SONIC REDUCER / CARL HANNI

 

Searching
For The Wrong Eyed-Jesus

 

By
Carl Hanni

 

In
2003 filmmaker Andrew Douglas shot this Southern travelogue featuring the
singer and songwriter Jim White. If you don’t know Jim White, you should: he’s
released a series of idiosyncratic records on David Byrne’s label, Luaka Bop,
including an early one from 1997 called The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted
Wrong-Eyed Jesus!
that led Douglas to
White in the first place. 

 

White
is to Americana
as Flannery O’Connor was to American writing: in it and of it, but with a
totally unique take that couldn’t be further from conventional twang and weepy
infidelity. His records are smart, literate, sonically adventurous, and filled
with voluminous, complex and overtly spiritual lyrical leanings, and have
absolutely nothing in common with either commercial, NASCAR country music or
straight-up Americana ala Lucinda/Dwight/Allison etc. It’s more akin to
Southern Gothic literature, as filtered thru the Carter Family and the Bible,
but played for a post punk audience. The man is a true original. He’s also one
of the best tour-guides a filmmaker (or an audience) could ever hope for.

 

I
don’t know what sort of a film Douglas set out
to shoot, but I’m willing to bet that he got more than he bargained for.
Whatever the original inspiration, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is
so perfectly pitched and so right in so many way that I need to be careful to
not go all hyperbole over it while still hoping to convey whys it’s well worth
one hour and twenty-two minutes of your time. So, I’ll just say it now: for
anyone with an interest in arcane American music and in the socio-spiritual-religious
fabric of the American South, you will be well rewarded. 

 

White
spent most of his childhood in the South, leaving as a teenager and returning
many years later after living and traveling all over the world. Beset with
mixed feelings about the South as a young man, he returns with fresh eyes. As
such, he comes back as a tour guide with a worldly perspective: “Until you get
away from it, you can’t see it.”

 

The
film opens in the Louisiana
bayou, where he picks up the right car to travel the backroads of the deep
South, a low-slung, white 1970 Chevy with big primer patches. Next he buys a
statue of Jesus, which rides, partially wrapped, hanging out of the trunk of
the car for the duration of the film. In a typically pithy exchange, the seller
asks for $500; White offers $60, and they settle on $65. Meanwhile, White’s
buddy Johnny Dowd plays a deathly dirge from the hood of a junker.

 

The
film is a journey into the deep vastness of the Southern spiritual psyche, and
White states his own right up front: “I’ve chose my divinity, rather than my
divinity choosing me.” But this is not an aimless narrative; it’s a series of
set pieces, cut in and through with musical interludes, as White stops to talk
to coal miners, bikers, evangelists and locals of all stripes, and makes
extraordinary trips into a prison, a couple of Pentecostal churches, a
roadhouse bar on a Saturday night and a truck stop diner dedicated to saving
souls. It’s beautifully shot and edited, with outstanding sound and not a
moment than doesn’t work. It’s just right.

 

The
appearance of Johnny Dowd, writer of songs of unmitigated starkness, is the
first of many by like minded souls. Eventually The Handsome Family, David
Eugene Edwards, Melissa Swingle, Lee Sexton, the Singing Hall Sisters, Johnny
Dowd & Maggie Brown and David Johansen all show up, and White throws in a
couple of numbers himself. But the first to make an appearance is the
formidable writer Harry Crews, dressed in black and strolling a bayou backroad
with a cane and a few stories to tell. Crews appears as a sort of swamp savant,
delivering stories and monologues with a delivery that’s simultaneously
inviting and intimidating, and cuts right through skin to the bone. You sense
that he could smell bullshit while asleep, and would not suffer fools or
phonies lightly. Some of it may be persona, but that makes it no less real, and
it’s fascinating and a little scary. 

 

David
Eugene Edwards (of the terrific 16 Horsepower) wanders in next, strumming
a  banjo and singing a spooky as hell version of “Wayfaring Stranger.”
It’s as backwoods as a front porch in a West
Virginia holler; moonshine whiskey practically sweats
out of the sky. 

 

And
with Dowd, and then Crews and Edwards, followed by the rest, the filmmaker sets
up a central mystery of the film that he toys with from beginning to end,
namely: how much of this is set up and choreographed, and how much is
spontaneous and unrehearsed? Things that first appear to be spontaneous –
Johnny Dowd strumming his guitar in a barber shop full of locals getting buzz
cuts – are revealed to be set pieces; a music video, basically. But how much?
Was it just invented on the spot, or written out in advance? Others, like the
scenes in the bar, diner, prison and churches, are clearly unrehearsed,
spontaneous, and shot with a hand held camera. Other’s seem to split the
difference. But it’s an interesting set-up that, whether intentional or not,
keeps us a little unsettled while in no way messing with the flow of the film.

