Tuesday, May 01, 2007

This One Throws Me into Melancholy and Questions

I rented Godspell as part of my research for the new novel, where I delve into the folk Christianity of the 70's. Boy, I did not expect my reaction. At first I could not stop laughing. How goofy, the hippies painting on their clown faces and roller skating and playing their slide whistles! How fun to see it in the NYC landscape I know well now, these songs I learned backward and forward when I was a kid, a kid who had never seen these big landmarks in person. There's Lincoln Center! There's Central Park! Bethesda Fountain! Look at the angel, immortalized again (and more ironically) in Tony Kushner's Angels in America!

Then I start freaking a little. I mean, it's really goofy, and I realize that I was drawn in by the clown thing when I was little, the white fluffy-headed Jesus with his Superman shirt and pompom shoes and painted-on tears. The language is a little opaque, and I didn't understand it, not really, the way I didn't understand Shakespeare or hymns or the liturgy or even the Gospels I heard weekly in church. (And the songs in Godspell use the words from the Episcopal hymnal...) But the slapstick is what I lived for, back then, that's what I understood: the mime stuff, the happy-hippy feeling. Was this a big part of my religious indoctrination? And if so, what, exactly, did I learn?

For one, I got the basics of the parables. But I couldn't watch them now. Too much clowning, too much overlay. I had to fast-forward through the silly voices and hey-kids-lets-put-on-a-show thing.

And then there's this number, "All For the Best," filmed on Manhattan rooftops, including a finale on the unfinished World Trade Center. I'm feeling vertigo, and sorrow, watching the fast vaudeville-style dancing up there, too close to the edge, and the song's lyric: "don't forget that when you'll get to heaven you'll be blessed."

Did I believe in heaven? Was this part of my kid theology? Do I now? And do you have to die to find it? Or, as I would rather think, is our life on earth so full of possibility that it might just be heaven already?

Just seeing the towers brings flashbacks of my own daily walk through those buildings, fixtures of my landscape for the years I worked downtown, and the day I stood below and watched them burn and fall, watched people fall too. The film uses the towers as a symbol of wealth and what you "can't take with you." The antithesis of heaven. The message, which I did get when I was little: wealth and luck on earth mean nothing. But is that too pat? How has the meaning of this film changed, now that the city has, now that we've lost our happy-hippy innocence? Or our Wall Street business-as-usual innocence?

Does this mean I shouldn't be grateful for my good luck? My wealth, relatively speaking, in the global scheme of things? It does bring home one thing--it's all fragile. Jobs, things, and people come and go. What can I hang onto? Should I even try?

Or, is that what makes it heaven, life here? That it is fragile? Is heaven allowed to be fragile?

I rented Jesus Christ Superstar too, which was a much better fit for my current state of mind. Judas is the guy I identify with. The one who resists the groupthink. It's not enough to just follow and trust. You have to think about what you're doing, independently, even if doubt is a part of that process.

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Blogger clem said...

Hey doll,

The relationship between production values of the 70's and spiritual notions of any kind is probaby pretty tenuous. Unless you're intersted in creating new rings of hell for yourself. All handheld, of course.

No, I think you need to step back from the film version, which while convenient to have on the Netflix queue, is by no means definitive, and go to even a so-so amateur production. I've been to a few and the energy cen be intense, even if the intonation might leave a little to be desired.

The composer/lyricist, Stephen Schwartz, is the ONLY person to have three musicals running on broadway simultaneously. He was a phenomenon, one of those zeitgeist streaks in the sky. (He recently did Wicked, I believe.) Godspell and Pippin (less so The Magic Show), the three shows in question, done for the most part without props and accompanied by a clueful music director, can be enchanting.

Just a thought.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Clem, interesting idea! I might just do that. Could be traumatic for me, triggering memories of my kid self imitating "Turn Back, Oh Man," but I like the idea of amateur energy.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

AND, Clem, come to think of it, I don't think I ever saw this film in its entirety as a kid. I was forever falling asleep in movies. But we had the record, and I did see at least one amateur production. And I remember it moving me to tears, during "On the Willows."

But maybe I was just getting the idea of losing a loved one. Death in general. That's the big takeaway, even for kids. Death, then this weird celebration of life after. That's something I understood, viscerally. And it's relevant to my project, so thanks again for the suggestion.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous kmcleod said...

The guy who played Jesus in GODSPELL went on to play Jennifer Garner's CIA father in the series ALIAS. Not that that means anything...

