“It’s one thing to learn to watch movies ‘professionally,’ but it is another to live with those movies that watched us grow up and saw us — prematurely hostage to our coming biographies — already entangled in the snare of our history.” — Serge Daney (1992)
Literary depictions of the experience of childhood tend to fall into one of two categories in terms of genre: the bildungsroman, a form associated with a young hero’s formation into maturity, and the picaresque, a more episodic and circular form of adventure story which in some ways rejects the linear growth narrative that the bildungsroman perpetuates. On occasion, these somewhat antithetical models of childhood narrative have been combined in the space of a single work, as in the shotgun marriage that is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Cinema, with its uniquely subjective and indexical qualities, has always struck me as a particularly fine medium to express the more mythic and traumatic aspects of childhood experience.
In particular, there remains to be seen a strain of cinema which one might call films observed through the eyes of children — a cinema of infancy or early youth, if you will — which deal with children as both protagonists and as subjective, formal narrators of a certain kind. In these works, the recorded reality of the film itself appears to be altered or under the influence of a child’s gaze in fascinating or enriching ways. This notion of using cinema to tap into visions of infancy is something we typically associate with the avant-garde cinema of Stan Brakhage, but I would like to contextualize this discussion in the more novelistic terms of legitimate childhood narratives.
In Charles Laughton’s masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955), the arrangement and presentation of objects within the film frame appear to be rendered through a child’s eye. The film, an expressionistic piece of gothic Americana, deals with a corrupt reverend and misogynistic Bluebeard figure (Robert Mitchum, in a career-defining role) who marries a widow (Shelley Winters) in order to murder her and secure her fortune. The widow’s young children become aware of Mitchum’s wicked nature and flee — leading to a hushed and sinister riverboat odyssey of sorts.
Laughton imbues these nocturnal riverboat passages with a childlike sense of wonder and curiosity at the mysterious beauty of the natural world; there’s a kind of creepy serenity in Laughton’s shots of frogs croaking and rabbits observing the children that makes for strange bedfellows with the charged intensity of danger lurking around the corners of the narrative. Additionally, the various barns and cabins that sparsely dot the landscape beside the river during this passage are made to look enormous and ominous, looming over the children like unknowable fortresses in the night. Laughton manipulates the film image as a means of conjuring an idiosyncratic vision — in the face of evil, he chooses to show us how children might perceive their own mysterious surroundings. The disparity between the corruption and violence of the adult world and the hushed sense of awe in the children’s world (the world that the film chooses to live inside) remains quite startling.
Another great American film of 1955, Fritz Lang’s eighteenth-century costume adventure Moonfleet, makes the most of its ‘Scope framing and some highly creative uses of color in order to present its young orphan hero John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) with a burgeoning awareness of death and of the entangled emotional complexities of the adult world. Lang’s mise-en-scene here is, for once, studiously artificial and imaginative: he illustrates the coast of Dorset, where John is sent to live with a morally ambiguous guardian (Stewart Granger) at the beginning of the film, with gloomy indigo skies and pungent, fog-bound churchyards. The film is an adaptation of a late Victorian novel of the same name by J. Meade Falkner, and it evokes the rich atmospheric detail of that literary period with more potency than any other film I can think of. Lang deploys the widescreen frame as a way of implicitly staging a series of confrontations within the image itself between young John and an unsettling collection of memento mori — harbingers of death embodied in physical objects (i.e., the head of a broken statue, an emblem of a snake eating its own tail, a family crest illuminated in crepuscular light). Once again, we see a kind of absorption of the childhood experience at the level of film form, but rather than being grounded in a sense of awe or wonder at the world itself, as in Laughton’s work, it is through this implicit comparison that’s being drawn between the child and the death-images he’s coming into contact with.
Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985) represents a later entry in this cycle of films which deal with children coming to terms with some of the more disturbing or traumatic aspects of the world we live in. Unlike the two earlier examples, Argento’s work veers into elements of outright fantasy: the young heroine (Jennifer Connelly) possesses psychic powers which allow her to communicate with and be aided by the world of insect life, which she uses to pursue a serial killer in the Swiss countryside. Connelly’s character befriends a forensic entomologist (Donald Pleasence) and his chimpanzee companion; as in The Night of the Hunter, children are shown to be more attuned to the animal world than the more “civilized” adults in the narrative are. Argento plunges Connelly into a series of disturbing landscapes which bear the scars of psychic terror — the mere suggestion of psychological penetration that one observes in the earlier works becomes blown wide open here.
If all of these filmmakers seem especially well-suited to deal authentically with the childhood experience, and with the ways in which our infancy becomes broached or punctured by an awareness of more harmful forces in the universe, this may be because they all seem to synthesize certain archetypes from children’s literature (above all, from nineteenth-century children’s novels) with the more subjective modulations to our vision that film composition allows for. Affinities to the natural world, in particular, remain a defining characteristic of the childhood experience which has been carried over from a literary antecedent. For me, these three films, all of them great works of cinematic expression, define what Daney meant when he spoke of films that “watched us grow up and saw us… already entangled in the snare of our history.” In other words, these are works which bear witness to both the pain of growth and to the impermanent experiences of early youth.
The Night of the Hunter was screened at the IU Moving Image Archive Screening Room as part of IU Cinema’s City Lights Film Series in 2018.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.