So cinema is dying again. The streaming incomes of Amazon and Netflix will overtake theatrical box office in the next few years, we’re told. As they were in the 1950s and 1980s, movies are on their last legs. But just as TV and VHS gave a new life to movies, and brought them to new audiences, maybe with streaming will follow suit. This week, my own documentary “A Story of Children and Film” will premiere on the streaming service FilmStruck, along with my selection of some amazing movies about kids from around the world that very few Americans have previously had the chance to see. So once again, what seems like the latest death knell for cinema is perhaps just another stage in its path to adulthood.
If cinema survives, it will perhaps be for an unexpected reason. We’re so used to fearing the end of film, and so familiar with the thought that the golden age of Hollywood is long gone, that we sometimes forget how very young the movies are. Compared to opera, painting, theater, novels, poetry, architecture or music, film is but a teenager. Its hormones are raging. It’s still scared by what lies ahead, and is trying different guises.
I realized this a few years ago when I made “A Story of Children and Film.” I didn’t mean to make a documentary that looked at cinema’s youth but, one morning after breakfast of sausage and baked beans in my flat in Edinburgh, Scotland, my 14 and 11-year-old niece and nephew, Laura and Ben, started playing. When I say “playing,” I mean fighting, showing off, farting and having a laugh. I got my tiny camera out and filmed them – a single shot, without a camera move.
When I watched the footage back, I was struck by how alive Laura and Ben were, how unselfconscious. As I looked at their antics, I started to recall the great kids in films, especially the ones who didn’t seem to be acting. Think of Margaret O’Brien’s discrepant energy in “Meet Me in St Louis” or Drew Barrymore’s tears in “E.T.” I decided to intercut my niece and nephew’s horseplay, their joy and grumpiness, with cinema’s most joyful and grumpy kids. The ones who didn’t seem marionetted or puppeteered by adults.
My choices weren’t obvious, and many of them are being shown on FilmStruck to contextualize and expand the “A Story of Children and Film” screening. For example, I’ve used bits of Mohamed Ali Talebi’s gripping Iranian film “Willow and Wind,” about a lad who broke a window in his school and who goes to a glazier across the valley, gets a new pane of glass, then carries it back to the school during a gathering storm. Our hearts are in our mouths as we watch. The tension gives Hitchcock a run for his money.
I’ve also used scenes from the great Albanian director Xanfise Keko’s movie “Tomka and his Friends,” about a group of boys who challenge the Nazis when they arrive in their town and commandeer their soccer pitch. I remembered the genius Senegalese film “The Little Girl who Sold the Sun,” a punky, poetic picture about a teenager in Dakar who sells newspapers. Then I thought of Shinji Somai’s Japanese film “Moving,” about a girl whose parents are divorcing, which has scenes as great as those in Sergio Leone westerns. And my Swedish producer friend Anita Oxburgh recommended the classic movie “Hugo and Josefin,” about a lonely girl who seems to imagine a lively friend, and who becomes attached to a gardener who looks a bit like Santa Claus.
The edit went well. The film became a portrait of childhood in world cinema. But in the splicing, something else happened, too. As I re-watched these beautiful films, I realized that childhood isn’t marginal to movies. It’s a key part of their energy – even in super-grown up directors like Andrei Tarkovsky. No art form is more in the moment than movies, just like kids are in the moment. A camera is effortlessly, doggedly good at capturing what’s in front of it, just like kids are effortlessly, doggedly good at – you name it – eating pizza, getting bored, playing or demanding attention. Children and films are great at being there.
Call it caprice if you want, but recall that old saying, “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing.” Cinema is still playing. You can see it in “Tangerine,” in Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and in Lav Diaz’s films.
And I saw it recently in “Wonder Woman.” As I watched it, I felt as alive, as excited, as gendered as a 14 year-old — exactly the age my niece Laura was that morning, after sausage and beans.
“A Story of Children and Film” premieres on FilmStruck on June 23.