May 16, 2011
A frog strums a banjo in a swamp, singing a song about rainbows and morning stars, and wondering why they have inspired so many other songs in their wake. He ponders the origin of a mysterious voice that calls to young sailors and dreamers like himself. Near the end of his ballad, in a tone that is quieter yet more poignant, as if all the verses before it have prepared him for it, a particular line invokes a sense of personal reflection and a calling that ultimately sets him on his quest...
I've heard it too many times to ignore it,
It's something that I'm supposed to be...
This is, of course, a moment from The Rainbow Connection, the first song from The Muppet Movie. If people were to ask me (and I believe they have) what my favorite movie would be, for one reason or another by process of elimination (with a certain space trilogy being tough competition) it usually ends up being this little film released in 1979 about a frog who travels across America to go to Hollywood and builds a community of friends along the way. But my connection to this movie and its soundtrack goes beyond just mere Muppet-fandom or nostalgia.
Throughout my life I've met people who have openly expressed how much this movie and song has resonated with them on a personal and spiritual level, and whenever I meet someone like this, I know I've found a kindred spirit. (One such example is writer & film critic Jeffrey Overstreet, who speaks about it in his excellent online lecture How Then Shall We Tell Stories? and this two-part article which hits very close to home for me too) Like many others, The Muppet Movie has been a foundation for my life-long dreams as an artist and writer, how I came to faith along the way, and how new meanings have unfolded as a result. Thus I felt the need to share a response of my own and share in the collective discussion, or as Madeline L'Engle describes, a "feeding of the lake" with my own story.
It was the summer of 1979, I was 4 years old, and The Muppet Movie was coming to theaters. Already a devoted disciple of watching Sesame Street everyday and The Muppet Show every Friday night, I saw a commercial for the movie on television, specifically the final image of the entire Muppet cast singing at the end of a rainbow, and I said to my parents 'When can we go see this????' And of course we did. Larger than life before me, Kermit played the banjo, Dr. Teeth poured paint on the screen, Animal's giant head roared, and the ground shook.
With impressions of having seen the movie on the big screen still stuck in my head, I became even more obsessed with the soundtrack album, which I got for Christmas (shown in this picture with my brother Jonathan pointing at it). This being before the days of owning movies on video, soundtrack records were the only way to take a piece of the movies home. My Muppet Movie record was carried over to the homes of my neighbors and cousins, where the needle was lovingly dropped onto the edge of side 1. We would soak in those precious opening banjo notes of Rainbow Connection, and keep "moving right along" through the rest of the side. And then we turned it over, danced to the Electric Mayhem singing Can You Picture That, caught our breath as Gonzo sang I'm Going to Go Back There Someday, and waited with anticipation for the very end of the record when the Swedish Chef said"The fleem is okey-dokey!" We would laugh, and then play it again. The record got played so much, to this day I am not sure how it ended up disappearing amongst the other lost treasures of my childhood collections. As I grew up, other films by Jim Henson like The Great Muppet Caper, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth had similar influences on me, and The Muppet Movie became a shadowy memory amidst the unfolding nostalgia of 1980s pop culture. All the while, the movies and books that I loved inspired me to write my own books, draw my own characters, write plays, perform on stage, and make movies with the family video camera, while my teachers and peers watched over my shoulder telling me I will someday be rich and famous. With this prophecy haunting me, I continued to grow up...
Breaking its way through an adolescence influenced by heavy metal concerts and horror movies, the significance of The Muppet Movie came more to light around the time I graduated high school and entered university to study art. I continued to draw, sculpt and began taking film classes, eventually gravitating towards animation as a way to combine all of these passions into one thing, which I figured may somehow unfold into the fame and fortune that everyone expected of me. One day in my dorm room, my roommate Jeff and I stumbled upon the World of Jim Henson documentary special playing on TV. Watching the special and their reflections on The Muppet Movie that night reminded me afresh of how much of an inspiration the film was to my life, so I stayed up all night creating a charcoal drawing of Kermit playing his banjo in the swamp, with Jim Henson reflected in the water underneath him.
