Brit commercials helmer Andrew Douglas set out to make his feature debut by exploring the Deep South. Resulting docu reps a very European look at a quintessentially American milieu. Though co-produced by BBC for broadcast slots, pic could bless theatrical distribs if it were promoted to hipster and college town auds.
Inspired by an enigmatic song entitled “The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus” by alt.country singer-songwriter Jim White, Brit commercials helmer Andrew Douglas set out to make his feature debut by exploring the Deep South. Resulting docu reps a very European look at a quintessentially American milieu, a marriage exemplified by its cool, painterly visuals and Southern Gothic cast of characters. Though co-produced by Blighty’s BBC for high-brow broadcast slots, pic could bless theatrical distribs if it were promoted to hipster and college town auds, who will swoon for its deliciously eclectic soundtrack of blues, gospel, and “sadcore” indie tunes.
Effectively a road movie with no particular place to go, pic starts in Louisiana with narrator/native guide White borrowing a classic Chevy convertible for the trip and loading a tacky plaster statue of Jesus that sticks out of the trunk almost throughout the movie (it goes missing in a few continuity glitches).
While driving, White explains straight-to-camera his checkered, drug-dabbling, globe-trotting past and circuitous route to a sense of pride in his Southern roots, which comes inextricably bound with a diffuse Christian spirituality. Through his music, he explains, he’s “trying to find the gold tooth in God’s crooked smile,” a typical instance of the script’s not-so spontaneous-sounding use of vivid phrasemaking.
As the journey proceeds through tree-lined back roads vaulted with Spanish moss and pokey, cutely squalid little towns, White’s musings are intercut with musical interludes from a variety of professional and non-pro artists who perform in unusual settings. Alt.country duo, the Handsome Family, serenade at an empty roadhouse. Guitarist Johnny Dowd performs a duet — strikingly filmed as the camera tracks between two adjoining rooms — with a thrush-voiced hairdresser named Maggie Brown as she cuts heads in one room and he strums in another.
One-time lead singer of the New York Dolls David Johansen offers an off-the-cuff lecture about the influence on recent pop music of filmmaker/collector/tramp Harry Smith and his seminal box-set “The Anthology of American Folk Music.”
Helmer Douglas and star White also stop to talk to various colorful locals. Interviewees include prisoners in Concordia Parish Correctional Facility, Louisiana. There’s a girl in a trailer park who shows off her tattoos, the regulars at Ray Sheffield’s Where Jesus Is Lord Truckstop Diner, and members of various Pentecostal and other congregations seen at worship.
Although pic is deeply affectionate about world depicted, Douglas’ eye for the freakish and his formal, arm’s-length framing is somewhat reminiscent of Austrian doc-helmer Ulrich Seidl (“Jesus, You Know,” “Animal Love”) and the latter’s almost-mocking stance toward his own oddball subjects. Ultimately, pic feels very much like a romanticized, outsider’s view of the South that willfully seeks out the culture’s strangest, most weirdo aspects for other outsiders’ gleeful delectation; the one place the film might not play well is the American South itself.
Moreover, film loses narrative focus about two-thirds in, and the episodic structure grows just a bit repetitive by the end. The final roadside abandonment of the statue only just achieves a slight sense of closure.
Otherwise, tech credits are very strong, especially Flor Collins’ elegant 16mm lensing which shines through even in DigiBeta projection. Crucial sound mixing is particularly bright and crisp.