Sunday, September 18, 2011

Get Low - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes to the Movies

Get Low is a quirky independent film with a great cast including Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek.  Loosely based on a 1938 event when a hermit threw a funeral for himself, the movie is a study of a character who is deeply human, terribly manipulative, a recluse who thrives on having others think about him, and a person about whom we care deeply, which is surprising because of what I see as his considerable lack of care for others. 

The film unfolds as a mystery and, since I need to reveal its secrets in order to discuss it, if you plan to watch it, stop reading now or bear the consequences.   The hermit, played by Robert Duvall, has been living alone on his land and shooing off strangers (and scaring the bejeezus out of kids who dare trespass) for forty years.  Everyone in town has a story about him, everyone is curious about whether the stories are true, and he decides to invite the whole town out to his place for his funeral where they can tell those stories.  As a kicker, he raffles his land for five bucks a throw with the winner to take all after his actual death. 

The character, Felix Bush, is very good with his hands.  Forty years ago, after doing something heinous, he heads north and, perhaps as penance, builds a spare but magnificent wooden church.   As my beautiful, but reluctant, wife said to me, his being a carpenter who is about to die creates a Christ like aura.  Certainly Felix sees himself to be a martyr.  He did something about which, as he says, he is deeply ashamed.  He built the church and then jailed himself – withdrawing from others as a form of self-punishment - for what he did wrong.  Now he is reconnecting with society.

Our first layer of curiosity is about the nature of his crime.  We learn that he “had a go” with Mattie, a local widow, many years ago and she characterizes him as having been both handsome and deep, with layers that she has not seen in anyone since.  We discover that he has a picture of a woman and that he kisses and talks to this picture, and that Mattie has the same picture.  We now wonder how they are connected.  But, as he interacts with this picture, we also wonder what he knows, what he contains, that we ordinary mortals do not.

In the past year or so, I have lost two very important men in my life; my father and a very good friend.  Both of their fathers killed themselves.  Both of them were deeply affected by that.  Both were people that I worked really hard to get to know, to connect with, and both were people about whom, ultimately, I had a great deal more curiosity than they had about me.

Felix reminded me of them.  He said to Mattie that he was surprised when she showed interest in him.  He did not think that he had that much to offer women.  My father, an incurable flirt, commented to me that he did not pursue a whole series of relationships with women because he was certain that, if they got to know him, they would find nothing of interest.  My friend, Armando, bragged that he could “have” any woman that he wanted, but he had a terribly difficult time sustaining relationships with them.

But it was not the parallels with Felix that called them to mind – there was something in his essence that was reminiscent of them.  Felix acknowledged, privately, to Mattie that he had fallen in love with, indeed still was in love with her sister, Mary Lee, the woman in the photograph.  He had done this while he was dating Mattie, and while Mary Lee was married to another man.  But Felix did not express remorse to Mattie about having cheated on her.  He observed that he had loved Mary Lee, and she was the only person that he had loved – and that he still loved her.  This was, to him, an immutable fact.  And he shared it with Mattie as such.

To us, as observers, there is something, I think, callous about this.  Mattie cared about Felix.  She might still have feelings for him.  Discovering that Felix betrayed her with her sister and best friend, she becomes angry with him.  We also discover that Mary Lee is dead and that Mattie wants to know what Felix had to do with that.  He refuses to tell her.  He also fails to apologize to her or to ask her forgiveness.  The preacher of the church Felix built, and apparently the only person who knows his crime, has encouraged Felix to ask for Mattie and Jesus’ forgiveness.  Felix says that he didn’t do anything to Jesus, so shouldn’t have to ask for his forgiveness.  There is also a sense that Felix doesn’t realize that he has done anything to Mattie by betraying her trust and affection.  His love for Mary Lee is a fact, and it is the only fact that matters – at least in this part of the story.

Which brings us to the funeral.  Ten thousand people gathered for the original Felix’ funeral.  They couldn’t get nearly that many extras to show up during a cold snap in Georgia, but there was a good crowd.  There was some question over whether, when push came to shove, Felix would be able to tell his story – and it became clear that he really had no interest in the stories people had about him, he wanted to be able to tell his own story.  I think he feared telling his story because of his shame, but I think he also wanted to because of his pride.

Felix was proud of his love for Mary Lee and her love for him.  They had agreed to run away together.  When she was late for their rendezvous, he went to her house to find out what was going on.  Her husband had apparently discovered her intent, beaten her with a hammer and set their house on fire.  All three of them ended up on the second floor, the house in flames, and Felix, to his dismay, was thrown from the house without being able to rescue Mary Lee.  For this failure, he asked forgiveness from Mattie.

I wonder whether my father and Armando shared a similar secret.  That they felt guilty for failing to rescue their own fathers.  And I think that this secret may have led them to feel deeply ashamed of themselves as people – that they were not worthy of other’s affection, concern, caring.  I think that this also, then, while making them objects of interest and curiosity to those around them, and paradoxically fueling other’s concern for them, may have closed them to the kinds of interchange that are life-giving.  The intensity of their connection with a lost other, as was the case for Felix, closed them to possible relationships with those now present around them.  At the same time, the intensity of their devotion, their self- conscious, almost pious, concern for the other who is not present, promised, perhaps falsely, that they would be as committed to the people currently in their lives as they were to their ghosts.

Felix’s journey in the film from hermit to town character to apologist was a journey of increasing openness and connection – but Felix never quite made it back to society.  He died married to Mary Lee – or to his memory of her, and the rest of us remained locked out despite his having a very public confession of his sin.  He claimed to feel ashamed of having failed to rescue her, but I think he also felt intensely proud of the love that he had for her, and his hermitage and the subsequent funeral were both means of portraying that connection and his own special position as her lover.  Though he promised to "get low", to put his things in order, I think he remained on a very high and mighty plain, separated from the rest of us who do not have what is, in his mind, this unique connection.

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