Sunday, July 15, 2018

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
The title of this 1979 winner of the Best Picture Oscar pretty much gets to the heart of the story. And, hearts can be the casualties of the civil war that derives from the conflict that rips apart the emotional fabric shared by two people who married because of their love for each other. Although the movie might seem out of date now, it actually broke ground in presenting the fallout of divorce in a film, reassessing gender roles in a domestic union, and showing the predicament of a single parent in American society. What makes this motion picture resonate with audiences is how true it feels to so many people who have shared the experiences of the main characters.

The first shot is of Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep in her first Oscar-winning role, here for supporting actress). The image looks like a portrait of a sad and drained woman. Her hand rests near her face, her wedding ring prominently visible, immediately telling us that it is her marriage that the story will be focusing on. While tucking in her seven year old son, Billy (Justin Henry) for the night, we know from the sorrowful way she tells him that she loves him that this is not easy for her. There is a wrenching irony in her son’s statement when he says, “I’ll see you in the morning.” Added irony exists in the bright, fluffy clouds painted on the boy’s bedroom walls, implying the parent’s desire for Billy to always have pleasant days.
It is obviously late in the day, since the boy is going to sleep, and it is late in Joanna’s marriage. While she packs her bags, there are cuts to her husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman, also winning his first Oscar, for Best Actor), shooting the breeze with his boss at the advertising firm where he works. He is talking about buying an expensive coat as a symbol of his success when he was promoted, which emphasizes that he measures success by material gains, and not by the state of his family’s emotional health. He is oblivious to the late hour, and the fact that he is ignoring his family, until another worker walks in saying how he must get home. But, before he leaves, Ted’s boss, Jim O’Connor (George Coe), tells Ted that he will be handling a big money account. While walking on the street, Ted passes impoverished street musicians, playing the Vivaldi piece which opens the film. This quick shot stresses stresses how this society does not reward the beauty of their artistic achievement. (Director Robert Benton making an analogy to struggling filmmakers?).
When Ted arrives home, he is not even aware of Joanna’s luggage, showing how he has not paid attention to her in the marriage. He is on the phone checking about a work activity, and just keeps talking, with no attempt to see how his wife is doing. He says to her, as a bit of gossip, that a fellow employee committed suicide. This line is significant as it shows how Ted sees it as a bit of surprising news that doesn’t really affect him, but which indicates how the collateral damage that the rat race capitalism in which he is engaged has also impacted his own life. Joanna must interrupt Ted, nervously telling him that she is leaving him. Her short list of facts also carries meaning. She is leaving him her credit cards, which tell us that she has not established credit of her own. She has withdrawn two thousand dollars from their joint account, the amount she had when entering the marriage, illustrating that she has little economic independence. She gives him the receipts to pick up the laundry and dry cleaning, emphasizing that he must now pick up the clothes, and she has paid the bills. These are all domestic responsibilities that he has absented himself from.
Ted’s response is condescending, insensitive, and self-centered. He is not thinking of her pain. He only sees how she has ruined his big work news. He reveals his attitude when he says to her that he is sorry that he was late but he was busy making a living. He seems to think that her extreme act is just because he is coming home late this night. He flashes her a charming smile that shows how he thinks he can easily smooth out what he considers to be a simple bump in their relationship road. Joanna again performs an almost missed act that carries significance. She tugs at her wedding ring, as if wanting to free herself of this torment. But, she does not take it off, symbolizing how difficult it is to end her ties to this life to which she has committed herself, no matter how much distress she is in. Ted then asks, “Tell me what I did?” Men and women can connect with this statement, because men many times do not seem to be able to figure out what they have done wrong, and having to ask shows their lack of insight into their partner’s complaint. Also, it points to the male disposition to fix things quickly, as if they equate relationship repair with using a wrench to tighten a loose bolt.

Joanna goes into the hall, pleading with Ted that if he makes her stay she will eventually jump out a window (echoing Ted’s co-worker’s suicide). She tells him that he married the wrong kind of person for the wife he wanted. At this point, she blames herself. She says she is no good for Billy, lacking patience, and emotionally not capable of being a good mother in her current state. As she is ready to leave him she admits that she doesn’t love him anymore, which emphasizes the finality of her connection to him. (Streep once said, because she creates backstories for her characters, that Jonna never really loved Ted). She departs in the elevator, and elevators are used two other times in the story to show the varying degrees of separation between these two people. Here it is used to demonstrate Joanna pulling away from Ted.
Ted seems incapable of dealing with the situation, and is in denial. He makes calls to find out where Joanna has gone. He feels that Joanna will come to her senses, as it were, and return, because she can’t get far without so much of her personal items. He doesn’t see that she wants to start over, leaving behind the refuse of her past life. Even in this family crisis, he says on the phone that he has a great deal of work to do, showing where he places his priorities. The couple’s friend who lives in the same building, Margaret (Jane Alexander) visits. Ted doesn’t want to take responsibility for what has happened to his marriage, showing the universal male response to lash out when a man’s pride is hurt. So, he wants to put the blame on Margaret. She has broken up with her husband, and he accuses her of putting the idea to leave in Joanna’s mind. Ted, again showing his selfishness, says, “Can’t you understand what she’s done to me?” Margaret says that Joanna was a very unhappy person, and it took courage to leave. Ted counters by saying, “How much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?” It is understandable to agree with Ted here, because many of us believe one puts a child first, no matter what the sacrifice. But, knowing the importance of putting her son’s happiness first, it is extremely difficult for Joanna to admit that she is actually a threat to Billy’s happiness, and therefore, must leave.
The movie many times is able to use humor despite the unsettling nature of its topic. One instance occurs the morning after Joanna’s departure. Ted tries to make Billy think nothing is wrong as he tries to prepare French toast. Even though he acts like men are superior cooks, he has no kitchen skills, and his attempt at making breakfast is a disaster. He lets part of the eggshell fall into the bowl and tells Billy it’s okay because it just makes the food crunchy. He uses a coffee mug for the egg mixture, and can’t fit the bread slices in it. He lies to cover up his inadequacies. He says that all restaurants fold the bread. He puts way too much coffee in the French press to the point he can’t even push down on the grounds. His son knows more about making the meal than dad does. Billy warns his father about his mistakes, which Ted won’t acknowledge, which is what he did with wife. When the bread is burning, Billy alerts him, and Ted carelessly grabs the hot pan handle and burns himself. He then yells out, “Goddamn her!” His phony positive facade crumbles even after a little testing, and he again places fault elsewhere for his situation.

