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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mister Banks started out kind of slowly at the box office in its initial limited release.  I went to see it opening weekend on the primary screen at the Village East, a landmarked beautifully ornamented former Yiddush play house surrounded by much smaller screens in the basement and stacked in the one-time stage area. The movie was playing on four screens,and there were maybe a few dozen people watching in this very large one.

Happily, to me, the film picked up some steam with families over the holidays.  It is quite entertaining, boasts some fine acting, and for my clients and people in my trade it poses some interesting questions about the boundaries between art and commerce. It is the story of an artist, the author of the Mary Poppins novels, and her money-driven flirtation with Disney over the making of the film based on her books, which the author wouldn't have enjoyed with a five-pound bag if sugar, let alone a spoonful.

The acting first.  Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney.  I didn't realize this when I watched the coming attraction until Hanks' name appeared, and I didn't realize it during the movie.  He submerges himself thoroughly in the role.  Even in his excellent performance in Captain Phillips -- in most of his excellent performances -- you always know you are watching Tom Hanks.  In burying himself here so thoroughly in the role of Disney, he gives one of his very best performances of quite a number of exceptionally good ones.

Emma Thompson is highly buzzed for Oscar contention for her performance as P.L. Travers and is also impeccable.  The author is not likeable in the movie or in life (I read that a grandchild said she died liking or being liked by no one), and Thompson doesn't shy away from this.  But she shows just enough admirable sternness or authorial pride/possessiveness, both virtues we generally cherish, that we never grow distant.

Myke Cole pointed me in the direction of a review from the LA Weekly that is one of the most extreme examples of one of the strongest critiques of the film.  It whitewashes, it sugarcoats, it hides inconvenient faces, it makes a mockery or just plain dismisses the importance of Travers' creative integrity.

Yes, the movie sugar coats.  It is a movie about the making of one of the most beloved family films of all time, and it is intended to be seen by families.  But for all the sugar coating there isn't a major point about Travers' dislike for the movie that isn't addressed in the film.

It is very clear early in that this was all about money, that she needed Walt's. One of the very first scenes is her agent/adviser saying "no one is buying your books, you have no money coming in, do you want to keep your house."

The movie has her say at one point "you are the only American I like" to Paul Giamatti's chauffeur, so it doesn't make a big huge announcement of how much she hated Americans, and why should it? Does this critic wish for American children to reciprocate her hatred, not read the books because of it?  No one seeing the movie would be surprised to know that Travers forbade American involvement in the stage adaptation of Mary Poppins, but the movie actually being made isn't the place to dwell on it.

It is very clear in the movie that she was not invited to the premiere.  In the movie, we see her deciding to go absent an invitation, Walt is seen saying something like "I should invite her to dump on it?" She shows up in Walt's office and we have a "gee, that invitation must have been lost, will have a fresh one delivered right to your hotel" moment where we know there was no sent invitation to resend.

Another review of this nature criticized the film for not showing Walt Disney's chain smoking, but the movie isn't about the evils of tobacco, and in one scene Travers barges into Disney's office and he hastily puts out a cigarette and says "have an image to behold, can't see me smoking" so we know that he smokes. Hanks also depicts his smokers' hack.  Here the filmmakers lose either way, because anti-smoking advocates would rather we see no smoking ever in movies, that people who did smoke shouldn't in cinematic reality because it encourages a bad habit.

Who would want to see the movie this critic would prefer?  Isn't it better to have a palatable movie where Disney says "bad to let people see me smoking" and Travers says "you are the only American I like" -- a movie that people will see that says these things? Few people will see the movie this critic is upset not to have seen.

I never read the books.  I know of them only because of the movie.

Which brings us to the teachable lesson for authors.  Don't quit the day job!  For almost 28 years I have watched bad decision making -- let me qualify that, necessary decisions that I shouldn't call bad, but which are detrimental to the quality of the work or to the long-term financial benefits which should accrue to the author -- by authors who need to do something for immediate financial reasons or feel the pressure of those needs.

Travers was aware enough to loathe her decision while she was making it, and I have to give her credit for that.  Too many authors remind of the adage about people never acknowledging a fact that their employment requires they ignore.

It is hard to tell from the movie the extent to which she did or did not later take ownership of her decision.

Which one should.

But sometimes the ownership is acknowledging that some decisions are forced upon us by circumstance.  I think it might have been Cory Doctorow who pointed out that the advance is in part a compensation for having to go along for the ride with the publisher when other options are foreclosed.  I can think of two books early in JABberwocky history with one publisher willing to buy, so what can you do but sell?  And when the publisher wants the bad cover, what do you do?  You can't pick up your toys and go elsewhere.

The last point I will make on this -- authors way more often than not are along for the ride, for better or worse or richer or poorer the publishers make decisions and after a point you just have to go along.  And perhaps because it is so often thus, the authors shy away when I point out that they can pick up their toys and go elsewhere that the decisions are in fact theirs.

The tragedy of Saving Mister Banks, that you hear a bit of on some excerpts from archival recordings made at Travers' request of her hectoring sessions with the film creators, of her fighting where she really can't.

As an agent, I hate those tragedies but know they are unavoidable. But what tears at me more are the rarer tragedies where we had the leverage to have things done some other way and failed to do it.

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