A Savage Torpor: Southern historical awareness in Get Low

After Dylan’s sojourn into the cinematic world of sado-masochistic dungeons, I’ve been anxiously reminding myself that not all movies feature sexual deviants cavorting in dank, abusive environs. On a recent visit to my family in Tennessee, I saw a film with a very different setting—though still a prison of sorts—the American South at the nadir of the Great Depression.

Bill Murray, Robert Duvall and Lucas Black in Get Low

Bill Murray, Robert Duvall and Lucas Black in Aaron Schneider's Get Low

Faulkner’s legacy pervades Get Low (think Robert Duvall, not the Ying Yang Twins), though judging from Bill Murray’s sardonically unflappable character you would also expect to find Samuel Clemens’ seal of approval. A hard-on-his-luck undertaker with a sarcastic streak who complains he’s in the only town in the world where no one’s dying, Frank Quinn seems out of place in a 1930s American South that reeks of torpor and decay. But in a real Faulknerian irony, the biggest sore thumb in this musky Tennessee town is the character who most poignantly embodies the tragedy of the post-reconstruction South. Felix Bush, played slickly by Duvall, is part hermit and part curmudgeon. Having retreated for forty years to a backwoods cabin, Felix is blind to what little progress local civilization achieves. Wracked by guilt and scorning the outside world, he finally decides that time will not heal his wounds. Rather, his only hope for absolution is death and rebirth—which, in his eccentric logic, means pulling a Tom Sawyer, arranging to visit his own funeral.

Get Low thrives on paradox, and no paradox of the post-war South is so unsettling as its treatment of its own history. Practically speaking, little distinguished sharecropping from slavery. Many poor white laborers owned neither an inch of the land they worked nor a beam of the cabins they lived in. Yet the notion that de facto economic slavery ran at all parallel to the older de jure racial slavery would have seemed nonsensical to them. Slavery for the Southerner was a social, not economic phenomenon, conceptually inseparable from race; and even the worst-off white farmers were complicit in the social and political oppression of their black neighbors. J. Adams writes in the American Anthropologist (pdf), “Whites had to overcome deep factional and class differences among themselves to achieve unity sufficient to reinstall their race-based power… By the early 20th century, this had been largely accomplished.”

For the poor white sharecropper, the very existence of history was suspect. Southern literature was well aware of this fact—as Melanie Benson writes (Disturbing Calculations: The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature, 1912–2002), “What [Faulkner] and other southern writers seem ultimately to register throughout their works is an ambivalent desire to both recuperate and renounce the contaminated social codes of plantation slavery, while bitterly critiquing the advent of a capitalist order that offers little better or different.” And, as Raffi pointed out to me, W. J. Cash’s “The Mind of the South” (1941) expresses a similar sentiment: “The mind of the South is almost impervious to change … for a quarter of a century, it has successfully resisted the steadily increasing pressure of industrialism, blithely adopting the Kiwanis moonshine—all those frothy things it found compatible—but continuing, in the main, to move through the old rhythms.” The war was the only meaningful historical event; life on either side was untouched by time. Economic conditions might have been worse after emancipation, but the far more meaningful social conditions were unchanged.

The war was a brutal purge, but the white South would be slow to comprehend its opportunity for rebirth. What should have paved the way for newfound racial equality only inspired resentment, depression, and stagnation. We first encounter Felix Bush in the opening scene as a fiery defenestrated silhouette, fleeing the scene of a terrible crime (the fire reminds us of the burning of the great Southern cities). He experiences the same violent cleansing that the whole South suffered during the war. But Felix shuns the chance for atonement. Instead of publicly acknowledging his sin, he, like southern culture at large, traps himself in a perpetual but unsanctified poverty, a voluntary limbo which he can only escape by shouldering responsibility.

I couldn’t say whether director Aaron Schneider intended his protagonist to serve as a personification of history; though if culture is interchangeable with text, we should hardly be surprised that a film about the post-reconstruction South should infuse its characters with facets of their own cultural landscape. Intentional or not, the effect is to turn an otherwise humdrum melodrama into a hypnotic cultural memento. And the most haunting feature of this interaction of character and history is the mutual stagnation of culture and personality so richly illustrated in the forgotten Tennessee town.

There is in recent memory no more perfect embodiment of historical homogeneity, at least in the developed world, than the post bellum South. But this term—historical homogeneity—demands clarification. Christian theologians sometimes delineate homogeneous and non-homogeneous history as a way of discriminating between divine and the human temporality, and there is some debate concerning just which periods of history are homogeneous. The garden before the Fall certainly was, since in the absence of sin there was no deviation from the perfection of God’s will; therefore no historical transformation was possible. The period surrounding Jesus’ life was non-homogeneous, since the events which transpired possessed not only human but divine, transcendent significance. Certain theologians maintain that all history since Jesus’ resurrection is homogeneous—no event in this period has affected the trajectory of the divine plan, humanity’s prospects for salvation, or the meaning of the individual’s relationship with God.

It is worthwhile to adapt this term to the realm of extra-theological history, for reasons suggested by Schneider’s film. Without veering too far toward historiography, I’ll suggest a poor man’s definition: That history is homogeneous during which thought stagnates. I don’t only mean that no genius emerges, but that from one year or generation to the next no new paradigm (in the strictly Kuhnian sense) evolves; the Weltanshauung of the father is visited on the son.

Any culture so much as touched by the Enlightenment must find the notion of historical homogeneity deeply unsettling. As we watch Felix Bush re-enter society after forty years, it is distinctly uncomfortable for us to discover in scene after scene how perfectly the environment has preserved itself, how consistent are the town’s moral failings, how unflinching are their social predispositions. James Agee, in his seminal literary treatment of southern sharecropping (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), writes that, “As a whole part of ‘psychological education’ it needs to be remembered that a neurosis can be valuable; also that ‘adjustment’ to a sick and insane environment is of itself not ‘health’ but sickness and insanity.” The lesson of Get Low seems to be that permanent adjustment to any environment, sane or insane, is dangerous—but in any case, we are always far enough from a sane and healthy environment that the utopian question remains hypothetical.

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3 Responses to A Savage Torpor: Southern historical awareness in Get Low

  1. Pingback: Modernity is the Size of an Olive | Like Them that Dream

  2. Pingback: Modernity is the Size of an Olive | Of the Wheels and of their Work: Reflections of a Strange Fire

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