Dialog is fine, but movies connect with human brains, even little
ones, in complex ways, which may explain why children respond to
movies that we might not expect them to.
When I was eight, one of my favorite movies was called
The Tinder Box. I've only seen it once, but if I recall, it
starts with a soldier walking down a road that runs alongside an old
tree that has an entrance in its trunk, like the entrance to a
cave. The soldier goes inside the tree, speaks to a witch, and leaves
the tree carrying bags of gold and a lighter, the kind of thing you'd
use to light a cigarette or a lantern. It's a big, boxy lighter, and
the people in the movie call it a "tinder box".
This was an intriguing opening. I wanted to find a tree full of
gold. But it gets better.
The soldier spends the gold willy-nilly, and pretty soon he doesn't
have much left to his name except the tinder box. But this is no
ordinary tinder box. It turns out that when you flick its switch to
light its flame, a giant dog appears out of nowhere to help you
out of a jam.
In Bob & Ray's "Tippy the Wonder Dog", Tippy's neighbor dogs could
fetch coils of rope for lashing down farm implements when storms were
brewing. Sadly, Tippy couldn't do much more than fetch a pie plate.
I don't mean a big
dog. Sure, a big dog can warn off burglars,
help you keep the herd together, or maybe fetch your slippers. But a
dog can get you out of a surprising variety of
thickets. The participants of a drunken bar brawl freeze, slack-jawed,
with bottles raised over their heads, shocked into a silence at the
sight of a giant dog baring its teeth at the door, just long enough
for you to slink away to safety. A teacher who is about to give a test
to her class faints at the sight of a dog that's two-horses tall
appearing at the back of the room, licking its chops, thereby granting
an unprepared student an extra night of study. This wasn't in the
movie, but it's how I, an 8-year-old non-smoker, thought I might make
use of such a tinder box.
This movie blindsided me with its greatness. Its witches and trees and
bags of gold and, of course, its giant dogs who stood at the beck and
call of a simple flame were an amazing spectacle.
Now, I wasn't raised in a barn. One of my earliest movie memories is
seeing Star Wars a year earlier with my dad. I'd seen the light
sabers and the star destroyers, and I loved them, yes. But The
Tinder Box displayed the same fantastic imagination, told the same
kind of hallucinatory tale, and, somehow, felt equally real. They were
both live-action movies that featured realistically dusty interiors
and muted colors that exploded with sudden bursts of fantasy. One of
these movies also had among its bag of tricks an extensive collection
of action figures, t-shirts, fast food promotions, TV commercials, and
peers to reinforce my opinion. But the other was made 20 years before
I saw it, wasn't even made in America, was (I assume, though I don't
remember) dubbed into English, and was unheard of by anyone I knew
besides my little brother who saw the movie with me. Nevertheless, it
knocked me flat.
Now, I also wasn't raised in a cosmopolitan city that hosted world
cinema. I've since discovered that The Tinder Box is a German
movie, but at the time I had no idea. I saw The Tinder Box in
Missouri as part of a summer film series for children. Every summer,
someone, or some committee, would track down prints of family movies
from the four corners of the globe and show one each week to a theater
full of kids. They used the theater in the morning before it opened
for its normal matinees. Kids got to see a movie every week and
parents got a couple hours of peace.
Each week my brother and I went into the theater cold. I think our
parents were given descriptions of the movies, but I knew little more
than the title of what we were about to see. It could have been a
musical from the 50s or a recent Muppet movie, but rarely was it
something I'd heard of before.
Here's a more recent
of Inger Nilsson who played Pippi in the 1970s.
Most of the movies were sufficiently entertaining, some more, some
bored us all to tears, and we laughed at The
. For months my brother and I made fun of the way the
prince says "draw me a sheep," mimicking his high little British
voice. But we liked the one about the robotic dog and loved Pippi
in the South Seas
— I wanted to be one of the kids who got
to hang out with Pippi Longstocking in her house where anything goes,
but her melancholy moods made me glad to have parents who didn't sail
the high seas, frequently leaving me to fend for myself. And The
, in a class by itself, shot to the top of my all-time
favorite list, and I haven't seen it since.
I now know that the movie is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story,
but I haven't read it. I'd like to, but I won't, not yet, because I'm
afraid it will replace my dingy, thread-bare memory of the movie, and
it's the only one I've got. Maybe I'll read the story after I've had a
chance to watch the movie again, but I'm reluctant to do that,
too. I'm not sure I want the adult movie viewer's voice at my ear
pointing out the flaws in the special effects, the sloppy lip sync, or
whatever other deficiencies might spoil a trip down memory lane.
So I'll need to see it with a child.
Not long ago, while stuck in a standstill on an Indiana highway, I was
scanning the radio stations for a traffic update. I came across a
local talk radio show where a caller was outraged about a new
children's movie. Always ready to listen to a rant about the movie
industry, I stopped scanning there. The man's story goes like this:
when he was in line with his child waiting to see Roberto Begnini's
Pinocchio, he found out from another parent that the movie was
in Italian. "The kid won't understand a thing 'cause he can't read the
subtitles!" He was incensed by the failure of the movie's ads to
mention this and left in a huff before he even reached the box office,
dragging his disappointed kid behind him. He called the radio station
to warn other parents who might be planning to take their kids to the
This was the wrong radio station for me to land on if I wanted to calm
my traffic-tensed nerves. The man's complaint had so many problems I
wasn't sure where to start. First, a factual one: Begnini's
Pinocchio was not released subtitled in the US. It was dubbed
into English, by actors who are quite famous in America, such as Glenn
Close, Regis Philbin, James Belushi, and Begnini himself. The
information that was passing through the queue was wrong.
But even supposing that weren't the case, the man's outrage is
telling. I haven't seen this movie, neither in its original version
nor the version recut by Miramax for American audiences. But rare is
the American child who knows nothing of the story of Pinocchio, and
I'd bet that even if the dialog were in Italian, most kids would
understand a fair bit. How much English dialog do young children parse
from movies, anyway? They pick up key words here and there, words
properly highlighted by careful filmmakers, but I believe movies
connect with children on a sensory level that taps into their basic
emotions. Not only can children understand more about a movie
than what is conveyed by the dialog, but they do it all the time.
The large movie studios seem to think we have a limited understanding
of anything not verbalized. Their movies use visual and auditory cues
all the time for plot points ("he's about to pick up the gun") or
emotions ("she's worried that he's picking up the gun"), but they
almost never trust the audience to pick up ideas from such
cues. They spell them out with words almost every time, or at least
underline them heavily.
Does this make audiences lazy?
I wonder, in fact, if they do it better than adults. I wonder if we
adults have either lost a skill we used to have or have forgotten that
we have it, hence the man's outrage.
I remember seeing Abraham Lincoln shot dead on TV when I was
little. He was seated right there in a box at the Ford Theater. A man
shot him and then leaped down from the box onto the stage to make his
escape. I just turned on the TV and there it was on PBS. I assumed it
was actual footage of the shooting because the whole thing seemed so
real and so old. When I told my mom that I'd seen actual footage of
Lincoln being assassinated, she said she didn't know what I'd seen,
but movie cameras didn't exist then, so it couldn't have been actual
She was right. It was a scene from D. W. Griffith's Birth of a
Nation, which isn't a good movie for children as a whole because
of its skewed and offensive view of American history, but in
isolation, some of its scenes are riveting. Despite the fact that this
movie was 60 years old, silent, black and white, and had intertitles
that probably went by too fast for me to read, it was starkly real to
me, so vivid that every time we discussed the assassination thereafter
in school, I pictured John Wilkes Booth leaping from the president's
A Child in the City of Lights
I recently had the chance to see several movies in Paris. The
birthplace of projected moving images is still a great place to watch
them, even for English-speakers, because of the wide variety of new
and old movies from around the world that play every day. I've been in
the process of resurrecting and expanding what little French I learned
in school, so I figured this trip to Paris was a golden opportunity to
half-understand some movies. Next time I'll either be fluent or I'll
have given up and what little I know will have slipped away.
One of the movies I saw was Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia. When
I'm in the right mood, I love Tarkovsky's long, slow movies that try
to reach into the human soul. Of course I usually see these Russian
movies with English subtitles, but in France you get to see them with
I'd never seen Nostalghia, and most of it I didn't understand
very well. I picked up words and phrases here and there, but not
enough to follow a conversation or catch subtleties. I'll see it again
one day when I can understand these things better.
