You Must Remember This: Meaning and Pop Culture Relics

The recent re-discovery of a Hollywood treasure once presumed lost, and an item up for sale in an upcoming auction of movieland memorabilia, have set the film world a-buzz.  Tara, the mythical home of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”, was not a real place, but the stage set that was built for the 1939 film certainly was: in fact, it has been sitting in pieces in a barn in Georgia for decades, awaiting restoration.  Meanwhile, this November Bonham’s auction house in New York will be selling off a private collection of Hollywood history, which includes the piano on which Dooley Wilson played “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 classic “Casablanca” for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.

It may seem curious that these pop culture objects of little intrinsic value carry such excitement, when they come to light in news stories or auction catalogues.  After all, hundreds of movies, concerts, and sporting events take place every year, and the vast majority of them are quickly forgotten, the detritus of their production disappearing into basements or scrap heaps.  There is no museum containing the cast-off socks of basketball players from the 1982 Philadelphia 76′ers, so far as I am aware.  And even if such a thing still exists, I cannot imagine that there is a huge market for anyone to own something like Robin Williams’ furry hat from 1982′s “Moscow on the Hudson”.

The survival of any pop culture item often depends on who is entrusted with its care.  Somewhere in one of her jewelry boxes my mother has an old, yellowed lace handkerchief of her mother’s.  Back in the 1940′s, grandmother had gone to see the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete work his blood-stained magic in Barcelona.  Manolete was a handsome, hugely popular figure in Spain after the Civil War, who drew crowds of admirers because of his very reserved technique and persona, in which he never made a show of himself to the crowds, as had many bullfighters both before and after him.

My grandmother, being a very elegant and beautiful lady, happened to draw the matador’s gaze when he entered the ring, and she gave him her handkerchief to carry during the fight, an echo of the Medieval tradition of courtly love and carrying your lady’s favor into battle.  After his successful dispatch of the bull that day, he returned the handkerchief to my grandmother, who of course kept it as a relic afterwards.  It was an object which became the more precious after Manolete was killed in 1947 at the age of 30, when he was gored by a bull during a fight in Andalusia.

Why do we hold on to these relics of past popular entertainments?   One very obvious reason is that of trying to preserve our memories.  As we grow older, to be able to draw out some piece of ephemera which reminds us of another time, is to have a bittersweet way of remembering who we are and where we came from.  This is something which human beings seem particularly keen on doing: one does not see birds flying about carrying bits of previous nests, or snakes dragging their old skins along with them as they slither through the underbrush, each reflecting back to a time when they were just hatchlings.

However that sense of a personal, infused meaning which encapsulates part of who a person was at a particular point in their life does not last forever.  Grandmother could pull out that old, stained handkerchief in her declining years, and remember back to a time when she was the belle of the ball.  After her death, her daughter could do the same, calling to mind her glamorous mother and telling the story of that handkerchief to her own children.

Yet the significance of such an object changes, as it goes forward in time.  Today Manolete is merely a name, the bullring where he fought has been converted into a shopping mall, and long-departed grandmother is the haughty grand dame whose portrait gazes confidently back at the viewer above the piano in her daughter’s living room.  The relic of the lady and the bullfighter will retain a personal value for the descendants of the lady who owned it, only for so long as an interest in her life remains.  After that, the value will either disappear entirely, or it will change to become that which may be ascribed to something once touched by a famous person.

At that point, grandmother’s handkerchief becomes no different from Scarlett’s home or Sam’s piano.  The people who lived through the experience of that particular entertainment are no longer around to provide context or personal meaning for these objects.  Vivien Leigh and Dooley Wilson have been gone for decades, and as each year passes, fewer and fewer people directly connected to the making of either “Gone With the Wind” or “Casablanca” remain.  So while we may admire the achievements of those who made and worked with such things, we are rapidly reaching a point where we will not have any personal connection with them.

This is why pop culture relics often survive to go on into a kind of materialist afterlife.  Long after the people who are associated with them have shuffled off this mortal coil, we can tell the stories of who they were and what they meant to our culture, by looking to those objects which once meant something to them.  Thus, while there may be no significant monetary value in something like an old, upright piano, appreciation of that piano’s significance to popular culture far outweighs the monetary worth of the object.  Whatever becomes of grandmother’s handkerchief, I certainly hope we may yet get to see Tara rebuilt, and Sam’s piano sitting in pride of place at a public institution.

Sam Dooley, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from "Casablanca" (1942)

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from “Casablanca” (1942)

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Four Feel-Good Features for Your Friday

It being an especially busy Friday for this scrivener, here are four short stories I wanted to highlight for you this Friday:

Sister With Voices(8)

Thanks to the dozens of you who read my review and entered for a chance to win a copy of Eventide by British choral group Voces8. And I extend my congratulations to Sister Anne Flanagan, aka @nunblogger on Twitter! Sister Anne is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, and is normally a resident of Chicago, Illinois,but she is currently working in England.  The CD will be flying over to you soon, Sister, and thanks once again to Decca Classics for the opportunity to share this terrific recording with my readers.  [N.B. If you are too young to understand the pun in the title of this subsection, allow me to instruct you.]

