Friday, September 16, 2011
“Midnight at Kent: The Golden Age of the Present”
15 September 2011
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
I’d like to begin tonight by going backward, to a different time, perhaps a better one. When I first got to Kent, students didn’t talk on cell phones anywhere on campus. This wasn’t ancient history, but just seven years ago. Cell phones certainly existed, but there was no cell tower in Kent. Was it progress or regress? Anyone’s guess—though I have seen students fall down while walking and texting, and continue to text while lying on the ground. I’m also not convinced that typing with our opposable thumbs is a sign of human evolution.
When I took my first teaching job nineteen years ago, there was no e-mail and no Internet. But there were compensations. There was Beverly Hills, 90210. Now I was never a big fan, but my wife was. She grew up with Brandon, Brenda, Kelly, Steve, Dylan, and Donna. How that crowd ever survived without mobile service we will never know.
Along with the beautiful people from Beverly Hills, Beavis and Butthead was just about to start, in 1993. A TV show about two teenage guys watching TV. How can you explain the chemistry, the magic?
Who remembers Pee Wee Herman? I loved Pee Wee’s Playhouse—what a cheerful show for children (?). I’m still trying to bring “The Word of the Day” back with the English Department. (You won’t know many of the cultural references tonight, but that’s part of the point).
How about Mario Brothers (the first)? I loved that little Italian baker and the adventures we had together. Now I play Super Mario Galaxy on my Wii (with my daughters).
And the early nineties in music: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Sound Garden. Pearl Jam was a huge influence on Mr. Gentry’s musical development, and I’m planning to be his biographer.
But let me take you even further back, into the primordial mists before you were born, to the Stone Age. The year 1986 AD or CE. Two movies came out that changed me forever: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Top Gun. They both turned twenty-five this year. I was two years out of high school, but I was torn between going back to be like Ferris skipping a day of public school in Chicago, or being a cocky naval aviator like Maverick. That was even with the gratuitous shirts off volleyball scene in Top Gun. It was wonderful. I had a sneaking suspicion there was something deeply cheesy about the movie, but I fought it off completely. Oh how I hated Ice Man and Slider. They were Draco Malfoy and Crabbe and Goyle before Hogwarts was first imagined in the mind’s eye of J.K. Rowling.
And then there were all those chick flicks that we boys secretly liked and watched as well: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful. It was all the same movie, but we didn’t care. I once stood in line with the wonderfully pouty and attractive Molly Ringwald at a bakery in Salt Lake City. She was my girl, on the screen. But like me, she was all grown up now. I became wistful and nostalgic, a little sad, as I waited for my scones. It should have been a great day in my life, but I was depressed.
I wanted to linger in detention with all of the The Breakfast Club. Now Molly just plays mothers on TV. No more movies. She’s too busy with her kids in real life.
For some of the ladies who are slightly younger than me: Do you remember Sun In in your hair for that special California blond look? Who remembers sun tanning with baby oil instead of SPF50? We were so young, so blissfully unaware, turning gold in the sun during the Cold War. The Sun was in. Who knew California would be bankrupt some day?
Animal House came out when I was in middle school, and I was immediately ready for college before going to high school. Someday I too would join a fraternity to learn the mysterious, cryptic lyrics to “Louie, Louie.” They’re a little strange, and hard to follow. The FBI actually investigated the lyrics after complaints that they were obscene. The FBI’s official findings were that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed.” They dismissed the complaint. And I never joined a fraternity.
The Beastie Boys were born a year after Animal House, in 1979, and the FBI never investigated their lyrics. They really should have. And just before those Jewish kids from Brooklyn learned they could rap too, there was Elvis Costello, The Clash, and The Police. I vowed to be just as witty and ironic as Elvis Costello, and I’ve definitely succeeded. Elvis would be proud.
