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— Errata Movie Podcast —
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.
Pippi Longstocking
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 giant 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 photo of Inger Nilsson who played Pippi in the 1970s.
Most of the movies were sufficiently entertaining, some more, some less. Heidi bored us all to tears, and we laughed at The Little Prince. 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 Tinder Box, 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.
Pinocchio Speaks
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 movie.
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 footage.
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 box.
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 French subtitles.
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 people 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 visually.
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 starting points.
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.
Personal Experiment
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 think.
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 of adults.
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 storybook-style voices.
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.
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."
Where is the Friend's House? 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, do they?).
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 Migration.
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.
Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
October 10, 2005, 10:48 PM
Vickie L. Evenson

I'm writing to comment on one article that mentions the movie The Tinder Box. I, too, remember that movie, and loved it with a passion. I saw it in the early '70's, but recently realized that it was made much earlier then that. I also am the only one I know that seems to remember this wonderful movie. I also read the Classic Illistration Magazine's version, plus my Grandmother bought me the colorbook. I've tried to find this movie for years. If anyone has any leads as to how to get a copy of this, I would be greatful.

December 13, 2005, 10:39 AM

you wouldn't want to wake up to this every day would you?

February 3, 2006, 03:18 PM
Patricia Morris

I am glad to find 2 other people who saw this movie in the '70's. I took my 3 little children to a theater in San Antonio TX in about 1972, and we all loved it. Now I have 2 little grandchildren and wish they could see it too. Does anyone know how to find this old treasure?

October 30, 2008, 11:05 AM
Bethany Hall

pippi i love your movie and did you know that im going to be pippi for halloween

November 30, 2008, 10:50 PM
Scott DeHart

I too remember seeing several children's matinee movies along with my 2 sisters between 1978 and 1980 when I was between 10 and 12 years old. We saw the Pippi Longstocking series, The Tinder Box, 80 steps to Jonah, Zebra in the Kitchen, and tons more. Most of the movies were cheesy, but we loved them. Now, thanks to DVD's of recent years, my 4 year old daughter cannot get enough of Pippi. I get embarrassed when she sings the Pippi Longstocking song at public parks and restaurants where only some of the parents (not the kids) will recognize it. As for the Tinder Box, I only now remember it thanks to this web page posting description that has dug the memory from the graveyards of my mind. Good luck on locating it.