Two Films About Childhood

Not really meaning to, I seem to have given myself a themed, mini film festival these last two nights by watching a pair of films, both of which were about the secret, inner lives of children.

spiritofthebeehive

The first was The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), set in a rural nowhere in Civil War era Spain. I’d put it on my Amazon list after seeing it mentioned as a possible influence on Pan’s Labyrinth, but this was my second watching, because after getting it on rental, I liked it enough to buy it. In the film, six-year-old Ana is deeply affected by a showing of the old Universal Frankenstein at her village cinema (where the screen is a rectangle painted on the wall, and everyone brings their own chair), and when her sister tells her that Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t actually killed because he is a spirit that lives in a nearby abandoned house, Ana starts visiting, and talking to, this gentle, invisible monster. But, rather than characterising her as a child, this seems, in the film’s world, to be putting her on her first step to adulthood, individuality, and isolation: Ana’s father, spending all his time in his study with his glass beehive, seems to live in a world of his own; her mother cycles regularly into town to post letters to a man (a brother? a former boyfriend?) who never replies. One day a wounded soldier, fleeing the Civil War, turns up in the abandoned house, almost like a realisation of the spirit of Frankenstein’s monster, and Ana starts to take care of him.

The other film was Kes (1969), which I put on my Amazon list after hearing Mark Kermode praise it, and realising it was another one of those films I’d heard so much about but hadn’t seen. Set in a pretty grim Barnsley, Kes is about a fatherless boy, Billy, pretty much a loner, ignored by his teachers and bullied by his much older brother. Resigned to getting nothing out of life, he’s nevertheless passionate, almost poetic, about a young kestrel he trains to feed from his hand.

kes

Both films encase their young leads in private imaginative worlds, and both get remarkable performances in return. It’s amazing to think Ana in the first film is just six — in some of the later scenes her face seems ageless, almost ancient — while Billy in Kes looks already hardened against all that the adult world can throw at him. (Almost, but not quite.) In both films the kids find an intensely private focus for their burgeoning individuality and imagination, only to have it broken by the cruel harshness of an uncaring world. The difference is that, with Spirit of the Beehive, because Ana’s world was so much of the imagination to start with, even when events in the real world take it away from her, she’s still left with something. Kes is far more brutal and hopeless, but all the same I felt there was hope for Billy despite his obviously grim prospects, simply because he at least had something he felt strongly about, something that would always be there as a refuge against his unremittingly bleak world, which is more than can be said of his endlessly bickering, selfish, mother and brother.

Shadow of the Colossus

shadowofthecolossus_02Shadow of the Colossus is the second game to be released by Fumito Ueda and the rest of the design team behind Ico (see my previous blog entry on Ico), to which it forms a sort of prequel. The gameplay, though, is quite different. In that first game, the aim was to find your way out of a vast castle. Combat, though part of the game, was pretty much a distraction from the exploration, a sprinkling of action to keep the player’s pulse up. With Shadow of the Colossus, although there is an element of exploration (finding the lair of each colossus in a large landscape you cover mostly on horseback), combat is the main focus. But they’re not the sort of button-blasting fights you get in shoot-’em-up type games. In Shadow of the Colossus, combat is very much about puzzle-solving.

In Shadow, you control Wander, a lone warrior who has travelled to a distant, forbidden land with the aim of bringing a young woman, Mono, back to life. To do this, he must collect the life-force from sixteen colossi. This is a rather game-like excuse to go around killing them, really, but there you go. Unlike most combat-oriented games, the colossi are the only opponents you face; there are no minor hordes of mildly-distracting sword-fodder. And the colossi really are colossal. To defeat them, it’s not simply a matter of going up to them and swinging your sword till they fall over. You do have to find their weak-points and stab them till the poor things keel over, but in order to reach those weak points you have solve various problems. With the first colossus, for instance, it’s a case of getting close enough to jump up and grab the fur of his leg, then climb up and stab him in the right place. With later colossi it gets more complicated. Not all of the colossi walk on the ground, for instance — some fly, some swim, some burrow into the sand. Some have weak points covered by armour you have to work out how to break off before you can stab them. Most have weak points in hard-to-reach parts of their bodies (on the head of a creature twenty or thirty times your height, for instance), and while you’re trying to climb up to reach it, they’re trying to shake you off and smash you into mush. You have to look at the environment, or the way the colossus moves, to find clues as to how to approach each one.

