Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Popcorn Theology: "Get Low"

Tomorrow I'm going to lead a group discussion of the movie "Get Low" which I saw last year and found quite provocative. From the comments on Rotten Tomatoes, you wouldn't think there were any religious themes of interest. James Bowman in The American Spectator certainly has things to say that assess the significance of the secret of the character Felix Bush played by Robert Duvall but on balance he doesn't like the movie:

But I don't think anyone will be surprised to learn that what strikes Felix Bush as shameful enough for him to hide his head from public view for 40 years will not strike many others that way. Indeed, the public nature of his confession combines with the nature of the confession itself to reinforce our sense of it rather as something to be proud than ashamed of. His final plea for forgiveness to a bunch of strangers, none of whom he has injured, thus sounds less humble and penitential than it does like an actor's bid for applause -- which will naturally be forthcoming.

I think what limits reviews like these is their (obsessive) focus on Robert Duvall and his character. After all, we live in an age of the cult of celebrity which can sometimes blind us to the rest of the movie. But "Get Low" isn't just about Robert Duvall. After all, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray are also celebrities and they are in the movie. Joseph Susanka in Pantheos has a better take:

It has been said that there is no such thing as a private sin—that the relationship humans share as members of the Body of Christ makes such a distinction impossible. While the theology may be a bit fuzzy, the notion that transgressions committed in secret send ripples throughout all of humanity is borne out by experience; when one falls, all are brought low. Get Low, a Southern fable told through the life of an idiosyncratic Tennessee recluse, reminds us that sin and redemption touch us all.
Felix Bush (Robert Duval), an intractable loner, has spent the last forty years of his life sequestered in the hills of Caleb County, Tennessee. He's made no secret of his dislike for others, and has long been viewed by the locals with a combination of mistrust and downright hatred. After decades of self-imposed exile, Bush's first foray into town ends in violence. Yet the question of why he came back at all seems of little interest to anyone but Frank Quinn, owner of the town's struggling mortuary, and his enterprising young assistant, Buddy.
He makes the point that this is not a private struggle:
 for it is only in the clash between the terrifying secrets of his past and the public actions of his declining years that the film's depth and subtlety is revealed, exposing the symbiotic role the town and the hermit have played in one another's lives.
The sins of Bush's violent youth, left unexamined for decades because they were simply too painful, had far-reaching consequences—not only in his own life, but in the lives of many: small town citizens, childhood sweethearts, and bewildered morticians alike. The townspeople, given no reason to doubt their worst imaginings, have imaged them. But their misunderstanding of Bush's suffering and self-loathing has damaged them as assuredly as it has crippled and isolated him. In recognizing this, the film offers a hard-hitting reminder that connections between human beings penetrate into the personal and the societal fare more deeply than we often recognize, and that repentance, too, is rarely a private thing.
In the film's pivotal moment, as Bush begins to sink once again under the burden of his past, Buddy refuses to give up, insisting that he will do everything in his power to help The Hermit reach his goal. Buoyed by the young man's genuine concern and strength of character, the old man says: "I guess for every one like me, there's one like you, son. I about forgot that."
That's the wonderful thing about the Body of Christ: We are not alone. True, "when one falls, we all fall," and goodness knows there's enough falling to go around. But the bearers of Grace are everywhere, as well. We bear it to each other, often without even knowing it.
Getting low is only a temporary state; it is the rising again that we must always keep in mind. Thank God that constant struggle doesn't have to be private.

When Buddy discovers Felix unable to rise at the bottom of a ladder against the wall of his workshop, Buddy asks anxiously, "Are you sick? Can I help you?" Felix replies, "I'm stuck. There's life and there's death and there's a worse place inbetween. Felix has been making his own coffin. He's been to ask the minister Charlie Jackson for whom he built a church if he would speak at Felix's funeral party. "Have you told her what you did?" Charlie asks? "Did you confess? Have you made your peace with God?" All Felix says is "I paid." Charlie refuses to come.

The acute issue is whether an individual has the right to determine his or her own path of forgiveness and atonement. Felix determines his. Charlie declares that 40 years of living in isolation is a prison. "Forgiveness is free but you have to ask for it," he says.

This discussion reminds me of Emily Dickinson's poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --

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