Monday, June 04, 2007

The Friday Club 11: Outside Over There

(apologies--and thanks--to Maurice Sendak)

The child looks up, cheek resting on the wall, the texture of the surface clear in front of her eyes, nubbled and mottled, but smoothing out the further she peers, way up to the light switch, out of reach. If she could flip the switch she could go into the next room. It's just the small dining area between the front hall and the kitchen, but it's dark now, and while she "knows" nothing's there, she also knows that if she goes into the dark room she will become afraid, or worse: propel herself through the dark and maybe tumble over something--a chair or the table's corner--full speed, which will hurt--or worst of all, fall onto Something cruel, sudden and firm and grasping. And that's where it stands, as does she, leaning her smooth cheek on the wall, one more look at the light switch, before going back, and finding bigger people. She doesn't ask them to return with her to turn on the light. That's one more thing she knows: Few except another child (and not all of them) understands about Outside Over There--and that with even a little conversation it becomes less clear. In any case, it remains, hiding in the dark.

Some children, though, do manage to edge themselves into or tumble across the room. And look what happens:

Monday Little Fugitive (1953)
Imagine a movie directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, or John Cassavetes that had no conscious desire to help build a New Wave in cinema. This is the effect of Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin's movie about a small boy who mistakenly believes he's killed his brother and hightails it to Coney Island, where he spends two days while his older brother searches for him. An extroverted The Cat in the Hat, in which anyone outside the house has to return to normal before Mom gets home, The Little Fugitive loves its gee-whiz early-'50s freckle-faced boy almost as much as it does Coney Island--some would say the real star of this fairy-tale-verite wander through the joys--and the near-joys (a kid can do only so much with the money he gets from soda-bottle refunds--which in 1953 is admittedly quite a lot) of hot dogs and pasteboard buckaroos, Tilt-a-Whirls and try-yer-lucks. Like any old-style tale, the shocking catalyst for the child's journey--(imagined) fratricide--is soon forgotten as he makes his way through an idealized--but so-simply filmed--reality in which every day (well, at least two of them) is a holiday. And the adult gatekeepers of pleasure--ride attendants, barkers, soda jerks--while always looming, also recede in the distance, merely there to crank the handle and keep the Carousel spinning. A completely recognizable Wonderland for pennies an hour.

Tuesday Spirited Away (2001)
As usual, Hayao Miyazaki shows us how well he understands children. As Chihiro/Sen and her parents walk down the dark tunnel, the little girl holding her complaining mother's forearm, her father striding with a Dad's glee at giving his daughter a little adventure, we know we are only at the very beginning of a mystery, but we also know that none of the wonders to come--and there will be many--can match the feeling of anticipation as the family makes its way across the field and into a story. Chihiro/Sen settles into her Wonderland, and Miyazaki-as-Lewis Carroll allows her the opportunity to build a life, even a family, out of this invented mythology, this dreamscape that refuses not to be as solid and even visceral as the food she eats and the dragon-lover she accepts, in all innocence but with proper devotion. Poignant and honest, this is a movie that believes in its world without irony--and it has to, or the little girl will never leave it.

Wednesday Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Like the book series on which it is based, there is much irony in this film; however, while conspiratorial winking at the audience would demolish Spirited Away, the fun of Lemony Snicket is that one must put on a wry face to navigate its rocky coast. The mordant/morbid narrator sets the tone, and the film's atmosphere--Edward Gorey-meets-Dr. Seuss--tosses us like careless dandelion seeds into a creaking wind of monsters and murderers. At the center of this is Jim Carrey, the world's scariest ham, who roars around as if we are all partially deaf, bullying us--yes, just as though we were helpless children--with manic scorn. Imagine Cruella DeVille on speed and roller skates, and you can guess at the mayhem inflicted on the children--Klaus (Liam Aiken), Violet (Emily Browning) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman)--apt pupils all, who eventually return fire. This is the kind of wish children's stories so often fulfill: to suffer the cruelties of the adult world only to learn and prevail.