Around this time, the soundtrack was also newly re-released on CD, so I obtained it and fell in love with it all over again, very timely for a stage in my life when I was trying to avoid the pending uncertainty of "growing up" at all costs. I was paradoxically torn between the excitement of moving into a new stage of life and the reluctance to let go of an old stage. Listening to those opening notes of Rainbow Connection helped me retain enough of my childhood that I could carry it with me into the awkward years to come. Also particularly when dealing with failed relationships or low moments between friends, Kermit and Rowlf lamenting over drinks at the bar that I Hope That Something Better Comes Along became rather poignant. More and more though, these songs began to implant not just a connection to my past or my present, but a hint towards being called to something beyond, and an inkling that their lyrics were deeper than I suspected.
At this point of my life I had long since abandoned the church-going days of my childhood and had no specific religious beliefs to speak of, but rather a ambiguously hostile and indifferent agnosticism. Here and there I met people who explained the church-ianity I grew up with in a way that seemed to have some meaning to it, but for the most part I couldn't fully embrace it. I kept on going with my studies, began working as an animator, and chased my dreams of making films that might mean something to someone. The significance of The Muppet Movie began to come more into focus, as I resonated with Kermit's calling to "make millions of people happy." After all, everyone expected me to be successful and "I've heard it too many times to ignore it, it's something that I'm supposed to be..."
At some point, desperate for any kind of direction I can get, I went through the little Jesus-pamphlet somebody gave me and sincerely said the "Jesus-prayer" alone in the dark one night. On the surface I didn't feel any different, still didn't really get it and not much really changed, but a seed had been planted and God started moving.
As Kermit felt called to leave the swamp, I also felt a distinct call to leave home and study animation in Vancouver for a year. Just as Kermit and Fozzie hit the road in their Studebaker, my friend Brandon and I hit the highway in my station wagon, literally playing the song Movin' Right Along on the stereo to kick off our 5-day road trip across America. I settled into a solitary life in Vancouver, doing lots of soul-searching as I tried to re-kindle something in me that would carry something of who I was as a child into my future. I began finding solace and inspiration from New Age-ish self-help books on myths, hero journeys, comparative religion and feel-good fuzzy spiritualities. In the midst of this searching, I got invited by some classmates to a few Alpha dinners where Christianity was laid out on a platter for me...again. But somehow, compared to the other stuff I was reading, it still didn't click with me, and neither did the people. There were too many voices in my head and it didn't add up.
Then I stared making more friends at the animation school as new students arrived. I had a bunch of them over to my apartment for my 25th birthday party. At the party I decided to get out my authentic Kermit the Frog puppet and lip-sync Rainbow Connection for everyone, just for fun. One of my new friends at my party was this really cute, wacky girl named Janet who also loved the Muppets and happened to have been born the same year The Muppet Movie was released, so we started talking. We talked some more. We started making each other mix tapes. One thing led to another and we talked some more, went to the movies, things started clickin'. It was good.
As we talked more, we inevitably talked about God, as Janet was a girl with a deep faith and very involved in her church, and I was a freaky New Age guy who wore a jester hat with a black trench coat, occasionally wore vampire teeth, and wasn't too crazy about church. Janet took me to her youth group one night to hang with the kids, and also had me over to meet her parents and her brother, and it was pretty cool. Most of the Christians I'd met up to then were kind of weird, creepy and narrow-minded. But these people I seemed to click with and there was something deeper there. Janet and I hung out at her house one night with her mom Vickie, and somehow the Muppets came up in conversation. Vickie said that watching the Muppets as her kids grew up, she always loved Kermit the best. She also knew that I was searching for something and gave me an envelope with a note inside it, which had a verse from Jeremiah 29: For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
The more Janet and I talked, the more I started to realize our spiritual views were a little different, but I really liked this girl and sensed there was something deeper going on so I tried even harder to understand all this Christian stuff. Why did it keep creeping back into my life and messing my head up? Why did I keep...hearing it...too many times...to ignore it?
Janet and I took a little day trip to Victoria one day, and on the ferry ride back she told me "You understand it better than you think, you just need a little push."
