Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jesus' Son

Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” is a collection of eleven short stories connected by a loose narrative, concerning the drug-induced exploits of a narrator named Fuckhead. Johnson’s book takes on a self-conscious first person narration that continuously breaks the chronological narrative, to present the different stories in a fragmented order recollected by the inconsistent mind of a drug addict. Alison Maclean’s 1999 film adaptation pursues a similar narration and chronological structure, yet numerous minor characters of the book are morphed into a stronger singular character in the film. Maclean’s film embodies the poetry of Johnson’s novel, yet the independent Hollywood film manages to sand the rough edged characters of the novel into sympathetic cinematic personalities. Both the book and the film translate drug-induced vignettes into prophetic spiritual poetry for lost souls.

The narrator named Fuckhead is a twenty-something drug addict, who volleys himself from one drug incident to another, usually making unwise decisions that lead him into a surreal and shaky universe. In the novel, Johnson’s FH seems to make selfish decisions that lead to temporary bliss, out of the necessity to feed his addictions. On the rare occasion that FH is required to step up and do something for someone else, it’s usually out of the need to be loved by others. Johnson writes; “But I was happy about this chance to be of use/ I wanted to be the one who saw it through and got McInnes to the doctor without a wreck/ People would talk about it, and I hoped I would be liked.” F.H.’s low self-esteem is probably one reason why he is an addict in the first place, but since we are given little to no biography of the character, we can probably assume that he has other issues from the past. Actor Billy Crudup plays FH in a way that is far more passive and sensitive, yet he retains the drug-induced confusion of the book’s character. In the chapter titled “Work,” FH describes an incident with his girlfriend: “Once, as we stood arguing at a street corner, I punched her in the stomach.” (Johnson) This shocking display of abuse in the book is diluted into something of a mere accident in the film. Another example of the character’s extremity is in the chapter “Two Men,” which concludes with FH searching for a drug dealer who robbed him and pointing a gun at the dealer’s girlfriend’s face. The chapter ends with FH ordering her to lay down on the ground; as the mother of a child begs for her life, he threatens that she’s going to be sorry. In the film, this scene is omitted, and we are left feeling empathetic towards a lovable addict whom we can root for.

In the film, F.H.’s girlfriend, Michelle, played by actress Samantha Morton, dies of a suicide drug overdose halfway through the narrative. The film version of the character Michelle is mixture of four characters in the book: Alsatia, his nameless wife from “Two Men,” a nameless girlfriend from “Work,” and Michelle from “Dirty Wedding” (who leaves F.H. for a man named John Smith, the catalyst of her suicide). While Michelle is only a character in passing in “Dirty Wedding,” the film develops Michelle into an extremely memorable figure that haunts the film and F.H. after she dies. It is this love story that contributes to the characterization of F.H. as a sensitive, likeable being. Unfortunately, F.H. extends his empathy so far as to take on the self-defeating habits of his girlfriend; namely, that of a heroin addiction. F.H. arrives in the kitchen to find Michelle shooting up, while a children’s cartoon plays on the television in the background. The ironic juxtaposition of cartoons and drugs portray the couple as children who resistant towards adulthood. This lack of responsibility is further exemplified when the scene blends into the chapter title “Holiday.” (“Holiday” does not exist as a chapter in the book, but pieces of it are from the chapter, “Work.”) “Holiday” begins with the Barbara Mason song, “Yes, I’m Ready,” while Michelle and F.H. are now shooting up heroin, immediately vomiting, and declaring their great love for each other.

