Saturday, January 18, 2014

There's Something About Mary

We took the kids to see Saving Mr Banks this week, the excellent film about the making of Mary Poppins; so I thought I'd reblog this little piece (below) about watching Mary Poppins for the first time. A couple of guesses in my original blogpost about the nature of Mary Poppins seem to have been born out by time. Like many of the most famous Englishmen and Englishwomen PL Travers was a self creation with the hint of Johnnie Foreigner about her. The Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, etc. sought to expunge their foreigness by becoming more English than the English as Travers also seems to have done (although if you listen to her on the BBC's Desert Island Discs there is a distinct Aussie accent.) As an Irish girl growing up in Australia Travers must have been aware of the Tir na nOg which I also guessed at. Since writing the below blogpost I've read Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen III where Mary Poppins is identified as a god-like elemental creature who saves England from an evil mirror-world Harry Potter (seriously). Anyway here's what I thought 4 years ago...
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Watching Mary Poppins for the first time is an interesting experience for a man of my advancing years. In a way the film is exactly how you imagine it from all the clips you have seen but in crucial and exciting ways it's not like that at all. These days of course newbies to Poppins must watch it through the prism of Nanny McPhee and countless parodies on The Simpsons, Family Guy etc. but I'll still try and decontextualise it a bit here. The first thing I want to talk about is the role that Mary Poppins occupies in the film. In Nanny McPhee the mysterious magical nanny comes to help the parents by teaching the children how to behave. But Mary Poppins comes to do precisely the opposite. There's the famous anarchic room tidying scene but that's about the only "lesson" Poppins imparts to the kids. Everything else she does with them is all about living in the moment and going on sprees and having fun just being a kid. It becomes clear that Poppins's role is not to teach the kids anything but rather to teach the parents how to love and respect their children. I was amazed to discover that Emma Thompson's Nanny McPhee is the conformist and Julie Andrews's Mary Poppins is the anarchist.
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I also had the impression that Mary Poppins was prissy, bossy and humorless but she's nothing like that. In fact she's funny, strange, coy, dangerous and erotic. Furthermore Mary is vain, self important, a little drunk with power and seems to take important decisions on a whim, like some wacky sprite or daughter of Zeus. There is a real sexual tension between her and Bert as if they have a long and textured history together in the world of spirits or Tir na nOg or wherever it is that they have come from. Dick Van Dyke does this odd thing with his face when Mary sings "you wouldn't take advantage of me, Bert" which suggests that no he wouldnt, not here, but elsewhere when the kids aren't around...
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Bert too is an odd fish. Everyone mocks Dick Van Dyke's cockney accent but I didn't mind it. Bert and Mary are clearly elemental creatures pretending to be human when in fact they have slipped over from a different world completely. Mary has perfected her chosen persona and accent, but even in the film Bert goes from job to job trying out a variety of voices and personae. Yes the actor couldnt do a cockney accent but for me that doesnt hurt the movie, it actually enhances it and makes it more mysterious. (No one praises Dick Van Dyke's decent upper crust English accent in the other role he plays in the film.) I have no idea who Bert is but he is not and certainly should not be portrayed as a simple cockney chimney sweep. There's a moment near the end when the kids have run away and he talks to them about their father's existential angst and loneliness with a wisdom that could only have come from decades of exile from a faery court.
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Mary Poppins is a strange film. It's got 4 really catchy songs, excellent dancing and a great story arc. Still for me there's a melancholic air throughout. This is London in 1910 just 4 years before Europe's 31 year long suicide attempt. London before the bombs and V weapons start to fall, before Haig sends the flower of England over the top into the wall of death. Bert's Chim Chim Cheroo melody is heartbreaking, it's almost as if he can see all of this coming and maybe he can. Yes Poppins is a tight, well crafted Disney movie, with perhaps one song and one ballet sequence too many, but if, like me, you haven't seen it, it's worth watching and for my money it's a lot darker and weirder than it first appears.