My “Saving Mr. Banks” Resolution: Will it Save My New Year’s Soul?

Coke_Heart_Truth_Can_CampaignLike millions of other folks, I began the new year with resolve to rectify my junk food and caffeine habits. At a party on January 1, I ate my weight in Chex mix, and downed two cans of Diet Dr. Pepper. My resolution lasted at least thirteen hours, seven of them awake.

The next day, I went to see the new movie, “Saving Mr. Banks,” with friends. I didn’t know anything about the movie pre-viewing, other than it was about Mary Poppins. My main motivations for going was a few hours out of the house and with folks I enjoy, though I also enjoyed the box of Junior Mints and bathtub-sized Diet Coke.

So much for that resolution. There’s always next year.

Turns out, though, I loved “Saving Mr. Banks,” and couldn’t stop thinking—or talking—about it when I got home. Because almost no one I know had also seen the movie, I took to the internet, where I found out that feminists probably shouldn’t like the movie, nor should anyone who considers herself an LGBT ally. As someone who specializes in life-writing, I probably should have been disgruntled by the film’s willingness to play fast and loose with the facts of “real life.”

Sometimes, I hate the internet. Still, my husband’s cousin, Darleen Ortega, came through for me though: she’s not only a judge on the Oregon appellate court, but also a movie reviewer. If Darleen likes a movie, then I know it’s okay for me to like the movie, too. And Darleen, also a feminist and a LGBT ally, liked it. (Whew.)

Trying to summarize the plot of “Saving Mr. Banks” is difficult, and plot summaries are often boring anyway. But the movie, loosely based on the making of the “Mary Poppins” film, does relate to another of my New Year’s resolutions, which is to spend more time trying to know people’s stories and less time judging them for the way they behave, to spend more time in constructive thinking and writing, and less time in a favorite pastime: deconstruction. How I plan to accomplish this resolution is also difficult to explain, and probably as boring as a plot summary, so I won’t divulge here.

Still, “Saving Mr. Banks” reflects to me the significant ways our life experiences both shape the stories we tell—and, also, shape the way we receive stories. The movie essentially focuses on two story tellers: P.L. Travers, the author of the children’s classic, “Mary Poppins,” and Walt Disney, who tried for nearly 20 years to secure rights to the book, but was met with Travers’s resistance. She had a certain vision for her work, and having it Disneyfied was certainly not part of that vision.saving_mr_banks_xlg

“Saving Mr. Banks” explores the ways Travers comes to terms with Walt Disney, and with her own past: a difficult childhood, and the disappointment of an alcoholic and idealistic father who dies when Travers is still young. No one save Travers knows how these torments have shaped the writer or her work, though during the film’s exploration of another film’s making, we begin to see why Travers is who she is, why Disney does what he does, why even the limo driver acts in peculiar ways, seemingly obsessed with talking about the weather.

And I was reminded again that we almost never know someone else’s story, what motivates them to act as they do. It’s a reminder I need often: when one of my students seems disgruntled and pouty all semester, and I find out later that she is painfully shy; when a child acts like a twit to one of my boys, and I discover from his mom that he has significant learning challenges; when a fellow Christian says something I find cruel—or in the least, narrow-minded and ignorant—and . . .

. . . well, to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out that one, how to hold my Christian sisters and brothers accountable for what I believe hurtful and unloving beliefs, proclaimed in the name of “biblical principle,” while also hearing their own stories, those experiences that have made them who they are. I wonder and worry: if I listen first and withhold critique, will I be capitulating to those whose beliefs I find harmful? How do I work toward change in my world, without turning immediately to deconstructing those ideologies I believe deplorable?

“Saving Mr. Banks” may have provided me one place to start. As a feminist, I was probably supposed to hate the way Mr. Disney was portrayed, as a patriarchal savior, swooping in to save the troubled woman; I should probably have bristled about the way Mrs. Travers was represented, as a bitchy woman with unreasonable demands. As someone who studies the memoir, I should probably have demanded the movie remain life-like in all its facts.

Instead of immediately getting my hackles up about the way things should be portrayed to reflect the ideologies I value, I did something else. Sitting in that theater with my bathtub of soda, I let the story be what I needed in that moment: a reminder that we all have our stories, and that our stories influence our worldviews, and that our worldviews can shift when our stories are heard and understood, as was the Mrs. Travers character, when she felt heard and understood by Mr. Disney.

Of course the movie is not a perfect reflection of Travers, or Disney, or the way the “real world” works. No artistic work can perfectly reflect the world, will always be filtered through one particular lens or another. If I know that—know that this is only one story, of many—I think it’s possible to appreciate the film’s message without demanding that it be truthful, by which we mean factual.

And, of course, I will probably face—many times over this year—the challenge of listening before critiquing, rather than turning to judgment and cynicism and irritation immediately.  Yet in the heady first days of January, I want to express gratitude for “Saving Mr. Banks,” a fabulous movie. And hope that in 2014, I will listen more to those with whom I disagree, attempting to understand their stories and consider why they believe what they do, especially before I make attempts to critique them.

Surely I can do this, even if I cannot sustain a resolve to avoid sugar and caffeine. In the end, listening to others—and potentially avoiding the cynicism and judgment to which I am prone—will probably be better for my soul, if not my body.

You can find Darleen’s great review of the movie here.