Monday, July 19, 2010

Nothing but Sugar and Water! Summer Fun with THE PARENT TRAP

Every person you meet on the street and the corner sweet shop these days is chittering about how 2010 is The Worst Summer of Movies in History. In cities where they still have print newspapers, this Summer Movie drought grabs headlines over oil spills, economic depressions, cattle market prices, and fake news that is advertisements for new kinds of cell phones. The nation is in a depressive crisis about this threadbare summer movie slate.


This is basically the situation at multiplexes around the country.

Now, personally, I have found the summer a time of slim pickings since approximately the time when I stopped being the target demographic, which was like 20 years ago when I turned 12 years old. I have to assume they make pictures like Fantasia for Kids Who Don't Like Classical Music or Cartoon Mice but Love Nic Cage for 11-year-olds. But it is serious business too, because summer is supposed to be a time of "kicking it" and "breezing out" or whatever the little Sorcerer's Apprentices say these days. We're counting on our summer movies to help with this party that lasts from solstice to equinox. It would be like if the country's whole watermelon crop was attacked by weevils, or Congress outlawed charcoal briquettes. Thanks, Congress/weevils, the spirt of summer is ruined. Usually when people talk about summer movies, they mean movies that are released in the summer — as in our current dire situation with all the sequels and remakes and reimagineerings — and are of a particular expensive, special effecty, action-adventuring type. When we talk about the Great summer movies, that list always starts with Jaws, also responsible, via some sick logic I don't want to get into, for the existence of The A-Team It's a Movie Now and Eclipse Not the Gum or Antonioni but the Teenage Vampires. There are lots of reasons Jaws is great which we all know, such as not showing the shark too much and having a middle-aged New York theatre actor as an action star. But to me Jaws is an all-time great summer movie because it's about a dad, a nerd and a tough sailor all united in common purpose: to stop an asshole shark who wants to ruin summer for everyone! These are characters with a strong motivation and goal with universal appeal.

The point is really that the best kind of summer movie is one that is about summery good times. There are lots of quality (i.e.— idiotic and immoral) no-budget teen sex comedies that play to these themes, such as Pinball Summer (aka Pickup Summer), Surf II, and Computer Beach Party, and if you have a VHS machine and any sort of beer on hand, that is an automatic successful party. But for me no motion picture experience says Summer Fun like Walt Disney's own 1961 teen comedy, The Parent Trap. Not only is it partially a summer camp comedy like GORP and Friday the 13th Part 3D, but it squeezes in an adult romantic farce, a camping comedy, a girl power movie, and a (gentle) satire about the unconventional modern nuclear family. Plus it was originally debuted on June 21, meaning that back in the day, The Parent Trap actually kicked off summer by premiering on Solstice Day!


These girls are here to save summer!


The Parent Trap takes a small amount of critical flack regarding certain issues, and it is usually reasonable, fully earned flack. First, the film is inspired by, enacts and explores some common fantasies and understandable desires of children. One of those is the fantasy of discovering that you have a long-lost twin sibling; that somewhere there is a friend so perfect for you that they basically are you. I doubt many children with siblings around their own age or with actual twins have this daydream. This one is fairly healthy and interesting, and the way it plays out in The Parent Trap is that Sharon McKendrick of Boston (Hayley Mills with her regular English accent) goes to Camp Inch and runs smack into her twin sister, Susan Evers of California (Hayley Mills not particularly doing a different accent). Then they scheme to switch places to meet the respective single parents that they have never known, which is a variation on fantasies of swapping bodies (see under: Freaky Friday, you hamburger!), being a spy (see under: spy movies), sneaking around other peoples' houses (see under: Blue Velvet), and successfully lying to your parents. So those are fairly innocuous, like how Home Alone plays on common fantasies of being home alone, of your family not existing, and of driving a nail through Daniel Stern's foot. Or in E.T., the fantasy of having a little slimy man that sleeps in your closet. Innocent, healthy childhood dreams.

Where The Parent Trap gets dicey is in the Parent Trap itself, as Susan and Sharon plot to destroy their father's engagement to a gold-digging hussy, and force their alienated parents to fall in love. The second common complaint is that the trapped parents must be some kind of inhuman monsters to separate twin sisters and never inform them of the other's existence. And in the film they are sort of made to realize the errors of their ways, but we're always supposed to like them. In fact, the last act of the movie intertwines the teens' hijinks with the middle-aged adults' romantic comedy-drama. One of the girls announces that "we think what you and Daddy did to us children is lousy!," but no other character suggests that they are possibly the cruelest parents outside of Precious.

