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The Reeler Blog

The Kids are Alright (Aren't They?)

Pascal Lamorisse and Alain Emery in Albert Lamorisse's White Mane, screening this week at Film Forum (Photo: Janus Films)

By Miriam Bale

"So, um, what kind of movies do you like?" I once asked a 6-year-old boy over popcorn at a party celebrating the last day of a videomaking class I had taught to kids.

"Comedies," he said. "No. Actually, kids' movies. But movies by kids, not for kids."

I appreciate the distinction -- and share the bias. Who could blame him when most entertainment for kids is feeble-mindedly condescending, underestimating a child's propensity for abstraction and strong emotions? Especially notable in current narratives made for and about children is a whitewashing of a common obsession among kids about death, a theme that came up frequently in the movies by my classes. "I killed him! I'm the most horrible," says 6-year-old Tootie in Vincent Minnelli's 1944 masterpiece Meet Me in St. Louis during the memorably dark Halloween scene after Tootie had been dared to throw flour in the face of a neighbor from the "strange" Jewish family down the road. "I hate you," she says as she completes the task. This scene and a later one, in which Tootie decapitates her snowmen rather than let anyone else have them, gets closer to a truth of childhood than anything made since. (The sumptuous-looking and perhaps still underrated film screens Nov. 24 as part of the Glorious Technicolor! series at the Museum of the Moving Image.)

For a filmmaker, allowing a narrative to follow the strange logic within a dreamscape that is a child's mind may be an even more difficult task than representing childhood itself. Only three films that I know of get it right, and two of them -- Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon (1956) and his lesser-known White Mane (1953) -- are playing this week at Film Forum. (The third is Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, from 1988.) In The Red Balloon, the pearly-pink bluish-grey of Paris dominates the screen completely except for the eponymous red floating just above the surface. White Mane, too, needs to be seen on film to be appreciated. The images utilize white as essentially as film noir uses shadow: a white horse running on sand; swirling sea foam; and white smoke in a bright gray sky set a tone as haunting and doomed as a Grimms fairy tale. In what seems a move to make the film more palatable to a children, Janus Films has commissioned a new English narration based on the original French; it sometimes works well (eliminating some of the verbosity of the 1953 version written by James Agee yet sacrificing his poetry) but occasionally sounds incongruously contemporary, invoking either the narrator of PBS' Nature or sounding like a second-rate Alec Baldwin narrating Thomas the Tank Engine.

And finally, filmgoers have an opportunity to see an epic example of the superior "movies by kids" genre on Nov. 15-16, when Anthology Film Archives hosts an encore engagement of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, the shot-by-shot remake of Steven Spielberg's 1981 blockbuster created by kids on their summer vacations from 1982 to 1989. Using only their allowances and birthday requests, the filmmakers (who were 11 when they began and had just entering college when they wrapped) recreated the entire $26 million film, ingeniously mimicking every prop and set from Egyptian tombs to a college campus to a submarine. They were so faithful and ambitious that after they recreated the opening scene's famous rolling boulder out of bamboo sticks and duct tape, they realized that it was too large to get out of the bedroom. So they tried again -- four more times -- until they got it right.

The movie transcends nostalgia and kitsch; it cuts the fat and bombast out of the original and leaves just the glee of the old-fashioned adventure. It's also quite surreal and expressively experimental in unexpected, if unintended, ways. A carefully choreographed scene of Nazis (in Boy Scout uniforms) in the desert cuts to a perfectly framed 40's-style close up of the villain, also the director, who has aged at least two years and grown actual stubble in this meaningful closer view, obviously shot way out of sequence. It's a truly moving experience to see this feature film with an audience and also with the filmmakers, who you've just seen grow up on camera, present; they'll be at both screenings at Anthology this weekend to tell you how they did it.

(Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene.)

Posted at November 13, 2007 11:33 AM

Comments (1)

Another movie that gets the child mind's dreamscape righ: Lucile Hadzhihalilovic's underseen Innocence. The only movie about puberty that matters.

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