kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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For some inexplicable reason (as in, no idea how I followed whatever links to end up there), this evening I ended up on a wiki page about the film, Mary Poppins. I have never liked this film, although as a kid I liked Julie Andrews well enough that she often saved films for me that I'd otherwise detest. But Mary Poppins, hm. And although CP calls this an example of a severe reinterpretation of the text (and one mostly unsupported by the text), it's still there, in my head, all these years later.

First, let's get this out of the way: Dick Van Dyke does the worst Cockney accent. Despite being born-and-raised American, when I finally saw Mary Poppins, I assumed he was from somewhere else in America, and not British (or Cockney, allegedly). This is because I'd already been to England and met several lovely elderly Cockneys while we were in London, and Dyke didn't talk anything like them. Plus, he was completely comprehensible, and right there, I knew he couldn't be really British, because you had to listen hard when someone from London spoke or else you couldn't figure out a word of it. Even the people in Aberdeen were easier to understand, with a little work, than the taxi drivers and bed/breakfast keepers we met in London.

So there's that level of a wrong note (so to speak), but there are deeper levels. One is that before I ever saw the film Mary Poppins, I'd read Kingsley's Water-Babies. (Later I saw some of the so-called filmic/animated adaptation of the book, and was disgusted with the fact that it was nothing like the book.) Water-Babies made a huge impact on me; while I was used to Dickens and his thorough applications of bathos for the sake of making his young protagonists (ie Oliver) sympathetic, Dickens also had later movies to deal with where Fagin and his crew were iffy and dirty but hardly, y'know, freaking terrifying like Oliver Reed. But Water-Babies pulls no punches about the life and tasks of its chimney sweep protagonist, and at the young age of maybe six or seven, trying to imagine a life of a chimney sweep came very close to giving me nightmares. If there is anything on this planet that I would never, ever, ever wish upon any child, it would be cleaning chimneys.

And then there's the song by Mrs Banks, about being a suffragette. I guess I was maybe nine or ten? when I finally saw Mary Poppins, and I already knew what suffragettes were. (Thank you, Mom, the feminist.) Except that in the movie -- relatively straightforward and crowd-rousing lyrics aside -- the movie-Mom wasn't treated like a hero. She was treated like a ditz who, I don't know, did suffragette-ing on the side, on Sunday afternoons, like a weekly hobby to keep herself busy between doing wash on Tuesdays and having other ladies over for high tea on Thursdays. And maybe some silver-polishing on Saturday morning. Or whatever upper-class British ladies did, which (in my admittedly young and inexperienced opinion) seemed to amount to a lot of dabbling. And looking ornamental.

But the film's pivotal role -- and the real bearer of any moral message -- is Mary Poppins herself, and she seems to treat (or so I recall) Mrs. Banks as though Mrs Banks is little more than a twittering ditz, and mostly useless. I knew my American history and that women fought for a long, long time before they got the vote, so I figured in Britain it was probably similar, and that (at the time) a lot of men saw women wanting the vote as something that should never happen, and would never amount to any good. So I completely expected Mr Banks' dismissive reaction to his wife's activism; it was Mary Poppins' dismissiveness that really baffled me, and then annoyed me. I mean, if Mary Poppins is supposed to be so smart, why would she a) treat another woman like she's stupid, and b) not respect and support a woman trying to make life better for all women?

Thus I was already a bit iffy on the film, first time I watched it, but the clincher was the song, Chim Chim Cher-ee (link goes to lyrics). It's in a minor chord, and compared to the way the entire film is done in bright pastel and ice-cream colors (including those incredibly stupid animated sequences), it's strangely wrong. It's also horribly wrong and double-layered, if you'd read Water-Babies and knew what conditions young chimney sweeps really faced, even as late as the Edwardian period.

Like these lines from the song:
Now, as the ladder of life 'as been strung
You might think a sweep's on the bottommost rung
Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke
In this 'ole wide world there's no 'appier bloke

I knew already that a chimney sweep's life was -- in three words -- short, nasty, and brutal. I found it repugnant and incomprehensible not only that the rooftops could be filled with smiling dancing chimney sweeps, but it also wasn't lost on me that the entire production seemed staged for the sake of convincing two sparkling-clean, and nanny-sheltered, rich little kids that, oh, if you really want to be happy, you'd be happiest as a chimney sweep. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It felt like some kind of minstrel show, where the lowest put on a song-and-dance to convince the highest that, hey, we're all happy here. You can be secure in your privilege, because we don't hate you for having everything we don't (including some basic modicum of safety and chance of living past your tenth birthday).

