Monday, December 23, 2013

"Saving Mr. Banks": Thinking About The Stories Behind The Stories

So already, last Saturday at midday -- pretty much on a whim because I had known almost nothing about the movie until the day before -- I went to see Savings Mr. Banks at the Kendall Square Cinema. 

I went in part because it was the first day of school vacation, and seeing an early movie seemed like the perfect way to dismiss "ordinary time" and assert "holiday break time."  I also went because Emma Thompson portrays P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, and is receiving accolades for her performance. Having had Emma Thompson on the brain for many months, courtesy of Howard's End, it felt right to go see her being her masterful present-day actress self -- and to remember that she really isn't Margaret Schegel.

But what most compelled me were my wonderful childhood Mary Poppins-related memories.  First, there was the experience of actually going to the movie theater to see the movie.  On Christmas Eve in 1964, in typically "Jewish Christmas" fashion, "the cousins" (with parents) piled into one of the station wagons that were a fixture of our childhoods, and went to see Mary Poppins at the Gary Theater (pictured here* when another Julie Andrews blockbuster was playing)We came out of the theater as a jubilant mass of singing-and-dancing energy; the muffled silence that might have been created by the snow that had begun falling lightly didn't have a chance against our euphoric outpouring.

Second, there was life after the movie --  because seeing the movie was just the beginning of our love affair with Mary Poppins, courtesy of the joy that the movie had let us experience and the music that helped us hold on to it. As quickly as we could, we got -- and inhaled -- the Mary Poppins soundtrack. We must have played that album as many as ten times on many days, but my mother never complained:  I think she wanted to sing the songs, too.  

In all of this, I never thought once about reading any of the Travers books -- I'm not sure I even knew the books existed -- and no one ever suggested that I read them.  I also never thought about how the movie was made:  that some bunch of adults had created it with intentionality and care. But I would have gladly gone to see that movie every day. Maybe a lot of childhood** is about not worrying, and not needing to worry about the back-story.

After seeing Saving Mr. Banks last Saturday, I met up with a trio of friends and shared with them some of the above.  As we were talking about Mary Poppins, one of them who had read and loved all the Mary Poppins books long before the movie was made reported that when she first saw Mary Poppins, she had thought it was all wrong.  Among the movie's violations of the novels, she said, was the casting of Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins:  Julie Andrews was pretty; Mary Poppins was not. My inner nine-year-old, feeling very much alive in my fifty-eight-year-old movie-going self, had never considered that someone might not have loved Mary Poppins. I was reminded of something one of my current students had said a few days earlier in class when we were talking about the difference between a film version of some novel and the novel itself: "It's like that apples-and-oranges thing. Film versions and the novels themselves just aren't the same thing.  When they're both good, they're still two really different good things with some connections between them." 

But we might be better off talking about apples and pears, not apples and oranges, if we're going to talk about Saving Mr. Banks. Because one of the first overt and mysterious things that Travers does in the movie is strip a lavish fresh fruit arrangement of its pears and dispose of them dramatically.  Though she acts on some kind of principle, we sense her desperation, take note, and develop a preliminary theory that negotiations around the evolving script and rights to Mary Poppins will be difficult if not maddening.  What soon becomes evident is that while Saving Mister Banks, as advertised, portrays the back-story of Mary Poppins the movie, that back-story cannot be separated from another powerful back-story with which all of the characters must ultimately contend -- the one behind Travers' Mary Poppins books.

But unlike the movie's characters -- Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) and the creative team he has assembled to create a Mary Poppins script and score that will satisfy both Disney, Inc. and Travers -- we in the audience are privy to Travers' childhood memories.  We understand that Travers' journey to the crass, uncivilized outpost of Hollywood (and the abomination of Disneyland) and her ornery "engagement" in the collaborative combative/creative process that just might lead to a movie version of one of her beloved books are resurrecting her personal back-story. Travers has come to Hollywood with a problem:  she needs money -- but insists on having complete control over how the story of Mary Poppins will be told and understood; it can't be ruined. Herein lies the irony of it all:  as much as Travers haughtily asserts that she does and will control the Mary Poppins story, her enigmatic behavior suggests that her personal story is much in control of her. 

Probably because I had just finished teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony in my AP Literature and Composition class, the stories of Travers' difficulties and Tayo's struggles connected in my mind. Mary Poppins didn't heal the world or completely liberate Travers from the emotions associated with her childhood, but I'm unwilling to say that it didn't do some kind of good.  Similarly, Tayo's efforts to complete the ceremony, the challenging process of bringing to a constructive conclusion a story begun long ago, minimally created a new phase of life for himself and his community based on his deeper understanding of his world and his place in it.

Silko talks about stories in the set of poems that opens the novel:

I will tell you something about stories.
[he said]
They aren't just for entertainment.
Don't be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.

You don't have anything 
if you don't have the stories.

