Thursday, August 17, 2006

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2005)

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Andrew Douglas, 2005)

Brit commercial director Andrew Douglas is probably most popular for remaking (to reportedly atrocious results) the classic horror film, The Amityville Horror. However, his first foray to American pop culture is through a pseudo-documentary that details the rustic American South through its byroads, its scenery, its people, and most importantly, its music. The story goes like this, Douglas receives an album entitled "The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus" and becomes instantly enchanted with the music, to the point of going to the United States, looks for the album's creator, musician Jim White, and finally goes on a road trip to the real American South (White says that to truly experience the South, one has to be a few miles away from the highway) with White as his tour guide, and experience the source of the music from the album. The problem is, White is not real southerner (he explains that he never actually grew up there, but was merely returning to find his soul, or something), and Douglas is European. The result being this conclusion: Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus feels heavily staged, to the point of being fake. But having declared that, the music is undeniably great.

So Douglas and White borrow a rusty car for one hundred dollars a night, buys a concrete Jesus statue for sixty-five dollars and shove it right into the car's trunk, and drive for miles and miles down the South's byroads, and interview ordinary folk, artists, and other interesting people. It's quite an easy proposition, and Douglas gets it right most of the time. His attempt at creating a mood is by having his camera (he also serves as cinematographer) waft through the outdoors, or have his interview subjects' faces or bodies off camera. His camera more often than not floats in an almost mindless and random way, that it creates a feeling of airy levitation, the exact same feeling when one is listening to a long story and finds himself drifting into La-La land. That is exactly what one feels when listening to Douglas' subjects, they are so damn uninteresting and their banter is quite pointless that you never wonder for a second why the camera suddenly shifts focus, most probably out of boredom and drowsiness.

But that is exactly what the film is about, the South, and these people talk about the South, its religiosity, its simplistic virtues and vices, its music. Sure, but it does get tiring and Douglas edits his film like a madman, shifting attention to one subject to another in wild abandon. He even plays around with the music, shifting interview to music to scenery in again, wild abandon. If there's one thing that annoys me the most, it is when good music is interrupted with boisterous commentary, no matter how interesting the commentator may be. Here, the unfortunate commentator is musician White who attempts at wisdom but comes off as a mere stranger to the South as most of the viewers are: no help there.

Then there's the music, which is the only saving grace this documentary offers. We are entreated to some undiscovered music, homegrown and unadulterated by American consumerism. The music ranges from a woman fiddling her saw to the tune of "Amazing Grace," to some really interesting blues music that would remind you of Johnny Cash or Ray Charles. Douglas' filmmaking shows a bit of intelligence here when he stages the musicians in interesting positions and blockings while they perform. The documentary works best as a collection of glossy music videos of artists who would never ever dream of having a music video. The music of the South is an interesting enigma.

They're like Nordic epics, or Greek myths that are heavy in local color, and land-inspired tales that delineate its origin's moral and social norms, only this time, it is inspired by quiet notions of American culture enriched by history and poverty. Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus may be a failure as a film, but it is successful as a portrait of how surreal and anachronistic it is when one is traveling the roads of the American South, where stagnancy in development has created a culture of stories, tales, and a brand of religiosity that dictates morality in simple terms as bad and good.

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