The (East) Wind in the (Palm) Trees, or, Her Father’s Shadow
One of the epigraphs of Christian Keathley’s wonderful book on our love of cinema, Cinephilia and History, is from a 1940s lament about the decline of cinema by one of the medium’s foundational filmmakers, D.W. Griffith. The maker of Intolerance claims that films used to, but no longer show us the beauty of “the wind in the trees.” I became obsessed with this notion as I watched Saving Mr. Banks, a new film about the making of Mary Poppins. On paper, the idea of the film is the worst sort of Hollywood on Hollywood genre exercise. Rather than art that shows us the true brutality of the film industry—for example, Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust—Saving Mr. Banks is a commercial for a Disney film made by Disney. And, we have to pay $10 a pop for the privilege!
Directed by John Lee Hancock, famous for the saccharine The Blind Side (2009), Saving Mr. Banks should have been treacly, mythologizing Walt Disney and P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson), both reprehensible public figures in their own ways. The film does some of that, particularly by sanitizing the right-wing, union busting Walt Disney via the touch of Midas that is Tom Hanks. But the film’s thematic project is so significant, and its aesthetic practices so beautiful, that none of that really matters in the final analysis of the film’s achievements. Thematically, Saving Mr. Banks is about how the telling of stories fights back against the darkness of real life, which threatens to swallow us. It is a cinephiliac’s dream.
In a complex and beautifully executed flashback structure, Saving Mr. Banks tells of how Walt Disney comes to understand that P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books are defensive re-workings of her childhood relationship to her beloved daydreamer father and the aunt who came to save her family at its moment of greatest crisis. The film not only accomplishes its thematic goals narratively, but equally impressively at the aesthetic level. There’s a terrific shot right at the beginning of the film where we first see Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) as a shadow hovering above his beloved daughter. The set-up echoes a technique by famous American art photographer, Lee Friedlander who repeatedly shot with the sun behind him so that his shadow would fall upon his subject. Friedlander wants to study the shadow being cast upon the real world by the photographer’s presence. Hancock on the other hand uses the technique—in his film image, it is not the photographer but Traver’s father whose shadow engulfs his little girl—in order to state the film’s theme about fatherhood. In multiple ways, for various reasons, fatherhood haunts Saving Mr. Banks. Both Disney and Travers are trying to exorcise their fathers’ brutalization of them while at the same time revering them.
More generally, Saving Mr. Banks presents a belief that all human activity, particularly creativity, is a relationship between a past that fathers the present. The film begins with a shot of white clouds which seems to invoke the first moment we see the nanny Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) in the original Disney film, applying her make-up while sitting on a cloud. In Saving Mr. Banks, a subtle transition to rows of palm trees takes us from Travers’ beloved Australian childhood home in 1906 to her two week visit to Los Angeles 55 years later in 1961 to work on the production of the Mary Poppins film. Voice-over narration replicates the opening of Mary Poppins as we learn from that film’s song, “Wind from the east… It’s all happened before,” sung as a foreboding warning by Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in the original, read as moving poetry in Saving Mr. Banks.
The aesthetic obsession with clouds, trees and shadows in Saving Mr. Banks is of great significance to film studies at this particular moment. There is a growing body of criticism devoted to philosophy and film which insists on only applying Martin Heidegger to the films of Terence Malick because he taught philosophy at Harvard in the late 1960s, only to abandoned that project in order to make a series of stunning films about love and nature, ranging from Days of Heaven in the 1970s to The Tree of Life in the present decade. Malick famously uses poetic voice-over narration in glacially moving plots so that his films have time to image quite literally Griffith’s wind in the trees.
The problem with this fetishization of Malick’s philosophical expertise is that it foolishly believes that this Heideggerian revealing of the abstract, to transcend beyond the material, is a function of only one kind of filmmaking, that of international art cinema. What Saving Mr. Banks so beautifully demonstrates is that commercial, popular cinema can “perform the cinematic revealing of the world, staging the poetic difference between saying and showing,” to quote Robert Sinnerbrink in an important essay on Heidegger and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
Saving Mr. Banks is forthright in situating its own cultural status. At the initial script session in Hollywood, Travers spars over the casting of the film. When the Disney people suggest Dick Van Dyke for the role of Bert, the film’s narrator, Travers declares it a “horrid idea.” The Disney people reply, “He’s one of the greats.” Travers snorts that Laurence Olivier is one of the greats, but that Dick Van Dyke is most certainly not. However, by film’s end, it becomes clear even to Travers that her defense of high art over low popular culture has been deeply misguided. As she sobs uncontrollably at the premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964, she finally lets go of her anger at her father’s failure, allowing the final musical number where Mr. Banks celebrates flying a kite with his children to work its true magic on her. The wind has returned to her father’s trees.
Crucially, the character who places Travers on this transformational journey is not Walt Disney, but the company limousine driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti). Early in their relationship, Ralph crests a hill in the limo and points out how beautiful the Los Angeles valley is; Travers scoffs. In a crucial scene in the middle of the film, Ralph comes to talk with Travers while she sits outside Disney’s studios in Burbank on the grass, building a model of her family’s beloved gazebo out of twigs. Ralph brings her tea in a paper cup, which Travers finds “blasphemy.” She pours the tea into a groove in the ground, creating a lake next to the gazebo. This is the most intimate conversation, and is the emotional heart of the film. Ralph tells Travers about his handicapped daughter, who he is upset lives life in a wheelchair. He cares so much about the weather because when it is sunny, he can allow her to stay outside during the day, but when it is rainy, he has to coop her up inside the house. Hancock cuts from this touching encounter with the revelation of Travers’ childhood trauma. Dying of consumption, her father lies in bed suffering. He begs her to bring him the booze that his wife has hidden from him. Her mother, Margaret realizes that she loves her father more than she. She walks out into the lake, attempting to drown herself. The poor child has to drag her mother out of the lake. The very next morning, Travers’ aunt—her Mary Poppins—arrives to rescue the family.
Ralph’s understanding of the world transforms Travers. Near the end of the film, they crest the same hill, and she admits to him that the valley is indeed beautiful. What Dogulas Sirk calls the “secret owner” of a film, Ralph has used the purported Heideggerian language of Terence Malick (which is the language of cinema itself), to drive Travers to the film’s ending. Unlike Walt Disney’s artificial control of nature at Disneyland, Ralph observes the importance of sunshine and valleys. The film closes back on itself, again dissolving from Los Angeles’ palm trees to clouds. Has the film told us finally where these clouds are located? Are they in Australia, in Los Angeles, or in London? It doesn’t matter. Via Ralph, Griffith, and popular cinema, and not just Terence Malick, the wind from those clouds has returned to our cinematic trees.
– Walter Metz