Archive for the ‘Genre Countdown: Childhood Films’ Category

Road - first scene boys

by Lee Price

Ozu kids. Some are nice, some are bullies; some are natural leaders and others are followers; some are homeless and some appear to be well-provided-for; some come from kind, caring families and others from families that are disintegrating. Except for an occasionally disconcerting mode of stylized crying (both elbows fly up to a 90 degree angle and the fists cover the eyes), they look like kids you might pass on any street, or see playing in the park, or fidgeting across from you on the train or bus.

One could easily populate a playground with the kids in Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) films. They’re a natural part of the Ozu landscape, and therefore—over a career that spanned the direction of more than fifty films from 1928 to 1962—you often find children weaving into and out of the films’ backgrounds and foregrounds. In I Was Born, But… (1932), they are front and center.

The antics of the children are the primary engine behind the movie’s comedy, with Ozu building upon Hollywood ideas which he freshly adapts to the flat fields of the Japanese suburbs. The roaming gang of children and the friendly neighborhood dog inevitably recall the popular Our Gang comedies of the time, the gang is frequently photographed in tight ensemble shots that look like parodies of early Hollywood gangster films, and an appreciation for Chaplin setups is apparent throughout. (more…)

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by Brian E. Wilson


I have seen Rebel Without a Cause several times with an audience and this famous line, yelled with great anger and frustration by James Dean’s misunderstood character Jim Stark at his elders, brings about a wide variety of reactions.  When I saw the movie in a college film studies class in the 1980s, my snarky peers chuckled and laughed at it, later calling Dean’s emotional line delivery campy and over-the-top.  Surprised that this guy presented as the epitome of cool on merchandise such as posters, postcards, and calendars (that still sell well today, along with Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe nostalgia) could be capable of losing his cool so dramatically, many in the class dismissed him.  Also, in the ’80s, I am sure many were also giddy with the fact that Jim Backus (known mostly as Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island) plays Jim’s meek father.  What they didn’t seem to notice is that Backus gives a effective performance in the role, and that Dean plays off him beautifully.

Yet at a packed screening in a revival house in the early ’00s, the “You’re Tearing Me Apart” moment led to a gasp and then stunned silence.  The rawness of the moment still startles.  People attending the screening obviously had the ability to transport themselves back to when this movie was initially released.  In 1955, Jim Stark’s explosion of confusion must have struck a nerve with a generation disillusioned with their parents.  I wrote an essay for this series on Stand by Me (#62) and I was alive when that film came out and could write from experience about what impact that film had at the time of its release.  For Rebel, I wasn’t, so over the years I have listened to and read anecdotes and comments of family members, friends, instructors, critics, and others who caught the film at the time of its release.  Many said it struck a chord and that Jim finally said with deep emotion what many teenagers wanted to say.

Also, at the time of its release (October 27, 1955), Dean’s fans were mourning his very recent death (September 30, 1955).  He died at the age of 24 in a car accident.  He lived to see only one of his films, 1955’s East of Eden with his brilliant Oscar nominated performance, play in theaters.  So watching Dean’s Jim Stark experience emotional turmoil in Rebel must have been painful for his many young fans. (more…)

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by Aaron West

yi yi - child photo

The term “family epic” is not often used to describe a film, not even an art film (at least not post-Ozu). There are plenty of lengthy films about families, but few that are grandiose to share a descriptor with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia. Yi Yi is indeed a family epic film. This is not just because it has a three-hour running time, but rather because it successfully captures the scale of a multi-generation family. Instead of telling a lengthy narrative through the generations, it reveals enough about the characters in the present, by exploring them through a single, binding experience, that it is just as effective.

I chose Yi Yi as my top film for the Wonders of the Dark Childhood and Adolescence poll. This choice may seem peculiar because the film features so many characters from the family, most of whom are adults, that the children are not given the most screen time. In fact, if you were to pick a protagonist, it would probably be NJ, the father figure. However, the children’s experiences mirror and elucidate the actions of the adults, and they flesh out the characters. The children, through their innocence and naivety, also interpreted the events with a perspective that the adults are incapable of, and sometimes their silly inquiries are prescient.