There is a little more humor when Ted drops Billy at school on his way to work. Billy’s vulnerability starts to show as he asks if his mother will pick him up after school. Ted says she probably will and, if not, he will. Billy then asks what if his father gets killed. Ted says then Mommy will pick him up. A child’s desire for security is so strong, the actual death of the father is not really comprehended. Billy is just seeking protection for himself. And, Ted plays along with Billy’s concerns about his problem, as opposed to Billy not being worried about the supposed demise of his father.

Ted is still in denial as he calls home from work, thinking Joanna may have returned. At work, Ted shares what has happened concerning Joanna with his boss. Ted says he may have been wrong to not pay attention to his wife’s needs because he was so absorbed with his work lately. However, he sees it as an acute problem, not that there were fundamental flaws with the marriage. He exhibits a stereotypical sexist attitude by saying that Joanna and her friend Margaret started to “yap, yap, yap” about “women’s lib.” His boss shakes his head and smiles in agreement, joining Ted in the condescending belief that women’s liberation is just some fad and an annoyance, and a woman will calm down after a bit and return to her husband. Ted says it was just Joanna’s way of getting his attention to be more attentive, so he does not here understand the depth of the problem. His boss does say that currently Billy is a “problem.” He advises Ted to send Billy away to stay with relatives so that Ted can deal with the big account. His reaction reflects a cold, bottom line, business attitude by considering a young child as a hindrance to the job, as opposed to showing caring and understanding for Ted and Billy’s plight. Ted says he has not let his home life interfere with his job in the past, (that was because Joanna took care of everything at home, and is an ironic statement in light of what follows) and he will be totally committed to the job. But he reveals a chink in his reassuring armor as his voice stammers and he shows signs of sobbing. He says he is a survivor, and he demonstrates that fact later, but for his family instead of for his job.
At home, Ted’s neglect as to how to deal with Billy comes back to punish Ted. Billy spills liquid on his job materials on the coffee table as he plays while his father ignores him, engrossed in his work. Ted, of course, blames Billy, instead of realizing he should take responsibility for not taking precautions about how messy things can get when a child plays. Ted begins to realize his extreme domestic shortcomings to the point he must rely on Billy when they go shopping. Billy only knows items by design and color, so when he mentions to his dad that they need cereal, Ted asks, “What color?”

Ted does not use good judgment when a letter from Joanna for Billy arrives and he doesn’t read it ahead of time. He still assumes that she will say when she will return home. Instead, Joanna’s letter, although attempting to be kind, basically tells her young son that she will not be physically present. As Ted reads the letter, Billy turns up the volume on the TV so as to drown out the hurtful message. Ted can see the pain his child is undergoing, and he begins to place Billy at the top of his concerns. He goes through the apartment and starts to remove objects and pictures of Joanna in an attempt to lessen Billy’s being reminded of his loss. But, it is an act that makes Joanna the villain without Ted admitting his part in her absence.
Ted’s boss notices, as do we, that Ted is shifting his priority from work to his son. But, he is still late in picking Billy up from a party, and here again Billy’s response is a universal reaction to which an audience can identify. He is angry with Ted, because when a child is picked up last, and a parent is very late in arriving, it looks like the adults don’t care enough about their boy or girl to show up when the other parents appear. More relatable acts shown are Ted saving time by cooking TV dinners, telling his child not to eat with their hands, and putting away all the scattered toys at the end of the day. There is a wordless scene where the two wake up and Billy gets some donuts to eat, Ted gets the juice and glasses, and both do some reading while at the breakfast table, the father the newspaper, and the child a comic book. They fall into a routine that seems boring but really provides security, free from trauma. Ted is late for a meeting at work, carrying groceries that he took time to buy for later that day, and his secretary tells him about the PTA meeting that evening, which shows how he is becoming immersed in his son’s world. Ted takes a photo of Joanna that was in a drawer in Billy’s room, and places it in view. He seems to be starting to gain some compassion for Joanna, and realizes that Billy should not forget about his mother.
A shortcoming in the film is that it does not show how Ted bonds with Margaret. We are made to accept that they are now close friends hanging out together at the playground with their children, with Margaret sharing her feelings about her divorce. Her comments that she still feels that there is a link to her ex-husband, who left her, because there was love between them once and they share their offspring are feelings many who are divorced would share. Also relatable is her belief that her ex failed the love test, since if he truly cared, he would never have left.
Eight months have passed since Joanna left, and Ted’s boss is now angry that Ted missed an important meeting involving the big money client. It is because Ted now puts more of his time and energy into taking care of Billy. The boss’ anger is aggravated as Billy calls during the meeting to ask a question about the amount of TV time he is allowed. The stress leads up to the improvised “Salisbury steak” confrontation between Ted and Billy. (Hoffman, although refusing screenwriting credit, contributed to making the script authentic by adding his perspectives based on the divorce he was currently going through). This scene rings true for all parents and children, as Billy, like most kids, acts rebellious, testing parental limits. Ted says he should eat all of his Salisbury steak dinner or he will not get ice cream. Billy goes for the dessert first. Audiences will nod their heads in recognition when Ted says Billy will be “in big trouble” if he eats the ice cream, and when Ted adds, “you’ll be very, very sorry,” if he doesn’t eat his meal first.
They say nasty things to each other, as most parents and children do, and then they apologize, which is also a familiar occurrence. Billy voices his concern that he is afraid that Ted will leave, too. The boy feels, as do most children of divorced couples, that it’s the child’s fault when a parent leaves the marriage. Ted makes sure that Billy knows that his mother didn’t leave because of him. He expresses his epiphany to his son. “I think the reason why Mommy left was because for a long time,” Ted says, “I kept trying to make her be a certain kind of person. A certain kind of wife that I thought she was supposed to be. And she just wasn’t like that … I think that she tried for so long to make me happy, and when she couldn’t, she tried to talk to me about it. But I wasn’t listening. I was too busy, too wrapped up just thinking about myself. And I thought that anytime I was happy, she was happy. But I think underneath she was very sad. Mommy stayed here longer than she wanted because she loves you so much … She didn’t leave because of you. She left because of me.” After many months, Ted finally understands how he undermined Joanna’s individuality and thus her happiness.

