Art, Religion, and David Bowie

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 This is a tale about art and religion, with some David Bowie added in for good measure.

The story begins in a Catholic grammar school during the 1970s and early 1980s. The pastor of my parish was an elderly man who called every boy “Butch” and every girl “Sissy.” The priest’s name will not be used here since–as with most of my recollections–it’s not really germane to anything. But he was the leader of my church, and a figure that everyone in the parish was familiar with.

I never embraced Catholicism very much, and by the time I started high school in the early 1980s, I was going through the motions of going to mass every Sunday morning. I’d routinely find ways to get out of it, usually by claiming to go to Saturday mass instead and then driving around for an hour. My parents always went to mass on Sunday, and we (my brothers and my sister) went with them more often than not.

After I went away to college in the late 1980s, I found that even the pretense of attending mass was no longer necessary, so I stopped going altogether. My break with Catholicism was several years in the making, but by 1987 it was finally done. I became the “recovering Catholic” that I have been ever since.

In the summer of 1988, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ at the Biograph theater in Chicago. It played in very few cities, and on a very few screens, because of the controversial nature of the book that it was based on. In a nutshell, the movie plays out the story of Jesus’ life, and then adds a twist as he is nailed to the cross. He is offered a chance to live as others do, with a wife and children. And Jesus is shown with Mary Magdalene and a family. And that was more than some were ready to handle, including my old parish priest.

A week after seeing the movie, I went home to visit with my family before classes began again in the fall. And, as per family custom, we all went to mass on Sunday. I hadn’t gone in a long time, but I didn’t want to create a scene by refusing to go, and so I joined in.

The mass was the same old same old until the time came for the priest’s homily, and that’s when it got interesting. It turns out that he had an opinion about the movie, and he wasn’t afraid to share it, either. The very idea that the movie showed Jesus “fantasizing on sex” (an odd phrasing, but one that he kept repeating over and over throughout the sermon) was just too much. It was a reprehensible movie, in his view, and no one in our parish should go and see it.

After years of mass attendance, and hundreds of services, I had finally heard too much. It was obvious to me that the pastor had not seen the movie at all, and had only read or heard about it from someplace else. The very limited release of the film meant that anyone in his parish could not see the movie for themselves, absent a 400-mile round trip to Chicago. And nobody should ever go to those lengths to see a movie.

The movie didn’t show Jesus in the way that the priest was claiming. People might fantasize about something of their own volition, but temptation–as I understand it–comes from an external source. The devil in the movie holds out the possibility of a different life to Jesus, with the hope that he will find this way preferable to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, and at the end of the movie he dies on the cross, instead.

The only difference between Jesus in the movie, and Jesus the way I learned the story in Catholic school, was that the fictional Jesus was tempted, unsuccessfully. The devil’s failure to persuade Jesus to give up his divinity for a domestic life instead was intended to challenge–but ultimately reaffirm–the traditional ideas about Jesus. Roger Ebert understood this, but it was somehow lost on my parish priest. Perhaps this is because Ebert had actually seen the movie in question.

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2013, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film’s very limited–and very controversial–release in theaters. Something came up on that day, and I saved a draft of what I had written, with the  intention of finishing it off and getting it onto my blog. It wasn’t until the death of David Bowie earlier in the week that I even realized this was still here, languishing in my Drafts folder. And at this point I’d like to pivot to Bowie’s involvement in the movie, in one scene as Pontius Pilate.

Bowie was certainly no stranger to the silver screen, and his list of film roles underlines what a screen presence he really was. I don’t like like writing about him in past tense, either, but that’s the way it has to be now.

So the film’s second-worst character (after the big serpent, of course) was filled by one of the biggest musical stars of the decade. If there was any sense that this could have been a hazardous or toxic role for Bowie’s career as an artist, it didn’t prevent him from brushing them aside and taking the role, anyway. And he nailed the part, playing a Roman official with a gravitas that made you forget about his Ziggy Stardust days and his jumping around with Mick Jagger in the Dancing in the Street video.

Art, such as the Last Temptation novel and the film it was later turned into, has the ability to challenge us, and make us question who we are and what we’re all about. It has the power to change us, if we want to be changed, and the power to reinforce things that we may already know. But art’s ability to do either of these things is limited to our willingness to expose ourselves to it in the first place.