Yang-Yang asks his father, “Daddy, can we only know half the truth? I can only see what’s in front and not what’s behind.” This may seem like a simple, naive question, but it speaks to how humans tend to only look forwards and not backwards. The adults in the film are reticent to look backward, yet the children experience things that the adults have also experienced. In other words that Yang-Yang might understand, if the adults could see what is in front of the children, they might see what is behind their own view. (more…)

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by Stephen Mullen

War films often use children as protagonists – we’ve seen several in this countdown already (Come and See, Empire of the Sun, The Tin Drum, among others), with more to come surely. There are many reasons for this – I think those reasons add up to to the fact that the plight of children, of childhood, in wartime brings the horror of war into very sharp focus. Children in war films may be victims, they may be corrupted, may become (or be) evil, or at least hard-boiled, they may not seem to understand the nature of war, may not seem to treat it as completely real – but however they act, or are affected by the war, they reveal its nature through what it makes them. Children are new people – they are pliable, in the process of being formed – and what war turns them into shows us what war is. (And this, in turn, is why so many great films about childhood seem to be war films – because childhood is about becoming what you will be, and war heightens that, the way childhood heighten the effects of war. And maybe because childhood isn’t necessarily as innocent, pleasant, secure as we wish it were – children in war become hyperbolic versions of childhood in any difficult situation.) Beyond this, children in war films draw the viewer in – child protagonists are often in the position of the viewer, having to learn about their world as they move through it. And maybe most of all – whatever a child might do in a war film, we know the child did not cause the war. Children are always acted on by the war, no matter how active they are – adults in warfare raise questions of responsibility that children can sidestep.

In Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, his protagonist, Edmund, does all these things. He is innocent, good natured and trusting – but also corrupted, even before the film started (with his Nazi education), and is led to more and more compromised actions that culminate in murder. He is formed by the war, and by the horrific aftermath of the war – learning from it, made what he is by it. And he is our guide to the world of the film, Berlin after the war. This is quite literal – the camera often follows him through the streets, watching him in his environment, showing us the city and what happens there. He guides us through many encounters, vignettes of suffering and cruelty, in the streets and at home. At the same time, though, he is not just guide but quester – searching for food, searching (quite explicitly – Rossellini’s symbolism and ideas aren’t subtle here) for meaning, what the war meant, what he is, what life means for himself and others now that the war is over. He is both Virgil and Dante in the inferno of ruined Berlin – and one of the damned souls as well, a ghost in a ghost of a city. (more…)

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by Ed Howard

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, The Kid, opens with what might well be a statement of purpose for the master silent comic as he embarked on his feature career. The film’s first title card — indeed, one of the very few titles, and maybe the wordiest, in a sparsely titled movie — introduces The Kid as, “a picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear.” That combination of humor and pathos, already apparent in many of Chaplin’s previous shorts, would become the driving force for his subsequent features, and is already fully in flower in this sweet, sentimental film about Chaplin’s tramp discovering an abandoned child (Jack Coogan) and raising him as his own.

The child is abandoned by a woman (Edna Purviance) “whose sin was motherhood,” a title card informs, and through a series of mishaps it’s the poor tramp who finds the baby. Notably, Chaplin eases into the sentiment, as his tramp is at first anything but caring for the little tyke: he tries to dump the baby on several unsuspecting passers-by before getting stuck with it, sitting on the curb with the kid in his lap, and in a hilarious/unsettling bit of pantomime, he briefly considers dropping the baby down a sewer drain. It’s easy to forget that Chaplin’s tramp, so often considered the embodiment of comic sentimentality, started out as a rough-and-ready scrapper in his early Keystone shorts, and there are still traces of those more unsentimental beginnings here, in that moment with the sewer drain and the later scene where he fights with a burly fellow bum.

In any event, the tramp thinks better of discarding the kid, and Chaplin cuts to five years later, when the pair have become a de facto family. Coogan, who plays the kid as a five-year-old, is a great screen partner for Chaplin, a miniature version of the tramp, shrugging and shuffling in his oversized and raggy clothes, joining in with Chaplin’s petty crimes. The pair create a ramshackle domesticity in the tramp’s small flat, where the bedsheets are full of holes and they cheat the gas meter by reusing the same quarter over and over again. They go out together to “work” by having the kid break windows with rocks, whereupon Chaplin ambles up, not-so-coincidentally carrying a rack of glass panes ready to repair the damage for a fee. This sequence leads to some charming interplay with a beat cop who casually foils the pair’s plans by simply strolling up and looking on suspiciously. Best of all is the scene where Chaplin, without realizing it, pulls his scam at the cop’s own house, and is still there, flirting with the policeman’s wife, when the cop returns and peers out the window above their heads, scowling down at them. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

