Poppins Fresh

The holiday season often means doing things out of the ordinary.  Despite writing books that deal with movies, I can’t afford to see them in theaters often, but we went as a family to see Mary Poppins Returns.  A few things about that: I grew up never having seen Mary Poppins (I first encountered it in college).  The new movie is neither a remake nor a sequel proper.  It follows the same basic pattern as the original but with new songs and animations, and all of it based on a somewhat darker premise—the death of the mother (which allows Jane and Michael, as adults to both be back in their childhood home) has led to financial straights that threaten to leave the Banks family homeless.  The bank has turned cruelly capitalistic and wants as many foreclosures as possible.  Sinister stuff.

The reason I mention the movie here, however, is a premise that it shares with Hook: children can see things that adults can’t.  Or more precisely, that adults learn not to see.  Some investigators of unusual phenomena suggest that as we grow we’re taught not to believe what we see if it’s impossible.  I’m in no position to assess the validity of such an assertion, being an adult, but it does give me pause for wonder.  We regularly shut out the vast majority of stimuli we experience; our brains are not capable of taking in every little detail all the time.  Instead, we’ve evolved to pay attention to that which is threatening or rewarding to our survival, and we tend to ignore many of the mundane feelings, sights, sounds, and smells that are constantly around us.  Perhaps we do shut out what we’re taught is impossible.  Mary Poppins Returns says it outright. 

In many ways this is behind the materialism we’re spoon-fed daily.  The only reality, we’re told, is that which can be measured and quantified with scientific instruments.  Any apparent reality beyond that is simply illusion.  We all know, however, that our experience of life doesn’t feel that way at all.  There seems to be no counter-argument, however, since we have no empirical evidence to offer.  Experience, we’re told, is unreliable.  Perhaps we’re not too old to learn a few things from the movies.  Mary Poppins Returns won’t likely become the cultural sensation that its forebear was, nevertheless it contains a message that may be worth preserving.  Childhood may hold the keys to understanding reality.

Engendering Fear

menwomenchainsawWe live in fear. At this point in history, it seems, with good reason. Horror films, apart from being considered low art, teach us to deal with some of these fears. I hadn’t been reading about the genre for very long before I began to notice the repeated references to Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. This is Carol J. Clover’s seminal study of gender theory and horror. Probably best known for first identifying the trope of “the final girl,” Clover gives much more than that to the conscientious reader. Her chapter on possession movies is among the most insightful that I’ve read. And yes, she does make a very good case for the final girl.

Using theories of gender, she explores why both boys and girls (the former numerically more obvious) flock to such disturbing movies. Although she suggests masochism has something to do with it, is isn’t simply that boys enjoy seeing girls suffer. Quite the opposite. Boys often see themselves in the place of female victims. As with most things associated with gender, it’s far more complicated than it seems. In that sense, this is a book for our time. We live in what George Banks calls “the age of men,” and while Mary Poppins can hardly be called horror, the underlying narrative bears some warning tones. Men, left to their own devices, will seize what power they can grasp. We’ve spent the last five decades teaching men that this is no longer appropriate, only to have that message wiped away with the final trump. Horror can be remarkably pro-feminine. Business, as we’ve seen over and over, is less so.

Not having ever formally studied gender theory, some of the intricacies of Clover’s argumentation were no doubt lost on me. I was, however, able to gather a remarkable amount of appreciation for the subtexts in many of the movies I’ve watched. Gender, you see, touches everything we do. It behooves us to be aware that careless, or thoughtless support of misogyny does not lead to the results that many men suppose. Some horror movies are truly difficult to watch. Not all conform to the standard expectations. What Clover has shown, however, is that often the women are able to draw from a depth of strength to which the male characters lack access. They don’t do so willingly. In fact, they are often reluctant. When the horror is at its end, however, the final girl emerges triumphant.

Money Poppins

Marypoppins Easy answers seldom hold up. Generalizing is a way of dealing with the vast amounts of data people continually process. Now that many of us in the “developed” world spend much of our time indoors, those skills earned from thousands of generations of learning about the environment have transferred to media of various sorts. I watch a lot of movies—they are my escape from an urban reality that often weighs too heavily on my primate brain. Long ago I relegated Disney to that shelf of the least profound films. Although many of their animated features of the past decade or so have introduced complexities and some seriousness into the mix, often I find myself still hungry after sitting through a helping of the Disney fantasy-land. It seems to me that nature is crueler and more careless than Disney makes it out to be. Nevertheless, sometimes something profound can be discovered in the most unlikely of places.

