Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Real Cool Hand

The grandfather of my good friend Sean passed away last week after struggling with cancer, including surgery. I had the privilege of meeting him only a handful of times (I was even invited to give him a priesthood blessing, despite the family not being Mormon). He led an fascinating life in broadcast television. The following is from his obituary:

[Wilbur] Earl [Goodrick II] was a pioneer in broadcast television. He directed the Jack LeLanne Show, the Porter Wagner Show, The Jimmy Dean Show, and many others. Earl set industry standards in "Lighting for Color," "Multiple Camera Switching," and incorporating music into television production. Earl won the Milwaukee Press Award for his inspirational documentary "Paul, a Day in the Life of" where he told the story of a small boy named Paul whose life was saved by a local surgeon who removed a giant brain aneurism from the boy's brain. This was a true tale of hope and inspiration for millions. 

When Earl's son Steve (my friend's dad) asked him how he felt about not winning an Emmy for his documentary Paul, a Day in the Life Of, he simply answered, "I've already got an Emmy" (the nickname for his wife Emma, whom he adored). He also was a key player in the creation of World Class Champion Wrestling. And let's not forget his role as Ranger #1 in the TV series Walker Texas Ranger.

The funeral had a beautiful eulogy and video by his son Steve. The preacher even came close to making a "weeping God" claim. What was perhaps most touching, however, was something that probably went somewhat unnoticed by most: the pre-funeral music. A few days prior to the funeral, Sean texted me about potential song candidates for a funeral playlist. We had a limited conversation about the taste, lyrics, and meaning that should be behind these songs. I provided what help I could, but ultimately it fell on Sean.

While at the funeral, I asked his girlfriend how he had been the past few days since I hadn't been able to see him. She made mention that she thought the making of the music list had been very helpful. In a sense, the music had been a partial healing process. His list included "Let It Be" by The Beatles, "Life Without You" by Stevie Ray Vaughn, and even "A Little Fall of Rain" from Les Miserables.

However, two songs really stood out to me. Soon after I arrived, Sean said to me, "I found that song from Cool Hand Luke." I smiled. He didn't have to explain what song he meant.

I find it interesting that after "mocking God" so to speak, Luke chooses the song "Plastic Jesus" to mourn his mother's death: a song that in turn mocks those who cheapen religion with kitsch and the like. In my view, Luke's song choice is somewhat repentant (he comes to an "understanding" with God later in an abandoned church house, in which Luke discovers that both of them are "hard cases"). The preacher at the funeral explained that the death of a loved one can be a time of reflection and an opportunity to re-prioritize our lives. Given Earl's successful, yet family-centered life (his son Steve opined that if Earl had not put family first, he would have been a household name), reflection, re-prioritization, and repentance may be the best way to remember him and follow his example.

The second song was more subtle, given that it was instrumental: Danny Elfman's "Finale" from the film Big Fish.

Big Fish holds sentimental value for Sean particularly, considering we are Tim Burton fans and this was by far his most touching work to date. But given that this music accompanied the funeral of a beloved, imaginative father and grandfather in the film, it was fitting. What made it even more so was the story shared later in the funeral by Sean's sister Katy. She chuckled as she remembered how her grandfather would tell her and the other grandkids elaborate stories. Being so extravagant, they often had to look to their grandmother for a sign as to whether the story was true or if Earl had taken some creative liberties. I laughed as she shared her memories, but was truly touched as I thought back to Sean's song choice and the parallels between real life and film.

Sean and I have shared a love of music and movies since we met at the tail end of sophomore year in high school. The majority of the concerts I’ve seen were seen with him, including Metallica w/Godsmack, Styx (twice, once with Peter Frampton), Megadeth & Dream Theater, Rush, and Paul McCartney. The majority of the movies I’ve seen in theaters over the past decade were with him as well (even the recent Django Unchained and Skyfall were seen with him). While we are music nerds (and guitar players to boot), we are probably bigger movie nerds. Senior year of high school consisted of skipping track (our last class) and seeing new movies or, at the very least, enjoying selected portions of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction at Sean’s house. The Oscars became a sacred ceremony; a media Sabbath if you will. Years ago, I bought two copies of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die: one for me and one for him. We even used to give movies letter grades, arguing and reasoning over them. Because of this history, I knew the kind of impact films had on Sean as I listened to the above songs. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz,[1] religious scholar John Lyden establishes the five aspects of religion: "1) a set of symbols which acts to 2) establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by 3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and 4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that 5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."[2] Films often provide narratives in which we can reflect both on how the world is and how it ought to be. The "escape" most moviegoers speak of is that sense of orderly existence provided by films. People discuss, praise, and criticize films, sometimes more than weightier subjects like religion or politics. Theaters can often act as quasi-temples, in which audience members are initiated into "a sense of reality in a darkened room with an enlarged screen that encompasses all attention." Here, they "laugh, cry, scream, or applaud enough to invite one to join in the communal experience of enjoying the film."[3] This participation begins to take on the form of more ancient ritualized dramas. Movie dialogue becomes a mode of communication (inside jokes) with the "initiated." In Lyden's view, a film becomes a kind of religious "text" and our viewing a type of ritual.

I identify strongly with this view, which is why I am skeptical of the stigma against R-rated movies in Mormon culture.[4] Film and music have been an integral part of my friend's life. Their importance came to light in his most vulnerable moment. While Mormons may be used to funerals accompanied by hymns and talks by bishops or stake presidents, there is always room for what Krister Stendahl called "holy envy." In this case, I had holy envy for the warmth and personality found in my friend's playlist. It turned out to be, to borrow from Newman's Luke, a real cool hand. The music became a shared experience of memories for me, Sean, and his grandfather. And in that shared experience, I hope my friend found some solace.

1. Particularly "Religion as a Cultural System," The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

2. John Lyden, Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 42.

3. Ibid., 46-47.

4. For more on this, see John Hatch, "Can "Good Mormons" Watch R-Rated Movies?" Sunstone (March 2003); Jana Riess, "Seek Ye Out the Best Flicks: R-Rated Movies That Have Helped Me Think About the Gospel," Sunstone (July 2003); Linda & Richard Eyre, "Why We Hate Movie Ratings," Deseret News (Jan. 14, 2011).

1 comment:

  1. Great post... :)I would prefer using music other than hymns and generic songs. It makes it more personal.
    Did you read my post about the music for my funeral? Take notes. ;)