Now I find it automatically interesting that Disney made a wacky family comedy examining the changing social attitudes toward divorce. That it takes the form of this transparent, highly varnished wish-fulfillment for children of divorce that is just-so-wrong and just-so-right is the source of The Parent Trap's power and fascination. And I would love for a child psychologist and a historical sociologist to write a paper on these topics, but they are not the reasons The Parent Trap is a Great Summer Movie.

It is my recommendation that if you are hankering for some sunshiny June 21-style happiness, you can do no better than The Parent Trap. If you need more persuasion, or things to watch for next time you see it, here are ten reasons that I love The Parent Trap, from a potential list of hundreds!


1. The Parable Trap

A third major complaint is more generally applied to the Disney live-action comedies of the era, and is that the these pictures which are supposed to appeal to adults and children in equal measure simply make every character into an equally idiotic, soppy buffoon. Again, this is not totally off-base, if we are talking about The Ugly Dachshund or The Cat from Outer Space. Sometimes, as in the case of The Parent Trap, I do think it is part of the film's project. Writer-director David Swift makes the teen twins far and away the smartest, liveliest characters, with their wry, sly-dog henpecked grandfather the runner up. The remaining spectrum of humanity, everyone between the ages of 13 and 70-something, is some kind of goof, jerk, or weirdo. This is a light burlesque of the species, and part of the reason it works is that with every character a lovable eccentric or hissable villain, a roster of fine character actors find the specific, observed Type in the caricatures, rather than the Cliché.


Another reason for the cartoony characterization is that The Parent Trap is a sort of allegory of the eternal battle of sexes, family bonds and the human condition, and it finds us endearingly silly, romantic and bumbling. This may only occur to the obsessive student of The Parent Trap, but once the subtleties are noticed, hints start stacking up, and a creeping sense of the mythic pervades the film. The opening credits set the tone, in a stop-motion puppet playlet set to the Sherman Brothers' title song. Someone who is me needs to fully deconstruct this sequence, but in short it depicts archetypal Man and Woman figures who quarrel constantly and are tormented by the gods (i.e.— naked Cupids), who keep causing them to fall in love again. Rather key is that the vignettes summarize the theme of the parents' love story, but do not summarize the plot of the film precisely, and the stand-ins for Susan/Sharon are two non-twin teen girl puppets who are in turn associated with the putti figures: cosmic forces of eros and manipulators of fate! The very first image is of the proscenium arch of the world-stage, suddenly invaded by stylized cartoon lightening, Jupiter's thunderbolts of Destiny, Chance and Providence. The lovers first appear under a tree, as should all good Lovers of myth, their names carved upon the trunk (John and Marsha, in a Stan Freberg shout-out).


The film is further loaded with allusion to classical myth, funniest of which is when Sharon references Pelléas and Mélisande and Daphnis and Chloe to explain "how true love creates its beautiful agony!" Susan's dog is named Andromeda, an intriguing lead which points to more interesting parallels to the plot, not all of which I can quite make fit at this time.

Some of my favorite further clever symbolism is explored below.

2. House of Serendipity

The whole movie takes place over a few weeks, but it's the Camp Inch and family camping sections that make The Parent Trap rule the summertime. The camping scenes, set in the mountains near the Evers' Carmel ranch, are the last phase of the titular Trap, as the girls pool resources and use their outdoorsy know-how to "submarine" their dad's villainous fiancée. Besides the levity/screwed-up idea of breaking up a couple by causing bears to attack a sleeping woman, this section captures a nice semi-scrubbed version of that magical California State Park feeling. When I'm hanging out at the most scenic smoking area of California Adventure, I often fantasize that the whole of Grizzly Peak Recreation Area was built to recreate the camping scenes in The Parent Trap.

The highest concentration of Summer Magic (see, that's another Hayley Mills picture with less genuine Summer Magic than this one scene) is the pivotal First Act Climax. Susan and Sharon have been isolated together on account of fighting so much that they made a whole table of cakes fall down at a party. In the most hilarious and evocative shot in the movie, one of the cakes ends up stuck on the beak of a Thunderbird on totem pole. It is important symbolically, as a link in the film's chain of storm imagery. But it is also funny because it is a cake stuck on a totem pole.


Anyway... Inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan (seriously), the camp director forces the girls to live together 24/7 in a private cabin. It is a puzzling punishment for a couple reasons, but we're already faced with the long-lost identical twins, and about to accept that they successfully switch places and live as one another for several days. The movie knows this and without drawing attention or even saying it aloud once, places them in a cabin named "Serendipity."


