Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Patch of Blue

            In the 1965 film “A Patch of Blue” a black man and a white woman kiss. Several sources claim it’s the first time this occurred on screen. But, seen in context, the interracial aspect of the kiss is insignificant. That’s because the film isn’t concerned primarily with racial matters — it’s about something more important: the intersection of neediness and compassion.
            For the first ten minutes we’re in the cramped apartment where eighteen-year-old Selina lives with her mother, Rose-Ann, and her grandfather, Ole Pa. It’s from Selina’s perspective that the entire film unfolds. She’s been blind since age five; she makes money (which goes straight into Rose-Ann’s pocket) by stringing beads, but she also serves as cook and housekeeper (she makes the beds, does the laundry, irons clothes, etcetera). Except for occasional visits from Mr. Faber, who picks up the necklaces she’s made and drops off another case of loose beads, she’s alone all day. In the evenings her only interactions are with her mother and Ole Pa. The latter still has a remnants of kindness and decency, but he’s broken-down old boozer. Rose -Ann is another case altogether; this sluttish woman seems to hate her daughter. She’s demanding, threatening, and slaps come fast and hard if Selina slacks off in her duties or shows any sign of disrespect.
            Selina has become a timid, overly-polite and extremely needy person. Any variation from the drudgery of her isolated existence, which has been going on for most of her life, has vital importance for her. And, the day before the film opens, a few hours of freedom had occurred: she had spent a day in the park, taken there by Mr. Faber. She pleads to be allowed to go again. Rose-Ann is not at all pleased. When will Selina get her work done? Selina promises that she’ll take her case of beads with her and work doubly hard. Grudgingly, Rose-Ann says she’ll let her go if Ole Pa will take her there and bring her home when he’s done at his job, which he agrees to do.
            So we have Selina in the park, sitting under a tree.
            And a crawly thing falls down the back of her dress.
            And she gets frantic.
            A man’s voice asks if there’s anything he can do to help her. This passing stranger gets a caterpillar out. In doing so he accidently upsets her beads, and he scoops them back in the case.
            From there what could happen is this: she would thank him, he would go on his way. But Selina clings to him with her comments and questions. He hangs around, talking with her, asking some questions of his own. He must find it strange that a blind girl is sitting alone in the park. And he’s baffled when he learns that she’s never been to school, and doesn’t know what Braille is. Selina asks him twice about her appearance. (Rose-Ann had told her that she shouldn’t be seen in public because her face was a “mess”). No, the man says, there’s just a few little scars around your eyes, that’s all. He asks her what happened, and Selina — who’s guileless and has no compunction about revealing things about her life (though in a matter-of-fact, uncomplaining way) — tells him: Rose-Ann was in bed with a man (Selina was in a bed across the room) when her sailor husband arrived home unexpectedly; as he’s giving the man a thrashing, Rose-Ann picks up a bottle that contains some liquid; she throws it at her husband, but it misses him, hits Selina in the face, and shatters. Selina was left blind from this incident (one wonders what medical care, if any, she received). And her father would never return.
            Eventually Gordon goes on his way. At a drug store he picks up a few items, and on the way out he pauses at a rack of sunglasses; he buys a pair and returns to the tree (“Hi there, I’ve brought you a present”). With the sunglasses on her scars are hidden; now, he tells her, she looks like a “very pretty girl.” Since the sizes of the beads had gotten mixed up (Selina is apprehensive about being behind in her work), he stays to help her sort them out. He makes a game of it, and entertains her with his jokes, his breezy manner. He makes her laugh. Before they part Selina tells him, “I think you’re a really nice person.”
            I’ve told enough to establish that premise I mentioned earlier: the intersection of neediness and compassion. The crucial moment occurred in the drug store; there Gordon’s actions diverged from what just any good-hearted person might do. He took a step further, and more steps will follow. He wants to give Selina pleasure, and from her pleasure he derives pleasure. It’s a symbiotic relationship. He also sees enough of her life so that another aspect emerges for him: concern. Things are not right with her.
            At home that evening Rose-Ann asks Selina (sweetly) about her day. The girl, who has learned to be wary of showing her feelings to her mother, has a lapse; she throws her arms up and says, “It was, like, wow!” She immediately gets a stinging slap. “You feel like ‘wow’ now?” Rose-Ann is angry because her supper isn’t ready, and she puts a ban on any further outings.
            But the next day, when Mr. Faber comes to pick up the beads, Selina again asks him to take her to the park; he agrees to do this, and to bring her home.
            On this second day Gordon returns to the tree (he has an apartment nearby, and he works at night; there’s one brief scene with him in an office setting; it struck me that he works the evening shift at a newspaper). He provides Selina with learning (she’s eager for knowledge, and shows a quick intelligence). He teaches her how to navigate around the park (including getting to the restroom). He takes her to a delicatessen, along the way showing her how to cross city streets; they get corned beef sandwiches and eat them under the tree. Then he helps her string beads, making a game of it. He clowns around, she laughs. When they part she says, “Thank you for my lovely day, Gordon.”
            Selina, so long deprived, finds Gordon to be the only bright spot in her life (one she will fight to keep). Gordon thinks of her as a father or older brother might. Pity and compassion are similar, but there’s something about Selina that doesn’t evoke pity. She’s capable of happiness; that capacity has not, yet, been snuffed out; it’s alive and well. And she’s resilient. Of the life she leads she says, several times, “It’s okay. I get by.” Compassion is deeper and more emotionally involved than pity, and it’s compassion that Gordon feels for Selina.
