Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mythology and Psycho-Socio Culture of Mary Poppins (1964): plus a number of random questions

A client cancelled today, so instead of taking this hour to do the work that's been piling up, I'm going to do some play that's been piling up. In my head. Bugging me to write it out.

I'm sure there are tons of sites addressing Mary Poppins (the film) already, but having watched it about 20 times in the past few weeks (Limelet's new favorite), it's on my mind (especially when awakened during the night). I got a VHS copy at the Starvation Army for $1.99, and it turned out that Limelet loves it, loves it, loves it--especially all the dancing and singing. His absolute favorite part is the 8-minute rooftop dance by the chimney sweeps, which he imitates.

I had planned to FF over any parts that might be inappropriate for a toddler, but it didn't really have any. Well, I didn't like the scene with the boy in the closet, but Limelet didn't seem bothered by it. And you never know--Oklahoma had a lot of violence in it, for example, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks scared him to hysterical tears when the bed "magically" travelled by glowing weird colors). I was a pleasantly surprised that there was little to shield him from.

Anyway, being who I am, I can't help but find weird things about the movie to analyze. This may not be terrifically organized, as parts are still inchoate and I am still thinking about it. So, some immediate thoughts, and some more developed concepts. I haven't read the books (yet), so this only pertains to the film format of the story.

Mary and Bert: Interesting relationship there. What's going on? They know each other from before, but how? Are they dating? Were they dating? Apparently she shows up from time to time, from what they say to each other. There is a scene in which the characters jump through a chalk drawing on the sidewalk, and Mary and Bert take a walk separately from the children. This is the setting for their re-acquaintance via a song-and-dance passage (Jolly Holiday ).

Now, if you listen to the lyrics repeatedly (as I have been obliged to do), you may notice a strange imbalance in the theme of the lyrics they sing to each other. It's more noticeable if you're watching the movie than just reading the lyrics as text. Basically, Bert says "Mary's [third-person] pretty awesome, fun to be around, magical, exciting, and inspires affection in others, so it's like a holiday to spend time with her." Then Mary says, "Bert [second-person], you are more high-status than you appear, and unlike many men, not likely to sexually assault or even sexually pressure a woman, so it's like a holiday to spend time with you." Wow. That is a holiday indeed--not needing to fear your date! What kind of guys does she usually date?! What does this mean about the two guys (possibly brothers) who wrote that song? Was it just their family, or the way the '60s were? Just some thoughts as I watch that bit. Oh, and then after the song has Mary telling Bert that he is non-threatening, he comes back with a list of women with whom he has apparently also visited that penguin bistro--the penguins know who they are. Is he trying to retrieve some kind of stereotypical masculinity here? (If so, that goofy penguin dance doesn't help with any kind of dignity!)

In the scene with Uncle Albert, whose uncle is he, exactly? Mary's? Bert seems pretty familiar with him, too. They must know each other to some extent, I imagine through Mary. If she takes Bert around to see her uncle, then they must be somewhat serious, I'd think. (For 1910, anyway.) BTW, why does her uncle living in London have an American accent?

Speaking of accents, Dick Van Dyke's "cockney" accent here is atrocious, its silliness rivaled only by Keanu Reeves' accent in Dracula. Nevertheless, I have really grown to like DVD's portrayal of Bert.

So, the mythology part. First of all, in my analysis, Bert and Mary are not mere human beings anyway, which explains some thematic inconsistencies. Mary is easy. Now, I've often heard descriptions such as "the no-nonsense nanny." However, this is completely specious. Mary is the all-nonsense nanny. Her behavior is completely at odds with her "proper" appearance and speech. She is a trickster goddess, introducing (necessary) chaos into the too-rigid Banks household. Because although this story is ostensibly the story of the children, it is in fact the story of the redemption of Mr. Banks, told (more or less) from the viewpoint of his children.

Mary Poppins comes in on the East wind because western mythology exoticizes the East. (That's where the mysticism lives!) She stays only until the wind changes, but most importantly, until Mr. Banks changes. She talks to birds and animals, defies natural laws of all sorts (especially gravity), and (my favorite part), states most emphatically when asked to explain herself: "I want to make one thing very clear: I never explain anything!" You can think of Mary Poppins as a trickster character, or as an allegory for loosening up, creativity, and kindness. All especially appropriate for a 1964 film, right?

It also cracks me up that the super-punctual cannon firings of Admiral Boom ("the world takes its time from Greenwich, and Greenwich takes its time from Admiral Boom" or something like that: he symbolizes strict orderedness) next door are so disturbing to the household that its foundations and objects are rattled several times daily. Tellingly, only Mr. Banks seems oblivious to how this affects the household. The three women in the house run to and fro, trying to right everything that is repeatedly set askew by this over-scheduled destruction.

