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That Slightly Nighttime Feel: A Story of Children and Film

A Story of Children and Film (Mark Cousins, 2013)


By now film critic and documentary filmmaker Mark Cousins has become a pretty well known name. His 15-episode odyssey in search of the history of film has been eagerly watched (and oft discussed) by cinephiles, academics, professionals, as well as by anyone remotely interested in film. (I have spotted the DVD in many a household.) Initially, my own response to The Story of Film was a mixed one: it both irked and frustrated as well as attracted and captivated me. After some time of getting used to the film’s approach, style and tone, and accepting its occasional heavy metaphor, its omissions, its puzzling or imprecise statements and prolonged ponderings, I have decided that this response was not exclusively the result of flaws in the work itself, but largely stemmed from my own slow adjustment of looking at and especially listening toa history I think I know quite well in an idiosyncratic way. I have emphasized ‘listening’ because the accompanying voice-over (Cousins’ own voice) is quite central to the overall experience and appreciation of the film. Cousins has a particularly soft and I think also quite charming voice (“a lilting Irish,” according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, I have read “melodious” next to less positive descriptions) which accompanies the images. The voice-over is no stranger to the documentary film, in fact it is one form of filmmaking where traditionally the voice-over has not been experienced as disruptive or deficient, but it should be clear that Cousins’ narration is almost as prominent as the images. Cousins’ thoughts on particular moments in film history that have perplexed and enchanted him and which include haphazard as well as canonical examples, bind the film’s potentially paralyzing vastness of reach and emphasizes the fact that this documentary is after all a personal journey. The voice-over points out off-screen hugs, hidden or ambivalent emotions, it lets us share in Douglas Fairbanks’ anticipation of viewing an Oriental beauty and makes us notice (anew) Ozu’s moments of spacious emptiness and appreciate the radical choices and rebellious innovations of daring filmmakers. Cousins’ enthusiasm is contagious; his sincere love of cinema poignant. And so, after an episode or three I realized that The Story of Film is personal in more than one way, obviously as Cousins’ own, personal vision on film history but also as the viewer’s impression of becoming personally acquainted with, if not the man, then at least the cinephile. This is hardly surprising when you spend more than fifteen hours with Cousins whispering in your ear and tugging at your elbow to make sure you see it too. And once I accepted this presence on the sofa next to me, I started to enjoy the company.

Haphazard Visual Map

For his next film, A Story of Children and Film, he continues along the same path. In fact, the film has by many a critic been dubbed a companion piece or annex to the previous one.  The idiosyncratic tone of voice with which he looks at the images – in this case clips from films concerned with children or childhood from all times and places – comes across as even slower, softer and more contemplative. In an interview for The Story of Film Cousins has stated: “I wanted to create the sense that I was sitting beside you in the audience looking at the screen with you, talking in your ear. I know it’s a bit whispery and some people hate that, but – if you’re interested in the poetics of something – you almost need to get a slightly nighttime feel.” Fittingly, as the story of children in film unfolds, Cousins’ narration recalls the drowsy pleasure of being read to as a child. I found this sensation pleasant and appropriate, but if you, like critic Brain Doan, experience Cousins’ voice as “a grating drone,” then the experience will likely prove to be unbearable.

This nighttime sound evoking the pleasures of stories told and shared just before bedtime is implicitly strengthened by the presence of Laura and Ben, the director’s niece and nephew, who for most of the film’s running time are shown in their jammies (it is the morning after a sleepover at their uncle’s). Laura and Ben’s fickle behavior (which as Cousins points out is ‘exemplary’ of children placed in front of a camera) becomes the major structure for the unfolding story. Finding themselves suddenly confronted with a tiny hand-camera they unwittingly perform many of the recurring characteristics Cousins finds at the center of films about children in global cinema. Like children in film, Laura and Ben display a mix of wariness, crossness, naughtiness, an eagerness to perform, a knack for storytelling and comfortableness with loose (or a-typical) framing. The director matches these observations with beautiful yet often largely unknown (at least to me) examples from world film history such as The Unseen (Janek 1996), The Yellow Balloon (Thompson 1953) and Tomka and his Friends (Keko 1977). Those characteristics which Laura and Ben did not display at that particular morning but which do pop up time and again in films featuring children – a sense for adventure, parenting others, perseverance, the experience of loneliness and loss – are added by Cousins and complete his picture of children in film.

Kauwboy (Boudewijn Koole, 2012)

Taking the morning antics of his nieces and nephew as a starting point for organizing his film, Cousins allows it to unfold in a spontaneous and quirky fashion (all of Laura and Ben’s behavior was utterly ‘unplanned’ as the director reminds us).  Thus, his story sidesteps traditional structuring principles of storytelling, most obviously chronology, geographic continuity and causality. This strategy is in line with how Cousins imagines an essay film should come about: it should reverse the traditional order of film production by allowing images to be created (imagined, shot, found) in advance of the script. Rather than creating or originating, the essay film is concerned with ‘gathering.’ (Cousins gives a complete list of the elements and principles of essay films here.) The story further freely sees echoes, parallels, detail and implications, which most of “us” (adult, conventional, serious) viewers would be likely to miss (or dismiss). As Cousins sees it, it takes but a blink to go from Yasujiro Ozu to Ken Loach, from Margaret O’Brien to a little Senegalese girl who sold the sun, from cats to dogs, from children caring for birds to children dressing up as birds. I have not felt the story to be complete, all encompassing, or synthesizing, but no promises of the kind are made.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

What remains remarkable to me in this gathering of children in film is that Cousins has no particular interest in exploring common themes and concerns (call them clichés) that inevitably seem to arise when depictions of children are concerned: there is no mentioning of ‘innocence’ or ‘childhood innocence,’ no particular interest in showing just victimized, weak or battered children (quite the contrary, as Cousins finds their tendency to “parent” other children or pets quite striking), relatively few child stars, and no mentioning of children in war films where the loss of childhood is the ultimate collateral damage. So no Ivan, Edmund, or Florya this time, perhaps because these films are not about childhood but about its dissolution?

A Dead Duckling or Two

The Little Girl who Sold the Sun (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1999)

There is an interesting moment in the film when we are reminded that our response towards children’s performances is culturally, socially and historically situated. Comparing performances that captivated audiences at different times of film history (in different parts of the world) illustrates our changing conception of childhood and what it looks like: to modern audiences Shirley Temple feels inauthentic, fake and syrupy (a ‘fantasy child,’ as Cousins describes her) and she clashes with the (albeit staged) shrillness and maladroitness of Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli 1944), doing some singing and dancing, which we would rate if not realistic than at least more real. Cousins points out the fact the O’Brien seems to have been allowed to have fun, to sing out of tune, to make mistakes. Even less of a fantasy child is Lissa Balera, whose impromptu street dance in The Little Girl who Sold the Sun tops both previous performances in its staggering spontaneity and seeming authenticity. We perceive the degree of sincerity of these moments differently, yet all of these films display a child performing within the boundaries of its own fiction. All of them feature a child asked to perform on cue: to play being at play, to perform a performance, all the while displaying the essence of ‘just being a child’ in various circumstances. The context of the song and dance routines make us a little more aware of this fact but of course the children are performing throughout the whole film and not just during “Down in the Jungle.” And of course, the mistakes Margaret could make were practiced and planned as Minnelli had to make little Margaret O’Brien unlearn her decidedly un-childlike professionalism.

Enjoying these children’s presence on screen, we realize that none of the performances can ever be what we would like them to be – a privileged registration of a child just being a child, allowing us the taste of childhood once more. Some films (or filmmakers) are apparently simply better at masking the professional context in which the performance of childhood was achieved or have been careful to hide this fact from the child actors by placing the camera at an unobtrusive distance, using natural light, and showing patience.

In Mirror (1997), Iranian director Jafar Panahi stages the moment when a child actor suddenly boycotts the production by breaking character and refusing further co-operation.  Mina Mohammad Khani plays Mina, a child on her way home (and apparently quite lost) when all of a sudden she is fed up with acting. She gets angry (as Cousins predicted children would), throws off her scarf and crossly walks away from the set. Panahi’s camera then secretly follows her on her way home, finishing the script after all. The moment cleverly unmasks the authenticity of a performance by a child and persuades the audience to accept what remains of the film (the twenty minutes after Khani’s outburst) as a look at a real child, in a real situation. We want to be fooled; Panahi knows this. Surely, the child’s rebellion was staged, as is the mix of fiction and reality but it touches upon our ambiguous ideas on children performing in film. We want it to be real, but not really.

Karen Lury has discussed the inherent ‘impropriety’ of children performing in her book The Child in Film (2010) and has pointed out the contradictory and often competing understandings and evaluations of a child’s performance. Do we admire the ‘acting’ (the display of emotions and behavior appropriate to the fictional narrative context) or rather the ‘non-acting’ (the display of natural behavior, of just being in the world with apparently no consciousness of being in front of a camera, the absence of theatricality)? We obviously dislike theatrical behavior (take a bow, Shirley) but in fact, we often do not feel comfortable with a child giving a complex (or grown-up) performance either. (We find it ‘creepy.’ Remember Haley Joel Osmond, Tina Apicella or Linda Blair?) Thus we prefer children who can switch off the overt and advanced signs of acting (which implies a definite feeling, understanding of, and believing in the emotions represented) in favor of a perceived naturalness, introverted reactions, small or ‘simple’ acting. Or do we? Perhaps we admire a director capable of getting a heart-felt performance from the child-actor, even if at the same time we think it rather cruel to confront children with gruesome or horrific fictional circumstances (death, separations, bullying). Seeing a child cry on screen always reminds me of the dead ducklings that made Nathalie Wood cry on cue and so a child’s tears are always suspicious. Surely, as Béla Balàsz noted, playacting comes natural to children but in their fantasy world they call the shots and they usually reserve their tears to fool the grown-ups.

It is hard to arrive at a conclusive stance: should we be more comfortable with a child just being a child caught unawares, snapped by a camera that appropriates its ‘real’ behavior – actual moments of childhood – into the film’s fiction, or with a child performing ‘childhood’ consciously and perhaps a little more wooden or directed than we would prefer? The latter is upfront about what it is, the former seems to invade a private world without permission but will be more moving to us regardless.

Watching all these children enacting heartbreaking emotional experiences (a boy seeing a friend fall to his death, a girl losing hard nagged-for money, caring for inept parents), I was reminded of another type of child performance, where the performance of being a child is acted out by adults and is labeled impersonation. We tend to find the performance of childhood by a grown-up ‘yuck’ because of our awareness of the possibility of a sexualizing gaze (‘pedophilic,’ it has been said) on the part of the spectator, who can look at (especially female) child figures the same way he or she would look at adult performers. The performers that have built careers on such improvisations are (non-exhaustively) Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Marguerite Clarke, Olive Thomas, and more recently Allison Lohman in Matchstick Men. Yet, the cultural practice of grown-ups performing children had its advantages too: we know there was no child being tricked or urged or pushed into displaying big emotions, we know the professional performer was paid (and not a caretaker or parent likely to run off with the money at some point), we know the performer understood the fictional circumstances to be fictional, we know for sure there was acting going on (and no animals were hurt).


The Unseen (Miroslaw Janek, 1996)

The experience of a film comes as a story in its own right, and so where, when and with whom we watch a film can determine how we think of the film afterwards, what we note or overlook. I happened to watch A Story of Children in Film in tandem with Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen) where the presence of a ginger cat reminded me of the dozens and dozens of pets and animals that have graced the silver screen since the medium’s beginnings, and not just the ones in incredible journeys. Like children, animals in film and pets in particular, allow us to frame the world from a ‘different’ perspective (Béla Balàzs placed ‘children and savages’ under the same heading, Bazin noted our tendency to ‘anthropomorphize’ children’s behavior to emphasize the otherness and unreachability of the experience). After watching both films I entertained a little fantasy and wondered if Mr. Cousins, would consider A Story of Animals in Film for his next project? The cat from Inside Llewyn Davis would of course have to make the cut, but there’s a great one in Sick Kitten (G.A. Smith 1903), so cute to warrant a cut-in and close-up, there are lots of cats on the open sets of early silent cinema, minding their own business, but there is a particularly great one in Slipping Wives (Guiol 1927) stuck in a stocking. In Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Ozu 1947) we see a cat enjoying some milk, taking its time, a big cat named Baby scaring the living daylights out of Cary Grant, and a frail mewing thing in Rivette’s Mad Love(1968). And I haven’t even begun to think of all the dogs, horses, birds, fish, and bears and other animals in film. But of course, that’s a completely different story.