I have a lot of feelings about Mary Poppins. I have a lot of strong feelings about the weird apology note that is Saving Mr. Banks. Some feelings have been more eloquently put by dear miss Lindsay Ellis: the practice of historical revisionism, the refusal to see its own flaws (or deal in “gravitas” according to the main character of Saving Mr. Banks), and selling out while still having an in-depth emotional message told through a well-done story. I have weird feelings about Disney’s conquest of Broadway and the bizarre Mary Poppins musical. And I don’t even want to talk about the apprehension I feel at the notion of a Mary Poppins remake/sequel.
But there’s a character who’s often glossed over in these deeper discussions about Mary Poppins, one who’s seen as dumb comic relief: Bert.
Maybe it’s the accent.
(Yes, it is terrible and much the hatred of many a British person I’ve met.)
Bert serves the purpose of a dramatic foil to Mr. Banks. He’s very unsuccessful. A wacky artist. A musician. A blue-collar man. Happy-go-lucky. A damn hippie. Haphazard. Boyish/childish.
Mr. Banks is responsible. Respectable. Strict. Manly. Capitalist. White collar. Successful. A man/adult.
They are – and bear with me, here – essentially two representations of the forces within a single person, two archetypes roiling and doing battle inside all of us.
Bert is an artist to almost Williamsburg hipster levels. He’s irresponsible. He starts projects, then stops them. He’s constantly doing odd jobs, learning new skills. He doesn’t seem to care how much money he has in any given moment; he almost seems homeless in certain scenes.
Bert is the personification of the artist, someone who doesn’t really care about capitalistic success, embodied by the term: “I does what I likes and I likes what I do.”
There is an artist in all of us that wants to be as free and roaming as Bert, to just do what we like. To do something for the joy of it, to give to people some enjoyment before moving on.
For some, that’s financially viable, but for most we need to reign in our individual Berts to live in the real world.
Where Bert has flown off the wheel of progress, Mr. Banks is the axis. He works at a bank, upholds the systems in place, ignores the poor, and works hard to make rich richer. He’s not working for the joy of it, but working for the terrible purpose of it.
Salesmen don’t really work in real, tangible things, but being able to convince people of things. Her or his success relates to that almost uncomfortable level of forwardness, an interpersonal currency. What is money, really, besides a string of false promises?
As artists, we’re taught that salesmen are bad. Yes, they’re not really trustworthy. But you need these skills to make it in our modern society.
Even for the modern author, poet, painter, or creator: you can’t lock yourself in a cabin in the woods, create, and not network with people.
More often than not, we’re forced to be salesman. We need to be salesman to feed ourselves. We’re forced into working for the system that needs us to function, to work at the great machine in Metropolis, to manipulate, grind, power through, conquer, conquest.
We need to be grown ups.
There’s a lot of contempt, but it is a contempt for the reality of our nature and our situation.
(Conversely, though, there is a predatory side of the Salesman, one relating more to films like Wallstreet, but perhaps I’ll write more about that at a later time.)
Balancing the Salesman and the Artist Inside All of Us
In terms of archetypes, the Salesman is the absolute opposite of the Artist.
- The Artist is inward-facing; the Salesman is outward-facing.
- The Artist is producing-oriented; the Salesman is getting-oriented.
- The Artist takes integrity seriously; the Salesman doesn’t.
- The Artist believes in community; the Salesman believes in individuals.
- The Artist believes in doing things for the love of it; the Salesman believes in working hard.
- The Artist spends hours perfecting things; the Salesman believes time is money.
- The Artist loves base pay; the Salesman loves meritocracy.
- The Artist needs a great deal of training; the Salesman is replaceable.
- The Artist is irresponsible with his own resources; the Salesman is irresponsible with others’ resources.
- The Artist, in his view, is only worth what he creates; the Salesman, in his view, is only worth what he’s convinced others.
- The Artist is self-obsessed; the Salesman is selfish.
It’s not “good versus bad.” You need both for a good company to function. And it’s not easy for us to balance these too extremes: Webcomic artists need to be active on Patreon and attend conventions. Authors need to review each other on Goodreads and print free bookmarks to give out at libraries. A marketer needs better slogans and artfully crafted graphics to sell their clients’ products. More and more, since the 50s, this line between them had blurred.
At one time, there were probably people one side of the fence and the other. People like Bert and Banks really existed. But today, we’re all Bert. We’re all Banks.
A Man Has Dreams and the Giving Solution
Let’s get back to Marry Poppins. The interaction between Banks and Bert is what I consider to be the turning point of the film. It’s pretty simplistic and straightforward as far as literary devices go, but there is so much power in this interaction if we dig a little bit deeper.
“A man has dreams of walking with giants,
To carve his niche in the edifice of time.
Before the mortar of his zeal has a chance to congeal…
the cup is dashed from his lips,
the flame is snuffed a-borning,
he’s brought to rack and ruin in his prime.”
–Richard and Robert Sherman
This is the cry of the everyman to try and accomplish things before the march of time brings his goals to a mortal end, especially one caught in a capitalistic society.
Mr. Banks has dreams that he is slowly realizing are unreasonable, that he’s out of time. That he will never reach them, that the sweet, sweet story and the promise of success is actually impossible except for a few, and always has been. I think we all can relate to that. Whatever dream we’ve had – publish a novel, win the lottery, reach the top of a company, own your own business – is likely too much to accomplish in one lifetime. As a salesman, we’re told a lot of things that won’t come true. We’re constantly fed fantasies from a young age, and as an adult we need to come to terms that they’re not going to happen, at least not for us. I’ve been relating a lot to this feeling lately. Life is too short.
And as he says, “It’s quite a bitter pill to take.”
After Banks goes on to blame a strong, level-headed woman for everything that’s wrong in his life (typical), Bert gives him an important insight in addition to his healthy helping of guilt sugar, a shift in perspective:
“You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone,
though childhood slips like sand through a sieve,
and all too soon they’ve up and grown,
and then they’ve flown,
and it’s too late for you to give.”
–Richard and Robert Sherman
Bert puts it in perspective, that if you “grind, grind, grind at the grindstone,” you’re doing it for a system that won’t notice your individual life or death, something that’s ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things. Bert’s hippie perspective reinforces beautiful ideals: Yes! Life is too short! Do something you like! Do something (like being with your children) that you love! Don’t commit to the daily grind!
It is a joyous affirmation that life can be so much more than the failure to reach the impossible goals of the salesman, that doing things that you “likes” can bring happiness in itself. That success is comparative and irrelevant.
When balancing the line between the Artist and the Salesman, it’s important to take the time out to allow ourselves to be Bert. Do things for the joy of them, rather than that doing what society wants or needs you to do.
I’ve been hard at the grindstone lately. After a while, I came back to writing a new travel story, and I’ve felt so much joy for the process again. While I might be stressed about nearly everything in my life, it’s a relief to know that my work is my joy.
I hope everyone can be so lucky.