Thursday, February 07, 2008

Little Children

I'd so have liked, today, to talk of the results from Supersaturated Tuesday, and what they mean for America and the world. But since everyone is analyzing Supersaturated Tuesday to death, and no-one is sparing a thought for the film, "Little Children", which I've just seen for the first time, and which I think superb, it seems logical for me to talk today of "Little Children", rather than of Hillary, Barack, John, Mitt, or Mike.

"Little Children's" principal character, Sarah (Kate Winslet), is a thirtyish woman, with a three-year old girl, and married to Richard, a corporate marketing man. They live comfortably in a nice big suburban house. You'd think Sarah would be happy, but she isn't, because she's bored staying home playing mother to her daughter, when she'd rather be out in the working world, utilizing her degree in literature. Sarah spends part of each day in a park watching her daughter play there in the company of other children, whose mothers - soccer-moms all - also hang around the park supervising their children, and exchanging local gossip with Sarah.

The interest of Sarah and her fellow soccer-moms is piqued by a handsome athletic-looking man (Patrick Wilson) who each day brings his infant son to play in the park. He would appear to be a stay-at-home dad, because he always comes alone with his son. Sarah one day, under the gaze of the soccer-moms, summons the courage to strike up an acquaintanceship with him. She learns his name is Brad, and that he stays home while his wife, Kathy, works as a documentary film-maker. Brad has been trying for some time to pass his bar exams to practice law, but he keeps failing. As long as this situation lasts, Kathy will be the bread-winner and Brad will look after their child.

Sarah also learns that Brad often takes his son to the community swimming-pool, so she begins taking her little daughter there too, where, away from the gazes of the soccer moms, she hopes she'll encounter Brad accidentally on purpose - and eventually she does. After meeting up this way a few times, Sarah and Brad embark upon a passionate affair.

You may at this point, dear reader, be regarding Sarah and Brad less than charitably, thinking they're not being fair to their respective spouses. However, Sarah has discovered that her husband, Richard, spends his evenings at home looking at internet porn hour after hour, something which for Sarah, is a veritable turn-off. Brad's wife, Kathy, for her part, is becoming cold and distant with Brad, denying him the marital fleshly pleasures. So we shouldn't be surprised that Sarah and Brad enjoy with each other, what they're missing in their marriages.

Brad also regularly spends long periods of time watching a bunch of teenaged skateboarders do their stuff. It seems that Brad's father had suddenly died when Brad was at the age of the skateboarders, and when he himself had skateboarded. So Brad is stuck in his teenaged years - hence his compulsion to watch teenaged skateboarders.



Brad also has a friend, Larry (Noah Emmerich) an ex-policeman, who has talked Brad into playing touch-football a couple of nights a week with a team of Larry's cronies. After these games they all go to a bar to drink and party, and to talk about what to do about a convicted paedophile, Ronnie, who, after being released from a two-year stint in jail, is now living in the community, in the house of his mother. Larry is especially obsessed by Ronnie, and arranges to have Ronnie's picture displayed everywhere, so everyone will know who he is.

And, as you watch Larry, you feel his mind contains secrets which no-one else knows. It turns out that, some years previously, he'd accidentally shot dead a child in the course of his official duties as a policeman. But what about other stuff?

As for Ronnie the paedophile, his reputation is such that on the one occasion when he visits the community swimming-pool and takes an underwater swim while wearing goggles and a snorkel, he causes such panic that everyone abandons the pool, leaving Ronnie to be escorted out by two policemen who'd been summoned. But it later turns out that Ronnie, although an adult, is psychologically a young and pathetic child, who had never done more than reveal his frontal nether regions to unsuspecting children.

"Little Children" has the feel of other films about American suburbia, like "American Beauty" and "Blue Velvet", which try to show that, under under suburbia's tranquil exterior of manicured green lawns, quiet streets, and spacious houses, turbulence bubbles. What's really going on behind the closed doors of the capacious homes you walk by on the street? What's really going on in the minds of the soccer mom's and dads? the ones who, talking out of mouths with perfect fine white teeth, say "hi" to you in the park or in the mall.

As I watched "Little Children", I wondered why it had been titled "Little Children", for although it has some little children in it, it isn't about them. Then inside my head a lightbulb switched on. Of course! It's the adults in the film, particularly the male ones, who are the little children, or at least not quite grown-up. Brad, in his financial dependence on his wife, and his fascination with skateboarding, is a perpetual adolescent. So too is Sarah's husband, Richard, in his obsession with internet porn. And Ronnie, the paedophile, has never psychologically gone beyond the child stage. And Larry and his buddies on the touch-football team, are like small boys who have been given permission by their mommies (wives) to play outside with their little friends on a couple of evenings a week.


***


That so many of "Little Children's" dramatis personae are little children at heart, perhaps reflects that we, most of us, go through our entire lives as little children, or as adolescents? Consider that when in high school we felt compelled to act and dress as our little friends did, lest they ostracize or bully us; and we lived in fear of the punishments which our teachers, or our mothers and fathers would inflict on us if we failed our exams, or were late for school in the mornings, or talked out of turn in class, or were rude to the teacher. We couldn't wait to escape home and school, in which we were confined as fearful children and rebellious adolescents. We thought that when we got a job, and paid our own way, things would be different.

Having finally escaped school, and the tentacles of our mothers and fathers, for whom we were little more than animated possessions to do their bidding, we found that the organizations which employ us, treat us little differently than did our schoolmasters or mothers and fathers. Instead of a school uniform we have a business suit; and if we don't arrive at work on time, we'll be chastised or fired; and we begin and end our coffee-breaks and lunches, not at the sound of a school bell, but of a buzzer; and if we take a day off sick, we must get a note from the doctor; and if we don't do our work exactly as the boss wants, we'll be fired.

So our workplaces are as riddled with fear and loathing, and with boredom, as were our schools. Our bosses infantilize us into behaving as fearful little children, just as our teachers, and mothers and fathers once did.


***


Sarah (Kate Winslet) belongs to a book-club which is discussing Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary". The other members of the book-club are, with one exception, women older than Sarah, who are split in their judgements of Emma Bovary, who, being stuck in a stultifying and oppressive marriage to a bourgeois doctor, chose to break free, and have passionate affairs with many men. Sarah sees in Emma's predicament, her own predicament. So Sarah takes Emma's side, saying, in so many words, that Emma was presented with a simple choice: either conform to society's mores, and be unhappy, but secure and respected; or try for happiness, but at the price of disgrace and ultimate disaster.

Is Emma's predicament that much different for so many of today's women, and also men? This question hovers over the book-club's dissection of "Madame Bovary".

One of the book club's participants is one of Sarah's soccer-mom friends from the playground She condemns Emma vehemently, calling her a disgraceful irresponsible slut. Why would this model of a suburban soccer-mom, take so personally what the fictional Emma Bovary did? one wonders.

Envy?


And Now For Something Completely Different: