The Austin Chronicle

Night Visions

Hitchhiking, Heroin, and Other Tales From Jesus' Son

By Sarah Hepola, July 7, 2000, Screens

A young man stands on the side of the road. He shivers underneath a sleeping bag, sopping wet with rain. He has slung the blanket over his shoulders like an Indian chief, like a little boy who wakes up bewildered in the middle of the night and has to go pee. Driving down some two-lane blacktop in Missouri, you see this man, this man who is hoping you will stop. Will you stop for this man?

Consider that the rain isn't letting up, and you are somewhere in that dark, silent space between yesterday and tomorrow, between where you were and where you're headed. As your car approaches, the young man looks up; you see him, he sees you. Maybe there's been an accident, you think, or maybe he's some benevolent millionaire who will reward you for your random act of kindness. But coming closer, you catch a glimpse of his wild eyes, his hair matted down in chunks against his forehead, you can almost smell him from here, and chances are ... You will not stop for this man. I mean, come on. You've heard all those horror stories, you saw that movie where Jennifer Jason Leigh gets torn in two. Pick up a hitchhiker? Hell, no. No matter how lost he looks. Especially since he looks so lost. You will drive by, splashing mud on his ankles, maybe spattering his face. You will shake your head -- don't envy that guy! -- until your thoughts inevitably return to your own snug, complicated life, snuffing out just how close the two of you were and the possibility -- him, you, an open road -- for good.

But imagine, for a moment, that you do stop. You let him climb into the Oldsmobile, dragging his soggy blanket, his recklessness along for the ride. He introduces himself -- but confides that to his friends, he is known only as "Fuckhead." If you stop for him, and let's say you do, he will tell you stories that will keep you soaring through the night. At times, they are disjointed, parts are skipped, people and places confused; clearly this guy is on something. (Booze? Dope? Speed? All of these things?) But as you settle in, he tells tales that can only be understood on a wild night journey, full as they are of sad poetry and bone-deep revelations and mystic visions. Which is not to say his stories are not true. They are. In fact, the honesty of his stories is so intoxicating, so rapturous, that after a while you relax, forget he is a junkie, a hitchhiker, a stranger. And before long, he is in the driver's seat, smoking in the car, singing his songs, thrumming their beat out on the steering wheel, as you drive, the two of you, drive into the night.

Smack Daddy

"Fuckhead" is the beautiful, battered protagonist of Jesus' Son, a film adaptation of Denis Johnson's 1992 semiautobiographical collection of short stories set in the early and mid-Seventies. The book's name comes from a lyric to Lou Reed's "Heroin" -- "When I'm rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus' son" -- and not surprisingly it is another entry into the ever-growing catalog of art dedicated to the agony and the ecstasy of shooting up. In its bottom-scraping, darkly comical narrative it does bear more than a passing resemblance to Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy. But unlike movies that attempt to simulate the drug's exhilaration (think of Danny Boyle's elastic camerawork in Trainspotting or Drugstore Cowboy's floating cows), Jesus' Son isn't really about heroin, per se. Fuckhead's addiction could be to anything; in fact, it might be to everything. He is indiscriminate in his need for inebriation -- popping pills or veins, lapping up booze or women. He is just sad as a Hank Williams song, empty as a bar at 3am, searching with an almost unshakeable faith for some intrusion of hope, a shard of light that will pierce through his misery. Consider this passage from the book, about the hours spent in the dark, creaky confines of his favorite watering hole, the Vine:

With each step my heart broke for the person I would never find, the person who'd love me. And then I would remember I had a wife at home who loved me, or later that my wife had left me and I was terrified, or again later that I had a beautiful alcoholic girlfriend who would make me happy forever. But every time I entered the place there were veiled faces promising everything and then clarifying quickly into the dull, the unusual, looking up at me and making the same mistake.