The film offers the possibility that a working father that separated himself from his family to focus only on his work can become a nurturing parent. Ted now shows up at Billy’s Halloween pageant at the boy’s school, prompting him on his lines. Ted teaches Billy how to ride a bike and now Ted takes the time to listen to his son’s stories about school and other classmates. He also is trying to leave behind the hurt inflicted by the divorce on his romantic life by becoming intimate with a fellow worker, Phyllis Bernard (JoBeth Williams). In a funny scene, Phyllis gets up naked out of Ted’s bed to use the bathroom and unexpectedly encounters Billy. She is only wearing her large eyeglasses, and she calls Ted “Kramer,” which contrasts her professional demeanor with her nudity. She tries to cover her private parts while Billy, seemingly oblivious to her unclothed appearance, asks her if she likes fried chicken. It’s almost as if the boy is interviewing her to see if she will be an acceptable playmate for his dad. When Phyllis goes back into the bedroom she tells Ted, “I met your son.” Awkward! Maybe not such a good idea to bring the strange woman home for sex, Ted.

While at the playground with Margaret, Billy falls while climbing on some bars and cuts his face badly near his eye. Ted, while carrying his son, runs Billy to the hospital emergency room. He has to have several stitches, but Ted stays with him, encouraging him to get through the ordeal, holding him to steady Billy. Ted is now a totally committed father. That he can now see the big picture involving the welfare of Billy is shown when he asks Margaret to take care of him in the event something happens to Ted.

It is now fifteen months that Ted and Billy have been on their own, and we see that Joanna is back, spying on them from a coffee shop as Ted drops his son off at school. She contacts Ted and they meet at a restaurant. Joanna has been living in California, and had been in therapy. She says that she was a mess when she left, but now she found herself, is back in New York, and has a job. She says she has learned that she loves Billy and wants him to live with her. Ted is enraged, says with finality that she can’t have him, slaps a wine glass against the wall, and leaves. It is here where lawyers become involved, and the Kramer vs. Kramer conflict becomes legally ugly, as both legal representatives exaggerate the other party’s failings. This battle is also something that resonates with audience members.

To add to Ted’s woes his boss fires him. At the restaurant where it takes place, Ted tells his now ex-boss, “Shame on you.” His employer has forsaken loyalty,
compassion, and respect of family for money, and it is shameful. Ted’s lawyer says that they have little chance of winning custody if he is unemployed. Ted shows his survivorship skills, but now he uses them for the sake of his son. While everyone is partying just before Christmas, he forcefully get a lead from an employment agency and goes for a job for which he is overqualified and which will make him take a drop in salary. The new boss wants to think about it, but Ted, knowing he is a bargain for the job he wants, gives an ultimatum that they have to make the decision right away. While the executives think it over, there is a shot of Ted, silent, serious, in a corner, as a raucous office party surrounds him. He has put aside self-indulgent entertainment during the most festive time of the year in order to insure that he can take care of his son. He gets the job, and later takes Billy to see his new office on a top floor where the thrilled boy can see the whole city from the windows. When once Ted excluded his family from his work, he now invites Billy into the world of his occupation. He asks Billy what's written on the outside of the office. Billy says Kramer, and follows it with, “That’s us.” The boy now has that sense of inclusion and security as he feels connected as a member of his family, again a universal desire we all seek.
In the courtroom, Ted’s Lawyer, John Shaunessy (Howard Duff), wants to make it look like Joanna is not a stable person, who was a failure at the longest relationship she ever had, with Ted. When she looks at Ted he shakes his head, but she nods “yes.” She does make her case saying that she was always somebody’s daughter, wife, or mother, but did not know who she was independent of others. She says that she was unhappy after two years of marriage and wanted to work, but Ted dismissed her desires by saying that she wouldn’t make enough money to pay a babysitter. He placed monetary circumstances over her emotional needs.  She had zero self-esteem, but after leaving and getting therapy she found who she was as an individual and discovered an outlet for her artistic and emotional needs. She now has a satisfying, well-paying job. Despite her actions which initially were contrary to the tradition maternal role, she now asserts that Billy needs her more than Ted because she is “his mother.”
Here is where the film questions the traditional idea that the mother is always the best person to raise a child. When Ted takes the stand, he argues that a woman just by the nature of gender should not automatically be considered a better parent. He says that he and Billy have built a life together and asks Joanna not to destroy that bond because the damage may be “irreparable.” Even Margaret takes the stand and tries to directly address Joanna to convince her that Ted has changed and that he and Billy are “beautiful” together. Joanna’s lawyer attacks Ted by saying he is working “down the ladder of success” because he was let go by his former employer and took a substantial pay cut in his new job. But, his change in employment was due to putting Billy first, missing an important deadline because his son was sick. It shows that in a money-driven environment, one must be able to do everything, excel at work and family caring, or else punishment in one form or another results. Ted had told Joanna about Billy’s injury, and now the lawyer brings it up to make Ted look like a negligent father. After the session is over, Joanna goes to Ted to apologize, saying she did not know the lawyer would use that event against him. Ted, shaking his head in disillusionment at Joanna, says nothing. He is now the one taking the elevator, leaving her alone because of her actions. The situation has flipped.
Ted meets with his lawyer who tells him that the judge went with “motherhood all the way.” Ted gets some visitation rights. He wants to appeal, but Shaunessy tells him that it will cost a lot more in money, and Billy will now “pay” because he will have to put the boy on the stand. Billy will be put in the position of exposing the faults of his parents and the guilt that goes along with that, and asked to choose between Ted and Joanna, a devastating situation for such a youngster. Ted, again caring more about his child then himself at this point, decides not to appeal. He tries to prepare a tearful Billy for his living with his mother, making it look like he’ll be happy being with Joanna. But, the boy cries because his father won’t be there to read to him each night, and tuck him in bed.
On the day Billy is supposed to get picked up by Joanna, the French toast breakfast scene is recreated. Only this time, it proceeds like clockwork, as Billy helps his dad prepare the meal flawlessly. They have come a long way. Ted gets a call from Joanna who wants to meet him in the lobby alone. She tells him that she felt bad that she didn’t paint those pretty clouds on the walls of the bedroom at her place so that Billy would feel like he was home. She says that she now realizes that he is “already home.” She tells Ted that she won’t take him away. She now rides the elevator again, but this time it is under more pleasant, inclusive circumstances, to tell her son she will be in her boy’s life, and that he can also be in his father’s.
Hoffman told a story about how he wanted a real court reporter for the film. He asked the woman who was in the movie if she primarily worked divorce proceedings. She said she used to, but it was so disturbing, she burned out. When Hoffman asked what she did now, she said she covered homicides. She said it was less upsetting. Her story shows how devastating divorce can be, and why audiences identified so much with this story they made the film the highest grossing movie of the year.