Madrid in Washington

As a reminder, in case you missed my review yesterday of his excellent new book Why Be Catholic?, well-known author, speaker, and broadcaster Patrick Madrid will be here in the Nation’s Capital tomorrow.  He will be signing copies of his latest volume over at the book shop of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, located on the campus of Catholic University (Brookland/CUA Metro Station), at 12pm.  Come along and meet the man himself, pick up a copy of his book, and you might even run into me, trying unsuccessfully to be inconspicuous in the back of the room.

Felicidades Felipe

Speaking of Madrid, a hearty congratulations to His Majesty Felipe VI, who took the throne in Madrid yesterday as the new King of Spain.  He was a classmate of mine at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, back in the day.  Well, I say classmate, but truthfully he was in the grad program and I in the undergrad, so we didn’t actually have any classes together.  As you can see in the photo accompanying this post, King Felipe and his wife Queen Letizia have two beautiful daughters, the Infanta Leonor, now titled the Princess of Asturias and next in line to the throne, and her younger sister the Infanta Sofia.  It’s nice to see a fellow Hoya doing well.

Bread = Egg and Flower

Although technically Corpus Christi falls on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, most of my fellow Catholics will be celebrating the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ in their parishes this coming Sunday.  It’s one of those Holy Days known as a “Moveable Feast”, which can be shifted about on the calendar – unlike Christmas, which is always on December 25th.  In Catalonia, there are two fun traditions associated with this holiday, which I’ve written about previously.  One is the tradition of the dancing egg, in which an egg is balanced on the spray of a fountain and appears to “dance” on the water, and the other that of the floral carpet in towns like Sitges which, as it sounds, involves creating a complex arrangement of flowers or flower petals for the Eucharistic Procession after Mass.

Felipe Letizia Leonor Sofia

God’s Garbage Man

Ours is a civilization both fascinated with and repelled by what we consider garbage.  We spend hours in front of a screen, voyeuristically watching emotionally disturbed people known as hoarders, climbing over mountains of junk and rotting food.  We weep over images of children in the developing world, picking over scraps in a junkyard for something they can sell. We shake our heads over news reports about the amount of garbage clogging our waterways, killing off plants and wildlife.

Then we pull ourselves together, drive to the local big box store, and buy a bunch of poorly made, imported goods on impulse.

Within weeks or months, many of these objects will become part of someone else’s hoard, garbage dump, or floating pollution island.  We will not give a thought to those who suffer from the consequences of these decisions, because we don’t have to look at them, as we insulate ourselves from the weak, the poor, and the sorrowful.  After all, the consumerism dominating our present age has taught us that people are little more than means to an end, to be used as objects, and objects are infinitely disposable in our disposable society.

In this month’s issue of Magnificat, author Heather King has a terrific reflection on the life and spirituality of the great Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, which speaks to this point.  His is a figure well-known to you if you visit these pages regularly, or drop by my ongoing Catholic Barcelona project.  In her piece, Ms. King describes the ways Gaudi, whose cause for beatification is presently being considered at the Vatican, gradually diminished himself, even as the Sagrada Familia rose higher and higher.  She also quotes from Gijs van Hensbergen’s very readable Gaudí : A Biography, in which the author lists some of the items which the architect employed in the fabrication of his designs, including “broken tiles, crockery, children’s toys, old needles from textile mills, metal bands for baling cotton cloth, bedsprings, and the burnt-out linings of industrial ovens.”

Gaudí’s most famous work, Barcelona’s Basilica of the Holy Family, a.k.a. the Sagrada Familia, is sometimes referred to, as Ms. King points out, as the “Cathedral of the Poor”.  Yes, it is full of cut stone, stained glass, and polished marble, as one would expect in the construction of a building which, upon completion, will be the tallest church in the world.  However it is also full of applied decoration, employing some of the scrap heap odds and ends which Hensbergen describes above.  The massive, breathtaking scale of the place is humanized and humbled by these details.

Whether you like Gaudí’s masterwork or not however, oftentimes secular commentators on this, one of the most famous churches and architects in the world, will miss the point of what he was doing.  God’s garbage man is not simply making use of what the contemporary art world would call, “found objects”, in bringing his designs to life.  What he is doing is showing that, as the old billboards and bumper stickers one would see on American highways used to say, God doesn’t make junk.  Even these discarded, unwanted elements of man’s intelligence and ingenuity, themselves gifts from the Almighty, have their place in His Creation.  We may think that these articles are useless, but as the Lord tells Samuel before the anointing of King David, “Not as man sees, does God see.”

In the Sagrada Familia, as in other works where Gaudí managed to create things of beauty out of the stuff nobody wanted, we see a reflection of what other saintly people have done, when it comes to embracing all aspects of God’s Creation, particularly those members of it who are seen as disposable, little more than junk.  One thinks of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example, taking in the Untouchables, who were quite literally thrown away on the streets to die.  Or we recall St. Damien of Molokai, caring for Hawaiian lepers, all banished to an island where no one would have to look at them.

In seeing that all of Creation matters, even the parts of it that we would rather just toss out, Gaudí is holding up a mirror to all of us.  He is showing us that there is beauty to be found in the everyday, in the ignored, in the unwanted.  We cannot continue to treat everyone and everything around us as disposable, without suffering the consequences of that mindset ourselves, one day.  What Gaudí’s work shows us is that if we make an effort to remember that none of us are garbage, and that there is beauty to be found in everything, perhaps that, in turn, will encourage us to be better stewards of the Creation which we have been given.

Crossing Vaulting Sagrada Familia

Vaulting at the crossing inside the Sagrada Familia