Archive for the ‘Genre Countdown: Childhood Films’ Category

WTDW - cinematog b

by John Grant

The British gem ‘Whistle Down the Wind” came very close to making the Greatest Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown.  At ‘Noirish’ the renowned John Grant reviewed it magnificently in one of the writer’s greatest essays.

UK / 96 minutes / bw / Beaver, Allied Film Makers, Rank Dir: Bryan Forbes Pr:Richard Attenborough Scr: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall Story:Whistle Down the Wind (1959) by Mary Hayley Bell Cine: Arthur Ibbetson Cast: Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee, Alan Bates, Diane Holgate, Alan Barnes, Roy Holder, Barry Dean, Norman Bird, Diane Clare, Patricia Heneghan, John Arnatt, Gerald Sim, Elsie Wagstaff, Hamilton Dyce, Howard Douglas, Ronald Hines, Michael Lees, Michael Raghan.

A number of movies have taken as their subject the mythopoeic tendencies of young minds, whereby they can generate fantastical explanations for misunderstood events, or even their own spiritualities—their own mythologies and religions, in fact. The Lord of the Flies (1963), based on the 1954 William Golding novel, is the example that usually springs most readily to mind; others include The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Celia (1988), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and, arguably, The Babadook (2014). First on the scene, though, and in my view the most effective of all of these—certainly the most poignantly beautiful—is Whistle Down the Wind.

In a small Lancastrian community, the three children of the Bostock farm—Kathy (Mills), Nan (Holgate) and the youngest, Charles (Barnes)—save a trio of kittens, the latest litter of farm cat Dusty, from being drowned in a sack by feckless farmhand Eddie (Bird). Charles tries to fob off one of the kitten on first his pal Jackie Greenwood (Holder) and then a Salvation Army street evangelist (Heneghan). The latter tells him that she can’t take the proffered kitten but that she’s sure Jesus will look after it. From this casual statement flows much later confusion.



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400 blows 1

by Sam Juliano

French film titles generally persevere over their English counterparts more than those in any other language, but Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is the clear preference over Les Quatre Cents Coup everywhere except in France.  The French to their credit have always been fiercely loyal to their national heritage, especially their language, and translations -English or otherwise- are looked on disdainfully.  To be sure there are instances where the English language is forceful and direct, and The 400 Blows, spare, direct and thematically relevant, is exceedingly effective.  But I won’t hold it over the purists who favor Les Quatre Cents Coup either, especially since nothing is really lost in the translation.  No matter what you opt for the landmark 1959 film is the maiden effort by the French cinematic icon Francois Truffaut, and arguably the film that remains his piece de resistance in a career that produced twenty-six films.  Many regard the film as the most defining in the French New Wave movement, and by any barometer of measurement it is seen as a definitive work in the childhood films cinema, finishing at or near the top in various online polls and per the declaration of film historians.  Yet the film’s pre-eminence as a work of psychological insight into the mind of a child has also pigeon-holed the director’s reputation with some, as the cinema’s most celebrated director of these kind of films, or at least the equal of the American Steven Spielberg, when in fact the celebrated Gallic has helmed only three films about childhood, with 1970’s L’Enfant Sauvage and 1976’s L’Argent de Poche as the other two.  Such is the magnitude of The 400 Blows’s impact and continuing legacy that it has succeeded in forging a perception of a legendary director that is markedly in error, though even if it were true it wouldn’t diminish his top level artistic standing.

My own history with The 400 Blows dates back to the early 70’s and the revival house screenings it enjoyed in such banner Manhattan institutions like The Thalia, the New Yorker and the Bleecker Street Cinemas.  The film was almost always paired with Jules and Jim, a 1961 work that cemented Truffaut’s reputation as one of the rare people who followed a successful career as a critic with an even more renowned one as a director.  I first saw it as an impressionable 17 year-old, and as such it moved me deeply, perhaps more than any other European film had, and led to discover critical writings on the film by the most noted writers of the time.  In the beginning -as should be expected for one so green behind the ears- it was Jean Pierre Laude’s familial alienation, the bittersweet, seductive music by Jean Constantin and the most haunting final shot the cinema ever showcased.  It sent shivers down my spine and still, does today though for some more snooty film buffs it has diminished in the vein of familiarity breeds contempt.  It still was a novelty in those days to watch a film with English subtitles, and one with a potent strain of lyricism had a special allure for me.

