Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lucinda Williams’ Pick For Film Acoustic: John Huston’s WISE BLOOD



Late last year when I heard about a new series starting up at the Carolina Theatre, programmed by The Modern School of Film, called “Film Acoustic,” which pairs special guests with their favorite movies, I was very intrigued. Yet, I regretfully skipped the first installment in December with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips presenting and discussing a 40th anniversary screening of Liliana Cavani’s THE NIGHT PORTER. Yeah, sure wish I’d gone to that.


So, the second in the series, I made sure I attended, especially when I heard that it would feature Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, one of my favorite artists. 


Williams’ pick was WISE BLOOD, John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 debut novel of the same name. It was announced that in addition to taking part in a talk about the movie with Modern School of Film founder and Duke graduate Robert Milazzo, Williams, unlike when Coyne appeared, would be playing a few songs after the screening. But the real kicker was that the event was, scheduled by happy accident, on Williams’ 62nd Birthday! (Monday, January 26th)

The Birthday girl’s choice, the darkly humorous WISE BLOOD, is one of the weirdest in the iconic Huston’s filmography, far removed from the Humphrey Bogart classics he helmed (THE MALTESE FALCON, TREASURE OF SIERRE MADRE, KEY LARGO, THE AFRICAN QUEEN), and way less epic than the film that came before it, his 1975 Rudyard Kipling adaptation THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Brad Dourif, best known for his roles in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, Deadwood, and, as Milazzo reminded us in a trivia question, as the voice of Chucky in the CHILD’S PLAY franchise, stars as Hazel Motes, a young Southern man who’s trying to establish what he calls the Church of Truth Without Christ.

Although referred to as the town Taulkinham (from the book), the film is clearly set in Macon, Georgia (the name Macon can be seen on buildings throughout). Dourif’s Motes travels to the area to set up his ministry, which is basically just him and his constantly breaking down Essex automobile, which he stands on the hood of to preach to people on the street.



Somewhere around the time that Motes finds himself a room at a boarding house, chosen because Harry Dean Stanton as a scam artist posing as a blind preacher and Amy Wright as his airheaded, horny daughter live there, I realized that I had seen this before. Or at least a large chunk of it, because a lot of its imagery, acting, and story points were very familiar to me. Ned Beatty’s role as Hoover Shoates (love that name), a boisterous guitar-playing rival to Motes, and an odd subplot involving Dan Shor as a needy, racist halfwit who steals a gorilla suit, rang bells of recognition in my mind too.

I believe I had happened upon it when devouring every movie I could as a kid watching cable in the mid ‘80s. What I saw of WISE BLOOD back then had been locked away in some file in my mind, and this special screening rekindled those memories.

That was a cool thing to recall, and it enhanced this viewing quite a bit. But, of course, what really elevated the evening was Williams. Relaxed, drinking a glass of red wine, the woman who Time Magazine once called “America’s best songwriter” came out to warm applause, and yelled birthday wishes, and seemed very satisfied with how the movie had been received by the audience there in Fletcher Hall that evening.

One of the key points of her discussion with moderator Milazzo was Williams’ recently passed father, award winning Arkansas poet Miller Williams (1930-1915), who was a student of O’Connor’s.


Williams spoke about how her father’s agnosticism influenced understand what Motes meant by a church of Christ without Christ, and, alone with only her acoustic guitar, she performed two songs that were directly influenced by the film: “Get Right With God,” from her 2001 album Essence; and “Atonement,” from its 2003 follow-up Worlds Without Tears.

Williams’ comments around those striking performances were priceless. On “Get Right With God” winning a Grammy: “It won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, which doesn’t make any sense – it wasn’t a rock song.” On the new solo arrangement of “Attonement”: “That sounded really cool, we might have to start doing it that way.”

Among some more lively discussion, which included her amusing recollection of meeting Bob Dylan for the first time, and some nifty audience Q & A, Williams also performed a blistering cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down,” which appeared on her 1979 debut album Rambling, and a sweet version of “Compassion,” adapted from one of her father’s poems, from her excellent 2014 album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.

All in all, a great evening. Seeing WISE BLOOD, a pleasingly warped piece of Americana in the presence of one of its biggest fans, the wonderful Lucinda Williams, who sang its praises in both meanings of the phrase, on the occasion of her birthday, is something I’m sure I’ll never forget.


The next Film Acoustic, set for Monday, February 23rd, looks incredibly promising as well: Neko Case presents Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic REPO MAN, with Very Special Guest Mike Nesmith. Being a big fan of Case, both solo and with the New Pornographers, and even a bigger fan of Nesmith, who executive produced REPO MAN, but, of course, is best known for being one of the Monkees, there’s no way I’m missing that.

More later...

1 comment:

firisa said...

cool!