Fuckhead is a wastoid, but he's also a barfly dripping with self-pity, a remorseless thief, a gushing romantic, a poet, a punk, and a wide-eyed innocent. In a cast that includes Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary, Samantha Morton, and Jack Black -- it is this complicated character, played by Billy Crudup, an actor previously known for his theatrical work and supporting roles in Sleepers and Inventing the Abbots, who is the centrifugal force. His stumbling odyssey forms the film's core and separates Jesus' Son from the hundreds of other similarly themed movies, books, songs, poems, and manifestos that have come before it. Through our hero's eyes, we experience not the drugs but the journey -- the hitchhiking, the groveling search for love and oblivion, the boffo capers, the manic relationship with junkie girlfriend Michelle, and the rabbits (the rabbits are the best part). But to hear these stories, to appreciate their luster and hilarity and soft-spoken hope, you have to stop for Fuckhead. You have to let him in.

"He observes people with so much understanding and tenderness and humor," explains the film's director Alison Maclean, on the phone from her home in Manhattan. "There's nothing cynical or ironic about him at all, and I like that. He just says what he feels in the moment."

Which is, at least in part, why Alison Maclean hopped along for the ride.

Amazing Grace

Alison Maclean was first approached by Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia, two former stage actors attempting to turn Denis Johnson's slim, dense collection of short stories into a working script. The director had been bouncing around Manhattan since she moved there from New Zealand, hungry for a project she could follow through. Although a development deal with Touchstone Pictures had landed her stateside in the first place, Maclean's bid at directing Up Close and Personal, the bungled biopic about party girl/anchor woman Jessica Savitch, was ill-fated at best. ("We had a difference of opinion about how that film should be," Maclean tactfully explains in her soft Kiwi accent, which is to say that Touchstone wanted to leech everything interesting out of the story.) Although Maclean kept busy directing episodes of Sex and the City and Homicide, as well as the charming video for one-hit wonder Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn," it had been years since her impressive debut film Crush, an enigmatic psychological thriller about the effect of a mysterious American woman on a New Zealand author and his awkward teen daughter. That film came out in 1992, coincidentally the same year as Jesus' Son. Maclean read the book, and though the shaggy dog story of rambling and redemption didn't exactly match up with her own experience in the Seventies -- a student in New Zealand, studying photography and sculpture, too young for "that drug-taking sexual experimentation" -- she made a fast and strong connection with the protagonist. "Obviously I've known people who in different ways have lost themselves, through drugs or alcohol or a certain kind of abandonment," she explains. "That slightly out-of-control behavior, a certain kind of reckless living for the moment and a hunger and appetite for life that's not cautious." Even more, she was drawn to the book's moments of revelation, visions of a woman flying naked, a heart bursting forth from a man's chest, drive-ins dotted with gravestones. "Cloud nine moments," the author calls them -- moments that might be hallucinations, might be twisted reality, might just be God. Another director might have shied away from such portentous episodes, but Maclean embraced them in all their religious overtones. "In a way they're the most important part of the book," she explains, perhaps unconsciously invoking the language of "Amazing Grace": "It's this spiritual journey but with this deadbeat guy, who's lost and confused, who then wakes up in the end."

Although Maclean's vision leaves much of the book's jittery pulse and restless, questing spirit intact, the adaptation is not entirely straightforward -- characters had to be subtracted and expanded, especially Fuckhead's girlfriend Michelle, played by British actress Samantha Morton, who spoke not a word of dialogue in the book. "We wanted to keep the film fragmentary," Maclean explains, "but at the same time find this loose thread so that there was some kind of journey, progression. So the love story between those two characters became a connective tissue between the stories. That was quite a challenge for the writers, to write those scenes from scratch and to match Denis' tone, which is very specific."

Of course they had a little help on the way. Denis Johnson was along for the ride, too.