I never saw Mary Poppins until I was in college, but now I come back to it as an adult from time to time and I still learn from it. While watching recently it struck me that two worlds (at least) are juxtaposed here: the world of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. On the night before the Banks children accompany their father to the bank, Mary Poppins suggests that some things are important, although quite small. She refers, of course, to the birds that the Bird Lady uses to make her pitiful living. She sells crumbs within sight of an opulent bank that stands for the order of society. She is dressed in poor clothing, a beggar woman under the protective gaze of saint and apostles. The bank has guards and bars and powerful men. The worlds are brought into collision by Jane and Michael wanting to feed the birds but they instead are forced to open a bank account. In the ensuing melee, George Banks takes the blame and is fired.

On his way to the bank that night to be sacked, he reevaluates. In a brief but significant scene, he pauses in front of the Cathedral, deserted at night, and scans where the Bird Lady sat. The scene immediately cuts to the bank, still at work, its great doors snapped open by uniformed guards. The Cathedral, dark and glowering, is just down the street. And yet, once dismissed Mr. Banks chooses the way of the Bird Lady, an unemployed man spending tuppence for paper and string to mend a kite. No, I don’t attribute much profundity to Disney, but Mary Poppins does give pause for a moment. We never see the inside of the Cathedral. It is generally dark and forbidding. The bank is light and inviting, yet liable to turn on you. Maybe it is merely lack of sleep, but as I closed my eyes last night, it seemed that even Disney may have, for one brief instant, turned its back on money.

Trapped

Music has always meant a lot to me. I am, however, not musically talented. As I child I never saw The Sound of Music (or Mary Poppins, for that matter). College finally introduced me to Julie Andrews when friends were aghast at how deprived my childhood had been. Sound of Music was cute, but I didn’t really “get it” until someone explained that it is largely a true story. There really was a Maria von Trapp and Captain. Much of the story, of course, my colleagues (not really knowing) told me was fabricated. My daughter has recently returned from a musical tour of part of southern Europe, centering mostly on Austria. The tour group visited Salzburg and saw where part of The Sound of Music was filmed. When she returned home we decided to visit Stowe, Vermont. This mountain community, known for its skiing, is where some of the von Trapp family still live. Not sure what to expect, we signed on for a tour of the Trapp Family Lodge (a little beyond the comfort range of someone unemployed until recently).

The first surprise came when Sam von Trapp, the grandson of Maria, introduced himself as the tour guide. Many of the mysteries of fact versus fiction were cleared up—I can’t reveal it all here, otherwise you might not visit Stowe for yourself—and the person of Maria von Trapp became much more like the rest of us. During an interview taped four years before she died in 1987, Maria explained how the course of her life was changed by the mountains around Salzburg. Feeling the presence of God there, she joined the convent that sent her to tutor one of Baron von Trapp’s daughters and that eventually led to her marriage and the formation of the Trapp family singers. She was urged on in her marriage, as the movie indicates, by the sisters of the convent.

A second surprise emerged as the narrative turned to how the von Trapp family tried to help out others in times of difficulties. Not content to count themselves uniquely blessed by having escaped Austria the day before the Nazis closed the borders of the country, they sent supplies to those who were still under threat of Hitler’s regime after the Anschluss. The home made famous by the movie became Nazi headquarters in Austria. It seems that in this case religion led to a favorable result. Some critics argue that religion brings no good. I have to admit that often I feel as though attempting to justify it at all is a fool’s errand. It is good to be reminded once in a while that lives are sometimes changed for the better by what they believe to be the divine voice. Even in my horror film world, The Sound of Music still has its place.

The Times they are a’Chanin

Across from Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan rises the Chanin Building. Named for Irving S. Chanin, the tower is no longer easily picked out among Manhattan’s dizzying skyline, but the building is a monument to the humanistic spirit that was beginning to flower in the 1920s between the harsh realities of the world wars. Outside the building, above the ground floor shops, runs a bronze frieze that still catches the breath of visitors who stop to stare for a moment or two. Interestingly, the frieze is a monument to evolution, showing the development of “lower” life forms among the water flourishing into birds and fish. Although prosperity gospelers would object to its inherent Darwinian message, they would appreciate a huge monument to the triumph of capitalism in Chanin’s dream, as much of Manhattan reflects.

Antipodes are a fact of geography and human understanding. It would seem that they are also a paradigm for those who “want it all.” Perhaps it is ironic in coming from a Disney movie, but I’ve always found Mary Poppins’ maxim apt: “enough is as good as a feast.” Indeed, leaving the table after eating more than I need I feel miserable and disgusted. There is only so much that people can have, and this is a matter of physics as well as biology. If God wanted us to be wealthy, why didn’t he make us that way? (Surely the God who promotes personal wealth must be male.) Evolution and capitalism could be a dangerous mix should we forget that evolution is not goal-oriented. Natural selection works by trial-and-error, only the trial isn’t planned or intelligent.

