Friday, March 25, 2016

A Woman, Weeping . . .


Long airline flights offer the opportunity to catch up on movies one really ought to have seen but couldn’t manage the enthusiasm to travel all the way to the multiplex for. Recently, I went to Russia. On the way back, I saw Saving Mr. Banks. This is my belated review.

A Woman, Weeping . . .

Saving Mr. Banks begins in Heaven – or so the sunlit clouds would suggest. The camera descends to Earth to show a happy little girl with her loving father in the middle of an impossibly idyllic childhood. Then it cuts to the profoundly unhappy woman she will become.

The hatchet job has begun.

P. L. Travers, the revered author of the Mary Poppins books, is in this accounting in desperate need of scratch. Nevertheless, she resists the largess offered by Disney Studio for the right to make a movie of her life’s work. “Don’t say money! It’s a filthy, disgusting word!” she tells her lawyer. Who, like virtually every other person in this movie, is firmly on Disney’s side.

Looming poverty, however, is in the saddle and Travers must go where it drives her. She accepts a consulting fee for the script, while withholding the right to make the movie.

When Travers arrives in Los Angeles, she thinks it ugly. She hates the chlorine smell of its swimming pools. She does not tolerate fools gladly. She doesn’t want to see Disneyland. She won’t let people call her by her first name. She crams the stuffed toys and corporate kitsch thronging her hotel room out of sight in the closet. She demands script approval. She uses big words. She has a mind and a will of her own. She is everything that can be wrong about a woman.

She is, in short, badly in need of a man who’ll tell her what to do.

Luckily, Walt is on the job. He begins the seduction by holding Travers’ hands and calling her Pamela.  There is a devilish gleam in his eyes.

Travers and the writers proceed to make each others’ lives unbearable. The Banks home as they envision it is far too palatial. She doesn’t approve of the suggestion that Bert and Mary Poppins might be romantically involved. She’s gone off the color red and won’t have it in the movie at all. She is in every instance perfectly unreasonable.

Save for the one aspect of the conflict which is never mentioned: That Mary Poppins as conceived by Travers and Mary Poppins as Disney wishes her to be are not only different people but entirely different creatures. Disney envisions a chipper magical fixer-upper of broken middle class families. Travers’ creation is something deeper, profounder, more mythic.

Meanwhile, back in the past, the father, at first as charming as only a scripted actor can be, begins to fall apart, prey to the twin scourges of alcohol and whimsy. These sections grow increasingly awful and correspondingly more painful to watch. Until finally the point has been bludgeoned home: P. L. Travers has father issues and that is why she is such a miserable old hag.

It is hard to see why anybody would want to watch such a sour, unpleasant movie, seesawing as it does between the growing misery of a child and the slow and cynical bullying of her adult self. But then comes a hint: In the back-story it is deftly shown that Travers’ greatest creation is based on her own nanny, thus implying she doesn’t much deserve credit for a character who was as good as dumped into her lap. Further, the nanny is much more like Disney’s Mary Poppins than the one in the books. P. L. Travers got the character wrong! Disney got it right!

Because there must be character growth, Travers begins to bend. She mounts a carousel horse in Disneyland. She sings and dances along with one of the songs. She allows Walt to call her Pamela and then Pam. She agrees that Los Angeles is beautiful. All this can only be the result of Disney magic. That, or Stockholm Syndrome.

At last, Travers has no choice but to flee back home or lose her soul.

Walt, who admits that he “pretty much” always gets what he wants, pursues her back to London. He invites himself into her house. He calls her a dame. He shares his past with her. He moves in close and calls her Mrs. Travers for the first time. He promises to bring her father back to life, whole, healed, and redeemed.

Sitting on a chair opposite the stuffed Mickey which she has taken into her life as her own personal savior, P. L. Travers sells Mary Poppins down the river.

And they all live happily ever after.

Only… not so much.

It’s become legend by now that when the audience left the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins, an event to which Travers was not invited but which she managed to get into anyway, she was left weeping in the theater, and not for joy. Walt Disney had made the movie he wanted. His studio raked in a great deal of money. And Julie Andrews, perky and simplistically moral, became Mary Poppins for all but a dedicated minority of readers. Walt’s triumph was all but absolute.

Save for that lone, victimized woman, weeping in the dark.

Saving Mr. Banks resolves that unpleasant image by turning Travers’ tears into a cathartic cleansing of her past. Walt (who has fled her presence with the unseemly haste of a man with a guilty conscience), has made something she lacked the imagination to create herself – a fantasy that reconciles her with her father.

Whatever can be the purpose of this sour and not at all entertaining movie if it is not revenge for Travers spoiling the absoluteness of Disney’s victory over her? I suppose a more generous viewer might see it not as pissing on Travers’ grave but as a corporate act of filial piety toward the studio’s founding father. Either way, it is ruthless.

Did you know that P. L. Travers was a journalist? That she was friends with William Butler Yeats? That she lived for two years on a Navajo reservation? Or that she studied with Gurdjieff? It took me three minutes on Google to discover these facts. Emma Thompson did a marvelous job of portraying the woman she was told to portray (there are no bad performances in this movie) but the woman she portrayed could have done none of these things. She was simply a problem to be solved.

And solved she was. As will be all who get between the Mouse and its appetites.



Sandy said...

Michael, how do you think Kipling would have felt about the syrupy Disney version of "The Jungle Book"? He would have screamed! I guess it's an example of the Golden Rule: "Them's who have the gold make the rules." I wish I remembered the name of the author I am going to try to quote (Hemingway? Fitzgerald?) about how an author chould deal with Hollywood and still stay sane. Anyway they said: "I travel to the California border. I meet a studio representative. They pass me a check. I pass them a manuscript. I go home." A pessimistic but realistic statement.

Michael Swanwick said...

What's particularly unpleasant about Disney is how many of the original books they've put out of print so they won't be competing with the Disney spin-offs.

Matt Keeley said...

Did you see Harlan Ellison's review of the movie when it came out? He was not a fan.

Laurence Brothers said...

Incisive! Nice work on this review.