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Posts Tagged ‘Childhood Countdown’

cobweb

by Stephen Mullen

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood begins with the sound of a cuckoo, and a shot of a boy standing behind a tree, looking up at us through cobweb. It ends with the same boy chasing a little girl along a beach, the two of them circling a dead black tree, that seems to keep forcing itself into the image. Both are dreams: the boy, Ivan, is in the middle of a war, dreaming of the world before the war, his childhood. He is still a child in the present of the film, but his childhood is long gone.

tree

Ivan’s Childhood, like Germany Year Zero, is a war film about childhood that is also a childhood film about war, using each side of the equation to heighten the emotion of the other. Ivan is already a hardened veteran when Ivan’s Childhood begins – orphaned, a partisan, now working for the regular army as a scout. That is where he is when the film’s story begins – but that is not how the film begins. It begins with the dream, Ivan walking, running, flying, through fields and forests, coming to rest at his mother’s feet, drinking from a bucket of water. It begins with the childhood he has lost, before waking him to the war he is living in. But it is a very thin line between waking and dreaming. The difference may mean everything to Ivan, but it is very permeable for Tarkovsky’s filmmaking. In Ivan’s dream, Tarkovsky’s camera soars and swirls, almost gleefully defying gravity and rules of space. But when Ivan wakes in a ruined windmill and goes out, the camera remains as vertiginous as in the dream, swinging around, taking extreme angles, cutting up his experiences into flashes of imagery. Real life is immediately established as being as disorienting and strange as any dream. (more…)

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edmund

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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innocents 9

By Dean Treadway

In the realm of horror movies, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is beyond reproach. And we all realize the horror genre is overflowing with creepy kids. But in the realm of movies about children–the subject of this ongoing series–how does this film fare? The answer is complicated, but assured.

In this exquisite adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the images are boldly frightening, sexually suggestive, deceptively lush, and idiosyncratically shot in dreamy black-and-white Cinemascope by Freddie Francis. Deborah Kerr, in her own favorite of her many acclaimed performances, plays a repressed nanny whose new charges–the alternately rambunctious and preternaturally mature orphans Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens–prove to be more than her nerves or her faith can take. Is this secluded mansion she now oversees haunted by the ghosts of two sexually libertine servants? Or is she merely being put through the ringer by a couple of untrustworthy brats?

Even before the credits roll, we hear a thin, girlish voice (meant to recall the young tones of our female ingenue Pamela Franklin, here playing Flora, though it could also be the voice of the deceased governess Miss Jessel). Words are put to a vaguely secluded theme that soon becomes the movie’s niggling, incessant refrain. Written by composer George Auric and lyricist Paul Dehn, it’s a suitably ancient-sounding tune called “O Willow Waly,” and it reeks of a particularly lonely menace as we sit in the dark, waiting for a movie to begin like we’ve never waited for a movie to begin before or since: (more…)

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ponette 2

By Dean Treadway

Many movies in this countdown deal with children confronted with the horrors of humanity–wartime, racism, poverty, crime. Yet, in its own quiet way, Jacques Doillon’s diminutive Ponette is among the most powerful of them all, simply because it gets the details of childhood correct. It also never shirks away from the toughest images of abject grief. One should be warned: it’s pretty nigh impossible not to view this movie through a sheen of constantly falling tears. Victoire Thivisol, in the title role, was only four years old when the film was shot, and this must be regarded as a miracle. It’s tempting to read up on how Doillon actually elicited this highly emotional work from such a young soul, but to do so might spoil our impressions of Thivisol as a performer (she would take the 1996 top prize at the Venice Film Festival–as far as I know, the youngest actor to ever win any sort of major award). And this is deserved: by any measure, her Ponette is unforgettable.

