Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
They say that movies are like dreams, but for kids they can be nightmares. I’m thinking of those upsetting movies that are aimed at children by people who think they’re no more than modern fairy tales meant to teach kids about the real world so they can grow up better prepared to encounter it. At least that’s the theory. This simplistic approach – let’s call it “vaccinating children against trauma” -- is as misguided as abandoning them in the nursery so they can cry themselves to sleep.
Bruno Bettelheim offered a strange warning about this, but it goes around corner before it makes sense. In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim argues that fairy tales can help children learn to cope with real-life traumas such as abandonment, sibling rivalry, and unhappiness. But then, crucially, he takes issue with the way modern purveyors of children’s fantasy think they’re protecting children by neutering the villains so that they are no longer threatening. Furthermore, they fluff up the story so that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, nobody ever really ends up losing, and the message (if any) is watered down. Perhaps I’m getting carried away with my interpretation of his theory, but what this says to me is that so-called children’s literature, movies, and video give today’s children an unrealistic and unworkable view of the world and the people who are going to ruin it for them.
I could cite the endless super-hero and supernatural movies a TV shows that my two grade-school-aged nephews are constantly watching on their iPads. Super-heroes are all right but they need to know that, in real life, Iron Man is ot going to swoop down to the rescue. The fairy tales I treasure are those in which normal people use their gumption and heart, not special powers, to beat the bad guys
The best equivalent I can muster at the moment to illustrate this dichotomy is the Walt Disney canon from just after Walt died in 1966 to when the studio enjoyed its renaissance in the early 1980s. Where once Disney animated features were known for villains such as the Wicked Queen (Snow White), Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Stromboli (Pinocchio), Cruella de Vil (101 Dalmatians), and Cinderella’s stepmother, his live-action films were littered by a litany of incompetent villains that couldn’t melt a Snickers bar let alone scare the nuts out of one. Perhaps Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law who succeeded him at the helm, felt that evil humans were too threatening to young viewers, or that comic villains were sufficient to motivate comic films. What resulted, however, was a generation of bloodless live-action and disinterested animated movies that nearly shuttered the Magic Kingdom until Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Roy Disney took over..
Walt, like other master storytellers, knew that it’s the villain that makes the story, not the hero (something, by the way, that Warner Bros. and DC Comics seem to forget whenever they make a Superman movie). The simple fact is that children’s movies cannot be traditional fairy tales; if they were, they would be rated R and no kid would be allowed into the cinema to see one. The bad guys in most kids’ films are not really evil, only annoying. What lesson is learned by having a villain that isn’t threatening? Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm knew this when they collected their folk tales, among them Snow White. The authentic Grimm version ends with the wicked witch made to attend the wedding of Snow White and the Prince after which red-hot iron shoes are brought from the fire and she is forced to dance around in them until she drops down dead. Disney came close when he had the Seven Dwarfs chase her off a cliff in his 1937 adaptation, but note that she died accidentally when the rock was struck by lightning, not by the hand of those she had tormented. It was divine intervention that punished her, not human justice. Nevertheless, the film in toto was so horrifying that, according to Disney biographer Richard Schickel, when the film played at Radio City Music Hall the theatre had to replace a dozen seats a week because frightened kids would pee on them. Can you imagine the yellow flood if Uncle Walt had used the Grimms’ original ending?
Parents give Disney movies an automatic pass, but children don’t forget. I remember seeing Bambi with my Aunt Helen at RKO Keith’s theatre in Washington, DC during one of that great film’s reissues. I was probably seven or eight and, sitting two rows behind us, a little girl kept asking her parent throughout the entire second half of the film, “Mommy, what happened to Bambi’s mother?” I wanted to turn around and say, ”She’s venison by now, you snot-nosed brat,” but Aunt Helen—always the pillar of decorum – prevented me.
(Aside: one of my fondest memories as a movie critic was giving Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston a hard time about killing Bambi’s mother when I interviewed them years after the brat incident. (I describe the encounter in my forthcoming second memoir Screen Saver Too: Hollywood Strikes Back). They countered by explaining that, in Felix Salten’s book, we never find out what happens to the mother; at least they and Walt put a pin in her fate.)
