Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Journey Through the Vanishing South, Jim White style

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus
Retail DVD (Plexi;
Review and Interview by LUKE TORN

Spectral visions of the American South spar with religious grandiosity and hellbent Saturday nights; singer songwriter Jim White is your guide

It's not often a set of album liner notes evolves into a feature-length film, but that's exactly what happened in the case of Jim White's 1997 debut album, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus! White's terrifying road tale delving into the macabre spiritual undercurrents of the South served then to amplify his disembodied, surreal songs. Now, with White serving as travel guide and riffing on the cultural contradictions of a region that's produced artists from Flannery O'Connor to Johnny Cash, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus emerges as mesmerizing, slice-of-life filmmaking.

Though Searching only uses White's original narrative as a touchstone, its rich cinematography, superb music, and colorful characters catch the offhand flavor and spectacle of the vanishing South in vivid detail. Commissioned in part by the BBC, the film was directed by Andrew Douglas (The Amityville Horror), who brings to the proceedings a flair for capturing the South's stunning geographical splendor.

Renting a beat-up 1970 Chevy, with a concrete Jesus stuffed in the trunk, White, Douglas, and company set out to find "the gold tooth in God's crooked smile," as White describes it, and end up depicting an area rife with internal contradiction, driven to extremes by the unseen hand.

Douglas and crew consistently come up with striking compositional images--a creepy, house-of-mirrors view of Louisiana swampland, decades-abandoned school buses rusting in the woods, a beat-up car adorned with countless "repent now"-type bumper stickers passing by on the highway. "There's a lot of rapture talk on that car right there," White blurts.

Meanwhile, the film roams into the most intimate of settings--churches, barbershops, trailer-park lean-tos--in an elliptical, sometimes bemused quest for some kind of understanding. Throughout, White spins out bits of hard-won wisdom borne of experiencing the yin-yang perplexity of growing up southern. His theory that, "until you've walked away from the South, you can't see it," is written on the faces of most of the humanity passing by the camera, including, in particular, the barbershop patrons present as sandpaper-voiced Johnny Dowd (with Maggie Brown) serenades them with a song called "First There Was a Funeral."

Locked in by grievous poverty, iron-fist religious repression, and a socio-political culture painted in stark black and white, the film's protagonists are portrayed as embroiled in one dichotomy after another: haves vs. have-nots, good vs. bad, being saved vs. burning in eternal hellfire.

In the face of such fatalism, White opines, it becomes incumbent on southerners to "invent a God who's gonna whup some ass." While visions of feverish Pentecostals and writhing parishioners speaking in tongues (with enthralled yet terrified youngsters looking on) are among the film's most indelible moments (likely to stay with you long after the film ends), it's to the filmmakers' credit that, while the film does deal in stereotypes, it never comes across as disrespectful, never mocks its subjects.

In fact, a strange kind of empathy emerges from bits like The Singing Hall Sisters' harmonizing on a murder ballad, "Knoxville Girl," or the prison scene wherein inmates describe their crimes as mere manifestations of boredom.

Secular salvation--where it can be found--lies in music and storytelling, and Searching provides its share of spine-tingling, occasionally surreal moments. Novelist Harry Crews croaks a scarifying tale regarding the arrival in Appalachia, long ago, of the Sears catalog, an alien product wherein the models are inexplicably in possession of all their limbs; alt-country existentialists the Handsome Family, whose rugged, unadorned Appalachian spirituals dove-tail best with the film, are seen performing "When That Helicopter Comes" for an audience of one--a puzzled young boy--near a trailer park; mountain man banjoist Lee Sexton's "Little Maggie" and Melissa Swingle's unearthly musical-saw rendition of "Amazing Grace" are likewise hypnotically compelling.

"It's only within the music that the dichotomies and complexities of the world dissolve," the film seems to suggest, and it's those dreamlike sequences, presented throughout, that somehow mitigate the powerful, see-sawing black-and-white forces that lie at the heart of the film and the South.

Extras: Five deleted music/monologue scenes with David Johansen, Harry Crews, and others; director's commentary

Jim White
Athens, Georgia resident Jim White's latest is Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See, released in 2004 on the Luaka Bop label.

Luke Torn: How would this movie have been different if you took it back 75, 100 years?
Jim White: Well, the duality and dichotomy [religion and drinking] would be no different. I think what would be different would be that there would be a big investigation into the English filmmakers who vanished in Louisiana. There's more guns back then, everybody would have been shooting from all directions--the church people, the bar people, everybody.

LT: Did you feel like you were a liaison between the British film team and the locals?
JW: They [the film team] did a fair amount of research and contacting on their own. Probably about half the contacts in the film I provided them and the other half they found on their own. So, they're very good natured people who like to go out and meet the world. Somehow or other, they have a charm, it's a tribute to their humanity, that they can walk into the most unlikely place and get people to spill their hearts to them, and then they treat that information with respect. They're just saying 'These stories are beautiful, listen to them.'

LT: Seems like a lot of the peculiarities of the South are vanishing before our eyes.
JW: It is vanishing. In the scene from Sheffield's Jesus Is Lord Catfish Restaurant Truckstop, which is in Valdosta, Georgia--I took them there when they were scouting for the film, and the whole entire wall-to-wall establishment was a tableau, like a primitive artist, Howard Finster-style tableau of the rapture, with planes crashing and people rising out of graves and cities on fire and buses turned over … it was astonishing. When we came back five months later, Sheffield had painted the whole thing white. And Andrew [Douglas] walked in, sat on the ground, and started crying. Sheffield had changed its name to Sheffield's Country Kitchen.

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