Xmas Special Film Noir –Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins

The movie, Saving Mr Banks, portrays the creator of Mary Poppins, P L Travers, as stiff-necked.  Some Americans think that if you drink tea from a cup and saucer it automatically follows.  Travers was a bohemian and a fan of the wandering hippie prototype, George Gurdjieff.  The Beatles discovered their equivalent, Mararishi Mahesh Yogi, in the late 60s.  The film, Mary Poppins, was released in 1964.  This has significance.  Mary Poppins appears and tells children and their parents that we live in a crushing conformist world.  In the decade that followed, teenagers argued that the lives of adults were unbearable.  For a brief period, people believed we were obliged to escape the demands of the money making machine.

Mary was adamant.  All we need to do is relax and laugh and we can float up to the ceiling.  Unlike Poppins and the children, the bank manager dies from laughing on the journey, presumably because desperate conformists will not be suitable for the freethinking world that is within our grasp. The wealthy will always be preoccupied with money and have to grab ‘tuppence’, every last penny.  The bank manager is called Mr Dawes but the doors he opens are traps.

The hero of Travers, Gurdjieff, describes bourgeois conformity and consciousness as ‘the waking sleep’.  At the end of the movie, when Mr Banks flies the kite, a marvellous dreamlike pun, he has escaped this waking sleep.  The family will be happy in their small island of financially secure non-conformity.

Much of the mysticism that mars the books was not included in the film.   Travers had script approval, so perhaps she had mellowed by then.  The film critic of Time magazine described the film as ‘impeccably sentimental’.   It is the hippie moments that constitute the acceptable sentimentality and, although the happy ending is not convincing, they make the film enjoyable for children.  As do the animated sequences, which allow an escape from conformity and the demands of powerful oppressors.

What is best about the film, and qualifies it as film noir, is the bleak vision of the fate that awaits ordinary man.  Travers is clear.  No one should endure what the powerful demand.  It crushes the spirit and wastes too many lives.  A similar message exists in A Christmas Carol but Dickens is too savvy to alienate his middle class readers.  Scrooge is presented as an extreme and isolated example.  Mary Poppins is bleaker because it reveals that to survive we all acquire elements of Scrooge.  Travers hated the animation sequences but raised no objections against the chimney sweeps celebrating their temporary freedom on top of the London houses that they clean.  Not only can they dance and sing, they look at St Pauls and claim its grandeur as relevant to their lives.

Travers may have created books that entertain children but she also knew how to nag and the film nags continually at the compromises we make.  The adult who watches Mary Poppins without feeling guilt or regret needs to worry.

Howard Jackson has had three books published by Red Rattle Books.  His next book, Nightmares Ahead, will be published by Red Rattle Books in Spring 2015.  If you want to read more by Howard Jackson click here.


Film Noir Bonus – Batman – The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

If any Hollywood blockbuster makes a film noir list, it will be The Dark Knight. When introduced in 1939, Batman served as a fascist fantasy to resist Franklyn Roosevelt. Those roots are obvious in The Dark Knight. Except the line, ‘Die a hero or live long enough and become the villain’, reduces the distance between noir gloom and super hero paranoia. Fabulous muscles or not, Batman has to battle against a fate that dooms him to alienation and depression.

Gotham in Batman is dystopian. The heroes provide no relief. Ordinary people suffer while the omnipotent and exceptional seek vengeance against each other. The opening shot in The Dark Knight echoes the beginning of Psycho. It zooms into a window in a tall building.   In Psycho, the audience sneaks a look below the venetian blind. In The Dark Knight, the criminal invites the audience inside by smashing the window with his machine gun. Windows are destroyed throughout The Dark Knight; the invitation to see by cinema is persistent. This may be for effect but it echoes how the film is obsessed with facial appearance and identity. Batman and The Joker use masks to pretend they are something they are not. Harvey Dent, whose own name is defeatist, becomes a villain when his face is disfigured. The Joker is desperate to see the face of Batman and know his equal. Perhaps, the vulnerable windows that are smashed hint at the random destruction of external identity and our desire to destroy the delusions of others.

After the first wrecked window, the bank heist begins. We are reminded of the racecourse robbery in the classic film noir, The Killing. As that movie insisted, tragedy requires unfulfilled potential. And the Joker is special. Because the mask is permanent, he always amuses and terrifies. Batman, like Zorro, is dull without the mask yet the mask, when worn, only reduces him to an anonymous avenger.

Many interpret The Dark Knight as a response to 9/11; allege it reveals what is at stake for the community when faced with terrorists wanting chaos and destruction. Michael Caine remembers his army company killing a bandit in the forest. They burned down the forest. This is either a liberal warning or fascist assertion. There are many metaphors in The Dark Knight and, at times, some Hollywood mumbo jumbo like the speech at the end of the film. Too many metaphors exist as loose ends for them to be thematic. We can only have our own ideas. But 9/11 analysis reduces the movie and ignores the huge contribution of Heath Ledger as the Joker.

The death of Ledger is sad but perhaps he realised he could not live beyond immortality. His dazzling plea on behalf of the dangerous creative spirit is his suitable and unforgettable farewell.

‘Some men just want to watch the world burn,’ says Michael Caine.

And why not, one is tempted to think, watching Ledger. Being crazy can lead to terrible harm to others and self-destruction but it definitely massages the creative impulse.

Howard Jackson has had three books published by Red Rattle Books. His collection of horror stories called Nightmares Ahead will be published by Red Rattle Books in spring 2015.   If you want to read more about American culture click here.