I was more of a Gahan Wilson-Charles Addams kid. I was never scared by Disney animated features, even the brilliantly intense Pinocchio. I knew they were drawings. Bambi was an exquisite evocation of nature but it was still a cartoon. No, when I was scared by movies, I was scared by real people in real situations. In the fall of 1953, when I was four, my mother took me to see what I believe was my a movie. It was called Mr. Scoutmaster and starred Clifton Webb. I was shattered. I don’t remember much about it except that I never wanted to see it again. The effete Mr. Webb played a scoutmaster who hated kids (I could relate), and, on a hike through the woods, one of his young charges strays from the pack and gets lost. I so identified with the stray that I had abandonment nightmares throughout my entire youth. As if that didn’t make me lash myself to my parents’ sides, sometime after that my mother parked me at a kiddie matinee that was showing a reissue of the 1936 Shirley Temple film, Poor Little Rich Girl. This means that I was alone in a theatre full of crying kid because, in a contrivance to make Temple into an orphan, the writers had her watch helplessly from the curb as her parents are run over by a car. At least I think that’s what happened. I never went back to see that one again, either, and I’ll be damned if I’ll lose a night’s sleep checking it out on IMDb..
And let’s not even stat to talk about Old Yeller.
Was I too young for all the movies, or just the ones that grownups thought were “safe” for me to see? In 1955, I was dragged along with half a dozen of my neighborhood friends to see The Wizard of Oz on a reissue before it was sold to TV in 1956. My mother and I joined some of our neighbors to catch a matinee at the Allen Theatre on New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park, Maryland. As you might have predicted, we were scared by the cyclone, the Wicked Witch of the West, and her flying monkeys. I was also unprepared for the moral (“there’s no place like home”) when I had been taught, even by the age of seven, that Takoma Park, Maryland was no place to stay if one wanted to do great – or even passably interesting -- tthings. The real shock came, however, as we poured out into the lobby after the movie. The Allen Theatre had a huge mural of the masks of comedy and tragedy right above the doors to the auditorium and, as I glanced back, the mask of tragedy caught my eye. Twelve feet high, its eyes in slits and its toothless mouth drawn wide and ugly, it was a real-life visage that appeared to watch me, and me alone, as I headed for the street. Every time I returned to the Allen for the next twelve years before I left home (to do great things, remember?) I saw that goddamn mask and rushed inside as soon as I bought my ticket, seldom dawdling long enough to buy popcorn (which was a quarter in those days).
Is it constructive to scare kids even if you offer resolution and reassurance by the final fade out? I’m no behavioral psychologist, but I think it depends on the level of fright and the developmental stage of the child. Just witness any lost toddler screaming for his or her mommy in the supermarket (remember when it happened to you?).Do movies offer a safe harbor even if their edges are filed off? Is there a difference between seeing a threatening movie in the womb-like environment of a theatre versus the familiar surroundings of home? Is it different if the image and sound envelop you in a theatre versus being able to fast-forward through the scary parts or pause the streaming to run to the can?
I would like to point out that even though I identified with the lost boy in Mr. Scoutmaster, it didn’t stop me from joining the Cub Scouts or the Boy Scouts and going on hikes and camping trips with them. This is probably because I had a scoutmaster (Roland A. Linger) who liked kids and taught us how to survive in the wilderness. (Why couldn’t he have taught me how to survive in Hollywood?) .
That said, I still avoid tense movies. Not horror movies, they’re jokes. No, I mean movies where skillful filmmakers create tension by placing characters in jeopardy. The takeover of movies by CGI has lessened this somewhat – I know it’s fake, and so do audiences, which is why everybody is getting tired of them – but that’s a discussion for another day. Meanwhile, I still cringe at scenes where a barber shaves someone with a straight razor because I can relate to it, as opposed to a monster eating an actor or an intergalactic disaster befalling a city because the ones and zeroes of CGI don’t scare me.
That’s why I say that you can only truly be troubled by threats that are real and that you can relate to. Which is why I don’t watch TV news either.
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.