Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Lowdown on Get Low, Part 2

I Profess: Christianity for Sinners and Secularists

Get Low presents Christian morality as a mature reflection on innocence, which is a vision of happiness a non-believing literary academic like me can embrace.

Loss of Innocence

Get Low begins with FIRE! 
We see a two-story house, isolated like a farmhouse, fully engulfed in flame, the fires of hell raging against dark heavens.

We see a figure distinguish itself from the flame, stumbling out of the inferno, flames rising from its flailing arms. A man?

The figure falls, disappears. Damned?

 We watch forty seconds of hell-fire consuming hearth and home and who knows what else? Has the man in flames perished in the fire?

Finally someone appears out of the darkness much further from the house, running away. The same man? Did he save himself?

The mystery behind this fire drives viewers’ interest in the film. Unlike most good Hollywood films, this mystery has a moral.

Get Low re-tells a Southern Gothic fable usually meant for innocents—children or young adults. It’s a brimstone fable about the loss of innocence, a lurid Southern Gothic tale about sex and violence in all its passion and humanity. Someone learns a hard lesson the hard way: the guilt of hurting people, the shame of behaving badly, the wrath of God. It’s a lesson innocents must learn about how people get hurt, how sex and violence are often involved in the worst cases of human moral failure.
Get Low is not this story, not a story for innocents. By putting the fire at the beginning of the film and forty years before the main action, Get Low retells this fable as one for sinners, those Christians for whom the loss of innocence has already happened, in other words a fable for adults.

Get Low tells the story of an old man, Felix Bush, facing death. To find redemption, Bush needs to disspell:

1) the comfortable lie he tells the community about himself

2) the comfortable half-truth about the past he holds

3) the comfortable misunderstanding he holds about Christianity

Being honest sounds easy in the fable for innocents, but it took Bush took 40 years of damnation to tell the truth.

1. Bush’s Lie 

As a mean old hermit, Bush lives a decidedly unchristian life. Rather than loving his neighbors, he’s been waging a decades-long war against them. 
We meet him first as the target of a boy’s dare: to throw a stone at the mean old man’s window. With hair to his waist and a beard to match, Bush appears shooting a rifle, scaring the poor kid out of his lunch and off the farm.

Later he goes to town, braving Depression-era cars and modern ways with his mule-drawn cart and hand-made clothes. In the street, a young man (the boy who threw the stone and grew up?) yells at the old bastard about his evil ways. Bush proves the young man’s point by beating him brutally with a stick.

Later still, another young man, Buddy (another boy who threw a stone and learned the Christian lesson of compassion?) arrives at the farm to help Bush get his funeral party; Bush greets him with a rifle shot past his ear.

Bush is a mean, violent, despicable human being, a physical and moral menace. Rumors swirl through the community to explain him by some unknown and horrific sin involving murder likely, certainly involving ruination for those around him and damnation for himself. To his Tennessee neighbors, Bush is an evil character straight out of Southern Gothic.

 As we learn, Bush may be a character but he ain’t evil.  
Buddy, a good-hearted young guy who works as the moral filter of the film, figures out pretty quick that he’s not really a menace to society; he just wants people to believe that lie so they’ll leave him alone. He’s been living that lie for forty years.

Then he gets a visit from a man he doesn’t shoot: the preacher. Bush listens, though he never stops chopping wood and never says a word. He’s gonna die and needs to make his peace, the preacher tells him.

Bush thinks it over and agrees with the preacher, after his own fashion. He wants to have a funeral party that he himself attends. “I’ll pay,” he tells the preacher.
But the good man of the cloth can’t make the man’s request fit with the good book. Gathering his neighbors to damn him publicly is just not the Christian thing to do. 
Buddy and his boss, the funeral home director Frank Quinn, will, however, take Bush’s money. 

The funeral party is on! Pretty soon, he’s a phenomenon, an instant legend in rural Tennessee: The old bastard paying big money for everyone including most of all himself to go his own fucking funeral.