The minor chord is especially important here, because it's somewhat threatening, and foreboding, and doesn't resolve with the same intuitive 'emotion' as a major chord. It's only a partial resolution, in a way (though musically, yes, I think it's still technically a full resolution). It feels like a dirge, just sped up. It's still mournful, and that undermines the lyrical assurance that we're all happy here.

It's the last bit, sung by Bert, that really got me, though:
Up where the smoke is all billered and curled
'Tween pavement and stars is the chimney sweep world
When there's 'ardly no day nor 'ardly no night
There's things 'alf in shadow and 'alfway in light

I might not have had the vocabulary as a child, but I wasn't so young (nor unread) that I couldn't grasp the concept of a liminal world. The sweeps are neither on the ground nor in the sky, at the juncture that's neither fully day nor night, compared to the rest of the film which is placed squarely under the bright lights. And I'm not certain, but I could swear the dance segment (with all the sweeps) is one of the few that's shadowed, without the bright ice-cream-parlor colors of the rest of the movie. It's just fat on the fire that the song is presented as a production meant solely to entertain two high-privileged kids who'll go home to soft beds and days without risk of an agonizing young death from inhaling lungfuls of soot every day.

Thing is, that song entranced me as a kid, because it hinted at things the rest of the movie disdained to show. It also felt like in one melody line, it had peeled back the movie's entire artifice -- from the way Mrs Banks' suffragette aspirations are ridiculed as the hobby of a dilletante ditz with too much time on her hands, to the cheerful assurance that a guy at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder could be happy to be so low, to Mary Poppins' own apparent annoyance with most of the other adult characters.

I wanted to see the story that occupied that space half in shadow and halfway in light, instead of the artificial buoyancy of the Disneyified film I got, but it felt like Mary Poppins' actual role wasn't as a protector or somewhat eccentric nanny. Instead, her role seemed to be to show the children only a certain type of magic, one prettified and somewhat controllable (or at least, controllable when she snapped her voice and insisted everyone behave). In her world, things had their proper place -- including unruly children and bored housewives -- and her job was to enforce that, while providing a sugary veneer that'd make everyone willingly swallow the so-called medicine.

Except that this one scene, the chimneysweeps were hinting at everything else, and that everything else was something big enough that it couldn't always be kept under pretty wraps, that it could sneak in sideways and curl itself around you like a wisp of smoke. Like the undersides of things, I can remember suspecting while watching the film, the undersides of things are much bigger than any smothering blanket Mary Poppins might throw over to keep your eyes closed to what else is there. In a way, for all Mary Poppins' supposed-magical touches, all she really did was confirm what every kid already knows (and was probably expressed much more kid-like and multi-layered in stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Kids already know the world is an amazing and magical place because it's all new to them, double for kids lucky enough to be born to privilege and thus with more chances to be exposed to a wider swath of experiences.

But the chimneysweeps' lyrics hinted at the real magic, the kind that -- like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- is never more than only barely controllable, if not utterly chaotic. It's something neither fully day nor fully night, dangerous and unexpected and probably not in ice-cream colors. Mary Poppins' disinterest in, and disdain for, that kind of magic is part of the reason that all my love for Julie Andrews can't make that movie bearable for me.

Because Mary Poppins isn't part of the magic; she's part of what wants to hand you some kind of pastel-chalk pap and tell you that's Appropriate Magic, which isn't really a magic at all. The real magic doesn't fit in boxes like that; it's neither on the ground nor in the sky, neither in the day nor the night, it's something that goes by its own rules. And Mary Poppins is, if nothing else, an entire bundle of rules where everything is one or the other.

Maybe if you fall for the surface and figure it's new-to-you and this makes it magical, then Mary Poppins is a kind of magic, but to the child I was, she was an icon of anti-magic, of the very worst kind. She pretended to magic while teaching you that the real dreams -- like of chimney sweeps who might ever want to be something other than everyone's soot-covered lucky charm, or housewives who want social and political equality -- are dreams that aren't acceptable, because they break the rules.

Mary Poppins isn't a trickster. She's the anti-trickster. As a child I realized that instinctively, and distrusted her for it. Give me El-ahrairah any day.



Slight tangent but worthy of note, for me: I only vaguely recall the very 1860s-era prejudice in Water-Babies (against Irish, Americans, Jews, and Catholics, apparently). But I do recall the clear "anything is possible" attitude, though I didn't realize until reading the Wiki entry that Kingsley was a friend of Darwin's.
The book had been intended in part as a satire, a tract against child labour, as well as a serious critique of the closed-minded approaches of many scientists of the day in their response to Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution, which Kingsley had been one of the first to praise. ... In the book, for example, Kingsley argues that no person is qualified to say that something that they have never seen (like a human soul or a water baby) does not exist.

How do you know that? Have you been there to see? And if you had been there to see, and had seen none, that would not prove that there were none ... And no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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