Monday, June 27, 2011

Get Low: Why You Never Should Get Your Theology From the Movies or TV

Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is a hermit who has no regard for anybody in the town or anyone who wants to get to know him. But one day, after a fellow old hermit as died and he hears people in the town telling stories about him, he decides that he needs to get these stories out in the public. He recruits Frank (Bill Murray) the local funeral home director to host his own funeral. This way he can hear what everyone is saying about him, and get the truth to his past out in the open. But will he be able to get anybody to come? And will he be able to reveal his secrets? (IMDB storyline)

This movie was recommended by a couple of people so it was one of the movies we watched this weekend.

It had several problems. First, the plot was extremely simple. There wasn't any subplot and I, frankly, never had much suspense as to whether Felix was going to get that party or reveal his secrets. It needed another time (or five or six) around the writing table. There were some humorous moments and some poignant moments, but not enough to make up for the lack of plot.

Second, Bill Murray may have been speaking the parts written for him but they all felt somehow as if he was improvising in a way that made it all too modern. The movie is set in the past and every other actor always sounded true to the time period (1920s? 1930s?). I'm not sure if it was Murray's acting or the directing, but he never quite fit in. I get it, by the way, that he was a Northerner living in the South and so he wouldn't fit in anyway. However, sounding too flip and modern wasn't the way to achieve that.

I did appreciate Felix's honesty in taking responsibility for his sin, which is one that many people these days wouldn't consider much of a sin. (It is, by the way, a big sin, but how times have changed, n'est ce pas?) I also appreciated the fact that he knew by becoming a hermit he had "put myself in prison for forty years."

However, after his preacher friend reminds him that he needs to ask God for forgiveness, Felix visits a graveyard and says:
They keep talking about forgiveness. "Ask Jesus for forgiveness." I never did nothing to him.
When the movie was over, we were talking it over and Tom brought up that quote. He said, "Jesus' forgiveness is supreme and over all other forgiveness. The point is that you will have to have His forgiveness or none other matters."

I'll just say right here that I'm paraphrasing because I was stunned ... I've never heard Tom make a statement like that before (he's the guy who lives his faith, doesn't talk about it). And he was absolutely right.

The other point is one that I made, which is when you sin against anyone, you are ultimately sinning against Christ, who resides in us.

This helps mitigate the quite unrealistic public confession that Felix makes later to a huge crowd, many of whom he doesn't know. For a hermit of forty years to just pop out a long story like this, just didn't feel right. Especially since he was making whooshing noises to illustrate catching on fire, which Hannah said later made her wonder if this was the "funny take" that wasn't supposed to be used but got edited in by mistake later.

At any rate, complaints aside, when we sin against one person, we sin against everybody, especially if one considers the fact that we are the Body of Christ. There is a ripple effect which we usually can't see or understand (mystical effects of sin being what they are on a global scale). But those effects are there and so, although I found the request for forgiveness wrong from a story point of view, it felt right from that standpoint. (Still doesn't trump the wrongness of not going to Jesus, but I probably hammered that nail hard enough already.)

However, that isn't enough to redeem either the story or the underlying moral underneath the story.

I've been trying to think of a movie to recommend instead. Tom thought we should rewatch Tender Mercies. I'm not sure that fills the bill here but will have to consider further.

I went to read Scott Nehring's review of this movie which I'd been avoiding until I'd watched it myself. Scott and I often differ widely in our appreciation or lack thereof about different movies. This turns out to be one such film.

However, he did have a take on the "Jesus' forgiveness" comment that I found valuable and enlightening. Go read his review for that of someone who liked the movie, but I'll include his comment here for those who don't want to click through.
His misunderstanding of the point of Christ's sacrifice and that indeed he DID do something to Him is an important point.  Without His forgiveness man is condemned to live much like Felix did, alone and trapped in an isolating guilt, sentenced by our own conscious.


Ultimately, this is a tale of untended sin and the results of man trying to take on his condemnation alone.
Very good point.

I'm still not crazy 'bout the movie.


  1. Whether you realized it in writing this or not, you've provided the explanation for confession to non-Catholics. We go to confession to make reconciliation with our faith community because we recognize that our sins affect those around us and are not just between us and God.

  2. Actually that isn't really accurate. We go to confession because it is a sacrament whereby Christ, through the priest, absolves us of our sins. This is based on John 20:23 where Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples and said, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."

    The two results of confession are the sacramental forgiveness of sin, and an increase in grace that helps renew our souls and increase the ability to resist temptation.

    The result will indeed strengthen the faith community but it strengthens all believers anywhere in the world. Because it is actual and real. Not because we made reconciliation with our faith community. :-)

  3. Oh good, Julie.
    I'd always thought Confession was between me and God, with the priest as an intermediary. Saints preserve me from trying to reconcile my sins with my neighbor's sins.

    I mean, have you seen what my neighbor has been up to...

    Yes, I'm kidding. But the essential point is that all sin is based on our not aligning ourselves with God. Our neighbors have their own non-alignment issues.

  4. Try the Duvall movie where he discovers he has a black half brother - "A Family Thing."

  5. Well and truly said. Thank you.

  6. Actually, Duvall is much better in the film, "Secondhand Lions". It's about two old guys raising their great nephew one summer which becomes a lifetime journey. The lessons they land up teaching him, though not intentionally, are about life, responsibility, true love and family relationships are really endearing. It was a much better movie than "Get Low", which my husband and I watched and didn't get any message out of it, except for this thought: maybe that was how Judas felt at the end of his life, no hope, no true understanding of forgiveness or how to ask for it. Sad...

  7. I also love Second Hand Lions. It is all that you say and more. And one gets the bonus of watching Michael Caine struggle valiantly to talk (and talk and talk) with an American accent. It was a fully realized story and much better than Get Low.