There are some high school novels that have maintained their popularity for decades.  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies rivals Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as a perennial favorite of teachers who regarded it as a perfect devise to project theme in a literature class.  The schoolboy cast of characters, the appeal of an uninhabited island, and the story arc that features anarchy and violence immediately pulls in most male readers, though educators will usually want to employ a female oriented title like The Diary of Anne Frank to maintain a gender status quo.  The book’s allegory is broad and accessible, and invites a bevy of interpretations, though it certainly is easy enough to frame the work as a parable about the thin pretense between civilization and barbarism.  Golding’s prologue asserts that a planeload of boys are evacuated from a public school, but it is subsequently shot down over the Pacific Ocean.  Certainly it is stretch to believe that the boys survive such a calamity, washing up on the shore of the island, but there are far worse ways Golding could have concocted to get his schoolboys in the place where the entire story plays out.

Much like Larry Pearce, who opted for non-professionals young actors for his adaptation of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace (another high school book list favorite) the director of the 1963 black and white film version, Peter Brook, went with kids with no prior acting experience.  The film was shot in exotic locales on the islands of Puerto Rico and Jamaica, and is in large measure faithful to Golding’s novel.  Brook adds the proposition that the threat of nuclear war caused the evacuation, but one would be hard-pressed to find any instances where he altered the narrative.  Brook understands that it is a major challenge to transfer literary allegory to the screen, and the complexity of the words the boys speak broadens and enriches this frightening tale of societal disintegration played out without a single adult to serve as a potential guiding force.  It is a tall order to properly transcribe the deeper context to a full level of understanding, though it is doubtful that many who come to the film are Lord of the Flies neophytes, or don’t at least  know a degree of its thematic underpinnings.  The dramatization of the conflict between the civilizing and barbarizing instincts that are part of the essence of all human beings is one that has been examined in literature and film, but perhaps never as vividly posed.  one one side according to the author, we have morality, law, culture and civility, on the other anarchy, blood lust, the thirst for power, amorality and narcissism.  the latter qualities lead to the violence that dominates the latter half of the novel and film. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

I am leaving behind me fifty years of memory.  Memory…..Who shall say what is real and what is not?  Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears?  No.  And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind.  There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone.  You can say go back and have what you like of it…So I can close my eyes on my valley as it was…….-Huw Morgan

The legacy of John Ford’s coal-mining saga, How Green Was My Valley, based on Richard Llewelyn’s novel, is mired in a negative statistic in Oscar history.  It’s is always maligned as the film that beat out the most influential and celebrated film in the history of American cinema – Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane – for the Best Picture prize.  And as such, it is a film that seems to always get the short end of the stick from film historians and some classic films buffs.  Releasing a year after Ford’s masterful The Grapes of Wrath(1940) the film was looked on by skeptics as a glossy Hollywood tearjerker that disavowed important social and political issues in favor of melodrama.  A few modern critics have derided the film’s sentimental story, with one even calling it “a monstrous slurry of tears and coal dust.”  An esteemed colleague takes strong issue with what he calls “phony Welsh accents” and the film’s preponderance of tears.

By and large, though, these negative  opinions have been avalanched in true coal miner fashion by contemporary critics, film historians and audiences who now see How Green Was My Valley as a film about ‘disintegration of family’ and of a culture due in large measure to economic depression, that still evinces its ideological world view that boasts an indominability of the human spirit and a deep nostalgia for the past and of familial bonds and sibling love. (more…)

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 © 2015 by James Clark

      Jean-Pierre Melville’s reputation has largely had to do with the brilliance of cinematography and overall design of his films as feeding into depictions of an underworld of remarkable panache. Looking at the general commentary this dazzlingly eccentric artist has elicited, we find considerable zeal for the paradox of resolved often homicidal law-breakers taking inspiration from a code of honor comprising sensuous poise as prominently rising above betraying fellow practitioners. In a film like Le Samourai (1967) that celebrated larger-than-mainstream-life surprise has been richly conveyed by the handsome solitude of a handsomely youthful Alain Delon in the title role. In the film (Le Deuxieme Souffle [1966]) confronting us here, however, those thrilling contrarian inspirations are refracted in such a way as to result in a disclosure far from the standard version.