The very next day, Janet invited me over for dinner again with her family. As her mom Vickie prepared the food in the kitchen, right in front of us she suddenly had a heart-attack. After the paramedics rushed Vickie off to the hospital, Janet and I knew nothing else to do but pray together. And this was the first time where I prayed and actually felt a real presence there that I couldn't explain away...an inkling of someone actually being there. I wasn't praying to the "force within myself"...not to an existential answering machine...not to some feel-good vibe from a book. So instead to this God I was actually experiencing, I responded and surrendered right there.
Janet told me afterwards, "God speaks pretty loudly to us sometimes. He must have big plans for you to be speaking to you this loud."
It's something that I'm supposed to be...
A few days later, Vickie passed away, and we were now planning a memorial service. As we discussed the songs we wanted to include, I remembered the conversation we had about the Muppets and felt compelled to suggest a rather unusual tribute. Days later at the service, in front of over 200 people at Janet's church, I got up front, broke out my Kermit puppet, cued the sound guy, and lip synced Rainbow Connection in honor of this woman whose faith changed my life. From that point on, I became known to the congregation of our church as "Kermit."
A year later in the same church, Janet and I were married, and at our reception Kermit reprised his performance as a special musical guest.
From the perspective of my newfound faith and perspective on life, the lyrics to this song continued to take on new meanings for me in repeated listenings to my beloved Muppet Movie soundtrack album. They were no less mysterious, but even more beautiful, not only in Rainbow Connection but also in Gonzo's soul-searching ballad I'm Going To Go Back There Someday. I began looking for glimmers of God in all of the movies I loved as a child and the new ones I saw, and began writing these discoveries into movie reviews for HollywoodJesus.com. A few years later, on the day I received my dual-Canadian citizenship, we stopped into a favorite used-record store of mine to celebrate, and going through the racks I discovered and re-claimed that beloved piece of vinyl from my childhood, The Muppet Movie Soundtrack. It would often be played (along with other Muppet records) on the record player in my studio while I animated at my desk, and my daughter Ariel would draw and listen along with me.
The more I think about The Muppet Movie itself and unpack its story structure, the more things I continue to discover about it. All these years, I also often found it strange that Kermit makes it all the way to Hollywood to do an audition, and once he gets there he just gets handed a contract without any questions asked or any chance to audition in the first place. Then he gets on set to make a movie, and the entire set crumbles. What is the meaning of this? It is a rather mysterious way to end a film, and I think it is that mystery, like in any work of art, that causes it to resonate and open up for us to participate. Perhaps this is what Kermit means when he breaks the fourth wall to us and whispers, Life's like a movie, write your own ending...
For myself, although animation has long been a vocation of mine and I expect it shall continue to be the case, I often come back to my calling as a writer too, whether it be for a movie review, an animation textbook, a reflective essay like this, poetry or a re-visitation of fictional works I've written. This is where the struggle still often occurs between the dreams and expectations I set for myself and the "plan for a hope and a future" that God has laid out for me. Knowing and discerning when to take a step and when to let things fall into place is the constant relational paradox of walking on water as an artist of faith.
Proverbs 16:9 tells us In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. Several years ago I began just thinking and pondering to myself that I would love to "break-in" to the business of writing books but had no idea how, and then I received a random e-mail from a publisher looking for a stop-motion animation instructor to write a book for them. A few years later, it happened again, and I was grateful, yet the process became so overwhelming and time-consuming that I came out of it with an urgent call to slow down, get more serious about my faith and go deeper for the next stage of the journey. I found myself like Kermit and his friends broken down on the highway, musing and pondering over what all of this has come to. I sometimes need to be reminded of why I left the swamp in the first place, and this is why articles by others who feel the same way (again, Jeffrey Overstreet here) are so encouraging. It's a reminder that we're not alone.
So I too come back to The Muppet Movie, to share my story of how it has led me through the waters of my faith, and to be reminded that we can make all the plans we want, build monumental cardboard rainbows and elaborate movie sets and try to keep it all under control by our own creativity and power, but then...at some point disaster may strike, an explosion will tear a hole in our scaffolding, and the real purpose behind it all will wash over us. In this light of many colors refracted by one single light of truth, only then will we lose ourselves enough to find ourselves.
Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well...
The lovers, the dreamers, and...
P.S. What? You've never seen The Muppet Movie? Watch it here in 60 seconds.