Sacred Landscapes Barren of Redemption: A Review of Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus

By Charles Reagan Wilson, University of Mississippi

“I am a poor, wayfaring stranger/ Wandering o'er this world of woe . . . .”  This line from one of the haunting traditional songs of the rural South might have been a guiding text for this film. It styles itself a documentary, exploring the spiritual background to the prolific music that has come out of the American South.  Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus has severe limitations as a documentary, desperately needing more historical and cultural context.  Still, it is a fascinating creative work on the South, whose strengths are its aesthetics not its theology.  It shows a world of woe, with dysfunctional and suffering people, but little of what produced the “joyful noise” that was also a background to the South's musical achievements.

The film explores an enduring South, the deepest South—that of its metaphorical richness as a land of mystery and gothic 'otherness' from modern middle class life.  


The film explores an enduring South, the deepest South—that of its metaphorical richness as a land of mystery and gothic “otherness” from modern middle class life. Critic Greil Marcus has called this terrain the “old weird America,” and the film uses the term “strangeness,” evoking difference from a supposed norm but also using terms that would be offensive to many southerners who have experienced stereotyping too often. “Do you think this place is on the map?” asks the narrator at the beginning of the film. “Are there roads you can walk down? You'll know it when you see it.”  This film is supposed to show viewers that place can be located both geographically and spiritually, harkening back to the traditional culture of the South.

Jim White, an alt-country performer, is the wayfaring stranger of the film, which takes its name from White's 1997 album, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus.  British filmmaker Andrew Douglass heard the music and came to make a film in the South that would illuminate the music-religiosity ties he heard in White's songs. White's songs often evoke a traditional South, with banjoes, fiddles, and mandolins heard and lyrics that sketch portraits of southern places. But his songs also seem experimental, with odd electronic-generated sounds and with lyrics that sometimes suggest Leonard Cohen as much as the Carter Family.  The film has a serious earnestness about it most of the time, but one has the feeling it has been made by postmodern hipsters seeking “the authentic” in a backwater rural South so different from the cosmopolitan Britain that is home to Andrew Douglass and his screenwriter, Steve Haisman.

White is an engaging presence in the film, though, and the key to its “searching” character.  He has a wry manner and speaks a down-home vernacular.  His southern roots are in the Florida panhandle, but he was a displaced southerner, his family moving to southern California when he was a child. He tells of being in Europe when sights, sounds, and memories somehow took him back to the South of his imagination.  He comes back to the region to try to find the “gold tooth in God's crooked smile.”  White tells of listening to gospel music on television in Pensacola as a child, seeing lonely people looking for God and crying out for attention. “I was lonely for God myself,” he says. “Trying to talk with him myself. I admired them for talking with God in their simple voices.”  White speaks of his return to the South as a return to an identity that has religious meanings.

This film is Flannery O'Connor-haunted, as well as being Jesus-haunted. “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” says Hazel Motes in O'Connor's Wise Blood, and the first thing White does is find the appropriate car, a 1970 Chevy, and he buys a concrete, bleeding-heart Jesus to put in the trunk as a popular religious relic.  The film is about a road trip, showing White's encounters with people that take him to barber shops, diners, bars, motel rooms, muffler shops, strip joints, Pentecostal churches, and a Louisiana prison.  Everywhere, people confess to the cameras their hardships that have brought them to prison terms, grieving over dead children, religious ecstasy in spirit-filled churches, or drunken revelry in what White calls “cut-and-shoot bars.”  Haisman tells interviewer Randall Stephens of “a strange Southern Jesus,” who was everywhere among the people being filmed.  Indeed the intimacy of the relationship between hurting people and Jesus in the South does come through poignantly.

The film makes the landscapes of the South a transcendental force for the spirituality that the filmmakers see underlying the region's music.  White says that the South is not so much a state of mind as a sense of atmosphere.  The film's cinematography beautifully captures the lushness of the bayous of south Louisiana and the desolate qualities of mountain coal mine country and piney woods in some indeterminate location.

The film's claim to being a documentary is, nonetheless, problematic.  Its driving question is what produced the music and creativity of the South, but it gives only a slice of southern life, surely one that has long been atypical. It focuses on marginalized white southerners, poor and working class people who appear overwhelmingly as victims, demoralized and often desperate people.  A film aspiring to credibility as a documentary would strive for balanced and diverse representations, whereas Wrong-Eyed Jesus too often settles for convenient stereotypes of gap-toothed people and abandoned junk yards.  Were these the people that historically produced the mountain ballads, bluegrass tunes, and country music of the twentieth century?  We know that life was hard for rural and poor southerners in those days, but the relationship between the past and present remains undeveloped in this film.  Are the people chronicled here producing music today?  No evidence is given here. The South's upstanding, highly moralistic church people—staid though they might be—also produced much of the music that is part of the spiritual context of the region, but the film ignores them.

Although the crew conducted many interviews, viewers only see snippets of them.   We get little context of what has brought these people to their situations, which they themselves often cannot explain.  To be sure, White's narration talks of the problems of poverty and associated lack of economic opportunities, but these observations are scattered and do not give the viewer an original perspective.  People on camera are not identified and the narration provides little depth on their situations.  Filming apparently occurred in Louisiana, Florida, and West Virginia, but the locations of recorded scenes are never given.  Screenwriter Haisman notes of reading about the “telluric” influences around Ferriday, Louisiana, but the film unbelievably does not mention the seemingly significant fact that Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart came from those environs. The film does have fine contemporary alt-country performers making good music, but their performances are artificially staged, with performers plunked down in surreal settings. Visual scenes of local landscapes and interviews with local people (somewhere) combined with staged performances by performers imported into local places does not inspire confidence.

One of the film's inadequacies, in its single-minded focus on working class whites, is an inability to convey the biracial nature of the South. Whether blues, country, gospel, jazz, or early rock, the South's musical achievements have resulted from cross-fertilization between whites and blacks, with contributions from other ethnic groups as well, who have shared southern spaces for almost five centuries. 

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus shows the dichotomies of the South, the juxtapositions of churches and bars, of the earthy and supernatural coinciding.  It deserves credit for focusing the camera on these people, although I wish the filmmakers had done so in a way that gave voice to them at length. It is best in general when it lets people talk, confess their stories, and express their faith. The film has a magnificent performance by writer Harry Crews, for example, who tells stories as he walks down a country road. The film has won attention from a national audience, I suspect, because it appeals to expectations of a backward South; but perhaps it also speaks to a contemporary longing for what the film calls “a real place” that is a site of deeply felt spirituality.  Belden Lane, in his book Landscapes of the Sacred, reminds us of “the particularity and substance of any placed experience of the sacred,” and sacred landscapes indeed are places where humans seem to meet the transcendent.  Flannery O'Connor said that the complexities of southern life should force the creative soul “to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets.”

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is on to something, and aspires to pursue O'Connor's insight, but it falls short of another O'Connor observation, that “there is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”  The southerners in this film are fallen but do not seem to have grasped their redemption, and their relationship to the South's music remains unclear.

The film explores the southern landscapes and lives of working class southerners that a great southern writer, Larry Brown, has written of, before his lamented death two years ago.  He said that he wrote “about people surviving, about people proceeding out from calamity. I write about the lost.” They may be lost, but they “are aware of their need for redemption.”  If you watch this film, read a short story or novel by Brown, and you will discover there the hope of redemption that can come out of the South, in the words and music of its people.

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