Camp:Something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.
That’s the relevant Merriam-Webster definition. I have a couple of others.
One is the willingness (or compulsion) to laugh at other people’s misery and pass it off as the courage of cultural rebellion.
Another is the simple act of holding any woman who rejects likability at arm’s length. What better way, after all, to mock whatever said woman is trying to project in likability’s place (or, as seems to have been the case with the film version of Valley of the Dolls in general, and Patty Duke’s genuinely raw, abrasive performance in particular, a means for gay intellectuals to project a “sensibility” which, from the outside at least, seems at least as straitjacketed as the conformist culture it supposedly rejects).
Duke’s recent death led me to the movie, which I’ve been meaning to catch since it came out on Special Edition DVD a decade back.
I’m not sure I would call what Duke did here “acting” in any formal sense. Knowing what we know now about her life to that point and her then undiagnosed bipolarity, her performance–so often defined as “cringeworthy” that picture above should probably be co-opted by Merriam-Webster as shorthand –has the feel of a self-administered therapy session, edging toward primal scream. It is in no way fun or easy to watch.
That is probably why it has become perhaps the most mocked performance in the history of film. There’s always a special place in our culture for any performer–especially any female performer–who goes to a place where they simply don’t care what we think. This is supposed to be the very last word in “over the top,” but I found myself wondering just how subdued an actress is supposed to be playing a drug-addled, bed-hopping, emotionally crippled alcoholic whose life is falling apart?
Not very, I’d say, but I guess everyone’s mileage varies for this sort of thing.
Other actresses have certainly kept the world at bay more serenely (see Vera Miles, whose price is to be the forever unsung muse of both Alfred Hitchcock’s and John Ford’s late masterpieces) or more artfully (see Vivien Leigh, whose price is to seldom if ever be mentioned as the actress of the century, despite blowing Olivier off the screen in That Hamilton Woman, the only occasion when he was fool enough to test himself against her, and scaring Brando into permanent retreat even while he was giving his own greatest performance). But in a movie that really is a narrative shambles and, for all that’s been projected onto it as a “trash” masterpiece that broke so many “taboos,” extremely tight-assed and pearl-clutching in every other respect, she alone is alive on the screen.
That picture above is from the set, not the movie itself. But the spirit of it is in almost every frame. After a while, it even pervades the legion of lifeless scenes that don’t feature “Neely O’Hara,” who everybody always knew was based on Judy Garland and who Patty Duke turned into a roman a clef of herself.
I’m not sure I would call the performance deep. Given the abilities Duke demonstrated so often elsewhere, when she wasn’t playing herself, I’m not even sure I would call it skillful. I get why people laugh.
In a dying culture, after all, nothing’s funnier than someone else’s pain and nothing’s more reassuring than the belief that, if we laugh hard enough, the mountain won’t fall on us.
She was turned over to “talent managers” at the age of eight (they billed her as six). They put her in soaps, commercials, modeling, live TV, abused her verbally, financially, and (likely) sexually. At twelve, she was cast as a lead on Broadway, in what turned out to be the role of anyone’s lifetime on both stage and film. For every generation after she was Helen Keller. She’ll be Helen Keller for every generation to come.
Other than that all she did was star in an iconic television show (where, in one of those cruel twists that Hollywood delivers so casually and mercilessly, she was cast as identical cousins with opposite personalities, two decades before she was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder), write one of the most important autobiographies of the twentieth century (it made her as much an ambassador for bipolarity as Helen Keller had been for blindness and deafness), light up just about everything she was ever in (I especially recommend the 70’s-era TV movie Nightmare even if you have to settle for YouTube or a bootleg), slay demons, and, until this morning in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, survive. As anyone who has grappled with demons of their own understands, that may be the highest and most improbable achievement of all. Perhaps never more so than when you are making it look easy.
I said most of what I have to say about The Miracle Worker here. It’s one of the very greatest American films, and one which, to our considerable peril, we’ve found ways to underestimate, patronize and ignore ever since (see the link for the details). I’ll take this sad occasion to add that the reason she will always be Helen Keller, no matter how many take on the role, is that she and Anne Bancroft gave the greatest dual performances in the history of film, beating even Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in Streetcar, and did it under the impossible burden of playing historical figures who were both well known and justifiably sainted. Like their subject matter (and their role models), their performances transcended art. If we’ve lost the ability to see that, or know what it means, or how rare it is, then goodbye us…and good riddance.
For all her courage, there was surely little enough peace here. God grant she’s found it now.
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.