Why’s he doing it? To have a hoot before he dies? To kill the neighbors who hate him? To have his day of reckoning? No one knows, and Bush isn’t saying.

“Maybe he won’t say.”

“Maybe he can’t say.”

Bush’s lie thus becomes a mystery. When we find out what’s behind his lie, will we find out the truth of the fire?

2. Bush’s Half-Truth

Get Low is a love story. Turns out Bush loves in a deep and abiding and honorable way. 
He keeps a photo of a woman’s face by his bed. Before lying down to bed every night, he kisses her. Has Bush shut himself up for forty years with grief over a lost love?

He runs into Buddy’s Aunt Mattie outside church, and she remembers him fondly. Even after Bush leaves without uttering a word, Mattie speaks of a handsome and suave young man, a fine catch in her day. The old hermit was a hunk?
After cutting his hair and beard, he spends time with Mattie, showing himself to be a gentle, charming, tea-serving man. Where’d he come from?
Bush tells Buddy and Quinn that he and Mattie “had a go.” Had a go! She can’t be the woman in the picture, can she?

A human heart beats, pumps blood, and animates the soul of Felix Bush. Who knew? Why’d he keep it hidden behind his misery and meanness?

The answer comes from Mattie. While enjoying Bush’s tea and charming company, she suddenly runs out, flustered and probably angry. She saw the picture by Bush’s bed, we later learn. It’s not Mattie; it’s her sister, her married-to-someone-else sister, who died long ago. She confronts Bush. Why does he have her picture? What does he know about her death? Was he involved?

We can be pretty sure about what we suspected all along: Bush is the man saving himself from the fire in the film’s first scene. But we don’t know the whole story. Half the truth is that he loved a woman and lost her. That’s the good half, about a good man. The other half is ugly: she was married; she died in the fire; he ran away.

Along with intense human grief, we see that Bush also has lived all these years with intense human guilt and shame, hellfire and damnation.

The mystery thickens. Did he kill the woman he loved? Abandon her?

Bush isn’t saying.

"Maybe he won't say."

“Maybe he can’t say.”

3. Bush’s Misunderstanding of Christianity

In Get Low, the Christian story of redemption is for Bush the way, the truth, and the life. It begins with Bush coming to an honest reckoning of his own loves, his acts, and his failures; it ends in him telling his story: confession. Bush takes a long time to get there because a) he misunderstands the role of the church; and b) he misunderstands the meaning of the Bible.

 a) Bush wants the church to tell his story for him.  
He offers the preacher a wad of cash not only for the funeral party he wants to attend but also for a funeral oration about himself. He gets neither, and the preacher doesn’t know Bush and couldn’t speak the truth of his life anyway. 
He dangles the wad of cash in front of the funeral home people and gets a funeral he can attend, but he doesn’t get anyone to tell his story. All the funeral can promise are the neighbors’ lies about him. 

So Bush goes back to the church, a particular church a long drive away, from Tennessee to Illinois. There he looks up Reverend Jackson. The two go way back.
Bush built the church’s beautiful sanctuary, a masterpiece of craftsmanship, a gift of devotion, a prayer for forgiveness. 
Jackson knows what happened at the fire. Bush made his confession to him decades earlier.
Bush asks Reverend Jackson—he actually gets the words out—to come to his funeral and tell the truth about him, his love, his sin, his years of repentance. 
Jackson refuses adamantly, almost angrily. “Did you tell her?” he demands to know. Bush doesn’t say, but this time without mystery: he has not told Mattie about her sister’s death; has not told her about his role in it; has not apologized to her.

The more Bush wants the church to tell his story, the more he learns what he’s known all along: The church wants him to tell his own story.

 Bush returns to Tennessee. His faith shaken, he announces to Buddy and Quinn that the funeral is off. Has he rejected the church and its teachings? Rejected his Christian duty?  

b) Bush is left where’s he’s been most of his life, thrown back into his personal relation to the Lord. The film spends little time developing this personal (non-dramatic and non-visual) relation, at least not directly.  

 We know that Bush is no church-going man; yet he’s been feeling remorseful for forty years, punishing himself in his own hermetic prison of grief and guilt and shame. He also seeks Christian redemption before he dies.  
We see him apparently at the grave of his dearly departed beloved. He’s silent, possibly in prayer. Is he asking the Lord’s forgiveness? 
He breaks off and utters perhaps the most intelligent words of his life. “Ain’t no use asking Jesus to forgive me. I didn’t do nothin’ to him.”

Bush finally learns his Christian lesson. Faith and worship and the teachings of Christ require much more than faith and worship and Bible study. Like Christ himself, Bush must make the word of God live on earth, not by praying to Jesus but by living a Christian life. The leap of faith is the leap from the Word into life.

On the strength of Bush’s religious epiphany and moral courage, the funeral is back on!

Bush’s Loss of Innocence

Telling the story of the fire is Bush’s triumph and redemption. By the time we hear the story, the details are important, but we already know their meaning: Bush is a good man who erred.

He fell in love with a married woman. He didn’t mean to. He’s asked himself for forty years and still doesn’t know if a man can choose the person he loves, or if love chooses him.
He visited the house of his beloved to find her husband, who is in the know about the two lovers and in a jealous homicidal rage. Bush fights him off. Perhaps he’s killed him? 
Rushing upstairs, Bush sees the bloody hammer on the steps. 
He finds his beloved in a pool of blood—but alive. 
Next thing he remembers, he’s knocked violently against the wall by the husband, not yet dead but intent on death and destruction. He’s set the house on fire.  
Again the husband attacks Bush. Again Bush fights him off.  Dead?
Bush discovers he’s on fire. 
He goes to save his beloved, but ends up flying, outside the second-story window. Was he pushed? Did he fall? Did he jump?  
The only thing Bush can say for sure is that, if he left his beloved to die, everything he knows about himself is a lie.  

Here is the Southern Gothic tale in all its lurid sex and violence and loss of innocence, except, in Get Low, it is not a cautionary tale told to scare innocents, but an exculpatory tale told at the day of reckoning. The fire at the beginning of Get Low is indeed about sin, the loss of innocence, the fall into humanity. But rather than the childish morality of brimstone and damnation and the fires of hell for those wickedly human enough to stray from the path of righteousness, the story of Felix Bush shows the much more difficult adult path of salvation.

Bush helped cause the fire; he was torched by the flame of human passion and sin; and he suffered forty years of hell. But in the end, just as he escaped the burning house, he escapes the fires of hell by being honest with himself and by loving his neighbors enough to be honest with them. Bush earns forgiveness from Mattie and all concerned not because he’s completely innocent, but because he’s human, and because he told the truth of his human story.

A Literary View of the Christian Story

Biblical stories are moral. They mean to show us how to live our lives and be happy. Yes, happy. Morality has always meant the wisdom that leads to happiness. Who doesn’t want to be happy? What does the Bible show about the human condition? What wisdom does it relate that might help make us happy? 

Get Low presents biblical wisdom that requires no belief in God or the afterlife, yet remains deeply moral, deeply concerned with human happiness.
Felix Bush becomes self-aware, dispelling lies, half-truths, and misunderstandings to get closer and closer to the truth about himself. That is exactly the path of secular thought in the west since at least Socrates: Know thyself. Bush reflects upon his passions and actions and, especially, their consequences for others. Who doesn’t want neighbors who are self-aware like this? Who doesn’t want to be self-aware? 
Bush finds the meaning of biblical words not in the Book but in life. He learns that morality isn’t bookish, but finds its truth in living relation to other people. Who thinks happiness is in books and not in life? 
Bush is not perfect; he’s made a human mistake and played a role in others’ pain and death. Most of us are more fortunate; our human mistakes only rarely cause death and such profound pain and suffering; few of us live with such guilt and shame. But who among us is perfectly innocent?
Bush find peaceful redemption. Through self-awareness, love, and a leap into life, Bush is reconciled with his community, himself, and his God. He does this ultimately by telling his own story; by fessing up, he earns eternal happiness. Who doesn’t think that being honest with the people you love is a good thing? An act of love? A means to intimacy?
Bush knows love. He knows the passionate love for a woman he wants to possess, the love that can be as compelling and ecstatic as it is blind and destructive. He also learns a more mature, self-aware, and selfless love for his neighbors, the human community. “God is love” is a perfectly secular formulation. Who doesn’t believe in love? the passionate kind? the selfless kind? 

Morality is compelling for us secular types not because we’ll be punished or rewarded after death, but because we want happiness in this life. Why wait like Bush to find self-awareness and peace and love just before death? Why not mature early—and often—and pursue happiness in this life?

I Confess: The Story of a Literary Analyst

The biblical story of happiness is as difficult in secular terms as it is in sacred. Like Bush, we find it hard to be aware of ourselves, hard to understand that we are not perfect, hard to process the pain we cause. Above all, like Bush, we find it hard to confess.

To Be Continued…

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Lowdown on "Get Low"

My wife tells me I think of movies in a more literary way than most people, looking not for fun and entertainment, not even for a chance to think about life and emotions and people. I get passionate about deep literary and philosophical meanings. After seeing the new movie Get Low, I started thinking all kinds of cool stuff about Character and Christianity and Capital. Perhaps I give the film more credit than it deserves, imbuing it with literary and cultural value it doesn’t merit. But I’ll give it this: it made me think.

So, as my friends and family, especially my wife, would no doubt be quick to say: Watch out! I’m going into thinking mode, indulging literary interpretation, speaking Ph.D. mumbo jumbo, which invariably makes me not only verbose—have you seen how long this is—but, even worse than boring, I become an insufferable know-it-all.

Actually, I’m going to try to curb my tendency to make people feel stupid and wrong, or at least I’ll try to explain why I think in literary terms, why it’s important to me, and why I think—insufferably—literature should be important to you. But, alas, I make no guarantees. You may feel the need to hit me, which would be the usual response. I only hope you hit me with words.

Before I get to literary interpretation, however, let me introduce Get Low with my take on the Industry view.

The Industry View of Get Low

Get Low is what Hollywood calls a small movie, an epithet in the industry that doesn’t quite reach an insult.

Avatar and Inception and Slumdog Millionaire, to take three high quality, Oscar caliber examples, enjoy big budgets and produce big entertainment value. They typically sport exotic, international or alien locales, exceptional and heroic characters usually played by beloved stars, and epic plot lines that place history, governments, even civilizations in the balance. They are especially distinguished by cinematic virtuosity, first-rate cinematography, sound, costumes, special effects, and the rest of what Hollywood does so well, movie-making talent that sweeps audiences into an intense visual and visceral experience. Big films require lots of capital, receive lots of marketing, and are expected to make huge profits.

At the other end of the Industry, small films have small budgets and thus no access to the full arsenal of cinematic virtuosity. This can be a good thing. Released from the capital demands of cinematic virtuosity and not expected to make blockbuster profits, small movies entertain with traditional literary and artistic techniques like a good story and strong acting performances. As such, they tend to attract small, educated, older audiences, often, as with Get Low, at theatres specializing in artsy films. In the Industry view, small movies have limited entertainment value and limited audiences, but they often feature quality, character-driven stories with Oscar-caliber writing and acting.

As a small film, Get Low gets mixed reviews, a good, not a great film. It’s story is a simple moral fable, good as far as it goes, moving, even thought-provoking for some, but not likely to garner Oscar consideration. Its real strength is in its performances. Robert Duvall carries the film in the lead role, an impassioned and flawed old country curmudgeon, a Duvall role perfectly cast, which is sure to enter him in the Oscar conversation, though not all reviewers were convinced. On the other hand, Bill Murray is universally acclaimed, virtually a lock for an Oscar nomination if the reviewers are right. He plays a supporting role as a man struggling against his weakness for money, which is a Murray role perfectly cast. Overall, then, with some reservations, the reviewers point to plenty that makes the film worth seeing.

The story stars Duvall as a good-hearted old coot, a hermit, who fosters for forty years the idea among four counties of locals that he is a mean evil son of a bitch. We first see him shooting at a boy for throwing a rock through his window, a typical dare among eleven year olds, a kind of local rite of passage as we later learn, braving the old bastard’s wrath. But of course the old bastard, Felix Bush by name, shoots not at the boy, but into the air, aiming not to harm but to scare. Bush further shows his heart when he traps the boy in a barn, frightens him out of his lunch, and then invites him to run away, scared but unharmed. Clearly, all he wants is to be left alone.

The premise of the story, apparently taken from a true Tennessee legend, is that Bush decides to throw himself a funeral party. He wants everyone from four counties to attend and tell a story about him, the mean old hermit bastard. The kicker is that Bush wants to be there alive at his own funeral, so he can listen to the stories. Bill Murray’s character, a funeral home director who smells profit even without a corpse, gets involved, and the funeral party is on. Bush surprises everyone by showing a talent for living, like the time he announces on air and out of the blue the offer to raffle off his own 40 acres of timber, instant riches for any local with five dollars and a story to tell. It quickly becomes a huge deal involving real money, and the party promises to be a legendary hoot.

As Bush comes out from the backwoods and out from behind his beard, preparing for the funeral party, the farcical premise turns into a moral fable. Through his surprisingly savvy interactions with Murray, we learn not only that he’s no fool, he’s probably playing Murray for a fool. Inevitably, of course, we learn that Bush is not a mean old bastard, but quite human, quite admirably likeable. Through his talks with an old flame, played by Sissy Spacek, we learn much more about the human tragedy that drove him to live like a hermit for forty years. We eventually learn that the funeral party is Bush’s chance for redemption.

Get Low then is a Christian moral fable of a man who withdraws from the world for forty years with the shame of a grievous but all too human moral failing; he seeks redemption before he dies. It works for most reviewers. While some critics call it simple, a bit too thin for a feature-length film, they stop short of saying it’s trite or not worth telling. Some like me applaud its moving moral significance. The general consensus is that Get Low tells a thought-provoking character-driven story that earns the audience’s affection for its interesting, honorable, and flawed characters.

In the Industry view of a character-driven story, Get Low is worth seeing because the performances by the actors bring the characters to life. Duvall as Felix Bush is always compelling on screen, deeply sympathetic; we feel for him, we like him, we need him to succeed. His performance is Oscar-caliber, especially in making what could easily have dissolved into a hoaky backwoods stereotype into a believable human character, and thus saving the film’s moral fable from a hoaky fate. In particular, Duvall’s soliloquy at the end, when he finally tells his story, is, as the reviewers say, worth the price of admission.

But Duvall’s performance is not pitch perfect. His transformation from a mean, ashamed, and guilty bastard into lovable old codger who wants redemption is too easy, as if a shave and a haircut could instantly turn 40 years of hermetic misanthropy into the suave charm of a man who serves tea to a sophisticated old flame. Duvall plays Bush, or perhaps he is directed to play Bush, in a heroic way that does not match the story. In the story, he is supposed to be so shaken by shame that no one knows whether he will actually walk the path of redemption, least of all himself, but we see precious little shame in Duvall’s performance. Mostly we see a Hollywood hero controlling events, influencing people to do his bidding, and doggedly pursuing his quest to right the wrong he created.

This perfectly played imperfect performance may be why some reviewers get downright cynical and nasty about Duvall’s performance, all but calling it a tainted and unseemly quest for an Oscar. Duvall's heroism is virtuoso, but it runs roughshod over the story.

