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My Sunday With Arthur Penn
Maybe it was all that laundry piled up in the kid's room. Or the several days of snow shoveling and school closings. But I just couldn't be bothered. Generally, when I feel overwhelmed by detail and small chores, I like to watch something about people with infinitely bigger problems and it motivates me to get over myself. After a few episodes of Hoarders, for instance, my house is so clean you can eat off the floor.
So yesterday I accidentally spent about four and a half hours with Arthur Penn, watching two films he directed long ago: Little Big Man (1970) and The Miracle Worker (1962). The former, because I happened upon it in full on YouTube while my son was watching his favorite cartoon (not mine) and the latter, because that same kid has to write a report on Helen Keller and hasn't finished the book yet.
Little Big Man
I can't have seen Little Big Man in the theater when it came out, probably. The reason I'm unclear is that I was taken to Ryan's Daughter that year by one of my parents (I was five), who probably thought I'd be bored and fall asleep, which I wasn't and didn't, so you never know. If I saw Little Big Man at the movies, then it must not have terrified me. I imagine, after watching it on an iPad, that it is spectacular on the big screen, since much of it was filmed on location in Montana. Even if I had seen it writ large, great cinematography clearly didn't register for me as much as, say, John Mills ripping off the claw of a live lobster.
Little Big Man is the story of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), the last white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn and an impossibly old man, who, at the beginning of the film, is being interviewed by an annoying academic. The researcher assumes that since Crabb fought with Custer, he was a willing participant in the near-genocide of Native Americans, but Crabb's story turns out to be more complicated.
We learn that Pawnees killed Crabb's family, leaving 10-year-old Jack and his sister alive in the wreckage of their wagon train. A Cheyenne brave rescues them both and takes them back to his village to live. Crabb's sister runs off, while he is adopted by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), the tribe's leader, learns their language and ways, eventually earning the name Little Big Man, because he's Dustin Hoffman and is pretty short. Crabb is recaptured by U.S. soldiers in his late teens and thus begins his long tale of straddling two worlds and being part of neither.
Along the way, he runs into all kinds of Western memes (snake-oil salesman Martin Balsam) and famous figures, like Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey) and General George Armstrong Custer (a memorable Richard Mulligan; no Burt Campbell he). A lot happens to him and the people around him in two and a half hours. There is much to make you cry and a lot you want to look up after, like what did Native Americans think of this picture when it came out? and wasn't Wild Bill Hickok way younger than that guy?
Little Big Man is worth watching again if you haven't seen it since the Vietnam Era, of which it is a huge product. Forrest Gump, a picture about though not of the period -- and a movie I hated -- owes a lot to this film,
Make of that what you will.
The Miracle Worker
My son is not a guy who reads for pleasure. Granted, there are good reasons for this: he's autistic, kind of dyslexic, and has visual processing issues, but it still kind of confounds and saddens me that a kid who loves stories so much has so much trouble reading. I thought we'd watch The Miracle Worker together after getting halfway through his book (which is where the picture ends) to see if it would help him retain the main themes and all that. And it did, but in the exact opposite way it worked for me when I was his age.
When I was a girl, my mother used to suggest reading the book before seeing a movie based on the book, particularly if it was scary, like The Omen or Jaws, so "you'd know when to close your eyes." Now if you've read either of those books, you'll recall that there's so much violence and creepiness to chew on mentally, that seeing it on a screen is nothing compared to what you've already dreamed up.
What I forgot about The Miracle Worker, is how heartbreaking and dark it is, how much more I relate to the Kellers now (well, Mrs. Keller, anyway), because the last time I saw it I didn't have a child of my own, let alone one with special needs. And because Annie Sullivan's background is horrifyingly bleak, I had to do a lot of 'splainin' to my boy about orphans, insane asylums, scarlet fever, why all the black people in the movie were servants (my son is black; I'm not) and why I was crying the whole time --
all the stuff he needed to be shown by the movie, because he wasn't picking it up from the book.
Naturally, the part my kid liked the best was the breakfast table scene when Helen and Miss Sullivan are fighting. "Pinch her!" he'd suggest. I admit, it was kind of hard for me to resist doing a few Three Stooges whoops during some of it. Honestly, I don't know how Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft made it through that scene without killing each other. I suppose having done it every night for two years on stage was good practice.
But my kid softened up by the time Helen and Annie get to the gatehouse.
"Do blind people dream?" he asked. He even volunteered something from the book he remembered: "The final word she needs to know is water."
There are parts of the movie that drag and are over-earnest and very Playhouse 90, which is fine on the whole. It does make you wonder why Inga Swenson didn't get to do a bit more drama than, say, Benson. And the guy I always think is Fritz Weaver turns out to be Victor Jory. Other than that, it's Patty Duke's picture and I'm very glad for her she made it.
In case you were wondering, I finished all the laundry.