Wednesday, January 5, 2011

True Grit - Dry Bones Rattling

Mattie Ross, the 14 year old protagonist of the Coen brother's film True Grit, would have made an excellent community organizer. In her attempt to bring her father's killer to justice she exudes commitment, focus, strength of personality and faith in her mission.

It might seem like a stretch to tease out the theme of community organizing from a western whose tag line in marketing materials is "Retribution," rather than justice, but the filmmakers drop enough hints along the way to open up some interesting interpretive possibilities.

A fascinating sequence occurs at the beginning of the movie just after Mattie arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the place of her father's murder. She proceeds to the undertakers to retrieve her father's body. Having no place to stay she asks the undertaker if she can stay in his workspace. He asks her why she would want to stay amongst all of the dead bodies, as outside in the street three men are about to be hanged and will be joining Mattie's dead and embalmed father in the same room.

The hangings, which Mattie quickly moves outside to watch, have all of the characteristics of a sacrificial ritual. The community has turned up in their Sunday best to watch the proceedings. From the scaffold one of the men points out that in the audience there are worse men than him, a clear indication that he is dying as a stand-in for others. A second man asks that his own sins not be held against his remaining family. And the third, a Native American, is muzzled before he can speak a final word, a visual acknowledgement that retribution and persecution are often not far from one another.

At nightfall Mattie returns to the undertakers where he offers her a coffin for sleeping in if she desires. Mattie stays the evening and we don't see her again until the next day.

Mattie has clearly visited the valley of the dead as an almost mythological preparation for her impending journey, or recognition that death will be part of that journey. At a boarding house she finds on her second day in town she makes this idea explicit, stating to the women who runs it that she felt like the biblical prophet Ezekiel who famously walked in the valley of the dead and dry bones.

Prophets in the ancient biblical tradition - who could be both male and female in contrast to the all male priesthood - were intermediaries between God and the people. They often were itinerants who moved from place to place and spoke of the themes of exile, return and re-building. According to my New Oxford Annotated Bible, the prophetic task largely concerned issues of the restoration of the community and its institutions. Like Ezekiel, Mattie arrives in a spiritually dead community full of sickness and injustice, and breathes life into a spiritually dead and unjust man - Rooster Cogburn. Her task - like all good organizers - is to help others to initiate the difficult journey of change and to restore some vitality (in this case the rule of law) to communal institutions.

It is not surprising that Mark Warren, in his book on community organizing, titled the work Dry Bones Rattling, a reference to Ezekiel and the creative spark that brings "a community in ruins," to life. Warren's study of the Industrial Areas Foundation - the organization founded by Saul Alinsky - points to the power of biblical and spiritual references in providing a thematic unity to the organizing process.

And Marshall Ganz, who ran organizing training for Barack Obama's presidential campaign and teaches leadership development and organizing at Harvard, uses the story of David and Goliath as a touchstone for creative organizing principles.

David, in Ganz's viewing of the story, has all the attributes of a successful organizer and leader. David's first key act was to commit, to show the courage to get on the path. He knew his strengths and resources - a slingshot and five smooth stones. He engaged in an ongoing creative process where he learned as he went forward - that he was weakened rather than strengthened by heavy armor. And he understood that power can make you stupid - ask Goliath.

Mattie Ross displays many of David's skills and is finally the person with true Grit. And she inspires the best in others as well. By insisting that the killer of her father be brought back to Fort Smith for trial rather than to Texas for a reward, she intuits that this is the only way that some form of social equilibrium can be established in society. When she eventually kills the man she is after - that final act of retribution - she suffers her own fall and loss.

True Grit begins with the images of communal sacrifice and ends with Rooster willing to sacrifice himself to save Mattie - one man's spiritual progress. In Rene Girard's theory of the foundations of sacrifice, the tensions of society are often visited upon the vulnerable scapegoat thereby avoiding the deeper problems that exist. Real sacrifice is eventually transformed into ritual - real blood becomes symbolic blood.

At the end of the movie Mattie visits a replica of the time of her youth - the Wild West Show that re-enacts an old west just as it is exiting the historical stage. The Wild West Show was full of whooping and hollering and simulated blood - a cultural ritual without the dying. Sounds like the movies to me.

Further Reading:

Why David Sometimes Wins - Marshall Ganz

The Scapegoat - Rene Girard

Dry Bones Rattling - Mark Warren


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