The next film is The Candidate.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Miracle Worker

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Arthur Penn directed this 1962 film (before he went on to make a very different movie about social outsiders, Bonnie and Clyde), based on the stage play by William Gibson, who adapted his work for the screen. This movie, which covers the early life of the amazing woman, Helen Keller, is a story about someone who is not just psychologically apart from the mainstream world, but who physically is unable to interact visually, auditorily, and phonetically with her surroundings.
The movie opens with a shot upwards, almost from Helen’s crib shortly after her birth, which emphasizes that she is the prime interest in the film. Helen’s father, Captain Arthur Keller (Victor Jory), a loud ex-military man used to having his world marching to the sound of his voice, speaks with a doctor (Grant Code) following Helen’s difficult birth. The doctor says that sometimes there is “acute congestion” of the brain at birth, but that Helen will be okay. So much for the medical profession in Alabama in 1882. He does say that the baby has a great deal of energy, and as we see he is correct on that account. Helen’s mother, Kate (Inga Swenson), after her husband escorts the doctor to the door, talks to Helen, commenting that Captain Keller’s earlier remark that his wife was not used to “battle scars” shows how men don’t understand what women must endure. Indeed, the Captain and his adult son from a previous marriage, James (Andrew Prine), don’t seem to comprehend the strength of the women around them.

But, Kate’s hope for a healthy Helen quickly vanishes as she realizes her baby does not blink and can’t respond to Kate’s snapping her fingers. She screams and the Captain waves a lantern in front of Helen, with no response from the child. The narrative jumps forward to 1887, and Helen (Patty Duke, repeating the performance she gave on the stage, and winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but looking older than Helen’s age here) tentatively walks forward toward a staircase. The shot stresses the danger in this world for her, as she can fall (and fail?) at any moment. We actually see her shadow first, implying she is not a fully formed person, given the limitations of her disabilities. She is not able to see, hear, or speak. She is next in the yard and gets caught in the white laundry, and the image of her wrapped in the fabric makes her look like a ghost. This shot again emphasizes how Helen stands apart from the other average inhabitants of the world. The analogy is repeated when we see Helen walking with outstretched arms in a field. She looks like a scarecrow, something that appears to be a person, but is not (until transformed in The Wizard of Oz, which hints at the metamorphosis to come).

There is a reflection of Helen in a Christmas tree ornament, which we can see, but Helen can’t, which tells us that she, unlike most of us, is unable to relish in the joy of the holiday. With her probing outstretched hands she smashes the Christmas ball onto the floor, its shattering mirroring Helen’s lack of being part of human celebration. In these angle shots and in subsequent dream sequences, Penn adds cinematic touches to the play source material. However, much of the movie is shot in rooms, which is where the action takes place on the stage. However, through the movement of the camera, and the employment of close-ups, Penn gives the film the power of intimacy between the audience and the actors that a theatrical performance can generate.

