Thursday, 1 December 2005

Tommy, III: The Amazing Journey

(Preamble and parts I and II, in case you missed the start and would like to go back there)

Alright. We left Tommy at the scene of his father's murder, with his mother and stepfather saying he could never, ever tell anyone what he'd seen and heard. The movie leaves it open as to whether the trauma originates in the father's horrifying and violent death, or in the injunction to repress it. I guess it's the combination that we're directed to think about. Repress the horror is what Tommy does, then: he becomes a blank and silently staring child, a silent reproach and mute witness.

A plot point like this would perhaps usually be considered dismissable as rather trite cod-Freudianism, but here (as everywhere else in the movie) Tommy's life and experiences are emblems for the entire postwar generation that he belongs to. It helps a lot that this isn't a naturalistic narrative - it's opera - everything is both larger than life and poetically overdetermined.

Tommy has been criticised for its representation of disability. I just want to note that fact here and talk about it properly in two episodes time. I would like to know your thoughts now, though.

Speaking of opera, again I'm helplessly reduced to telling you the words of this sequence's song, "The Amazing Journey", and observing that the flow of the music creates effects I can't hope to translate. This song is sung by Pete Townshend, whose voice in the film is a kind of choric narrator, directly addressing the audience as in Greek tragedy.

Now he is deaf, now he is dumb,
now he is blind.
The guilty are safe, but always accused
by his empty eyes.
Nothing to say, nothing to hear, and nothing to see.
Each sensation makes a note in his symphony.

Sickness will surely take the mind
where minds can't usually go -
come on the amazing journey,
and learn all you should know!

A vague haze of delirium creeps up on him
Soaring and flying images spin
He is your leader, he is your guide
On the amazing journey together you'll ride!

The music soars and dip and wheels, and soars and flies and spins: the accompanying imagery here is too rich and dense and fluid for me to try to pace it all out. A double narrative is unfolded: Tommy is unresponsive in the world, where his mother & stepfather lead the impaired boy through a humiliating, incapacitated childhood, but his solipsistic fantasy life is full of war, his martyred, godlike father, and himself exultant.

A penny arcade game where the player shoots down planes gives Frank an opportunity to triumph over how he replaced Captain Walker, as a father and husband, and as the kind of man who survives wars. Nora is distressed but cannot fight him. But should she? It's a child's game - appealing to a child because it takes revenge on the parent who bequeathed the heavy postwar burden to his offspring, and does it in a safe, "playful" way - not real, but not wholly imaginary either. (I would like to know if the planes are identifiable as Aliied / German planes, and if they are English planes, is this historically plausible?)

Both Nora and Frank assume Tommy's irresponsiveness means he doesn't take anything in. The contents of his psyche suggests otherwise.

Sickness will surely take the mind
where minds can't usually go -
come on the amazing journey,
and learn all you should know!

His eyes are the eyes that transmit all they know
the truth burns so bright it can melt winter snow.
A towering shadow, so black and so high
A white sun burning, the earth and the sky.

This picture of the father, slowly raising a bright glowing white disc, shows him as we never actually saw him - pastiches the ancestral, primeval memory of the Adamic man among the lakes and mountains with the warrior / flier. This shot is held for a full verse of the song then gives way to a truly astonishing stream of images, only partly reproduced here. An amazing journey is what we are promised and this sequence is both a map and a primer.

The white disc had mimicked Tommy's light-spotted dark pupil, the tunnel of darkness and light into his mind, and then it becomes a reflecting silver ball, recollecting the ball bearings inside the bombs Nora made in the War, doubling with the many round mirrors and mirrorballs scattered through the movie, and prefiguring the pinballs Tommy will use to rescue himself from silence, isolation, and darkness. How will he do this? By creative destruction of the father-image.

The disc becomes a pinball-bullet, skittering round the screen, knocking out random planes (as in the penny arcade game) and transforming them into Remembrance crosses.

Tommy changes the Christ-father into a symbol of himself: a T capped with a silver ball, swirling in green and blue...

...which splits and opens, revealing the smiling boy mirrored and doubled, as if seeing himself reflected and recognised in a loving parent's eyes.

Again the camera falls in through one of Tommy's pupils, in onto a dark plain populated with myriad Tommys, capering and frisking in jubilation and delight.

The camera moves slowly in on the kaleidoscopic child, resolving it into one boy dancing with himself inside a hall of mirrors. Happily he dances until Frank and Nora enter: the sequence ends on Nora's tearstained, reproachful face, but Tommy has got his dancing done in spite of her grief and need.

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Anonymous said...

We now return to your regularly-scheduled comments...
I'm loving the Tommy journey. I haven't seen the movie for maybe 20 years, but so many of the images are coming back when you describe them.


Lucy Tartan said...

Meant to say that Robert Powell, who plays Tommy's father, also played Jesus, the same year even, 1974, in a big-deal English TV Jesus miniseries. Wikipedia has a photo of him in full beard.