The film is exceedingly, wonderfully simple. With a tiny cast on her forearm, Ponette is the survivor of a car crash that took her mother’s life. As the film begins, her father (Xavier Beauvois) is comforting her in her hospital bed, and getting ready to drive her back to a boarding school. He expresses anger at his deceased wife–one senses that their relationship was on the skids anyway–while Ponette is still unable to accept that her mother is gone forever. As a parting show of love, she gives her daddy her teddy bear to keep, and he gives her his watch, which she sweetly keeps on her wrist throughout the picture. Doillon then follows this girl, with his camera wisely never lifting above her eyeline, as she struggles to come to terms with her loss.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once broke down the approach of death into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. One can see each of these stages illustrated here in Ponette’s journey, too, never with a heavy hand and in very much the same order. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes have her on the playground with her classmates, navigating this process. The film is filled with talk of God and Jesus, and Heaven–both the adults and the kids indulge in this–and we get the sense that Ponette is alternately comforted, confused and infuriated by some of this stuff (at one point, she chides a teacher for feeding her lies). One bossy girl sends Ponette on a playground obstacle course where the ground is a lava pit of Hell, and where there are only scattered islands of safety to which to jump. Her nominal “boyfriend” Mathias listens as she expresses her mind-twisting sadness, and then he kisses her cheek, comforting her in a scene of such aching intimacy that we’re both amused and relieved when he decides to give her his most prized possession: a Batman toy. “You’re nutty, but nice,” he says. All of this dovetails in a superb scene where Mathias and Carla decide to give Ponette one final test, exiling her to a trash bin for five minutes, to replicate the feeling of death and to strengthen her bravery. Just when we think the film is being unimaginably cruel, her friends find pity for the weeping Ponette and rescue her, excitedly telling her she’s passed muster (and Doillon even finds it possible to wring some laughs from the situation). (more…)

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oskar eli

By Stephen Mullen

Adolescence can be a terrible time. It can be very painful. It is a time when you lose yourself, lose what you have been, and become a new person in spite of yourself. For most of us, this happens surrounded by others going through the same thing at the same time – is it any wonder how horribly 12 and 13 year olds can treat one another? Let the Right One In is a vampire movie, and a bit of a social satire (if that’s the word) – but mostly, it is about that time when you stop being a child and start to become something else (not quite an adult – but not a child). It is about loss – the loss of childhood, of identity, though also other losses (losing connections with other people, through death or changes in you and them) – but also about what you become. Change is loss, but also gain – you lose who you were, you become someone new. It is about the effects of these changes on groups of kids – about their cruelty, their pain, about how they cope, and perhaps escape.

The main story is about Oskar, a 12 year old living in a particularly horrifying suburb of Stockholm in 1981 (a period promising transition itself – Brezhnev was on his last legs; Reagan was rattling sabers across the sea – the Cold War itself was starting to change, but it wasn’t sure what it was going to change into, and Sweden was right there between the two of them). Oskar lives with his mother, who is seldom home; his father lives in the country and is something of a refuge for the boy (except when he’s drinking). He goes to school, where he is too clever for his own good, with an excessive interest in police matters; his classmates torment him mercilessly, and he goes home and imagines bloody vengeance on them. There don’t seem to be any other kids in his apartment complex; then one moves in – Eli, a strange girl about his age who doesn’t seem to dress appropriately for the cold, who seems about as lonely and suspicious as Oskar. It doesn’t take them long to become friends – they bond over a Rubik’s cube, and they are soon very close. (more…)

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sundayscybele

By Dean Treadway 

After years of merely seeing the title Sundays and Cybele bandied about, I only recently got the chance to see it courtesy of our heroes at Criterion. I had long had it on my radar, knowing that it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1963. And, then, in 1964, due to arcane Academy rules, it achieved that ancient and odd achievement of being nominated the following for Best Adapted Screenplay (it comes from a novel by Bernard Eschassériaux, who threw in on the screenplay, though he’s uncredited) and also for the legendary Maurice Jarre’s evocative score. When I finally got the chance to see it in 2014, I was seriously blown away by its visual acuity, intense performances and complicated emotions. I could barely comprehend its immense breadth, and immediately wanted to know more about its maker. But here I quickly found myself thwarted. Even in the age of the Internet, there are still artists about whom you can find little. And its director/co-writer Serge Bourguignon is one of them.

So here is what I have learned about him: From 1948-50, he studied at France’s L’Institut Des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques (the IDHEC, translated as the “Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies,” and now known as La Fémis). This is the famed film school that spawned the likes of Alain Resnais, Claire Denis, Volker Schlondorff, Theo Angelopolis, Louie Malle, Costa Gavras, Claude Sautet, Patrice Leconte, Arnaud Desplechin, and Jean-Jacques Annaud, as well as countless other cinematic craftspeople (and I’m forced to say: that’s quite an alumni there). After traveling the world in search of material, he began helming documentary shorts in the late 50s, culminating with his Palme D’or win at Cannes for his short film La Sourire in 1960 (this short is available on the recent Criterion Collection release of Sundays and Cybele, though I must confess, I haven’t yet seen it). (more…)

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