Because she is unable to see or hear what is around her, Helen is also a threat to others, because she has no early warning system. She knocks over objects, including her baby sibling resting in a cradle on the floor. This shot can imply resentment on Helen’s part for the child that has the physical attributes she lacks, and jealousy concerning her mother’s love for that other child. Indeed, Helen’s anger due to her frustration in not being able to connect comes out as hostility as she fights with one of the African American servant children. The Kellers have sent Helen to schools who specialize in dealing with disabled children, but they were unsuccessful in dealing with Helen. The Captain, not reconciled to the defeat of the South in the Civil War, seems ready to give up concerning his daughter. There is a suggestion of placing her in an asylum. James seems put out by Helen, saying, “She can’t even keep herself clean. It’s not pleasant to see her about all the time.” It is the woman here, Kate, who is tenacious, who has the strength to go on until all possibilities at helping Helen are exhausted. She reprimands James, reminding him of the advantages he takes for granted by telling him angrily, “Do you dare complain about what you can see?”
Helen wants to be fully part of the world she can sense through smell, taste, and touch. It is significant that Helen wants her doll, whose smooth ball for a face emphasizes Helen’s challenged existence, to have the features that function on a human being. She gestures that she wants buttons sewed on the doll’s face to represent eyes, thus making the toy look like her. It’s as if her wanting to change the doll demonstrates how she would like to be enhanced. This act shows Helen’s desire to have the advantages of which she has inexplicably been deprived. She opens and closes her mouth while putting her hands inside the opening, as if wanting to be able to express the thoughts in her head so she can communicate with those around her. At this point she only knows how to show she wants her mother by stroking her face upward, in a sign of affection. Other than that, when someone holds Helen’s hand against a person’s cheek and feels the head nod, she knows that it means “yes,” and a shake sideways means “no.”
Kate’s persistence convinces the Captain that they should contact another school, the Perkins Institute for the Blind in South Boston, that specializes in teaching the sightless. Instead of sending Helen away, the teacher will stay with the Kellers. The woman, an Irish American who still has an accent, and is only twenty years old, is Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft, also recreating her stage performance, and winner of the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal). The Captain, underestimating the woman’s abilities, is upset that Annie is so young, and that this job is her first (and possibly that she is a Yankee). James is condescending when he meets Annie and says she looks like one half a governess, referring to her small size. Annie defiantly grabs her luggage away from James, asserting her self-reliance and strength. She is a graduate of the school and as Kate points out was the valedictorian of her class. Annie was blind as a child and has had numerous operations to restore her sight. She needs to medicate her eyes, and wears sunglasses because bright light hurts her. Because of her disability, she can better understand what Helen is going through. Annie’s trip from Boston is intimidating for her, as she must deal with the outside world alone for the first time (which is what Helen will have to learn to do). The noise of the train startles her and she must deal with confusing rail connections. She also has nightmares of her childhood when she was blind, and an orphan, along with her crippled younger brother.
Annie is disappointed that Helen isn’t there at the train station, so eager is the teacher to begin her work. When she sees Helen standing on the house porch, Annie slams her suitcase on the flooring so Helen can feel her arrival, and commence the interaction. Helen is a curious person and explores to find out who the new person is as she touches Annie’s hand, smells it, and explores Annie’s face. But, Helen’s vulnerability makes her cautious and she stops Annie from touching her. Helen especially wants to know what’s in the suitcase. Helen is initially polite, raising her hand to be placed on Annie’s face, and receiving the nod that gives her permission to open the suitcase. Annie wants to take it inside, but Helen, used to getting her own way due her parents’ leniency, grabs the suitcase. Annie smiles, observing Helen’s will, but by conceding the luggage, gets Helen to relieve her of her burden. In this way, they both get what they want in a sort of introductory compromise.

James agrees with the Captain’s pessimism about Annie’s success, but the Captain basically tells his son to be quiet. The father is always dismissive of his son, but James says he is agreeing with the Captain. He complains to Kate, “Nothing I say is right.” Kate, angry at James’ negative comments, tells him, “Why say anything at all?” James makes a number of snide jokes about people, putting others down to build himself up, as if trying to get the attention from his father he never felt that he received. At one point Kate basically accuses James of being a coward for never standing up to his father.
In the absence of dialogue between Annie and Helen, Annie many times speaks out loud while with her student so as to let us know Annie’s observations. In a bedroom, Helen tries wearing Annie’s hat, shawl, and glasses. Annie’s sense of humor comes through when she says that it’s a shame that’s how she looks after all the trouble she went to for the trip. Helen holds up a mirror as if to see how she looks in the get up. She probably is mimicking her mother, but the scene again illustrates how Helen longs to be part of the surrounding world. The image also demonstrates how the two are mirror images of each other, Helen being a younger version of Annie, who overcame her affliction as a child, but is still an outsider in the world because of her eyes and her background.

Helen finds the gift that Annie brought her in the suitcase. It is a doll with complete facial features. Helen is pleased with this fact, as she tries to realize herself by finding common ground in her interaction with the external. Annie gets right to work making Helen feel Annie’s fingers as she signs the letters that form words that correspond to objects. Annie tells Kate that it could be a long time before Helen isn’t just imitating action, playing a finger game, and actually understands that the hand formations refer to a means of communication. James comments that Helen will imitate anything to get what she wants. James asks Annie if she invented the sign language. Annie says humorously, “Spanish monks under a vow of silence, which I wish you’d take.” But, at this point, James is correct, since as soon as Helen gets her doll, she wacks Annie across the face, causing her to lose a tooth. She runs out of the bedroom, and locks Annie inside, the key having been placed in the outside keyhole. Helen is crafty, and hides the key. When the Captain asks Annie if there was a key on her side of the door (a foolish question), Annie, despite the circumstances, uses humor when she says if the key were there then she wouldn’t be. She says she is the only one on that side of the door, and that it looks like, “I’m the only one on my side,” of the situation with Helen.

The meaningful humor continues, as James is bringing a ladder to rescue Annie, but the Captain dismisses him. But then he counters himself and tells him to bring a ladder. The Captain’s lack of respect for his son is in evidence here as he automatically dismisses him even when he is doing the right thing. The Captain, out of old-fashioned chivalry and condescension toward women, won’t allow Annie to climb down the ladder herself, and insists on carrying her, despite her protests that she can take care of herself. Annie tells the Captain that she will search for the key so he won’t have to replace the door. The Captain does get off a good line when he advises her not to look in rooms that can be locked, suggesting she may be prone to self-confinement (another obscure reference to how Annie is connected to Helen). James echoes his father’s joke (again subconsciously seeking his approval), when he tells Annie it might be best if they leave the ladder out, in case she repeats her mistake.

