Can anyone hear the song “Bells of St. Mary’s” without remembering the scene in Goodfellas where Joe Pesci drills Samuel L. Jackson through his occipital bone (just north of his sutura lambdodeia) with a silenced .45? Pesci fires; Jackson grunts and falls forward into a puddle of his own brains; Pesci hustles his partner, Frank Sivero, out the door. On the soundtrack, just when Pesci turns back and empties his pistol into Jackson’s body, we hear the Drifters singing as the accompanying bells ring in counterpoint to the muffled reports. Have yourself a grisly little Christmas. Here’s some pointed irony for your stocking.
Any day now, we’re due for some battlefield dispatches from the war on Christmas. On its surface, this confession could pass for one, and for an indictment of Martin Scorcese. By embedding an innocent seasonal song – one that inspired the sequel to Going My Way – into such a memorably awful tableau, Marty took a whizz on the very manger. Why couldn’t he have used “Gimme Shelter,” like he does everywhere else, or better yet, a Kwanzaa song? At long last, sir, have you no decency?
But that’s a postmodern Christmas for you – everything weighty hung on a pop-cultural hook, which itself may be bolted into pop-cultural drywall. At least this particular example, where the spirit of Christmas is accessible through doo wop backing a play-acted murder, proves that pop culture really can support so mighty a load. It doesn’t take a genius, or even an unusually sensitive viewer, to dig backwards through the crap for the peanut. To the people in the film – the living guy with the gun and the dead one in his underwear – Christmas is a time for sappy music and expensive presents and nothing more. That’s why they’ve just ripped off Lufthansa cargo worth $6 million. That’s why hardly any of them survive till the closing credits. They should have listened to Charlie Brown, the numbskulls.
Some converts to Catholicism make a point – a point of honor – of renouncing their cultural roots. They live out their lives as fortune cookies, dispensing G.K. Chesterton quotes. Or else they turn to Flannery O’Connor, the Catholic reader’s answer to medicinal marijuana. Her vision was as violent as Scorcese’s – on a few occasions, she arranges for her characters to end up whacked – and not always more sacramental. (In Gangs of New York, Scorcese alludes to the Eucharist with an almost embarrassingly heavy hand.) But because she was ignored or misunderstood by the kinds of New York intellectuals who praised Scorcese long before the Academy would, she’s a sign of contradiction and a guilt-free pleasure. You may fire when ready, Mr. Misfit, sir.
Me, I can’t handle straight didacticism. If anyone has something important to say to me, he’d better camouflage it in an appeal to my sense of humor, or my sense of prurience. Approaching Christian allegory so closely, Melville’s “Billy Budd: Sailor” would be insufferable if not for the gay subtext. For more than two decades, the preachiness in A Charlie Brown Christmas alienated me; only after seeing it spoofed on South Park, and after a YouTube poster had spliced it into a video for Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” did the icicles around my heart begin to melt. If a serious moral message is flexible enough to share space with fun that threatens to subvert it – if it can be made to stand on its head – then it can squeeze into my consciousness. If it’s hard and heavy like a rock, it will bounce right off, possibly taking someone’s eye out.
I winced a little when l’Osservatore Romano praised Oscar Wilde as “a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false.” Hey, chooch, go easy on Wilde’s mask, why don’t’cha? As the man said himself, the mask was what enabled him to tell the truth. It’s also what rendered the truth tantalizing and mysterious. Barefaced, it becomes a bore. But I’m wasting my breath; it’s already too late. Two years before the Osservatore piece appeared, the Vatican bundled many of Wilde’s most convention-hostile paradoxes in a volume titled Provocations: Aphorisms for an Anti-conformist Christianity.
The editor is a priest named Fr. Sapienza – Italian for “wisdom.” Seeing that name on that book makes me wonder, only half-jokingly, whether some section of the Church is formally adopting a posture of self-reflexive irony. In the early 1990s, when they resurrected the cult of Mao Zedong, the Chinese government and people colluded in just such a switcheroo. First they co-opted all the goofy Mao-obilia sold to tourists – t-shirts, coffee mugs, vintage Little Red Books. Then they made them serious again. Given a wittily named editor, the subversive Wilde can be pressed into service as an RCIA presenter without raising too many eyebrows.
And maybe, for the Church as a whole, that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. Irony and authority might not mix, but lately the Church is feeling less and less authoritative; if anything, Catholics see themselves as belonging to an imperiled minority. I can’t remember who first said, “Christian is the new gay,” but whoever did, said a lot. It was members of the gay subculture who first used irony to transform kitsch – the least humorous, least threatening type of art in history – into camp, which is a left hook aimed at the bourgeois liver. Since the middle classes in Europe and America are feeling jaundiced already, this might – given the right weapons – be the perfect time to strike.
For now, though, I’m happy to see irony and subversive humor confined to an even smaller and more elite circle. A few Christmas seasons ago, I was sitting alone in a diner when “Bells of St. Mary’s” came in over the speakers. The memory of seeing Tommy whack Stacks made me look up like a dog hearing a car door slam. As soon as I did, I noticed that another man, dining solo a few booths down, had done the same thing. We caught one
another’s eye and grinned. When the Drifters got to the part that goes:
And so, my beloved,
When red leaves are falling,
The love bells shall
Ring out, yes ring out
For you, yes you and me…
…we cocked our fingers like pistols, aimed them at invisible, recumbent figures on the carpet, and in the most delicately timed pantomime, fired five air bullets apiece. Like the early Christians, who identified themselves to one another by sketching fishes in the dust with their sandals, we’d achieved an serendipitous moment of communion.