Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reading Hermione when you're 7

As kids grow up, they watch movies in a different way. When Helena was little, she cared mostly about movement and color, though she also liked music. As she grew up a little more, she came to like plot — she would tell and re-tell the stories of the movies she had seen, transforming them in her play with dolls or friends. Next, she seemed to care most about theme, especially the way that The Lorax taught about environmentalism or Frozen’s ideas of sisterly love. I’m not sure if this is a common series of phases for kids and literature/film, but it does seem to track something of the way that Helena “reads” the movies she watches.

At seven years old, character seems the most important issue to Helena. Who are these people on the screen, what do they want, why do they want it, and how are they like and unlike me? This development seems part and parcel of Helena’s new and strong friendships and her wish to understand what the real people in her life think and want.

This new dynamic has played itself out most clearly in the person of Hermione Granger. About three months ago, I began to read the Harry Potter books to Helena, and Hermione jumped out of the pages at her. After we finished the book, I let her watch the movie (I think it is a bit much for a six year old — especially the penultimate scene — but she loved it), and once again, she fell in love with Hermione. In the middle of this, we also went to the movies to watch Beauty and the Beast, starring none other than Emma Watson, a grown-up Hermione Granger. Helena didn’t think much of the movie, but she loved the lead character.

When I was about six, one of my neighbors won the lead part in her high school presentation of the musical Brigadoon. I remember my excitement about “going to the theater” to see her, and then the unexpected feeling of seeing my some-time babysitter on stage. The, an even stranger feeling, as the voice that I heard emerging from her throat was not the voice of my neighbor. Confused, I kept pestering my parents, until finally they explained, in hushed voices, that she had laryngitis; the voice coming through the loudspeakers was the music teacher, singing into a microphone off stage.

Why would I remember this small piece of my childhood? Probably because this complex web of role-playing (my neighbor playing the part of Fiona, her teacher “playing the part” of my neighbor’s voice) brought me into the world of representation, the seemingly simple idea that one person can interpret the role of another, stand in for them. If you try to think like a little boy or girl, representation is suddenly a very complex idea: how is it that one person (and actor) can suddenly “be” another one, speaking with a new voice and playing a new role in the social network? As Helena became fascinated with Emma Watson (playing both Hermione and Belle), I saw that with movies, things are even more complicated. One day, Emma/Hermione is 11 years old; the next, she is a full grown woman. Kids have to learn about representation, but also about how time passes for an actor, but not for the character once she is inscribed onto film.

Helena has a certain advantage on many children as she learns about representation: her parents make movies. Eighteen months ago, when we filmed The Princess in the Alleyway with young actors from the favelas of Recife, we hired a couple of professional actors. One, Walter da Matta, played a spectacular villain, brutal, cold, and crule. In real life, Walter is the complete opposite, and he and Helena struck up a great friendship on and off the set. Any time that she confuses and actor and his part, I just have to remind Helena about Walter. Most kids don’t have that luxury.

All of this reflexion brings me back to the original idea of this blog post: children watch movies differently than adults do. It’s only gradually that they see plot, theme, and (if Helena is a model) character. And then, suddenly, when they decide to identify with a character — or the actor who plays that role — they drive right into the deep end. When I read Harry Potter to Helena now, Hermione need just enter the scene for Helena to perk up her ears or sometimes even cheer.

I really appreciate that JK Rowling wrote that kind of a character for Helena to identify with.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Watching Inside Out in Brazil

It takes a lot of years living in another country to understand exactly how much emotions are affected
by culture. And sometimes, watching a movie or reading a novel throws those differences into stark relief. Watching Inside Out in a Brazilian cinema was one of those moments.

Internationally, Brazilians are famous for their joy: the extravagant shows of carnaval, the contagious beat of the samba, Ronaldinho's playful smile as his dribbled past year another open-mouthed defender. Living here, however, one sees that Brazilians are as comfortable in sadness as they are in joy: people express their melancholy openly, in a way that many Americans would see as embarrassing, death is not a taboo subject, and when you listen carefully to the lyrics of those great sambas, most of them are about sadness.  For instance:

O samba é pai do prazer,
O samba é filha da dor
O grande poder transformador

(Samba is the father of pleasure,
Samba is the child of pain.
The great transformative power)

One of the things that Rita (my Brazilian wife) always comments when she goes to the United States is that happiness is obligatory, while sadness is seen as a failure or even a sin. When Americans feel sad, we have to hide it, and if people we love aren't happy, we see that as a failure, too. For Rita, this kind of obligatory happiness is extremely difficult... and after a couple of years living here, I have to say that I agree. Americans have turned emotion into morality, with happiness standing in for good, and sadness for sin.