Melville has assisted us in withholding vigorous celebration here by bringing forward a jail break episode at the outset that recalls Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956). In that earlier depiction we also had a daring duet (our trio soon becomes a duet) composed of a very young player and a decidedly less young partner. Whereas in the Bresson film, the escapees were involved in the anti-Nazi French underground (the elder especially committed to cogent law and order), in the Melville film the escapees were intent on increasing the crime rate. Moreover, and of special significance, whereas the elder statesman in A Man Escaped was well suited to the challenges of physical strength, agility and guile amidst the angular rooftops of the jail at night, the senior partner in crime of interest to us here is strikingly in physical and emotional distress and clumsy in his procedures (being lifted by the young man as he clings piteously to a roof’s edge). The spare, geometric forms amidst that latter murky and richly vertiginous scene of desperation do not fail to add a strange lustre to the event. But whereas in Bresson’s austere account of an accomplishment of heart the setting produces a quiet intensification of a hard and essential mystery within which the players cohere to dramatic plenitude, in Melville’s scrutiny the atmospheric beauties point up the less than sterling occasion. The latter two then run through woodland; and once again there is one painfully out-of-shape laggard who, on their converging upon a freight train has the damnedest time getting a bead on the open door of a boxcar and, when finally able to cling to it, has to be lifted to safety by the younger escapee. (more…)

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boyhood (1)

by Jon Warner

When I recall my childhood, there is a remembrance of a certain feeling I used to have as a kid. I used to feel like the years dragged on and on and never seemed to end. Christmas never came soon enough. Birthdays took too long to come around again. Summer dragged on in a stream of endless days. Boredom often creeped in and time seemed to go so slowly that I couldn’t stand it. I’m not sure if that’s a common feeling that many of us had as children, but it’s certainly something that came to my mind often. There was something that always made me feel like I wished adulthood would come soon. But it seemed so far away. Flash forward to my current existence at the age of 35. Months seem to flash by in the blink of an eye. There is never enough time to do everything I need to accomplish or want to accomplish. It seemed we were just getting our two girls to be potty-trained and now BOTH of them will be getting on the bus in September. It’s getting so I can hardly remember how my girls behaved and acted when they were younger. At some point in time, our lives go from dragging on slowly, to flashing in front of us so quickly that we can hardly keep up. I can’t pinpoint when that changed for me, but it certainly has and I have no doubt it may be many years again before time slows if it ever will.

Some might focus on the fact that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a story of a young boy and his growth from small child to young manhood. With my current perspective as parent, more so than child, the film plays more for me as an example of just how quickly time passes, how fleeting our family units can be, how so much of life becomes a blur, and especially from the parental perspective: how quickly our children grow up. In this way, it simply, but devastatingly examines  childhood as if we are loving relatives, guardians or parents, viewing the story of Mason Evans through our own lens, wherever we may be on that spectrum. For me it’s clear that Linklater, who was the father of his 8 year-old daughter Lorelei whom he cast in this film in 2002, was influenced by his own childhood, but also by his own sense of parenting a child. For many parents, every year that passes can be marked most often by things their children are doing. Boyhood can be viewed in nearly the same way and is the mode of reflection that resonates most with me. (more…)

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of moviegoing is that every story is unique, and at the same time, universal. Despite the wide variety of life on earth, in essence, there simply aren’t that many ways to be human, and that is why we can look at life in India, Japan, Argentina, France, anywhere, and find things to which we relate. This is especially true of reminiscences of childhood, be they Richard Linklater’s fictionalized version of his Texas upbringing in Boyhood (2014), Steve Tesich’s kaleidoscopic look at coming of age in America through his immigrant eyes in Four Friends (1981), or Jean Shepherd’s affectionate look at his life in 1940s Indiana in A Christmas Story (1983). All children are subject to the authority of those more powerful than they are, and they all have to learn how to become those people as they stretch toward adulthood and, eventually, life on their own terms.

American Graffiti is a highly particular look at teens on the cusp of independence in the California car culture of director/screenwriter George Lucas’ adolescence. The hot rods, drive-ins, and cruising strip are rendered with such loving detail in the glow of a pleasant California night that Lucas’ adolescence has become iconic of everyone’s youth, a supposedly more innocent time that tends to meld all of our teen years into “the best years of our lives.” But Lucas provides more than a gauzy look back for retirees and those nostalgic for a time they were too young to experience. He presents an array of types—the cool greaser, the slut, the nerd, the straight arrow, the smart observer, the street gang—and through his astute casting and smart script and direction, turns them into real people who show exactly how the endless summer of youth really feels for those living it. (more…)

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