Summer 2001

Mary Poppins’s Cameo Appearances in the Work of Andrei Tarkovsky

The calm before the storm

Joe Banks

This is a preliminary inquiry for a videotape based on interpretations of concepts suggested by the anthropologist Donald Tuzin and by the architect, artist, and theorist Le Corbusier. The essence of this project can be summarized by reference to Le Corbusier’s surprisingly little-known axiom that “art is the lightest of caresses, the breeze that gives poetry to the rustle of leaves.”[1]

Jane and Michael sat at the window, watching for Mr. Banks to come home and listening to the sound of the East Wind blowing through the branches of the cherry trees in the Lane. The trees themselves, turning and bending in the half light, looked as though they had gone mad and were dancing their roots out of the ground. “There he is!” said Michael, pointing suddenly to a shape that banged heavily against the gate. Jane peered through the gathering darkness. “That’s not Daddy,” she said. “It’s somebody else.”[2]

The facts of Mary Poppins’s story were described in P. L. Travers’s biography and popularized by Robert Stevenson’s classic documentary film.[3] What is less well-known is Mary Poppins’s subsequent film cameo, fifteen years later, above the concrete shells and twisted steel, rusting, mechanized corpses that littered the sinister, irradiated Zone of Andrei Tarkovsky’s dystopian masterpiece, Stalker.[4] The Stalker turns to his companions and warns, “Listen, if you suddenly notice something, or even feel something strange, just turn right back.” Mary’s brief fly-past, just out of shot, whips up a tailwind as she makes haste, carried by the East Wind, to attend urgent engagements elsewhere in what was then the Soviet Union. Her unnerving presence registers only in the disturbed motion of leaves and long grass, and in the panicked reactions of the film’s hyperacute protagonists.

The events described in Mary Poppins and Stalker relate to a hypothesis proposed by Donald Tuzin, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, that “certain hitherto unnoticed links exist between the auditory apparatus and a particular sensation that is widely interpreted as signifying a supernatural presence”; that “a certain type of naturally occurring sound has a perceptual effect on some, possibly many, animal species that is intrinsically mysterious and thus anxiety-arousing; that this sensation is humanly interpreted and its accompanying anxiety cognitively resolved by referring it to the mystery that is allegedly inherent in the supernatural realm.”[5]

These links are not, of course, unknown to the many filmmakers and artists (such as, for instance, John Cage) who have been profoundly influenced by their own (usually accidental, childhood) encounters with Mary Poppins. It is through these chance meetings that fragmentary images of her trajectories can be retrospectively traced—isolated sightings that may yet one day even map out comprehensive records of her itinerary. Mary Poppins adapts to the specific conditions of her temporal environment—manifesting (despite her own characteristically abrupt and dismissive denials) as the implicit personification of the benign, animistic, subjectively “magical” forces of the East Wind and of starlight. She has unhabituated access to the aesthetic sensibilities and universal language of newborn children, snakes, dogs, and birds; understands the semantics and hears the musical harmonies of natural environmental sound.

Tuzin argues that culturally-transmitted, anthropomorphic interpretations of (and responses to) natural meteorological sound and air-pressure phenomena have their origins in reflexes that humans share with their mammalian relatives. This hypothesis emerged from field-work among the Melanesian Ilahita Arapesh tribe, and from studies of how ritual practices with low-frequency bull-roarers by Arapesh Tambaran cult members reinforce the projection of divinity onto the “calm before the storm” sensations, which are interpreted by Tuzin as quasi-subliminal perceptions of infrasonic noise signals produced by thunder from distant electrical storms. These sensations belong to a broader class of experiences of meteorological phenomena that are often associated with mysterious or subjectively “magical” sense-impressions.

The intention is not to suggest that Mary Poppins or the scene in Stalker represent anything more than vague semblances of religious experience (in the sense that religion is normally understood), but, instead, to suggest that precursor sensations, sense memories, and emotional responses can be evoked by representations of related meteorological phenomena. The importance of this class of imagery in Romantic genre poetry is discussed in detail in the military intelligence analyst, naturalist, and poet Geoffrey Grigson’s classic text, “The Harp of Aeolus.”[6]

The calm before the storm; a sudden fall in atmospheric pressure; changes in humidity and the effects of increased ambient electrical field-charge on the skin; the rumble of thunder; the crack of lightning; the scent of naturally-occurring ozone; the susurration of wind in reeds, trees, long grass and the whispering breeze; the creaking of branches; the motion of rivers under starlight; the rattle of dry leaves tumbling across pavements; and the unique anechoic properties of fresh snowfall all evoke memories that remind us of Mary’s influence on our world.

Mary Poppins also appears in Salvador Dali’s paintings Geological Justice (1936) and The Enigma of Hitler (ca. 1939), in the opening sequences of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1989–1991), Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), and in 4’33“ by John Cage.

  1. Le Corbusier, The Modulor (London: Faber & Faber, 1954).
  2. P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins (London: Peter Davies, 1934).
  3. Mary Poppins, 1964, directed by Robert Stevenson.
  4. Stalker, 1979, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
  5. Donald Tuzin, “Miraculous Voices,” Current Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 5 (1984).
  6. Geoffrey Grigson, “The Harp of Aeolus,” in The Harp of Aeolus and Other Essays on Art, Literature, and Nature (London: Routledge, 1948).

Joe Banks is a sound artist and graphic designer based in London.

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