Saturday, April 26, 2003

Ereck and I watched Caddyshack last night, the 1980 golf romp with Chevy Chase--actually the first DVD I owned.

(I predict that because manufacturers from the beginning marketed DVD as a product consumers can buy, not just rent, "What was your first DVD?" will become something people ask each other, like "What was your first record? (What do you mean, 'What's a record'?)")

As I said to Ereck, the number of times I've seen Caddyshack probably nears fourscore. I'll reserve for another blog a discussion of why we watch certain movies over and over, but I wanted to talk about an aspect of Caddyshack that never had occurred to me before.

Because I first saw the film at age ten, I never really thought of it as a coherent narrative, just a series of comedic setpieces, many of them classic. I'm not sure the film actually is coherent, but for the first time last night I was struck by the pairing of Ty, the independently wealthy playboy Chevy Chase plays, and Fred, the Episcopal bishop who renounces his faith when he misses a critical putt.

Ty practices a spirituality that lets him play golf astonishingly well, as long as he does not compete or even keep score: blindfolded, he lands a wedge shot within inches of the cup, and on the putting green he, chanting, sinks long putt after long putt, simply kicking one ball, striking another like a cueball in pool.

Yet when, on a point of family pride, he allows himself to be drawn into a high-stakes golf match, his game collapses.

Ty describes his philosophy in a speech he delivers just before he performs the incredible wedge shot: "There's a force in the universe that makes things happen, and all you have to do is get in touch with it. Stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball...find your center, hear nothing, feel nothing."

Ty later invokes Zen, and knowing as little as I do about Zen, I'm willing to accept this characterization of his philosophy--not least because the screenplay was written by some very smart people (Harold Ramis, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Doug Kenney).

In contrast there is Fred, the Episcopal bishop, who represents the kind of social and economic hegemony that mainline Protestantism doesn't really wield anymore. Fred is casually bigoted and conceives of God not as something to yield to humbly, as Ty does, but as a force to help him compete better: in a driving rainstorm, Fred plays a round so well, he is convinced God is helping him break the country-club record for nine holes. But when he misses a putt and screams an (altogether mild) obscenity at the heavens, lightning strikes him down, and we later see him drunk and disillusioned.

What Ty and Fred have in common is a working relationship with Danny, the young protagonist: Danny caddies, they golf. But Ty and Danny also have a spiritual, master-acolyte relationship, as Ty patiently instructs Danny in his Zen approach to golf. In contrast, Danny tries to exploit his relationship with Fred for gain, even as Fred rejects Danny for being Roman Catholic. Still, Danny has a choice: join the elite and be complicit in its hypocrisy, or throw in his lot with the riskier but more fulfilling path Ty represents.

In the end, Danny follows Ty and profits handsomely anyway--and, in a seemingly unrelated subplot, the golf course, the embodiment of the corrupt social order, is destroyed by an apocalyptic series of explosions.

Ty is of course a more appealing character than Fred, but what goes unquestioned is the fact that wealth makes both their spiritual paths possible. At one point in the film, Ty says, "There's a casual perfection in everything I do. I have my own standards, my own way." Is this way open to people who aren't wealthy? Would Ty be so content in his spirituality if he had to play public courses?

Perhaps, but it seems fitting that Caddyshack came out at the dawn of the Reagan era. The spiritual questioning of the 1960s and 1970s was giving way to a new religion: greed. As the poster for Caddyshack proclaimed, it's the snobs versus the slobs, and although the slobs seemed to win this round, the snobs came back strong.

No comments: