How slippery and sad is our tribe? We'll start by making an admission:
We've never seen Mary Poppins, the 1964 Disney film which includes a Julie Andrews dance number which "might seem like an innocuous comic scene if [the original Mary Poppins] novels didn’t associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature."
That assessment appeared in Tuesday's New York Times, penned by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a youngish associate professor from Linfield College with degrees from both Harvard and Yale.
We've never seen the film in question. For that matter, we've never seen The Wizard of Oz, on TV or in a theater. Someone marveled at that admission just last week. But people! Given all the wars we've had to stop, who had that kind of time?
We've never seen Mary Poppins, the 1964 film. That said, we've read a lot of slippery language over the course of the past many years, and we couldn't resist the impulse to parse the professor's pleasing pronouncement.
Read again what the professor said. Did he say that the Andrews dance number shouldn't "seem like an innocuous comic scene," based upon material found in a 1943 novel? It almost sounds that way to us, even if you go ahead read his full rumination, which you'll have to decide to do on your own.
If that's what the professor said, what should he be taken to mean? Dis he mean that people who watch that movie shouldn't view that particular scene as "innocuous?" Did he mean that the makers of the 1964 film had some inappropriate race-based intent?
Dis he mean that readers can go ahead and enjoy the film while thinking poorly of the racial outlook of the people who made it? What did Associate Professor Pollack-Pelzner actually mean by that statement?
What did the professor mean? We found ourselves wondering that all through his peculiar piece in Tuesday's Times.
In our assessment, the professor seemed especially skilled at the dark art of pleasing the tribe though indistinct insinuation. For example, here's the way his report begins. What does he mean by this?
POLLACK-PELZNER (1/29/19): “Mary Poppins Returns,” which picked up four Oscar nominations last week, is an enjoyably derivative film that seeks to inspire our nostalgia for the innocent fantasies of childhood, as well as the jolly holidays that the first “Mary Poppins” film conjured for many adult viewers.According to Pollack-Pelzner, a current film, Mary Poppins Returns, is an "enjoyable" film. He says the new film "seeks to inspire our nostalgia" for several states of affairs.
Part of the new film’s nostalgia, however, is bound up in a blackface performance tradition that persists throughout the Mary Poppins canon, from P. L. Travers’s books to Disney’s 1964 adaptation, with disturbing echoes in the studio’s newest take on the material, “Mary Poppins Returns.”
According to the Harvard/Yale scholar, the new film "seeks to inspire our nostalgia for the innocent fantasies of childhood." It also seems that the new film "seeks to inspire our nostalgia for...the jolly holidays that the  film conjured for many adult viewers."
For ourselves, we're not entirely sure what that salad means. In our view, the professor's prose, at least in its edited form, is a bit hard to parse at that point.
For what it's worth, Manohla Dargis, the Times film reviewer, didn't seem to find the new film all that enjoyable. At the Washington Post, Michael O'Sullivan was underwhelmed as well.
That said, what does the professor mean when he offers the following tribally pleasing thought about "part of the new film's nostalgia?" We're not entirely sure what this puddle means:
"Part of the new film’s nostalgia...is bound up in a blackface performance tradition that persists throughout the Mary Poppins canon."
What the heck does that mean? Generally speaking, nostalgia would be, in this context, a feeling experienced by someone who views this new film. It wouldn't be something possessed by the film, though the film might attempt to invoke nostalgia.
Generally speaking, nostalgia would be a feeling on the part of the viewer. If so, what does the professor mean when he says that "part of the film's nostalgia" is "bound up in a blackface tradition" that existed in the original novels and in the 1964 film?
Does he mean that the new film participates in that blackface tradition? If that's what he meant, he could have just said that, of course.
He seems to mean something much more complex. Or is he simply hustling Times readers, serving them tribal porridge?
We've never seen Mary Poppins. Beyond that, we won't be going to see Mary Poppins Returns.
But if we watched wither one of those films, would we be confronted with scenes which are racially insensitive? Would we be confronted with scenes which are explicitly "racist?"