Other characters in the film are hybrids of characters in the book such as Wayne (played by Denis Leary in the film) in the chapter “Work,” who shares the same demise as Jack Hotel from the chapter “Out on Bail.” The character McInnes, who is shot in “Dundun,” is combined with Caplan in “Two Men” in the film. McInnes (played by John Ventimiglia) finds F.H. kissing his girlfriend in the film, and this leads him to rename the narrator “Fuckhead.” Another significant character blend is Mira (played by Holly Hunter) from “Beverly Home” who is both a nameless Mediterranean dwarf from that chapter, as well as his next girlfriend who is a cripple. Maclean does a nice job blending minor characters into fuller richer individuals for the film, where every actor has a significant role in F.H.’s hallucinogenic tales.
Though the title “Jesus’ Son” is derived from a Velvet Underground song called “Heroin,” both book and film connect the search for spirituality through drug use. Smith writes, “The chemical addictions of Johnson’s unnamed narrator are also the warped expression of a longing for more profound spiritual experience. His drugged and drunken adventures evoke obvious religious affinities.” (Smith) When examining the characters in both book and film, one can find numerous examples where a character tries and finds spiritual fulfillment through a confused drug haze. For instance, in the chapter “Emergency,” both the book and the film depict a moment when a drugged-out Georgie expresses the desire to go to church because he would like to worship. Later in the chapter, both F.H. and Georgie find themselves wandering into what they believe to be a military graveyard; this cemetery is slowly revealed to be a drive-in movie theatre, which morphs into their hallucination of angels and visions of the book of Revelation, parts of which appear on the drive-in movie screen. In the film, this scene is slightly changed into visions of Michelle interspersed with the film “Carnival of Souls,” which further emphasizes the lost souls who inhabit the book and film.

The significance that F.H. places on his hallucinatory perceptions seems to be derived out of spiritual guilt. In the chapter “Dirty Wedding,” F.H. ostracizes himself from the abortion clinic in which his girlfriend undergoes a procedure. As he rides the train, he latches onto a fellow passenger whom he follows to a laundry mat. When the man approaches him, F.H. narrates, “His chest was like Christ’s/ that’s probably who he was.” (Johnson) This description reveals that F.H. has been down so long in his drugged out world that maybe his gods have been reduced to the lowest common denominator, or he’s able to perceive holiness in the lowest of individuals. Another example of F.H.’s spiritual quest is in the chapter “Happy Hour” when he is about to eat a psychedelic mushroom that is ground up into a big pill. Just as he’s about to swallow it, he remarks that it’s like an Easter thing (referring to the egg shaped pill), but it’s as if F.H. is equating the high associated with a mushroom with that of the resurrection of Christ. Another example of guilt and redemption is found in the chapter “Beverly Home” when F.H. spies on a couple of Mennonites. F.H. witnesses an argument between the couple, and the husband returns to the room to wash his wife’s feet as an apology. Parish writes, “reversing the archetypal moment when Mary Magdalene washed Jesus’ feet, the husband returns to end their argument by washing her feet.” It’s through this couple that F.H. is able to witness a spiritual unity that also symbolizes a sanctified means of living. Through the Mennonite couple, F.H. can learn how to live a virtuous existence unlike the one he has been living up to this point.

Whether through the vision of spirituality or reality, F.H.’s vision is obscured. In the chapter “Emergency,” character Terrence Weber’s (ironically played by the writer Denis Johnson in the film) vision is affected by the knife in his eye. It’s this example that can be seen as an allegory of the blind-sightedness that lead the characters to proceed through life in a clumsy manner. Even Georgie’s (hilariously played by Jack Black in the film) removal of the knife has an accidental quality to it. Later, it will be F.H.’s blinded memory that will squash the baby rabbits that he holds in his pocket. F.H. is not even sure that the rabbit moment even happened that time, and memory is looked at as untrustworthy or blurred by drug use. However, it is the blurred reality that lends itself to the poetry in the book and films. As Kakutani writes, “Dreams blur into real life for this man, hallucinations mimic and merge with reality: a state of affairs that gives Mr. Johnson ample opportunity to display his dazzling gift for poetic language, his natural instinct for metaphor and wordplay.”(Kakutani) It is this characteristic of Johnson’s writing that takes unsympathetic souls and makes them poetic prophets.

In conclusion, “Jesus’ Son” is, in book and film, an odyssey of the search for spirituality and sobriety in a dislocated chemical world. Though the film morphs different characters and makes the lead protagonist more sympathetic, both book and film relay the confusion and danger of drug addiction. The spiritual quest searched for in drugs and alcohol can be seen as a modern example of a new God. This God comes in the form of amphetamines, alcohol, heroin and meaningless sexual encounters. The nameless and faceless narrator is a mirror to our own confusion in modern life. Through the rough and tumble, we, too, can see the beauty, poetry, and divinity in even the most questionable moments.

Work Cited Bibliography
Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Stories That Range From Bleak to Bleaker.” New York Times 11
Dec. 1992: C31.

Parish, Timothy L.. “Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son’: To Kingdom Come.” Critique 43
(2001): 17-30.

Smith, Robert McClure. “Addiction and Recovery in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.”
Critique 42 (2001): 180-192.

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