Flickchart Road Trip: Alabama
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
I’m continuing my progress along Interstate 10 through the tiny lower portions of states in the deep south. You know, the little bits that jut out from the main mass of the state to the north. I did that for Mississippi, and now I’m doing it for Alabama. So now is a good time to tell you that I’m planning to start adding more maps in these posts — maybe not every week, but often enough to keep you oriented beyond what my mere words can accomplish. I’d like to think that we all know the United States pretty well, but in reality, grade school geography was a long time ago for many of us.
So, here’s where I am right now:
It’s my first trip to Alabama, which I believe was also the case with Mississippi. Getting up to Birmingham would have been nice, and I’ve certainly got the time, but with gas prices these days? Forget it. So I’ve stuck around Mobile, allowing me to enjoy more of the Gulf Coast.
Deciding I should probably take in a little Civil War history while in the south, I made a trip out to Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island. It was one of the key sites in the Battle of Mobile Bay, where Admiral David Farragut famously shouted “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” I hear it’s considered to be one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in America. My guess is that it’s #11, otherwise they would have just said it was one of the ten most endangered sites.
Did you know that Helen Keller was on the Alabama state quarter? I didn’t, but as soon as I learned that, it made Arthur Penn‘s 1962 film The Miracle Worker (global ranking: 1459) an easy choice for my Alabama movie. I’ve always been interested in discovering how a woman whose senses cut her off from the world could learn to communicate, but had never taken the next steps in my inquisitiveness until now.
What it’s about
After a bout of scarlet fever in infancy leaves young Helen Keller (Patty Duke) blind and deaf, she develops into a wild and aggressive child with a primitive ability to communicate and a tenuous grasp on reality. Her desperate parents hope to make some connection with her, so they call in a governess from a northern school for the blind, in the hopes that she’ll be able to tame Helen’s unruly behavior. Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) sets out to do more than that. The former student of the school, herself once blind, wants to teach Helen words using sign language, which she conveys to the girl by making the hand motions in direct contact with Helen’s hands. Yet, years of being spoiled and having no boundaries have made the girl nearly unteachable, and Anne discovers that she’ll have to survive a number of physical skirmishes if she wants to succeed. Complicating matters is that not only does Helen not know words, she doesn’t understand the concept of a word, either.
How it uses the state
Although The Miracle Worker is set at Helen’s Alabama home, the state is never mentioned by name — which I believe makes it the first movie on this trip I can describe that way. We do see Anne arrive at the train station in Tuscumbia, Helen’s hometown, but if you didn’t know that was a town in Alabama, the movie wouldn’t tell you. The Keller family does have a revisionist history discussion of the Civil War and refer to Anne as a Yankee, which establishes the action as taking place in the south. The plant life on the Keller estate is also unmistakably native to the southern U.S.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Alabama movies I’ve already seen, shall we? Let’s choose some lighter fare than we’ve been getting in the last few states — a comedy or two couldn’t hurt. As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films The Miracle Worker will battle:
1) My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn). My Flickchart: #94/3462. Global: #831. Few movies feature as much of a discrepancy between how good they looked like they’d be, and how good they actually are, than My Cousin Vinny. The movie that introduced us to the delightfully brassy presence known as Marisa Tomei could have been a lowest common denominator culture clash, but instead, it gives the term “fish out of water comedy” a good name. The script’s undeniable love for these characters makes the difference. Sure, Vinny (Joe Pesci) and Mona Lisa (Tomei) are loudmouth New Yawkers, but they’re also clever and ultimately principled. Likewise, the Alabamans who sit in judgment of Billy (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) are provincial and distrusting, but they demonstrate hospitality and a commitment to justice at every turn. The film is as hilarious as it is humanistic, and anyone who says Tomei won the Oscar because Jack Palance said the wrong name must be immune to her charms.
2) To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan). My Flickchart: #415/3462. Global: #115. Looking for a good father role model? Looking for a good attorney role model? You’ll find both in Gregory Peck‘s Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved fathers (and probably attorneys) in film history. Atticus is a veritable fountain of wisdom and goodness on the topics of racial equality specifically, and fairness toward all people generally. The film (based on Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel) engages with the former when Atticus defends a black man wrongly accused of rape, leading him to be shunned by his prejudiced neighbors, and the latter in its treatment of the mysterious shut-in Boo Radley (a young Robert Duvall). What’s more, rarely have we seen a father treat his children with such maturity and respect (he lets them call him Atticus). To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those Teflon classics that can do no wrong. It’s set in the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb.
