Tag Archives: Ice Age IV

A Marxist Christmastide: Celebrating the Season with Silliness

5 Jan

Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause! (A Night at the Opera [1935])

Christmas is not only a feast of children, but in some sense a feast of fools (Chesterton).

On Wednesday, the second day of the Christmas Octave, I was heading over to Kroger to pick up some groceries, and I fired up the minivan. The radio was still preset to the station that had been playing Christmas music 24/7 since Thanksgiving, and when I turned the key, guess what I heard? Bing Crosby? Vince Guaraldi Trio? Burl Ives?!

No, of course not. Christmas was over, as far as the radio station and its commercial sponsors were concerned. Back to the easy listening and soft rock – like Kool and the Gang, which is what actually started playing. “Celebrate good times,” they sang, “come on!”

It was a bit jarring – in the same way that it’s jarring when we start seeing barren fir trees abandoned at the curbside on December 26. But, you know, Kool was making a very good, seasonally appropriate point: It’s still Christmas – the Octave, the Twelve Days, even Christmastide until the Baptism of the Lord! Good times for weeks to come. Time to celebrate – come on!

However, let’s face it, that’s hard to do when the world around us – the world we inhabit most the time – has already moved on. We’ve got returns to make at the mall, new year’s resolutions to pretend we’ll keep, and tax receipts – ugh – to start organizing. Who can keep up a jolly Christmas spirit under those circumstances?

We can – I know we can! We just need a little help.

Now, it’s true, as Pope Francis points out, that true joy is more than frivolity and merrymaking. In his Christmas message to the Vatican staff, he noted that saints are “joyful people, not because they are always laughing, no, but because they are very serene inside and they know how to spread it to others.” Fair enough, but I’d still argue that conjuring up some laughter is a pretty good way to get into a joyful groove – or to keep that Christmas one going for a couple weeks more.

So, my solution? Funny movies – old funny movies. The kind that rely on corny jokes and slapstick to elicit mirth. They’re like celluloid comfort food, and they can transform even the most wintry dumps into yulish gaiety.

Frank Capra and the Thin Man corpus come to mind, but, for my money, there’s nothing like a Marx Brothers film to get the giggles going. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (and their entourage of regulars) were masters of translating screwball vaudeville antics to the silver screen. We own the MB opera omnia on DVD, but you can find them in the public library easy enough, and probably most of them are free to watch on the internet somewhere. For the purposes of stirring up hilarity, any of them will do, but here are three that I think highlight especially Christmaslike values.

  1. A Night in Casablanca (1946): Note the year – just after the end of World War II. The Marx Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants, and so they were certainly attuned to Nazi atrocities and the collapse of the European order. Even so, they managed to make a comedy out of postwar Axis shenanigans, playing off the storyline (and popularity) of the earlier Bogart/Bergman classic. Groucho takes over management of a hotel that’s crawling with spies and counter-spies. Somehow, he and his looney assistants have to prevent the local Nazi fugitives from accessing a hidden cache of stolen art treasures. There’s danger and romance and risk – all elements in the Christmas story itself – not to mention a happy ending: The bad guys are vanquished, and the Brothers survive to carry on in their madcap ways.
  2. Room Service (1938): Hospitality is a major Christmas theme – something we glimpse in the innkeeper’s (perhaps grudging) provision for the Holy Family and the grand welcome they receive from the shepherds, not to mention the equally grand welcome we’re meant to give the Christ child ourselves – and it’s a theme central to this film. Groucho and company (including a youthful Lucille Ball) are struggling to find financial backing for a Broadway musical, and they’re camping out (along with the entire cast) in the White Wave Hotel. As the bills mount, the hotel’s supervising director demands that the whole gang be tossed out. The Marx Brothers manage to stay put by turning their suite into a sick room, complete with bedridden “patient,” thus hoping to play off the director’s better nature and sympathies. The ruse works, the musical finds a backer, and accounts are all squared in the end – although the hornswoggled director faints when the patient, who’d expired, shows up again in the last scene.
  3. Duck Soup (1933): Last month, I had the privilege of attending the one-day screening of Peter Jackson’s incredible World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). By weaving together restored footage and contemporary voiceovers, Jackson brought to life what actual combat was like in the trenches. As reviewer Scout Tofoya notes, the film was “not about the mindlessness of combat and murder, but of the identities lost and forged by gunfire,” although one of the veterans at the end of the film does voice his skepticism that any of it made sense or was worth it. As I watched Jackson’s masterful achievement, I couldn’t help thinking about the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which does address the mindlessness of war, not to mention the airy detachment of those behind the lines that foment it. By poking fun at warmaking, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo indirectly make a solid case for invoking the Prince of Peace and avoiding violence as a means of problem-solving at all costs. When Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) starts singing a patriotic anthem of victory at the close, there’s an ironic satisfaction in watching the brothers pummel her with vegetables.

