July 20, 2011

#25: To Kill a Mockingbird

I know I read Harper Lee's classic novel in high school, so it just follows that at some point I must have watched Robert Mulligan's 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird... right? I guess not, since I think I would remember how vivid and exciting the film adaptation is, nearly equalling the novel's marvelous narrative, starting with those stark opening titles, filmed over treasures from the Radley's tree. What follows is beautiful.

Company: unexpectedly I got to welcome Vanessa, college friend and fantastic Southern belle

Cuisine: a PBR tall boy and Vanessa's delicious confection, conspicuously called Rick's Mix and tasting strongly of butter and caramel mixed in Chex. Sinful.

It seems like anyone who's been through the American educational system in the last fifty years must have read Harper Lee's novel, so a plot summary is pretty unnecessary, but suffice it to say that it's 1932 in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, and two young children, Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout Finch (Oscar nominee Mary Badham), live in a world of their own making. This world is a fantastical one inside an ordinary shell, where there's good guys, like their defense attorney father, Atticus (Oscar winner Gregory Peck, in an incredibly moving and iconic performance), and bad guys, like the infamously insane neighbor Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his first film), and most everyone else in town, to a lesser degree. The world is seen through the lens of young childhood, too early for adolescence, and narrated occasionally by an older, wiser Scout.

"One of the things I like about this movie is that the child actors aren't totally annoying." -- Vanessa

Allford and Badham carry large portions of the story on their young, inexperienced shoulders. When the novel debuted two years before this film, some critics criticized the high prose style as inplausible for a six-year-old girl, but given that the story's narrative falls somewhere between the child and adult versions of Scout, I think it's safe to say that this criticism is hooey. But Badham has the hardest job of all: making her character (who is four years younger than Badham) believably naive and still with prescience. It's a very admirable portrayal, for a child or an adult, and it's because of the children in the film that the adults' story is brought to such colorful life.

"It's a sin to kill a mockingbird, because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy." -- Atticus Finch

Elmer Bernstein's score has faint jazz leanings, lending itself nicely to the lazy moral atmosphere of Maycomb, but more, it beautifully underscores the childhood paranoia and fear without demeaning it. Bernstein, with Mulligan's help, manages to dramatize the tiny adventures of Scout and Jem without making them ridiculous, which is no easy feat. The beautiful scene where Jem shows his treasures reaped from the knot in the Radley's tree made me a serenely curious child again.

It would be one thing for these children to grow up the way they do day to day, without a mother but with a maid, Calpurnia, and a very gentle father. But their world is about to been torn apart all too soon, as their father is faced with the very unpopular and distasteful task of defending a young black man in court. The children follow their father through the night to the courthouse where the defendant is being held over night before his trial, and when what seems like the entire small town of bumpkins shows up with lynching on their minds, the children are made to stand with their father before the town, standing up for what's right even if they don't understand it. Have children ever grown up faster in a film outside of Ponette?

The young man being questioned is Tom Robinson (Brock Peters in what is surely the most undervalued and heart-wrenching performance in the film), who very clearly did not seduce, fondle or rape Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). This is so clear in the book and it's so clear to the audience of this film that the consequent guilty verdict delivered upon Robinson is catastrophic. For the children to witness such a complete moral failure at their father's helpless hands after such a stirring call for justice is so crushing that I couldn't help but tear up at the moment pictured below.

"Stand up, Scout. Your father's passing."

In the film's most moving moment, the entire black community at the trial, shunned to the balcony, rises one by one and silently honors their fallen hero, not because he won the trial and saved their friend, but because he tried as best as he could, knowing full well what the outcome would likely be. They always say "one person can make a difference, and however intangible that victory is, it's clear as day that Atticus has won the respect of everyone in that town. Horton Foote's screenplay is so faithful to the book and yet he and Mulligan find such beautiful, stark ways of illustrating the power, for better or worse, of human nature in the imagery.

A companion moment in pure cinematic delight is the shot of Jem later on, after tragedy strikes, sitting and watching the Robinson family grieve for Tom, the way any family would regardless of race or creed. Never mind the bloodless but violent final confrontation between Atticus and Mayella's father: the film's greatest power lies in silence, in what goes unsaid. Even writing about it feels unsatisfactory, in a way that writing about film to this point in the blog has never felt until this film. And I'm 3/4 of the way up the list!

The parallel story lines of Atticus/Tom Robinson and Scout/Jem/Boo Radley finally cross paths when Boo silently saves the lives of the children and the story's title is evoked once again. It's true what Atticus says, such a universal truth: "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view." A story set in such a specific time period with a broad, universal theme and stirring message.

An understanding.

Oh man. I'm only at #25 and I feel like have so little to actually say that means anything that the last leg of this blog might become just a summaryfest. Hopefully not. But man, what a little slice of cinematic heaven this movie is. Go rent it again. It's perfect for hot summer nights.

Onward: up into the sky on a bike with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial!

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