#firstimefriday Bill Murray and Embracing The Transcendence Of The Ordinary

In the dark, strange days after 9/11, when the skies over London were still eerily empty of the planes that would on a normal day noisily criss-cross their white plumes overhead, a story spread across the city. There were, it turned out, variations on it, but it went something like this. A Muslim man had unknowingly dropped his obviously full wallet on public transport somewhere in the city; a fellow passenger saw this, picked up the wallet and handed it to its owner. He was very grateful, and as he thanked the person in question, he would lean forward and whisper to him or her “Stay out of [names part of London] on [names a day/date].”

It’s a classic urban myth; it plays on fear and prejudice; it’s always ‘a friend’ or a friend of a friend’ to whom it happened; the actual people involved are always just one remove away. These myths spread like wildfire across cities – even before the internet and social media were in wide use – and become accepted truths. Of course, these days one can find few people who actually believed this myth; but back in the day when most of us heard it most of us believed it, at least for a few minutes. For some of us, such stories become a prism through which we view an issue; the more light-hearted ones become shared jokes which bind groups together. In many cases the truthfulness of these myths isn’t what’s most important; it’s what they mean at a deeper level that matters, the way they shape us and define our views of people or things. Urban myths are in that respect a close relative of what we now call fake news.

Bill Murray is an actor around whom a series of what appear to be urban myths have grown up, and the 70 minute documentary The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man  (available on Netflix in some countries) is the story of a film-maker trying to get to the bottom of them, establish their truthfulness and meaning. It turns out that the myths around Bill Murray are mostly true – he really did turn up to a student party and do the washing up; he did join the engagement photo-shoot of a random couple; he did play kickball with some people in a park that one time; he did turn up at a bar and start serving drinks behind it.

Bill Murray 2

On they go. The documentary is intoxicatingly cheerful; it’s the good-natured story of a global star, blessed with magical comic timing, who has appeared in some of our best-loved movies, doing nice things for ordinary people. What does it all mean, the film-maker wants to know?

I remember Bono once being quoted as saying ‘I see fame as a calling’. It’s one of those Bono-isms that winds a lot of people up: I understand that, but I couldn’t help thinking of those words when I was watching this film. It seems that Bill Murray sees fame in a similar way; if one has this ridiculous thing called a celebrity, one might as well do something useful with it, the logic goes. Bono takes that in one direction; Bill Murray in another. The roots of this seem to be in his improvisational comedy background; as the film explains, in improv the artist has to say ‘yes, and … ‘ then move further down the road. Fear must drive you to new things in improv, not weigh one down the way it does so many of us. He has no entourage to bring with him, no PR people to spin. He’s just himself, improvising outside the performance space.

What’s interesting is what this all means to the people Murray meets. One of his directors says ‘he shows up not to take over, but to be present’. One person who testified to one myth’s truthfulness first-hand said ‘He made feel like a bigger person than I am … I’m not part of his story, he’s part of my story.’ Another says ‘By action, if not by word, he’s teaching us how to live.’ It’s an invitation not to live on autopilot, but rather to live wherever the wind blows.

For the follower of Jesus, this all sounds a little like Jesus speaking of how the Holy Spirit, the essence of God, guides us and works. It sounds a lot like an invitation to embrace the opportunity to see transcendence and holiness and opportunity in the ordinary stuff of the day to day, for ourselves and for those standing in queues with us, at the next table, in the car beside us. What if we Jesus followers saw those moments as chances to bring transcendence to others and ourselves in those ordinary moments; what if we did so in such a way so as to not draw attention to ourselves with a lecture or sermon or the like? But something more simple – quietly paying for someone else’s coffee, for example.

I don’t know how all this works. Bill Murray is no Jesus – a quick read around online relates that many have found him hard to work with and that one ex-wife mentioned abuse and addiction as a cause for her seeking divorce (though these claims were later withdrawn). In these true myths, is Murray somehow seeking atonement for all that too? We can but guess. But it all seems to be the sort of gentle, grace-giving, enlightening thing Jesus to which Jesus might call us.

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#haveseenmonday Brilliance but little wisdom in Reservoir Dogs

When I first saw this, I was the perfect age. An 18 year old student, film enthusiast, living away from home for the first time and thus in the right space for something that promised subversion and a bit of rebellion. I can’t remember much of what I felt about the film, other than I really liked it and stumbled out in to the streets of my university town disoriented but energised, even adrenalised. I remember talking about it with my then girlfriend – who if I didn’t know it by this point, would later (plot twist) turn out to be abusive. She said something that’s stayed with me (although to be fair, because of what I’ve just shared with you about her, quite a bit of what she said and did has stayed with me). “It wasn’t really about anything; it was just really good.” Fair? I’m not sure if it was at the time, and deep into Tarantino’s career I’m still not sure. I don’t remember seeing it again since then. Even so, revisiting it now with a new film from him on the horizon and the video stores he so loved now just a distant memory, I find my reactions to it even more confused all these 27 years later.

Reservoir dogs

During the opening exchange around the diner table, I reflected that though this dialogue was establishing character and the undercurrents of tension within the group which would soon erupt, the apparent misogyny was unnecessary. Like I remember someone saying of Eminem, there’s no doubt Tarantino is clever but there’s precious little evidence that he’s wise. His insistence on putting the n-word in the mouth of white characters is more troubling now, understanding what I do. Tarantino’s insistence on acting in all his own films, in relatively minor parts admittedly, is an early sign of his hubris and inability to hear the word ‘no’ from anyone (if, indeed, there’s anyone willing to say it to him); his complete dearth of acting talent, even in small doses, robs scenes he’s in of the total immersion he so craves for his audience and otherwise can create so brilliantly. He’s no Hitchcock; at least not in this regard.

Nevertheless, I was absorbed against my better judgement, wanting to dislike it but sucked in nonetheless. The threat of explosive, graphic violence is everywhere, but rarely seen. Of course the movie’s most infamous scene of torture allows the camera to drift off to the side as the brutal act occurs, rendering it out of sight (or off-stage … ‘obscene’ as the Greek tragedians would have termed such an unseen event). Does Tarantino know more Greek than we think he does? Whichever way you answer that question – and I’m still not sure – I was so gripped and absorbed in to the tension of the scene that the ending to it I deep down knew was coming was all the same a complete shock. I was open-mouthed. It’s quite a trick to pull off, and a masterful piece of (mis)direction, performance and writing.

It strikes me now that it’s brilliantly edited; an irony that’s not lost now that he’s seemingly incapable of discipline and economy. The reveal of the undercover policeman, and the final standoff, is also a masterpiece in how to achieve much by doing very little; the back and forth structure of the story-telling, filling out character backgrounds in repeating circles, adds a gracefulness to the structure at odds with the bleakness and moral chaos of the film’s story.

What to say, then? The film’s influences and the films it has influenced are even clearer, of course, now. There’s no doubt it’s a clever use of genre tropes. But for all its cleverness, is there any wisdom in there? The question still hangs over Tarantino’s output if he’s cleverly exploring the consequences of nihilism and amorality within the confines of technical skill and increasingly baggy stories; or if he’s just a naive kid who doesn’t understand the forces he’s playing with. For me, what’s clever and brilliant about this debut has dimmed little with age; but knowing what we know now about his career, the questions and dis-ease it provoked at first have grown much louder. One suspects that even Tarantino himself doesn’t know how to answer these questions; that we don’t either suggests his wisdom really does fail to measure up to his cleverness.