Monday, October 09, 2006

Little Children - Incredible, Thoughtful and Obscene

"What do I say here?" - That was me talking to friend Sean, after we staggered out of the new film from Todd Field (In the Bedroom).

The guy is brilliant. Along with Terence Malick, arguably the most metaphorically astute and Flannery O'Connoresque filmmaker working today. He gets that sin is the fundamental sickness in society, and that holiness is just going from moment to moment with the grace that is out there. In the Bedroom was a profound film about how the failure to forgive leads to insanity. I have been eagerly awaiting his next project. Was In the Bedroom a fluke?

No. It wasn't.

Little Children goes way beyond In the Bedroom in looking at sin as the native human disease that afflicts us all in varying degrees. In the film, sin manifests itself as immaturity and all the action in the film proceeds out of the mainly adult characters acting like, well, little children, who play with their seven deadly toys, like toddlers with a set of colorful plastic keys. Some of the adult children in the movie play with more harmful, scandalous toys than others, but the basic point of view here is the omniscient which watches all of the silliness with the same compassion.

Get it?: "Let the little children come to Me..."

There is some amazing stuff. I could teach a course on it. Like the whole thread of how we tend to want to "fix" sinners fast - just castrating sexual predators like snapping our fingers (all imagery from the film) - but that won't work the film shows us at the end. Quick fixes to tragedy become themselves bigger tragedies still.

It's an amazing, thoughtful film that in so many ways reflects a profound Christian worldview.

But then, it's just a bit obscene, you know.


Right there smack in the middle of all the wonder of it, this film has two or three fully nude absolutely graphic sex scenes. There are also several references to perverted sexual practices and sickening moments centering around male masturbation. The scenes aren't erotic, and, in fact, the "worst" (from a moral standpoint) scene subverts itself midway, demonstrating that the adulterous sex we are watching is just one more way that the main characters are fleeing adulthood, acting out as adolecents.

But the scenes are obscene in a way that wrecks the film by making part of it a thing of ugliness. Because obscenity is ugly. In itself. Regardless of the creative intention for using it.

I have a lot to say on obscenity - the whole "anonymous eyes" problem, but let me just say here that a Catholic understanding of art includes the notion that you need matter + form to be a means of saving grave (sacrament). The matter/content of a movie can absolutely be subverted by its form/method.

In metaphorical terms, it means that if you drag people through a sewer to bring them to some aspirin they will probably not thank you. Even if they have a bad headache, because chances are you will have infected them with other diseases as bad or worse than the one you were seeking to remedy.

Now, the profound truth in Little Children is definitely worth more to our society today than an aspirin...but being exposed to the obscenity in the film is also very bad. As filmmakers it is inexcusable to ever put actors in the position that Mr. Fields required of his actors. Even actors have privacy as human beings. He degraded them to make his point. And we don't get to do that no matter how cool our message is. It can't be delivered by objectifying human beings.

And let's not even start on the potential harmful effects on the audience.

It's ironic that the film pillories Internet sexual voyeurism - and then creates several moments that for some people would be just as potentially dangerous.

Little Children is not a graceless universe. Neither was In the Bedroom and that was why I think both films deserve a lot of respect. They aren't cynical films because they show grace being offered.

But I can't recommend the film indiscriminately because it contains obscenity. Which makes me very sad today. Still, if you are a serious student of film as an artform, go and prepare to duck in parts, because this is an amazing film.


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