Deliverance from?

At times it seems strange that I missed so many formative movies when I was growing up, but then my wife pointed out that many of the films were released when we were minors. That, combined with the fact that most of them bore R ratings, acted as an effective deterrent at the time. So it was that we only saw Deliverance yesterday. References from friends, colleagues, and even The Simpsons made us feel like we’d missed a part of American culture that everyone else had seen. Of course we knew the basic story, but seeing it played out intact is a much more satisfying experience. Since I am scheduled to do a church talk on Christianity and the movies later this morning, I was interested in the way the church is portrayed in the movie.

After the three survivors make it back to civilization, the first building that meets them at the riverfront is a plain white “Church of Christ.” At the moment of their eponymous deliverance, the church is there. As Ed and Bobby are being driven to the hospital in a taxi, however, the church appears again. The valley is being flooded to bring hydroelectric power to Georgia, the reason the men set off to see the river in the first place. Since the town is shortly to be flooded, the church is being moved. The taxi driver tells the men, “We might have to wait a minute for the church to get out the way.” In the extras director John Boorman spoke about the highly symbolic nature of the film, including the way that the symbol of stability in the community, the religious establishment, could not hold its own ground.

I also sensed another element of irony here. The church had been, symbolically, in the way of the advancement of civilization. Paralleling this inhibition is the utter, and bewildering freedom from the law experienced by the men following the murder of the mountain man. The viewer is left to decide which is the worse fate. Now that I have seen the film, I think I can understand the depth of struggle it represents. As the continuing debate on the relative merits and demerits of religion in society rages on, there is always a very human aspect that stands beyond simple formulae. Perhaps we save religion in the hope that it will save us.

3 thoughts on “Deliverance from?

  1. Wonderful review. You picked up some things I didn’t. So thanks. I just re-watched, Two Mules for Sister Sara, after a friendly and provocative exchange with another blogger. Amazing religious symbolism. Better on second and third viewing. Subtitles necessary. With dueling dual-vox textures. I don’t want to give any spoilers. Recommend it. And now, I need to see Deliverance. Again!

    You said – “.. The church had been, symbolically, in the way of the advancement of civilization. Paralleling this inhibition is the utter, and bewildering freedom from the law experienced by the men following the murder of the mountain man ..”

    Yes and no. I’m first a biophiliac (loving bios and biology) much more than the law (my profile). More especially the mathematics and dynamics at the catastrophic (catastrophy math and catastrophe theory) intersections of biology, law, religion. Deliverance depits (imho) an asymetric cascade of a journey away from the appearance of law (human insitution) – but simultaenously toward what systems biology (and going back to zoologist Pyotr Kropotkin) have described about how biological anarchy under pressure (see the pressures in the movie) eventually runs up against limit functions to tend again back toward order and toward reorganization. Anarchy listing toward law. The dynamics of anarchy-law (your blog theme of violence plays in) is never quite a closed system. Law suffers violations (hence: criminal and civil courts). Anarchy in bios (life systems) on the rivers of life suffers dissipations of pressures resulting in tendencies toward order. You can – die – if you don’t know where you are in the system. Die even if you do. The movie plays these well. But asymetrically.

    It needn’t be dialectic so much as spectral on a river.

    For the totalized depictions of the extreme ends (whether dialectic or spectral), see the gone-to-hell horror of Apocalypse Now (anarchist end) and the gone-to-hell legalism of The Matrix (the law of the matrix, Neo, “is in your churches”).

    And wonder whether these alternative radical ends suffer any real functional difference between them compared to Deliverance closer to the middle – where society is what? – ever still in the background?

    Open question.

    Teasing out the relation between sects and violence is as much a matter of plain observation as a matter of your metrics (or of your biases in prose theology). Because very few people have antannea fine enough tuned to pick up on the pacifist violence of Buddhists in some pacific Islands whose pacifism is to starve out Muslims from local food supplies (this is covered in Martin Marty’s, Fundamentalism(s) Project(s), various volumes, various titles).

    Standard theory has it that apocalytpic features aggravate violence (say in Deliverance). I’m not quite buying that theory yet because no one has invented a measurement fine enough to isolate and rule out all other factors. We can always say, “I suspect.” And I do.

    But all these movies are apolaclytpic in nature. And play out violence and sectarian overtures.

    A little hand reaching up to you from under the river! To fuel your fires.

    Again, thanks for the excellent review!




  2. Steve Wiggins

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Jim.

    Yes, I do see the move from bios to law and the ambiguity it leaves behind. With the benefits of the extras on the DVD I watched, I could hear the director’s take on the symbolism of the whole adventure. I saw much in the movie that I am not really qualified to comment upon, but I sense that a “bleak theology” is at work here. The basis for simplistic salvation (the plain, white church) is a moving target. It is a foundation of stable society, and yet it is on the move. Even the choice of the river as a symbol for society, while not unique, effectively shows humans out of control. Even the strong suffer at its “hands.”

    Is it anarchy? Not quite, but the viewer is left wondering if that might not be a better alternative.

    Your comparisons with Apocalypse Now and Matrix are cogent, although I confess to having never seen the former. In many movies I’ve watched over the years I see this development of the hell-bent determination of society. When offered alternatives, we always seem to slip toward the darker of the two.

    I like your observations on sects and violence. The simple juxtaposition of the two was intended as an implicit warning sign along the highway. We are driving very fast, but no one is really in control. Religions are often the feet on the brakes, but they sometimes inexplicably stomp down the gas pedal when least expected. It all makes for an interesting, if fatal, ride. Not quite the river analogy, but they both end up in the same place.


  3. “Is it anarchy? Not quite, but the viewer is left wondering if that might not be a better alternative.”

    Perfect. Laughing here. Crying some in daily cases. That made my day. Thanks.

    What’s crazy?

    Went back over your own quote – your quote that I posted – and the more I read it, the more I knew that you knew better than all my blather. About the bewildering freedom from law. Excellent felt-insight. I’m gonna steal that one (and give credit).

    River movies (playing sects and violence)? – if you do see Apocalyse Now, maybe use subtitles. Experiment with different lenses for Kurtz (Brando). Watch carefully – you’ll see a copy of Frazer’s, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion – sitting on a table in the final scene –> waaaay up river. Aquirre the Wrath of God is my favorite river movie. Overtly in-your-face religious. Monkeys added. All of these river flicks have tons of your “implicit warning sign[s] along the highway.” Your good comments make me know I need to see Deliverance, again.

    Thanks for the exchange. And your insights.




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