Monday, July 12, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) — Another man's skin

If I were an absolutist about my dayplanner, or a bit more observant regarding literary bechmarks, I'd say I'm a day late on this post. But I didn't realize until a few hours ago that yesterday, July 11, marked the 50th anniversary of the 1960 publication of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. (Blame the neglect on my attentions being elsewhere, what with yesterday such a gorgeous day here in Seattle, with the lowest tides of the year making tidepool eco-systems a manifestly Cool Thing, and with Elizabeth and I stepping out to catch Book-It Rep's final performance of The Cider House Rules, Pt. 1 as part of my ongoing (re)birthday celebrations.)

Anyway, Happy Birthday, TKAM. It's a novel that was a formative reading experience of my youth, one that — like The Grapes of Wrath and a few others — rewrote my inner hard drive at an age when the upgrade stuck.

Naturally, all this easily brings me to thinking about the movie adaptation from two years later, and the convergence of my own birthday also this past weekend.

It's a long road between To Kill a Mockingbird and, say, an African-American U.S. president, not to mention an African-American chairman (nominally at least) of the Republican National Committee. And we're not talking years, baby, but the hard-marched mileage. As someone born in the year between Lee's novel and the movie that brought Lee's humanist hero, Atticus Finch, to the screen in 1962, watching the movie gets me pondering things beyond the film's much-loved and much-analyzed virtues.

Of course there's Gregory Peck's indelible and deeply personal portrayal of a small-town Southern widower lawyer whose steadfast decency and integrity spur him to accept an unwinnable case, defending a "nigger" accused of raping a white woman. Both Lee and Peck cue us in that while Atticus may be the story's hero, he is far from "super" and is aware of it. Like all of us, he has his self-doubts. He knows both his profession and his fellow townsfolk well enough to see that any victory will be hard-fought at best. Still, his spine is built on doing what's right despite the cost or the odds, and like a good father he aims to pass that trait along by example to Scout and Jem. We can admire him not just because of his steadfastness and decency, but also because he manages to be so steadfast and decent in spite of being so, well, ordinary, just like us. Therefore we intuit — in the way that the best fiction tweaks our inner software — that we can rise to that standard too. As literary role models go, Atticus Finch strikes us as more identifiable and attainable than many.

And by telling its story through the eyes of children — tomboy Scout (Mary Badham, a remarkable debut performance), squired by her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) — the film deserves the warm affection we hold for its authentic-feeling evocation of childhood in all its textures and preoccupations and endings.

And anyone who knows To Kill a Mockingbird only as required classroom reading knows that it calmly yet resolutely placed our hand over the nation's flaming racial issues. While set in Alabama during the Great Depression, its reason to exist was the prejudice that finally became too endemic to ignore in the 1950s and '60s. It came camouflaged in nostalgia, but its targets were wholly contemporary. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it exposed the cruelty and cowardice intertwined with poverty and ignorance, and victims whose inherent blamelessness amounts to exactly nothing when the injustice is so ingrained it's institutional.

All that's by now such well-trod ground that to call the film an "American classic" feels redundant. But for a viewer whose years so far pretty much equal the film's, it comes as a useful jolt to watch To Kill a Mockingbird and see how much has changed — in America and its looking-glass, Hollywood — during that single lifespan.

An autobiographical digression:

As I mentioned in my post about Blazing Saddles, in the small southern town (north central Arkansas) where I grew up, there was, when I was a kid, a small section on the outskirts known as "nigger town." Yeah, leaves a bad taste in your mouth, doesn't it?

Fortunately, before that poisonous background radiation could shrivel my own tissues, it was effectively shielded by my dad, who had more Atticus Finch in him than I realized at the time — more than he ever realized, I think, before he died a few years ago. He never read the book, I'm sure, and probably didn't see the movie (books and movies becoming part of my DNA for reasons far removed from inheritance on either side), but he possessed and demonstrated an innate decency and liberal-mindedness that was as recognizable on him as his ever-present Stetson hat and bow ties (oddly fashionable only on him and the current Doctor Who).

A car salesman for most of my life, he was an honest man in an often crooked trade. Avocations included rodeo calling, auctioneering, the local Kiwanis and Lions Clubs, Toastmasters International, and raising quarter horses on a green mound of acreage he simply called The Farm. Everybody knew Phil Bourne. He'd sincerely shaken the hand of everyone in town. Twice. With just a high school education from an even smaller town before joining the Navy in WWII, he became a leader in his community (a Justice of the Peace for years) and his church (for decades an Elder at Central Presbyterian on Main Street).

What I remember best was how often he exhibited a big-heartedness and generosity of spirit that extended to people he didn't even have to know personally. Although I stepped away from the church at an early age, he remains to me a model Christian, of the type who views life and other folks in it through the Jesus of the parables and the Beatitudes, rather than the type who abuses the religion for selectively chosen excuses for prejudice and soul-shrinkage. He was a liberal in the best egalitarian sense, and a conservative in the Burkean ethical sense, though he'd never think to apply such words to himself, their better traits being simply deep-rooted and humbly applied without fuss or a need for either labels or attention.

As far as I could tell, he'd give a great deal of credence to Atticus' dictum:
"If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
He got along with all kinds of folks.

He was flawed, certainly as a father, but I like to think I received some of my better characteristics from him. (My mother, on the other hand, was another piece of work; she never fully sloughed off the racism she picked up from her Faulkner-novel Mississippi upbringing.)

He had in him just enough Atticus Finch by way of Andy Griffith to leave an impression. And those qualities remained steady even against the rightward-tilting local zeitgeist; he was an ardent Obama supporter in a county that went as red as a blood clot in that election. I regret that he didn't live long enough to see that inauguration, though I remember him remarking approvingly on the tectonic social changes that Obama represented and that he'd lived long enough to witness. (I can only imagine the crestfallen look on his face if he'd heard that a national neo-Nazi group [Anti-Defamation League link] has headquartered in the town since 2002.)

Outside of some recently sparked nostalgia, I have no need or call to visit Russellville, Arkansas anymore. But I do know that the climate there has improved noticeably since I was young. "Nigger town" no longer exists as a term white kids there use. On a different but related track, I was bowled over to hear that the local university now has a group called the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance, another welcome continental shift that would have been unthinkable when I was a kid trying to see the horror movies playing at the now-demolished Ritz Theater. (Glimpses of Valerie Leon on the poster for Blood from the Mummy's Tomb probably kick-started my puberty.)

Boy. I didn't start this post planning to digress into a life-story side trip, but looking at To Kill a Mockingbird brings all that up quite unexpectedly. It got me to look back at the dramatic and accelerating, albeit incomplete, social upticks that have occurred in its (and my own) relatively short lifespan.

Isn't it cool when a book or a movie does that?

Where were we? Oh, yeah...

The film couldn't have been more precision-molded to be a Hollywood masterpiece if it had rolled off a Rolls-Royce line. However, rather than anodize it by tritely calling it "timeless," let's instead say that To Kill a Mockingbird was the right movie at the right time. As a consciousness-raiser, it is of and for the early 1960s, when movie audiences were not necessarily integrated and shocks sharper than the term "nigger lover" came only from Alfred Hitchcock.

Inevitably then, to us today its topicality can appear muted or off-balance. The racism plot involving the innocent black man Tom Robinson, played by Brock Peters, keeps its eyes on how the corrupt courtroom trial and its tragic aftermath affect the white characters (and audiences). Tom's family and other black characters are almost incidental. Although Mockingbird's moral passion comes in a strategically mainstream movie that's sometimes too aware of its Teachable Moments, that doesn't reduce the effect of our understanding — really getting — that Tom's innocence or guilt never was the point or concern of that jury. This is not a trial about justice, but about holding on to control. We can scarcely imagine how that courtroom scene impacted an audience in a movie house in Mississippi in 1962.

The instances when director Robert Mulligan achieves an effect by choosing bluntness over finesse are smoothed by the more sensitive — often sublime — elements, such as Horton Foote's respectful and restrained screenplay, the Southern gothic atmosphere captured in Russell Harlan's rich black-and-white cinematography, and the ideal casting at every level (including Robert Duvall's screen debut as ante-Sling Blade Boo Radley). Complementing it all perfectly is Elmer Bernstein's gentle and heartrending score.

