Sunday Matinee #6 The Blues Brothers
You get wise. You get to church!
Hi, big thinkers and movie goers. Welcome to a new R-Rated Movie Club entry. I hope you had a good weekend and wish you well as you prepare for the week to come. I appreciate your readership as I have fun with this creative outlet. There’s a new Coming Attractions for you today, here we go.
The next feature presentation is scheduled to premiere on February 14 and it’s a love letter to one of my favorite action films, Ronin. I’ll share later this month about why this movie has been a big hit in my life in a Bonus Content for paid subscribers, and the Feature Presentation content is free for all readers and subscribers. You might consider watching Ronin at least once before reading the essay to get the most out of it - check out JustWatch to see where it’s available online to stream or purchase.
Here’s a preview from the current draft, speaking to where it fits in Robert De Niro’s oeuvre. Yes, I just used “oeuvre” in a sentence. We’re fancy like that here.
There are Robert De Niro movies that most everybody knows. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. The Godfather Part II. Meet the Parents. There are action movies that most everybody knows. Mission: Impossible. Die Hard. 25 James Bond movies and counting. And then there’s Ronin, a fall release action movie that was 11th at the box office in 1998, starring Robert De Niro’s icy stare, David Mamet’s punch one-liners, and John Frankenheimer’s crash box camera mounts clinging to the hood of an Audi S8 at 100mph. De Niro had a string of starring roles in the early 90s with Casino, Heat, and The Fan. As the 90s went on, he took on memorable supporting roles in movies like Sleepers, Cop Land, and Jackie Brown. In the late 90s, De Niro starred in two back-to-back movies penned by David Mamet - one a comedy, Wag the Dog, and then Ronin. Then, everything changed. As the 90s turned into the 2000s, De Niro entered self-parody with Analyze This, Meet the Parents, and yes, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. The last 20+ years have seen the amazing actor dance back and forth between satirical comedy and hard-boiled drama ever since.
I think of Ronin (and to an extent Wag the Dog) as this fulcrum moment in De Niro’s career. It makes sense, because his career has a different vibe for each decade. But more than that, Ronin is truly the final Robert De Niro movie before a greater section of the public thought more of his self-referential comedy than, say, his Academy Award-winning turn as Jake La Motta. I mean, when I write that, does everyone reading this essay know what movie I mean there? Can you hear De Niro’s Jake give himself a pep talk in the mirror as clearly as you can hear his Jack Byrnes grilling Ben Stiller’s Gaylord Focker? Sometimes, time does that!
Read the newsletter issue on February 14. Paid subscribers will receive early access podcast audio of the essay and a bonus essay on February 28.
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Quotes With Notes
Full Text: Matthew 17:1-9 (Revised Common Lectionary)
Transfiguration Sunday (February 19, 2023)
Sign up for a free course at EnterTheBible.org to learn more.
Context: This story is often known as the Transfiguration, named because Jesus appears to the disciples as more than human, superhuman, like he is “transfigured.” It takes place while he and the disciples are traveling in the countryside and when he take a small handful of them into the mountains, they see this extraordinary and unexpected vision.
2 And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
The Blues Brothers (1980) | Warner Brothers, Universal Studios
Starring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, James Brown
Written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis | Directed by John Landis
Context: Jake and Elwood, two blues-loving brothers trying to change their criminal ways, are in the back of a church sanctuary, hoping for divine intervention though they doubt that’s possible. They get surprised when God shows Jake a vision that the way to raise the money they need to save the orphanage where they grew up is to put their band back together and hold a huge concert. Jake glows blue during his epiphany, now that he’s “seen the light…”
Jake: The band? The band.
Rev. Cleophus James: Do you see the light?!
Jake: The baaaaand!!!
Rev. Cleophus James: Do you see the light?!
Elwood: …What light?
Rev. Cleophus James: Have you seeeeen the light?!
Jake: Yes! Yes! Jesus H. Tap-Dancing Christ! I have SEEN! The LIIIIIGHT!!!
I’ll never claim to be the greatest Biblical scholar, but now and then I have my moments.
One day I was working with someone who was developing a sermon based on this text, the Transfiguration Story. This is a critical moment when Jesus appears “transfigured,” changed in a shining, supernatural, almost surreal way, to demonstrate his righteousness, that he is the One who will save everyone. On either side of him appear Moses (representing the Law that God gave to organize the Israelites) and Elijah (representing the Prophets that God gave to bring about the messianic age of the One who will save everyone). The sermon writer was doing really well with their approach and was all set to go when they asked me a question.
“How did Moses and Elijah get to the mountain? Were they waiting there for Jesus? Did he tell them to go there ahead of time?”
I explained it wasn’t that literal people were with Jesus, but visions of them, that these were Biblical figures from a time hundreds or thousands of years before Jesus, from the Hebrew Bible / Older Testament. They looked relieved and said, “Got it. Yeah, it’s all just sort of ‘Bible times’ to me.”
I’ve been there.
We miss a lot when we’re not paying attention. I was in the same boat as this person at one point, when it came to Biblical literacy. After many years, I learned more, but only because I wanted to and because I was open to it. Becoming open was (still is?) a day-to-day process, but it changed my life and I’m grateful for it. Perhaps that’s why Simon Peter, James, and John saw what they saw: they wanted to and they were open to it. When we see something amazing, we can’t ignore it.
“Curtis, I don’t wanna listen to no jive-ass preacher talkin’ to me about heaven and hell.” That’s “Joliet Jake” Blues’s attitude in The Blues Brothers when Curtis tells him to try church for inspiration. He doesn’t want to, he’s closed to it. Curtis persists: “Jake. You get wise. You get to church!” So he and his brother, Elwood, slide on down to the Triple Rock and catch Reverend Cleophus. If you read my deep dive essay last month, you know how this ends. Jake has his own spiritual moment, transfigured as the clouds part and he stands in the back of the church building in a blue hue. He’s changed in a shining, supernatural, almost surreal way, to demonstrate he wants to change, he’s open to it.
The church is still in the season of Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of Jesus. His Christmas arrival is a manifestation, a revelation, an “A-ha! Moment,” if you will. You’ve probably had a few epiphanies in your life. My friend had one when the realized it wasn’t all just “Bible times.” Jake had one in this movie scene. The disciples had one in this scripture scene. And we can have epiphanies every day. When we see something amazing, we can't ignore it. What have been the great revelations in your life? What made you go “A-ha!” and empower you to make a change? What has been the effect on your life?
The best part is, you didn’t even have to glow blue when it happened.
A Word of Encouragement
Thanks, everyone, and I hope you have a wonderful day. May you find holy wisdom anywhere you look, whether in the scriptures or even at the movies. And to today’s preachers, may worship bring you closer to the holy as you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the name of God. See you at the movies.
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