(The Brazilian theory of the relationship between joy and sadness, by the way, is that sadness is a kind of rest. Just as one must sleep in order to be awake, one must be sad from time to time in order to be joyful. Music and dance play the role of mediators between the two.)

In this context, Inside Out says something truly revolutionary to Americans. When Riley (the little girl in the film) becomes depressed, it is not because she is really, really, really sad. That depression happens when sadness is banished from the "Command Center:" depression is not an excess of sadness, but the lack of it. And perhaps even more significantly, when you banish sadness, you also banish joy.

Loads of pop sociology and pop psychology could emerge from this insight, but I'll leave that to everyone else. For me, the movie serves a a kind of touch-point for a series of lessons I have been learning over the last fifteen years in Brazil: sadness is not a sin and emotions are not ethics. And when we are able to accept that sadness (and many other emotions Americans would tag as negative) are a positive and enriching part of human experience, we will be much better people.

And we'll probably be less depressed, too.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ella Enchanted: Kant gets lost in a fairy tale

For those who know a little of the uncharted wasteland of teeny-bopper television, what I am about to write will come as a surprise: Ella Enchanted is genius.

I'm not referring to the esthetics of the movie, nor even its humor (which is pretty good), but, oddly enough, to its philosophical basis. Unexpectedly, this seemingly frivolous movie places itself in dialogue with Kant, Lacan, and Zizek. But before I go on to defend this radical thesis, let me tell the story:

Ella is born into a home where fairies are part and parcel of everyday life, and though the story is based (very loosely) on Cinderella, it steals a conceit from Sleeping Beauty. The fairies find themselves in a kind of contest to give the best present to the baby, and the final fairy gives the best thing she can come up with: the "gift of obedience." For the parents, this gift is often a blessing: they can tell the child to sleep or eat or behave, and Ella has no choice. She will obey.

Any parent will have mixed feelings about such a gift, because as much as we prize the autonomy of our children (and I even like Helena's rebellious streak), there are times when we just need them to do what they are told. How much despair leaked into my life because Helena would not sleep when I was totally exhausted, and how many fights have we suffered when she simply refuses to eat broccoli even as she recognizes that it is one of her favorite foods. (That
is not a misprint: when not being stubborn, she loves broccoli, squid, octopus, raw fish, and any number of foods you would not expect a five year old to  enjoy). In the end, though, to our modern, liberal ears, obedience sounds more like a curse than a gift.

The first half of the movie plays the "gift of obedience" for laughs, and with no little success. As Ella's stepsisters learn that she will always do exactly what they command, they condemn her to a series of misadventures and petty crimes; her first encounter with the prince is complicated by the simple orders of "stay here and wait" or "listen to me," the stuff of daily conversation that we only see as an order as we laugh at Ella's response.

Finally, Ella heads off on her mission to find the fairy and ask her to take back the gift/curse. Walking through the woods as she begins her quest, the cries of "help me!" force her to obey and save an elf from his torture. As he screams advice to her, she takes the words as commands; and since she must do what she is commanded, in fact she fights like a king-fu master.

In the tumbles and turns of the plot, Ella learns of the oppression of the ogres and giants, finds a weak ally in the prince and heir to the throne, and finally makes her way to the capital city of the kingdom. To this point, the plot seems rather like that of Shrek, a simple inversion or deconstruction of fairy tale tropes, but with Ella's encounter with the prince's uncle, the evil Regent Edgar, the tale becomes much heavier. Edgar discovers the gift of obedience and commands Ella to kill the prince in the hall of mirrors at midnight, though she has (of course) fallen in love with him.

In spite of all of her attempts to overcome the regent's evil command, Ella finds herself in the hall of mirrors with the prince, a dagger in her hands. She tries to resist, but the gift of obedience does not brook exceptions: the blade moves closer and closer to her lover's heart, and all of the commands she has heard in her life echo through her memory. Then, suddenly, she sees herself in a mirror, and recognizes the secret: instead of being commanded by others, she will command herself. Looking at herself in the mirror, she declares, "You will no longer be obedient!"