As best we can tell, the professor never says that. Instead, his dainty soul gets triggered by "disturbing echoes" like this:
POLLACK-PELZNER: One of the more indelible images from the 1964 film is of Mary Poppins blacking up. When the magical nanny (played by Julie Andrews) accompanies her young charges, Michael and Jane Banks, up their chimney, her face gets covered in soot, but instead of wiping it off, she gamely powders her nose and cheeks even blacker. Then she leads the children on a dancing exploration of London rooftops with Dick Van Dyke’s sooty chimney sweep, Bert.Poor Pollack-Pelzner! When he watches the 1964 film, he's triggered by a disturbing flashback from a 1943 book!
This might seem like an innocuous comic scene if Travers’s novels didn’t associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature. “Don’t touch me, you black heathen,” a housemaid screams in “Mary Poppins Opens the Door” (1943), as a sweep reaches out his darkened hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to quit: “If that Hottentot goes into the chimney, I shall go out the door,” she says, using an archaic slur for black South Africans that recurs on page and screen.
In his judgment, does this mean that the 1964 dance scene was racially inappropriate, perhaps even racist? The professor never quite says. He simply insinuates throughout, pleasing morally pure Times readers with his ability to remember every inappropriate passage from a set of novels which date to 1934.
Indeed, there is no end to the string of triggers which haunt this fellow's dreams. For this overloaded soul, everything seems to suggest something else. Try the slippery language of this passage on for size, along with the strained association the slippery language permits:
POLLACK-PELZNER: When T.D. Rice, a popular white minstrel performer, crossed the Atlantic in the 1830s, his manager recalled that he inspired chimney sweeps and apprentices, who “wheeled about and turned about and jumped Jim Crow, from morning until night, to the annoyance of their masters, but the great delight of the cockneys.”Rice, a minstrel performer from the 1830s, is "only a step in time away" from Lin Miranda's dance scenes in the new Poppins film.
These chimney sweeps with minstrel dances were only a step in time away from Dick Van Dyke’s soot-faced Bert, needling the admiral on the rooftop, or Miranda’s lamplighter in “Mary Poppins Returns,” who worked for Bert as a child. The minstrel stage convention of the “pickaninny” rendered black slave children as cheery performers who, the historian Robin Bernstein argues, were “comically impervious to pain” inflicted by their labor. Similarly, the dark-lit grins and unflappable footwork of the lamplighters turn their dangerous labor into comic play; “smile and smirk,” they sing, is Cockney rhyming slang for “work.”
Does that mean there is something racially insensitive, even racist, about Miranda's scene? Hiding behind more slippery locutions, this fly mother-frumper won't say.
This peculiar piece in Tuesday's Times sheds light on modern pseudo-progressive culture. It sheds light on major institutions—on the New York Times, on Harvard and Yale, on Tucker Carlson's nightly program on Fox.
Carlson loves to mock piddle like this. In recent months, all too often, his presentations haven't always exactly been wrong.
By normal standards, Pollack-Pelzner's obsessive piece belongs in some journal where it would be read by seven people, six of whom would fall asleep before his flashbacks were finished. By today's norms, his piece went straight to the front page of the Arts section of the New York Times, where it was placed by some flyweight editor who was rushing out the door to catch his ride to the edge of the Hamptons.
Concerning the children of Harvard and Yale, we will only say this:
Pollack-Pelzner displays a remarkable skill at the kind of slippery language which once was called "Clintonesque." When creeps like him emerge from such schools, we wonder if liberals shouldn't consider joining people like Carlson in asking if parents should still be sending their children to "college" at all.
Was something racially wrong with Mary Poppins? Is something racially wrong with the new Mary Poppins Returns?
We don't know, but there's something very wrong with the way this slippery fellow insinuates all the way through. He couldn't tell it straight if he tried. But in modern culture, slither like this is good enough for our desperate post-liberal tribe.
Others see this and roll their eyes. Again and again, more and more often, The Others aren't always so wrong. In these ways, the children emerging from Harvard and Yale find ways to let plutocrats rule.
Also this: In her Times review, Dargis reported no racial problem with the new film. As is appropriate, Times reviewers are rarely shy about reporting such problems.
Did Pollack-Pelzner say there was a problem? Given his slippery formulations, we can't really tell.