After this commotion, Helen sits motionless next to the outside water pump. Annie stays with her as the others go inside the house. Annie remains still, and Helen, sensing no motion around her, takes the key out of her mouth and drops it in the well. Annie acknowledges Helen’s sneaky ways, but says that she will not be gotten rid of so easily. She says she has no place else to go. Her statement shows her tenacity, but it also points to Annie’s aloneness in the world.
The combination of her family indulgence, rebelliousness, and frustration over her situation, makes Helen very difficult for Annie to control and teach. Helen breaks things, like a pitcher of water, spills ink, and stabs Annie’s hand with a needle when the teacher tries to take away her knitting at bedtime. Kate gives her daughter something to eat to get Helen to comply. Annie is outraged that Helen is rewarded after hurting her. The longest and toughest battle between the two (and the one with hardly any words) occurs at dinner in a marvelous piece of orchestrated action, which contains humor, too. It feels like one take, but multiple camera angles are used. Annie watches with a stern look on her face as the men have a conversation about the military loss at Vicksburg as Helen circles the table, grabbing food off of each person’s plate. She is not treated like a cooperating member of society so she does not act like one. When she reaches Annie’s chair, she refuses to let Helen take her food. Of course Helen is outraged, and Annie dismisses everyone from the room except she and Helen. The girls tries to unseat Annie by pulling her chair out from under her repeatedly. Annie uses the smell of the food as an enticement to lure Helen, but she wants her to sit at the table and eat her meal with a spoon. Helen holds onto her chair with her hands so she won’t be able to comply. Annie forces food into her mouth with the spoon, and Helen spits it out, sometimes in Annie’s face. Helen slaps Annie, who returns the smack with enough firecenss that Helen thinks better of hitting her again while in mid swing. Annie gives Helen a succession of spoons which the girl repeatedly throws onto the floor. In the end, Annie appears at the outside door to the house looking disheveled and exhausted. She tells Kate that Helen ate her food with a spoon and folded her napkin. Annie says, “The room’s a wreck, but her napkin is folded.” Sometimes there is collateral damage when reaching a worthwhile goal.
We get more of Annie’s daydreams and nightmares about her childhood. These memories appear as fuzzy images, which match her difficulty with seeing, and contain discouraging adults saying that children who are blind aren’t able to learn how to read and write. So, Annie knows about how people can put obstacles in the way of individual achievement by giving up on children, and, thus, her history resonates with Helen’s situation. This connection is cemented by seeing her walking with outstretched arms, just as we saw Helen at the beginning of the movie. The young Annie, despite the negativity around her, wanted to get an education and improve herself, even if it meant leaving her brother to do so.
Annie’s humor continues to surface. After the dinner scene, Helen runs away from Annie, afraid of her. When the Captain says to Annie that if she wants to stay, “there must be a radical change of manner,” Annie asks, “Whose?” although we know he means he wants Annie to behave differently. Annie concedes that the situation is hopeless in the current surroundings. Kate thinks she is giving up, and she, unlike the males, is continually hopeful. She says at age six Helen uttered a version of the word for water, so the mother believes Helen has it in her to understand how to attach words to things. Annie is not giving up. She wants to make Helen completely dependent on her. She asks that the two of them along with the servant boy Percy (Michael Darden) live in a cabin that stands on the property. Annie argues that Helen’s greatest handicap is the way the parents overindulged her with “love and pity.” She says to Kate, “you’ve kept her like a pet. Well, even a dog you housebreak.” When the parents concede that they considered putting Helen in an asylum, Annie tells of her own horrific story growing up in one of them. She and her brother, “used to play with the rats because we didn’t have any toys.” There were crippled, blind, and dying old ladies that had contagious diseases. She and her brother were put in with them. There were also younger women, “prostitutes mostly, with TB and epileptic fits.” She also implies that there were pedophiles there. Her brother, who had a tubercular hip, died eleven years prior. She says the experiences there made her strong, and she recognizes the strength in Helen. The Captain agrees to give her two weeks to work the miracle of the title.

Helen’s first response in the cabin with Annie is to thrash about. James comes by and again questions the point of her efforts. Annie again shows her tenacity, telling him she’d rather be dead than give up. He asks how will she reach Helen. Betting on Helen’s hunger for knowledge, Annie says, “I’m counting on her. That little head is dying to know.” Annie uses the boy Percy as an intermediary. Annie manipulates Percy’s fingers to form letters. Helen becomes jealous when she feels what Annie is doing. The girl eventually pushes Percy out of the way so that she can be the recipient of Annie’s finger formations. Annie then rewards her with milk for letting Annie touch her again. Annie eventually gets Helen to comb her hair and dress herself. In one scene Helen holds a an egg that is starting to hatch. Annie says that she hopes that Helen, like the emerging chick, will break free from the disabilities and parental protection that confine her so that she can flourish as an individual.
After the two weeks are up, The Captain and Kate want their child back. The Captain is content with the fact that Helen has come a long way by learning how to take care of herself. But Annie says that she wanted to teach Helen “what language is. I know without it to do nothing but obey is no gift. Obedience without understanding is a blindness too.” Annie wants Helen to gain insight into what she is doing, not just blindly repeat actions to get rewards. But, the Captain, playing the male reconciliation card again, says that they are very satisfied with what Annie has accomplished. Helen is “more manageable, cleaner,” and “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Annie is not one to be so easily satisfied and says, “Cleanliness is next to nothing.” The Captain uses religion to justify being content with smaller victories when he says to Annie, “I think you ask too much of her and yourself. God may not have meant Helen to have the eyes you speak of.” Annie’s response is, “I mean her to.” Annie is not content to relinquish her attempts at reaching a goal by surrendering to some concept of destiny.

But, the Captain refuses to give Annie more time. They return to the Keller house where Helen now feels her previous behavior will again be indulged. At dinner, Helen sits at the table, but continually throws her napkin on the floor. While her mother is willing to let this behavior slide, Annie won’t tolerate it. She tells Kate basically what Escalante says about his students in Stand and Deliver (which was discussed here recently) - that children will live up to expectations. (That film and this one are great inspirational movies about teachers and students).
During her tantrum following the napkin throwing, Helen tosses the water out of a pitcher. Annie takes Helen outside to fill the pitcher. James, finally getting some backbone, confronts his father, stopping the Captain from interfering with Annie. James tells the Captain he is wrong here, and accuses him of self-righteousness when he says has he never considered the possibility that he could be wrong? At the well (a metaphor for a place from which one draws sustenance, in this case knowledge for the brain?), Helen has an epiphany. Feeling the water on her hands, she repeats the attempt to say water that her mother said she tried when a baby. Annie jumps at the opportunity and signs the words for water, ground, pump, etc., as Annie touches the objects and wants to know the combination of letters that name them. Helen rings the dinner bell on the house porch, symbolically communicating loudly to those that can hear her joy about her newly found discovery. Her parents hug her as Annie happily proclaims that Helen “understands.” Helen points to Annie and wants to know the word for her. Annie signs the word “teacher.”

