Let the Memory

One of the rare and long-anticipated treats of being near New York City is the prospect of a live show. For practical reasons we don’t go to shows very often—years separate the occurrences—but once in a great while we manage to afford such a boon. Yesterday we attended the penultimate performance of the Cats revival on Broadway. The experience was transcendent. I’ve seen the movie version a number of times, and over the years I’ve caught a few live performances here and there. For whatever reason, this musical speaks to me. Although it doesn’t really have much of a plot—it’s more a series of vignettes—it is about redemption and being comfortable in one’s own skin. T. S. Eliot was a poet who knew spirituality intimately. Andrew Lloyd Webber, no one needs me to say, writes stirring music.

Cats, unlike many shows I’ve seen, requires athleticism as well as vocal ability. The performers are in nearly constant motion as they play out their roles, often with acrobatic flourishes. Most of the parts are for the young, while those dwelling on the experience of older characters—Gus, Grizabella, and Old Deuteronomy—tend to be recollections of youth as a commodity that slips away leaving as residue the wisdom that comes with age. It’s quite biblical in that respect. Even the old can appreciate back flips and double cartwheels and the grace of ballet. For this particular production the lighting stood out as an integral part of the story. Illumination, I might add, is a powerful metaphor.

In our family discussions afterwards, comparison with other versions dominated. Although my wife and I saw a community theater production long ago (placing us, I reluctantly suppose, in the ranks of the older characters), our main introduction was through the filmed adaptation. Again, like the Bible, we tend to think of canonical versions. This is how it should go. Because of both its running time and its demands on the players, not all vignettes are included in each production. The character who narrates the story may change. Choreography is adjusted. Each show, as is the case with live theater, is a little different. Standing in the snow on a cold, New York City December afternoon awaiting the opening of the doors, we wondered what would be changed. The original Broadway run had ended while we lived in the Midwest, so this was both our first exposure but also our fourth rendition over the decades. None, it turns out, could be called canonical. That, however, took nothing away from the inspiration of the event unfolding before our very eyes.

Call it the Blues

BluesBrothers

Coming back to The Blues Brothers after a couple of decades proved to be a kind of personal enlightenment. Of course I remembered “We’re on a mission from God,” as a catch-phrase, but in the intervening years I’d forgotten what that mission was. The movie is, as it were, backstory for the Saturday Night Live sketch in that show’s halcyon days. Watching the movie as an adult I was astonished at how positively religion is portrayed. Jake and Elwood’s mission is to save their childhood Catholic orphanage. Although there are a few laughs at the expense of religion, the movie as a whole is a redemption story with a surprising lack of irony. Released from prison where he was doing time for trying to do the right thing, Jake has an authentic religious experience and from that point on, the mission is unquestioned. In a self-sacrificial move that lands the whole band in prison, the Blues Brothers pay the taxes owed and save the orphanage. They are doing time for saving poor children.

I reflected on how, since 1980, it has become difficult to find mainstream movies that are so positive toward religious values. Not coincidentally, the 1980s saw the tragic Reagan years when religion and politics blended to the permanent detriment of religion being taken seriously. Since that time the cynicism has grown considerably. We are constantly reminded of it as conservative pundits force “Christianity” into a more and more reactionary mode, condemning all that reason has finally released from the dark ages. This is religion which thrives in the darkness of ignorance and fear. And it has coopted the very definition of religion itself. It is hard to imagine a “mission from God” being taken half as seriously today as it was when Jake and Elwood, although personally irreverent, nevertheless take the ethical call so seriously.

Today the “mission from God” is to protect one’s personal investments. Shut out those who require special consideration or those whose lifestyle differs from that which is putatively biblical. Anyone who dares step out of line is, in this enlightened era, condemned to the outer darkness. The Blues Brothers always wore dark glasses. While initially a branding gimmick, even this has symbolic value in the public view of religion. After all, Roman Catholic Sister Mary Stigmata gives them a sound thrashing for their profane language. But they find the truth in a black, evangelical service. There is a tolerance here—the neo-Nazis end up buried in their own grave—that has since vanished. The dark glasses hide something vital. The only time they are removed in the movie is to deceive. I wonder, I just wonder if with the glasses removed Jake saw a future for which the only prudent response was to hide once again.

Master Cat

Okay, so I’ll confess having gone to see Puss in Boots yesterday. The movie had been getting good reviews and I’ll admit to really liking the first Shrek movie. The second Shrek movie, with Puss’s debut, was not bad. After that something changed. Anyway, it looks to be an intense week ahead, and I needed a little mindless release. Often on this blog, I mention horror movies and how fear ties into the concept of religion. Since working at Routledge—a publisher noted for its many books on religion and film—I’ve taken a renewed interest in finding the religious imagery in many different genres of movies. This is something I regularly undertook as a religion major in college and beyond, but it is an area of renewed interest in my mature years. So it was off to the theater.

One aspect of Puss in Boots, however, proved a distraction to me. The character of Humpty Dumpty scrambled in my mind with the same off-color image of the egg man in Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy, a book I read this summer and blogged about earlier. In both stories, the egg was not what he seemed to be. A foodstuff with a decidedly darker side. In both stories, however, Humpty Dumpty was somehow vindicated, more a victim than a perpetrator of crime. It is not always easy to be a good egg. In Puss in Boots, however, this is where the religious imagery came in. The fractured fairytale storyline has Puss and Humpty (and Kitty Softpaws) growing a giant beanstalk and stealing the golden goose’s gosling. This is part of a twisted effort at revenge by Humpty; a kind of egg’s Benedict Arnold moment. Well, this is a children’s movie, so nobody is really bad. Humpty repents and sacrifices his own life to save the town. When he falls to his death, a golden egg is revealed inside. Mother Goose flies the golden Humpty up to the castle in the sky, disappearing in a blaze of heavenly sunlight. Life after death, the eternal reward. Heaven, Hollywood style.

Movies often serve as a source for and reflection of social values. Thus watchdog groups keep a close eye on what the silver screen reveals. Puss in Boots passes the test on highlighting the redemption theme. Although he is still a wanted criminal by the end, Puss (as well as Humpty) achieves redemption by making good on all the wrongs he committed against society. Almost sermonizing at points, the movie is another example of how mainstream media ends up on the side of traditional values. A deeper truth, however, may lurk beneath the celluloid. The true hero here is the Spanish Puss rather than the Angelo Humpty (and decidedly red-necked Jack and Jill). The religion it underwrites is, naturally, the civil religion expected by American audiences. Just maybe there is an awareness of social justice here as well.

The original