One of the reasons I enjoy Hit Me with Your Best Shot over at the Film Experience is that it encourages a new sense of unfamiliarity. When you throw yourself into the task of selecting a single image from a movie, and then writing about it at length, it tends to recontextualize that movie as something new, something to be grappled with; it encourages thinking about it less as a narrative with pictures, and more as a series of content-laden images.
That is to say, it’s a flawless tool for forcing oneself to watch a movie in a more active way, and when the movie in question is as familiar as Double Indemnity or American Graffiti are for me, having such a tool is invaluable, giving the movie its life back. I’m always glad when the series visits a movie I’ve seen before, because it feels like I end up engaging more with the imagery when it’s part of that disjunction between the familiar and the fresh, as happens when you apply a close reading to a text you knew by heart before you ever knew how to do “close reading”.
And sometimes, it doesn’t work that way at all; sometimes, by the time I’m done reading the title I’ve already picked out the frame I want to use, and have gotten halfway through drafting the essay in my head. Such was the case with this week’s selection of Mary Poppins, the 1964 Disney musical that I probably know better than any other movie ever made. Sometimes, you’re just too close to a film to ever get that critical distance back.
That being said, I’m still utterly delighted by the choice, because this is, after all, the the movie that I know by heart above all others. And I’m hoping you know it too, because my pick is from the very last scene and is such a potential spoiler that I’m putting it below the jump, though if you don’t know the plot of Mary Poppins in 2013, your problem is greater than running into spoilers about it.
I’ve put them all there to show off the extremely slight evolution of Julie Andrew’s expression, though I suppose the first frame is the “actual” pick; the middle was simply snipped from my Mary Poppins review, and the last is there to finish off the moment.
And the reason I wanted to show off Andrew’s expression is because that’s what drives why I love this moment. Throughout Mary Poppins, the title character is largely a symbol: she’s not really the protagonist of a film that’s primarily about a supernatural force that encourages an emotionally divided family to come together. We never learn where she came from, or even who she is (I cannot imagine having enough creativity to tell the story of what Mary does on her second Tuesdays off). She is, to all intents, a machine for making other people better.
Then comes the end, and she has succeeded. The Banks family has figured out what matters, and are off to go fly a kite, forgetting entirely about the magical nanny in the attic. But she has not forgotten them. And it’s here, virtually at the end of the film, that we finally see what being Mary Poppins costs: in the moment of her triumph, she is abandoned, and the children she has loved and cared for are no longer part of her life. It helps the scene considerably that a particularly bittersweet statement of the film’s opening musical motif appears on the the soundtrack with this shot, rising above the triumphalism of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and adding just a hint of melancholy to the rousing finale; but let’s be honest, Andrews has plenty of ambivalent melancholy already, in that gradual shift from a frown that wants to be a smile, to a smile that hasn’t forgotten that it was just a frown, culminating in that uncertain expression that might be the start of a grin or an attempt to keep from crying. It’s glorious screen acting; every time I revisit the performance, I find that I’ve always forgotten just how damn good Andrews is (for example, right now I’m horrified that I didn’t include her on this list).
Mary Poppins is a deceptively simple movie, and nothing is more deceptive than Mary herself; prim and stern and only inclined to feel things when she knows that nobody is watching. But we are watching, and this climactic reveal that she’s torn up inside about moving on is a beautiful, even slightly heartbreaking moment surrounded by ebullient joy. It’s one of the most emotionally complex scenes in the whole film, and all from nothing more than a tight close-up on a flawlessly modulated performance.
Practically perfect in every way, and then some.