Thursday Tideland (2005)
Terry Gilliam's movie has much in common with A Series of Unfortunate Events--except Tideland plays for keeps, and the child in danger, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), needs to go it alone. Even her White Knight, Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), is more threat than promise, despite his own (perhaps) ignorance that he is a monster. Not for the faint of heart, Tideland is nonetheless a film that, as Gilliam points out so dryly in his DVD on-camera introduction, asserts a truth--or at least a hope--about children: When you drop them, "they tend to bounce." It may seem heartless to illustrate such a thesis with a real child (actor), but I think Gilliam never loses what he calls "innocence"--maybe in some bipartite Blakean sense--in the attempt to watch the child fall and bounce back, surviving amid fire and wreckage.

Friday Oliver Twist (2005)
Another directorial Imp of the Perverse, Roman Polanski, chooses well when he finally gets around to making a movie for children. He gives himself the restrictions of a well-worn plot, and approaches it simply and unaffectedly. While Tideland hurls its child down a well to see it bounce, Polanski edges Oliver carefully, even gently, no matter the misery that fall entails. Oliver's Outside is London, and his monsters the stuff of Henry Mayhew's* world, as real as Big Ben, as fantastic as demons and changelings. We are asked to pity Oliver, but he eventually becomes our support, braver for having fallen into the dark room, and kinder for having suffered so much cruelty.

Saturday Labyrinth (1986)
And children find cruelty waiting in strange places. Jim Henson's universe--whether we visit Sesame Street or Dagobah--is, to say the least, rough around the edges, full of sudden, barking orders and dismissive sneers, self-absorbed egos and lurking danger. He gives these impulses almost full control over Labyrinth, despite the calming effect of David Bowie's silly hairdo. More than any other film for this week, this one hones closest to Sendak, as the girl--an adolescent Jennifer Connelly--goes on a journey-quest to retrieve her younger brother from the Goblin King. Like Outside Over There, the Freudian subtext is not all that sub-, and the unconcern of the denizens of the maze--into which she must descend to retrieve not only her brother but the remnants of her own childhood--as often menace as rescue. She may not fully recapture her share of childhood--and is soundly punished for trying--but the attempt itself redeems her, and in the process reconciles her to the cruelties she will soon be party to, simply by dint of her own entrance into adulthood.

Sunday Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
As we reach the end of this week's Club, climbing, as it were, the rabbit-hole's ladder, we move from Jim Henson's to Guillermo del Toro's labyrinth--and his is a strange circle to enter, part Tideland doll's-eye scorn, part Evil Muppet ambush, part deeply unfortunate events. A true fabulist--by way of horror comics and pulp thrillers--del Toro understands that the scary maze in the woods is a haven compared to the literal fascism of the adult world Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) tries to step ever-so-lightly through, the worse walk in the dark, where the house squeaks and gibbers its gossip, and the grownups carve away at each other in the name of something no one--not just the child--completely understands. The revolutionaries who triumph are, as history informs us, the most fairy-tale element of the film. The groping terrors of the Labyrinth, on the other hand, wait in dream's final promise to give the little girl a final rest and resurrection. Del Toro plays hard, but he knows that, if children do indeed bounce, it is only because they can, not because anyone helps them.

*He co-founded Punch magazine with Mark Lemon, but he also wrote London Labour and the London Poor, a phenomenal work of social research--and social criticism--that considered practically every facet of the daily lives of the lower and under classes. The details of Oliver's existence--especially his sojourn with Fagin and Co.--can be seen in Mayhew's work. I'm sure Dickens had his own experiences as an impoverished adolescent to draw from, but what fun--if I can call it that--to read in Mayhew descriptions of the same pickpocket training exercises that form Oliver's larcenous education, and to see the organization that framed the disorganized crime of the dimmer lanes of Jolly Olde.

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