Chuck E. Cheese and the Redeeming Light of Christ

by Sam Buntz

In 2012, Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant chain fired Duncan Brannan, the long-time voice of the company’s mascot.  Shortly thereafter, Brannan posted a farewell message online, concluding with the words: “…And, if being the voice of Chuck E. Cheese for any length of time has meant anything to me, it was never about a paycheck because God will always provide for His children in one way or another.  No.  What it was about, what my sincere hope is is that you — you fans, you parents, and all you kids who have loved Chuck E. Cheese over the years — have seen, heard, or experienced Jesus Christ in and through my life in some way.  For He is all that matters, now and for all eternity.”

I think this fairly bursts with all the poignancy and tragedy of the human condition— principally, in that human beings want to do great things, but are given absurd and seemingly inadequate materials to accomplish their aims. In this case, a dude wants to save people from suffering an eternity in hellfire.  (He makes that pretty clear in an earlier part of the message I didn’t quote.)  In and of itself, this is a strange conceit, but undoubtedly audacious.  If you are someone who actually believes that the vast majority of humans are all rushing ignorantly and headlong into hell, then saving people from this fate would probably be the best way to occupy your time.  If you didn’t, you’d be somewhat irresponsible, to say the least, letting countless souls tumble into perdition.  But, here’s the kicker, the pinch of unexpected spice: the only tool at your disposal is your ability to voice a fictitious mouse.  Sometimes the mouse appears in cartoon form, sometimes as a live-action mascot, but every day you must struggle to use this mouse’s voice, reciting scripted lines advertising a pizza and video game franchise devoid of any overt religious message or symbolism, in order to help manifest Christ’s love in the world, thus furthering the redemption of the human race.

I find this simultaneously moving and claustrophobically terrifying. It’s like one of Kafka’s fever dreams.  No one really commented on this in a serious way back in 2012, aside from a lot of scurrilous blogger mofos, turning it into some big joke… which it obviously is, of course.  But it’s so much more than that, too.  If I’m still carrying it around with me in 2015, how could it not be? It’s haunted me for nearly three years.

In a way, Brannan’s pizza-loving-mouse-based evangelism encapsulates what people mean when they say that something is “postmodern.”  (Although at this point, intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals may have fully talked-out postmodernism—like with “hipsters” and “the internet.”  Lines of inquiry feel exhausted.  It’s all like some conversation from 2006.)  Of course, outside of decent universities and their satellite spawning grounds, people don’t walk around saying, “That’s so postmodern.”  But if they did they would definitely say it about Brannan’s unique way of expressing Christ’s love.  It’s postmodern because it exists beyond any humanly conceived notion of an ordered universe.  It is an instance of a man trying to impose a plot, a religious narrative, on a world that refuses to be pinned down by any totalizing narrative (including atheistic and secular narratives as well, I believe.  We live in Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, where our theories can never be fully comprehensive; there’s always a flaw, a gap, some information that just won’t fit into the model… Godel was a religious man, though, by the way).  This is a cosmos without a single narrative that can fully do it justice.  Maybe the only comprehensive narrative would be all the narratives absorbed at once—chaos and a plethora of meaning simultaneously.  This is why Duncan Brannan can only try to secure the salvation of humanity by providing the vocals for a cheese-craving rodent pizza-mascot.  His evangelical narrative can only remain coherent within his own private world, but when he tries to express it in the broader universe, it becomes dyed in the hue of postmodern absurdity.  Yet he quests onwards in spite of this, a latter day Don Quixote. Windmills are giants.  Ads for a pizza chain are a coup for Christ.

I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear at any point in the past few paragraphs, but I’d say that I’m basically pro-Brannan.  It’s impossible not to be.  The pop culture websites that reported this pseudo-story back when it came out mainly just used it as an occasion to mock human weirdness and, potentially, highlight the lameness of contemporary Christianity.  But it’s bigger than that, because it’s a symbol for what anyone who tries to actually live a myth in today’s world has to do.  And I don’t mean that Christianity is a “myth” as in something untrue.  I mean that it is a certain species of story that envisions an underlying narrative, couched beneath the world of appearances.  It proposes a hidden order, just like any other religion, or even, in a counter-intuitive way, like the-order-that-isn’t-really-an-order, the Blind Watchmaker Cosmos of atheists like Richard Dawkins.  All these mythologies attempt to author the text of reality, but reality, I believe, always evades being pinned down by one specific story (as stated moments earlier).  God is either all gods or no god. Brannan’s courage isn’t so much that he clings to a rigid belief system, full of brimstone.  It’s that he continues to let his story manufacture a meaning for his life under circumstances that wouldn’t seem to fit that story.

