Friday, March 19, 2010

"someone's praying, my lord, kumbayah...."

You may or may not have seen a post I made here a few weeks ago regarding Karla Bonoff; it was, I noted at the time, a reprint of a post that originally appeared on the old website. Back when No Depression magazine was still in print and before became Kyla Fairchild's community website, Grant Alden and I posted regular web entries to the site, as a sort of online editorial supplement to our print publication. None of these entries were carried over into the currently existing domain.

Some of these were quick asides that aren't really worth revisiting, but others were more substantive passages that I'd like to reinstate on the web. So I'm planning to use this forum on occasion to dig a few of them up and re-post them.

Here's one that proved particularly meaningful in the long run. It's about a documentary film called Purple State Of Mind made by John Marks and Craig Detweiler. The outgrowth of this blog-entry was that Mr. Marks ended up becoming a contributor to No Depression in its final days, writing an excellent feature on the Old 97's for our final issue (ND #75) as well as a superb piece on the Guthrie family in the third installment of the ND bookazine series published by University of Texas Press. I thought their film was something special, and I still do; so, in case you missed it back in 2008, I'd like to call it to your attention again.

By Peter Blackstock

A few weeks ago I happened to stumble upon a rather intriguing and intelligent blog-entry that dealt with our recent cover story on Shelby Lynne, written by a fellow named John Marks on a site called Interested in his writing but not having a clue as to what "Purple State Of Mind" might be, I poked around a little further and found that it's the title of a documentary film which is just now beginning to hit some festivals and select screenings. Though its promotional budgets are modest and its national profile is (so far) relatively low, Purple State Of Mind strikes me as a film that the majority of Americans need to see.

The summary description is hardly sexy: Basically this is 80 minutes of two middle-aged white guys sittin' around talkin' to each other. The catch is that the two guys -- Marks and his longtime friend and former college roommate Craig Detweiler -- are tremendously articulate and intellectually challenging, and their central subject matter delves deep into the heart of the modern American experience. Essentially they're addressing the great Red State/Blue State divide between believers and nonbelievers of Christianity, and the extent to which this divides us as a nation in a way that is ultimately both unnatural and unhealthy.

By openly and honestly confronting each other about how they came to believe (or not believe) what they do today, Marks (raised Christian but no longer a believer) and Detweiler (not raised religious but born again in his college years) take their own steps together toward bridging the supposed chasm between the religious right and what might be termed the agnostic left. More significantly, they go a long way toward breaking down those stereotypes altogether, eventually revealing within themselves elements of each other's beliefs and values.

Their conversations and arguments are heated, humorous, vehement, compassionate, and most of all relentless. In the end, as Detweiler repeatedly stresses, it's not about convincing the other person, or about winning or losing. Rather, it's about understanding and respecting one another's views.

Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the two deeply personal revelations which more or less bookend the film, in which Detweiler and Marks recount specific trigger-points that had a lot to do with their respective affirmation and rejection of faith. Essentially the two men faced very similar darkest-moments-of-the-soul experiences; their responses may seem on the surface to have been entirely opposite, but I'd argue that on some level, they were affected in precisely the same way. Both of them stared directly into the heart of darkness; each of them dealt with it by reaching for the only reckoning that could help them find their way back to the light.

For a taste, here's the film's trailer:

Many of the upcoming screenings are cross-promotional events for Marks's new Harper/Collins book Reasons To Believe, which came out this week. For those willing to dig deeper, the book goes another 360-odd pages into the subject; in fact, the film was actually an outgrowth of the book, having sprung from Marks' decision that his first interview subject for the book should be Detweiler. Because Detweiler's career involves teaching and training students in filmmaking, he suggested they have their conversations on-camera, and a documentary project was born.

If you're looking for an Americana-related musical tie-in (other than Marks being a devoted reader of No Depression), check out the film's music, which includes excerpts from Neko Case's cover of "Wayfaring Stranger" as well as Wilco's "Theologians". In my estimation, however, the crowning musical choice is the revival of Guadalcanal Diary's transcendent 1985 cover of the old campfire sing-along "Kumbayah". The movie's spirit strikes at the very core of that band's apocalyptic reading of the song; it's almost as if Guadalcanal Diary recorded it precisely for the purpose of connecting with Purple State Of Mind twenty-odd years later.

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