Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Better In Your Head?--TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
"It ain't time to worry yet. I'll let you know when."
SPOILER ALERT #1, everyone on the planet has been, is currently, or will be problematic.
Oh Christ on crutches, the days when Harper Lee was English literature's most celebrated one hit wonder!
Scintillating summary: a woman with a story to tell. Jean Louise Finch is the woman, but as a young girl folks called her "Scout." She takes us through three years of her girlhood, spent with her older brother Jeremy (better known as "Jem") and their widowed father Atticus, a well-respected attorney, in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The two siblings bicker and spit and, come summer, whittle away the days with their pal Dill. They run hither and yon with the finesse of three baby elephants, but no distraction proves as compelling as that of "the Radley place." Choked and battered by the elements, the structure stands as a monument to communal paranoia. The head of the house comes out to do only what must be done, and no more. The only other occupant is his adult son Boo, whom neither of the Finches have ever laid eye one on. None of the kids in the area have, in fact. They'll stand outside on the sidewalk, staring and shuddering at the wild thoughts of who or what lies behind the shut doors and shuttered windows. Boo is more myth than man, "a malevolent phantom," a deformed pervert who subsists on stray animals.
Dill's instant obsession with the local spook story leads he, Scout and Jem to dream up ways of luring old Boo into the open. The Finch children try to keep their machinations secret, but being children, they are unsuccessful.
Atticus has much to say to them about pestering hermits. His children call him by his first name; no "Dad," no "Daddy," and certainly not the ever-cringey "father." Despite this, they hold Atticus in high regard, and dread ever disappointing him. Scout's struggles with temper control only increase when she begins school. Atticus advises his daughter to "climb into someone's skin and walk around in it" before she passes judgment on their decisions. There's two types of folk in Maycomb: poor and poorer. It's a place where food and flowers can easily substitute for cash and change. And if Walter Cunningham wants to drown his beans in maple syrup, let him. It'll form a protective glaze around his heart.
Maycomb is also a town of yarn-spinners and confabulators, so when their neighbors start referring to Atticus as a "nigger-lover," Jem and Scout react violently. Neither of them really understands why the term is so bad, only that it is so bad. Atticus explains that he's been assigned to defend a black man by the name of Tom Robinson, a hard-working husband and father accused of rape by Mayella Ewell. The Ewells are a backwoods clan--unwashed, uneducated, and unconcerned with the expectations of those more fortunate. (Poverty's no indicator of moral fiber, of course.) None of whom really like the Ewells much, but well, they are white. And at least they know their place.
The trial is a huge to-do; even Jem and Scout attend (unbeknownst to Atticus), sitting with the Negroes in the balcony. Atticus does such a magnificent job establishing the likelihood that Mayella Ewell was in fact abused by her own father after he caught her trying to seduce Tom Robinson, that the verdict is no less enraging for its inevitability.
Unsatisfied with having condemned an innocent man, Bob Ewell goes up to Atticus on the street, spits in his face and vows revenge for the grievous sin of daring to save a scapegoat. Bob does indeed make a malicious move; not on Atticus, but on his children, who escape death thanks only to the intervention of none other than Boo Radley.
Harper Lee drew on her own childhood in Alabama to craft her first--and, for 55 glorious years, her only--novel.* To Kill A Mockingbird was an immediate sensation, and while winning a Pulitzer Prize is certainly impressive, I consider that a lesser accomplishment to being one of the few books on school "required reading" lists actually worth re-reading.
Forty million people can be wrong, but in this case they are not. Scout's remembrances swim in warmth and charm, even as they describe man at his worst. Scenes melt into each other with mesmerizing fluidity. "For a children's book, it does all right." Oh, Mary Flannery, I love you beyond all reason, I aspire to be an eighth of the scribbler you were, but you were wrong as well. To Kill A Mockingbird is not some mere tome of tolerance. It is the Deep South, deep down, and I can say without equivocation or shame that it is one of my favorite books. Harper Lee thought up and jotted down one a magnificent story, one of the few titles worthy of crowning "The Great American Novel."
