“What’s your movie?” That’s the way he first asked the question. Or at least that’s the way I first heard it. I was standing in the living room of Keith Uhlich, editor of The House Next Door, and his partner of 10 years, Dan Callahan. More specifically, I was standing in a circle with Odie Henderson, Sheila O’Malley, Steven Santos and Steven Boone, each of them bloggers in their own right who, at one time or another, in one way or another, also contributed to The House Next Door. We’d been standing in that circle for a while at that point, just one of many conversational shapes that formed over the course of that afternoon, evening and night. I couldn’t tell you what time it was, only that by that point I’d been upstairs and downstairs, in this corner and that one, with these fellow movie geeks and others, and it was dark outside. Many revelers had now been gone for as long as they’d attended. A few who remained were quite drunk – just not anyone in this circle. No, when Steven Boone halted our mostly scattered chitchat to ask us a group question, he was stone cold sober, and so was I.
That’s why I’m surprised I didn’t immediately understand what Boone was getting at. His question sounded to me like a fairly banal “What’s your desert island movie?” sort of inquiry. I don’t pretend to know Boone all that well, but by that point of the night (and, heck, even before it began) I knew him well enough that it shouldn’t have taken retrospect to realize that Boone was the last guy to be interested in something so pedestrian. And yet the question went over my head, maybe because I stopped listening before he finished asking it. As the person immediately to Boone’s right, I was up first, and so I gave an answer that I’ve given many times before in similar situations: Rear Window. It’s one of my favorite fallbacks (along with On the Waterfront), not necessarily because it’s true but because it isn’t altogether untrue, and mostly because it’s a simple answer that always gets an understanding nod from the person who asked it, whether that person is a teenage blockbuster watcher who has only heard of Rear Window or a pretentious film snob who is likely to answer that question by mentioning the most unknown work of Norway’s best auteur. It’s a safe answer, and, not incidentally, a fairly accurate one – Rear Window is a movie I indeed love, admire and cherish. The problem is that Rear Window wasn’t the answer to Boone’s question. I just didn’t realize that yet.
The coin would drop a few seconds later, just after Odie, to my right, and thus second in the batting order, prompted Boone to clarify. What Boone really wanted to know might be better summarized this way: “What movie is you?” But even that’s oversimplified, because it could be misinterpreted as, “Which movie resembles your biography?” Boone’s intent was deeper than that. What he was getting at is which movie best reflects who we are and how we feel – which movie best reflects and touches our soul. Or something like that. The truth is, there was room for interpretation, but in that moment the four other people standing there knew right where Boone wanted us to go. If I remembered exactly how Boone rephrased his question, I’d quote it now, but to be honest I don’t think that would help. It was the way Boone asked the question that really resonated, at one point extending his arm and open hand into the center of the circle as if he was going to reach into our chests – because that’s where the answer was. Somewhere inside us.
This was profound stuff, but it sounded to me like an easier question to answer, because this was no longer an analytical exercise, nor was it a matter of taste. It was a question of the soul. The answer should have been right there, somewhere between the gut and the heart, just waiting to come out. With everyone on the same page, now all eyes shifted back to me so I could modify my response, but the answer didn’t come to me immediately, so I requested to go last. Odie was now up again and he answered quickly, so quickly that I almost didn’t hear him. Of course, that might be because in my own head a voice was screaming, “Fuck, what’s my answer?!”
So many different movies came to mind, each of them appropriate in their own way. Was my answer as simple as Star Wars, the movie that first made me love movies? Considering how much movies mean to me, that seemed a fair answer, but that wasn’t quite it. So, was it The New World, the Terrence Malick film that only a few days before had rendered me breathless yet again? Maybe, but somehow it didn’t feel personal enough – deeply moving but not me. So maybe my answer was something like Field of Dreams, a movie that taps into so many things that are essential to who I am, among them a love of my father and baseball and a belief in things magical. But, well, even that movie wasn’t quite right, because it’s about a guy trying to come to peace with a fractured relationship with his father, and my dad and I have never been estranged. So maybe my answer was something more obscure, something like My Life, a movie that I don’t regard as great but that has a strange power over me and a special place in my heart? I just didn’t know.
There were too many choices. I’d think of a film made within the past 10 years and it would seem too recent, as if by choosing it I would be suggesting that before that movie came along I had no cinematic soul. My selection had to come from early on, I decided. It had to be something that I loved now as much as when I discovered it, and something that shaped who I am and who I still want to be, and thus something that reflects why I fell in love with movies in the first place and why they cast such a spell on me. Instantly, a movie came to mind.
But I still wasn’t positive. And thankfully it wasn’t my turn. Shelia answered. Santos answered. Boone answered. I listened to them all. I won’t repeat their answers here because, as you might imagine, the “what” wasn’t the important part; it was the “why,” and I couldn’t do their descriptions justice. As my turn approached, I was leaning a certain direction, but my head was still swirling as to what I’d say. (“You’re thinking to much,” Odie told me. You think so?!) Thankfully, right about then, Kurt Osenlund came within reach. Kurt’s a Philadelphia-based critic planning to relocate to New York in the next few months. When the party started, I didn’t know him, but already we’d talked enough that he seemed like an old friend, especially now. I threw my arm around Kurt, invited him into the conversation and strategically put him to my left, buying myself a little more time. Kurt got brought up to speed and then, effortlessly, came up with an eloquently expressed answer. I might have hated him for that, except his answer unlocked mine. Kurt picked a miniseries, not a movie, and in doing so enabled me to broaden my options. Finally, I knew my answer. It was right there – right between my gut and my heart.