Helen finds a key in her mother’s pocket, which symbolizes that through drive and persistence, Annie and Helen, with support from her mother (all females), were able to find the “key” to freeing Helen so she could become part of the world. No more locked doors. Later that evening. Helen finds Annie sitting on the porch. She sits in her teacher’s lap and kisses her. Annie signs the word for “love.” With affection and persistence, outsiders can become insiders, and miracles can happen.

The next film is Kramer vs. Kramer.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Hollywood trip and the movie The Swimmer

I just wanted to make a few comments about my recent trip to Hollywood. I saw Grauman’s Chinese Theater with the foot and hand prints of many performers on a previous visit a while back. But I was thrilled to see the comments and signatures of many current movie actors and actresses, including Meryl Streep. However, there is also the equally exotic Grauman’s Chinese Theater close by and actors and directors sometimes appear there to discuss their films which are shown at that spot. Sid Grauman was a master showman, and he sort of invented the “Red Carpet” show and all of the hoopla surrounding the premiers of films. He really turned Hollywood into the home of the stars. Jimmy Kimmel’s show is broadcast right across from the Dolby Theater where the Oscars are held, so that is why it is easy for him to have the winners on his show right after the annual ceremony.

I also went on a tour of the Warner Brothers studio. On one lot parts of movies such as East of Eden and The Music Man were filmed. The gazebo and town center for the TV show The Gilmore Girls is in this area, as well as the “Central Perk” coffee shop where Friends was shot. The prop building houses an enormous inventory of items used in movies, including antique lamps and a wall filled with telephones from various time periods. It was quite exciting to see the jacket that James Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause, and the black bird statuettes used in The Maltese Falcon. In the Harry Potter room, there are a number of items used in the films, including one of the flying broomsticks. And, in one building there are a number of Batmobiles, including the million dollar one introduced in Batman Begins.

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Okay, now onto this week’s discussion. Every so often I like to add a post that springs from a discussion in my film class at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. We recently viewed and commented on this not very well known 1968 movie. It is based on a John Cheever short story, and written for the screen and directed by the show business couple, who were married at the time, Eleanor and Frank Perry. They are the duo that gave us the psychological film, David and Lisa. The making of this movie encountered several problems. There was a dispute between Frank Perry and the producer, and Sydney Pollack came in (uncredited) to finish directing the film. Also, the studio pulled the plug on financing at the last moment, and star Burt Lancaster funded the last day of shooting himself.
Despite those setbacks, the result is a thoughtful take on the hope of being part of the “American Dream,” and how, like in The Great Gatsby, that dream can turn into a nightmare. (I always felt that Lancaster would have made a terrific Gatsby, with that board, brilliant smile and twinkle in his eyes. Of course his Elmer Gantry sort of fit the bill of a showy salesman whose false surface hides a darker side). The story here starts out with beautiful morning weather as Ned Merrill (Lancaster), a man in his fifties who is physically fit, shows up in his swim trunks at the backyard pool of upper class suburban neighbors. These middle-aged people had enjoyed an affluent, alcohol-infused party the night before and are languishing in indolent hangovers (they look like they would have fit right in with the people at the party at the beginning of The Graduate). The conversation is pretty white-person bland as they greet Ned who they have not seen for a while. When asked, Ned says that his girls are at home playing tennis and his wife is doing fine, a response that fits in with what would be expected to be said in this environment. Of the houses he visits, this one is the farthest away from his own. The neighbors ask where has Ned been, and he says, “Oh, here and there, here and there.” The vagueness of his response may seem appropriate given the superficial conversation, but it is the beginning of what becomes the central question of the film: What has happened to Ned? His out-of-the-blue early morning desire for a swim in a neighbor’s pool may seem a bit odd, and it gets even stranger as the story unfolds.
These well-to-do inhabitants don’t even swim in their pools for physical fitness. They indulge their bad habits while lounging next to their artificial waterways. They just have parties to show the pools off, as status symbols. One man brags, “I didn’t skimp on anything.” He installed a water filter that, “filters out ninety-nine point ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent of all solid matter in the water.” His description sounds like a plug for a Nazi version of water filters whose goal is purity. One family takes care of their pool to the point that, as someone observes, “they nurse it like a baby.” The implication is that the love of material things has replaced affection for one’s own children.

Ned gets the idea that he wants to swim home, using the pools of the surrounding suburban homes. He says, “Pool by pool, they form a river all the way to our house.” (Remember, Jay Gatsby met his end in a swimming pool). When he doesn’t remember who owns the last place along the route, the neighbors seem surprised. They slowly say that it belongs to Shirley Abbott (Janice Rule), and we suspect that there was a bit of scandal between her and Ned (her last name is ironic, since nothing religious existed between the two of them). Ned sees his swimming as an adventure. He says of himself, “I’m an explorer.” Ned is a sort of a suburban Odysseus, who traveled by water to get home and reclaim his family. Ned seems as if he has turned himself into some hero in a fantasy story, He says, “I’d like to see all those glistening domes and minarets,” and go “sailing around the Golden Horn.” But this story is a mock epic one, and Ned is living in a delusion. He practically advocates self-deception when he says along the way, “if you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.”