This dialectic reminds me of that old chestnut, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Ursus, the gorilla warlord, gives a jingoistic speech concerning the Forbidden Zone. “It is therefore our holy duty to put our feet upon it, to enter it, to put the marks of our guns and our wheels and our flags upon it.” Of course, this second, lesser installment of the Planet of the Apes movies raises the entire specter of nuclear war to a disturbingly sacred level, but that’s a topic for another post. What I notice is the full circle of evolution here—not just human to ape, but human to capitalist ape. Apes that wish to own and control their entire world, including that region where, in the original movie, both ape and human fear to go. It should not surprise me to see talking apes in Manhattan, but then again, it might just be the bright sun reflecting off the bronze of Irving Chanin’s monument to economic growth.

P. T. Mammon

Phineas Taylor Barnum is frequently treated as a figure of cynicism personified. As the founder of what would eventually become the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, P. T. was a noted hoaxer and scam artist. He capitalized on the fact that people will pay to see anything they are gullible enough to believe. Unfortunately, many human beings were exploited for their unusual characteristics, but he was also known as a philanthropist with an eye for reform. Most people don’t realize that Barnum’s early career involved being a salesman for the Sears’ Pictorial Illustrations of the Bible. From Bible salesman to huckster extraordinaire. The great American success story.

In what I see as a related article on Religion Dispatches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, has taken legal action to move Occupy London protestors from its property. As religions go, it is difficult to conceive of a more established, conformist church than the C of E. (Well, maybe the Roman Catholic Church could vie.) St. Paul’s Cathedral actually charges an admission fee (not a cheap one either), perhaps cashing in on Mary Poppins; Feed the Bishops, I believe it’s called. The reason that the Cathedral is seeking to remove the undesirables (the cathedral is next door to the London Stock Exchange) is that they interference in business. Hard to charge admission to people who can’t come in. It’s not so much to save souls as it is to horde pounds. Problem is, the message of ancient Christianity more closely matches that of the Occupy movement than it does the Church of England. Barnum knew the selling power of religion. So do bishops and countless priests. How long do you suppose the clergy would remain if Christianity went back to the “tent making” model of the first century? I suspect there would be quite a few more prelates at Occupy London.

Somehow money and religion have become all tangled together. Not that I would begrudge any clergy of a fair salary—I’ve been on the receiving end of not receiving adequate pay myself, and I wish it on no one. When money, however, is the sine qua non of the religious establishment, where has compassion gone? One would like to think that clergy would be among the first to stand in solidarity with those protesting unfair business practices. But ah, the church is very establishment-oriented. Not just the C of E, either. Most churches have fallen into the comfortable zone of supporting the system and teaching their adherents that this is all in the divine plan. A kind of cosmic quid pro quo. According to the Gospel writers Jesus chased the money-changers out of the temple. Phineas Taylor knew that giving people what they wanted often trumped the honest truth. “The noblest art is that of making others happy,” he once stated. Somewhere along the line, the admission price shifted from the circus to the cathedral. There is one born every minute, indeed.

Step in Time

Magical blingdom

Mary Poppins is one of my wife’s favorite childhood movies. I first saw it in college and, being a parent, have seen it many times since then. Now when I walk through Times Square I see it is playing at the New Amsterdam Theater, and if I time it right I can hear bits of the musical on my way to the Port Authority after work. As is normal in the universe according to Disney, nothing is really ever seriously wrong in the London of 1910. Troublesome children are doing nothing more than chasing a kite and attempting to connect with an emotionally distant father. Even when he loses his job, Banks merely suffers an inverted umbrella and a punched hat. Joblessness lasts for only a day. Everybody sings. When we watched the movie again recently I considered how such an escape is healthy for those of us accustomed to a somewhat harsher adult existence. Joblessness is often long-term and desperation reeks as we find ourselves distanced from that which defines our existence.

Mary Poppins represents a divine figure in the Disney universe. She comes down from the heavens during a troubled period of history, judiciously utilizes a bit of magic, and heals the broken-hearted. When things go bad, Mary Poppins is there to make them right again, even on her day off. She shows the cold-hearted world of business that there is a better way. Who would you rather be—George Banks or the Bird Lady? Who is happier?

“All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles,” saintly Mary sings, “look down as she sells her wares. And although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares.” Where are the saints and apostles of Wall Street? Instead the optimistic view of humanity plays itself out on Broadway where the intensity of humankind spans from homeless beggar to movie star. Fantasy is underrated. Our minds have evolved the capacity to allow us to escape the realities of suffering, disappointment, and angst. When a week of trouble and turmoil has held us in its grip, we may still escape to the magical kingdom of our choice to find bread and circuses. Mary Poppins does not condemn the greed of Mr. Dawes and the rich die laughing. It is difficult not to like Mary Poppins, the angelic symbol of care that doesn’t disrupt the system. And Disney will see no end to its place among the wealthiest families on earth. It is a small world, after all.