Faulkner, O’Connor, and ‘The Wrong-Eyed Jesus’

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A scene from the film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about the South, where I grew up, and which I fled as soon as I could go north for college. But between trips down to retrieve my daughter from her small university atop a mountain in rural Tennessee, to Alabama to sing, visiting family in Virginia, and the seemingly endless months of drama and controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, it’s been on my mind.

With all that hovering in the background, one of my Irish friends, an artist, sent me a link to the 2003 documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which he had recently watched on the BBC. He described it as, “a wide-eyed bejaysus, a cracking film.” So I had no choice but to track it down and watch it for myself.

What I experienced was a mesmerizing road trip of a film, an occasionally hallucinogenic ramble along backroads, through swamps and bayous, to truck stops and diners, jails, honky-tonks, biker bars, coal mines, Pentecostal holiness churches, and riverside baptisms, with stunning cinematography and haunting, haunted music.

My daughter watched it with me, and where she saw the filmmakers cruely exploiting the crushing poverty, eccentricities, and to our more enlightened eyes exotic fundamentalist faith of rural people, I saw a brilliant example of the literary genre known as Southern Gothic, the province of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Tennessee Williams.

The style features deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters, hints of connection to the supernatural, decayed or derelict settings, and grotesque situations or events stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, and violence.* These elements are all tools for exploring the social values and cultural characteristics of the American South.

Up until now the most recent and most compelling example of this I’ve seen on screen was the first season of HBO’s True Detective, a true classic of the genre. So too is journalist Dennis Covington’s book Salvation on Sand Mountain, about the culture of holiness snake handling in southern Appalachia, which I’ve been reading at the recommendation of one of my Alabama friends.

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus struck a nerve with me that I can’t quite explain. The people, places, and settings were at once familiar and unfamiliar. Mostly it reminded me of just how timeless and a place apart the American South really is once you leave behind the modern sprawl of Atlanta, or Nashville, or Richmond and drive out beyond the interstates, where the hills and trees close in and the roads turn to mud or dust in due season.

You can watch the trailer below, and then follow this link over to Vimeo for the full film. Friends in the UK and Ireland can find it on the BBC iPlayer (sorry, no link since it’s not available here in the states).

*Yes, I am once again relying on the lazy shorthand of Wikipedia for background because I didn’t want to dig out my old undergrad literature texts to craft a one-sentence description. So sue me.

Seven things I want to believe

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1) Republican voters are not so completely alienated from the political process that they will actually cast their ballots for Donald Trump.

2) The chances of reaching a deal with Iran on its nuclear ambitions are better than 50/50.

3) Removing the Confederate battle flag from the lawn of the South Carolina statehouse will be the start of a meaningful national dialogue on race.

4) The Grateful Dead are done.

5) Bernie Sanders will force Hillary Clinton to actually compete for the Democratic nomination.

6) FBI arrests of supposed ISIS sympathizers actually foiled July 4th terror plots.

7) The Han Solo origin movie will be awesome.

Of course he read Chomsky

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The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released a lengthy list of documents seized during the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan back in 2011.  I’ll leave it to others to parse the contents, but a couple of things stand out to me.

First, there’s a distinct lack of “fun” reading represented on Bin Laden’s list.* I mean, what did he read while sitting on the can?**

Second, the list reveals a kind of actor-reading-his-own-reviews sort of thing going on. Plenty of media stories, think tank studies, and books on Al Qaeda are represented.

Third, international relations theory! Look Ma, we’re relevant! Though he probably could have done better than Ikenberry and Mastanduno …

Finally, based on the strategy guide found, somebody in that compound was a gamer, although not apparently a very discerning one given the reviews for “Delta Force Xtreme 2,” described by IGN as “a game that’s every bit as bad as its spelling.” Gamespot was slightly more generous, boiling its essence down to “large ugly maps with death waiting behind every polygon,” and remarking that its artificial intelligence “can be amazingly stupid in certain situations.”

Somewhere in those reviews there’s a metaphor for the diminished fortunes that led Al Qaeda’s leader to spend his last few years hunkered down in a Pakistani safe house that wasn’t so safe after all. But someone else can puzzle that out.

*Unless you read Noam Chomsky for fun, in which case, I’m not sure you ought to be reading me.

**OK, maybe Chomsky wasn’t such a bad choice after all.

About those diversions …

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The non-traditional session at Madden’s, with songs sung in full voice.

 

I keep threatening to say a little about the diversions that I find when I come to Northern Ireland. So here’s a bit of an illustrated guide.

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The traditional Irish session Saturday afternoons at Kelly’s Cellars. But not just Saturday. Also Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings. And other times when people show up and start playing.

 

A big one form me is music, and Belfast is a great city for it. One of the things I love is that there are pubs I’ve found where you are likely to find people sitting around and playing music almost any time you walk in. My two favorites are in the City Centre, Kelly’s Cellars (which lays claim to the title of oldest pub in Belfast), and around the corner, Madden’s Bar. Both are at the heart of the traditional Irish music scene here but you can hear other things too depending when you stop in. For example, on Monday evenings Madden’s hosts a non-traditional session in which you can hear folk, bluegrass, classic country and string band tunes, singer-songwrighter stuff, and so on. And they let me sit in with my mountain dulcimer and contribute to the music.

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The sanctuary of St. Columb’s Cathedral, Church of Ireland, in Derry.

 

Another diversion is churches. Whenever I travel I try to visit churches, largely because I love church architecture and the history that they often contain within their walls, especially over here. And if I can I like to attend worship services.  I have found that doing so gives me time out from the often hectic schedule that I typically have to keep for research. But I’ve also found that going to church, like going to the pub, brings me into contact with people that I would not otherwise meet. This brings me to the last point I want to mention. People.

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The girls were waiting for their turn to dance at Kelly’s Cellars St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

 

One of the things that I like best about these trips is the people that I get to meet and the windows into other people’s lives that I get a chance to occasionally peer through. Sometimes I walk away with the memory of an anecdote told about hiding petrol bombs under an overcoat on an unusually hot summer day, the reek of the fuel awkwardly filling the air of an electric trolley. Whatever direction the conversation takes I almost always learn from these encounters, and over the years some of the people I’ve met I have come to think of as friends.