January 2019

When January starts grinding you down you have to find something to hang onto.  See, I even ended a sentence with a preposition.  January.  If I’m not careful I can find myself getting quite depressed, so a bit of self-induced music therapy helps.  Although I hate to admit it, I am a bit of a fussy person when it comes to my likes.  My music tastes are quite personal and I mourn when a performer I like retires or dies.  There’s not a ton of stuff that I enjoy and I don’t listen to music as often as I should.  I work from home most days so I could have music on, but I find it hard to read (which is much of my job) with music playing.  Like I said, fussy.

The other day—a weekend—I pulled out John Cale’s Paris 1919.  John Cale is an underrated member of the Velvet Underground.  Okay, with Lou Reed in the lead it’s gonna be tough to stand out.  Cale, who suffers from competing with J. J. Cale (who was actually John Cale too; I empathize!), is a very thoughtful lyricist.  Despite having been abused by a priest in his youth, he sprinkles his songs with religious references.  “Andalucia” is a haunting single with the words “castles and Christians” hanging there for anyone to interpret.  And “Hanky Panky Nohow” has an intriguing line about nothing being more frightening than religion at one’s door.  There’s something profound here.

I grew up listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico when my older brother played it and the curtain door between our rooms didn’t block any sound.  The only performer I could name was Reed.  Years later, when the music of my young, virginal ears started in with a longing I couldn’t explain, I bought the album and learned of John Cale.  I have to confess that I first encountered his name as the performer of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Shrek.  It drove me nuts when ill-informed students used to say it was Rufus Wainwright; yes, he performed it on the CD, but not in the movie.  John Cale is one of those somewhat offbeat singers, who, like Nick Cave, salts his songs with images of a Christian upbringing that show a grown man clinging to something to which he somehow can’t fully commit.  It makes us who we are and then leaves us wondering.  It must be January.

Thinking about Feeling

There’s a scene in Shrek where Lord Farquaad tells Princess Fiona “You don’t have to waste good manners on the ogre. It’s not like it has feelings.” That scene came to mind recently as I was pondering how we often use feelings—emotions—to claim superiority over others. During a course on Howard Thurman in seminary, we watched a video where he retold a story that appears in his autobiography With Head and Heart, where a young white girl was sticking an African American with pins because she believed they didn’t have feelings. Although it may be dangerous to attribute motive—let me call it interpretation then—Shrek is a movie about prejudice. Ogres are misunderstood. It’s a parable, if you will. Unfortunately there are people who still believe those not like themselves lack feelings.

This is a particularly disturbing idea for many reasons. Not only does it keep alive the unacceptable social situation where African Americans are shot when unarmed, and frequently in non-criminal situations, it perpetuates the idea that others are different in a way that makes them less than human. We can take this even further since one of the mainstays of science has been to deny feelings to animals, claiming that you need rationality to experience pain. Or at least suffering. Ironically, it’s the “reptilian brain” that provides us with emotions, and rationalists are quick to downplay emotions as a form of thinking. It’s easier just to kill a snake and ask questions later.

We deny others feelings as an excuse to mistreat them. Then we deny that feelings are important at all. Even Mr. Spock got angry once in a while. In a society that regiments an economic system that really benefits only a very few, we daily bask in the midst of this paradox. It’s clear that all it takes to have presidential aspirations threaten reality is money. Spend enough and anyone will believe whatever lies you happen to trumpet. After all, that feeling of superiority that fascism promotes is exactly the way to win a mass following. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a bit out of sorts. It’s only a feeling, and it will pass. Unless we pay close attention to our emotions, however, we will never realize justice. We know that Shrek does indeed have feelings. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to interpret parables.

Think about it.

Think about it.

Seeing the Trees

Into_the_Woods_film_posterI first learned of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods while liking in the woods of Wisconsin. I was teaching a summer term course of mature students, one of whom used one of the songs to illustrate the point he was making during a presentation. Of course I don’t remember what the point was, but I did remember the movie. Then along came Shrek and fractured fairy tales were back in business. Enchanted brought Disney into the act, and a number of self-aware takeoffs from the brothers Grimm have followed. I’d seen the film of the stage show of Into the Woods before, but it had been a while. Over the weekend we decided to watch the new Disney offering of the story and as we did a couple of familiar, if obscure, ancient mythological motifs came to mind.

