Saturday, 19 November 2005

Tommy II: the primal scene

Tommy is born on VE day, 1945:

It's a boy, Mrs. Walker, it's a boy.
It's a boy, Mrs. Walker, it's a boy.

A son.
We've won.
A son!

I very much like the twin blonde nurses, don't you? Although I guess they might be a bit frightening from inside a pethidine dream. Anyway. They continue singing:

Hear the joyful celebration in the street!
It's a boy, born on this first day of peace.
A son.
We've won.
A son!

And as Nora holds him she thinks of his father. She almost seems to forget about Tommy.

This may be the place to say that one of the two big changes Russell made to the basic story as he found it in The Who's version was to firmly establish the origins of the story (and of Tommy's life) in the Second World War. The 1969 album is not altogether specific about the timeline but the war in question there seems to be WWI. This makes Tommy about the same age as Townshend and Daltrey (born in 1945 and 1944 respectively) and more importantly it makes Tommy's life and experiences exactly contemporary with those of the movie's first audience.

Tommy, then, spends the first years of his life among people in deep mourning - most are women - there are not many men left.

The two images above are actually two halves of the same shot - it pans up from Tommy to Nora, and the smooth movement emphasises that he and she don't connect - they share the same physical space but she lives in a different world. It also replicates the archetypal male gaze, sizing the woman up from her legs to her upper body and her face. Nora is dressed in widow's clothes all right, but she looks amazing in them. Writing this just brings home how incredibly difficult it is to discuss film in words when so many of the things about it that are most responsible for creating meaning just don't translate.

Apart from Tommy and a few other kids, the vicar there placing the wreath is the only man at this memorial ceremony. Get an eyeful of that bomb / crucifix / phallus thing!

Well, Britain mourns. But Britain moves on. At least, that's the idea.

But the jolly holiday camp is still plunked down in the middle of bomb site. The "fun" is still organised and regimental. The staff still wear green uniforms.

At this point the music changes to a jolly bouncy tune, sung absolutely smashingly by Oliver Reed:
I'm your friendly Greencoat, and I welcome you to Bernie's Holiday Camp!
One day and you'll be happy! It's Bernie you will thank!
You must be little Tommy! Well, call me Uncle Frank!
Welcome you, too, Mrs. Walker, here you'll always find a helping hand!
A camp with the extras! (I'm in Chalet number 11) -
When you come to Bernie's, you might think you're in Heaven!

Frank is after Nora. He's not like her husband, but he is quite the charmer. In his own way. He gets her back into the water:

He re-awakens her pleasure in her own body. But this time, it's a glamorous, gilded sort of romance, not innocent.

You don't know
how much I've missed
To feel a man again
To dance, to kiss -

Nora up till now has mostly been dressed in a soft powdery virginal blue. (I associate that with Air Force blue, too.) But when she marries Frank and brings him to live with she and Tommy, she wears a glowing red dress, red lipstick, red nails. Full blown Opium-poppy-red sensuality. But, she never completely loses her maternal warmth. Here she's putting Tommy to bed, in his room with the aeroplane wallpaper. He's asking her, "did Frank fight in the War?"

You cannot see it too well in this picture, but Nora is sitting at her dressing table, in front of a big circular mirror.

Got a feeling '51 is going to be a good year.
Specially if you and me see it out together.
I have no reason to be over-optimistic,
But somehow when you smile, I can brave bad weather.

(Ooo-err! Oliver's famous 48 inch chest.)

Okay, Frank Hobbs is a sleazebucket. And it's a very nice house the Teddy Boy has married into, all told, everything's much pleasanter for him here than working as a kind of gigolo in a holiday camp. That said, the movie gives us no reason to doubt that these two are genuinely into each other and that their marriage can't be a good, happy, healing one (if Frankly vulgar.)


The door to Tommy's room swings open and reveals a figure silhouetted against the light in the hallway.

Tommy opens his eyes. It's his father, who he has never seen except in photographs and his dreams. Is this another dream? Tommy regards him calmly.

His father touches his cheek and leaves the room, closing the door behind him. Tommy only hesitates a moment before slipping out of bed and following him to the room where Frank and Nora are in bed together.

There, he witnesses his mother's lover murder his father.

What about the boy?
What about the boy?
What about the boy, he saw it all.

You didn't hear it, you didn't see it,
you won't say nothing to no-one, never in your life,
you never heard it, how absurd it all seems
without any proof!

You didn't hear it, you didn't see it,
ou never heard it, not a word of it
you won't say nothing to no-one, never tell a soul
what you know is the truth!

Russell changed this, too. In the original version it is the lover who is killed by the returned father. Tommy then is brought up by the people who brought about the death of his own father. It does makes more sense this way (and it means we get to have Oliver in the rest of the film, hurrah!) The "real" father is off the scene and available for all kinds of appearances in fantasy, and the father that is present may be hated with impunity. I don't actually have a settled opinion about whether the film presents the parents as villains. I think they do some pretty heinous things, but the blame is always averted by some means or other. Blame-shifting is a way of dealing with the unbearable, I guess.

What Ken Russell didn't alter at all was the incredible charge which this song carries: don't tell.

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Ampersand Duck said...

I am so enjoying this!

Lucy Tartan said...

me too.

Zoe said...

Oh, me three!

When we're all in the same city some time we must have a Tommyfest