 

 

Jim White, slumped in a booth, talking
to Johnny Dowd. “Whataya been doin’?”

Dowd: “Killin’ time.”

Pause.

Dowd: “It won’t die.”

White: chuckle. 

 

 

Douglas takes his camera into an
unnamed jail or prison. Everyone is skinny, white, and looks meth ravaged. He
gets the inmates to talk about their crimes, their time, their regrets, their
histories. The prisoners are hanging out, bored, restless, full of regret and
bluster, letting their guard down a little. Crime, to them, is just a way and a
part of life that they understand, or don’t. Opening line from an unseen
prisoner: “Its the bad. Bad’s exciting.” Later, White sums up the options
available to the restless and broke-ass in small town America: “Let’s
DO something, even if it’s something wrong.” You never see this kind of stuff
elsewhere on film. It’s incredibly sad, and moving, and a rare look into a
world that the outside world would generally like to forget about. Jim White
doesn’t forget about them. 

 

Next
up: The Handsome Family doing their catchy, minimalist classic “Cold Cold
Cold.” Are these guys down-home, or hipster faux down-home? Hard to say: he
looks hipster, with his tall hair, lip thatch and thick rimmed glasses. She
looks hipster in her thrift shop print dress. Can they hunt, fix a truck, cook
meth? Who knows, but boy they sure write killer songs and deliver them with
pleasing, molasses slow deliberation. They’ve got the stuff. 

 

Then
on to Slim’s, what White calls a ‘cut and shoot bar,’ hanging with the locals
on a Saturday night. What do the locals want to talk about? Sin and salvation, the
church and the bar, Jesus Christ, how great Slim’s is, the fraternity of the
local drinkers, what time they’re going to church tomorrow, how wasted they
are. White, meanwhile, has moved on to a drive in burger joint where he turns
eating an ice-cream cone into an entire small town sociological set-piece. I am
not, not, making this up. 

 

After
Saturday night comes Sunday morning, and one of the most remarkable pieces of
filmmaking you will ever be lucky enough to witness, as Douglas and White are
somehow able to film a service in a Pentecostal church. “Things happen (t)here
that defy explanation,” is how White sets it up. If you’ve never seen anything
like this before, it’s utterly mind-blowing. Witnessing a group of well
dressed, ordinary locals speaking in tongues, going into convulsions, weeping
and laughing hysterically, leaping and falling about, dancing and quaking and
shaking is something that just might change move your perspective a few degrees
in another direction. The band and choir, led by the preacher Rev. Gary
Howington, burns a white hot gospel rock beat, with multiple electric guitars
and crashing drums channeling and directing all the madness at their feet. I
defy you to watch this and not be moved in some way. White understands the
necessity of the church as an antidote to much of the outside world: “In a poor
world like this, gravity seems a lot stronger, it’s pulling you down, into the
earth, and everyday is a fight to not disappear.” 

 

And
his own divinity? He’s “Looking for the gold tooth in God’s crooked smile.” Eat
that, Pat Robertson. 

 

And
then there’s a dark trip to Sheffield’s
roadhouse diner, where the sign proclaims Jesus Is Lord, and where the locals
trade morbid tales over bbq and catfish and hear of one sinners exit into hell as
he’s dying in prison. As White says, “It’s so wrong it’s right.” And also,
“These hills here are so full of spirit, no wonder everyone’s thinking about
eternity and hell.” And Crews: “The most ordinary conversation in the South has
a theological basis.”

 

There’s
more, lots more, including a stop at a coal mine where the resident banjo
picker, Lee Sexton, plays “The old, lonesome sound;” Melissa Swingle bending
some serious musical saw on “Amazing Grace;” and David Johansen and Larry
Saltzman in a hotel room busting out with Gesshie Wiley’s much revered “Last
Kind Words.” Dowd, The Handsome Family and Crews all make more appearances.
There’s also a scene with a tiny, rather remarkable looking tele-evangelist as
she appeals to everyone to save their souls before damnation is upon them. It’s
unsettling and absolutely mesmerizing. 

 

And
finally, as he drops his Jesus off along side the road somewhere and heads off
into the Southern night, White leaves us with a final pointed comment: “If you
want to know the secrets of the South, you’ve gotta get it in your
blood.” 

 

Your
wise blood.

 

 

***

 

Carl Hanni is a music writer, music publicist, DJ, disc jockey,
book hound and vinyl archivist living in Tucson, AZ. He hosts “The
B-Side” program on KXCI (streamed live on Tuesday nights 10-12 pm at
KXCI.org) and spins around Southern Arizona on
a regular basis. He currently writes for Blurt and Tucson Weekly.

 

 

Leave a Reply