The plot of The 400 Blows documents the various delinquent exploits of twelve-year-old schoolboy Antoine Doniel (Jean Pierre Leaud), who represents Truffaut’s pre-teen alter ego.  This autobiographical work is also the director’s most personal film.  It should be mentioned here that Truffaut tempered the film’s real-life events with the influence of two previous film classics.  As an active, often controversial film critic, Truffaut was also a passionate advocate of films and directors that affected him emotionally and impressed him artistically.  One of these, Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite, also deals with adolescents who rebel against school authority.  A number of elements from that early classic are evident in The 400 Blows.  Then there is Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, a 1947 work, which like Vigo’s evinces a grey, documentary, neo-realist look.  Rossellini employs a number of the moving and panning camera workings adapted by Truffaut, though in the far darker Italian film, the boy commits suicide.  Structurally,  The 400 Blows is straightforward, all pointing to the outcome of this teenager’s crisis.  Truffaut’s main concern is with character, mood and theme, all of which are examined with a magnifying glass as the plots unfolds without complication.  It has been argued that the film is “seriocomic,” and that contention is hard to argue.   While the film straddles the intoxicating line between the lyrical and the documentary, there is a consistent strain of humor, even with the underlying cognizance of the boy’s emotional pain.  Later on after the police are involved, the tone is much more somber.  In any case it seems accurate enough to frame the film as narratively episodic, complete with contrasting scenes.  Word has it that the film was originally intended as a short feature, but that Truffaut kept adding from his childhood remembrances, finally realizing a full feature was wholly warranted. (more…)

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Pather Panchali (1955 India) Directed by Satyajit Ray Shown: Subir Bannerjee

By Richard R.D. Finch

The raw material of the cinema is life itself,” wrote Satyajit Ray in a magazine article in 1948, adding that “the truly Indian film should…look for its material in the more basic aspects of Indian life, where habit in speech, dress and manner, background and foreground, blend into a harmonious whole.” This close examination of the details of Indian life within the context of a story comprehensible even to Westerners, was what Ray set out to do in his first film, Pather Panchali (1955), and as a guiding principle to filmmaking, it’s one he never abandoned for the rest of his more than 35 years as a director.

The film concentrates on one family. The father, a scholar, is the descendant of aristocrats fallen on hard times and has moved back to his ancestral village to find work and try to pay off his many debts. A rather feckless individual who dreams of being a writer, he isn’t a consistent provider for his family. The mother is frustrated by the family’s poverty and their status in the village as debtors, and often behaves in a shrewish and impatient manner. The father’s decrepit elderly aunt also lives with the family. Their daughter, Durga, is a mildly rebellious teenager who often seems to become the automatic focus of her mother’s dissatisfaction when she isn’t being petulant with the aunt. But for the viewer the most important member of the family is young Apu.

Apu is is no way the prime mover of any events in the film—he’s most often a passive watcher observed through numerous reaction shots—yet he is clearly at the center of the film, for nearly everything in the film is seen through his sensibility. This is one of the great films about childhood—perhaps the greatest ever—in the way it shows the viewer its world through the nonjudgmental but keen-eyed gaze of young Apu. To a child like Apu, the natural world is a source of wonder, so the film’s several montages of natural scenes and animals, sometimes used almost like the pillow shots in an Ozu film, convey the ineffable mystery of the natural world from a child’s point of view. (more…)

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by Brandie Ashe

I’ll start by admitting some pretty heavy bias went into my selection of the top film on my ballot for this countdown. I was born and raised in Alabama, where two texts tend to reign supreme over all others: the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, written by native daughter Nelle Harper Lee and published in 1960. You may think I’m exaggerating, but Mockingbird was on a number of reading lists that were assigned or suggested in school over the years, from middle school onward through college. I have devoured the novel dozens of times, and I continue to watch the 1962 film version year after year (three viewings so far in 2015 alone, thank you very much) just for the sheer pleasure of reliving young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s story over and over again.

And it is Scout’s story, regardless of our tendency to focus the lion’s share of our attention on her father, Atticus Finch, played so memorably by Gregory Peck in the cinematic adaptation. It is through her eyes that we see the story unfold, and it is her young, touchingly innocent, yet ultimately wise perception of things that colors our own perception of the characters and the events that occur in the story.

It’s a perspective that is particularly appealing for young readers, who can put themselves in Scout’s shoes—perhaps especially for those of us from Alabama (really, the South in general), for whom these characters and this setting are so very recognizable. For even though I was raised in the suburbs of Birmingham (about as far from Maycomb—or its real-life counterpart, Monroeville—as you can get), I know the rural parts of my home state well, and over the years have met many people who could easily stand in for the characters in the story (some of whom are members of my own extended family, in fact, but I’ll refrain from direct comparisons).

