To Kill a Mockingbird and the kindest cut

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Mary Badham and Gregory Peck as Scout and Atticus Finch
  • Mary Badham and Gregory Peck as Scout and Atticus Finch

My favorite moment of To Kill a Mockingbird, which screened at the Film Center on Wednesday night from a beautiful new 35-millimeter print, is a brief cutaway shot to Scout in an early scene. Atticus Finch is tucking her into bed and telling her of the jewelry she'll inherit when she's old enough to take responsibility for it. Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus is justly revered; it's authoritative but warm, and above all conveys great deliberation. So director Robert Mulligan creates a subtle shock when he breaks up Peck's monologue, which had been going on in a single take, with an insert of Mary Badham folding her hands behind her head with the graceless spontaneity of a real ten-year-old child. Badham, it's well known, was an Alabama kid with no acting experience prior to Mockingbird, and Mulligan dotes on her amateurishness with a mix of paternal and ethnographic fascination.

It's shrewd, how he makes the viewer adore this little girl. Note how, in cutaway shot, Scout isn't just looking up adoringly at her father, but adjusting her position in bed to be more comfortable. She's still a child; selfish impulses are constantly rerouting her behavior. Mulligan strengthens this impression with shots of Scout fighting in the schoolyard and running out of the kitchen to go to school. He accumulates these moments little by little, so that when Scout has her big scene—intervening among a group of townsmen before they lynch a black prisoner—it hits like a ten-ton bomb of preciousness. The girl prevents the lynching by appealing to the humanity of each man in the mob; she does this because it's her instinct to approach people this way. Racism, by contrast, emerges as fundamentally unnatural.

Last night I had the misfortune to see the new Billy Crystal movie, Parental Guidance, for work. It lived down to my worst expectations of Hollywood family comedies, exhibiting a disregard for filmmaking craft that borders on contempt. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, it features lots of cutaway shots to kids, and the similarities end there. Mulligan's direction has roots in documentaries and Italian neorealism; he locates moments of reality and uses them to gird his fictional story. By contrast, the inserts in Parental Guidance suggest the influence of advertising. The children's expressions of surprise, sadness, and (most transparently) enjoyment of Billy Crystal's company lack any trace of authenticity. Their faces have been molded into shape for the unsubtle purpose of instructing the spectator how to feel.

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