Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Mary Poppins Runs Afoul of the Language Police

The film Mary Poppins—the one starring Julie Andrews that was so much a part of my growing-up years—has just had its rating changed in Britain from U (for “universal”) to PG (“parental guidance“). At issue is what the British Board of Film Classification now considers “discriminatory language.” I was completely flummoxed, at first, by the switch. It goes without saying that the original Mary Poppins series of children’s novels, published by P.L. Travers beginning in 1934, contained racial stereotyping and language use that today make us squirm. (Travers herself later made some changes, though she resisted others, as a piece in yesterday’s The Telegraph makes clear.) But the 1964 Disney musical extravaganza would seem at first glance to be as innocent as any movie could be, unless you consider Dick Van Dyke’s excruciating attempt at a Cockney accent a crime against humanity.

 Van Dyke, though, is off the hook. At issue, it seems, are two references within the film to “the discriminatory term ‘hottentots.’”  Which gave me pause: what exactly is a hottentot? Apparently this is a word first used by the Dutch in South Africa to refer to an indigenous nomadic people, more correctly known as the Khoekhoe, who roamed the Cape region. For a time it had some validity among anthropologists to refer to a specific ethnic grouping. And its comic possibilities led to its showing up in tongue-twisters and in popular culture, including as part of a song lyric in The Wizard of Oz.  (The Cowardly Lion asks, “What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the 'ape' in apricot? What have they got that I ain't got?" The answer, of course, is “Courage.”)

 But the fact that word’s meaning has ballooned to imply ignorant savages from the heart of the Dark Continent has apparently made it uncomfortable to use. This is why the British, well aware of their own history of racial and ethnic condescension, have seen fit to use the ratings change to warn parents. It’s not by any means a severe punishment, but it does suggest that words are a serious business, and that it’s all too easy to overlook slurs from another era. Which reminds me of the controversy involving Disney’s 1941 animated feature, Dumbo. As I understand it, the film was vilified for years because of a musical number in which a flock of crows led by a so-called Jim Crow perform a song that can be seen as stylistically reflecting the blackface minstrel entertainments of the Old South. It was critic Richard Schickel, in 1968’s The Disney Version, who loudly accused the studio of resorting to racist stereotypes in the way the crows speak and move. (In recent years, a number of critics and movie performers, including Whoopi Goldberg, have stuck up for the role of the crows as parent-figures to the needy little elephant. They’re even the ones who teach him to fly!)  Today, Dumbo screens on Disney+ cable uncensored, but with a warning that the film “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” Disney’s 1946 Song of the South, though, continues to generate racial controversy.

 Personally I shrink from uncomfortably pejorative depictions of racial and ethnic minorities in both films and literature. There’s a lot to cringe about in Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, but I don’t believe that artistic works should be rewritten to suit our modern sensibilities. (See current debates surrounding Roald Dahl’s writings for children.) Britain’s mild actions regarding Mary Poppins do seem appropriate, and I’m grateful to the British Board of Film Classification for cluing me in to what a Hottentot actually is.



Friday, February 23, 2024

Sweets for the Sweet: “Wonka”

Timothée Chalamet, all of 28 years old, has certainly been around. In 2017, barely 21, he rose to international fame as a lovestruck Italian teenager discovering his gender preference in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. The role brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, along with a raft of other honors, while he was also being feted as the “cool” boy who deflowers Saoirse Ronan’s character in Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig..

 He has also portrayed a drug addict (Beautiful Boy, 2018), a young cannibal (Bones and All, 2022), a revolutionary student (in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, 2021), and—just for variety—the handsome young love interest in Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women (2019)  Very soon audiences will be able to see him as heroic Paul Atreides in Part II of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the science fiction classic, Dune.

 But at the moment he’s busy making chocolate. I’m talking about his starring role in the prequel to everyone’s childhood favorite, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). I suspect many of us have fond memories of Gene Wilder playing a mature Willy with bright blue eyes, flyaway hair, and an impish sense of humor. (And I suspect most of us were turned off by Johnny Depp’s more sinister approach in 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which bears the name of Roald Dahl’s original novel.)  Movie franchises being what they are, it wasn’t surprising that someone would decide the tale of Charlie Bucket’s visit to the Wonka factory required a prequel. And so we get to find out, via Chalamet’s performance, just how the young Willy founded that amazing factory in the first place.

