Dir. Andrew Douglas, 2005 US/UK, 82 mins
Featuring: The Handsome Family, Johnny Dowd, Melissa Swingle, David Eugene Edwards, David Johansen and Lee Sexton
With its long, fluid takes across barren and gothic landscapes, and portrait shots of still musicians revealed by the camera as it sweeps across the scene, Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus looks like an extended music video crossed with the production values of a fiction film. This is perhaps unsurprising as the film is the documentary debut of photographer and music promo-cum-commercials director Andrew Douglas.
Alt-Country singer Jim White is our guide through a vision of the American South that is created by music, testimony and atmospheric photography. In a 1970 Chevy Impala with a sizeable statue of Jesus sticking out of his boot, White takes us on the road, though one-road towns to diners, bars, a prison, a barbers and – of course – numerous churches, his reflections on the character of the South providing a twisted narrative. One of his analogies as he tries to explain his relationship with the place is that it is like trying to drive along the white lines of the road, impossible to do if you look directly at the lines, possible only when you keep your eye on the road ahead. “If you look directly at something,” he concludes, “it’s inapprehendable. Sometimes you gotta look away before you can achieve something.” The film takes this on board: there is no attempt at verité camerawork or other conventional observational techniques, and whenever there is a danger of that happening, a jump cut quickly moves the viewer away again. Instead, frames are half-filled or empty, and the stories, anecdotes and ruminations that people share would be conversational were it not for the snaking of the camera revealing the landscape around them. The truth of the South is not in what is presented to us, the film is saying, but in what is around and behind that façade: something far more intangible.
It’s a mythical kind of South that we are shown, where religion pervades everything and all stories link back to themes of sin, penance and – far less often – redemption. In this sense it’s a fairly clean, uncomplicated South, minus the politics or the bombardment of everyday living. Everyone’s a philosopher, though none more so than White himself whose crystalline moment is when demonstrating to us the workings of society using an ice cream cone. In a startling sequence inside a Pentecostal church, the stories of hellfire and salvation are made manifest as the congregation reach rapture, including a young boy shaking and speaking in tongues, supported and egged on by the pastor and a group of women.
The most important element of this film though has to be the music. It is the musicians themselves who provide the film’s commentary, sometimes sharing their experiences but more often than not to be found performing amidst the scenes themselves, an integral part of the landscape. Full of melancholic philosophy, this is the spirit of the South. As White says towards the end of the film: “in a poor world like this gravity seems stronger. It’s pulling you down into the earth and it’s a fight not to disappear.”
Perhaps the film ultimately conforms to our expectations of what the South is, but as one Southern viewer on the internet concluded, this isn’t always far from the truth. Beautifully shot and tangibly atmospheric with a fantastic soundtrack, it’s not just for music fans.
Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is released on UK Region 2 DVD on 30th January 2006.
SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS IS RELEASED ON UK REGION 2 DVD ON 30 JANUARY 2006.
TO BE RELEASED ON DVD ON 30 JANUARY 2006
“An amazing piece of work. The film essentially follows one man, Jim White, as he deals with both his own and the South’s demons... and in the process we are given a musical tour of another planet. Beautiful dark and weird stuff.”
SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS, is a captivating and compelling road trip through the creative spirit of the South. ‘Alt Country’ singer Jim White drives a beaten-up Chevy Impala through a gritty terrain of churches, trailer parks, prisons, truck stops, biker bars and coalmines.
Along the way are roadside encounters with present-day musical mavericks including the Handsome Family, Johnny Dowd, David Eugene Edwards and David Johansen; old time banjo player Lee Sexton; Rockabilly and mountain Gospel churches – and novelist Harry Crews telling grisly stories down a dirt track. Everybody has a story in some form, almost invariably of sudden death, sin or redemption - yet all are transformed by the characteristic grim humour and natural eloquence of the Southern imagination.
Jim White grew up in Pensacola, Florida, enamoured with the sounds of the white gospel music that he heard on the Gospel Jubilee television series. Ever the outsider, the church was a poor fit for White’s quirky, irreverent character, although it was to prove a key influence in his music. In his twenties White left the South and travelled the world, trying many careers before making a success out of his music. White issued his début album in 1997, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus, a collection of atmospheric, oddly spiritual country-folk performances. The unique blend of ‘Alt’ Country and metaphysics was instantly acclaimed as a classic of the newly burgeoning ‘sadcore’ scene. White’s music came to the attention of an international audience when British trip-hop mavens Morcheeba heard a demo he had made and promptly volunteered to produce several tracks, which form the backbone of White’s 2001 release, No Such Place. Steeped in the influence of Flannery O'Connor and Tom Waits, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus revealed White as a spiritual anatomist of the American South. No Such Place upped the ante revealing a broader, more diverse collection of songs about rage and redemption, depravity and dreams, dead cars and broken hearts.
Winner of several awards including Best Documentary at the 2004 Seattle Film Festival and Best Cinematography at the Royal Television Society’s 2004 Awards, SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS is directed and photographed by Andrew Douglas. Douglas began his career as a photographer and exhibited in leading galleries, before starting to direct music videos and commercials. He was nominated as ‘Best Commercials Director 2004’ by the Directors Guild of America. Written by Steve Haisman and produced by Martin Rosenbaum (Dylan in the Madhouse) for The Andrew Douglas Company and Lone Star Productions, the film was executive produced by Steve Golin at Anonymous Content, responsible for films including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, and Anthony Wall at BBC TV’s Arena whose credits include Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home.
SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS will be released exclusively on DVD on 30 January 2006 by Plexi. DVD extras will include director / writer commentaries and extra songs and stories from musicians and writers including 16 Horsepower, Melissa Swingle, David Johansen, Lee Sexton and Harry Crews. The film will transmit on BBC2 in January 2006. A soundtrack from the film was released on 10 October 2005 on the Luaka Bop label.