The Movie Club

Situation Tragedies

Dear all,

A number of interesting points to respond to! I am squeezed between a deadline and a screening and will have to file longer this afternoon. But quickly: Jim, thanks for understanding the point I was clumsily beginning to make about children in film this year. Manipulation isn’t quite what I was getting at—or rather, I hope I wouldn’t be so obvious as to argue that manipulation involving children is in any way new. God knows it’s not. But as Jim points out, what a dying child meant in the 1850s was different from the 1950s is different from now. What does seem relatively recent in film and, for me, uncomfortably significant in its accumulation this year, is the number of arthouse films (forgive the catchall term) that have used lost children as a kind of shortcut to learning and caring about an adult character—a frame for understanding that explains all, a quick and impossible to resist entry point for our sympathy. Jim puts it well: This is a story that shoves other stories out of the way, because nothing else could be this important, and nothing else could be so clear. We don’t even have to lay eyes on the child for this to work (The Station Agent). We don’t have to think much about how the parents were as parents, when their grief (in Mystic River or In America) feels so real. The lost child is not the awful culmination of the story but its almost casually enabling situation. Yesterday I suggested that some of these films borrowed from the conventions of melodrama on TV (i.e., the soap opera, as opposed to older melodrama from Dickens to Mildred Pierce). I was thinking of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of 21 Grams, who put in time at the world headquarters of soap opera—the Televisa network in Mexico. But though TV plays a key part here, on reflection I realized that comparison was not quite right.

As the better big-budget films this year often felt influenced by video-games aesthetics—I’m thinking of the engrossing, atmospheric, impersonal sequence of almost lived experience in Master and Commander, for example—a number of intimate arthouse films, despite some truly masterful acting, felt smaller and ever more like TV. Together, they seemed to constitute a new genre, with recognizable conventions and relatively predictable triggers for the audience. My concern here isn’t how we think about or treat children. That problem will never go away. My concern, if I’m right that some of our leading filmmakers have started to turn out Situation Tragedies, is with diminished imagination in film.