Another early indication of the flaws in Ned’s character occurs when he visits the next house. He’s all smiles but when he meets Mrs. Hamman (Cornelia Otis Skinner), she tells him he’s not welcome there. He says that he’s a friend of her son, but she says to him coldly, “A friend. How dare you use that word. You never came to see him. You never even called him at the hospital.” Ned asks, “Well how is he. Is he better?” Mrs. Hammar’s scowl shows that her son probably died. Ned is in denial about himself as a friend and the actual events that have transpired around him. Ned’s assessment of himself as being, “a very special human being. Noble. And splendid,” is beginning to seem like false pride.
Ned is also in denial about his age. He is trying to be Peter Pan, staying forever young. In fact Shirley Abbott later says to him sarcastically, “Well how goes it in Never-Never Land?” The name of the place where Peter lives here sounds like a repeated denial of Ned’s facing his actual age and character. His desire to swim home, and his references to being on a quest seem like he’s playing a child’s game of make-believe. At another pool, there is a boy that has grown up, and Ned seems to not have seen him since the youth was much younger. So, we get the feeling of Ned being away from this world for a while. Where has he been? Has he been institutionalized? Or, has he just had some type of mental breakdown with amnesia concerning past times that were traumatic?
At the same pool, he encounters a young woman, Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard) who is twenty years old. She admits to having a crush on Ned when she was younger and doing babysitting. Her hero worshiping feeds Ned’s inflated idea of himself, and symbolizes his desire to recapture his youth. She finds his swimming quest romantic, and temporarily joins him on his journey. They jump over fences but at one point he lands hard and injures his leg, limping through the rest of the film as a symbolic indication that his delusion is failing. Julie’s virginal appearance is undercut for him when she talks about having met a boyfriend through a computer (must have been one of the earliest versions of internet dating), and admits to watching a naked man exposing himself. These revelations show the corruption of age and bang at the door of his self-imposed desire to keep out awareness of the loss of the innocence of a child. When he appears to try to kiss Julie (maybe to taste her vanishing youth?), she is repulsed, because in her eyes he changes from a platonic hero to a dirty old man, and she runs away.
At another home, the host tells Ned that he should leave his phone number because, “I’ve heard of an opening … smaller place than you’re used to … I think if you approach them right, take a cut just at first.” We now start to realize that Ned has fallen on hard economic times, and is unemployed. He, of course, doesn’t want to talk about this offer, since he would then have to face the negativity from which he is trying to escape. His poor economic standing is echoed when he visits the home of a couple of rich, elderly nudists, The Hallorans, (Nancy Cushman and House Jameson). Perhaps they represent a corrupted version of the initially innocent and naked Adam and Eve in The Garden of Eden, as they talk about how Ned still owes them money. The husband says maybe they could lend Ned some more funds, for old time sake, as a friend. But, his wife is all business. She says, “He’s not going to get a penny!” She continues by stating, “Friends are not deductible.” Their dismissal of Ned, who used to be one of them, is an indictment of the coldness of people who put their money first. They illustrate that failure in the world of capitalism draws scorn and dismissal.

Of course Ned was part of this monetarily successful world that marginalized others, and he still believes that he is part of it. When he approached one estate driveway he encounters a black chauffeur who he mistakes for the previous African American employee. The driver gives him an annoyed look, but Ned remains clueless as to his own prejudicial comment. It is a subtle reference to the racist claim that all blacks look alike. There are no African Americans living in this affluent area, except those who are servants or employed in menial jobs.
Ned visits the home of a youth, Kevin (Michael Kearney). The pool there is dry. Perhaps it symbolizes the emotional barrenness of the capitalist world. Kevin thinks he’s a failure because he is a bad swimmer and would never become captain of any sports team. Ned offers some advice when he tells the boy that once he realizes it’s not “the end of the world because you’re not on the team,” he can appreciate “that you’re free. You’re your own man. You don’t have to worry about being captain and all that status stuff,” and he can be “captain of your soul.” Perhaps Ned’s comments show some insight into the futility of the competitive rat race he was part of, or it can also be seen as a rationalization on his part to deal with his failure to remain a star player in the business world.
Ned’s delusional facade continues to crumble when he reaches the home of Henry Biswanger (Dolph Sweet), where another swank party is taking place. Ned earlier said of his daughters, “those kids of mine think I have all the answers. Those kids of mine think I’m just about it.” Here, we hear a different version of Ned’s life. A guest, Howie Hunsacker (Bill Fiore) - the name sounds like a barbarian who will rob you - says his boy had “straight A’s” and won a scholarship. Hunsacker’s wife, Lillian (Jan Miner) says, “we bring up our kids to behave themselves. We don’t let our kids run around drunk, wrecking cars.” Another guest says that Ned kept the names of his daughters out of the newspaper after the drunken driving incident. Lillian says of Ned’s daughters, “those girls never paid no attention to him.” Howie says to Ned, “Your girls laughed at you. I heard them. They thought you were a great big joke.” Ned then sees a hot dog cart that he says belongs to him. Biswanger now owns it. We realize that Ned’s financial collapse probably led to a garage sale, where Biswanger bought the novelty cart.
Ned visits the last house owned by Shirley Abbott who used to be his mistress. His delusion tries to substitute the negativity of how he hurt her with a romanticized version of their relationship, reminiscing about places they didn’t actually visit together. We can see her pain as he tries to seduce her again, and she almost submits, in the pool, but her anger sends him away. She destroys his version of their relationship when she says, “I lied! I lied all the time about loving it anywhere with you. You bored me to tears! With all your stories about your old deals and your old girls and your golf scores and your bloody war and bloody duty to your wife and kids. You bored me to tears! I was playing a scene with you. … I was acting.” It’s possible that the water in this story can be seen as an attempt by Ned to wash away ugly memories in order to return to what he considered a more pleasant past. However, it turns out to be a failed effort at being reborn into a hopeful time. Ned now moves down the ladder of success as he visits a crowded public pool. He is humiliated because he must beg for some money to pay for an opportunity to swim in the crowded facility where those with less money use a pool to actually cool off instead of having one as an indication of financial accomplishment.
By the time Ned reaches his home, the beautiful weather is left behind, as Ned loses his sunny version of his life. We now have a raging rainstorm with its fierce downpour contrasting with the calm waters in the pools. This water washes away Ned’s make-believe world. The grounds of his estate are in decay and the house is abandoned, his family long gone as they probably abandoned him.
One member of the film class offered that, in keeping with the mythological analogies in the movie, Ned’s reference to the pools acting like a “river,” could be interpreted as Ned traveling along the river Styx on his way to hell, washing his feet at the public pool in preparation for his crossing over. The gates to his decrepit, run down home may signify the entrance to the underworld. He becomes sicker and shivers, as he finally reaches the door to his house, possibly expiring there. Ned is severely punished for not remaining a success in a capitalist society. Burt Lancaster accurately described this movie as Death of a Salesman in swim trunks.

The next film is The Miracle Worker.