From another cynical Industry perspective, that of the filmakers, perhaps Bush’s unheroic shame is best left buried beneath the surface of his moral courage, since no one wants to watch on screen an uncertain, hesitant, fearful Hamlet of a hero, even if it is a better story. Shame just doesn’t play.

Bill Murray’s lesser role is more perfectly performed. He encounters Bush first and foremost as an opportunity for profit, death and morality be damned; and he aims to make Bush’s funeral party a huge financial success. When Bush surprises him by taking control of events, maybe playing him for a fool, Murray’s character faces his own moral conflict between money and morality. He is betting big-time that he can have money and be moral too, but he might not be able to make it happen, since Bush is in control.  Murray brings us into his well-written character’s inner conflict subtly and humorously and completely.

So, Get Low is a small movie, featuring a good story and excellent performances, all reason enough to see the film. It also boasts high production values, meeting or exceeding Hollywood’s estimable standards, especially given the challenges of a period piece on a low budget. The costumes, the shooting locations, the musical score, the camera work, all of it first rate as far as I could tell. I especially enjoyed the theme song sung by Allison Krause and written by Aife O’Donovan (lead singer for Crooked Still, a Boston band that recently played a great set at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara).

The film is currently playing Santa Barbara at the Riviera. I hope it does well enough to move to the main theaters, but it’s not likely. So don’t wait to see it.

The Literary View of Get Low

Literary analysis discusses exactly what Industry analysis cannot discuss: the meaning of the story. Movie reviewers, really anyone connected to the Industry and writing publicly, can only evaluate the story and say, for example, that Get Low is thought-provoking or simple. They can also say what the story is about, that Get Low is about a man’s sin and shame and redemption. But rarely if ever does an Industry writer interpret the meaning of the story, never elaborate an interpretive thesis, never write, for example, Get Low is a Christian fable that elaborates a profound critique of Christianity, and then go on to explain what that thesis means by providing examples from the story.

No Industry writer interprets because interpretation gives too much away, and spoils the viewers’ pleasure. No one likes to be told the end of the story, and everyone likes to think about movies on their own terms, because thinking is part of the pleasure. No readers want so-called experts to tell them what to think and feel about movies.

Those of us who engage in literary analysis, especially those of us who do it for a living, have no trouble spoiling movies for audiences, no problem giving away the ending, no hesitation to tell people what to think and feel about movies. We--I should say I--have no trouble playing the role of an insufferable know-it-all.

But let me confess my sins later, first allow me to profess.  I'll try and watch my professorial mumbo jumbo.

I Profess About Get Low

Get Low tells a story of a man who fucked up, knows he fucked up, not just by social standards of moral conduct, nor just God's standards, but his own admirably high standards.  Felix Bush fucked up, he hurt people, and he knows he's to blame.  He feels his shame so deeply that he punishes himself by living in self-imposed imprisonment for forty years, beoming the mean old bastard hermit, in order to atone for his sin, and perhaps find peace with his conscience.  That's the past, the back story.  The future is Bush's death.  Thus it's a common, possibly universal human story.  Who hasn’t fucked up and hurt people? Who hasn’t felt such shame?  Who doesn't want to die in peace?  The movie chronicles how Bush finds redemption before he dies, and so becomes a model for us all.

It's a simple Christian fable, deceptively simple, since, through a simple literary twist to the story, the Christian moral fable becomes a critique of Christianity, a Christian self-correction.  The moral of the fable in Get Low is about shame and redemption, not only for Felix Bush, not only for us, but also for Christianity.

To be continued.

Friday, February 12, 2010

My Pickup Truck

I've been hankering for a truck for a while, even before I cracked up the Honda.  It took me 31/2 months from the accident to let the financial dust settle, a month to get past Robin's mid-life crisis jibes, and fully three weeks after the test drive to buy a 2000 Mazda B2500, 4 cylinder 5 speed, with a little bigger cab and a lumber rack.  All of it perfect for Big Table Designs (and my mid-life crisis).  Pretty cheap too (especailly for a mid-life crisis).

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