“Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” is a fascinating documentary, but not a very fair one, and maybe not even a very nice one. It examines some of the strangest, most unflattering elements of the American Deep South — and the filmmakers doing the examining are British.
Where do foreigners get off observing American weirdness with one eyebrow raised in disbelief?! WE can make fun of the South, but YOU stay out of it, you snaggle-toothed queen-worshippers!
Pardon my outburst of nationalism. The fact is, as the film points out, “the South” exists not just as a geographical place but as a mentality, a mindset, a way of life. And if the film focuses almost exclusively on the weird, Jeff-Foxworthy-meets-David-Lynch elements of the South … well, it’s not like they’re makin’ this stuff up.
Director Andrew Douglas got Florida-born musician Jim White to be our on-camera guide through the highways and byways of Dixie, White’s peculiar 1997 album “The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus!” having been what interested Douglas in the South in the first place.
We meet a number of odd, funny characters as White travels from one small town to the next. A man tells tales from his childhood about making up backstories for Sears catalog models, and how his momma cooked possum. A woman shows us her many tattoos and narrates which of them had to be covered up or re-designed because the sentiments they expressed no longer applied. (Advice: Just because you’re dating a guy doesn’t mean you have to get his name tattooed on you.) A rock ‘n’ roll Pentecostal minister works his congregation into an orgiastic frenzy of Christian fanaticism.
In between, Douglas shoots surreal sights like a decrepit school bus abandoned in a thicket, or an odd-faced old woman preaching salvation on a tiny radio station. There are several interludes in which musicians perform in bizarre places like a barbershop or, in one instance, a ramshackle house sitting in the middle of the lake. The music is reminiscent of what’s featured in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — primal, eerie, folk tunes set in minor keys and focused on dour subjects.
Four themes are recurrent in Douglas’ view of the South: death, outlawism, religion and poverty. Nearly everyone speaks of having lost a close family member to death. The Sears catalog guy says one of the things he and his siblings found so unusual about the models was that none of them were missing any fingers or had any other abnormalities, a perfection that separated them from everyone in “real life.” Inmates in a penitentiary talk about committing minor felonies as if there were simply nothing else to do in their boring little burgs.
The physical landscape of the South is on display as much as the people are, its haunting beauty subdued somewhat by the dulled colors of Douglas’ photography.
“Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” doesn’t purport to be a whole picture of the South. It’s not interested in the universities of Atlanta or the wealth of Texas or the rich international heritage of Louisiana. It is, rather, just a few threads in the tapestry. It’s a slow, ponderous film — too slow and too ponderous, maybe — but an intriguing one, often funny, sometimes unnerving, and altogether hard to forget.
B (1 hr., 22 min.; )