Suddenly, instead of just being entertained by a funny movie, we find ourself face to face with German idealism, with the quandary of free will, and with the basic challenge of rearing a child.

If we look carefully at ourselves, we see biological demands (hunger, warmth, etc) and environmental influences (we have learned to do certain things, picked up other habits...). Looking at almost any "free" decisions we make, we can explain it as an inevitable result of biology and psychology... so where is free will? We are all, looking at it scientifically, cursed with the "gift of obedience".

Emmanuel Kant may have been the first philosopher to formulate the virtue of human autonomy as split in two. With reason (he postulates reason, but we can also talk about tradition, love, even the mirrors of a fairy tale), we can formulate what is right and project ourselves upon it: this is what Kant calls duty. "Duty?" the reader asks. "Isn't that just another kind of obedience?" And in fact, it is... but a different kind of obedience. For Kant, reason and duty are a kind of mirror which allows us to step back, look at ourselves in a cruel, objective light, and command ourselves. The opening between what I naturally or culturally want and what I declare to be my duty opens up a gap, a way to decide between one and the other. It's that decision, that break, that shows us to be truly free.

We can talk about the same issue in terms of parenting. Many progressive parents try to help their children to be free by allowing them to do what they want. After all, in politics, a government that controls personal behavior is tyrannical; we want to avoid that kind of oppression at home, as well. The problem is, however, that children are not instant adults. Obedience may be the negation of our desire to "do what we want", but it also allows us to make a second, later step, that of commanding (and obeying) ourselves, instead of someone else. (there's a long essay here on Kant's relationship with Hegel and the negation of negation, but I'll spare you).

Ella Enchanted seems like yet another throw-away, a flash in the pan directed to pre-teen girls... but in fact, it may teach them one of the most important lessons they (and we) have to learn.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Peter Pan: The story inside the story

A couple of years ago, working with pre-schoolers in the favelas of a city close to Rio de Janeiro, Rita and I made a very strange little film: we recorded a young boy "reading" picture book based on the Disney version of Peter Pan.  In his telling -- living as he was in a favela controlled by gangs, where shootouts between dealers and cops often happened right in front of the day care center -- the story was about nothing but violence.  "Then he hit her, and she hit him, and then they all hit each other."


In general, I have watched the movie in little pieces, looking over Helena's shoulder in an airplane or in a bus, and... it is pretty easy to see the story as this little boy does.  There is a lot a fighting in the movie: Peter against the pirates, Wendy against Tinkerbell, Wendy against the mermaids, the Indians against the lost boys, Hook against Tiger Lilly, Hook against his crew, Hook against Snee...  Fighting is one of the two ways that people seem to relate to each other in the story.

It's the second way, however, that I find more interesting and production.  People certainly fight with each other in Peter Pan, but they also tell each other stories.  Wendy tells stories of Peter Pan to her younger brothers.  Peter Pan listens at the window to these stories, and tells them to the lost boys.  Peter invites Wendy to be a mother to the Lost Boys, where the essential aspect of mothering is to tell stories to them.  Once Peter makes peace with the Indians, they tell stories to the Lost Boys...  In the end, narrative is one of the fundamental ways that people relate to each other, and that reflects the fact that traditionally, parents have narrated the book to their children at bedtime.

What I find most interesting and subversive in the story, however, is that the characters of the story like to hear stories about themselves.  Peter Pan comes to the Darling house in London, just so he can perch on the window and listen to Wendy's stories about himself.  It's at that moment that Nana, the dog, is able to capture Peter's shadow, the event that brings together story-teller and story-told.

The way that Peter enjoys the story tells about him seems to me a good way to express the independence of fictional characters.  Once they have been invented in stories, they do have a life of their own, going in directions that their authors never planned.  In some cases, like that of little Alan who sees Peter Pan as a sort of uncontrolled vigilante, the character becomes a stand-in for the fantasies and fears of the reader, and in the process, goes far beyond what the author might have wanted.  Any author, however, may see that a personage that she herself created no longer obeys her.  As I have written fiction, I often want the story to go a certain way, but then I think, "But that character wouldn't want that, couldn't do that."  The story, supposedly mine, ends of obeying the character I created and (wrongly) thought I controlled.