But: late in the movie, there's a long sequence involving a man
who must cross a drafty stone expanse in a village courtyard with a
lighted candle. Why he must do this is unclear to me, but he must,
that much I know. If his candle blows out before he reaches the other
side of the courtyard, he must return to the beginning, relight the
candle, and start again. I know this because it happens, several
times. And each time the candle blows out, the man sighs with
frustration. But he is not surprised. He knows the elements will snuff
out the candle. The inevitability is written all over his face.
Each time he restarts his journey, he tries harder to keep the candle
lit, but he never looks hopeful. He shelters the flame with his hand,
with his body, with his jacket, pulling a lapel out in front of him as
if his torso has expanded to enclose the candle which glows, ever
threatened, inside him. He holds the flame close, silhouetted against
his outstretched jacket, and as it flickers within what seems to be
the dome of his belly, even this monolingual ignoramus in the 10th row
is holding his breath. It's an image of the human condition that this
lost, dialog-deprived American with the quick pulse will remember for
a long time.
You can hear a flickering candle. I never thought about that before.
It's hard not to feel like you've regressed to a more primal way of
experiencing movies when you see something like this. The medium
suddenly seems reduced to its elements but also, when considered for a
moment, that much more complex. Movies are visual, but not solely, for
movies are more than just pictures. We hear the sound of the breeze
intermittently gusting and the man's irregular breathing. But movies
are also not just pictures with sound. Unlike a painting, a movie has
a timeline. It moves at a pace of its choosing, like music. Our eyes
are allowed to roam, but only within a controlled frame and for a
limited time, as if on a short leash. The movie rolls through its
timeline but also rolls through three dimensional space with visual
depth implied by its changing angles, by its panning and tracking and
zooming, and by the way characters and objects move around each other.
This movement and depth are simulated, of course. Movies famously
exploit the "persistence of vision" phenomenon to trick our brains
into seeing movement in a sequence of still photos. But the messages
in the movie are also constructed out of pieces. The magic is in the
juxtaposition of still pictures to create a kernel of meaning, a shot,
and the juxtaposition of shots to create even bigger meaning. Editors
understand the psychological implications of this: film can
instantaneously move from one shot to another in a way that our eyes
cannot, so our imaginations step in to bridge the gaps. Tapping into
our imaginations is precisely what poets, songwriters, painters, and
novelists have been doing for ages.
Soviet theorist Lev Kuleshov did experiments
in the 1920s that illustrated the phenomenon that viewers infer a
different meaning from two juxtaposed images than they do from each of
the images separately.
Hitchcock's Rear Window
provides a pure example of how
juxtaposition affects meaning: the camera looks into someone's
apartment window then looks at Jimmy Stewart smiling. His smiling face
alone would convey an abstract emotion, but when it is juxtaposed with
something else, say a shot of newlyweds drawing their shade, our
brains take all of the knowledge and experience that we've built up in
our lives and apply it as glue between the two shots, thereby
understanding what's going on in his mind, the dirty old man.
Books get into characters' brains by hearing their thoughts. Movies do
it differently. Each medium can use the other's techniques, but
they're particularly adept at their own.
Though movies are made up of images and sounds, they tap into
imagination that spans the senses. If I go back and listen to the
soundtrack of Nostalghia, will I hear the man breathing, or was
it just in my head? Was the breathing my own?
These means of communication seem to rely on fundamental workings of
the brain, because they work with children, too. Children don't have
the wealth of experience that adults do and can't supply glue for
Hitchcock's editing entendre, but they have their own glue. In fact,
they probably encounter the same techniques in other media:
television, obviously, but comic strips, too. Some
believe that Hitchcock consciously borrowed techniques from
comic strips for Rear Window
. Each apartment in the courtyard
has a specific color scheme, like the location-specific colors of a
comic. And sometimes in Rear Window
the camera first observes a
character through one of his apartment windows, then, when he moves to
the next room, the camera pans over to the next window to observe him
there, the same way we'd read panels in the funny papers.
While plots and dialog are important to most movies, the medium
communicates with us in many more complex ways.
