Friday, November 22, 2013

Mary Poppins, Revisited

I watched Mary Poppins for the first time with my daughter this week. It took us three different showings because I forgot how long the movie is and we kept running into bedtime. This was one of my absolute favorite movies as a child and I loved watching her giggle over the carousel horses that won the race, the tea-party on the ceiling and of course the dance with the chimney sweeps over the roofs of London. Her mouth dropped open in astonishment when Julie Andrews (playing the title character) sang "Stay Awake" which has been Sarah's bedtime song her entire life. I hope she will love the movie as I did and that we will watch it together many times, but what interested me more is my own new understanding of the movie.

As a child I loved what my daughter loved; the bright colorful scenes, Julie Andrew's beautiful voice, the silliness and fun. As an adult, decades later, I found myself entranced by the relationships between the characters and how they changed. As a child I would have told you this movie is about Mary Poppins, a magical nanny for Jane and Michael, two British children in the year 1910. As an adult I think it is a story about their father Mr. Banks and his transformation.

At the beginning of the story the Banks are what I would term professionally a narcissistic family. The parents are involved in their own lives; Mr. Banks in rising in influence and power at his bank and Mrs. Banks in the women's suffrage movement. They don't pay much attention to their children except to scold them for not being good little "children-bots" who reflect credit on their parents and don't cause trouble. Jane and Michael are cared for by a series of nannies whom they torment with various tricks, including running away. At the opening of the movie they are brought back by a constable after having run off chasing a kite and causing the latest nanny to quit. The children attempt to apologize and ask their father to help them with their kite but he ignores this, instead focusing on dictating to his wife the qualities he wants to see in a new nanny. Jane and Michael write their own advertisement for a nanny in an effort to help; Mr. Banks finds their letter ridiculous and tears it up. The wind snatches it up through the window and thus the crisis is created that allows Mary Poppins to enter the family as an agent of transformation.

Over the course of a few days Mary Poppins and Burt (an old friend and admirer of Mary Poppins and local man of all work - chalk artist, one man band, kite seller and chimney sweep) take Jane and Michael on magical adventures. The children are delighted and Mr. Banks is perturbed, insisting that the children need a grounded, reality based education. He attempts to intimidate Mary Poppins as he does the rest of his household but she remains calm and unflustered. She then neatly turns the tables by agreeing with him and arranging for the children to accompany Mr. Banks to work the next day. Chaos ensues when Michael wants to spend his tuppence to feed the birds from the bird woman as Mary Poppins had suggested and his father insists he invest it in the bank.

The bank scene is a lovely illustration of narcissistic parenthood. Mr. Banks brings Jane and Michael in and announces to his superiors that Michael wishes to open an account, despite the fact that Michael has repeatedly stated he wants to feed the birds. The bank officers and Mr. Banks sing about the glories of investment while Jane and Michael appear steadily more confused and frightened by the circle of grownups pressing in on them. Finally, the president of the bank snatches Michael's tuppence away from him and Michael responds by shrieking and wrestling it back. The fight disturbs the other bank customers who only realize that the bank won't give someone their money back and a run on the bank is created. Michael and Jane run off through the confusion. Throughout this scene Jane and Michael are not seen as individuals. Their father wishes them to behave a certain way in order to bolster his own prestige and image at work.

Mary Poppins created the conditions for change with her magic and ability to stand up to Mr. Banks, but it is Burt who capitalizes on her work to reach the characters and start changing their relationships. Burt finds Jane and Michael after they've run off and helps them empathize with their father in his position of responsibility and loneliness. When Mr. Banks comes home from work devastated by the incident and knowing he will be ruined Burt (in the home to clean the chimney) empathizes with him and then gently in song helps him see that he's rapidly losing the window of opportunity to connect with his children. Burt leaves it there, with Mr. Banks sitting quietly in a dawning awareness. Jane and Michael approach and apologize to their father, handing him the tuppence and asking if that will make everything better. Mr. Banks appears to really see his children for the first time; their desire to connect with him and love him. He receives a phone call ordering him to report to the bank and we follow him through the streets of London as he appears to see things for the first time, pausing to gaze at the spot where the bird woman sits.

The turning point of the movie is the scene in the bank. Mr. Banks enters and is marched to the board room between two tuxedoed officers. There is a strong sense of a criminal being brought to justice which is heightened when Mr. Banks enters the darkened boardroom, where light falls only on the board  sitting at their table. Mr. Banks is reprimanded for his behavior and he apologizes, but then things become ridiculous. While the president of the bank looks on with undisguised pleasure Mr. Banks's boutonniere is torn, his umbrella is turned inside out, and the top of his hat is punched out by one of the senior board members. Clearly this is intended as a ritual shaming and casting out and yet all of a sudden Mr. Banks sees it for the nonsense it is. It's a pretend world that he bought, to the exclusion of his family, and he gets it now. He laughs and delightedly shares a joke that Michael had told him much earlier in the movie, a joke that he only now understands. He dances off singing, returning home to repair the kite and take Jane and Michael out as they had requested in the first moments of the movie. Mrs. Banks follows her husband's lead and offers her suffragette sash as a tail for the kite. The family skips off together hand in hand. Mary Poppins and Burt, their work accomplished, quietly fade out of sight to allow the restored family relationship to keep center stage.

This movie resonates for me now on so many new levels. As a therapist, because the narcissistic family dynamic is so common, so damaging and so insidious. I admire the empathy as a change agent that Burt utilizes and the focus Mary Poppins maintains on her work of healing this family. Her leaving scene, where she is obviously saddened but determined not to usurp the parents' rightful position, is a lovely illustration of what therapists should do when their work is complete. More importantly I see this movie now as a parent, as I strive to be a non-narcissistic mother to my own daughter. I remind myself to balance discipline and acceptance, to balance my work with parenting, and most of all I remind myself focus on my daughter and her truth, to see her as she is and not as I would wish her to be for my own gratification.