Wildly popular book made into movie? No shock.
Forget the kid stuff. This is the story of Atticus Finch (the redoubtable Gregory Peck), an attorney in humble Maycomb, Alabama. Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham) are around, of course, and with their goofy-faced buddy Dill they find a myriad of ways to pass the summertime. Once Dill finds out about the legend of the Radley home, well, you'd sooner stop a tank with a casserole dish. He becomes obsessed with spying Boo Radley, who lives with the same father he apparently tried to kill some time ago.
Atticus does his best to show his children how to be a good neighbor to his fellow man, rather than simply telling them. One way is kissing up to an elderly white woman with a stick so far up her ass it tickles her throat. Another way to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman who is in fact the victim of her dirt merchant bigot of a daddy. The indignity of a trial is too much for the real rapist, who despite his undeserved victory in a court of law goes after Atticus's most vulnerable spot: his children. Befitting a man of such physical and moral squalor, the would-be kiddy-killer winds up with a knife in his gut courtesy of the ghostly "Boo" Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut)
Adapting a beloved bestseller is usually easy money, but hardly art. Oftentimes this is due to the fact that literary fiction rarely moves like flashier, simpler volumes. To Kill A Mockingbird proved a potent exception. It notched eight Oscar noms, grabbing golden guys for Best Actor and Adapted Screenplay (losing Best Picture to Lawrence of Arabia). The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the "greatest movie hero" of the 20th century and Peck considered the role his personal favorite in a career that spanned six decades.
How could anyone hold a prejudiced view after hearing the smooth, sonorous voice of Gregory Peck, is all I want to know.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
How could I ever truly hate on a film for failing to replicate the little things that make a time and a place so special? The sounds and sights are no big deal--the sounds and sights are what make a film, after all. Capturing odors, "oppressive" and otherwise, is downright impossible in both mediums, but a talented writer puts germs in heads. To Kill A Mockingbird places me square in a world of screened porches and tree houses, of sipping so much warm milk and chewing so much cold meat you couldn't pass concussion protocol. Few movies can afford such leisure.
Sparse and superfluous--the best and worst of voice-over narration. Surely superimposing "Maycomb, Alabama 1935" over the opening scene could have sufficed?
Scout's coming-of-age is basically a non-issue in the hands of Hollywood. Her frustrations at school were excised from the narrative, and fussy Aunt Alexandra does not move in to help raise the children while Atticus is tending to the Tom Robinson case. Aunt Alexandra does squat, since the script omits her entirely. Given that the film is more concerned with being a courtroom drama, augmentations like Alexandra and Mrs. Dubose are rendered useless. The constraints of time force events are to shrink and smash together in service of a linear narrative.
Ah God, it's like when you and a friend polish off six slices of a pizza one night, and the final two for lunch the following day. You're not going to complain, since it's pizza, but you won't pretend the experiences were equal.
Goddamn Aunt Alexandra is one of those that could have benefited greatly from a near-death experience. From step one, she tries to force Scout into feminine frills. She must refrain from cussing and indulge in gossip, since such behavior is unbecoming of a lady. (Atticus doesn't seem to mind his daughter's uncouth ways much; Scout gets an air rifle for Christmas just like her big brother; and the book gets a title to boot.)
Scout refuses and resists like any proud tomboy; I'd argue that TKAM's treatment of gender roles deserves scrutiny than it's thus far received. The mentally lazy need the so-called common wisdom to lean back upon, lest their knees buckle. Change might be overdue…but it tends to be uncomfortable…and human beings like feeling comfortable.
Oh to have read the book before viewing the film. Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch, Atticus Finch is Gregory Peck, and that's the end of it. Harper Lee knew it, I know it, you know it, some chucklefuck in Iowa knows it. Atticus represents more than the ideal man of law, he is the ideal father, caring and considerate, fair and unflustered. In other words, you will rarely find his like in real life.
Mary Badham, entrusted to express Scout's confusion and anxiety, does her very best. But Scout will always be a little rougher, a little coarser, in my mind.