So, yes, I admit some bias in my selection. But I don’t think it’s too far off the mark to label To Kill a Mockingbird one of the best movies ever produced about childhood. Brought to life by a brilliant cast, led by Peck (in what many, myself included, consider the performance of his career) and young Mary Badham as Scout, Mockingbird speaks to all the complexities of that too-short period in our lives: the wonder of discovery, the mystery of the unknown, and that too-familiar death of innocence and the dawning of knowledge about the greater world around us which sparks adulthood. (more…)

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Night of the Hunter 1

by D. H. Schleicher

The singer in the opening of Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter invites viewers to dream along with its young protagonist, John Harper (Billy Chapin), but what transpires in the film is a pure nightmare where religious fanaticism begs us to treat everyone like children and envision a world where everyone is fair game for evil.  He’s just a poor kid whose dad was just hung for murder (but not before entrusting his son to hide his stash of money), whose mother (Shelly Winters) is helpless, and whose little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), needs minding.  Into his life steps the world’s most vile step-father, Harry Powell (the magnificently monstrous Robert Mitchum) – a widow-killer and money-hungry would-be preacher who wows the simpletons of the small towns he invades with his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.  But John is on to him from the get-go (he knows this jack-ass just wants the cash), and John rails against the man and his worldview.

Women are grotesquely marginalized by the faith-based worldview of the characters in The Night of the Hunter as well as by the time period in which the story takes place (1930’s West Virginia).  Ordered to suppress their desires and obey their men, they are treated like children and called stupid and foolish, slapped around, and murdered…the slitting of Willa Harper’s throat depicted in horrifically stylized expressionistic shots, some of the most menacing mise-en-scene in the history of cinema – culminating with the famous “hair in the tangled deep water reeds” scene of her desecrated body “at rest” in the bottom of the river.  Teenage girls are even stupider, and worth only their wombs that shoot out bastard children whom the righteous (be it in the form of evil Harry Powell or goody-goody Rachel Cooper) then must watch over.  Meanwhile, the littlest of girls, Pearl, is just (in the words of Powell) “a miserable little wretch,” depicted without the brains to discern bad men from good (if this is innocence, then innocence must be lost!)

After his mother’s murder, John absconds with Pearl down the river in a skiff in a Grimm’s fairy-tail journey – not a single authentic shot to be found – all hyper-realized imaginings of children on the run for their lives.  It’s creepy and atmospheric, and the water of the river seems to be flowing both ways in just another example of the film’s overt symbolism and weirdness that creates the greatest of unease.  But John is vigilant – and always keeps a step ahead of Harry Powell. (more…)

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by Sachin Gandhi

A balloon floating up in the sky still manages to catch everyone’s attention! Some will express sadness at seeing the balloon floating away, at the thought that there is a child nearby who is crying at seeing their precious balloon fly away. Despite all the technological advancements and flashing gadgets we have in society, a balloon is still an essential part of a child’s life. No birthday party would be complete without the presence of balloons. In fact, balloons complete a birthday party. This love of balloons would have made Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon an easy film to be included in a childhood countdown. However, the film is present on merit in the Wonders in the Dark Childhood Countdown because it is more than just about a balloon. In its short running time of 35 minutes, The Red Balloon encapsulates all of life, including all emotions associated with a child’s growth from an early age to that of a teenager. More importantly, the film’s style, without dialogue, and story make this a timeless work that is also the purest form of cinema. The film is a beautiful blend of documentary, art and commercial cinema. In addition, the template for many contemporary films, including Hollywood animation movies, can be traced all the way back to Lamorisse’s beautifully conceived short film.