            As for race, it plays a role in this film, but not an integral one. From the opening scenes I found myself putting the difference in skin color aside. This is something I can’t do in many films — in some I feel I’m being beaten over the head with a message. Perhaps “A Patch of Blue” avoids a racial focus because the story unfolds from Selina’s perspective; since she’s blind, and is unaware (until near the end) that Gordon is black, I took on her way of not seeing. He was simply a man who is “good and kind.” And there are no scenes in which Gordon is subjected to discrimination. Though he’s in the park and on city streets with a white girl, sometimes holding her hand, only once does he meet disapproval (two passing women give him fishy looks). His brother objects to him getting mixed up with a “white girl,” but Gordon tells him to mind his own business. Rose-Ann is a virulent racist (no surprise there), and, in ranting at Selina, she refers to Gordon with coarse words; but she never uses those words directly to him in their one confrontation. The difference in race becomes something Gordon has to consider as Selina’s feelings for him grow, but it’s one of a number of practical matters, such as age, separating them. These instances I’ve cited (and there are no more to cite) are overshadowed by the film’s main subject: the relationship between two human beings. If Gordon had been played by a white actor, the story would still be a moving one. For that reason, I’ll say no more about race.
            On the third day (without Rose-Ann knowing) Mr. Faber again brings Selina to the park (Ole Pa has agreed to pick her up on his way home). This time Gordon takes Selina grocery shopping, and makes a fun adventure out of it. Then he takes her to his apartment to put the groceries away. Selina comments on how clean his apartment smells, and how cool it is (he has air conditioning). On the record player is classical music. Gordon is a cultured person who lives a modest but orderly life. While Gordon is in the kitchen Selina finds a music box on a mantel, and when she opens the lid there’s a melody that she finds sweet and gentle. Gordon tells her it had belonged to his grandmother. As they eat lunch, Selina questions him about this grandmother, and when she learns that the music box was a gift from a man, she asks if the man had been her lover. In response to her sophisticated questions, Gordon laughs and says, “You’re a baby.” Selina turns serious: “I’m no baby, Gordon. I got experience. I been done over, about a year back.” And she tell how she had been raped by one of Rose-Ann’s boyfriends (we see the scene, as we did the one in which she was blinded; they’re shot in a grainy light, with odd angles and swift cuts — very effective). Gordon remains silent, but he’s deeply disturbed. Now it’s not a matter of neglect: someone’s life is at stake. When they leave his apartment Selina again pauses at the music box; he tells her to take it, it’s a gift.
            After he drops her off at the park, he goes to work. Well into the night Selina is still waiting under the tree for Ole Pa. A storm breaks out; it’s pouring rain, she’s soaked and terrified. Suddenly Gordon is behind her; he covers her with his raincoat and takes her to shelter. He settles her down. When the rain stops, he takes her back to the tree, and as they walk there Selina says, “I love you so much.” He answers, “Don’t be silly, Selina.” He waits with her for Ole Pa, who finally comes staggering toward them, completely soused. He calls out for Selina, referring to her as “you blind broad.” From behind her Gordon puts his arms around Selina protectively and whispers, as if to himself, “My poor darling.” Then he leaves before Ole Pa can see him.
            The next morning, when Selina wakes up, she says the words Gordon used for her, but she changes them slightly; now it is “Oh, my darling.” She repeats these words, caressingly.
            Selina has fallen in love. And it’s not a child’s love; it’s the love of a woman for a man.
            The film covers a mere six days in the lives of these two people. I’ll go no further in describing the plot. What I’ve written doesn’t capture what the film does. Elizabeth Hartman (in her first film role) and Sidney Poitier are able to give immediacy and authenticity to their characters’ emotions. It’s through his facial expressions that Poitier imparts how he feels, for in words he’s careful how he handles the situation that has evolved. I’m speaking mainly of Selina’s love for him. Which brings us to the kiss. Selina initiates it; it’s an on-the-lips kiss, but gentle and tender — more a chaste coming together of lips. But her passion is evident. Afterwards they embrace, and we’re looking at Gordon’s face; it’s a troubled one. He may be thinking, What have I created? Later Selina, recognizing his holding back, says that she wishes she had never been “done over.” She asks Gordon if he thinks she’s bad, dirty. After a long pause he says, “You have been much sinned against.” She’s one of those valuable individuals who are able to retain a purity despite the sordidness of their lives. In Gordon’s mind a single matter becomes dominant; he tells Selina, firmly, “You cannot go on living the way you are. It’s a Dark Ages story.”
            How Gordon handles Selina’s dilemma, and how he deals with her emotions — and his — make up the rest of the film. He knows her feelings for him are based on a very limited experience. She must be exposed to life; she needs to meet other good and kind people. He tells her that there are many forms of love; in time she’ll learn which kind of love she feels for him. Gordon’s choice of action, which takes them apart, is the right one. Selina resists him, but finally acquiesces. And what of their future? Like many aspects of this film, it’s open to interpretation. Guy Green, the writer and director, ends things with a scene that could suggest that Selina is moving away without Gordon. My version of their future is this: they will always stay in touch. Their bond is unbreakable, but their lives will take separate paths.
            And what about compassion? Your compassion, my compassion. This film makes one consider our choices, and how much we avoid.


