Monday, May 17, 2010

Day 39: An Arrival at Cherry Tree Lane

Mary Poppins is one of my Top 10 favourite films. It’s the sentimental choice, one of my early childhood film memories and a movie that still gives me great pleasure; I’ve just introduced by nearly 3 year-old godson and his brother to it and, like all kids, they love it. If ever I want living proof of the power of story, the classic and reliable works in the children’s canon, demonstrate that fact again and again.

I’ve said it here before: Disney (for all the other question marks that I have around that corporation) know how to tell stories, they know story structure and they make it work for them and have done, down through the decades.

So, humour me a little and allow me to prod your minds to recall exactly what the plot is, and what takes place at the Banks’ household over the course of that film.

It’s Edwardian England, circa 1910 and the Banks family live at number 17 Cherry Tree Lane, in the heart of London, seemingly not far from the City, as Mr.Banks walks to the Bank, in that part of the nation’s capital every day. The story event that gets the ball rolling is that the children’s nanny, Katie Nanna, has had enough of her charges, Jane & Michael (they’ve ran off, chasing a kite), quits her position and leaves the household, throwing number seventeen into turmoil.

Mr.Banks (played superbly by the recently-late David Tomlinson) takes charge of things, writing an advertisement for a new nanny, tearing up a similar piece written by the children, throwing their written request into the fireplace. Prompt, the next morning, a queue of as fearsome looking nannies as your ever likely to see appears outside the house but are just as promptly carried away on the East wind that also brings someone else to the household: Mary Poppins. Things are about to get a big shake-up in Cherry Tree Lane.

Whose story is this film?

The natural response is of course that it’s Mary Poppins’s, as it’s her name in the title of the film and I’ve expressed here before that as rule-of-thumb, usually a title’s a dead give away as to who the protagonist is. But we must probe further. The central character/s of the film is or are the ones who profoundly change over the arc of the movie’s story. From the moment that supernanny Poppins arrives until the moment she leaves, does she change? Nup. Mary Poppins flies away when the wind changes (not she), as she foretold she would do, no different to the character that was deposited on their doorstep by the wind at the start of the story.

Let’s look around for other potential protagonists: what about Dick Van Dyke’s outlandish “Bert the chimney sweep”? No, he stays the same. The kids - Jane & Michael - what about them? Well....their circumstances and, indeed, their lives alter, but I would argue that they and their mother (a fine turn by Glynnis Johns) undergo little or no deep character change. The character who does undergo that change is the curmudgeonly Mr.Banks.

Mr.Banks begins the film as a dutiful provider, for his family, of all things “external” - food on the table, roof over their heads and the like - but at the start of the film, he neither has the desire nor the inclination to spend time with his children and mend their broken kite. Every opportunity he gets, he palms the children off on someone: the nanny, his wife, a chimney sweep, even the local “bobby on the beat” gets a go. By story’s end, Mr.Banks has experienced nothing short of a personal salvation or resurrection and has all the time in the world to enjoy the pleasures of “flying a kite” with his son and daughter, having gone through an “internal” character change. The Mary Poppins character is what Linda Aronson (screenwriting teacher) refers to as a “charismatic antagonist”; a benign yet inspirational force of conflict and change). Maybe they should have called the film Mr.Banks. Doesn’t have the same ring does it?

In screenplay parlance, Katie Nanna leaving the Banks’ household was the the Inciting Incident or Disturbance that knocked their world out of balance, sending them (the Banks family, and Mr.Banks in particular) on a story-long quest to restore balance, but not in the way that he or they would have expected. That Inciting Incident is the first major plot point of the film. The next big plot point comes to signal the end of Act 1 (the beginning), projecting us, and the story, in a new direction, heralding the arrival of Act 2 (the middle).

Day #39 Tip: First Act Turning Point
Sydney Screenwriter and Script Editor Matthew Dabner, worked with me on the second draft of my screenplay The Detective. Matthew and I would meet on just about a weekly basis, over six months, from beginning to completion of that draft. It was a great experience for me; my writing and the script went forward in leaps and bounds under his stewardship and Matthew was a great writer’s companion.

At some point in the process, Matthew furnished me with a single sheet that detailed the major plot points to be nailed in a script: Introduction, Inciting Incident, First Act Turning Point, Mid Point, Second Act Turning Point, Climax, Resolution/Denoument; nothing new here. However, bracketed alongside each of these script signposts, were a few words that prompted consideration about what was meant to be going on at that point. Behind “First Act Turning Point” it said: “(Where the character finds themselves at sea, and on their journey toward change)”.

This the purpose of the First Act Turning Point in any screenplay. It usually comes (in a film of 100 minutes or so) between 25-30 minutes or pages into the script and it organically builds on the story so far, yet swings it in a new direction that will be the Progressive Complications of Act 2.

When Mary Poppins arrives to fulfill the vacant nanny’s position in the Banks’ household, she is coming in response to the advertisement penned by the children and torn up by their father, Mary Poppins is not coming in response to his ad. What he asked for and what they requested are two entirely different things. Mary Poppins is a nemesis character of Mr.Banks’ (in a good way) an agent that will bring about his change (across the wide span of Act 2). Remember Matthew’s note about what takes place at the First Act Turning Point: “where the character finds themselves at sea, and on their journey toward change”, this is what happens at the First Act Turning Point of this film, this is the journey that begins the morning that Mary Poppins floats down into the lives of Mr.Banks and his family.

It’s a great exercise to watch film after film with a weather eye for their First Act Turning Point and become familiar with how, when and why it occurs. It's great to watch Mary Poppins again, armed with this insight and to see how Act 2 progresses, from Mr.Banks's point-of-vie (POV).

But for now, as Mary Poppins said (in the first of a series of book’s that the film is based on, by Australian authoress P.L.Travers): “Behave yourselves please, till I come back”.

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