Invisibility Cloaks and Happy Meals
I saw the first Harry Potter movie with my 4-year-old
cousin. She was the quietest, most attentive person in the theater. In
the whole movie, she said only one thing: when Harry and his friends
were under an invisibility cloak, she said, "Are they invisible?" She
knew, but she wanted to clarify, and her question made me realize how
complicated it is to convey the idea of an invisibility cloak
When Harry and his friends are under the cloak, they are invisible if
we look at them from across the room, but if the point of view is
under the cloak, we can see them and the shimmering cloth. It's
odd to think of the camera being under the cloak with the children,
but only in a logical sense, because we know that cameras are
bulky. If we don't stop to think about it, our brains seem to accept
the camera as a point in space, not a machine but an eye. They also
seem to accept that we're able to see first from one eye, then
another, like we're hopping between telescopes, not troubled at all by
the alternating disappearance and reappearance of Harry and his
friends as the point of view changes.
For adults, I recommend Claire Denis' movies. Denis relies on the
poetry of film to convey far more than could be said succinctly with
dialog. Check out Beau Travail or Chocolat as good
The movie seems to convey the idea of the cloak well enough that my
cousin figured it out. Oh they explain its workings verbally, and she
may have picked up the word "invisible" in the rush of dialog, but I
like to think that dialog is not one of the primary ways that movies
communicate with us and that she read the movie on a different level
than we adults but understood it anyway. Nowhere among my memories of
The Tinder Box
is there any recollection of words or phrases.
I think we forget this, sometimes, when we take kids to the movies,
and the movie industry forgets this too, or at least has other
interests. We show children the movies that the industry says were
meant for them, but in these situations, they often respond more to
the aura of the event than the movie itself.
When Toy Story first hit the big screen, another little cousin
of mine (I have lots of little cousins) had a Buzz Lightyear doll
before he saw the movie. He already loved Buzz. I asked him if he
liked Woody, too, and he said, vehemently, that he hated Woody
and that he liked Buzz. Not having seen the movie, he thought
he had to choose between them.
His reaction to the movie was formed before he'd even seen it, which
means it wasn't based on the movie but on something else, on happy
meals or television or toys. Or not even happy meals, television, and
toys, but rather on the patterns and clichés that those stand
on. A children's movie tells kids who to root for — I'm sure
kids need some guidance here — but watch what happens when
what it tells them is not exactly what they expected. In this
instance, my cousin was wrong. He misread the cues because Toy
Story did something a little different from what he'd seen
before. The movie has its share of chases and villains, but the
emphasis is on friendship and teamwork, and viewers are not asked to
choose between Buzz and Woody.
Not surprisingly, my little cousin answered the same question about
Woody differently a month later. He liked both Buzz and Woody, because
a good movie trumps the marketing campaign — or lack of one, in
the case of The Tinder Box — every time. A lesser movie
than Toy Story might have rested on those preconceived notions,
too weak to supplant them, but the creators of Toy Story seem
to understand that a movie is propelled forward only if it can harness
the imagination of the audience. They seem to understand the
subtleties of the relationship that children have with their toys, and
that is exactly the kind of imaginative glue that kids have in
abundance. The movie doesn't explore how toys might feel if they could
walk and talk, but rather it explores how children imagine
their toys might feel.
There's a movie I want to see with a kid. I've seen it with adults and
they've enjoyed it, but knowing that kids are less bothered by
language barriers and lack of context, I want to see what they would
It's an Iranian movie called Where Is the Friend's House? This
movie is made by the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami who has
among his talents the ability to get amazing performances from
children. In Where Is the Friend's House? Ahmed has a very
stern teacher who tells his students when and how to sit, when and how
to stand, and what and how to write in their notebooks.
Tonight Ahmed must go home and do tomorrow's homework in his notebook,
but when he gets home, he realizes that he has in his bag not only his
notebook but his friend's as well. Somehow he picked it up with his
own. This means his friend won't be able to do his homework, and no
one wants to see the teacher's response to this failure.
Ahmed must return the notebook. Tonight. But his mother has other
ideas. She tells him that he has chores to do and needs to help with
the baby. He can squeeze his homework into whatever free time he can
find between chores, but he can't return the notebook tonight, she
says. He can give it back to his friend at school tomorrow.
Clearly, Ahmed's mother doesn't understand how absolutely
critical it is that he return this notebook. He doesn't know where
his friend lives, but it must not be too far since they go to the same
school. This story takes place in a village in rural Iran, not the
bustling metropolis of Tehran. He could get there on foot, surely.
