Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Weapons of Childhood (Part I)

Sometimes it feels like we're living in a culture that is at war, whether it's fully realized or not, against the very idea of childhood. Everyone laments publicly how quickly kids grow up these days, and yet when you look at the culture, especially the media (its main engine), everything is geared towards faciliating exactly that which we moan and wail about. Now that I'm fully immersed in the wonderfully challenging task of raising my own children (sons, in my case), I am realizing to my chagrin how difficult it is to "just let your kids be kids" in a world that is constantly forcing them to grow up faster and faster -- bombarding them with violent and sexual images, giving them games that put them into adult situations they should never even be thinking about in real life, showing them films that are supposedly safe for them but loaded with all kinds of innuendo, etc. The list could go on and on.

Even within one or two generations, the length of time one can enjoy "just being a kid" and not contending with adult situations and adult worries seems to have been radically reduced. For example, I am a child of the 70's, a decade which had its own problems and proclivities of course, but I cannot remember ever being worried about being gunned down at school, or being blown up on a PATH train to New York. Now, just a generation or two later, these are (sadly) very real threats against our children, and they're very much aware of them at younger and younger ages. And then there's just the ubiquity of information -- unfiltered information -- that everyone, including young children, is constantly being subjected to. When the recent Virginia Tech shootings occurred, it was indeed a national tragedy and it's understandable that a national conversation about it took place. And yet, you could not walk into a grocery store or a doctor's office without CNN hitting you with "amateur video" of running people, gun shots being fired, SWAT teams, etc. In just a few minutes of waiting in my doctor's waiting room, my three young sons were treated to a eyewitness description (in graphic detail) of the carnage in the classroom on that campus, and a clip of someone's cell phone footage that had captured a constant tatoo of gunfire from just outside the hall where the violence occurred. "Is that guy shooting people Dad?" was my four-year-old's eminently reasonable question. All I could do was tell him yes, and watch the implications of that thought work themselves out across his face.

Another quick example of what I mean: recently, we had a "grand opening" (what's so "grand" about another convenience store competing for our business in town is, of course, an open question) of a Royal Farms gas station and food mart -- one of these big, shiny, new Wawa-type stores that tries to offer you everything and ends up specializing in nothing. Except maybe gas. Anyway, a good friend of ours went in to check out the mini-store with her family (husband, son aged 7, and daughter aged 4), and when walking down one of the aisles was confronted with an entire rack of pornographic magazines, mostly uncovered, about 3 1/2-4 feet tall. Why give the height, you ask? Well, the way they are set up, just about all of these magazines fall right smack in line with the eyes of small kids. First of all, aren't there regulations about where such magazines can be displayed in these stores anyway, if we must have them at all (i.e., behind the counter, under wraps, where young kids won't ever look?)? And even if there aren't, why in the name of all that's holy would you set up an entire rack of these magazines right at the eye level of smaller children?? Our friends were dumbstruck first, then angry right after -- especially when they were forced to answer their daughter's question about why those two women were kissing each other on that page.

Well, all of this is sort of a long preamble to what I really wanted to post about here, which is movies. More specifically, movies that feature young children retreating from the ugliness and brutality of the world being presented to them using the only "weapons" they really know how to wield -- innocence and imagination. I've just gotten through a whole series of them -- unplanned, but afterwards I realized the common theme. I've seen no less than four movies in the last several months that are built around this central motif. The films are, in chronological order (not in the order I saw them): Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973); Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987); Terry Gilliam's Tideland (2005); and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006). I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the way each of them handles this intriguing theme.

The idea of children retreating into the realms of fantasy and imagination, rather than deal with the terrors of the "grown up" world, is of course nothing new in the arts. These films are, to a large degree, entering into the stream of a much larger, and older, storytelling tradition -- call it the Alice in Wonderland school of fiction. And in each one, the central character, a child (happens to be a young girl in three of the four mentioned), is dealing with forces and realities in their "real lives" that are quite beyond their comprehension, and are far too complex and terrifying for their young and innocent minds to process. Like my four-year-old son in that doctor's waiting room, the horrors they are forced to contend with are thrust upon them at far too early an age, and they simply don't have the tools yet to deal with them. So, they make use of the only "weapons" they have: those that are inherent to childhood, and thank God for it. I mentioned them before -- innocence and imagination. But as these films seem to be positing, these weapons are a lot more potent than we often give them credit for. And yet, you also wonder when watching these films: are they powerful enough to overcome the traumas these children are facing? Most of the movies leave this as an open question.