Now Bert, as Mary's supernatural consort, is even more intriguing to me than Mary herself. He is a limnal character, crossing boundaries with impunity. Near the beginning of the film, he even breaks the boundary between audience and film characters by speaking directly to "you" through the screen. Thereafter, he crosses social boundaries of class (interacting with all classes and ages and shaking hands with everyone to give them "luck"). He works at a different job daily, which for a "real" human character would be impractical. What low-income person of 1910 could actually afford the equipment to be a one-man band, chimney sweep, chestnut-seller, and skreever? Those are just jobs symbolic of Bert's multiplicity. He crosses boundaries of reality in creating and jumping through the pavement drawings: other worlds that he himself created. Granted, he gets Mary to "activate" them, as it were, but it looks to me like he's just cajoling her into joining the fun. I feel certain that he could have opened those portals himself, had he wanted to.

In fact, Bert is a gatekeeper. He even seems to have a "station" before the gates of the park (what is that park, anyway? Everyday adult existence, perhaps?) but is never seen entering it himself. He informs us at the beginning of the film about the cyclical nature of existence (something along the lines of, "Can't put my finger on what is in store, but what's to 'appen 'as 'appened before".) Bert exists everywhere, and nowhere: he exists between. When he tells the children about what's up the chimneys, it's very mysterious and fey (even the music):

'Tween pavement and stars
Is the chimney sweep world
When the's 'ardly no day  Nor 'ardly no night
There's things 'alf in shadow And 'alf way in light
That is to say, his rooftop Sweeps' World is a sort of Wood Between the Worlds (for the C.S.-Lewis inclined), a multiverse that simultaneously links and separates realities (households, SES classes, the pavement and the stars, etc.) Thematically, the rooftop world also appears to be a sort of inverted underworld. The children are sucked up the chimney not by literal, physical wind as explained, but because Bert has "put ideas into their heads." We don't see them eating pomegranate seeds on the roof, but we do see them eating apples in the chalk-drawing world. I think this has made them susceptible to being pulled out of the world again, and that the magical trips are a retelling of the Persephone / True Thomas type of myth. That rooftop sweeps' dance? I can't imagine a better enactment of a dance of underworld imps or a fairy ring dance. Bert is clearly their leader: he's the entity who calls the dance and leads it, and he is the one who ends it with a whistle. This puts him in the role of Hades, or the Fairy Queen. (The film therefore inverts the usual gender of the [female] fairy queen and [male] trickster).

Naturally, it is Admiral Boom who spots the dancers and fires at them (strict "order" attempting to subdue "chaos"). Interestingly, he believes them to be attacking "hottentots" (a racial slur, of course). Is it because they are happily and energetically dancing? Is it because they are White guys who are covered in soot (blackface)? Which says something about how society view(s/ed) order and chaos. Of course, the sweeps end up jumping down the chimney into the Banks household and stirring everything up (as it needed to be, for balance). They are sympathetic characters regardless. Upon leaving the house, they even dance with the reluctant constable in the street--the forces of chaos literally playing with law and order. (Hee!)

Anyone else want a shot? Go for it.


Anonymous said...

Wow! I absolutely LOVED Mary Poppins and still do. I used to say that was my name when I was little. I still randomly have dreams of Bert and Mary and their clothing.

Favorite scene and song was the love to laugh song and the floating table during the tea party.

Interesting analysis you have here. I never dissected the movie like this, but I always did like that Mary had such a free spirited role, yet she could do domestic stuff too. I also liked that Bert accepted this of her. I remember thinking these kids had it made, compared to my life and I couldn't understand what they were being bratty about, but I cried like a baby when Mary had to leave.

Anonymous said...

Without sounding too red toothed about all of this, I find that the original concepts in a lot of these things are like bare bones on which modern pop culture is hung. If the skeleton is strong enough even the worse of songs can have a chance of hanging on.

The fundamental ideas in Mary Poppins I think are class oriented... i.e. What would happen if the poor people, i.e. the sweeps, the maids, the coppers and the children all of a sudden controlled the world.

It would be a happy lunatic place. i.e. Romance (unlike ture romance which is the realm of aristocats or crats) would have to take place between sweeps and maids... funny... etc. Does civilization fit well when worn by the underclass? It would be hilarious to watch... like the small people movies. Har Har. Doctor House is similar in his view of his structured Doctor world.

The fact that the origins of this movie from the various books written between the wars also shoWs the influence of communism, socialism, and yes even fascism. Mainly though I think of Anarchism which was a big thing then. I cannot forget that Commies were sort of the friends back then to many in the intellectual elite. There had yet to be Hitler and Italian fascism or McCarthy although strangely enough the songs written in the US were written just shortly after McCarthy.

The war in Spain had just started when the books were written and many people in britain were sympathetic to the republicans who were basically anarchists, socialists and communists fighting against the Nationalistic fascist power of Franco. See the International Brigade for example.Or for that matter Pete Seger who was a great supporter of the Republicans.

Money is not everything we see in Mary Poppins. The currency is what in this silly backwards world of maid driven society? What will bring order? Magic? Is the notion of social change nothing but a fanciful dream. If cats can bark then call me a socialist hee hee.

But forget the skeleton. Look to the notes written by the Sherman Brothers pop factory. The songs are cute and numbing. Sort of like an opiate.

liz said...

Ah, the political route. Very interesting take and one I hadn't considered yet!