Penn & Keller

Dear Gert and Montag,

Yesterday I was hobbling about the Promenade, spending time at book stores and Starbucks, sitting in the sun, checking out the incredibly beautiful women Southern California is heir to. I was on my way home, passing one of the three cineplexes that dot this festive area, when an incredibly beautiful young Southern Californian woman approached me, smiled, and asked if I would like a free ticket to a screening that was starting in ten minutes.

Being retired leaves one free to pursue otherwise time-wasting ventures. I accepted the ticket, and, ever the philanderer, asked if she would care to join me. She actually blushed before declining. I was tempted to remind her of the saying: “Once you’ve gone old, you’re sold!” but didn’t. I entered the theater and took my seat. An usher appeared before the curtain and told the almost full auditorium that we were about to see a new film directed by and starring Sean Penn. Without further ado, the lights dimmed.

Sean Penn not only directs and stars as the title character in Keller, he also wrote and produced it. This is the story, of course, of Helen Keller (1880-1968), the famous deaf blind person who inspired the award winning television, stage, and film adaptations of her autobiography, The Story of My Life, aka The Miracle Worker. The film follows Helen from her birth in Alabama to her death in Connecticut eighty-seven years later.

Keller is a sweeping, inspiring epic. Clearly no expense or time (the film runs four hours and fifty-two minutes in its present incarnation) was spared in bringing this story to life. Sean Penn is amazing in the title role, and subsequent research on the film included rumors than Mr. Penn underwent questionable temporary sexual reassignment surgery in the Switzerland District of Rodeo Drive. He also apparently wore opaque contact lenses and sound deadening ear plugs during all of his scenes so that he was actually blind and deaf! These efforts pay off in spades: you truly believe you are seeing the actual Helen Keller.

Ms. Keller had a full and fascinating life. She was the first deaf blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree (Radcliffe – 1904). Her lifelong friend, teacher, and mentor Annie Sullivan is played to perfection by the luminous Anne Heche. After college, Helen entered the political arena. She was a suffragist, a pacifist, a Wilson supporter, a radical Socialist, and helped found the ACLU in 1920. Although this rich history would be fodder for a straightforward biopic, Penn, the writer, chooses to focus on the less told stories of Helen’s various relationships with often famous personalities. Taking what might be cinematic liberties, Penn uses Keller’s friendship with Charlie Chaplin (played stunningly by Cate Blanchett) to posit the theory they had an intense romantic relationship. When Helen finger-spells the words “Take Me!” on Charlie’s palm, the moment is both tender and wrenching. The love scenes between them are photographed in dark, muted tones.

Helen also was friends with Mark Twain (Boy George), Alexander Graham Bell (Tim Allen), and met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland (Rush Limbaugh?) to Lyndon B. Johnson (Brett Favre). She was a birth control advocate and, according to this screenplay, an early supporter of Gay Rights. Penn’s performance could have been over the top, but he imbues his character with a subtle edginess, a dark side if you will, especially noticeable in the “Helen attends a Stag Film” sequence. The score consists solely of songs by the amply hyphenated Country-Metal-Rap group “Lilly White Ditch.” Stiltenheim Glakosky, the famous astigmatic cinematographer, lensed the picture and is sure not to be overlooked come Oscar time.

At 292 minutes, Keller may need some trimming. Overall, though, this was an unexpected glimpse into the dark-eyed soul of a truly dedicated film maker.


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