Now whether, like Peter Pan, they like to hear those stories, I don't know.  I don't have a dog to catch their shadows at night.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin Hood: the social bandit as Republican hero

I always loved the Robin Hood story when I was a little kid.  The little guy struggling against injustice whatever the cost, the transgression of the formal law in service of a greater good, the critique of inequality and royal power.  I don't particularly remember when or where I saw the Disney version of Robin Hood, but the foxes and the archery contest are clear in my head, so my guess is that the movie was the start of a long passion for the story, one that would end even in the publication of a book on social change philanthropy, Robin Hood was Right.

Given this history, I certainly wasn't expecting the movie that Helena has been watching over the last couple of weeks.  Yes, it's the same movie it always was.  It's just that in the current political context, it seems to mean something very different than I ever took it to mean.

The movie, I saw only now, transforms the story into one only about taxes.  Injustice is not exploitation, repression, or the exclusion of the saxons by the normans.  Though Prince John, Hiss, and the Sheriff of Nottingham are clearly bad guys, the only way they express this evil is by charging high taxes.  The voiceover that tells and retells this story is a supposed "folk-singer" who "tells it like it is."

Though I was offended by the interpretation of the movie, it goes a long way to understanding the political confusion in the United States, where working class populism almost always ends up supporting exactly the people who want to screw the working class.  The Tea Party is the perfect contemporary manifestation of this problem, where (legitimate) anger at the way that the rich and businesses control the US government becomes a way for the rich and corporation to cement their control over government.  The supposed injustice of taxes (really lower in the US than in any other industrialized country) is the tool that the unscrupulous right way uses to engage in this political judo.

The movie first came out in 1973, a time when an honest movie about a social bandit (Eric Hobswawm's term for criminals who gain social legitimacy from their moral and financial support of oppressed or marginalized groups) would have been interpreted as support for communism.  Nixon was president (soon to be expelled).  But the film might also have worked in the 1950s or in the 1920s.  America has to re-interpret popular struggle as against taxes, and not against an unjust economic system.

Here, however, is the irony.  I don't remember the movie this way.  Helena doesn't seem to care in the least for the story line about taxes.  Kids, after all, don't pay taxes: that part of the story doesn't touch them.  What they like is the idea of cute animals and little kids standing up against oppression: not understood as the Tea Party or the John Birch society (mis)understands oppression, but as little kids experience it.  Helena likes the movie, and I hope that will be one little step on her way to care about making a world that is a little less unjust.  Just like it did for me.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Let it Go, Let it Grow

Helena's favorite two movies are The Lorax and Frozen, and as she has been singing the songs from both, it has become increasingly obvious that something similar is going on.  The anthem for Frozen, as everyone knows, is Let it Go.

The Lorax, though very successful, hasn't become such an integral part of pop culture, so you may not have heard Let it Grow, sung at the climax of the movie.

Let it Go, Let it Grow.  Even the melodies have something similar to them.  I don't think plagiarism has anything to do with the similarity, but that both movies are tapping into something very interesting about the zeitgeist.

Helena Iara also uses the same "Let..." construction, and quite often.  I notice it, because (informed by Portuguese grammar, which makes more sense to her) she will always say, "Daddy, let I climb on this chair..." or any other number of things she thinks I may or may not allow her to do.  This little gramattical error, however, points to the most interesting thing about Let it Go, Let it Grow, which is to say, who is the agent of the action?  When one says "Daddy, let me do x," who is the actor and who is acted upon?

Helena on the dunes near our house in Florianópolis
Let's look at how other similar sentences work: "Daddy, give me" or "Daddy, lift me" (in one case, the me as indirect object, the other as direct object), it is pretty clear that Daddy is the actor.  Daddy lifts, Helena is lifted.  Daddy gives, Helena has something given to her.  With "Let me", we seem to follow the same logic: Daddy is allowing, Helena being allowed.  "Let I," or the Portuguese "Deixa eu," confuses things more than a little bit.  I becomes the subject, the agent, while Daddy is more a barrier to be overcome.

