Monday, June 13, 2011

That's Why God Made the Movies

The story told in this song is extremely sad, yet there seems to be a sarcasm about the telling of it by the speaker. Whether the sarcasm is bitter or dismissive-- or both-- is hard to tell. Maybe the speaker has mixed emotions about his mother dying on his birthing table; maybe one of those emotions is such a deep sorrow that he dare not approach it, for fear of falling in inescapably in. So he builds a protective wall of nonchalance around it.

Surely, we cannot take what is said about the story literally. The main character is a newborn who can talk, walk, and even "pack" his own "bag." Later, he claims he was raised "by wolves."

Then come two more seemingly unrelated thoughts. The song shifts in the chorus to a love song. The speaker pleads with his lover not to leave, to accept him for who he is.

And then there is the repeated line about God having invented the film industry.

What's going on here?

Let's agree that the speaker's mother did, in fact, die in childbirth. What would have happened, absenting any family to claim him, would be that the foster care system would take charge of him. Being raised by unfamiliar people and a bureaucratic system could certainly feel like stealing away in to the night and being raised by "wolves," especially if those who fostered him were uncaring and only in it for the stipend.

Now that he is an adult, he is sharing his painful story with his lover. He pleads with her not to leave-- he is trying to explain why he would have what today are called "abandonment issues." "Say you won't leave me for no other man," he begs.

He is trying to make this woman replace his mother: "...take me to your loving breast/...nourish me." As if to make it clear that this is the case, Simon refers back to the previous song with next the line: "...the way the ladies sometimes do." Recall that in the immediately previous song, "Late in the Evening," the speaker's mother laughed "the way some ladies do."

With "Say you'll love me just the way I am," the speaker asks for acceptance not just in the general sense-- all people long to be accepted-- but for his specific issues and "baggage." His mother died just as he was born, and this loss is still painful, and he would have a very hard time experiencing another such loss.

As for "the movies," look at the images Simon pairs with that line. In the first and third verses, we have the last words "I'll only be gone for a while," and the idea of a feral child. These are movie-level experiences, heightened and false. They only happen in the realm of the imagination.

Then the line about movie is preceded, in the second verse, with "hoping things would turn out right." Is this as imaginative and fanciful a concept? Do things, in fact, only turn out right in fiction?

So it is possible that God made the movies because such imaginings needed somewhere to reside. Somewhere both visual and auditory, and in some means through which they could be shared with others. Both movies (which this is) and live music (which is what the movie itself is about) fill this bill.

Another reason is that movies, by dint of their artifice, allow an escape from the true pains of life. It is true that mothers die in childbirth. It is true that children are raised by those who would qualify as "wolves," or are left to fend for themselves.

And what could be a bulwark against having to deal with the severity of that reality, especially if one were facing it oneself? Sarcasm. Love, both parental and romantic. Art. All of these for alternate realities in which one might escape from the real reality. All create worlds in which things can "turn out right."

I don't feel too much should be made of the mention of God. It seems to simply be part of an idiom, meaning "that's why X exists." There is no expansion on the concept of God, no other religious or Biblical images that make religion an overarching theme. However, if any-One knew that humans need to escape reality once it a while, it would be the Architect of reality and humans both. (Tune in next week, though, for a song that mentions God and is surprisingly religious despite its other themes).

On one level, this is a song about a man who, losing his mother, seeks to make his lover a surrogate maternal figure. On a larger level, it is about the need to find an escape, a haven, from the brutal realities of life.

But it must be mentioned that this is a song about the power and necessity of movies... that was written for a movie.

Next Song: One Trick Pony


  1. well thought and put on such an underrated song and


  2. Mark-- Thanks. I think there is just so much brain-space anyone can give to this or that singer, so for so many, if they are given any thought at all, it's just to their "Greatest Hits." But for a songwriter like Simon, every song is worth seeking out, as you say.

  3. I only found out today that the Beach Boys had a song called "That's Why God Made the Radio". The refrain and title of the Paul Simon song has to be an allusion to that.

  4. Mike-- Thanks for the catch! The Simon movie came out in 1980, and the Beach Boys song could easily have been released before then. As to why he changed it to "movie," well, this was Simon's first stab at a movie.