The thunderstorm from the credits returns here, and the girls are forced to work together to batten down the hatches as the heavens howl through the open windows. It is here that the sisters finally unravel their backstory, blown together by the winds, stranded in the rain. First the wind dislodges Susan's Ricky Nelson pin-up, and the minidrama is book-ended as Sharon unveils a photograph of their mother. And when the weather calms, a cooling breeze blows through the camp, the enemies are reunited as sisters, and droplets fall from the eaves of their makeshift home like gentle tears of relief. Serendipity indeed.

3. The Running Time

The Parent Trap is more than two hours long, for absolutely no good reason. This allows for a leisurely, laid-back pace, ideal for capturing the lazy, abundant-free-time feel of summer. It's also in that special club of movies like They Drive by Night and From Dusk till Dawn, with second halves that feel like an entirely different story that grew naturally out of the first half. First half: discovering twinship / summer camp comedy. Second half: parent trapping / romantic farce.

4. The Mysterious Divorce Backstory

If the twins are 13 and Mitch last saw Sharon when she was one year old, the Everses were divorced in 1949. We can't be positive where the family used to live, but California was the first state with no-fault divorce laws, and those weren't in place until 1970. I cannot help but wonder what the grounds for divorce were, but usually imagine that Mitch had to press physical assault charges against Maggie at some point. The clue is that when she punches him, he hints that this is in no way the first time she has physically abused him.

5. Mitch's House

All scenes set in Mitch Evers' domicile are total House Porn, so it is a blessing that the unswapping of the kids has to take place at the dad's house in Monterey County, instead of a bunch of process shots of Boston. If I could live in any house from the movies, it would probably be this one, even though ranches are too far from coffee-shops and ill-reputed movie theaters. The other contenders are the TV journalist's house from Tenebrae and Diabolik's secret lair. But one of those had axe murders happen in it, which is kind of a bad vibe, and the other got wrecked by liquid gold spraying everywhere. So Rancho Evers it is! In a twist of fate that is not remarkable because the area is full of Spanish courtyard architecture, the house is not entirely unlike the 1920's Historical Landmark building where I actually live. If, you know, all the walls between apartments were ripped out, and someone who could afford more mid-century furniture lived there.


A lot of Disney theme park enthusiasts like to imagine that we have great ideas for fixing the parks, or could do a better job at bossing around the guys in Tigger costumes. But when I'm daydreaming up attractions I would like to see, my mind goes straight to "a walk-through recreation of the house from The Parent Trap." So I'm unfit to even work in the WDI cafeteria, right? Well, as Wikipedia would have it, Walt Disney Archives is perpetually bombarded by requests for blueprints to this house! I assume this is a lie, since anyone who could afford this house would not be the kind of weirdo who wants to build it.


These views are all one after another, as Sharon explores the house for the first time. Surely she knows Susan was telling the truth when she described life in California as "sort of... marvelous, actually!" One of the ways you can tell the step-grandmother-to-be is evil is when she sees this gorgeous house and says "Mitch, it needs a woman's touch!" Like hell, it does! A game you can play involving the set decoration is to count shots where there are vases and bottles behind peoples' shoulders.



6. Fashions

If you don't know what is so great about the "Let's Get Together" scene, then we don't like the same things or have a basic language in common for communication. But right now, check out these adorable fashions.


I don't know what is wrong with how adolescents dress these days, but it is probably caused by rays shooting out of their iPods or Nintendos. Just kidding, I like iPods and Nintendos. But teenager fashions are particularly sad and uncool right now, with too much emphasis on logos of different mall stores, and not enough of weirdness and creativity. Look at what Susan is wearing to look like a... rock star? Beatnik? Folk singer? It's simple and timeless, basically just jeans and a white collared shirt with a knit... sleeveless sweater? Giant vest? What is that, anyway? It is cool, unique, attractive and memorable, that's what it is. And Sharon is beyond classy in proper Wednesday Addams/ Judge Judy all-black and lace. This look is cuter, more striking, and more mysterious than the hoodies and tight pants that goth kids in my neighborhood wear, though I might be wrong about what the look is supposed to evoke. Anyhow, bless costume designer, Bill Thomas, who was probably swamped what with Babes in Toyland shooting at the same time.


7. Hecky's Pain


"Mitch, please. I may go out and kill myself. I don't know."

Two little girls have stripped the crusty ranch hand of dignity, and his employer laughs at his expense. In response, Hecky mumbles a suicide threat that does not sound particularly sarcastic or idle.


