27 October 2011

19. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD




It's a southern film, and accordingly, goes along about its own leisurely pace. Although the film follows the traditional four-act structure that's standard in Classic Hollywood Cinema, it does so in it's own way, allowing for tangents. There are set pieces and side plots, and in many ways it is largely episodic.

We are introduced to Atticus Finch, one of our MCs (more on this later), when a man he has done legal work for delivers him some nuts in lieu of payment. This is the kind of man he is: he accepts food instead of money, he's a good lawyer (he won the case), and he tells his kid to accept the food herself in advance, because he doesn't want to embarrass the farmer.

And then we are introduced into Scout and the neighborhood kids. We get a setup about Boo Radley, the neighborhood shut-in. The kids are scared of him: he's a spectre, a phantom, a spook. There's a reason he's called "Boo": he's as fake and real to them as a ghost.

At minute 17, Atticus is appointed a case by the judge, although we don't immediately get the details. Both the judge and Atticus act as though the case is a big deal, and we as the audience are immediately curious. This is a great example of withholding information to get the audience involved and wanting to know what's going to happen next.

Then we get it: a black man, Tom, is accused of raping a young white woman. Atticus will defend Tom in court, as every man has the right to a fair trial.

More with Boo -- long set piece with the kids trying to peep on him.

Minute 37 -- "It's a sin to kill a mockingbird." -- all they do is sing.

The theme of the movie comes late, when Atticus tells Scout, "You never really understand someone until you consider things from his point of view." This is the key to this film and the book it is based on. It's a sense of conservative Christian values that is applied, in the main plot, to the progressive principle of giving a black man a fair trail in a racist society. But that sense of empathy pervades the whole piece and will come into play in the finale, with a big payoff to first act set-ups about Boo Radley.

Set piece -- a mob has formed, and they want to kidnap and lynch Tom. Atticus goes to the county jail and sits outside, effectively preventing this. Scout humanizes the whole event by recognizing and talking to the farmer from the opening scene, who is part of the mob. This is a brilliant pay-off to an earlier scene that we didn't immediately recognize was a set-up; it also serves as great subtext; finally, it's a clean line of action from the first scene of the movie to the last scene of the second act, and allows us to go to the midpoint break with grace.

Midpoint -- the trial begins. We are in court, and we finally get the facts of the case, and it's immediately obvious that the case is bullshit.

At 1:40, the jury comes back with a verdict. Guilty. The black crowd in the balcony, segregated, stand up to show respect for Atticus, who did his job the best he could.

Then the news comes that Tom tried to escape, and Atticus must go to his family and give them the news. Mayella's dad shows up, spits on Atticus.

And now we come to Act 3. Scout and Jem walk home from town together. Mayella's father attacks them suddenly. A life and death struggle. And then, all of a sudden, nothing. As audience, we're wondering what happened.

We discover that he has died. Scout explains to her father and the sheriff what happened, from her perspective: someone saved them. And then we reveal Boo Radley. The reversal: the boogeyman becomes the savior. Everyone is capable of good.

The sheriff covers the crime up: "Bob Ewell fell on his knife." This is called karma. And then Scout walks Boo home.

The most amazing thing about this movie is the way it sheds such a good light on what it is like to be a kid: their concerns, their fears, their point of view of the world. And then the movie is able to move seemlessly from that POV to Atticus'. This is tonally tricky, to shift between these two worlds.

And there are two main characters in the story. What seems unruly throughout the course of the narrative, the constant asides and tangents, comes into focus at the end with the finale with Boo Radley: the story is, above all, about the growth of a young girl seeing the world in new ways. The biggest person in her life is her father, so we see so much of him and his concerns that he seems to share the main character role, but more than anything, what we get is a sense of a young girl learning about the world.

If there were any criticism to make about this film, it would be this: Atticus is one-note. He's simply good, and that's it. That said, the above can explain this: it's about a young girl learning from and loving her father. She will never see him in a bad light. Neither will we.

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