In a way, I suppose that Jesus’ death on the cross is itself an example of a story that braves its own seeming negation in order to come out okay on the other side. (Which means that Jesus himself was “postmodern”?? Should I have refused to use pseudo-intellectual buzzwords in this article altogether???)  No one would expect God to be humiliated and murdered.  People would probably expect him to use his God powers to strengthen his dominion of the universe; like, he would appoint himself Supreme Emperor of the world in an actual, political manner. In fact, everyone at the time expected the Messiah to institute his rule with an iron fist, which is how the Book of Revelation actually does depict Jesus. But the Gospel story shockingly subverts that expectation. The exact opposite of what you would expect to happen happens, and it turns out to be the one really necessary event, cosmically inevitable and unambiguously good.

I think Brannan might feel the same way about being Chuck E. Cheese. It doesn’t seem like an appropriate platform for introducing the love of Christ, but its very absurdity makes it more Christian, more in line with Jesus’ own triumph through absurdity. (An early Church Father, Tertullian, once said, somewhat paradoxically, “I believe because it is absurd.” In other words, it’s too weird to be fiction.)  So, in a way, I guess I’m saying that Brannan is a great example of a postmodern Christian, or of any postmodern religious believer.  His narrative is his cross: an absurd problem that, nonetheless and against all expectations, manages to redeem him.

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Wounded by History: An Appreciation of John Ford’s “The Searchers”

by Sam Buntz

[Note: If you’ve never seen The Searchers, don’t read this article. Instead, watch The Searchers, preferably as soon as you can… Feel free to come back here once you’re finished.]

The Searchers might be the greatest American movie ever made. At least, you could make an easy argument for it. It’s clearly shoulder-to-shoulder with The Godfather, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and a few others—plus, it’s the definite summit of John Ford’s career as a director. (In my view, it’s pretty tough to rank the top ten or even the top twenty movies in any kind of coherent order. You end up falling back on criteria that are necessarily highly specific to your own interests and on personal quirks of taste. It’s kind of like trying to argue which pitcher threw a better perfect game). Like all pantheon-level movies, every scene in it feels absolutely inevitable. Nothing could’ve been different. It all clicks. The best movies have this intensely fated quality to them—they could only have ever been what they are. They seem to have existed forever, in and out of time, relating stories that will probably be re-told in a different form a thousand years from now, or are being told in some distant galaxy at the present moment. In the case of Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers deals with the universally relevant topic of human hatred. It is a remarkable story because it depicts a man’s triumph over his own hatred—which, in a way, is a more startling and difficult achievement than triumphing over someone else’s.

To briefly summarize: John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate veteran, who joins his homesteader brother’s family on the plains of West Texas. While Ethan and the family’s older adopted son, Martin, are investigating a supposed cattle raid (which turns out to be a ploy), Comanches slaughter the entire family, except for the youngest daughter, Debbie, who they kidnap. (The Comanches also capture the older sister, Lucy, but shortly rape and kill her in some horrifying yet unspecified manner).

Ethan and Martin continue to search for Debbie over the course of five years, finally discovering that, as an adolescent (played by Natalie Wood), she is now one of the wives of Scar, the same Comanche chief who murdered her family. Since she’s effectively become a Comanche, Ethan attempts to kill her—but Martin prevents him. After a comic interlude back in Texas, in which Martin disrupts a wedding and wins back his former fiancé, they end up falling into a final conflict with Scar, successfully killing him (Ethan scalps him, to boot). They reunite with Debbie again, only, this time, Ethan has overcome his desire to murder his only living blood relative. He puts Debbie on his horse, tenderly looks into her eyes, and says, “Let’s go home.” There’s a lot more to the story besides, like a sub-plot in which Martin accidentally purchases an Indian bride, and goofy moments with Ethan’s friend Mose. But these are the essential beats of the tale.

Yet, there’s a secret, underlying plot point in The Searchers, which has helped secure its high critical estimation. It is implied that Ethan may have been in love with his brother’s wife, Martha. There’s no dialogue to suggest this whatsoever: Ford hints at it entirely through looks, highlighting odd glances exchanged between Ethan and Martha, which would be pointless if they weren’t meant to suggest something. This leads the viewer to another realization: Debbie might be Ethan’s daughter and not his niece, adding yet another level of pain and sadness to the story and to Wayne’s character. His hatred for the Comanches who murder his brother’s family leads him to almost exterminate the girl who might be his only child. A terror of “miscegenation,” of sexual pollution, helps creates the suspenseful, dreadful atmosphere of The Searchers. It’s not supposed to be pleasant, but it’s unusually realistic, true to the social mores of the West, given that sexual-racial anxieties were a huge element in the settlers’ wars with Native Americans, and also in European imperialism.

