation is so powerful that even salvation can't satisfy it.
This movie is filled with stories, painful stories. Sons are lost, abdomens are slashed, fingers are blown off with dynamite. Faith and damnation spray everywhere. They get on everything.
In the end, does the film reach its goal? Did the film's director, who comes from a foreign country and a secular society, who visited a region of the US which many in the US feel is a whole other country -- did the film's director find what he set out to find? Or did the spray of salvation just get in his eyes?
The answer may lie in a story he told during the panel discussion.
Andrew Douglas told the story of being present for a healing service at a Pentacostal church. He had never before seen anything like this. As he was recording the service, he stood behind a 400-pound woman who was being healed. At first he didn't catch on that healed people fall backwards. But when he realized it, he started praying like mad for the woman not to be healed. And lo -- she was not healed, and did not fall.
Later, when he told this story to another Southerner, Douglas received this reply: "God does not answer the prayers of the unsaved."
Jim White is also one of the unsaved. But even though he's shut out religion by his own choice, he has still elected to be a Southerner. This way, as he said, he chooses his roots. His roots do not choose him.
In any case, it's family.