Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 22, 2005

“Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:50 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 22, 2005

Although it starts slowly, the new documentary “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” has a cumulative power as it takes the viewer on a tour of white-dominated Pentecostal Churches, roadhouses, prisons and barbecue joints in the South–a world that can best be described as a Red State Nightmare. But the inhabitants of this world have little to say about politics. Instead they are consumed with sin and salvation. “Alt country” singer Jim White serves as a kind of Virgil escorting the audience into the mixture of Inferno and Paradise found in backwoods coal-mining and farming towns, where hard drinking on Saturday night is followed by church on Sunday.

White recorded an album titled “Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted)” early this year. This is where the film gets its title. There is also a folk art statue of Jesus that White lugs about in the trunk of a beat-up but high-powered 1970 Chevrolet on his tour through the South. In an odd way, it suggests the cross that Jesus bore on the way to his own crucifixion. Although White gave up religion in his teens, questions of sin and salvation remain very much on his mind and in the songs he sings. He describes his religious yearnings as trying to find the “gold tooth in God’s crooked smile.”

The film consists of interviews with working-class white southerners, musical performances by White and other down-home musicians, and appearances by well-known personalities such as the writer Harry Crews. Unfortunately, the film does not identify Crews, nor does it provide background on Jim White himself. In Crews’s appearance early on in the film, he tells several stories about southern life. One involves the proper way to dispose of an animal you have killed, which entails burying it with the eyes facing downwards. If it tries to rise from the earth sinking vengeance on you, it will burrow all the way to China instead.

Scattered throughout the film are performances by professional and amateur musicians, many of whom belong to the “alt country” genre, which can best be described as traditional country and western mixed with punk. The most compelling performance, which unfortunately is not included in a CD collection drawn from the film, is by “The Singing Hall Sisters,” done a cappella in a small town diner:

Knoxville Girl

I met a little girl in Knoxville
A town we all know well
And every Sunday evening
Out in her home I’d dwell

We went to take an evening walk
About a mile from town
I picked a stick up off the ground
And knocked that fair girl down

She fell down on her bended knees
For mercy she did cry
Oh Willie Dear don’t kill me here
I’m not prepared to die

She never spoke another word
I only beat her more
Until the ground around me
With her blood did flow

I took her by her golden curls
And dragged her round and round
Throwing her into the river
That flows through Knoxville Town

At one point in the film, White refers to “wise blood” as a way of explaining the connection that rural white southerners have to God and the church. This is obviously a reference to the classic Flannery O’Connor novel about an itinerant street preacher named Hazel Motes who describes Jesus as moving “from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark…”

Directed by Andrew Douglas and written by Steve Haisman, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” covers the same territory as Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” and Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle.” Unlike these films based on imaginary characters, Douglas’s film is even more compelling since it brings you face to face to a cruel and jagged world that really exists. It is also a companion piece to Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March,” another tour through the south by an expatriate artist. Unlike Jim White, McElwee explores the world of the middle-class and the gentry.

All in all, these kinds of works serve as nonpolitical introductions to an important part of American society that retains many of the aspects of pre-Civil War life. Although Andrew Douglas and Jim White avoid editorializing, there is little doubt that the sad and desperate poor white southerners who flock to Pentecostal churches do so because, as Karl Marx once put it:

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”

(Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

“Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” opens in Los Angeles on Friday July 29.

Jim White website: http://www.jimwhite.net/

Movie website: http://www.searchingforthewrongeyedjesus.com/

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