Tuesday, April 8, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

Three children approach a dark, shadowy, mysterious house. It is encased as if by fog in the legend of Boo Radley, the son of the meanest man ever to draw a breath, a young man who spends his days chained to his bed only to venture out at night to spy upon children as they sleep. The three children sneak around back. They slip under a wire fence and begin to open the garden gate – SQUEAK! They apply some spit to the hinges. They try again – squeak. Some more spit and it silently opens. One child crawls up to the porch and then up to a window. A human shadow appears, twisted, sinister. It engulfs the boy. The children can’t breathe, can’t scream. The shadow disappears. The children run for their lives.

A young boy (Jem) and his younger sister (Scout) remain in the car as their lawyer father (Atticus) pays a visit to the family of his latest client (a black man accused of attacking and raping a white woman). Atticus goes inside the house. Scout falls asleep. Out of the woods emerges a man, a drunken man, an evil man, a racist man. Jem remains at a safe distance, enclosed in the car, observing the horror as if it’s a scary movie on late-night television. He wants to cover his eyes, but he can’t. Scout is blissfully unaware, having fallen asleep before this late show got under way. Atticus returns. The evil recedes after spitting some venom at the children’s father.

Those are two scenes from the 1962 classic film To Kill a Mockingbird based on the first and only novel by Harper Lee and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. They have a fairy tale-like quality full of dark woods and heroic parents and haunting, ghost-like figures from the frightening adult world. These scenes reminded me of my fascination with films centered on children such as Children of Heaven and Fido. The kids in the former focus on a lost pair of shoes, letting the greater hardships of life fade away. In the latter, a boy avoids the realities of his parents’ unhappy marriage by befriending a zombie. Children have a way – as if for self-preservation – of seeing the horrors of the world through both ends of a telescope.

Literature is filled with forbidden houses just down the lane. Haunted houses are horror story staples. In Meet Me in St. Louis, children “kill” wicked neighbors by hurling flour in their faces before fleeing screaming. And don’t forget Hansel and Gretel and that sweet house containing a wicked witch. Children have an innate way of magnifying what might harm them and turning these things into monsters lurking behind closed doors and inside passing cars, perhaps containing a monster bearing gifts of candy. Based on all evidence, the house of Boo is to be feared and best to remain so until the evidence proves otherwise.

The children of To Kill a Mockingbird see racism at a distance. They glimpse it while being boosted up to peek through a courtroom window. They observe it through car windows in the dark, late at night – or sleep through it. They look at it obliquely from the balcony of a courtroom. They meet it uncomprehendingly face-to-face in the form of a lynch mob. (Why is that man who was so nice the other day acting so mean now?) To Kill a Mockingbird reminds me of another great movie about children facing unimaginable horrors – Forbidden Games. In that film, a young girl’s parents are killed by Nazi aircraft gunfire, but she, as if by protective instinct, blocks out the horrific realities and instead fixates on a little puppy that was killed by the same gunfire. In both films, the children flip the telescope around backwards, its objects still there but made small and insignificant, stored away to be dealt with later.

To Kill a Mockingbird begins with magnified close-ups of trinkets removed from a cigar box. It ends by revealing the giver of these gifts – Boo Radley. And for the first time young Scout and Jem lower the telescope and see this source of their fears through unencumbered eyes. No need to scream and they can now breathe easily. Putting the telescope away regarding racism will be their next challenge.


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