Notice how often Scout actively tries to see things by broadening her perspective — from up in a tree, for instance, or from the railing of the courtroom's balcony. With the Tom Robinson plot intertwining with Scout and Jem's education in seeing more clearly the "ugly things in this world," a world they're only beginning to comprehend, today the film offers an extra accumulated layer of "meaning."

Less than six months after Mockingbird premiered, a white racist gunned down Medgar Evers outside his home in Jackson, Miss., and the civil rights movement found its flash point. The event catalyzed people, black and white, nationwide. It took thirty-one years for Evers' killer to be brought to justice, but during those years so much happened that, looking back, Scout and Jem's loss of innocence personifies our own as a nation. Their Halloween night journey through the woods, where they are assaulted by Bob Ewell, a man who had publicly proclaimed his own righteousness, is pointedly metaphorical enough to support any number of term papers on the story's symbolism — not to mention any number of reflections on the current flailing state of America's reactionary right. (No doubt the jurors at Tom's trial would also claim that they merely wanted to "take America back.")

Despite recently revivified reminders of what Atticus Finch learned the hard way, that some juries refuse to be convinced in the face of their own ugliness, we can nonetheless love To Kill a Mockingbird both as a movie and as a reminder that less than one lifespan (mine, for example) separates To Kill a Mockingbird from right now. Although not without great costs in human lives and suffering, in that single generation four hundred years of culturally entrenched Jim Crow, and the mentalities that fostered it, withered. They weren't utterly uprooted, nor was their cultural soil completely sown with salt, but still their choking, strangling vines aren't as ignored as they once were.

Today black actors and filmmakers, such as Spike Lee, bring a "black perspective" to our screens directly, or (just as significantly) don't feel that they have to at all.

Brock Peters died two weeks before the release of To Kill a Mockingbird's 2005 DVD. His screen career started with 1954's Carmen Jones, which capitalized on the novelty of its "all Negro" cast. Nowadays, chances are that he's more recognized by viewers as Captain Ben Sisko's father on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (a TV series that delivered some fine episodes facing racism head on) and as a Starfleet admiral in two Star Trek movies — in both cases he plays a man of authority whose skin color is not commented upon or is in any way material to the story. 

It may not be the 23rd century yet, but by any measure that's really important we can call that progress.

If you're looking to pick up To Kill a Mockingbird on DVD, currently Universal's two-disc "Legacy Series" edition from 2005 is the way to go. It brings the film home in a mostly spotless print with the correct 1.85:1 (anamorphic) aspect ratio. Some grain pops out a time or two when Mulligan apparently had to artificially zoom in for a close-up, but otherwise this is a fine image. Along with the original monaural soundtrack, this edition adds DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio options, and both are pleasing and subdued while spreading the crickets and birdsongs around the ears just enough.

There's a commentary audio track with director Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula. It's an informative but lackluster first-hand retrospective.

Most of the other extras are more enlightening. Topping the list are two feature-length documentaries that delve into the film and its marquee star. Charles Kiselyak's 1998 Fearful Symmetry: The Making of To Kill a Mockingbird rambles through much of its 90 minutes, but it's a thorough backgrounder supported by interviews with Peck, Robert Mulligan, Horton Foote, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall, producer Pakula, Elmer Bernstein, and more.

Then from Turner Classic Movies we get A Conversation with Gregory Peck (97 mins.), an outstanding personal and probing 1999 documentary on the star from director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA). It was co-produced by Peck's daughter Cecilia, and it delivers testimonials by Mary Badham, Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Peck's children, and others.

Scout Remembers is a 12-minute NBC News interview with Mary Badham from 1999.

Other welcome bits are an excerpt from the Academy's tribute to Peck, hosted by his daughter (Harper Lee is there and receives a standing ovation); clips from Peck's Oscar acceptance speech and AFI Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech; lengthy production notes; the theatrical trailer narrated by Peck; and a set of international Mockingbird movie posters well reproduced on firm 5x7" card stock, plus a card with a message from Harper Lee. It all comes in a handsome and extra-sturdy book-like case.

Music: Esperanza Spalding, Junjo
Near at hand: Show poster for The Flying Karamazov Brothers.