shadowofthecolossus_01I said, above, that you have to “stab them till the poor things keel over”, and I really did feel sorry for these lumbering monsters, even while I was trying to kill them. Largely this was because of their eyes. The colossi are wonderful creations, made out of a combination of fur and rock, in the main — carefully designed so you can’t tell if they’re living creatures or automata — but their eyes are small, round, and rather dumb, which always made me feel they can’t really be evil, so why should I be murdering them? That didn’t stop me shaking my fist in triumph whenever I did finally blitz one, though, because they got more and more fiendishly difficult to kill, and each time I managed to do it, it was a huge relief. This was one of the best aspects of Shadow of the Colossus (and the worst) — it was so addictive. The early levels were quite easy, carefully graded so you learn new skills and methods of approaching the problem of colossus-killing. But suddenly, about halfway through, just when I was thinking this game would be easy enough to finish, the level of difficulty trebled, and kept going up at the same rate. But by that time I was hooked. So, whereas it took maybe 20 minutes to complete one of the earlier levels, it took me about a week’s worth of hour-long daily sessions (alright, sometimes more than that) to get past the incredibly tortuous final level, after which I sat in a daze while the ending played out. (This is another slightly criticism: compared to Ico, whose story was present right from the start, and kept progressing as you played, Shadow of the Colossus really doesn’t have much of a story till you’ve finished the game, when you get it all loaded into a big wodge of cut-scenes.) But, again, the worst criticism is, as with Ico, that the automatic camera angles so often work against what you’re trying to do, and can be quite frustrating — a minor point against an otherwise excellent game. I look forward to whatever Ueda and his team do next.

Shadow‘s official site can be found here. (It does resize your browser window, though, which is rather annoying.)

Circulus

circulus_clocksI tend to avoid jumping on bandwagons, to the rather stupid point of actually avoiding things that are popular, even if I might like them. So, for instance, it took me a while hearing the Arctic Monkeys‘ single on the radio before I finally admitted I liked it, bought the album, and enjoyed some thoroughly good music. So, when I heard Circulus on the Culture Show a few weeks back, in a report about an alternative folk scene that was sure to be the next “big thing” (something the Culture Show seems all too anxious about finding, for some reason), I at first crossed my arms and resisted, even though I liked what I heard of their music. Eventually, I went to iTunes and had a listen to their two albums. (True to form, Circulus’s website seems to be stuck in the past at the moment, only letting on that they’ve released one album.) The first track (“Miri It Is”) on their first album (The Lick on the Tip of an Envelope Yet to Be Sent) sounded a bit frightening, a bit too medieval, but their second album (Clocks Are Like People) immediately reminded me of those 70s folky-rocky bands on the more whimsical end of the prog spectrum — bands like Gentle Giant and Caravan, or Jethro Tull in their less sarcastic moments — and I like them, so, armed with an excuse to let me like Circulus without seeming to be jumping on a bandwagon, I bought Clocks… I mean, with song titles like “Dragon’s Dance” and “Reality’s a Fantasy”, how could I resist?

Well, I didn’t resist. Before the weekend was out, I’d bought Lick on the Tip… as well and was listening to both in circulation. (Or should that be circulusation?) Circulus mix medieval instruments with synths and modern drums. They’re capable of some real barnstorming hoedown instrumentals like “Bouree”, “Orpehus” and the Doorsy orientalisms of “The Aphid”, while lyrically, that they’re certainly a step or two above “Hit me baby, one more time” is amply proved by the likes of “Scarecrow” (which seems to be about a scarecrow who accidentally sets himself alight and goes running through the night), and the plaintive but uplifting “Song of Our Despair”. “Reality’s a Fantasy” just gets me every time with its chorus of “Reality’s a fantasy… And we live in reality” — there’s logic for you. It seems to be sung through a megaphone, too, which is distinctly un-medieval, but there you go. And then, of course, there’s “Power to the Pixies”, which, I’m sure, sums up their philosophy in one line. (If you’re put off by references to dragons, mushrooms, dowsing, the Goddess, or Trumpton — I think I heard that right — then be sure, Circulus are not for you. They avoid being twee, though, by being so irresistibly funky. Despite the fact they wear pointy shoes.)