When I first watched The Searchers as a teenager, I totally missed these implications. I wasn’t entirely sure why Wayne’s character wanted to kill Debbie beyond the fact that she had become “one of them.” It didn’t occur to me that becoming one of them was essentially a matter of sexual violation, of rape. Ethan doesn’t just want to kill Debbie because she’s adopted the habits and customs of the Comanches. He holds the nasty belief that she’s been sexually polluted by another race, and that she can’t be rehabilitated back to a state of whiteness and normalcy. (Plus, if she really is his daughter, he might be harboring some guilt over cuckolding his own brother). If he were to reunite with her, she would represent only things he hates and regrets, the memories that assail him in vacant and idle moments. In Ethan’s eyes, she’s become indelibly stained by the racial and sexual conflicts of the West—in effect, she’s a product of those conflicts—and that’s why she needs to be eliminated. He thinks that if he can murder her he can put it all behind him… This is obviously insane and untrue, but part of the miracle of the movie is that it makes us actually understand Ethan. He never seems like a monster, exactly, because we see how hatred gradually eats at his heart in a way that’s both awful and undeniably human. He remains part of our species even in his worst moments.

The fact is, Debbie hasn’t been indelibly stained by these conflicts. She’s been hoping that Ethan and Martin will come and rescue her throughout the duration of her captivity. To the contrary, Ethan is the one who’s been marked by history and hatred, though not, as it turns out, wholly or permanently. The movie’s moment of transcendence comes when Ethan suddenly, and for no particular reason, forgives history and himself, and tells Debbie, “Let’s go home.” There’s a moment of recognition when he looks at her, the acknowledgment of an indissoluble bond. He’s been a product of his time up until now, but in an instant of grace, he rises above his own historical moment. He’s able to recognize that the relationship that exists between himself and Debbie is an eternally important one, much more significant and enduring than ethnic hatreds and perceived sexual shame. Those things all fall away. But Ethan, the man, can’t really live the happy familial life that’s shaping up for the other characters at the end of the story. He’s been too misshapen by time to be a father figure to Debbie—there’s still an excessive amount of history there, given the fact that he did attempt to murder her earlier. Now, he has nothing left to do but fade into the past, along with all the conflicts that defined Western settlement: the last shot of the movie is of Ethan walking away, alone.

In the end, Ethan doesn’t triumph over a tendency peculiar to himself—he triumphs over a hatred engrained in many people by harsh experience and by the sufferings imposed by history. History, according to The Searchers, is a nightmare, but a nightmare for all sides. Everyone becomes infected by the poison of ethnic and tribal hatreds: Scar takes scalps from whites and massacres families to avenge the deaths of his own sons, just as Ethan shoots the eyes out of a dead Indian’s body, in order to grotesquely violate a Comanche prohibition which states that a soul will wander in eternal loneliness if its body has been left eyeless. We see women who’ve been recovered from Comanche captivity, reduced to insanity by the torture and abuse they’ve experienced, and we see Ethan attempt to slaughter an entire herd of buffalo, purely in order to further the starvation of Native Americans. In a way, The Searchers offers as violent a portrayal of the West as Cormac McCarthy’s classic novel Blood Meridian. But The Searchers keeps the actual atrocities and rapes off screen, which makes them ultimately more chilling and affecting. The fact that Hostel-level butchery is occurring all the time in this society keeps us on our toes and pricks our imaginations into nervous action.

The Searchers has memorable characters, expertly placed moments of comic relief, and an exhilarating story. But like any prospective candidate for the greatest American movie of all time, it manages to say something enduringly important about the country and its people. It portrays America as defined by terrible instances of ethnic conflict and conquest, yet capable of rising above them. While it certainly doesn’t sentimentalize Scar’s band of warriors to any degree, it at least affords Scar an understandable motive (avenging the deaths of his sons) and portrays Ethan’s near-genocidal hatred of the Comanches as something fundamentally perverse. Frank Nugent, who wrote the excellent screenplay, actually based it on real incidents of kidnapping from the 19th Century frontier, and the movie seems more faithful to the reality of strife between settlers and Native Americans than most. It’s not a sustained critique of the settlement of the West, by any means, but it offers a more nuanced view of it than most movies from its era. Yet, the essence of The Searchers isn’t its critical depiction of these sordid conflicts, but the way in which it seeks to transcend them. It convincingly places human love above the world’s other mean and petty concerns, and it doesn’t do it cheaply or too easily. It manages to earn it, totally.