The Red Balloon starts off with young Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son) finding a balloon tied up to a street lamp. Once he climbs up and gets the balloon, Pascal doesn’t let go and holds the string tightly, just like any child would. He goes everywhere with the balloon even opting to walk all the way to school as his balloon is not allowed on the streetcar. When he returns home, the caretaker is not happy with the balloon’s presence and goes to the balcony and releases it into the air. The balloon being sent into the air would be a child’s worst nightmare; the crushing feeling of seeing their cherished balloon disappearing. As it turns out, the balloon hovers outside the balcony, waiting for Pascal. It doesn’t take long for Pascal to figure out that the balloon can move up and down, follow him around and even obey, much like a trained pet would. This increases Pascal’s attachment with the balloon beyond the initial discovery of a toy. The balloon now becomes Pascal’s trusted companion, his only true friend, one with whom he passes his time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for other boys to be jealous of Pascal’s possession and they try their best to take the balloon away. When their initial efforts fail, they mount an ambush, overpower Pascal and crush the balloon. The death of the balloon sets off a magical element around Paris, as balloons of all colours and sizes free themselves from their owners clutches and gather to mourn the death of the red balloon. Pascal is excited to see all these balloons and grabs as many strings as he can. The balloons then fly off with Pascal, far away into the horizon, likely to a magical place, free of bullies and evil kids. (more…)

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bicycle thieves

by Judy Geater

It seems like such a small story. Yet, through the theft of a bike, this powerful Italian neo-realist film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, shows up the struggle which was the reality of daily life for so many children and parents. It also brilliantly explores the relationship between a father and a young son put under pressure by the world around them, two figures in a crowd.

Cinematographer Carlo Montuori’s stark black-and-white photography, showing the streets of post-war Rome and endless small details of everyday life, always has something going on in the background. There’s a feeling throughout of all the other stories surrounding this one, all the other poor people who are facing their own struggles. Nobody else has time to worry about this one family’s suffering.

Most of the main cast were not professional actors, which helps to give the atmosphere of bleak realism. The little boy, Bruno, whose haunting expression is one of the images from the film which lingers in the mind, was played by Enzo Staiola, aged seven, who turned up to watch the start of shooting. His father, Antonio, was portrayed by factory worker Lamberto Maggiorani, a non-professional actor whose real-life circumstances were not so far removed from those of the character he played. The imdb tells how he was laid off from the factory after making the film, and found it hard to get further roles as an actor.

At the start of the film, Antonio, a jobless father in impoverished post-war Rome, is struggling to support his wife, young son and baby. One day, he is finally the one picked out of a crowd of hungry hopefuls to win a job putting up film posters. However, he doesn’t think he will be able to take the job, because he doesn’t have a bicycle. Or rather, he does have one, but it has been pawned and there’s no money to get it out of hock until he gets a job. So it’s a vicious circle which there seems to be no prospect of squaring. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Well, why don’t you love me like you used to do?
How come you treat me like a worn-out shoe?
My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue
Why don’t you love me like you used to do?

Well, why don’t you be just like you used to be?
How come you find so many faults with me?
Somebody’s changed so let me give you a clue
Why don’t you love me like you used to do?

– Hank Williams Sr.

the most important work by a young American director since Citizen Kane.”

The above quote by Paul D. Zinnemann of Newsweek is one of the most famous examples of critical hyperbole ever recorded, yet, 44 years later it still underscores the reputation of a movie classic and the director who bettered a literary classic in making a  film that is arguably the finest by an American in the 1970’s.  I first discovered it as a budding movie fan in the magazine section of my hometown library a short time after I turned seventeen in a section of wildly favorable capsules that not only included The Last Picture Show, by also Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.  All three films were released in the final third of the year.  Peter Bogdonovich would go on to direct some other fine films like Paper Moon and What’s Up Doc? but he never again equaled the grand slam he achieved with his aching elegy of Anarene, Texas, a town doomed by technological advances. The 50’s were arguably the final decade where the movie theater held prominent sway in one’s social life, and in The Last Picture Show its importance is literal and thematic.  Seventeen years later, the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore would traverse the same territory with Cinema Paradiso, though the approach was unadulterated wallowing in nostalgia.  Bogdonovich manages to derive the same level of emotion in one of the most deeply-felt of all American films, but he does it without the aid of sentimentality and the unbridled lyricism of Ennio Morricone.  Mind you, this writer is a huge fan of Cinema Paradiso, but is still willing to note the vast difference between directorial approaches.