The least known of these among the general movie-watching public is probably Erice's fascinating The Spirit of the Beehive. I just saw this the other night for the first time (once again, I find myself thanking heaven for the mere existence of the incredible Criterion Collection!), and part of the reason I wanted to watch it was I heard it in an interview with del Toro that it was one of the films that inspired him. I had seen and loved Pan's Labyrinth, so any film that played a role in the formation of the imagination that created it I thought would be well worth checking out. The 1973 Spanish film is a treasure for many reasons. One thing that strikes you about it right away is its amazing cinematography: it delivers a long series of stunning images, almost like paintings, that stay burned into your memory well after the film is over (I suspect they will be with me for a long time). If you appreciate at all the craft of movie-making, you can't miss Beehive for that reason alone. The final scene in particular has an eerie, quiet beauty that is like the cherry on top of a very rich sundae. It is one of those "last shots" in a film that you see and immediately realize it couldn't have ended any other way. And in this scene, and many others, the influence it must have had on Pan's Labyrinth is as clear as a mountain stream.

The story of this quietly mesmerizing film revolves around a young girl growing up in rural Spain during the time of Franco, just after the horrible Civil War (the trauma is which is almost palable throughout). The opening scene features an old truck lumbering along the dirt road into town, being mobbed by children when it stops in front of what you quickly realize is something of a makeshift movie theatre. What is being delivered to the small town are large, metal reels of film that will be cobbled together to show James Whale's Frankenstein, and the entire town (it seems) crams into the smoke-filled, dirt-floored room to see what Hollywood hath wrought. Erice brilliantly shows us the original introduction to the film, in which the producer walks out onto a lit stage to "warn" the moviegoing audience about the shocking nature of the film they are about to see (an idea which seems so quaint and archaic to us now, but at the time may actually have been necessary, as Whale's film set a new standard for realism and shock-value at the time!). I say "brilliantly" because it almost serves as an introduction to Beehive as well -- not that the movie is so shocking, but it does have a lot to say about the power of film to influence the imagination. Certainly Ana, the protagonist (an adorable little girl of about 5, I'd say), won't be the same after seeing it.

Erice shows us the famous scene in which the monster meets up with a little girl on a river bank, who is playing with a doll and thowing flowers into the water. Most will remember what comes after this scene: we are not shown the actual act, but the monster, thinking it is all part of the game, reaches out for the little girl, and the next thing you see is the girl's father, walking somberly through town with the soaked girl hanging limply in his arms (obviously drowned). We see Ana's intense eyes take in the scene, and can feel her bewilderment as she turns to her sister, asking, "Why did he kill that little girl?" Her sister explains to her impatiently that it's all fake since it's a movie, but adds that the spirit of the monster is real, and sometimes inhabits human form. She even claims to have seen him once at a rundown farmhouse outside of town, and tells Ana that she can invoke this spirit whenever she wants to by just closing her eyes and whispering, "It's me, Ana. It's me, Ana."

Of course Ana's sister, Isabel, takes her to see the abandoned old farmhouse with a well outside of it, and Ana returns there on her own often, obviously obsessed with the idea of seeing the spirit of the monster for herself. One day she goes there and runs into a wounded revolutionary soldier who's obviously hiding out there from the law, and she is convinced that he is incorporating the spirit she seeks. The rest of the film follows her increasingly bold efforts to confront the "monster," which is obviously her way of escaping from not only the doldrums of her everyday life in the hardscrabble town, but also from her uninspiring home life, with her eccentric father (who tends bees and works all night writing extended philosophical descriptions of their activities) and disengaged and lonely mother (who we see writing to and burning letter from an ex-lover of hers in France).

Erice's finely-crafted film is a beautiful and intriguing example of what I love about these stories that immerse us into a child's mindset in the midst of disturbing circumstances: they take seriously the power and, yes, wisdom of innocence. None of these films go so far as to imply that this innocence is ultimately going to protect or save their main chararcters from the world's evils, but they show an all-too-rare (these days) respect and appreciation for this under-valued, and under-cultivated, quality. There's a reason why stories that feature children escaping into fantasy worlds that may or may not be "real" often achieve classic status and are loved by many generations running: they have something to say that strikes right at the heart and soul of all but the most hardened and skeptical readers. They also remind us of a quality most of us had at one point in our lives -- the ability to look upon a world of wonders and accept the mystery of what we see at face value, not try to analyze it or excuse it away as mere illusion or, worse, delusion.

Since I am running out of time and this post is growing rather long, I will cut this off now and make it a two-parter... for I would still like to say some things in appreciation for the other films I mentioned. For now, I hope that anyone who reads this and is interested in the subject will make an effort to find and watch The Spirit of the Beehive. It is a true work of art, and though it seems slow at times when you're watching it, the overall effect of the film is powerful indeed. I can almost guarantee you'll be thinking about it for a long time after you've seen it, and you may, if you're lucky, never forget it.

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