Friday, 5 December 2008

Deliverance and the Duelling Banjoes

The famous duelling banjos scene in Deliverance can be seen as a metaphor for conflict communications.

In John Boorman’s 1972 film, Deliverance, one of the central characters, Drew, plays music with a complete stranger, a seemingly mute boy. The city professional and the rural adolescent are able to create a whole improvised song between them.

The music develops by a process of answer and call. One of them plays a riff, or a short section of music, which is then followed by the other. They react to one another responding to and developing upon the riff they have just heard. By doing so they produce this amazing music in a memorable scene that is part of cinema folklore.

It represents a rare moment of optimism in what is an otherwise unbearably dark, oppressive film.

In the process of exchanging these riffs the protagonists are effectively collaborating. They are communicating. We can see their riffs as an analogy for talking. The riffs work where the spoken word does not. Drew and the Banjo boy clearly develop and enjoy a relationship while they are playing.

All of this is despite an atmosphere of intense mistrust and power imbalances. The scene starts as one of conflict. The city professionals have got lost on their way to the river where they are hoping to enjoy a canoeing expedition. They come across a local community who are referred to as “rednecks”. The locals suspect the visitors of being businessmen intent on damning the river, flooding the valley and evicting them from their homes.

The scene bristles as Burt Reynolds and his colleagues swagger about making demands for assistance ("I don't think you understand...). The presumed economic, cultural and intellectual dominance is all theirs. This is demonstrated when Bobby, another of the touring slickers, is heard to mutter “Talk about genetic deficiencies.” with regard to the banjo playing adolescent. Another example, this time of economic dominance is seen when, a couple of minutes later, Bobby suggests the relationship between the two musicians can be reduced to Drew giving the banjo player “a couple of bucks”.

There is no respect or trust between the two camps.

It is no surprise therefore that communication is not working. The visitors’ requests for help sound like peremptory demands and only seem to aggravate and alienate. When Bobby’s offensive comment about “genetic deficiencies” is overheard by one of the locals it is met with the response “Who’s picking the banjo here?”.

In the immediate context of the scene this is an observation that the local boy is holding his own in the transactions with the guitar playing Drew. Over the rest of the film though it becomes a potent foretelling as the local community wrestles back control and power in quite awful ways.

Throughout all of this however a unique rapport and relationship is building.

Slowly at first, Drew and the boy playing the banjo create a platform of mutual understanding and respect. The exchanges are brief, tentative, guarded.

The momentum builds. Both players start to give a little more and relax. There is then an explicit recognition that they are safe to continue; Drew exclaims “Come on, I’m with you!”, and the piece and scene takes off. There is a meeting of minds and cultures which is suddenly optimistic, and shown to be highly contagious.

Towards the end, Drew stalls in his guitar playing dazzled by the banjo player’s virtuosity and the giddy euphoria they have created between them. He gasps out “I’m lost!” He is safe to show this failing, this lack of understanding, or guitar playing ability on his part because they have established a framework within which to communicate and build a relationship. It is a relationship where each of the players are recognised as contributing to the dialogue.

The music ends with drew catching up and co-performing once again to bring the tune to a natural and satisfying conclusion.

UPDATE 3rd June 2014
Wow.  I had not realised that this article I wrote back in 2008 was still getting attention.  It is and lots of it. If you are reading this and want to catch up then please pop along to where you can find me and more of my conflict resolution work and writing.  Go well and do good work.


++ Rodolfo Araújo ++ said...

Hi, Neil, I've just read your post and adapted it to portuguese in my blog ( I don't know whether you can understand it, but I hope you like! By the way, I cited your blog there as a reference.

Best regards, Rodolfo.

Anonymous said...

Why didnt the boy shake his hand?

base695 said...

Hello Neil very interesting and perceptive observations, I think it is a very powerful and deep and multi layered scene. Quick question about the ending though - I thought the most powerful part was the boy turning away at the end when Drew wanted to was a total and complete powershift, like the door slamming shut, and Drew was completely dumbfounded. Just curious why you didnt remark on this?

Neil said...

Hello base695...

Why didn't I mention it? Because it did not fit the point I was making, I guess.

That tells us something in itself doesn't it? How we select and filter that which supports our arguments. That should not be surprising.

I wrote this article several years ago and still stand by it, but now that you draw my attention back to it it is worth thinking about a bit more.

The work I currently do in conflict looks at its complexity. There is often a desire to see conflict communications as being linear, an assumption that if we have got to the stage of duelling banjoes with each other that all is rosy and well.

It clearly is not and we should not be surprised in our conflicts that we have periods of togetherness and colder periods.

Does the lack of handshake invalidate what has gone before? No it does not but a simplistic approach to relationships might suggest it does.

The "Complexity" approach recognises the ebb and flow and can also protect us from despair or giving up.

Thank you for the question. It has got me thinking.

Mark Lines said...

The first time I "watched" this film, I didn't. I fell asleep just a few seconds after the start and awoke at the final credits - D'oh! I have however seen the middle, important bit since, and would like to comment.
I feel this scene is a really important one. The banjo and the guitar as instruments are symbols of two cultures. The guitar starts the musical ball rolling. The banjo initially joins in with the tune (which sounds very much like "Yankee doodle" - more of a country tune than a town tune). Towards the end the banjo asserts its authority in this musical conflict (duel). This of course prefigures the physical/ mortal duel. Significantly it is the guitar player who loses/ gets lost (as the canoeists did in the woods).
Were they playing "together" or were they competing? A bit of both, really. I felt it is significant that the banjo player smiled when he was winning. He realized he was on top. The fact he wouldn't shake hands at the end, illustrates that this indeed was a competition and not collaboration.
A final footnote would be the height difference - suggesting the banjo player's superiority.
What a film - it's certainly put me off canoeing....

Unknown said...

Great article, I've watched that scene over and over on youtube, and a few things you didn't mention that do fit your point of "distrust" is also evident when the old man pumping the gas yells "$4.99" to Burt Reynolds. Reynolds mumbles "Alright" to the old man without looking at him, and the old man then walks up to Reynolds and holds his hand out for payment. Again, nice article!

Anonymous said...

The point is still valid. The kid turns his head because Drew stepped forward in the relationship too quickly. The communication has been established as a mutual respect for their music, but when Drew attempts friendship, it is a step too far.