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…