Thurs Aug 11, Triple Door, 7:30 pm, $15 adv/$18 DOS.
Fri Aug 12, NW Film Forum, 7:30 pm, $8/$5 members.
"In a poor world like this, gravity feels a lot stronger," observes narrator Jim White as a camera pans over a lonely sprawl of trailer homes in a small Southern town. It's a straightforward, profound observation—one of many poignant insights offered by the alt-country icon throughout the disturbing, moving documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.
Seeking to explore why states below the Mason-Dixon Line have inspired such a resonant canon of American culture, director/photographer Andrew Douglas, screenwriter Steve Haisman, and White spent two weeks traveling the back roads of Louisiana, Georgia, and Virginia, talking with honky-tonk bartenders, prison inmates, Pentecostal preachers, and a definitive array of musicians, including Johnny Dowd, the Handsome Family, Melissa Swingle, and Lee Sexton. Adding to the absorbing texture of the film are random performances by the latter group, including Dowd singing a hoarse-throated murder ballad in a junkyard and Swingle playing a haunting version of "Amazing Grace" on a saw (the evocative soundtrack is available on Luaka Bop/V2 Records).
White, a Pensacola native and current Georgia resident, serves as a guide on this fascinating journey, delivering a compelling combination of dry, thoughtful commentary and practical advice for the filmmakers. In one particularly memorable sequence, White helps them rent a battered 1970 Chevy for their journey ("If you want to infiltrate the South... you can't show up in a Land Rover and expect poor people to tell you what's in their hearts.")
His dual role as default protagonist and lyrical navigator came about when Douglas became obsessed with White's 1997 debut, The Mysterious Tale of How I Came to Shout Wrong-Eyed Jesus. The album was an Appalachian-inspired collection of gritty, Gothic folk songs bristling with backwoods atmosphere and featuring cameos from Tom Waits and his horn player Ralph Carney. Originally hoping to make a fictional film based on the record, Douglas and Haisman contacted White, who harbored pre-existing cinematic ambitions himself. "The weird twist is that I graduated from NYU film school right near the top of my class," explains a genial White. "When the record deal [with Warner Brothers—White is now on Luaka Bop/V2] came along, I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that I could go back to film later if I wanted to. So I went and did Wrong-Eyed Jesus... and four years later I get this call from these guys saying they like my record and want to make a movie based on it!"
White was doubtful that the subject matter of his songs would translate well in a fictional context, so the filmmakers ew to Georgia in an effort to convince him. "While they were here I said, 'Hey, why don't I show you around town,'" recalls White. "And at the end of two days, they said, 'Forget the fictional stuff, we're just going to come here and document this.' They kind of thought I had invented this world that was represented in the story on that album; they didn't realize it was plain ol' reportage—good old Southern journalism. So they came back with a crew and this notion of these five archetypal realms: a honky-tonk, a church, a prison, a car, and a small town. They had this idea of a very, very rudimentary sketch that they purposely made rudimentary so that it could breathe."
The final product practically hypnotizes via Haisman's elegant photography and White's respectful perspective that gracefully straddles the line between detached observation and voyeuristic exploitation. "My point about the South is that you have to get it in your blood," says White softly. "And the way you get it in your blood is sort of abandoning yourself to it, which can take a lifetime. I'm not trying to lose myself in anything. I go to the ea markets every weekend and talk to the wonderful people... listen to people tell stories and listen to the dialects. I'm not as talented as James Joyce, but I sort of feel like James Joyce when he moved to Ireland and partook of people who were more in contact with what I call 'the mythospheric realm' around them. It's really easy to lose contact with that, so if I can talk to people who are in contact with that, whether they're Pentecostals or truck drivers, it reminds me that it's there and not forget about it."