The Miracle Worker (Arhtur Penn, 1962)
BLFJ (Bright Lights Film Journal): Yes, and very unique, remarkable given where and when it was made. I also think that, to an extent, The Chase, which is the next film of yours I wanted to talk about, comes directly out of it. Both The Left-Handed Gun and Mickey One touch on this idea of there being a particular kind of violence lurking in American society, and that seems to come to the fore in The Chase.
Arthur Penn: Yes, I totally agree. What we’re doing however, is leaving out one other film, which is The Miracle Worker, which had its share of, how shall I say, positive violence, in the sense that Ann Sullivan [sic], in the film Anne Bancroft, was determined to penetrate the slowly dying intelligence of this child, and get through to her the concept that language was the symbol for idea. So they were a series of fairly vigorous films.
BLFJ: The Chase was set in a small Texas town….
(Source: Bright Lights Film Journal Interview with Arthur Penn (director of The Miracle Worker), in 2009….Note the difference in what the filmmaker wants to talk about and what the really important person in the conversation, the interviewer, wants to talk about.)
“I know people who re-view The Miracle Worker every year.”
(Source: David Thomson, Have You Seen….?, 2008)
Let me just say that people who “re-view” (I think that means “watch”) The Miracle Worker every year have a value system I don’t really comprehend.
I watch it every five or ten years depending–always with trepidation.
I’ve never been able to treat a visit with human pain after the manner of a holiday, like getting out a Sunday suit once a year for Easter.
It happened this week was the time for one of my very occasional visits with Arthur Penn’s 1962 film. The timing was due in part to just-because-it-had-been-a-sufficient-while-and-the-mood-arose, and in part because They Shoot Pictures Don’t They just released their annual, ever-fascinating compilation of all the critics’ lists that seek to name the very best films, which is by far the most thorough-going of its kind.
Once again, Penn was represented on a list of a thousand only by Bonnie and Clyde. That film is certainly worthy–and pretty well placed at #219 (up a not particularly meaningful two spots from last year). But it says quite a lot about the particular mindset that dominates arts criticism in general and film criticism in particular, that a film which mythologizes and heavily romanticizes two historical characters who, by star Warren Beatty’s own admission at the time, were in fact “a couple of thugs,” (an admission with which Penn, in an interview separate from the one quoted above, heartily concurred) can place so routinely high, while a film by the same director which, if anything, is even better-made, and celebrates two accurately portrayed historical characters, who, by their collective example as teacher and student, helped create hope out of the darkest despair for literally millions of people who might have otherwise been abandoned, gets no love at all, says….
I didn’t really watch the film in order to get at any new feelings about the crit-illuminati. Anybody who reads this blog with any regularity will have a pretty good idea of how I feel about that subject already.
However, I did want to watch it this time around with a specific eye toward its value as a film, which is another way of saying I wanted to view it as objectively as possible as a film that compares favorably–or unfavorably–to the sort of films that tend to excite critical passions.
I won’t lie. Pure objectivity isn’t something I generally strive for or even think is realistic. I certainly didn’t achieve it this time. Point of fact it was pretty well gone by the time the opening credits finished rolling.
Objectivity. Distance. Whatever name you care to put on it. All that went right out the window in the first few minutes because I was immediately reminded of what is so easily forgotten when I let the film sit on the shelf for a decade or so. Before it is anything else, Penn’s take on The Miracle Worker is that of a Gothic horror story, straight out of Poe, Shelley (Mary, not Percy) and the Bronte Sisters and conceding nothing to any of them.
Because until Annie Sullivan comes to redeem her, Helen Keller is a monster–one who threatens not lives and limbs (after the manner of Frankenstein or the Terminator) but hearts and minds (after the manner of Heathcliff)–not least her own.
That she’s a monster–and that Penn, along with playwright and script-writer William Gibson, saw that side of her and tapped into it–is evident until almost the very end. The scenes where Helen–supposedly well on her way to being civilized–drops her napkin on the floor, capture the exact beats of a horror film. They also magnify those beats a thousand-fold because, by now, we know Patty Duke’s Helen Keller is not only a monster.
She’s also a terribly–and justifiably–frightened little girl.
In the review from which I quoted above, Thomson (normally wooden-headed even by crit-illuminati standards) contends that the fight over Helen folding her napkin is the most violent scene Penn ever filmed.
That’s a mouthful because Penn was basically responsible for breaking down the really significant barrier between abstract distance and in-your-face realism in American film. The bullet he put in the face of an innocent civilian in Bonnie and Clyde‘s first act of overt violence really was a watershed.
But it’s also true–if by “violence” we mean (as I’m not sure Thomson does, but go with me here) full exposure to fear.
During the famous nine-minute scene where Duke’s Helen is desperately trying to escape the room in which Anne Bancroft’s Sullivan is trying equally desperately to hold her, anyone who isn’t in denial about the film being after something far more than “uplift” has to know just how much is at stake.
Helen Keller in that moment clearly believes–has somehow intuited after the manner of gifted children everywhere, whether or not they can see, hear or speak–that her choices are stark. Escape that room or end up in the asylum where we know–and must believe that she somehow knows–her parents are already thinking of sending her.
Annie Sullivan in that moment clearly knows–as we know–that Helen’s escape from that room would actually lead to the end she dreads. That if she gets out of that door she’ll be confined to the very darkness she’s certain she’s trying to escape.
It’s the overt terror of a horror or suspense film turned inwards.
And, having played the scene together hundreds of times on Broadway (and done God knows how many re-takes on the film set), Bancroft and Duke don’t simply act like they’re doing it for the first time or making it anew. They act like they’ve been transported into the minds and bodies of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and taken to a room where much more than themselves are at stake–which I suppose is just a way of saying they transcend “acting”–as indeed they do throughout the film.
Sorry, but what is Bonnie and Clyde–or ninety percent of the other films on TSPDT’s list–next to that? What is it next to just that, which is by no means the whole–or nearly the whole–of what The Miracle Worker is about (one could write a nice, lengthy treatise on Annie Sullivan’s arrival at the train station as a version of the western stranger, coming to save the town…take a look at how it’s shot some time)? Certainly Sullivan herself–in this film and more than likely in life as well– is as convincing a version of the American obsessive as Ahab or Ethan Edwards. (If that quality is sometimes missed, it might be because her obsessive streak is moving her towards the light rather than the darkness–not a journey any modern intelligentsia is likely to be comfortable with, I’m afraid.)
The Miracle Worker was Penn’s second film. He ended up being a very fine–if not very prolific–filmmaker. I’d argue 1976’s Night Moves, at the very least, should be getting plenty of recognition on these lists (it doesn’t), and nearly all his films have more than a little to recommend them.
I’d certainly rank all I’ve seen ahead of The Blues Brothers, for instance (which checks in at 936 and, yes, which I like).
But he never had a subject to match this again.
Very few filmmakers have.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say in five or ten years when it’s time to approach it again.