Jem's role was expanded to be more equal with Scout's. Which may have provoked a strong reaction from me had Phillip Alford been given any other direction besides, "Furrow your brow."
While the film is a riveting watch, I nevertheless proclaim: anyone who regards it as superior to the source should fall through a hole and face the wrath of the phantom shadow beast Wrongo Bongo.
When's the last time a movie gave you "a sleepy old shark"? When was the first time? Precisely.
MIND THE GAP
True art, art which dares, art which exposes, art which revels in its truth, cannot avoid controversy. For millions, To Kill A Mockingbird resonates as a fiercely progressive book that centers on the single lesson most worth learning: respect yourself and others. By eschewing prolixity, Harper Lee reached an audience the size of which most authors can only drunkenly dream. The number of children named after characters alone is evidence to its massive influence.
Other readers grimace at the mention of the mere title. More than just a tidy target for contrarians peeved that more refined works of literature haven't met with similar acclaim, TKAM has come under attack as a perpetrator of white liberal self-congratulation. Not everyone is inspired to name their small housemates after Atticus Finch, believe it or not. Some are repulsed by his moral relativism, which allows him to: deliberately badger and shame an assault fame to keep a man from being railroaded; insist that people refrain from judging one another outside of a courthouse; articulate the unfair treatment faced by blacks in America in one breath, crack wise on the idea of women jurors in the next.
(Hell, not even the heroics of "the reasonable recluse" escapes harsh appraisal. Is "Boo" Radley a sexual predator with a predilection for prepubescents? I've seen someone claim so, earnestly.)
"We live in a post-racial society!"--the instinctual riposte of any and all unable to grasp the apparent compulsion of minorities to "re-open old wounds." These people do not, perhaps truly cannot, realizes that those traumas are still quite fresh. The system still fails. Sunbonnets and chifforobes notwithstanding, the citizens of Maycomb are recognizable in this century. There are whites who struggle with the consequences of their advantages, and others who believe it is their birthright. There are blacks resentful that they must depend on "enlightened" white folk for justice. For life. For life.
Rhapsodize though I might, never will I claim To Kill A Mockingbird to be the antidote to the poison of prejudice. Atticus Finch is a marvelous character, compassionate and wise, but he doesn't allow for the fluid nature of "right" and "wrong." Why would I want or need to "step into the skin" of some despicable sub-human like Howard Unruh or Omar Mateen? Would I somehow discover some facet that justified their horrendous crimes? SPOILER ALERT #2, nah son. Atticus Finch values the conscience of the individual. What of the man whose conscience tells him to support systemic oppression as the proper way of things? What of the woman whose conscience tells her that gay marriage signifies the ruination of civilization?
I insist that To Kill A Mockingbird is defensible as both an enjoyable read and a well-written parable. If and when some peanut-brain cites TKAM as proof that we currently live in a "post-racial America," how is that the fault of the author? Anyone unable or willing to view a book, or a song, or a film in the context of the era in which it was produced deserves to have their opinion should be discarded like so much ratty underwear.
Scout's face as Dill prattles on about his father is the face I'm always making, whether or not it's the face I'm actually making.
Of course his full name is Robert E. Lee Ewell. Having been born into a Southern family transplanted to western Maryland, I aver that no other group of people feels such pride at having lost something.
X Billups gon' give it to ya! The Tim Johnson incident must've made young Earl Simmons weep into his hands for a solid hour.
What divides us will forever prove more resolute than what unites us. Check the trees, you don't believe. Too many blue jays, not enough mockingbirds.
*In addition to basing Atticus Finch on her own attorney father, Harper Lee fictionalized her childhood friend Truman Capote as Dill. To this very day, people with their own peculiar agenda (women can't create masterpieces) believe that Capote wrote the majority or the entirety of To Kill A Mockingbird. Never mind that the writing style is unlike his, never mind that his own friends maintain that the man's Brobdingnagian ego would not have allowed him to remain silent if he had indeed written one of the most celebrated novels of the century.