This Is Your Life

"Michelle's more like the sun and the moon in the book," Johnson explains from his home in northern Idaho. "She's just orbiting by overhead, kind of lumbering past in the clouds, but her presence is very strong, at least I thought so, writing the narrative. I felt like she was always there in the guy's mind." In addition to Jesus' Son, Johnson is the author of such revered books as Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Angel (and his latest novel, The Name of the World, reviewed in this week's Books section). He spent last spring in Austin teaching at UT's Michener Center for Writers. A modest, self-deprecating man with a manner far removed from that of his hectic protagonist, Johnson didn't flinch at the idea of two first-time screenwriters performing reconstructive surgery on one of his most acclaimed pieces of work. "My feeling was that you couldn't really lose as the author. They would either make something that was not very good and wouldn't get a distributor, or they would only get a distributor because it was very good." Fortunately, it was the latter.

"He was very supportive," Maclean remembers, "but at the same time he was great about saying, don't be too pious, don't be too respectful. You have to make it your own and into something new, and not be too concerned about being too faithful to the book."

After consulting with screenwriters Cuthrell and Urrutia ("My comments were very nitpicky. I would say things like, 'Instead of hello, I think this person would say hi'"), Johnson even wrote a scene for the film, the first romantic interlude between Michelle and our protagonist (making out in the barn doesn't count). It is a tender, charged meeting between the two, a moment that meshes together their shipwrecked lives. "I don't remember what I first thought about the [creation of the character] Michelle when I was reading the screenplay," Johnson says, "because everything just vanished from my mind when I saw Samantha Morton. You see her, and you immediately think: That's who it always was. That's who I always thought it should be." Indeed, Morton (who was nominated for an Academy Award last year for her role as a mute laundry girl in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown) is a force in the film -- dangerous sexual energy jumbled up with little girl goofiness. "She just has this inevitable quality," Johnson remarks. "She does these things that are very free, very strange. She could do just anything at any second when the camera's on her, but then when she does it you think -- that was exactly what should have been done."

In fact, Johnson was so pleased with how Jesus' Son was turning out, that he decided to try his hand at acting in the film, too. "I actually had been taking an acting class in Austin," he remembers, "and I decided I was well on my way to an Academy Award. So I made a tape of me doing a scene called 'Steady Hands at Seattle General.'" As might be surmised from the title, the scene finds Fuckhead in a rehab, where he uses his newly rock-steady hands to shave Bill, a cranky old dopehead who has been shot twice in the face -- once by each wife. In an inspired bit of casting, the part is eventually played by Seventies drug culture icon Dennis Hopper. But Johnson wasn't left out entirely. Instead, Maclean cast him in a segment called "Emergency," where Fuckhead and Georgie (played by High Fidelity's Jack Black) are orderlies who must contend with a man who wanders in with a knife stuck in his eye. "Yep, that's me," Johnson explains, laughing. "They were being very cordial to me, and they probably went into a panic, thinking: Now he wants to be in the damn movie -- what are we going to do? And I think it was brilliant that they came up with this idea of making me the guy with the knife in my head, to get me off the trail of any real acting. It could have been a low spot in the film."

The cameo meant Johnson got to spend a few more days on the set, marveling as long-lost pieces of his past drifted by like ghosts. "I was amazed at how much it looked like Iowa," he explains, "and how much it looked like my youth. The first time I saw Billy Crudup he was with the guy who played Dundun, and they just looked like a couple of the punks I used to hang out with. And the car looked like the car I used to drive when I was a kid. It was kind of eerie."

Decades after Johnson wrote it all down, Fuckhead's adventures are still unraveling -- the hitchhiking, the heroin, the rabbits (and the rabbits are the best part). It is a trip we take with him, from the darkest part of night and into the dawn, in the unpredictable company of a man seeking something, although his attempts are often fouled-up, turn out all wrong. Still he's trying, looking, sopping wet on an unnamed highway, hoping for a ride. end story

Jesus' Son opens in theatres Friday, July 7. Read a review of Jesus' Son in our Film Listings.

Read a review of Denis Johnson's latest book,The Name of the World.

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