kmoomo said...

I recently saw this film for the first time and I DO think that it is about the intersection of neediness and compassion, but ALSO about race. By highlighting compassion, in Gordon's case, and lack of it, in Rose-Ann's case, the film shows how misguided Rose-Ann's, or anyone's, bigotry is,and that basing judgements on anyone due to color of their skin makes NO SENSE in the real world. Prejudice is what really "blinds" others to experiencing the good in others.

pigatschmo said...

This film is a great illustration of the compassion that transcends race. Gordon realizes that putting Selina in school is the right thing to do, regardless of race. His brother disapproves and says something to the effect of "Why should we help whitey after all he's done to hold us back?" Indeed race and skin color are the true "blinding" factors. This is a point that Martin Luther King made many times over, and as this film was made at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I have no doubt that this is the message: colorblind justice.

Phillip Routh said...

In watching the film, I simply didn't see race as being important. Weird. I guess that's why I wrote the essay.
And I'm not one of those people who say that they don't see race. I see the skin color of someone I meet, just as I register their sex, age, height, etcetera.
But in this film there were more important aspects that absorbed me. Race quickly got relegated to a minor side issue. Anyway, we all know that there are good and bad people of all races.
Shelley Winters won an academy award for her performance. She deserved it.
Elizabeth Hartman didn't have much of a career, and she was plagued by emotional problems. She committed suicide when she was in her forties.
The director was watching the entire film with Poitier (this was a long time after it was shot, and Poitier had only seen it in pieces). At one point Poitier leaned over Guy Green's shoulder and said, "Man, this is a great film!"

kmoomo said...

I had read that Shelley Winters won an academy for this role. I also read that Elizabeth Hartman was nominated, but of course, didn't win. I think Elizabeth Hartman deserved it more so than Shelley Winters. Perhaps "they" felt that it wasn't justified due to her age (she was the youngest ever nominated for the award), but in my opinion, that just justified it even more. She was fantastic.
I like knowing that Poitier himself found it a great film. I agree.

Phillip Routh said...

I agree: Hartman gave an amazing performance.
In a way, she started out her career at the top. Those roles don't come along often. She made the most of it. Guy Green said that picking her (a total unknown, with only a bit of stage experience) was the best decision he ever made as a director.
But it's apples and oranges, comparing the character she played with the one Winters played. Winters gave what you could call a "full-bodied" portrayal of a certain type.
When she accepted the award she made a point of stating that she was in no way similar to Rose-Ann in how she acted, spoke and thought. (Yet she was damn convincing, wasn't she?)