I wouldn’t have allowed a priest to tell me I can’t see a movie, not in 1988 and certainly not today. And if I hadn’t already seen the movie when I heard that ill-informed homily back then, I would have missed an interesting film and a very credible performance from an artist who’s no longer with us. And that would have been very unfortunate, indeed.

David Bowie could do it all: sing, play guitar, write music, act, and look the part of a Roman with a style that nobody else had. Dusting off an old, half-finished idea from long ago and posting it online is a humble tribute to him, but one that I’m still very glad to offer here.

Art has always been made, and will always be made, and Bowie’s role in this process is worth remembering and emulating, whenever possible.

 

2015 is slipping away

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Now that Christmas is behind us, there’s just a few days left in 2015. It’s been quite a year, as I suppose is true of every year on the crazy blue marble we call home.

Our losses this year included Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, Stuart Scott, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, and lots of people who weren’t ballplayers or sportscasters or pro wrestlers.

We lost many people– just as we have every year–but we also gained some people, too. People who will change the world someday, as they grow and learn and figure out what it is the world needs, and how they can go about providing it. That day will come, even if many of us won’t be around to see it. As long as the world is spinning on its axis, people will be finding new ways to make life better.

But we also got a few things back in 2015 that I thought were gone forever. “Bloom County” was my favorite comic strip back in the 1980s, and its creator Berkeley Breathed has recently revived it for the 21st century. I genuinely look forward to seeing Opus and Milo and Steve Dallas and the rest on Facebook every day.

But even more than that, 2015 was the year that Star Wars came back. I never really followed the first three movies in the series as they were coming out over the past decade or so. I had resigned myself to thinking that the series came to an end–at least for me–around the time we first saw the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. But Disney has rejuvenated the franchise, and reminded me of how much I had enjoyed the characters and the story when they first came into my life back in the late 1970s.

It’s been an interesting year, and given the rate I’m posting in this space lately, this could very well be the last time I’ll post anything here in 2015. With that said, let’s hope that 2016 will bring us more surprises worth writing about.

 

Spending an afternoon with my mom

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There’s a scene from Good Will Hunting that has stayed with me, more so than the remainder of the movie. In the scene, the Minnie Driver character says that she would trade all of the money she has to spend another day with her dead father. And the reason she would is because once somebody is gone, there’s no way of bringing them back. So enjoy your loved ones while you still can.

My mom was 21 years old when I was born. At an age when I was still finishing up college and enjoying the carefree (as in, child-free) days of my early 20s, my mom didn’t have that. She had me and my sister and two brothers to contend with. Not that it was an actual competition, but she had demands on her time and resources that I can’t imagine. And she did a great job of raising us, I have to say.

I’m very pleased to report that she’s still with us today. I get to enjoy spending time with her while she’s still young enough to get around without a wheelchair or a walker. And we did exactly that a week ago, for the funeral reenactment of Abraham Lincoln. It was six hours in the car to spend four or five hours with the woman who did so much for me back when I was unable–and sometimes unwilling–to appreciate what that meant. It was a trade that I was glad to make.

I know that my mom reads my blog. So in a sense, I’m writing to her knowing that she will see it and probably get emotional. I’m getting emotional writing it, myself. But on the off chance that anybody else ever finds this online, here’s a picture and a story about my mom. She, like all mothers, loved her children and didn’t get nearly enough in return for her emotional and financial investments through the years. This is a humble attempt to repay a debt that can never be fully squared. And I’m very pleased to still have the opportunity to make payments on this account.

A victory for weirdness

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I’m very glad that Birdman won the Oscar for best picture tonight. The director admitted it was a crazy idea, but somehow the film got made. I’ve never seen a movie quite like it, and this award will hopefully inspire more people in the movie business to follow their weird ideas until they make it to the screen.

In Technicolor

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Today I was futzing around with an app called Photo Booth on the laptop, and found that smiling for pictures just looked dumb. They were forced smiles, after all. But when I glared at the camera, the images seemed to turn out better. Funny how that works.