I can't blame Ceremony's view of stories for the large number of tissues that I sniffled my way through at the Kendall Square Theater; I can explain them by saying that I was feeling for Travers who was mid-ceremony, strangely untethered and uncomfortably adrift in the tense space between two connected stories but needing to persevere in that space in order to get to the point that she could decide whether to permit Disney to make the Mary Poppins movie. Conflicting desires and contrary narratives create terrible loneliness when our lives are structured around them.  Sometimes we're carrying a destructive story that comforts us because it's familiar.  In theses instances, if we re-imagine it or hand it over to another, we risk a feeling of disorientation that is more frightening to us than the pain to which we've become habituated.  I sometimes think that when we first re-interpret a story we've long told ourselves, when we first imagine another way of making sense of it, especially a way that defines us more as victims than we were in our original interpretation -- or less as victims than we were in the original -- our feelings are so mixed! New villains, new heroes; no villains, no heroes:  all of these, even when our own liberation is for the first time in sight, make the child within us cry with loss -- or is it mourning rather than loss, since maybe that loss happened a long time ago?

Travers' situation led me to revisit some of the questions I raised in a blog post from last summer about why we do and don't share our important stories:
  • Do our stories feel especially private to us because they're so personally important? 
  • Do we fear that we can't do them justice in the telling? 
  • Dwe hold them back because they're precious to us -- but also still a little too mysterious to us to be shared just yet
  • Do we fear that others won't treat them as the precious things they are -- and might even jump in and assign them particular meanings that are more about who they are than who we are? 
Having just seen Saving Mr. Banks, I am now wondering if we sometimes don't share our stories for fear that in revisiting them ourselves, we'll need to understand them in a new way and perhaps even tell them differently, and we're not fully ready for those stories to change -- because that will mean we'll have to give up cherished notions of the roles we played in them -- and the persons we were then and are now.

Of course, Mary Poppins is fiction, not memoir, but from Travers' point of view, at least in some important ways, it's just as Chief Bromden says in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest “But it's the truth even if it didn't happen.” Thinking of Travers' decision to create a work of fiction with autobiographical influences rather than a memoir reminds me of a student I taught many years ago in "Reading and Writing on Human Values":  when it came time to write and share the spiritual autobiographies towards which all the semester's coursework led, she explained to me that she could only complete the assignment if she could write about a very significant life experience from a third-person limited omniscient point of view. Unlike Travers, she couldn't choose to make some of what was wrong right by employing some fictional techniques, but she could begin to grapple with the underlying realities of her own story in a way that afforded her some protection.

My relationship to Mary Poppins the movie has been completely, joyfully unexamined -- and I say that without any kind of regret. That said, I loved watching Saving Mr. Banks -- and  thinking for the last few days about stories, back-stories, and the efforts we make through stories to get and make things right and to know better ourselves.

** I suspect freedom from childhood worry is an early form of privilege.


  1. Joan,

    No hard feelings (I hope), but I do not think that blogging is good for you.

    All these poignent reminiscences. Yi, yi, yi. I feel like you are about to climb up on the funeral pyre, and flick the match yourself.

    Get down from there!

    The world needs you. Really needs you.

    You are smart and tough and energetic, and the world needs all those things. Catastrophe looms in every direction. Climate change, perpetual war, the surveillance state, dysfunctional political institutions, journalism gutted, private propanda organs well-funded, financial institutions floated only by fraud and insider connections. We’re in trouble!

    Find a spot to put your shoulder to the wheel. Again.

    As to the value of stories, as a general matter -- meh.

    I know you have taught the art of language for many years, know a lot about it, and I figure you admire the writers and the writing. But, you know what? None of that stuff has made half the difference in people’s lives that you have by your love and encouragement to all those kids.

    Heck, writers should wish that they could be a tenth as successful as you have been already (and not to mention the future shoulder to the wheel stuff).

    And that’s not idle bullshit (I don’t do “idle” bullshit). I gave up the dream of being a writer at a very specific moment. It was when I imagined that I completed my book to my satisfaction, and it GOT RAVE REVIEWS (in my mind), and then, I thought, will I have changed anything? Nah. So I went to law school.

    (I know, frying pan to the fire, right?)

    Anyway, don’t put too high a value on writing.

    As far as the usefulness of stories in confronting death, well, I doubt that.

    My ideal would be to be a dumb brute surprised and torn to pieces by wolves at the end. Sure, the last 10 or 20 minutes would suck, but at least you would not spend 20 years worrying about the wolves.

    And do not think that any story can be much help with the wolves. Wolves in the grand scheme. The sublime function of wolves. Wolves seen from a new perspective.

    Yeah, right. The whole wolf thing stinks; bottom line. No getting around it. But nothing we can do about it, so might as well focus our energy elsewhere.

    Like pie. Do you watch “Phineas and Ferb?” You should. Great writing. Anyway, pie is the great balm. At least in Phineas & Ferb, and that authority is good enough for me.

    ps. You keep hinting about some great secret. Do not tell us on the internet! Someone will find out, and bring it up when you become Head Mistress of the Resistence.

    Good luck,


  2. Hi, Jim --

    No pyre worries about me; as you suspect, I'm enjoying have the chance to write after all these years of having too little time to do so, mostly because I was helping other people do so. I do love your "The sublime function of wolves" phrase. I also like your idea of not spending 20 years worrying about the wolves.

    Am glad to know your writer-to-lawyer story. Still am hoping that/wondering how this writing regularly with some sense of actually being read might help me find the right spot to put my shoulder to the wheel during life post-CRLS.

    Merry Christmas, Jim!