Bogdonovich underscores his intentions by filming in high school yearbook styled monochrome at the urging of his friend Orson Welles, enlisting the renowned Robert Surtees, whose work here is as accomplished as in any American film.  The proper mood and deep focus possibilities could only reach fruition with the use of black and white.  The Last Picture Show opens brilliantly as the camera pans across shabby Main Street and a decaying cluster of buildings, with a ferocious wind swept howl providing audio embellishment.  The camera eventually settles on a beat up pick up truck that belongs to high school buddies, one that blares out the Williams standard posted here above while sputtering before it starts up.    The theater -the Royal- stands next to a minimalist pool hall and a cafe that remains open all hours.  These are the only places that provide a modicum of activity in a town rife with ennui and adolescent alienation from parents they are always escaping from.  Quiet despondency seems to run over two generations in this one-horse town.  Bogdonovich brings an extraordinary visual sense to the themes examined by his screenwriter Larry McMurtry, whose acclaimed novel is the source for this searing evocation of a place that offers no opportunity or sense of identity – only an unchanging mode of existence that centers around sex.  The main characters include two young men, Sonny and Duane, who during the course of the film fall in love with the same girl – the school’s ravishing beauty Jacy, but there are other relationships they indulge in that complicate what is on one level a stylized soap opera.  McMurtry makes it clear enough that there s very little to do in this stagnant whistle-stop, and the various pursuits are exclusively hedonistic.  The fact that we learn virtually nothing about our central characters’ home lives makes them symbols of a marked transformation of a culture, though with magnifying glass intensity McMurtry and Bogdonovich draw full bodied characters with powerfully observed intimacy.  Sonny’s father is seen once at a dance hall – it is clear enough he’s got a drinking problem, and Duane’s mother is seen briefly at the front door of their home near the end. (more…)

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au revoir

by John Greco

A while back, TCM had a one night festival of five Louis Malle films. It gave me the opportunity to revisit two favorites and catch up with a few that I somehow missed in the past. Louis Malle was a director who never liked to repeat himself. Once he explored a subject, he moved on. His work covered drama, suspense, comedy, documentaries and just about every other potential category. One of the original French New Wave, you never knew what he would do next. Malle never shied away from controversial subjects: French collaboration with the Nazi’s during World War II (Lacombe Lucien), child prostitution (Pretty Baby) and Incest (Murmur of the Heart) were all subject matter. What they all had in common was Malle’s artistry for handling these delicate subjects with taste and sensitivity.

Au Revoir les Enfantes at first seems like a simple coming of age story, however, Malle shows you how life can completely change in one swift moment. The film takes place in 1944, in occupied France. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) and his older brother Francois come from an upper class family. They are being schooled at a boarding school run by Catholic priests. Despite the war, life is idyllic. Soon after, a new boy arrives, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö). At first, Julien and Jean have a contentious relationship, but soon become friends. Jean, Julien soon discovers, is Jewish and, along with a few other Jewish boys, are being hidden in the school by the priests from the Nazis. Julien keeps Jean Bonnet’s secret. All is well until one of the servants at the school is caught stealing supplies and selling them on the black market. The young man is fired, but he will seek his revenge.

One day that starts out just like any other, the German Gestapo arrive to investigate rumors that Jews are being hidden at the school. Jean Bonnet, aka Jean Kipplestein, along with a few other boys are taken away. Never to be seen again.     (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

John Boorman’s Hope and Glory stands apart from nearly-all other World War II-themed films in that it presents an idyllic view of terrible events, seen through the eyes of a ten-year old boy.  By displaying the humor and the resilience of the boy’s family and the British people in general, the film at first broaches denial, and then segues into domestic life wrought under danger and hardship, where luck plays a large part in the survival game.  Hope and Glory is for it’s writer-director a semi-autobiographical work centering around his own experiences of a child growing up during the war, and of the psychology of a nation not yet ready for such a calamity.  When a school teacher quips “a few bombs may wake up this country” and the boy’s mother complains that they’re “starting  a war on such a beautiful day”you know that many aren’t prepared for, nor aware of the deadly battle of wills that is to soon ensue.

Young Bill Rohan, played by a spunky young actor named Sebastian Rice Edwards, lives with his parents and two sisters in a London suburb.  His father, who is too old to serve in combat, is assigned to a military desk job early in the film, so the young boy is surrounded by females and a close friend of his mother.  His daily routine is in large measure to attend school, engage in mischief with friends, and scour through the wreckage caused by bombs that penetrate the blimp defense employed around the country.  You don’t have to be British to be stirred by an emphatic school master’s patriotic speech invoking Churchill and and the brave young warriors enlisted to defend the country, with the strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” underscoring the noble defiance.  When Billy holds up the cover of a war periodical at the end of the sermon, we’re reminded that the kids think it’s a big adventure, no different that when Billy plays with his collection of soldiers before going to bed.  And few mothers won’t be able to relate to a wrenching scene when Bill’s mum breaks down a the train station, at the planned prospect of sending Billy and his youngest sister away to safer pastures until the end of the war, only to change her mind and be rejected by the officials. (more…)

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