Monday, February 4, 2013

To Kill A Mockingbird (film, 1962)

Took a weekend sabbatical in Portland and caught To Kill A Mockingbird at the Northwest Film Center.  Actually at the Portland Art Museum, but organized by the NWFC.  And can I just say, one of the things I miss about living in a big city is repertory cinema?  We have art cinema in the 'Gene, but it's first-run, and I'm a premodernist in just about everything. 

I'm not sure I've ever quite understood what Boo Radley means.  The main part of the story, the Robinson case, is a perfectly economical and rational piece of social realism, neatly dissecting the class and race divisions in this small Alabama town.  We understand why Mayella does what she does, why her father does what he does, and more than that we know what they represent:  the grinding misery of poverty, ignorance, and self-delusion.  They're everything that's holding the South back, in the movie's analysis. 

What about Boo?  I've always thought he was an elaboration of the persecuted-outsider theme - the Finch kids needed to learn to be human not only toward people ostracized because of their race, but toward people ostracized because of mental difference.  And there is that.  In fact I was seeing that more clearly this time.  There's an interesting parallel suggested between Mayella, beaten, and beaten down, by exploitative and vindictive family, and Boo, who seems to be treated pretty much the same.  And so perhaps the fact that, against all evidence of rumor, Boo turns out to be good at heart, not like Mayella, represents the movie's hope for the South.  Maybe violence and hatred won't always beget violence and hatred;  maybe some of us can rise above. 

But it also strikes me that there's something less realistic, less rational, about the character of Boo Radley.  Partly that's because he's a deus ex machina, of course.  But note also how we first see him:  hiding behind the door in Jem's room, shrunk into a corner.  That's spooky enough, but also in the frame, very obviously, is a photo of Scout and Jem's late mother, on the mantelpiece.  We've never seen this or any photo of her yet in the film, but there she is, right next to Boo.  And it is Halloween.  Is Boo Radley the ghost of the kids' mother, hanging around to protect them?  Is this a Southern Gothic strain - well, of course it is, but is it a more Gothic strain of Southern Gothic than I knew?  If so, it's an interesting and effective balance for the slight heavyhandedness of the social realism in the rest of the movie.

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