6:56 AM  
Blogger christopherlee said...

Hey Anne. How do you post from YOUTUBE? I still haven't figured that out. Thanx for visiting my blog. :)

3:10 AM  
Blogger christopherlee said...

Christianity is Caravaggio and Tammy Faye Baker... the "high how are ya?" of your neighborhood born again Christian and the Vatican Bank . How do you plan to square the central myth of Western Civilization with the rattlesnake people in West Virginia?

10:03 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Chris: you mean squaring in my novel? No squaring. It's a draw.

I'm more fascinated by Jay Bakker than Tammy Bakker. Jay, the prodigal son. I'm fascinated with the prodigal son narrative in general. Why does it always end with the son returning and the father forgiving? What if it had a slightly different (but still merciful and redemptive) ending?

Back to the ending thing. Is ending the same as squaring? Can it be round instead?

No Vatican here, and very few Born-Agains. Just good liberal Christians and their confused offspring. Or adopted offspring, as is the case in my story.

11:02 PM  
Blogger christopherlee said...

did you ever see "the Apostle" with Robert Duvall? I loved that movie. Challenges you on the subject of conversion and forgiveness. Also unlike so many hollywood movies they do a good job of portraying southern church going people, none of those phony southern accents and cliches.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous virginia said...

This is the second mention of Godspell I've come across this week, someone at the Moth talked about growing up on it and singing Day by Day in dozens of church and school events for her whole childhood.

I never saw the movie or play (though I'd heard Day by Day). I didn't know what she meant by Jesus in a Superman T-shirt. And so I eagerly watched the clip....

WOW, is it lame! Is the whole movie that bad? And since I'd already read Anne's post, I didn't even get the shock of the WTC.

The song doesn't even make sense, it sounds like it's trying to be Candide-ironic.

In other Christian news, did people read about the Brazilian the Pope sainted? He wrote on tiny rice-paper pills "the Virgin remained intact after she birthed Jeus. Pray for us all." or something very close to that. Xianity really is just so very kooky.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Yeah, religious people must seem even more kooky to people who didn't see it from the cradle.

Candide is a good characterization of the film's intent, I think.

Cultiver le jardin!

"doesn't even make sense"--yeah, it's not a film based on logic. This is one of my beefs with it. I need character-logic.

Re: the tiny writing dude, sounds like a saint to me! He could write anything that small and earn my respect...

(We didn't take the virgin birth thing literally, in the tradition I came up in...also didn't worship saints, just named stuff after them...)

11:43 AM  
Anonymous doug p said...

Hey oooooold friend,
How funny to stumble across your blog and then get sucked into this hysterical chain of comments about an absolutely ridiculous movie...that happens to have deep connections to my own formative years too! We produced this show while I was in high school (I worked tech and, of course, designed the poster). It was the signature show of our era (I think they're still talking about the staging of the powerful crusifixion scene).

Another piece from this artistic genre that re-emerged in our house over the years is Marlo Thomas' "Free to be You and Me." Of course it lacks the Jesus thing (she's too much of a lefty for that), but it's got the same unmistakable aesthetic. Somehow FTBYAM survived with a bit more dignity than Godspell seems to have.

Anyway, I just wanted to chime in, say hey (it's been too many years). I'm in NYC frequently on biz if you want to grab a coffee sometime.

Doug P

2:41 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Doug--hey! Minneapolis Doug? And who you callin' old?

(I'll let the gray hairs do the talking there...yes, it's happening here.)

I can just picture the poster you made for the high school production.

And FTBYAM?! I LOVE THAT! Rosie Greer singing It's All Right to Cry?

Would love to chat in person. Drop me a line! Bigfatpress at yahoo dot com.

Now I have to go help my husband write a blues song about a chicken disease. Don't ask.

6:04 PM  
Blogger christopherlee said...

I played "Herb" in my High School production. All I remember was the "sower went to sew some seeds.." thing. I think that was my line. When I was a pickaninny growing up in rural Florida we did the black baptist thing. I remember a tent revival where they tried to cure an uncle of mine of his muscular dystrophy by "laying upon hands" and a small vial of mineral oil. It didn't work. I was a "born again" for like three months in college. Then I became a "backslidin' libertine".

9:26 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Whoa Chris, you in a production? Did you sing a solo?

I've heard you sing. Like the entire Joni Mitchell songbook. Remember that?

I won't even go into the dancing part.

4:45 PM  

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