17 September, 2011

New Forest Film Festival: The Americanization of Mary

When I first met my wife Finuala, I would describe her to friends and family stateside as Barbara Wodehouse crossed with Julie Andrews.  The former is way off base, although Wodehouse was known in the States and her style of dog training has been much discredited, (and spoofed in an early Simpsons), I used it as shorthand for Finuala's devotion to her Welsh Springer Spaniels.  Finuala is more mystified than offended by her comparison to the latter, which I feel is spot on.  She has the fair perfect complexion, the sweet non-regional middle class accent which manages to fall the right side between both cut glass and received pronunciation.  And she sparkles when she smiles.  I did not know then the depth of her fondness for the film Mary Poppins, although she had boasted that she knew how to say Supercalifragilisticsexpialidocious.... backwards.

I spent as much of the film watching Finuala enjoying it.  She was channelling Julie Andrews.  Forget the makeshift autocue, she knew all the songs, even Mr. Banks' half-sung half Rex Harrison recitativo, declaiming the virtues of finance (well, she was an accountant).  Even though many of our tastes our mutually exclusive, I love Finuala's passions even when I don't share them (gardening and dog showing for example).  She doesn't share my obsession with movies, but to see her savouring a film that I love as well is some kind of double happiness.

Since my expatriation I've often come across Brits who seem baffled by my choice, more than in a self-deprecating way, to them America may be a land devoid of culture, but with a higher standard of living, bigger cheaper portions, and more space.  I often wonder about the number of Brits who've only been to Orlando in the States; they've only seen America filtered through the Disney vision.  Disney had a very strong aesthetic, a particular colour palette, certain clean lines in the design of anything between an American homestead,  a futuristic Epcot or an European castle.  There was a time when the only beards you'd find on the chinny chin chins at Disneyland/world were on the dwarves and the pirates. This Imperial American template of Disneyfied mediocrity has even found echoes in the Prince Charles helmed vision of the olde style newtown of Poundbury in Dorset.

Back when I performed comedy impro, I was fearful that I would be put on the spot and made to do a British accent.  I have some theatrical friends back in the States who rather fancy they can do a British accent, and I like them can do a passable "stage" Brit for an American audience.  Finuala has helped me disabuse them of the notion that they are any better than that with a cruel to be kind deadpan stare at their attempts.  Living in the UK, and aware of the true plethora of accents along with regional dialects and vocabulary, I've no delusion that I'm up to the task. I've always been good at funny voices, and there are some Brits amongst these, but endowed on the fly by a fellow performer or audience member, as Yorkshireman, Cornishman,  a Geordie, or a Glaswegian, I'd be truly screwed.

Except for the fact that I can thank god for Dick Van Dyke as Bert the Cockney Chimney Sweep in Mary Poppins.  His fabulous distorted rendering of the lingo of the subjects of all the Pearly Kings and Queens born within the sound of Bow Bells, is laughably famous and a great go-to gag for a performer in my position.  My replication of 'is over-h-emphisized dropped 'h'aitches, 'is syllable by syla-babble diction and jaundiced jauntiness, may not be luver-ly, but it's adequate.  And most importantly takes the fear off the prospect, 'cause the worse you do it, the better it is.

However, bad that accent may be, there is a certain Disney intent to it.  There's no need for subtitles or subtlety to sell Van Dyke's chimney sweep to the American ear.  It doesn't stop at Dick Van Dyke's cockney, erm, cock-er-ney accent.  Ed Wynn doesn't attempt an accent at all; as helium infused hysteric, Uncle Albert, he relies on mere eccentricity to convey that British stereotype.  Julie Andrews is so upbeat and energetic, she has the resolve of a Brit, but without the stiffness to her upper lip, she is scrubbed of all notions of the class system with her understandable unspecific accent and good teeth, this makes her practically American.  Even the "robin feathering his nest" from A Spoon Full of Sugar is an American Robin, a thrush that bears no resemblance to the British resident European Robin, a smaller flycatcher.

American RobinEuropean Robin

Perhaps it's directly in keeping with the fantastical nature of P.L. Travers creation, as amped up by Disney, that not only are linguistic conventions, but the nature of nature itself is imprinted with the stamp of American familiarity and forced pronunciation.  Even David Lynch caps off his "happy ending" to Blue Velvet with an animatronic cameo of Poppins' avian duet partner.

It is telling that when Disney tried to play much the same game again in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, special effects including live action within animation, leaving more of its Britishness intact, the result was much more humdrum and less successful. And David Tomlinson was given far less to do, even if he received higher billing.

In fact it was on this viewing that I really appreciated that Tomlinson's turn is really the emotional core of the film.  His Mr. Banks is the only character that has any kind of arc, his conversion from a stuffy walking bowler hat rack to devil may care kite flyer with a run of wooden leg jokes is the wind changing payoff to the whole film.  He hasn't found his inner child as much as submitted to his optimistic inner-American.  He is ultimately rewarded by being accepted back into the bosom of his beloved banking establishment.  That this invitation to breezily irresponsible banking from the once safe as houses Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, has inevitably destroyed the soundness of the British economy, is a metaphor which I have clearly stretched beyond its breaking point.

Like Disney, I have warped reality to suit my purposes.  I'm American, that's what we do.

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