I didn’t pick a movie. I picked a TV show. Actually, I picked a specific episode of a TV show: the Harry Belafonte-hosted episode of The Muppet Show from Season 3. I picked it because, until Kurt broke away from the movie format, I was considering answering with The Muppet Movie. I picked it because I grew up on the Muppets as much as I grew up on Star Wars, and because today I love The Muppet Show in general, and that episode specifically, even more than when I first discovered it. I picked it because I think that no one acted alongside Muppets better than Belafonte. (“That’s a big statement,” Odie noted, as if I’d tripped his hyperbole alarm. But I stand by it.) I picked that episode because, as I was telling Boone and Santos earlier that night, the creature shops of Jim Henson and George Lucas were intrinsic to my early appreciation of cinema as imaginative craft. I picked that episode because it has two of the cutest sketches in the show’s history – the performance of “The Banana Boat Song” and the drum-off with Animal – and one of the most powerful, the closing number: “Turn the World Around.”
It’s that last number that really gets to me, and to respect its effect you have to realize a few things. First, you have to realize that, as far as I can tell, “Turn the World Around” is the only closing number in the history of The Muppet Show to play throughout the closing credits. One of the joys of The Muppet Show is that in the closing number the hosts always sang, from Linda Ronstadt to Sylvester Stallone. But those songs always ended before the credits, giving way to Kermit, who would take the stage, thank the host and kick it to the orchestra for the closing theme music, which always paused just long enough for those cherished final putdowns from Statler and Waldorf in the balcony. This episode is different. Belafonte sings “Turn the World Around,” accompanied by some African-themed Muppets, and then he’s joined on stage by the show’s recognizable cast of characters – Kermit, Fozzie, Rowlf, etc. – enthusiastically singing the chorus. Kermit thanks Belafonte, as usual, but the rest of them don’t stop singing. They keep singing all the way to the end, all the way to the shot of Statler and Waldorf in the balcony. Only this time there are no cutting remarks, because they’re singing, too.
In that respect alone, that performance is special. But there’s also this: Although Belafonte recorded the song on a 1977 album of same name, throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s it was almost impossible to find. While “The Banana Boat Song” was Belafonte’s signature, “Turn the World Around” became iconic to The Muppet Show. When Jim Henson died in 1990, Belafonte performed the song at his memorial service, choking back tears. You can find the memorial service performance on YouTube, and the original episode, too. Of course you can. Today everything is on YouTube, or DVD, or iTunes, whatever. But for the longest time it wasn’t. For most of my life, my exposure to The Muppet Show came in precious glimpses, stumbling upon it on some buried cable station at some obscure time, often there for a month or two and then gone just as quickly. But over the years I never forgot that song, that episode, that performance. It was always right there, right between my gut and my heart.
On February 9, 1995, I saw Belafonte in concert. I remember the date because it was my 18th birthday. On that day, that exact day, Belafonte was in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon – population of less than 140,000. It seemed too good to be true, even then. Now it seems like a dream. My mom bought the tickets as a gift (I'll always love her for that). My girlfriend went with me. I went to hear one song: “Turn the World Around.” I tried to avoid getting my hopes up, because it seemed impossible that Belafonte would perform a song I couldn’t find on any concert or greatest hits album, a song that seemed cherished by no one other than me. But I needed to hear it, as if it was a key to my childhood. No, more than that: a key to me.
“Turn the World Around” was the second song Belafonte performed that night. As soon as I heard the opening notes, I choked back tears. I basked in the glow of that song, still sure that no one in the audience appreciated it more than I did – positive that no one else thought Belafonte’s backup singers couldn’t stack up to a frog, bear, dog and whatever. Still, it was a thrill. Belafonte sang a song about the soul, and in doing so affirmed mine. (“Heart is of the river/Body is the mountain/Spirit is the sunlight/Turn the world around.”) It’s a song of hope. (“We are of the spirit/Truly of the spirit/Only can the spirit/Turn the world around.”) It’s a song of celebration. (“So is life!”) It’s a song that suggests that our truth is deep inside us, in that place the Muppets always sang from, in that place that my love for the Muppets and the movies sprang from, in that place the Steven Boone wanted us to look that night.
True, I didn’t answer Boone’s question. I didn’t pick a movie. And if I had to right now, I’m still not sure what I’d pick. But that’s a thought for another day. For now, I’m going with the Harry Belafonte episode of The Muppet Show.
Yeah, that’s me.
What movie is you?
Addendum: Sheila O'Malley also has written a post inspired by the conversation I described above. Read it here. It's a beautiful post about a beautiful conversation, and it strikes me now, having read it, that my selection actually reflects not just Steven's question but also the conversation itself. "Do you know who I am? Do I know who you are?" That's what Harry Belafonte sings about in that song, and that's precisely what we were exploring in that conversation, on a very personal level. Sheila notes, accurately, the lack of negativity or judgment in our conversation that night, and that makes me think of the end of that episode of The Muppet Show: "Turn the World Around" is the one song that even Statler and Waldorf couldn't resist. They opened themselves up to the magic. Sometimes it just happens.