So, did my Christmas allusions seem a bit forced? Perhaps. The truth is that I chose to comment on those three particular films because they’re the ones my son, Nicky, and I enjoyed most recently. And I can tell you that no time was wasted in analyzing their motifs and underlying messages. We just sat there together and yukked it up – something that is surely at the heart of the Christmas event, and, by extension, of the Faith itself. “The important thing in life is…to keep alive in oneself the immortal power of astonishment and laughter,” writes Chesterton. “Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is still alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he tickled.”

It’s still Christmas season, so keep watching your favorite Christmas movies. But as January slides into February and beyond, consider including a Marx Brothers classic – any of them – into your film-viewing line-up. Just for the laughs. It’s a great way to help you sustain, come what may, a jovial and joyful Christmas spirit, and celebrate good times the whole year long.
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Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Physic of Tears

3 Feb

“Crying makes us feel better, even when a problem persists.”
~ Judith Orloff, M.D.

“Jesus wept” (Jn 11.35). It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, as every junior high kid who’s ever been near a Sunday school or youth group can tell you.

Of course, it’s only the “shortest verse” in English translation, but let us not dither about such piddling details. The point is its brevity and reputation make it the Mother of All Memory Verses, and that has implications. As Christians, we’re literally “little Christs,” right? We’re obliged to imitate him as much as possible – to even become him in the Body of Christ, in carrying our crosses and serving others, and especially in receiving the Eucharist. So, if Jesus wept (as everyone knows), so we ought to weep. He even hammers this idea home in the Sermon on the Plain. “Blessed are you that weep now,” he tells the crowd, “for you shall laugh” (Lk 6.21).

Note the cause and effect here. It would’ve been especially important to the original audience. As Luke reports, that crowd on the plain included many who’d come “to be healed of their diseases” and unclean spirits. They had plenty to cry about, and Jesus not only gave them leave to do so, but also indicated that the tears themselves were part of the healing process.

And to the surprise of no one who’s ever enjoyed a good cry, science bears out Jesus’ prescription. “Emotional tears have special health benefits,” writes Judith Orloff in Psychology Today, because they “contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying.” Orloff further notes that crying also seems to stimulate “the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and ‘feel-good’ hormones.” Recall that the famous “Jesus wept” verse occurs in the context of Jesus finding out about the death of Lazarus, his good friend. It was stressful; it was painful; it was just the kind of situation that calls for a shot of endorphins. Our incarnate savior benefited from his tears just like we do.

Yet we tend to get fidgety in the presence of weeping – both others’ and our own. My kids and my students make fun of me because I’m so easily moved to tears. If I read a stirring Gospel passage before class? Snuffles. Recite the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V for my son on his namesake’s feast day? Sobs. Heck, I even cried during Ice Age IV, if you can believe that Ice Age IV! If you’ve seen it, you probably know the dad-daughter scene that got me going. My kids certainly picked up on it in the theater when we went to see it together. They all looked away from the screen and stared at me in anticipation of the flood.

They weren’t disappointed.

Let ‘em stare, I say. We should all cry more, not less. There’s lots to cry about in the world these days, not to mention all the terrible and terrifying challenges we might personally face. But only trained thespians can conjure up tears on cue, and Ice Age IV will only do the trick for softies like me.

So here’s a surefire lacrimal remedy for you: Nine-year old Amira Willighagen’s performance of “O Mio Babbino Caro” on Holland’s Got Talent. Not long ago I was sitting at our home computer with 11-year-old Katharine by my side. We were searching for a particular musical video she wanted to show me, and Willighagen’s showed up in the sidebar – 34 million views! I shrugged, clicked on it, and said, “Let’s check this out.”

The set-up draws you in immediately. Young Amira walks confidently to the center of the stage and takes questions from the three judges. They’re impressed by her youthful fearlessness, which is only confirmed when she tells them that she’s there to sing an operatic number.

“O Mio Babbino Caro” is an aria from an opera by Puccini, but I wouldn’t have known that at the time – and it didn’t matter at all. Nor did it matter that the sub-titles, which had been providing English translations of the Dutch preliminaries, disappeared when Amira started singing in Italian. In fact, I think that my ignorance of what the girl was singing about only added to my emotional response.

And that response was a strong one. Almost from the very first note, my eyes welled up. The absolute purity of her voice and her gentle gesticulations in accord with the flow of Italian lyrics were mesmerizing. Astounding. It’s disarming to witness such a coupling of sheer innocence and profound artistic depth. “You can’t believe this,” one of the judges comments. “It’s not normal.” Look at his colleagues and the audience behind him, mouths agape, eyes wide.

Within seconds, I was a mess of heaving tears. Just like at Ice Age IV, my daughter leaned in and looked at my face. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

I couldn’t explain. I still can’t. Maybe it has something to do with the thought that this young girl is already feeling something that most of don’t feel until much later into our rattling lives. “An old soul,” that same judge remarks of Amira’s amazing performance. I prefer the language of grace – like, “She’s touched by grace.” And grace means suffering; grace means the cross. Why should this 9-year-old be so primed to endure so much?

But maybe it’s just my own pain. Whatever it is, I have the same reaction every time I watch Amira surrender herself to that aria. It’s a gift. It’s a balm. Try it. You just might find the release you’re seeking.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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