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.