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.

How about now?

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(Associated Press photo)

 

If you’re inclined to keep score:

  • Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, CT, December 14, 2012 — 20 children, six adult staff, all killed.
  • Century Movie Theater, Aurora, CO, July 20, 2012 — 12 dead, 70 wounded.
  • Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC, June 17, 2015 — nine killed.
  • Navy Operational Support Center, Chattanooga, TN, July 16, 2015 — four killed.

Not the mass killings of first-graders, nor movie goers, nor worshippers at a Bible study have moved the lawmakers the gun lobby keeps on its payroll  to reconsider our unconscionably irresponsible approach toward gun control.

I don’t expect the killing of four Marines at a recruiting center in Tennessee this morning will change that. Do you?

 

As Jade Helm begins …

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(Cartoon by Nick Anderson)

The New York Times has your preview of the fun here:

Sindy Miller, who runs a hair salon on Main Street, said fear of a military takeover had been the talk of Christoval.

“They’re worried that they’re going to come in and take their firearms away,” Ms. Miller said. “Martial law, basically. I try not to listen to all these conspiracy-theory-type people. All they’re worried about is their beer and their guns.”

Victims in balaclavas, with guns

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(Photo from Belfast Telegraph)

 

A “new” and as yet unnamed Loyalist paramilitary group announced its presence on the scene this week by releasing a pair of photographs to the media (one of which is reproduced above) along with a statement in which they threatened to kill members of the PSNI and Parades Commission, which has had the temerity to place limits on the Loyalist community’s ability to celebrate their culture through displays of tribal dominance directed against their Catholic neighbors.

The statement that accompanied the photos played on what has become a familiar theme amongst many Loyalists in which they characterize an erosion of privilege as brutal oppression by the state they claim to love.

The group said that after police broke up a riot in a flashpoint area of North Belfast in a

brutal assault upon the PUL community and the random firing of baton rounds aimed to seriously injure our people we are left with no other option but to announce the PSNI and Parades Commission are legitimate targets.

We do not want to take this course of action but our people have suffered enough over the last few years and we as disengaged and disgruntled loyalists feel like the time has come for us to take action. No Surrender.

That Loyalists would threaten to take up arms against the British state is nothing new. The original Ulster Volunteer Force was organized in 1913 with the express intention of waging war against Britain to prevent it from granting home rule to Ireland.

But within Loyalism feelings and complaints of victimization have become much more open in recent years, fueled by a sense that their victory over the IRA, which has secured Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future, is in fact a hollow one.  As I wrote back in March, it is the belief that while they have won the war, the spoils of victory have passed them by.

I first heard this expressed back in 2010 when I interviewed several former UDA and UFV men active in the Loyalist ex-prisoner community. Today it is the sentiment behind the ongoing flag protests, the protest camp at Twaddlle Avenue, and the above mentioned riot this week which broke out when Loyalists attempted to storm police barricades blocking them from marching past a Catholic area.

It is reflected in the statement released by the Orange Order in advance of Twelfth of July celebrations which I wrote about last week, in which they decried the intolerance of Republicans and the “petty restrictions” imposed by the state on their right to march and parade where and when they wish, despite any objections from residents.

It is reflected in the tweets of self-described anti-agreement Loyalist provocateur Jamie Bryson claiming persecution and a war waged by police and Parades Commission against the PUL (Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist) people.

A recent unpublished study by a group of researchers from Queens University suggests that the flag and other protests stem from working class Loyalists’ feelings of economic and social dispossession, paranoid siege mentality, a belief that their avenues of expression are being systematically closed off, and that they are being manipulated and exploited by the system.

Others (such as doctoral student Sophie Long at TPQ) have written much more eloquently about the state of Loyalism than I can.  And it remains to be seen if this new armed group will amount to anything more than empty posturing.

But from where I sit, and based on what I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and conversations I’ve had, when I think about future threats to the peace in Northern Ireland, I am much more concerned about the alienation of Loyalists than I am the ambitions of dissident Republicans.