3) Sweet Home Alabama (2002, Andy Tennant). My Flickchart: #2081/3462. Global: #4478. Sweet Home Alabama may be only an average romantic comedy, but it does have one great line by Reese Witherspoon that I seem to think of a lot more than an average amount. Encountering one of her former classmates in her hometown Alabama bar, she incredulously observes “You’ve got a baby … in a bar.” Now I can’t see that same thing in real life, or some variation on it, without that line jumping into my head. One of Hollywood’s oldest tropes is the big city gal (or guy) who learns what’s important after slowing down to the speed of a small town, and this film doesn’t deviate from the reliable formula for a moment. It does have nice chemistry between Witherspoon and Josh Lucas, though, and is certainly worth a watch for those in its target audience.
4) Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006, Adam McKay). My Flickchart: #2105/3462. Global: #2337. I can’t rightly drive through the South without discussing at least one movie about the South’s favorite kind of driving. NASCAR gets its moment on this list with Talladega Nights, the Will Ferrell hit that’s more of a miss for me, at least relative to the rest of his body of work. (I’m about the biggest Step Brothers fan you will ever meet.) Taking its name from the famous speedway in Talladega, Alabama, this comedy gets off to a sublime start (thank you, Dear Lord Baby Jesus) before skidding off the track in the second half. It’s a lovable lampoon of NASCAR culture for more time than it isn’t, but there are better examples of Ferrell yelling his way through an unlikely profession.
5) Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008, Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg). My Flickchart: #3282/3462. Global: #3913. Only a small amount of this movie takes place in Alabama, but I dislike the Harold & Kumar movies enough that I just had to take my opportunity to diss this one. Having made their escape from the titular detention center in barely five minutes of screen time, the hapless stoners end up in Birmingham, where they mistake a bunch of good Samaritans for gang bangers, get mixed up in a Klan rally and end up sleeping in the shed of backwoods hicks with a cyclops son. Shakespeare it’s not. The jokes are supposed to reveal the personality deficits of John Cho‘s Harold and Kal Penn‘s Kumar, rather than the deficiencies of Alabama as a state. The funny thing about tone, though, is that it doesn’t always translate, and it translates exceptionally poorly here.
First duel: The Miracle Worker vs. Sweet Home Alabama. Helen’s home may not be as sweet, but it has a lot more substance. The Miracle Worker wins.
Second duel: The Miracle Worker vs. To Kill a Mockingbird. In the battle of two inspirational movies released in 1962, set in Alabama and featuring a mockingbird (“Hush, Little Baby” appears prominently in The Miracle Worker), To Kill a Mockingbird is the more classic. To Kill a Mockingbird wins.
The Miracle Worker finishes third out of the six movies.
I had my doubts about The Miracle Worker at the start. The reaction of Helen’s mother (Inga Swenson) to her discovery that Helen can’t see or hear is so ripe with melodrama, I’d believe you if you told me it was intended as parody. Then the film takes on the personality of a horror movie as we see Annie Sullivan riding the train down to Alabama, gripped by fever dreams about her own experiences as a youth steadily gaining her sight. The whole thing has a campy tone for its first 15 minutes.
Once Annie and Helen are first introduced, however, the movie grounds itself in a stark reality that is anchored by their extraordinary, Oscar-winning performances. You can immediately see the benefits of these two having played these roles together on stage. It’s almost as though they’ve developed a physical shorthand in how they play off each other, and this familiarity leads to the film’s jaw-dropping centerpiece, an out-and-out brawl in a dining room while Annie is trying to teach Helen table manners. The girl had been permitted to circle the dining room table and scoop handfuls of food from any plate she came across, a perfect symbol of her feral nature. When Annie determines that this just won’t stand, she attempts to compel Helen to eat with a spoon, and the resulting fracas upends nearly everything in the room that isn’t bolted down. It’s shocking the way the two brutalize each other as they exchange slaps, wrestle each other to the ground and fling objects around the room. Especially shocking is the idea that an adult would handle a child so roughly, but it’s an indication of exactly what it takes to build up trust and mutual respect with a being unlikely to understand gradations of subtlety. “Tough love” is a good way to describe it. While Bancroft’s work is certainly top notch, it’s Duke who is the revelation here, giving one of the most astounding performances ever filmed by an actor under 18 (she was 16 at the time).
The performances by actors other than Bancroft and Duke are not notable, and really, barely warrant a mention. Victor Jory is more good than bad as Helen’s father, and Swenson, as mentioned previously, is more bad than good. Still, by the time the end rolls around, the other actors have done enough to make us really feel the extent that Helen has progressed, and how much it means to them.
My first sequel — or perhaps I should say “sequel” — of the trip awaits me in Florida. I’ll be watching Todd Solondz‘ 2009 film Life During Wartime, a follow-up to his 1998 film Happiness (it’s the same characters, but they’re played by different actors). Given Solondz’ filmography, it should be a perfectly bizarre choice for one of the nation’s oddest states.