The Innocents

I love subtle, suggestive horror & weirdness in films, but really effective spookiness is quite hard to find. The industry itself — whether in the form of its producers, its studio executives, or its “audience” (someone’s idea of its audience, anyway, because they certainly don’t include me in that) — can’t help but give in to the urge to sensationalism, and even a little bit of sensationalism can ruin a perfectly good fright. For me, the more subtle and understated the horror, the more your imagination is teased and your rationality piqued, the better. That tense balance where your conscious mind can’t understand what it’s seeing but your subconscious can is what it’s all about. As soon as you add in other elements — a jump, a laugh, a gross-out — and you give your rationality enough excuse not to have to pay it any more attention. The effect is ruined. The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is a classic example of a horror film that really does work on this level, even if it does have flaws.

The flaws, to my mind, are almost all in the person of Deborah Kerr, who plays Miss Giddens, the inexperienced (and highly ineffectual) governess sent to look after a pair of orphaned children on a big, lonely estate. The previous governess, Miss Jessel, has died, and Miss Giddens soon learns there was another death shortly before, that of the sadistic manservant Peter Quint, and that the two deaths might have been linked. But the real tension in the story comes from what can and cannot be said about this mysterious history. Miss Giddens is forbidden from mentioning the tragic Miss Jessel to either of the children — supposedly because it might upset them too much — but, after witnessing two ghostly figures, one of a wicked-looking young man and the other of a mournful young woman, Miss Giddens starts to suspect that Jessel and Quint are present in a way the dead shouldn’t be — and, what’s more, that they’re still in touch with the children.

The real menace in the story is not in the existence of the ghosts, nor in the influence these “horrors” might have on the minds of the supposed innocents. The film becomes truly disturbing once we see how obsessed Miss Giddens becomes with getting the children to confess to seeing, and conversing with, their deceased former governess and her cruel lover. As she can’t mention the names of Quint or Jessel, the whole thing becomes a tortuous psychological game in which Miss Giddens, ever more insistently neurotic and entrenched in her belief, persecutes the children over what, the viewer knows, could well be nothing but hallucination on her part.

This is how it should work, anyway. To my mind Deborah Kerr doesn’t play Miss Giddens with anything like the subtlety or ambiguity required. Perhaps it’s just down to how the film has dated — the governess’ stilted upper-class accent (and the chirpy gosh-oh-golliness of the kids’ dialogue) masks any possible subtlety of emotion, and in the main the music seems to put forward the idea that this is a period melodrama rather than a spooky story.

But one way in which the film hasn’t dated — in fact, what seems to jolt it right into the 21st century, alongside the surreal suggestiveness of Ringu‘s haunted videotape — is in Miss Jessel’s ghostly appearances, which are so staunchly under-sensationalised, and often so brief and matter-of-fact, that they have an effect like a cold brick between the eyes. (The music stops dead each time, too, which helps.)

Take this example, which may be the best in the film. Miss Giddens and her young charge Flora are sitting by a lake. Flora is humming a tune which, we come to learn, is associated with the departed Miss Jessel, but doesn’t answer when quizzed about it. Miss Giddens starts to look disturbed. (The ghosts always appear after we have first focused on Miss Giddens’ look of growing horror. She always sees them before we do.)

innocents_1

Abruptly we see it: Miss Jessel, an out-of-focus, slumped figure in black, standing, quite bizarrely, among the reeds in the middle of the lake, just staring at us, not moving.

innocents_2

Then she’s gone.

innocents_3

It’s the almost surreal details which make it work, for me. The fact that Miss Jessel’s ghost is standing in the middle of a lake. The fact she’s not in any sort of frightening pose, but seems almost bored or tired. The fact she’s in broad daylight. Her being slightly out of focus and off-centre underplays the whole scene wonderfully, as if even the cameraman can’t see her, only we can, and that not too well. She’s beyond the clear, sharp grasp of the rational mind, and staring right into you out of some… other place.