Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Gospel According to Quadrophenia

The 1979 film Quadrophenia is not appropriate for Sunday School class by any means.

It bears an R rating because of its explicit vulgarity, violence, depictions of drug use, and some brief nudity. And yet, with that kept firmly in mind, there is also the familiar Christian themes of redemption, of the triumph of life over death, of the shallowness of disorder and violence, and a repudiation of the false promises of materialism. The film also makes metaphorical use of the Biblical imagery of water as a means of grace and cleansing, the bringer of both life and death.

The film has a gritty, street feel to it. The acting is realistic, and well played. I found the working-class English accents tough to discern at first (and there are no subtitles on the DVD). The pacing is a little slow by modern American standards, but the storytelling and cinematography are outstanding. In 2004, the movie publication Total Film named it as the 35th greatest British film of all time.

On its surface, it is a fictionalized docudrama about a clash of youth cultures (Mods vs. Rockers) in the mid 1960s in England. But in reality, the film investigates some very deep philosophical themes - as all art endeavors to do. Set around the time of the peak of the Mod-Rocker violence ("the Second Battle of Hastings") in 1964, the story focuses on the troubles of "Jimmy" - a working class teenage boy who identifies with the "Mod" lifestyle.

The Mods rode small Italian motor scooters (typically customized with extra lights and mirrors), dressed in snazzy suits, listened to British and Caribbean pop music, and took pills to fuel their dance parties and mob fights. Their opponents were the Rockers, who rode motorcycles, wore jeans and leather jackets, listened to American rock music, and mainly stuck with alcohol as their drug of choice. It's fairly easy to see the antagonism between the two subcultures.

The violence between Mods and Rockers reached a peak in 1964, and was the cause of a lot of panic among Britons.

In Quadrophenia, Jimmy is going through the growing pains of being an adolescent in search of his own identity. He rebels against his parents, despises his low-end job as the mail-boy in an office, takes solace in his scooter, drinking, drugs, sexuality, and Mod music - trying desperately to fit in somewhere.

The title is a play on words, as Jimmy's father accuses his son of having a split personality - a common misunderstanding of schizophrenia. Jimmy feels that he has four personalities - hence "Quadrophenia". This four-part personality doesn't really emerge in the film, but is part of the short-story written by Pete Townshend in the liner notes of the original 1973 album of the same name by Townshed's band, The Who (a musical favorite of the Mods in the early 1960s).

Jimmy's teen angst and alienation leads him on a series of misadventures including parties, drinking, drugs, sex, and violence. The story reaches a breaking point during a long weekend in which many Londoners visit the beach at Brighton. In 1964, Mods and Rockers descended on Brighton Beach by the thousands.

The mob mentality serves as an adrenaline rush to Jimmy, who finally feels he fits in as part of the Mods. His life appears to have meaning in this place at this time. He looks up the larger-than-life Mod leader "Ace Face" (played by rock musician Sting in his first major acting role), who epitomizes "cool" - something Jimmy seeks as the guiding force in his own life. While at Brighton, Jimmy gets involved in rioting and wild partying. He seduces the girl he has been yearning for with pills, and gets the payoff of a tawdry sexual encounter in the back alley shed, as mob violence is in full force outside. He feels alive and part of something bigger than himself, a sense of belonging, of being loved.

But things soon unwind into a rapid Job-like descent into misery. He is arrested. His girlfriend dumps him. He is fired from his job. His parents throw him out of his home. He crashes his scooter. His friends look upon him more and more as an outcast. He spends his entire severance pay on drugs, and then boards a train to go back to Brighton in a desperate search of his former sense of fitting in.

But while there, things only get worse.

He sees his former hero, Ace Face - but is utterly dismayed to learn that this man he idolized is, in fact, a lowly bellboy at a hotel, clad in his uniform and being ordered about by the hotel's well-heeled customers.

Shouting: "Bellboy!," Jimmy steals Ace's fancy Vespa scooter, and drives to the beach. He speeds along, perilously near the edge of the breathtaking white cliffs of Dover. The camera angles show Jimmy zooming along the cliffs as the sea churns below. There were several references to water and drowning in the film. It begins to become obvious where this is headed.

Death by drowning seems to be the only solution to Jimmy's completely messed up life and sense of not fitting in anywhere. He points the scooter at the cliff as The Who sings in the soundtrack:

I've had enough of dancehalls
I've had enough of pills

I've had enough of streetfights

I've seen my share of kills

I'm finished with the fashions

And acting like I'm tough

I'm bored with hate and passion

I've had enough of trying to love.

The music stops abruptly. Jimmy guns the bike and heads toward the cliff at full speed. The ending is a bit of a surprise, however, as the Vespa is seen hurling into space with no rider. It crashes on the ground below in front of the sea. The film is a little ambiguous of Jimmy's fate, but the short story makes it clear that he does not commit suicide. Rather, he finds redemption in the cleansing, pouring rain.

The next word we hear is the same as the last one: "love." Both the short story/concept album and the film end with the song "Love Reign O'er Me" - in which the play on words is between "rain" (an image invoked in the song) and "reign." The love that Jimmy seeks is something that he submits to (something completely missing in his life of rebellion and anti-authoritarianism). In his prayer "Love reign o'er me," he is submitting to a "reign" and in so doing he is surrendering to something greater. He finds his redemption in genuine love, a love that rules over him. It is a love dropped upon him by grace, unexpected grace, anchored in the imagery of water.

In seeking to drown, Jimmy finds life - but only in drowning his old man, in repentance, in surrender and submission. This takes place amid the chalky white cliffs of Dover, symbolizing purity, and amid the crashing of the bike - symbolic of the treasures of this world which are passing and never satisfy, but are mere desires rooted in materialism and conformity. All of that is worthless as Jimmy finds his salvation and new life in water, and in being reigned over and rained upon, from heaven.

The imagery in the film is powerful, and the ending is perhaps even more powerful given the no-holds-barred realism of the depravity of Jimmy's former existence. Though not explicitly Christian in any way, the movie carries with it the theme of redemption, of life overcoming death, of a new man emerging from water, a grown man, a man who has been plucked from the "wages of sin" itself. This theme of redemption has influenced art in the west since the days of Constantine.

I find the film beautiful even in its ugliness, and an exposition of baptismal regeneration and repentance - even in spite of what some may only see as the glorification of violence and youth rebellion. In fact, I see the film as a stark repudiation of the youth culture, as it leads Jimmy only further into a spiral of despair, while his redemption, by contrast, comes in the form of repentance and love rained (and reigned) over him from the heavens.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I think that one of the things that is often overlooked is the fact that there are quite often, if not directly Christian overtones, at least themes that are useful to Christians.

I remember a class I had with Pless at the Sem - ethics - and the book referenced with just shock and horror the song, "Lost in the Supermarket" by the Clash - how it was just the sign of the end of the world.

It's a song about dissatisfaction with consumerism. Wow. . . sounds like me come Advent.

And then, there's bands like U2 - 2 or 3 biblical references per song.

Paul Gregory Alms said...

Have never seen the movie but the album is very good. Despair and longing all over it. Good stuff. Of course it is Townsend and the Who so what do you expect?

I always liked this album more than Tommy.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Eric:

Kind of like the overt references to Christian themes in The Matrix. After the second one came out, I was attending the Sons of Confederate Veterans convention and wearing a cassock (which is, after all, 19th century period attire for a C.S.A. cleric), and one of my compatriots dubbed me "Neo Confederate" (which is a favorite insult of anti-Southern bigots everywhere).

The theme of redemption is almost universal in western storytelling.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Greg:

The guy can write some powerful tuneage.

I did get a chuckle during a hospital visit as I was boarding the elevator. Of all the Who songs you would never expect to make it to muzak, what would it be? Happy Jack. Can you believe it? And I recognized it after the first riff. So the estate of Keith Moon (may he rest in peace) made a few bucks in royalties yesterday.

Anyway, I agree about Quadrophenia's superiority to Tommy.