Monday, April 22, 2013

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Here Comes Mr. Jordan
seen on TV @ TCM
4.18.13

First, I should mention that Here Comes Mr. Jordan is badly plotted. The film is about a boxer named Joe who dies in a plane crash, but it turns out he wasn't "supposed" to, according to an afterlife bureaucracy run by the eponymous Mr. Jordan. Joe's wayward soul must then find a new body so that he can fulfill his destiny. On a micro level, there's the matter of the magic saxophone. (Joe is also an amateur musician.) It comes with him to the afterlife and returns to reality as if it, too, had a life of its own. How? At one point, Joe is able to touch it even though it is matter and he is spirit. I realize it's part of Joe's "identity," but the movie goes to odd lengths to keep it with him.

On a larger level - spoiler alert for a seventy-year-old movie - eventually Joe quantum-leaps into the body of another boxer who just got shot during a match (long story), AN INCIDENT WHICH NO ONE NOTICES. The second boxer, Murdock, was losing the fight and Joe wins it for him as his soul departs his body, but nothing is made of the fact that someone just got shot! Did audiences from 1941 simply not notice this? I mean, it's pretty damn obvious - so obvious, in fact, that I thought perhaps it didn't happen, but it did. Plot holes aside, however, that's not what I wanna focus on.



Jordan is another film that deals with destiny and the afterlife, like Heaven Can Wait, Cabin in the Sky, and the more recent The Adjustment Bureau. As I mentioned last week, the concept of predetermination is one I find of great interest, even though I don't believe in it myself. I believe the ways in which the concept manifests itself in popular culture tells us a great deal about ourselves and how we relate to the world.

Like Bureau, the afterlife in Jordan is run by a secular agency of supernatural beings, as a kind of substitute, or perhaps, a supplement, for God (though I believe Bureau makes allusions to some kind of supreme being). However, from the get-go, we see that this agency is fallible, as one of its agents, Edward Everett Horton's character, is responsible for the mix-up that causes Joe's premature death. This is important, and I'll return to it.



Mr. Jordan assigns Joe the body of a wealthy-but-unscrupulous businessman until he can find a body better suited for a boxer. Joe gets this new body in fighting shape, however, and redeems the previous user's character, even as he falls in love with a chick. So when Mr. Jordan returns to tell Joe he's found a new body, Joe is reluctant to leave. Mr. Jordan, however, insists he must leave it, because it was never meant to be anything other than temporary. In order to fulfill his destiny as a champion, he must vacate this body and occupy the new one. Joe tries, but is unable to resist.

The ancient Greeks believed that one could not fight one's fate, even though the path one takes toward that fate can be controlled to an extent. According to Mr. Jordan, Joe's fate is set in stone, and even though in this case his fate happens to be a positive one, Joe, like Matt Damon's character in Bureau, wants to reassert control. In Bureau, Damon's struggle for control is the central conflict of the movie, and it's seen as a brave and heroic one. Here, we're led to believe that the paternalistic Mr. Jordan knows what's best and that he should be trusted.



But why should he be trusted, especially when his organization has already mucked with Joe's life once, through no fault of his own? Mr. Jordan's agents answer to him, making him responsible for them. If they're imperfect, that makes him imperfect by association, and if Mr. Jordan can be seen as a metaphor for God - a reasonable parallel - then this movie would have you believe that God is, in fact, fallible, which goes against everything we've been led to believe about Him for thousands of years. I doubt that this is what we're meant to take away from the film. Still, that's not even the effed up part.

When Joe quantum-leaps into the boxer Murdock, he finishes the fight and becomes champion, fulfilling his destiny. As a result, Joe's soul... how to put it... assumes the Murdock identity, even though the original Murdock's soul has left the body, a fact confirmed by Mr. Jordan himself. Besides the fact that there should be no Murdock identity left on the earthly plane, this strikes me as a total miscarriage of justice. 



When Joe was in the businessman's body, his personality was dominant. This is a point that the film goes to great lengths to make clear: even though the world sees him as the businessman on the outside, on the inside, it's still Joe. After Joe wins the championship as Murdock, he loses his identity and becomes Murdock, body and soul - and this is wrong! 

Joe originally died as a result of incompetence on the part of Mr. Jordan's organization; it's made explicitly clear that he was not supposed to die at that point in his life. Therefore, Joe's soul is owed a second chance at life, not Murdock's. No one questions Murdock's death; there's no doubt that Murdock died at the proper moment. Mr. Jordan, in fact, even states that Murdock (a soul without a body now) was happy to see that Joe won the fight for him. So why does Joe become him? That makes no sense, and worse, it cheats Joe out of the rest of his life, which Mr. Jordan says has another fifty years to go on it.



Of course, if you believe in reincarnation, then this is probably no big deal. However, the hierarchy of the afterlife as presented in Jordan, with a central authority figure and numerous subordinates, is too similar to the Christian concept of heaven for it to be interpreted otherwise.

So Mr. Jordan makes up for his error and everything works out in the end - Joe even manages to get his girl back, in a roundabout way - so everything's cool, right? I dunno. Jordan seems to provide contradictory messages that I remain uncomfortable with. If Joe's soul had stayed in his temporary body, I'm inclined to think that things would've worked out for the best. Joe's boxing knowledge remained intact, he was able to get back in shape, and he was on track to get his shot at the championship. Plus, he had his girl. Mr. Jordan insisting on a different body strikes me as him reasserting his need for control over Joe's destiny, and by extension, all mortals. But maybe I'm reading too much into what's essentially a light comedy?

4 comments:

  1. Yep. Joe was gypped. However, with such a delightful cast and tear-jerking ending I don't care. Well, I do care, but I overlook it because of aforementioned delightful cast and tear-jerking ending.

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  2. It is a good cast; you're right about that. Strange to see Claude Rains as a good guy, but I liked him. I also liked the guy who played Joe's trainer.

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    1. That's James Gleason. He was Oscar nominated for the role of Max Corkle, but that same year was award worthy as a newspaper editor in "Meet John Doe".

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  3. Okay, yeah, I saw 'Meet John Doe.' Oscar-nominated, huh? He deserved that.

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