I’m going to interrupt this column before it even begins with an important announcement, an open letter, a personal appeal to Mr. Bill Murray. I’d been planning to write something about Tom Petty this week, to take issue with some condescending and disparaging remarks about Mr. Petty (a riff on his alleged “dumbness”) by an otherwise gifted scribe. Something unfortunately not untypical, though, of the way Mr. Petty doesn’t get the respect he deserves from the rock critics, the sort who make a fetish out of Springsteen but treat Tom Petty as, at best, an idiot savant. When in fact he’s a genuine savant with a unique visionary focus expressed in a kind of ecstatic Cosmic Deadpan which, as with some Bill Murray characters, is sometimes scandalously mistaken for mere dumbness.
And I hope I’ll have enough room left to get around to that, after my special appeal to Mr. Murray, who is himself, it occurs to me, like Mr. Petty, an underappreciated savant. That’s the point of my appeal to Mr. Murray: recognition, the right kind of recognition, the kind he deserves, the kind two wonderfully imaginative, enthusiastic, charming and devoted women are trying to give him. The kind he has so far inexplicably chosen not to acknowledge.
Dear Mr. Bill Murray:
Please don’t stiff my friends Chris and Nancy. I’m speaking of Christine Schomer and Nancy Donahoe, the two founders and directors of the Newport International Film Festival who have been courting you, counting on you to show up at the Bill Murray Retrospective they’re staging in your honor at the Newport Film Festival, which runs from June 1 to June 6 at that beautiful resort. Actually, they’re not calling it a Bill Murray Retrospective , they’re calling it a Bill Murray Introspective , as I am sure you know from the catalogue they sent you (along with the highly prized Emil Verban baseball card which Chris Schomer went to the trouble of snagging from an E-Bay auction on the Internet and sending along to you because she knows the sentimental affection and iconic significance with which you have endowed the famously plodding but consistent Chicago Cubs second baseman from the 40′s. Talk about devotion!).
Not Retrospective but Introspective, because “His work deserves more than a Retrospective,” as they write in their catalogue, “it deserves a look inward. The Bill Murray Introspective offers a contemplation of Murray’s singular capacity for conjuring rich convincing inner lives for his characters. Watch Caddyshack again with an eye to just how much Carl [the groundskeeper] communicates with a blank stare. Read the backstory etched into [Ernie McCracken–Mr. Murray's ecstatically vain bowling champ character] in Kingpin . Understand, somehow, without any explanation, the root of the emotion in so many of his lines in Rushmore .”
And these two women, Chris and Nancy, are not pushovers for fame and name, for mere star power. They’re both smart and discriminating and the festival they put on is a highly impressive, hugely enjoyable and professionally run event. I served as a juror on their feature film panel last year and they had the city of Newport, a place I once dismissed as a snotty, standoffish burg, throwing open its fabulous mansions to lavish hospitality on the filmmakers and attendees. Their carefully crafted catalogue descriptions of your work are brilliant, compressed appreciations; the clip reel of your career which their program director Maude Chilton put together is a smash.
They’ve even scheduled a Bill Murray golf tournament and book signing (if you show up to sign, of course–hey, why not call Chris and Nancy right now and give them the confirmation they’ve been wishing for so devoutly as the clock ticks down toward the festival opening?). A book-signing for your new opus from Doubleday called Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf , a book which I’ve come to love despite the fact I’ve never before been able to stand golf or anything connected with it. Because it’s not so much about golf as about life: Bill Murray riffing on Life, on his life (I loved the riff on trying to get cast as Joseph in his grade school nativity pageant). “The daddy of all roles: Joseph … the complexity, the layers … How secure was this guy? Unfazed by Nazarene gossip …”) Bill Murray riffing on his goofily eccentric fusion of Westernized Eastern philosophy and show-biz shtick. Bill Murray making a startling revelation about the origin of his crazy Zen-slacker take on things: Towering over the golf course in Wilmette, Ill. where he first caddied was a Bahai temple, the very center of the Bahai faith in the West, set down in Bill Murray’s hometown. Why? Because, Bill Murray tells us, his hometown is the obverse navel of the earth in the Bahai faith, a point directly opposite the founding temple of the Bahai sect in Persia. How wild is that?
