Thursday, April 7, 2016

Movie Churches during the Great Depression: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) and Emperor of the North (1973)

 Sometimes technique very much matters. For instance, today in Movie Churches we have two movies with scenes of baptisms. We never learn the name of pastors or the churches in either film. But one pastor has an effective method of baptizing, while the other gets so much so very wrong.

Now let’s get some technical details out of the way. We are talking about believer’s baptism here. Many churches, particularly mainline denominations, practice infant baptism, like you see in The Godfather, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. These films show the baptisms of people who choose to be baptised.

There are also different ways that churches apply water in baptism. There is “aspersion” which applies to the sprinkling of water on the head (which is suitable for babies, but surely isn’t a real man’s baptism). Closely related is baptism by “affusion”, the pouring of water on the head; which is closely related to “immersion” when water is poured over the head and body. But the kind of baptism practiced in these films is “submersion” where in a person is completely immersed in a body of water (a lake, river, swimming pool or baptismal tank.)

Submersion baptism has the advantage of being cinematic, especially since both films have baptisms in the open air in beautiful places.

In the Ethan and Joel Coen’s comedy,O Brother, Where Art Thou, three escaped convicts stumble upon a church baptism. A large congregation, all dressed in long, white robes, are in line to be baptized in the middle of the lake. (The scene was filmed on location in Alligator Lake near Vicksburg, Mississippi.) The congregation is singing “Let’s Go Down to the River to Pray” even though, as I mentioned, they’re at a lake.

One of the convicts, Delbert, the least bright of the three (not that any of the three is at all bright) cuts to the front of the line and is baptized. The pastor in the film has good baptismal technique. He covers the mouth and nose of the person baptized. He makes sure the person is secure and lowers the person into the water.

Another of the convicts, Pete, is also baptized. But Everett (George Clooney) doesn’t follow along, calling it all part of foolish superstition.

The event changes life for Delbert and Pete, but especially Delbert. Both are excited about the pastor’s assurances that baptism washed away all their sins. Delbert is excited to be cleared of guilt for the robbery of a Piggly Wiggly that sent him to jail, but Everett gives him the sad news that although he might be square with the Lord, he's not right with the state of Mississippi.

But Delbert does change. When the men meet Baby Face Nelson, Delbert knows he can’t join him on his spree of bank robberies even though Delbert thinks it sounds like good fun. (The famous bank robber says, “Jesus saves, but George Nelson withdraws.”)  And when Everett steals a pie from a window sill, Delbert leaves some cash behind to pay for it.

Though we only see the baptizing pastor and his congregation briefly, his ministry has a real impact on the film’s central characters.

The same can’t be said of the baptizing pastor in director Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North. In a situation rather similar to the scene in O Brother, Lee Marvin (as a hobo called A#1) joins a baptism in progress to escape the railroad bulls that are pursuing him.

I was not impressed with the technique of this pastor, who's baptizing his congregation in a river in Oregon. There are dozens of congregants, and Marvin also cuts in line to the pastor. But this pastor dunks his people face forward and doesn’t properly cover their mouth and noses, practically drowning people.

No wonder Marvin isn’t transformed and refers to the congregation as “Jesus shouters”. (As he drags another hobo away from the river he makes the baffling statement that he's doing it to "save [him] from the Presbyterians." It seemed more like a Baptist congregation.)

The greatest problem of baptismal planning in the film is in the matter of wardrobe. One of the women in the congregation is only wearing a thin, white robe. The woman is quite, um, well endowed, and after her robe becomes wet… Well, let me just say her presence is the one part of the service A#1 seems to appreciate.

So, based solely on how they conduct their outdoor baptisms, I’m giving the church in O Brother Where Art Thou three steeples and the church in Emperor of the North one steeple. 

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