The Miracle Worker
October 14, 2010 Leave a comment
For those of you who read this review, I want you to be especially conscious of that act of reading. Specifically, I want you to be conscious of the fact that what you’re doing is looking at text scribblings, signs that have no absolute meaning on their own, but are assigned them solely by our ability to equate things both concrete and abstract with that sign. I want you think about this act as communication, and how through this mutual ability you are comprehending this representation of my—another’s, from your perspective—thoughts. As you’re thinking about this, I want you to equally imagine what your life would be like if this ability was denied to you. If you couldn’t hear and couldn’t see, how would you ever be able to translate anything in concrete reality, or internal and abstract, into a symbol?
Many have heard the name Helen Keller (Patty Duke), and I suspect most know the basics of her life, at least insofar as that she was a deaf/blind mute from the time she was baby. Perhaps others know she eventually became a celebrated author, political activist, and lecturer, and perhaps some know that this was largely thanks to the efforts of her teacher, Anne “Annie” Sullivan (Anne Bancroft). But I suspect that few people ever stop to really think about the almost incomprehensibly difficult task of what it would be like to teach someone semiotics, who has never had access to the world through sight or sound. Arthur Penn’s 1962 film, based on the award-winning Broadway play of the same title, which itself was based on Helen Keller’s The Story of My life, tells the story of the teacher’s struggle to open up the world to the young Helen through language and signs.
The film begins with Keller’s parents, Captain (Victor Jory) and Kate (Inga Swenson) discovering that Helen has been stricken blind and deaf after an illness. The film cuts to her as a young girl who almost has the run of the household since her parents don’t have any way to teach and/or discipline her. The immense difficulty forces them to contact the Perkins School for the Blind for help, and they send Annie Sullivan, a former student, to be her teacher. Sullivan is a strong-minded, stubborn woman herself, and her first attempts to teach Helen involves her spelling sign language in her hand, but Helen simply doesn’t make the connection between the sign and the substance. Given Helen’s spoiled stubbornness, Annie requests that she be given full control over her in another house for several weeks, in an attempt to teach her to obey and, hopefully, to learn the language that can break her out of her isolated shell.
Considering that the film was originally based on a play, the thing that struck me most was how much of the film works almost as a silent melodrama. Once the conflicts are briefly laid out through the opening dialogue, very little else needs to be said. The core of the film centers on the monumental battle of wills, which translates into tremendous acts of physicality, between Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan and Duke’s Helen Keller. In the film’s most extraordinary sequence, the two square off in the kitchen as Annie refuses to allow Helen to go around the table eating off other’s plates. Instead, she forces her to sit down in a chair, fold her napkin, and use a spoon to eat from her plate. Helen protests in the only way she knows how, and that’s by physically fighting, running, and throwing.
The entire scene lasts for a physically and emotionally exhausting nine minutes, and it’s amazing to think that what is, essentially, a struggle over table manners could take on the feeling of all-out emotional, physical, and even spiritual war. At the end of which, the greatest triumph seems to be that Annie gets Helen to “fold her napkin”, uttering the rather hilarious lines “the room’s a mess, but her napkin’s folded”. Apart from being riveting cinema, the scene shows that, sometimes in life, the most enormous wars we fight are to gain the smallest amounts of ground from which we can build on. But it’s difficult to say enough regarding just how affective and effective the scene is on every conceivable level, as it really shows all of the film’s creative talent, both behind and in front of the camera in top form.
In front of the camera is Bancroft and Duke. The former ultimately won a much deserved Oscar for her performance, which is, indeed, a marvelous sight to behold. Not only does Bancroft bring a tremendous amount of authenticity, compassion, and humor to the role, but also her surprising physical gifts which not only pay off in the grueling “war” scenes, but also in the small moments when her smallest facial expressions speak to Sullivan’s unique personality. Patty Duke is almost as remarkable, and I doubt many would appreciate just how hard it is to imbue a character with a distinct personality when you no longer have the gift of speech and imitative expression. In place of those, what she brings in a raw physical power, portraying Helen almost as a feral child, fierce and even frightening in her eruptions of violence and tantrums.
Behind the camera is the recently deceased (RIP), unfairly underrated Arthur Penn, who is already showing his innate gifts as a director of substantial visual violence as anchored with intriguing characters. If the actors bring their physical gifts, Penn brings his visual gifts, galvanizing the action through this forceful editing, dynamic angles, and expressive lighting, which often takes on the darkened, almost metaphysical tonal qualities of a noir. While Penn tailors the cinematic language to his actors and characters, he also seems to intuitively know where to place the camera to extract the most emotional force out of each gesture, each movement. Arthur also effortlessly orchestrates the intensity, modulating from the peak eruptions to the quieter moments of calm and anxiety, but always keeping the tension and what’s at stake in the viewer’s minds.
In a respect, it could be easily to accuse the film of indulging in certain shallow, melodramatic tendencies, but I think Penn skillfully avoids this through his lack of sentimentality—in fact, he seems to viciously eschew mawkishness—and his ability to create a harrowing, visceral power out of its scenes. He might not earn his emotional outbursts in scenes like, say, the opening scene, and perhaps the elevated sense of victory and relief goes slightly over the edge near the end, but these moments appear less egregious and gratuitous when placed in the context of what comes before or after. Given how emotionally draining much of the film is, I think the ending, especially, provides a much needed celebratory relief.
However, Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review observed another potential flaw, arguing that, essentially, the intensity expended on the scenes to make Helen obey, and, later, to make her learn, result in an exhausting monotony. I would argue that the former is just a microcosmic battle in the war over the latter. Such an argument strikes me as saying that because all battle scenes in war films are produced with such intensity, they take on a monotonous quality. I think if we stop to realize the magnitude of what’s at stake, such skirmishes feel like periods of a sentence that merely exist to express something larger, grander, and more intricate. In that sense, the film brings me back to my opening about words. How conscious have you been while reading this review? Mostly likely, not very, but that’s inevitable; it’s common to take for granted such freedoms, and there may be no greater freedom than that which allows us to express, communicate, connect, and symbolize the external and internal worlds.
In that sense, a film like The Miracle Worker feels like a war film, except the stakes may be even higher, because what’s at stake isn’t even just the ability to understand and communicate, it’s ability to live as a human and connect to a world that we simply take for granted as existing outside ourselves.