Now Bahai is a unique religion in that it professes to be a fusion of all religions Eastern and Western, an inclusive spiritual communion that prompts some genuinely heartfelt remarks from the usually mock-everything Mr. Murray: “The faith believes in the unity of all religions, the nine major ones celebrated in the nine sides of the temple. Bahais are the victim of genocide in Persia. Where’s the logic? Choose no favorites; believe all faiths are equal in God’s eyes. O.K., prepare to die for that belief.”
All of which tends to confirm the kind of speculation I indulged in a couple years ago in these pages in a column titled “Bill Murray: Secret Zen Master” [Aug. 12, 1996]. An essay in which I tried to make a case that Bill Murray has been seriously underappreciated, that beneath the goofy deadpan mock sincerity of his usual comic persona there is an intriguing and persistent subtext of cosmic/comic spirituality. It’s an essay (reprinted in the Bill Murray Introspective Catalogue of the Newport Film Festival) which argues that, “beneath the spectacularly smarmy, self-subvertingly parodistic insincerity of Bill Murray’s signature characters … there’s something More going on … beneath the mugging, beneath the deadpan insincerity–the numinous shadow of something Unspoken, which the insincerity is mutely gesturing at–the obverse of it [just as the Bahai temple is the obverse of Wilmette, Ill.], a kind of sublime godlike composure, an almost Buddhalike serenity.”
I argued that your “signature characters like the schlockmeister lounge singer you created on Saturday Night Live sketches offer a profound critique of self-serving vanity. That your affectation of show-biz phoniness is your way of making apparent, transparent, the phony Bad Actors our egos are–dramatizing the distance between our acting and our Being. It’s a far more devastating critique of the self-aggrandizing performative self–of Self itself–than any of the self-absorbed lit-crit theorists have contrived. And an awful lot funnier, too; an all-too-knowing subversion of Selfishness in the service of a higher Selfless wisdom.”
And I meant it. Bill Murray is, as I said back then, the closest thing I’ll ever have to a guru. And one of the greatest things about talking with Ms. Schomer and Ms. Donahoe about their Bill Murray Introspective was the discovery that they’re on the same wavelength about your work. In fact, Chris Schomer unearthed from Caddyshack a monologue from Carl the Groundskeeper about playing golf with the Dalai Lama that may be the Ur-moment of the subtextual spirituality in the rest of your work, your most explicit disclosure of what’s going on beneath the surface. It’s a passage I shamefully failed to recall in my “Secret Zen Master” essay, a passage that would have clinched the case. A passage that Chris Schomer, with the loving devotion of a true initiate, has gone to take the trouble of getting printed up, on an engraved card, that serves as the invitation to the golf tournament they’ve scheduled in your honor. To signal that this is not a mere golf tournament, that a deeper game is being played on the greens. Here’s Carl the Groundskeeper’s deadpan account:
So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course in the Himalayas. A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald … striking. So I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one–a big hitter, the Lama–long, into a 10,000-foot crevasse, right at the base of this glacier. Do you know what the Lama says? Gunga Galunga … gunga, gunga galunga. So we finish the 18th and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey how about a little something , you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me. Which is nice.
I don’t know, you have to rent the tape to fully appreciate it, but there’s something both hilariousandbeautifulinCarlthe Groundskeeper’s delivery of the last line. “You will receive Total Consciousness. [Pause] So I got that goin’ for me. [Pause] Which is nice.” Funny on the surface–the Dalai Lama tips his caddy with total consciousness–but there’s more to it. It seems to mock the notion of Total Consciousness, but slyly insinuates the idea that in every game we play, the real prize is total consciousness.
But in some weird way–and I’d say this about no one else in public life–Bill Murray may really have the closest thing to Total Consciousness you can find, at least in Hollywood films. And he just keeps getting better as Rushmore demonstrates.
But the most exciting aspect of the Bill Murray Introspective (aside from the prospect of Bill Murray himself showing up and saying a few words–Hey Bill, why don’t you call Chris and Nancy now , if you haven’t already) is the prospect of seeing a clip from your forthcoming performance as Polonius in the Miramax Hamlet . It’s an inspired piece of casting (although, frankly, someday I’d love to see what Bill Murray would do as the Prince of Denmark himself, say on the “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy). What’s most inspired about Bill Murray as Polonius is that the role thematizes, as the lit-crit types say, the two-leveled tension in all Bill Murray’s work. A tension I’ll attempt to explain by reference to one of his most inspired signature lines, perhaps my favorite Bill Murray riff. It’s the one from Tootsie , where, you recall, he plays Dustin Hoffman’s roommate Jeff, an Off Off Broadwayplaywright-waiterwho’s penned a determinedly grim and depressing opus called Return to Love Canal . He’s discoursing at a party to other theater types about the effect he wants his plays to have. In a brilliant Polonian fusion of pomposity and theatrical mock profundity, he tells his hearers:
“I don’t want a full house at the Winter Garden. I want 90 people who just came in out of the worst rainstorm in the city’s history. These are people who are alone on the planet. I wish I had a theater that was only open when it rains … But after a performance I don’t like it when people come up to me and say ‘I really dig your message , man’ or ‘I really dig your play, man. I cried .’ I like it when people come up to me the next day or a week later and say ‘I saw your play. [Long pause] What happened ?’”