Having recently seen The Birdcage in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, I recalled a scene where Nathan Lane’s character was dressed in a suit, but when he crossed his legs it revealed the bright pink socks that he was wearing. His response was perfect: “One does want a hint of color.”

So to take the edge off of my glaring visage, I added an effect called “Pop art.” The result, in my mind, is the Technicolor Badass shown above. And now that it’s online, it can live forever. The internet is an amazing thing, indeed.

Radio Raheem for a new generation

Twenty-five years is a long time. I have many memories of the Summer of 1989, and one of them was going to see a movie that shook me up, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” And apparently, the current president and his then-girlfriend saw the movie too that summer, as evidenced by the film clip above.

The event that sets off the riot that marks the high point of the movie was the strangulation death of a character named Radio Raheem. I was appalled as the police placed his character in a choke hold and ended his life. It touched off a riot where Sal’s Pizza gets destroyed, and Mookie–Spike Lee’s character–leads the way by throwing a garbage can through his boss’ window. I walked out of the movie examining American society, and that was clearly what everyone in the theater was supposed to be doing.

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Now flash forward a quarter century, to the tragic case of Eric Garner. Whatever it was he may or may not have been doing on the streets of New York on a Thursday afternoon, he met with the same fate that Radio Raheem did in Spike Lee’s movie, all those years ago.

But Eric Garner had a family, unlike the fictional creation that Radio Raheem was. Still, it seems hard to believe that our current president, who apparently remembers the movie very well, doesn’t have something to say about how life–and death– has imitated art.

Leadership involves, well, doing the right thing. And when an unarmed black man is choked to death on the streets of New York, or any other city, it’s something we should reflect upon.

Yes, we have an African American president, which twenty-five years ago did not seem possible. And yes, he has other issues to deal with, from Gaza to the border issue. But an unarmed black man died at the hands of police in our largest and most visible city. I’d very much like to hear what our president has to say about it. Even if he channels that young man who took his girlfriend on a date to see a movie 25 years ago, it would be worth listening to.

As fresh as a Foghat concert

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I was on my way to work yesterday when, for reasons I’ll likely never understand, one of the greatest movie insults I have heard came to me. It happened in the movie Kingpin, where Woody Harrelson’s character is told that his act is “about as fresh as a Foghat concert.” The implication is that Foghat, a band from the 1970s, had long passed its shelf life by the time this movie appeared in 1996.

Of course, something from 1996 is now almost as stale as Foghat was in the 1990s. But that’s beside the point. It was a funny line then, and it’s still funny now.

I turned on the radio to hear some music and lo and belold, Foghat was playing. Since my car flashes the name of the artist and songs–at least it does once in a while–I snapped a picture to record the moment for posterity. Maybe I subconsciously knew Foghat was playing on the radio before I turned it on. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.

Whatever it was, the world didn’t really need a Foghat story on the internet, but it has one now. Isn’t technology great?

 

The best film ever made

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Sometimes my daughters ask me questions about what my favorite things are. When they ask about my favorite song, or my favorite book, or my favorite food, I usually give some sort of dodgy, non-committal answer because I like many songs, and many books, and too many types of food, but none really stands out above the rest. When it comes to movies, though, it’s another story altogether.

My favorite movie is–and shall probably always remain–Field of Dreams. Twenty-five years ago, I described it in the Northwestern Film Guide as “magical,” and I stand by that description today. It’s a concoction of love and family and baseball and, above all else, belief in dreams. Not everyone buys into these things, and that’s just fine. But I do, and I always will, and I’m happy that there are others who do, as well.

Yesterday, I was “having a catch”–as Ray Kinsella called it in the movie’s last scene–with my ten year-old daughter in my small backyard in Chicago. We were using a purple softball from a trip to New Orleans many years ago, and since I didn’t have a glove I was catching her throws barehanded. But none of this mattered to me.

What mattered was that this funny, smart, and lovely little girl, who I’ve watched grow from the time she was born during the All-Star game ten and a half years ago, was sharing a moment with me. I was doing a thing that I love, with a person that I love. Not a single thing was wrong with the world in that moment. I’ll do my best to keep that memory for as long as I walk this earth.

No other movie has ever moved me like Field of Dreams did. And when life imitated this art, as it did for me yesterday, the cosmic tumblers all clicked into place.