Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Day Henri Nouwen Dissed The Blues Brothers

The sterner side of Henri

Remember the gentle, kind, spiritual, non-judgmental Henri Nouwen? Well, I guess there were certain things that could get even his back up, like the time he took in a screening of the The Blues Brothers with a group of private school students.

It wasn't particularly great cinema, or great comedy, and it certainly wasn't good blues, but I recall that my friends and I got a few chuckles out of it when John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd wrote and starred in The Blues Brothers in 1980. Here is the scene being referred to by Henri below. I remember we were sort of stunned and strangely thrilled at the time. A chase scene like this might seem like old-hat and standard fare to be found in movies today, but in 1980, the scale and cost of this thing was kind of new.

From Nouwen's book Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community...

We should not be distracted by arguments as to whether peace starts within or without. Inner and outer peace must never be separated. Peace work is a spectrum stretching from the hidden corners of our innermost selves to the most complex international deliberations. Our resistance against the powers of death must therefore be as deep and wide as peace itself.

Entertainment with Death

Not long ago I visited an exclusive American prep school. Most of the boys and girls came from well-to-do families, most were well educated, and all of them were very bright. They were friendly, well-mannered, and ambitious; it was not hard for me to imagine many of them eventually holding important positions, driving big cars, and living in large homes.

One evening I joined these students in watching a movie in the school's auditorium. It was The Blues Brothers. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. The screen was filled with the wild destruction of supermarkets, houses, and cars, while the auditorium was filled with excited shouts coming from the mouths of these well-mannered, bright young people. While they were watching the total devastation of all the symbols of their own prosperous lives, they yelled and screamed as if their team had won a championship. As cars were being smashed, houses set on fire, and high-rises pulled down, my excited neighbor told me that this was one of the most expensive "funny" movies ever made. Millions of dollars had been spent to film a few hours of what I considered to be death. No human beings were killed. It was supposed to bring a good laugh. But nothing human beings made was left untouched by the destructive activities of The Blues Brothers.

What does it mean that ambitious young Americans are being entertained by millions of dollars worth of destruction in a world in which many people die from fear, lack of food, and ever-increasing violence? Are these the future leaders of a generation whose primary task is to prevent a nuclear war and stop the arms race?

I report this seemingly innocent event to point to the fact that much contemporary entertainment is designed to feed our fascination with violence and death. Long hours of our lives are spent filling our minds with images not only of disintegrating skyscrapers and cars, but also of shootings, torture scenes, and other manifestations of human violence. Once I met a Vietnam veteran on an airplane. He told me that as a youngster he had seen so many people being killed on TV that once he got to Vietnam it had been hard for him to believe that those whom he killed would not stand up again and act in the next program. Death had become an unreal act. Vietnam woke him up to the truth that death is real and final and very ugly.

When I am honest with myself I have to confess that I, too, am often seduced by the titillating power of death. I am fascinated by someone who walks a tightrope strung over a gaping abyss. I bite my nails in excitement when I see trapeze artists making somersaults without a safety net beneath them. I look with open eyes and mouth at stunt pilots, motorcyclists, and race car drivers who put their lives at risk in their desire to break a record or perform a dazzling feat. In this respect, I am little different from the thousands of Romans who were entertained by the death games of the gladiators, or from the crowds who in the past and even the present are attracted to places of public execution.

Any suggestion that these real or imagined death games are healthy ways to deal with our "death-instincts" or "aggressive fantasies" needs to be discarded as unfounded, unproved, or simply irresponsible. Acting out death wishes either in fact or in the imagination can never bring us any closer to peace, whether it is peace of heart or peace in our life together.


Garpu said...

I can see both sides of the argument, here. I play a lot of video games, and I've played some really violent ones. Is it helping my spiritual life any? Probably not. Am I learning to kill from them or steal cars (from Grand Theft Auto)? Probably not. I think we're only as attached to our media as we allow ourselves to be attached, if that makes any sense.

Liam said...

Wow -- with all that's out there, it's strange to see the Blues Brothers criticized -- I always liked the cartoon aspect of it. The fact that she blows up an entire building and people just shake the bricks off themselves.

I think it's a good criticism of the culture, but a bad example.

By the way, I think The Blues Brothers is a great musical comedy.

cowboyangel said...

It sounds like Henri wasn't getting out to the movies much, so I guess he had to use what examples he could find. Friday the 13th came out the same year, for example, but I guess he missed that one. Overall, though, 1980 looks like it was a pretty tame year for Hollywood.

But I think his overall points are valid.

What does it mean that ambitious young Americans are being entertained by millions of dollars worth of destruction in a world in which many people die from fear, lack of food, and ever-increasing violence?

Even I who love film so much am appalled at times when I think about how much money is spent on some movies, in comparison to what's going on in the world. I'm sure if Nouwen wasn't watching a lot of movies, the incredible amount of money spent to blow things up in the Blues Brothers must have seemed pretty disturbing. Insane, really.

(Though even the amount to make a movie like The Dark Knight - $180 million - is a walk in the park compared to what we spend each month in Iraq - $12 billion.)

The U.S. is a very violent culture, and we do feed that violence in TV shows, movies, video games. Can't show a woman's breast or everyone will freak out, but you can conduct wholesale slaughter without a problem. In fact, it's big, big business. Violence is our national sickness. It's why the war in Iraq probably doesn't bother people that much. It's just another TV series - and, really, we see less violence from the war than we do in our movies. Can't show the real stuff.

It's all pretty disturbing when you start thinking about it.

But we haven't really come up with any solutions that don't seem puritanical, priggish, Stalinistic or self-righteous.

