Wednesday, November 12

Little Children

I remember being a young kid, caught up in my first romance, when my love interest of the time would curse and I would, without disgust, but with a zealous assurance, let her know precisely where to dump those four-letter words (I'm talking about that great monster, the rubbish bin- before imaginations run too wild), all the while threatening to wash out her mouth with soap and hard water. She was two years older than me and already very "mature", introducing me to a few things that I only ever saw in the movies. Yes, the movies, a mother's scourge, that great bastion of obscenity and extreme liberalism. How many times did kids I know get accused of being spoilt by the nasty little box, menaced by its all-too-true isms? In portraying reality a bit more graphically than the naturally conservative ethos of parenting permits, the movies became a corrupting influence that was to be frowned upon.

Funny then, that children in movies and the arts in general are mostly deployed to the opposite effect. The movies I have watched most recently have used children to drape their otherwise noxious themes of violence and debauchery, bigotry and inhumanity in softer shades by emphasising this innocence that is much- treasured in children. As a theatrical facility, a child, firmer of belief and less morally dubious, can be an illuminating factor, clearing up the matters of good and evil, right and wrong without appearing didactic or corny were they to be viewed from an adult perspective. Even better for artistic eggheads, this facility does not need to be subtly utilised. The plot sub-text that expresses the child's impassioned defence of things we hold to be of moral value but are much too educationally liberated to acknowledge, does not need to be sophisticated when included in the storyline. Using children also invites us to scrutinise adult issues with tempered attitudes.

I had never heard of the 1996 title "Sleepers" by Barry Levinson until a friend lent it to me last month. It's a wonderful picture, none too subtle, but good all around. And it doesn't need to be subtle because the story revolves around children . The subject matter itself, sexual deviance, is one that will inspire disgust. The movie would probably have received harsher treatment (it was slapped with an 18 age certification) if the scenes of molestation and child violence were visited more visually. As it were, the story was told through the eyes of happy, frolicking kids having fun, albeit at the expense of others. It's a movie about boys in a young offenders' home, remanded because of a childish summer prank that turned sour and hospitalised a man. The slithering riddle in the underheath of this destroyed Eden of a movie is this: exactly how much brutality should be allowed behind the scenes in correctional (ahem) facilities? This is a question that can be applied just as aptly to adult prisons and jails and, on a larger scale, to places like Guantanamo Bay where the world turns a blind eye to savage injustices. And the idea that the world is turning a blind eye looks so much more wretched because the sufferers here are children labeled bad rather than desperate adults labeled terrorists.

"The Secret Life of Bees" is another surprise package which I just watched (I mean that in a good way since surprises are not always good as I found out a few frames into How To Lose Friends And Alienate People). The characters are pursued with skill and solidity and the story, though sappy at times, contains enough substance to convey the moving message of a lost child finally connecting with her roots, against a socially- charged background of racism in America's Deep South of the 60s. Dakota Fanning plays the child here with depth and poise, using her wise-beyond-her-years eyes to good effect in juxtaposition with a face just shedding baby fat. As a kid unsullied by the bigotry of the time, she is able to save her "coloured" nanny from certain death and to show a black family that love is complicated but still possible between races in spite of the prejudices of one to the other. Sophie Okonedo is also able to weave a bit of childish magic in her strong depiction of a child-like mentally- handicapped adult.

A lot of fantasy (movies, books etc) centres around this medium- the redemptive qualities of children, their ability to see past complications created by grown-up scheming, a salve in troubled times. This is possibly what causes many to see the story of Christ as fantasy, because he idealised children as the epitome of purity. The Chronicles of Narnia are loosely built around themes of Christ and Christianity and all the main protagonists are children. "Prince Caspian", the latest installment, is very warm, and better than the box office has accounted for. But it is the primary role of the children as saviours of a Narnia in the grip of usurpers and foreigners which is of interest to me. The secondary theme of foreign occupation is very much relevant in light of the US occupation of some parts of the Middle East. Where are Edmund and Lucy to tell the United States to back out and stop imposing their foreign rules on others? If only it were that simple.

The fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (Phillip Pullman) which goes even further by examining an attempt to subdue this innocent power exclusive to children (through a sinister sounding process of "intercision") by the powers that be, so as to aid force-fed religiosity, has a pre-pubescent girl as the heroine. A girl whose main skill is lying. But this is blotted out by her innocence, that precious rambunctious gift that is lost forever once we cross into adulthood. Even JRR Tolkien makes his main hero (in LOTR) not the hardy- hearted and chivalrous Aragorn, but Frodo who is by and large an incarnation of a little boy. His confusion in choosing between good and evil sometimes can be blamed on the interfering emotions of adulthood, his sudden entry into the real world of Blake- esque experience.

Even in real life, children are an emblem for innocence and purity. Children accompany footballers into stadiums to symbolise fair play. Parents sense a shift in their world view once they have to raise a child. They find something worth fighting for because they see in the eyes of their little ones a promise that there's a bit of all right in the world. Sometimes the sight of a child will stop a mugging, or sometimes a murder. The movie "Children of Men" goes so far as to present a world set in the future without children. A covert mission is then assembled to aid the escape of the first baby born in several years, a sign of hope, safely to a holding house. These motifs are clear in what they are trying to tell us: children have souls that need protecting because their unsoiled, egoless enthusiasm can broaden that thin line between love and hate.

Ah, but back to my particular childhood. That girl, the one I mentioned earlier, she made me watch "Barb Wire", a 16 certificate movie, way before I was ready. "Barb Wire" features Pamela Anderson in leather-clad glory. That was the day i think I uttered my first expletive.

1 comment:

Jane Doe said...

How did u get to watch The Secret Life of Bees so early? *raging with jealousy* I really want to see it now...