Ok, let’s kick it back really old school. When I was born, there were no video games. You heard me. Video games had not yet been invented. That happened in 1972 with the arrival of Pong, at the end of the first term for President Nixon. Oh, we all thought was Pong was amazing (even Nixon did, before his second term fiasco with Watergate). That primitive back and forth paddle game--we played it so much that it became the very shape of our brain waves. And then came Atari, Intelevision, and Sega.
It was a golden age. Or so we thought.
All of this is to introduce the best movie of the summer, and the best film I have seen in many years: Midnight in Paris. I loved it very much, for many reasons. It is, first of all, a love letter to Paris, one of the greatest cities on the planet, and the best place to fall in love. Even before the magic starts, literally, in the movie, the film lingers over the many sights of the city, both ordinary and magnificent. In the movie, Owen Wilson is a revelation as Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter who is struggling to write his first novel. He is visiting Paris with his fiancé Inez and her family. Her family is conservative; Gil is not. Owen Wilson as Gil so successfully channels the director Woody Allen; the actor is mesmerizing as Allen’s neuroses, anxiety, and wit come to life in Wilson.
Gil is a romantic and believes in a Golden Age; it was Paris in the 1920s, the best time in human history to live, and he missed it. Just like you missed Jerry Garcia.
But then things change, radically, magically, at midnight in Paris. As Gil wanders the streets of Paris a little lost, looking for inspiration for his novel, an old fashioned car, a vehicle from another era, picks him up. They have come for him, but who are they? Gil is transported back to his golden age: Paris in the 1920s. Gil spends the first magical evening with Cole Porter, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, and then as late evening meets an early morning, Gil meets Ernest Hemingway. He meets Papa. What a mind, what a wild and fearless masculine enthusiasm in Hemingway. What a night. Was it a dream? No, it was real.
On the next night, he meets Gertrude Stein who offers to help him with his novel. He meets Pablo Picasso, and he falls in love with Picasso’s girlfriend and model, a magnificent beauty named Adriana. It’s Paris in the 20s, the best time and place to fall in love. Of course, this is complicated because Gil is engaged to Inez in the present. But she doesn’t understand him, not really, and Adriana has feelings for Gil in return. Gil seeks romantic advice from Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and surrealist Luis Brunel. Adriana is a romantic too, but she believes the Golden Age was the Belle Epoque, Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, not her own time. On one evening, a horse drawn carriage, not a motor car, picks up Gil and Adriana and takes them back to the Belle Epoque, to her golden age. They meet Toulouse-Latrec, Edgar Degas, and Paul Gauguin. The three of them, however, believe the Golden Age was the Renaissance. Adriana decides to stay in the earlier time, but Gil makes a decision to go home, back to the Twenty-first century. He has had a dream recently. He calls it a small insight, but an important one. Gil has a dream where he has to go the dentist for a major procedure, and the dentist doesn’t have Novocain. Novocain hasn’t been invented yet. He runs screaming from the dental office of the 1920s in the dream, back to his own time.
Gil chooses to live in the Golden Age of the present. In his own time.
Perhaps you have an idea about where we are now, and where this chapel talk is now. Everything leads up to this year—this year in your life on this planet, this jewel we call Earth. Everything leads up to now, and now at Kent is a pretty great place to be. We have this year together—not last year, or some supposedly better time in Kent or human history. Don’t worry about yesterday; it’s still with you. In Midnight in Paris, Gil quotes William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Your family and friends are still with you, but this family here, around you now, is ready to know you, and love you, and care about you too. It’s ok to be homesick. It’s ok to be tired and confused tonight; things will get better. The reading from Matthew tonight is about slowing down in the sacred now, right here, in chapel, at formal dinner, and in the days and weeks ahead: To slow down in the golden present. Jesus says don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow—embrace the now. The same God who loves you is in your past, present, and future, and the present is the place where we really live, where we know God and know each other most deeply. I invite you to meet and embrace the new brothers and sisters and family around you tonight. We replace no one from your past, but you will make friendships here that will last for the rest of your lives. And you just happen to be at Kent in the days of cell towers, Madden 2012, and the best dentists in human history. Now is the time of your lives.
Welcome to the Golden Age of Kent.