Kiarostami makes seemingly simple, often minimalist movies that
involve moral questions but seldom take a stance on them. Kiarostami
seems to be fascinated with the complexity of trying to satisfy
constraints. Kids don't care about this or have any idea about the
movie's position, or its odd lack of one. If this movie connects with
children, it's because it is about their concerns. It's about a good
kid's problem and his adventures trying to solve it. It speaks their
language the way Toy Story understands the psychology of
playing with toys and the way Lewis Carroll's Alice in
Wonderland captures something about adolescence when Alice is
always the wrong size, never fitting in, never understanding the
physics or mores of the rabbit hole. And like Pippi
Longstocking, it entertains the fantasy of living without adult
supervision, even if the characters eventually discover the necessity
If Where Is the Friend's House? has any lessons, they're for
the adults in the audience. The movie reminds them how difficult it is
for a child simply to obey, even if he wants to, and how capricious
the adults seem sometimes, how mysterious and conflicting their rules
are, how big and unknown the world is, even when it consists of just a
couple of villages that are separated by a 10-minute walk.
Children's books require pictures. Dr. Seuss infused his words with
funny sounds, appealing not to the understanding of language but to
the ear. When kids get older, they begin to enjoy phrases, like "He
screamed. He screamed twice. He never reached the door," a phrase I
loved in Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. And they start to quote
the dialog in movies.
The movie is not in English, but after some initial setup and a few
scenes here and there, language plays a small part. I imagine sitting
at the other end of the couch reading the subtitles out loud, in
And the movie does not take place in America, but this probably need
not be explained. A geography lesson could wait for another day. I
remember watching Sesame Street when I was growing up in
Missouri, and although it was, and still is, about life in America,
its short films about kids walking to the store, playing on the
sidewalk, sitting on the steps of their brownstones, and feeding
pigeons on the roof were completely foreign. But this never bothered
me, because the whole world is foreign to a child. Adults are bothered
by a lack of context, but I suspect that kids aren't so much, because
it happens all day long.
American kids who watch Where is the Friend's House? may even
be fascinated by the differences and ask about how these people climb
to their rooms or wash their clothes, the way I was fascinated by a
mom on Sesame Street sending her little boy to the store for a loaf of
bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.
My wife and I won't have kids of movie-watching age for at least
several years, but when they do show up they'll have to contend with
two parents who love movies. Which means they'll probably hate movies,
but it won't be for lack of exposure.
Where is the Friend's House?
In his article
about City Lights
, Roger Ebert made this observation: "Most
of Chaplin's films are available on video. Children who see them at a
certain age don't notice they're 'silent' but notice only that every
frame speaks clearly to them, without all those mysterious words that
clutter other films. Then children grow up, and forget this wisdom,
but the films wait patiently and are willing to teach us again."
will be one experiment. It may
fail. The movie may be too slow. It's not for everyone. It doesn't
have any light sabers, space ships, or even giant dogs. That's ok, it
won't be the only movie we watch. We'll see the ships. We'll see the
latest family hit. We'll definitely try to see the giant dogs. We'll
find those old live-action versions of Pippi Longstocking
starring Inger Nilsson, maybe the one where the kids put glue on their
shoes and walk on the walls (kids don't imitate everything they see,
We'll dig into Chaplin and watch The Kid and A Dog's
Life. They won't understand City Lights, but we'll cue up
the boxing match. We'll watch him walk on the tightrope in The
Circus or eat his shoe in The Gold Rush. We'll watch Buster
Keaton's massive train stunts in The General. I remember being
fascinated, but a bit disturbed, by the "Odessa Steps" sequence of
Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin — another out-of-context
moment from PBS that I didn't place until decades later. That clip,
well, I'll have to think about that one. But we'll keep an eye out for
non-narrative spectacles like Microcosmos or Winged
I just don't want to put my kids, whoever and whenever they may be, in
such a small pen that they only get to see things made for them by a
handful of corporations that lack respect for the real power of
movies. Not when kids' brains — human brains — are so
adept at processing images, not when the medium embodies so many
mysteries about those brains, or about storytelling, or about our
world. And I don't care what countries or eras they come from. Good
movies transcend it all.