Friday, November 26, 2004

SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS

A review of a film to be shown at The Santa Fe Film Festival
As Published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 26, 2004


Singer Jim White, the star of the documentary Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, observes that in the South the simplest most mundane conversation has the potential of becoming a major theological discourse on right and wrong, sin and redemption, God and the Devil.

And the blood.

Blood, as Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family points out in the film, is a major motif, whether it's the Blood of the Lamb in religious sermons or the blood shed in the old murder ballads and tragic songs of life still being sung in the backwoods.

Indeed, all through this strange and captivating little film by Andrew Douglas, the glory of God and the temptations of Satan dance around each other. You feel this dance in the whiskey-soaked honky tonks, the backwoods Pentecostal churches, at the truckstops, the swamps, the coal mines and the barber shops. You hear it in the music, in the hellfire sermons, in the conversations, and, as novelist Harry Crews points out, in the stories Southerners tell, those essential stories that give people their identities and explain their place in the world.

Douglas, an Englishman, got the idea for the documentary when someone gave him a copy of White’s enigmatic 1997 debut CD The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus. He had to know where these songs came from. Douglas contacted White, who lives in rural Florida. The singer agreed to be the tour guide for a trip to the South, where, he explains in the movie, if you go five or 10 miles away from the interstate you can find life as it was 50 or 100 years ago.

Also enlisted for the journey were writer Crews, who talks about spitting birds and the proper way to cook a possum, as well as a bevy of musicians -- who, like White, represent the “gothic” side of the alternative country universe. These include The Handsome Family (who now live in Albuquerque), Johnny Dowd, David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower, Trailer Bride’s Melissa Swingle. David Johansen (former New York Dolls, Buster Poindexter) sings a bluesy “Last Fair Deal” in a motel room. But the most impressive music here are the unknown pickers and singers Douglas and White meet along the way -- a gospel rockabilly group playing in a church, The Singing Hall Sisters, who harmonize on “Knoxville Girl” in a booth at a truckstop, elderly banjo man Lee Sexton, who sings “Little Maggie” and “Rye Whiskey” as if he wrote them himself.

Searching For Wrong-eyed Jesus is an unforgettable glimpse into poor, white Southern culture. A key word here is “white.” You’ll see few African-American faces in the movie. And there’s no discussion of race. It seems like a huge omission, but the issue of race is such a huge can of worms it probably would take an entire other movie just to scratch the surface.

Urban viewers, especially those not acquainted with true Southern culture might tend to look down their snoots on the people encountered here, with all their talk of sin and blood and Jesus.

But despite the obvious poverty, ignorance, tragedy and superstition, the culture presented here is rich and complex. As White, who sometimes attends Pentecostal services, says, you’ve got to leave your mind at the door and go in with an open heart.

Tune into The Santa Fe Opry, 10 p.m. - midnight MST tonight on KSFR 90.7 FM, for a segment featuring musicians from this film. That segment starts right after the 11th Hour. And it's streaming live on the internet.

Searching For The Wrong-eyed Jesus will be shown 8:45 p.m. Thursday Dec. 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday Dec. 5 at The Screen at the College of Santa Fe. For Santa Fe Film Festival tickets call 505-989-1495.

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