Cinderella, as we all know, was sorely abused by her evil step-mother and step-sisters. She seeks solace at her mother’s grave, in the woods, of course, in the movie version. While there, singing somewhere between a lament and a prayer, her mother appears to her in the tree that grew from a branch she’d planted there many years before. It’s a musical number, of course, but my mind couldn’t help going back to Asherah. Asherah is considered by many (without good reason, and I should know) to be the goddess of the trees. Yes, this was a mortal, a dead mortal at that, who spoke from the tree but the way she was presented in the movie was distinctly divine. Indeed, there is similar iconography from ancient Egypt. It was almost enough to make me go back on my own evidence that Asherah wasn’t a tree goddess.

The giant’s wife poses a real threat in this film. Jack’s beanstalk and the effects resembled those of Jack the Giant Slayer, a movie that I only vaguely remember as being one of many I watched with bleary eyes on a transatlantic flight a few years back. Nevertheless, Mrs. Giant is here stomping about the village when Jack and the baker decide to take her out at the tar pit, with the help of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. The preferred weapon is a sling. As the giantess is pelted with stones, she grows annoyed until Jack, in the perfect image of David, strikes the giant between the eyes, slaying her. We all know the fairy tale version ends with the beanstalk chopped down. We’ve entered a new world, however. A world where Bible and fairy tale are harder to distinguish. And not only that, but even fairy tales no longer have the canonical status they once held.

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

Hallelujah of a Long Night

I discovered Leonard Cohen is an unusual way. Having grown up with very limited funds for purchasing music, most of what I listened to growing up was what I heard on the radio out of a small-town station or what I heard emanating from my older brother’s room. My musical tastes, however, always included a “religious” element, whether that be a blatant religious message or provocative lyrics combined with compelling tunes. It was only when I first watched Shrek that I learned about Leonard Cohen. The moving scene where Shrek and Donkey have gone their own ways, both disappointed in love, is framed by John Cale’s rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It is particularly poignant even in an animated movie, and I wanted to learn more about the haunted composer. The official movie soundtrack included the song covered by a different artist, but I found Cohen’s name listed as the writer. That’s when I began to explore.

I can’t pretend to be a groupie of any performer, but I find much of Cohen’s music to be moving and provocative. His lyrics, self-effacing and tentatively assertive, seem to capture the ideals of many religions. Reach out but don’t touch. Seek your own fulfillment, but put others first. I was reminded of this the other day while listening to some of his songs. A commentator once described Cohen as an artist with a Psalter in one hand and a picture of a naked woman in the other. An artist who struggles to overcome his humanity, yet who thoroughly enjoys it. “Hallelujah,” Cohen once explained in an interview, began as a religious song and ended up an erotic one.

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, my thoughts return more often to his provocative lyrics. After viewing Shrek I began to purchase Cohen CDs (this was back in the day when I was fully employed). I was amazed at what I’d been missing. There is an honesty about Cohen’s work from which many who overtly claim religion could learn. Cohen is the sinner who does not pretend to be a saint. His work openly expresses the struggle. If those who want others to join their religion could learn this simple trick of being honest, they might be surprised by the results. Self-assured bravado cannot convince as readily as the confessions of a lost but sincere seeker.

Good Book, Bad Seeds

A gray day in September. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. A stark melancholy races on the winds of a distant nor’easter. It is a perfect day for The Boatman’s Call.

Searching for land

Searching for land

I have to admit up front that I found out about Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds from the Shrek movies. The soundtrack crew from the first two movies did their homework exceptionally well, tapping some truly desultory, lugubrious tunes from artists who don’t make the top twenty. I was so taken by “People Ain’t No Good” that as soon as I could afford it I purchased the album (The Boatman’s Call, not Shrek II). The album begins with the line “I don’t believe in an interventionist God, but I know darling that you do . . .” Throughout the album the achingly sacred and profoundly profane are blended in an eerily subdued way. The music is haunting and thought-provoking. Almost each track on the album has a biblical reference, but these references are mixed with what would be crude if handled with any less artistry.

All that I know about Nick Cave is what I’ve read on Wikipedia, but it is clear that he is well versed in the Bible and makes effective, if dark, use of religious imagery. Perhaps the reason I admire this album so much is that Cave’s ambivalence toward religious structures is so honest. He isn’t out to convert anyone, nor is he willing to let go of his religion. The religion that wafts out of the drafty attic of this disc mirrors the complexity that faith ought to possess. Especially on a dark and rainy autumn day.