By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we attempt to shed a new light on some of our favorite misunderstood and often overlooked films. Alison Maclean’s 1999 adaptation of Denis Johnson’s romantically drug infused short stories couldn’t be a better fit for our nearly-exhausted running theme of sex, drugs, and sex on drugs. This week, we plunge into the inauspiciously painful pleasures of ‘Jesus’ Son’.
Not unlike the vast majority of our unCultured selections, Jesus’ Son is presumably a film you either love, or have never seen. In an appropriately lost-puppy fashion, this jocular piece of self-inflicted tribulation found me rather unsuspectedly by way of stolen cable sometime in 2001. I consider this appropriate owing to the fact that, stripped of its surface themes, Jesus’ Son is indeed a veritable lost puppy movie. Regard “The Odyssey”, “Candide”, “On the Road”, or “Homeward Bound” and you’ll certainly get the gist.
In this case, our comically tragic hero is FH, played with adorably blissful ignorance by a young Billy Crudup. FH falls swiftly in love with Michelle, portrayed by another young savant, Samantha Morton. Complimented and conflicted by his equally aimless counterpart, FH embraces the happenstance surrounding him, and thus engages into a truly naturalistic expedition. With the often unfortunate consequences of Michelle’s persuasive lead, we observe FH transition from a desultory townie, to hopeless romantic, wandering junkie, heartbroken madman, accidental savior, and recovered survivor. Presented in a disjointed chronological order, told through the real-time memory of FH, the story is covertly designed to press the sentiment “it’s not how you got there, it’s who you are when you get there.”
What is most often overlooked in this film, or possibly overshadowed by its cast, is the direction and screen adaptation of the novelette. There is a penetrating sense of “nowhere and anywhere” brought on by the settings and camera work. However, regardless of the neutrality in setting, the camera is highly adaptive to the scene and story. We experience intimate shots of FH and Michelle wrapped around each other and tucked so tightly into frame that it would appear as if you were viewing them through a peephole. Contrastingly, we have magnificent wide shots of FH in limbo, traveling while an endless and formidable world surrounds him. These images create a sense of fearsome exhilaration that certainly stabs at the heart of anyone who has ever accepted that life and living are two opposing forces that may coexist, but do not cooperate. In perfect sync, the dialogue of the film flawlessly ranges from intensely private and introspective to genuinely approachable and relatable within moments of each other, adding to the aesthetic of an uncontrollable environment that can transition from fish bowl to ocean one moment to the next.
In addition to its brooding direction and idiosyncratic approach to storytelling, Jesus’ Son is figuratively up to its armpits in star studded cameos. Small vignettes of seemingly irreverent dialogue meld into the intentionally muddled arc rather seamlessly, and make for an arsenal of memorable scenes that easily compare the writing and actorly performances we expect from Allen, Jarmusch, or Tarantino. Most memorably, despite stand out scenes from Denis Leary, Will Patton, Michael Shannon, Holly Hunter, and Dennis Hopper, is a segment with Jack Black, in which author Denis Johnson also makes a macabre cameo. Here, a man shows up with a buck knife stabbed into his eye, at the hospital where FH and Georgie (Jack Black) happen to be working as quarterlies. Insanely high on stolen meds, Georgie manages to save his live through dangerously unorthodox and spur of the moment means. Feeling the rush of a temporary god complex (and a handfuls of pills), Georgie and FH leave the hospital to drive through a cold and uncomfortably grey backdrop. On the way to a yet to be decided destination, they run over a rabbit who happens to be carrying a litter. Georgie, though killing the mother, extracts the babies using the same buck knife extruding from Denis Johnson’s eye hours earlier. Nevertheless, the triumphant moment is soon lost to FH’s unavoidably naive and careless gait.
“Does everything you touch turn to shit?”
“No wonder everyone calls me Fuck Head.”
“It’s a name that’s going to stick.”
“I realize that.”
What laces this film together, and permeates through the potent acting ensemble and daring direction, is the story. Though we’re all undeniably human, everyone has, at one point or another, been a Fuck Head. FH’s reception of what life throws him is gracefully awkward, bordering on childlike. Though trauma is always waiting at his side, he remains genuine, trusting, and accepting. In witnessing his fumbles towards an unknown but hopeful plan, how could we see anything but a reflection of empathetic gratitude showing us that, while the world may shape our temporary trajectories, we are never be the same person when we arrive to these unknown but somehow purposeful destinations.
Five More Things that will make you wonder why you haven’t seen or even heard of Jesus’ Son:
5) The nurse with black eye is played by the delightfully awkward and highly talented Miranda July.
4) The title of the novella and film comes from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin”, which is shockingly about heroin.
3) Throughout the film, certain scenes are allowed to be interpreted as either dream or reality. While it’s easy to dismiss this as a potentially careless crafting of plot and narrative, this is a purposeful affectation from director Alison Maclean. The story is told through the hazy memories of FH, and as in the book, certain things may be remembered inaccurately or may have never even happened.
2) While not a fan, particularly, of voiceover narration, this is where Denis Johnson’s voice comes through in the film. Though the small book of short stories had to be aligned differently and altered in order to translate properly to a feature film, Crudup’s voiceover is straight from the pages of Johnson’s poetic and beautifully depressing book.
1) The hymn sung by the Mennonite woman in the final scenes of the film are diffused and made to sound as though we’re eavesdropping, as is FH. The words, however, perfectly encapsulate the heart of the story, and the tragedy that FH constantly endures and accepts. “Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine. We’ll understand it all by and by.”