Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Tommy IV: Christmas

(Last entry here, or choose an earlier entry from the story so far)

This brief segment of the movie represents the entirety of Tommy's childhood after silence and blindness and psychic isolation descends on him. Settling on Christmas for this purpose was a very clever move on Pete Townshend's part; the movie extends and develops ideas, laid out in The Who's song, about salvation and greed and the dark undercurrents of family celebrations.

It's a very simple scene: a large, boisterous, boozy Christmas party held in a lower-middle-class living room, liberally decorated with tinsel, balloons, paper crowns and noisy party favours. The initial impression is that Nora and Frank have very different ideas about the True Meaning of Christmas: but as the song goes on, I think that impression is modified fairly drastically.

Nora sings:
Did you ever see the faces of the children, they get so excited -
Waking up on Christmas morning hours before the winter sun's ignited.
They believe in dreams and all they mean including Heaven's generosity.
Peeping 'round the door to see what parcels are for free in curiosity.
And Tommy doesn't know what day it is.
He doesn't know who Jesus was or what praying is.

For the chorus, as throughout, she's joined by the unmelodious voices of the revellers:

How can he be saved?
From the Eternal grave?

Ostensibly, she's singing that Christmas how children learn about Christ's salvation, and that in his unreceptive irresponsive condition Tommy can't know about this gift and therefore cannot properly receive it. A heartstring-tugging sentiment. What a good Christian mother she is. Nora connects Jesus's gift of eternal life to parental largesse in bestowing Christmas presents and twists spiritual hunger to personal material greed not substantially different from Frank's thirst for brown ale.

Throughout, Tommy sits, silent, staring and unmoving, in a child's pedal car, the kind that I've always associated with over the top Christmas presents given to children as a form of compensation for parental neglect of some kind during the rest of the year. "Heaven's generosity" is some kind of guilty bribery, hush money. But he doesn't even notice, as Frank points out:

Tommy, can you hear me?
Tommy, can you hear me?

Nora takes up the refrain. Frank sang aggressively, peremptorily, without really expecting an answer; there is desperation and neediness in Nora's voice, but I don't hear her as genuinely asking a question either. They aren't completely bad people. They know and regret the damage they've done to him, but at the same time, Tommy's recovery must mean the exposure of their guilt, and they can't truly with for it.

Tommy, can you hear me?
Tommy, can you hear me?
Tommy, can you hear me?
Can you?

Tommy, can you hear me?

Can you hear me?
How can he be saved?

Unheard, unregarded, unsuspected, Tommy's inner voice utters the famous refrain.

See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.
See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.

But it's no use. Frank and Nora sing together:

Tommy, can you hear me?
Tommy, can you hear me?

Then everyone sings:
How can he be saved?

When the carousers aren't accusingly singing at Tommy about the eternal grave etc, they're drunkenly swaying around the room; clearly, worrying about the danger to his immortal soul conveniently absolves them from looking too closely at their own spiritual conditions. From the clothes it seems we're somewhere in the late 1950s; wartime deprivation and austerity is well and truly over, the women are dressed in red, froofy, fabric-hungry dresses and the men wear unmanning paper party crown and unmilitary, unbusinesslike brown corduroy and cardigans - all except Oliver Reed, who still wears green. If it wasn't obvious by now, colour is one of the great leitmotifs of this film; used visually in exactly the same way opera repeats and varies musical themes and phrases. Little Tommy is dressed in a miniature Bernie's Holiday Camp green-coat blazer, another attempt to mould him in the likeness of his "new" post-war father.

This scene introduces mass dancing into the movie: through most of the movie (with some very memorable exceptions) dancing in Tommy is vigorous, unsubtle, and brutally simple: typically a screen full of bodies all bobbing up and down or rocking from side to side in simple unison. The effect is surprisingly lively and, well, musical. I think it suits the rock music much better than something complicatedly choreographed might have done. Anyway, the party guests circle round and round and round in a conga line, which I guess is historically correct for the 50s, but more importantly, as these folk do it it's a slobby, formless Ourobouros of a dance, perfectly lazy hedonism, all about forgetting the difficult times and the effort and the struggle.

How can he be saved?

Surrounded by his friends
he sits so silently and unaware of anything.
Playing poxy pinball, picks his nose
he smiles, he cries, he pokes his tongue at everything.

(I'll just note here that while Frank's song suggests Tommy is playing pinball at this stage, the movie doesn't.)


I believe in love,
But how can men who've never seen light be enlightened?
Only if he's cured
will his spirit's future level ever heighten.


And Tommy doesn't know what day it is.


He doesn't know who Jesus was or what praying is.


How can he be saved
from the Eternal Grave?

Okay, so the people ask their entirely rhetorical question once more then all fade away and just the family are left. Wearing an apprehensive expression, Nora produces a gift she's wrapped for Tommy, and unwraps it for him, and places it within his reach. It's a nativity scene. She moves his hand towards it, hoping for a Helen-Kellerish moment of tactile recognition.

His hand alights on the Virgin Mother in her blue robe; his thumb presses feverishly over the contours of her face and form, then freezes as recognition of some kind descends. He raises his fist and, to the sound of an appalling crash of detuned cymbals, smashes down on the Holy Family, scattering the pieces across the floor.


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Ampersand Duck said...

Oh, oh, ohhhhhhhh....
This is just so good. I'm sure it's better than the real thing.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Yes, I will fear to watch the actual movie -- your narrative is so compelling that it will be hard to top.

3Ply Stagliano said...

You know, in my ignorance, I didn't know anything further had been done after the original film.

Lucy Tartan said...

What an interesting name! You know, to me a bike is just a way of getting from A to A.5 (and arriving covered in sweat and gasping) but I'm developing an addiction to bike blogs of late.

I'm a bit hazy on the whole sequence myself, but AFAIK it's The Who's album first, in 1969, then the movie, 1975, based on the album. The broadway shows and stuff afterwards, I don't want to know about.

I'm really pleased that you are enjoying my series, folks. Thank you. But I'm just writing down a fragment of what's there. You're not getting music, for a very big starter.

jacqueline said...

I haven't yet seen Tommy, and now I fear that when I do, I will have to print out these posts and make small notes in the margin and highlight relevant lyrics. Will there be a test?