 Roald Dahl, of course, was famous for being curmudgeonly. A specialist in creating monsters of various odious sorts, he tempered his sweet story about the magic of chocolate with some very sour characters. The new Wonka does something of the same, with none other that Olivia Colman playing an evil landlady who keeps Willy and a clutch of other unfortunates in thrall, once they’ve had the misfortune of spending a night in her seedy hotel. Her sardonic gloating over her victims is something of which I suspect Dahl would approve. I’m much less sure he would have liked the treacle in the story, like Willy regarding chocolate-making as the legacy passed down to him by his dear, departed mother.  (She’s played in several brief scenes by Sally Hawkins, always a genuinely delightful performer with a heartbreaking smile—but here asked to be part of a saccharine moment of magical beyond-the-grave reunion.)

 The  new film  benefits from lots of fizzy and phantasmagoric visuals (oh, that giraffe!), in a charming European setting. I’m not sure, though, that it needed to be a musical. The various pleasant but not memorable songs (sung well enough by Chalamet and others) simply make a longish film longer. There’s also lots of time spent on building the backstories of some of the lesser characters. A writer of my acquaintance wonders why, in today’s cinema, we can’t simply accept quirky characters for who they are, without giving them all past lives that might possibly lead to sequels, thus broadening the Wonka Universe. This comment made me think of a film with some similarities, Chocolat. In it, the past life of wandering candy-maker Juliette Binoche is left mysterious, and we’re none the worse for that.

 I can’t say enough, though, about Hugh Grant’s role as the drollest of Oompa-Loompas. Now that he’s too old for romantic roles, he’s sure enjoying letting his freak flag fly.


Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Giving Ted Lasso a Whirl

Yes, I know I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but I just finished watching the second season of the hit TV series, Ted Lasso. I suppose that if I really want to give the full picture of the Lasso saga, I should renew my subscription to Apple TV+ and go from there.

 But the truth is that maybe I’ve seen enough. The third and final season definitely had its detractors, and by now I’ve got a pretty good idea of the quirks and quibbles of AFC Richmond, the British premier league football club (that’s soccer to us Americans). The joke, of course, is that Ted Lasso, the lovable coach of an American football team somewhere in the Midwest, has been hired—despite having zero experience with the sport—to lead an English soccer team. This happens mostly because the team’s new owner, Rebecca Welton, is trying to get back at her philandering former spouse, who dotes on Richmond beyond all things.

 But wouldn’t you know it?  Ted (vividly portrayed by show creator Jason Sudeikis) is such a dang nice, dang optimistic fellow that he shakes off all the insults coming his way. Though he’s constantly being ridiculed by the locals as a “wanker” (the show is great on helping us enlarge our British slang vocabulary.), he boosts the players’ confidence in themselves and pumps up team spirit, to the point where even Rebecca is on his side.

 One of the show’s most likable qualities is its awareness of cultural differences. Not only do we see the clash of British and American viewpoints but the team is also a lively mix of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. The Richmond roster includes players from all over Europe and Africa. Some of the most memorable include an enthusiastic young hombre from Mexico, a sweet-natured Nigerian who has a torrid secret romance with Rebecca in season 2, and a clever young Brit of Pakistani (I think) descent who is promoted by Lasso from kit man to assistant coach, but loses his shy affability along the way. And the English characters speak in such a range of local dialects that Henry Higgins would have a field day: while watching this series I discovered the absolute importance of turning on subtitles so that I didn’t lose half the dialogue.

 I must admit, though, that Ted Lasso  becomes less fun as it moves along. Since this is a cable show intended for on-demand viewing, episodes can be of varying lengths, and they seem to stretch longer and longer as the series progresses. And they also get more earnest, with every major character—including the amiable Ted—seeming to be hit by a big emotional challenge that must be explored. (In season two, a therapist becomes an important character . . . and Ted finally reveals the immense family trauma that scars his past.)  Then there’s someone’s hideously overbearing father, and several someones’ serious romantic woes. Frankly, it’s a relief when the story shifts to the endearingly normal—if slightly goofy—Director of Football Operations, one Leslie Higgins (Jeremy Swift), who is self-effacing without being neurotic.

 The comparison is not exact, but I’m reminded of the last years of the great M*A*S*H. That was the era when popular network TV series ran for years, and M*A*S*H (1972-1983) lasted much longer than the Korean War it portrayed. By the end, every character’s rough edges had been smoothed down, and every jerk had been redeemed. The cast of misfit doctors and nurses had evolved into one big happy family. And what’s the fun in that?