It’s a knowing and hilarious sendup of theatrical pretentiousness and sententiousness, yes (in the manner of Polonius describing the traveling players in Hamlet as “the best” actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical pastoral …”)
But again, as in all Bill Murray’s best work, there’s something more there, it’s comical, but it’s comical-spiritual. When he says he wants to hear people say “What happened ?” a week after they see his play, it’s a gesture at the notion of transformation by art–of theatrical rapture that verges on loss of a destabilizing identity. The unstated but implicit corollary to “What happened ?” is “Who am I now?” A transformative experience that suggests what happens to Bottom after his night of sudden transformation, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream –a dream beyond imagining, of ecstatic sexual union (an extremely hot version of total consciousness) with a higher being, with Titania, queen of fairies.
By the way, I think the new Michael Hoffman A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been unappreciated for its ambition, for its distinctive vision of the Dream : that it is, at bottom, Bottom’s Dream . It’s Bottom, after all, who is the only one in the play whose transformation has been an ascent to a higher realm, rather than a lateral transposition to a different lover in the same realm. Bottom is the visionary who has to deal with the melancholy return to daily life after his momentary glimpse of total consciousness.
This is classic Bill Murray, this “What happened ?” line in Tootsie : to gesture at transcendence, but only through a scrim of mockery, which nonetheless gives an intimation of a genuinely transcendent realm beyond the scrim.
This is what Bill Murray does best, this is why he’s, if not unappreciated, then not fully appreciated for what he’s done. He doesn’t call attention to it, he doesn’t explicate it tendentiously the way I do. He only winks and nods–and maybe gives you a little nudge with an elbow–to gesture at it. Carl the Groundskeeper is Bill Murray’s Bottom, our Bottom. “Methought I was … Methought I was …” Bottom stammers as he awakens from his rapturous dream of union with a goddess. What happened ? But nothing, no words can recapture his rapture, and “A man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.” To speak of it is to betray it, that evanescent moment granted to a few only on their deathbed: total consciousness, ecstatic union with divinity. “So I got that goin’ for me … which is nice.”
Which is why I can’t wait to see his work as Polonius, and I say this as someone who’s spent the past few months communing with Hamlet scholars on two continents. There are those for whom Polonius remains more of an enigma, more complex than he’s played on stage. While much of what Polonius says is subverted by his relentless sententiousness, there are flashes, glimpses of truths not utterly ironized by his all-too-evident hypocrisy. What should we make of “To thine own self be true”? Self-subverting in Polonius’ mouth, but is it utterly dismissible because of its source?
This is the Polonian paradox, a paradox which Bill Murray was born to play. This is the realm Bill Murray has inhabited with his comic genius and gives voice to: “windy suspirations of breath” that sound merely mock- serious but which might actually be a kind of test : Can you see past the smarmy, even sleazy delivery to the glimpse of a realm of truth beyond the pompous rhetoric?
And speaking of tests, Mr. Murray, I really don’t want to think of your decision whether or not to make an appearance at the Newport Film Festival Bill Murray Introspective as a test for you . I’m sure your inability to commit to an appearance with one week left to go, an inability that is torturing the festival organizers, your biggest fans, is probably more a matter of your schedule and your family obligations and all that. But I feel somehow on one of those six days, June 1 to June 6, you could find a way to show up and gladden the hearts of the two women, Chris Schomer and Nancy Donahoe, who have put their hearts and souls into giving you a fitting Introspective. I don’t want to bring up Carl the Groundskeeper’s riff on the Dalai Lama stiffing him on that round in Tibet. You haven’t stiffed them yet. But I think Chris and Nancy and I would trade Total Consciousness for a Newport Introspective appearance by our Lama, Bill Murray.