I know we saw a lot of the actor Paul Giamatti, but I’m not sure whether he was a chauffeur for Walt Disney or a Louisiana slave trader. As I recall, the plot concerned a powerful white master and his living property, which consisted primarily of a black mouse and a group of penguins.
All right – yes, we saw both Saving Mr. Banks and 12 Years a Slave, and Paul Giamatti actually appears in supporting roles in both movies. As usual in this journal, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in the ensuing discussion, so take that under advisement if you’re planning to see either film anytime soon.
First up, Saving Mr. Banks. I’m glad we saw it first, because our perspectives might have been a bit curdled and cynical if we’d have viewed it in the wake of 12 Years a Slave. If you somehow didn’t know it already, Banks is the story of Walt Disney’s 1961 negotiations with author P.L. Travers over the rights to her book, Mary Poppins. Disney and Travers are played, respectively, by Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, though I have enough respect for both of them that I’m sure they could have traded roles with no ill effect.
Hanks is an interesting and canny casting choice here. On the one hand, casting such a well-known actor as such a well-known character offers a great potential for failure due to our possible inability to forget who we’re watching (see John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror for an extreme example of such a failure). In this case, though, that potential liability is turned into an asset. The fact is that we know Tom Hanks and we like Tom Hanks. He therefore buys a bit of character credit for portraying Walt Disney and allows the movie to let some of the character’s flaws be put on display while enabling us to keep liking him. Walt is a wheeler-dealer and a bit of a humbug. At a few points, it looks as if Emma Thompson might actually be playing Dorothy Gale journeying to the Emerald City to confront the Wizard of Oz, but the movie pushes through on the strength of how much we enjoy these actors and their characters.
On the other side of the table from Hanks, Emma Thompson is pitch-perfect as Travers. One gets the feeling that Thompson has found her own inner world-weariness and her own insecurities and has channeled them into the character of Travers. For her performance, Thompson has been nominated for Best Actress in the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes, and several others, and the recognition is well deserved.
When I arrived home after seeing Banks, I was moved to research more about the real-life P.L. Travers. What I learned was most illuminating. There are some fascinating details that were either completely absent or barely hinted at in the movie. For example, as a young woman, Travers was an actress who worked with a traveling Shakespearean company. Her Wikipedia bio includes a photo of her in the role of Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The film offers almost nothing about Travers’ personal life beyond its many flashbacks to her childhood in Australia and her close relationship with her father. He is portrayed as an alcoholic who dies when Travers is still a little girl. While he is shown as having coughed up blood, the precise cause of his death is not revealed. Travers’ bio reveals that her father died of influenza when Travers was eight years old.
One personal detail that remains a bit of a mystery to me is why she insisted upon being called Mrs. Travers. Her real last name was Goff and she adopted her father’s first name of Travers – that information is disclosed in the movie – but it’s specifically the “Mrs.” part I find intriguing. Travers never married, though it seems clear from what I’ve read that she was bisexual. There is also another curious fact from her personal life, for which I will quote directly from Wikipedia:
…At the age of 40, Travers adopted a baby boy from Ireland named Camillus Hone. He was the grandchild of Joseph Hone, who was W. B. Yeats’ first biographer. Hone and his wife were raising their seven grandchildren. Camillus was one of twins, but Travers did not adopt his twin brother, Anthony, or any of their other siblings. She selected Camillus based on advice from her astrologer. Anthony remained with his grandparents. Camillus was unaware of his true parentage until the age of 17, when Anthony met Camillus unexpectedly at a bar in London…
There is another great quote I’m going to include, because it illustrates another area where the film has massaged the historical facts into a more pleasing form. I quote once again from Wikipedia:
…At the film’s star-studded première (to which she was not invited, but had to ask Walt Disney for permission to attend), she reportedly approached Disney and told him that the animated sequence had to go. Disney responded by walking away, saying as he did, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” Enraged at what she considered shabby treatment at Disney’s hands, Travers would never again agree to another Poppins/Disney adaptation…
Please understand – I am not suggesting that these details should have been in the movie in any way. They may very well have muddied up the narrative to no good effect. Rather, I offer them to illustrate a strength of the movie, that it was able to distill a simple, understandable, and intelligent story from the messy details that make up a real life.
To those who might complain that the studio is rewriting history to suit their corporate goals, I would say this: Of course they are. I expected some of that and so should you. Let it serve as a reminder that every film is a fiction. At the same time, remember that this is not a history lesson; it’s an entertainment. You may as well ask a Twinkie to be a soufflé. The soufflé may be tastier, but it’s a lot harder to find and it won’t last nearly as long on the shelf. And I’ve bought a lot of Twinkies in my time. Moving on…
Twenty minutes after the screen went dark, we settled into our seats in another part of the multiplex to watch 12 Years a Slave. I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot because the title kind of tells you what you’re in for.
I have to give Slave an oddly mixed review. Overall, it gets very high marks for its craftsmanship on every level – from the writing to the acting to the direction to the cinematography to the production design. Where it falls a little short is in the area of viewer experience.
There are some built-in problems with a movie of this nature. First of all, though I’d read nothing about the film in the way of plot details, nothing surprising happened for a very long time. It seemed clear that Solomon Northup was going to be kidnapped into slavery early on. It logically followed that he was going to experience horrible, dehumanizing treatment and be forced to witness even more. It also seemed certain from the outset that he would somehow be freed later on and make his way back to his family. So while individual moments of the film sometimes held a great deal of drama, the overall arc of the story was so transparent that it had the effect of keeping me on the outside, waiting for the gears of the plot to mesh.
Now of course, some might respond by saying, “But that’s the story. It needs to be told.” And I would agree with that. But as a dramatic experience, these factors impact the viewer’s engagement. It also gives the film a sense of being that bad-tasting medicine you must take for your own good.
Still, as a white man from a long line of white stock, I thought it would behoove me to seek out another opinion, so I asked L, an African-American friend of mine, how she’d felt about the movie. She replied, “I didn’t care for it at all. Couldn’t wait for it to be over.” While she acknowledged the movie’s historical accuracy and realism, she said she’d only gone because a friend had taken her there and that she wouldn’t have chosen to see it otherwise. “That kind of thing” is not her cup of tea.
All of which proves nothing, I suppose, except that reactions to movies are completely individual and don’t necessarily have anything to do with ethnic background, and I guess I already knew that, so let’s keep going.
CC, who only days before had read the book upon which the film is based, had some interesting comments regarding differences between the two. For one thing, she said there are lengthy passages in the book where nothing at all happens except for intricate descriptions of technical processes and procedures. This appears to be typical of pre-20th century novels and isn’t exactly a criticism of the book; merely a description of its non-cinematic characteristics. So kudos to the filmmakers for leaving that stuff out! There are also various characters from the book that are left out and scene details that have been changed.
Just as in my discussion of Saving Mr. Banks, I must point out that these changes are not necessarily a bad thing. Art may sometimes be defined as a lie that tells the truth. So it is with all great movies. So is 12 Years a Slave a great movie? I’m not ready to throw that garland around its neck just yet. I want to let it marinate a while. Yes, I’m mixing my metaphors and I’m liking it. Let me say instead that it is an unforgettable cinematic experience that shows a lot of extreme, yet believable, human behavior. It is as much a cautionary tale as it is a history lesson. It is a film that possesses harsh artistic virtues. You might walk out not having precisely “enjoyed” the experience, but you might find that a deeper satisfaction has been imparted to you and you might be awfully glad you went.