8. Mother Worship

All teasing about accents aside, Hayley Mills shines like she's powered by electrified copper wiring in every scene. She takes pains to differentiate her two characters, and in a neat touch gives Susan the nervous/excited lip-licking tic from Pollyanna. She does some world-class comic takes, such as when she realizes she's the victim of the missing-skirt-chunk gag from Bringing Up Baby. If you want more, I previously wrote on some excellent scene work with Brian Keith, here.


But bar none, the most heart-drop-kicking scene in The Parent Trap is when Susan sees her mother in the flesh for the first time. She has entered the strange house preoccupied with memorizing the names of servants, layouts of rooms, and how to fake her way through music lessons. She's rapturously greeted her newfound grandfather, promptly going all Queen Christina and sniffing him to "make a memory." And suddenly Maureen O'Hara enters as Maggie McKendrick, looking about as jaw-dropping as a human being can look. And her daughter's jaw drops. Disney films of this era take a certain measure of criticism for pedestrian filmmaking under their professional gloss, but David Swift takes a page from Douglas Sirk here. Maggie appears at the top of a staircase, an beaming vision: a goddess. Susan has to mount the stairs to reach this idealized dream mother. Swift makes this entirely about Susan's reaction, staying in close, keeping only the girl in focus as she takes each stair. It starts with widened eyes and open mouth, and as she rises we can see her heart stopping and restarting, read her dawning awe and joy. It all plays out on Hayley Mills' face. It is a holy moment.


9. Dream of the Psychic Sisters

Stare at a movie long enough and its unsanded patches begin to pop out. There's inherently something slightly off about The Parent Trap, because as a tale of a chance encounter with an unknown twin, it is a story of meeting a doppelgänger. Traditionally, that means you're going to die.


There is also a strange little through-line about how the twins may have precognitive abilities. It may not ring a bell, because until the ending it only constitutes two passing remarks. First, immediately before Sharon reveals that she has figured out they are sisters, she says "Mother always says I'm psychic. You know, that I can sense things, when something odd is going to happen. I always get goosebumps." A mere scene later, while planning the big switcheroo, Susan becomes excited and says that she's getting similar goosebumps.

This Psychic Twins business may be a holdover from the source novel or prior screenplay drafts or half-forgotten story notes or something. But it comes back at the very end as a prominently placed segue into the final coda. Goes like this. So SPOILER TRAP alert. While the girls are in bed, the parents have a moving and pretty realistic reconciliation over homemade stew and booze. Cut to Susan/Sharon asleep, at this point in the story completely visually indistinguishable. Merged. And one wakes, probably Sharon, gasping that she had "the craziest dream... you and I were marching along real slow, sort of funny-like, in organdy dresses. And there was music coming from someplace..." And now we see a gathering in a scenic part of the ranch, the cast gathered before a priest. Sharon continues "and there were flowers and people." It is the second wedding of their parents... but have we time-cut to the actual ceremony, or are we seeing the dream? A premonition? A psychic warning? A Vision? The unreal feeling is enhanced by the series of rear projection shots (why? Couldn't the finale have been shot on location at Golden Oaks like the rest of the ranch scenes?), bride and groom both in white, and lack of dialogue. Only the love theme "For Now, For Always" comments, with lyrics of fate and eternity... Is this a wedding after all... or has everyone died? Only the doppelgängers in organdy can say, but they turn their wide blue eyes to one another and smile their silent, secret smile.



10. Butt Joke at The End

4 comments:

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Chris: I was worried that I hadn't seen the movie recently enough to appreciate what you were up to here. I needn't have worried. Your vivid portrait of the film's action, coupled with the wonderful descriptions and the reverent yet fun-loving style in which the piece was written was really captivating and made the movie jump back into my head with ease. (Those great screen grabs sure helped too.) John Waters would have been proud to sign his name to this article. And now I'm off to raid my daughters' DVD shelf-- I know they've got this in there somewhere!

The highlight, without question: Hecky's Pain:

"Two little girls have stripped the crusty ranch hand of dignity, and his employer laughs at his expense. In response, Hecky mumbles a suicide threat that does not sound particularly sarcastic or idle."

Who wants to clean the omelet off of my computer monitor?

cinetrix said...

Bless you for this.

Bryce Wilson said...

See the fact that you where able to spin an essay of this caliber from The Parent Trap is the same reason why you really must, do the image meme thing.

http://thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/2010/08/image-meme.html

Tag you're it.

Anonymous said...

I love your essay. I recently saw the P-Trap and think it's a weirdly wonderful movie, with alot going on below the surface. Some of which you hit on. I'll be reading more of what you have to say in the future.