"Democracy don't rule the world,
You'd better get that in your head.
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that's better left unsaid."

Bob Dylan

The question I have to ask myself is - what does it say about me? I keep watching these movies. I'm not bothered by a lot of the violence.

cowboyangel said...

I never grooved on The Blues Brothers as much as others, but I always really liked the scene after the huge chase at the end when they're in the elevator, and "The Girl from Impanema" is playing softly.

I'm guessing Henri wasn't a big football fan either, eh?

Jeff said...

Yeah, I’m thinking that Henri probably didn’t get out too much. He may have been a bit too monastic and sheltered to ever go to the movie theater with a clean conscience. If he got his nose all out of joint over The Blues Brothers, I wonder what he would have thought if he’d ever been subjected to some of the stuff out there today like Saw III.

Do you ever get the impresssion that the Lord takes certain people before their time to keep them from the pain of seeing certain things? Henri passed way just when the internet was starting to take off. If he’d ever been exposed to Grand Theft Auto, it probably would have sent him into one of those deep depressions. :)

I can see his point, but on the other hand, action pictures, video games, and screwball comedies can provide a catharsis for us. They can provide a way of blowing off pent-up steam without hurting anyone. The age old debate… Does culture shape the media, or is it the other way around? Is it circular? I think Nouwen made a good observation about how teenagers seem to revel in the destruction of our symbols and trophies of affluenza.

I never grooved on The Blues Brothers as much as others, but I always really liked the scene after the huge chase at the end when they're in the elevator, and "The Girl from Impanema" is playing softly.

I loved the elevator muzak scene. That, and “It was an earthquake, a flood… It wasn’t MY FAULT!!!”

How strange that you mentioned the "The Girl from Impanema”. I’ve been contemplating a post built around that very tune, but I’m not sure if Anne would appreciate it.

Liam said...


"Illinois Nazis. I HATE Illinois Nazis."

Liam said...

On a more serious note, I wonder if Henri is following a stream of thought that goes back in Christianity at least to Augustine -- the idea that watching theater is not cathartic, but rather enjoyment of suffering.

Liam said...

And the penguin! Don't forget the penguin!

Call me a geek, but I love the Blues Brothers.

Brother Charles said...

I've always thought the film was overrated, but this part is funny. "Do you have a Miss Piggy?" It's just taking the piss out of our consumerist cultural values, a feast of fools kind of thing. "Baby clothes; this place has got everything." Does it? Indeed not. That's why it's funny.

And on what Nouwen might have said about football, to quote a movie that I actually do consider very funny: "Violent ground acquisition games such as football are in fact a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war."

crystal said...

I've never seen the Blues Brothers, sadly. I think thought that maybe it's Henri who has his values mixed up. He seems to venerate the wealth and ambition and privilege and manners he finds in the kids and at that school ..... how different than Jesus hanging out at the Tax collector's house with the low lifes :)

PS - democracy and violence go together, actually, I said, having just finsihed reading about how Athens destroyed Melos :)

Garpu said...

That's just it...there's something so over the top with the GTA games and the Blues Brothers that I don't think it's possible to take either seriously. GTA: San Andreas, though, does have its serious moments. It starts off with an African American man walking out of an airport and getting harassed and beaten by police. I don't think I've ever been confronted by such issues so directly, certainly not in a video game. It's easy to say "Oh that sucks" when it's on the news, but when it's something that's experienced, it brings the point home more than it would be otherwise. Video game characters aren't supposed to be vulnerable, and they certainly don't cry. (Hrm, post fodder for another time, when I've played through more of that game.)

What's my point with this? Sometimes the violence has a social point, as well.

Jeff said...

"Illinois Nazis. I HATE Illinois Nazis."

:-D I forgot how many good lines there are in that movie.

"We've got both kinds of music - Country AND Western."

Brother Charles,

It's just taking the piss out of our consumerist cultural values, a feast of fools kind of thing. "Baby clothes; this place has got everything." Does it? Indeed not. That's why it's funny.

You know, that's really good insight. I never thought of it that way. Maybe the screenplay wasn't as adolescent as I thought. That's very good. As for the football quote:

Violent ground acquisition games such as football are in fact a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war

Back to School? That quote sort of reminds me of the classic rant the late George Carlin had on the differences between baseball and football.


Oh, I think Nouwen understood what you're saying very well. I think he was making a point about the amount of influence these prep schools students were bound to have someday. Nouwen himself? He did mission work in Latin America, and lived and worked for quite a long time at the L'Arche Daybreak Community, for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Also, I highly recommend a short book of his called The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life


I suppose all that I know about GTA is what I've heard and not what I've actually seen. Like in films, I guess there is something to be said about the context and the point that's being made. There is certainly a difference bewtween that and what is purely gratuitous.

Jeff said...

Sorry, here's the reference to L'Arche

Frank said...

Jeff, et al,
hate to gush here, but I am so happy to finally have found you! I've been looking for a long time for a place where this kind conversation is happening: healthy, smart, critical without being mean-spirited or protectionist; rooted in a Gospel that is engaged in our world; with a tone of love for the Church without navel-gazing but hopeful and broad, awake to the weaknesses of any single perspective, while expressing a confidence in the truth and hope of Christ. I've only been lurking for a short-time but really like what I hear and read. I am conscious that I may be projecting a lot here, but thought I'd let you know I am grateful for your efforts: Thanks for putting in the time. We need more places like this one.

Jeff said...

Hi Frank,

Welcome, and thanks for the kind words. Where do you come from?

Frank said...

I'm in Texas, by way of the Mothership, a.k.a Notre Dame.

Jeff said...

Another Texan! :-D But a Domer too. Welcome.