What does Elsa mean when she declares the desire to "Let it Go"?  She is, in fact, freeing herself from social, gender, and age constraints.  There is no Daddy here to allow or not to allow he to be herself, only the unwritten rules of society, the disdain she fears that she will face, what "They" will say.  Elsa is very clearly the agent of the change, the subject of the sentence.  Interestingly, in the Portuguese translation of the song, we hear "Livre estou": I am free.

In The Lorax, the Once-ler's thneed factory has killed all of the truffula trees, and no plants can grow in the the city that has been built on the ruins of the forest.  Ted and Audrey, the young protagonists, get a last seed from the Once-ler and try to plant it in the middle of town, but the most powerful businessman in Thneedville wants to stop them.  Finally, convinced by Ted and Audrey, the people of the town sing "Let it Grow" as a way to reject the businessman's attempt to keep oxygen as a commodity that only he can sell.  (I've already written on the radical politics of the Lorax, if you are interested)  It seems, then, that the implied subject of "Let is Grow" is the businessman: "Hey, you, let it grow!"

Helena with her friend Luc
In fact, though, what would keep the tree from growing is the people as a whole: before Ted and Audrey convince them of the virtues of trees, they are fully on the side of keeping Thneedville as it is, "plastic and they liked it that way."  The command is not really given to O'Hare, the businessman, but to the people themselves.  "Let is grow" is the way that the people give a command to themselves.  Exactly the same is true of Elsa: she can only let herself be free by directing a plea to "Let it go" to some unknown figure who is the real agent of the story.

But who is the agent?  To whom is the "let" directed?  Elsa is talking to herself; the people of Thneedville are talking to themselves.  In fact, what we see here is a split between the thinking self and the acting self, where one tries to tell the other what to do.  Though this break might seem schitzophenic, in fact it is quite honest.  What is really keeping the people of Thneedville from cultivating trees isn't some abstract law or an oppressive power (even Mr. O'Hare): it is themselves.  Elsa's freedom is also limited more by herself, by her fear of what others will say, than by those others.  So in fact, while it might be more direct to say "Let's cultivate trees" or "I am free," both social agents need that detour in order to allow themselves to do what they want.

Amazing how complex the lyrics to children's songs can be...

Friday, July 11, 2014

Thinking amidst the ruins: Aladdin

Aladdin is a terrible movie.  Racist, incoherent, and the music is smarmy (and far too catchy: just try to get "A Whole New World" out of your head).  Helena and I watched it last night (Rita couldn't even stomach it, and I have to say I sympathized with her), and all of my criticisms from when I had seen it twenty years ago came back.  Even so... this blog isn't about throwing rotten tomatoes.  In spite of the aesthetic horror show on display, something is going on in the movie.

Robin Williams, in full Good Morning Vietnam manic mode, voices the genie, one of the few highlights of the movie.  The genie summarizes his existential problem: "Infinite, universal power... little bitty living space."  The genie can do anything, but only at the wish of the other.  He is, at the same time, infinitely powerful and a captive.

Some lowly scriptwriter at Disney managed to smuggle this theme into other parts of the movie: Jasmine is a princess, but she is also a prisoner of the power and wealth and little niggling rules that surround royalty.  Aladdin is completely free, but he has no power or money, not even enough to buy bread or an apple.  Finally, in the climactic scene, Jafar falls into the trap of asking for ultimate power... which also implies chains.  The movie sets up a dichotomy between freedom and possession (of power, of things) that reminds one of Janis Joplin's "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

Helena at a playground in Serra Talhada, in the northeast of Brazil
Like many little girls, Helena likes princesses.  She is pretty and dresses well, so many people in the street even call her "princess".  At the same time, she truly loves her freedom, the ability to go out into the yard and play in the sandbox, climb trees, get dirty as we walk through the jungle around the house.  Most narratives about princesses don't capture the consequences of royalty, the limitations that power puts on a child's (or an adult's) freedom.  As I suffered through Aladdin last night, I hoped that Helena would, at least, catch that message.

Aladdin offers a simplistic and deeply problematic solution to the problem of freedom vs. power: the abuse of power.  The law say that the princess must marry a prince... but the sultan can change the law!  The way to overcome the dichotomy between power and freedom is to accept a total despot, a ruler who is not ruled by the law.

As I said, it's an awful movie.  But at least it opens up some interesting questions.