The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairy Tales

August 26, 2010

Interest in the child in film has grown in recent years, with texts such as Vicky Lebeau's Childhood and Cinema (2008) and Emma Wilson's Cinema's Missing Children (2003) offering insight into this often neglected history, alongside detailed and illuminating readings of individual films. In addition, a number of conferences in the past few years have been devoted to exploring this complex and intriguing figure. Karen Lury's absorbing addition to this body of work, which she makes clear is not a history of the child in film, begins with the following assertion:

"I have a problem with beginnings; and with the endings that they inevitably promise ... This is probably because my curiosity about the figure of the child in film is not driven by the belief that I will reach a confident conclusion or even a series of conclusions about what this child means or 'does' to cinema ... I am more interested in thinking about, thinking with, worrying and speculating about this child, and undertaking a mode of questioning that is akin to the child's accelerating queries of 'but why?'."

This disarming recognition of the impossibility of certainty and the adoption of the child's mode of questioning reveals both the book's strength and its one area of potential weakness. Lury's investigation of the child in film captures and mimics the uncontrolled curiosity of the child, that creative and polymorphous exploration that can produce the absorbing, the beguiling, the unexpected and the awkward.

This pushes Lury's analysis into fascinating areas but it also means that the book lacks the kind of organised questioning that one associates with the rather more learned reasoning of adults.

While my sympathies lie with the former approach, it does mean that the overall text is somewhat disjointed. The four chapters that comprise the main body of the book - "Hide and seek: children and ghosts in contemporary Japanese film", "Dirty little white girls", "Mud and fairytales: children in films about war" and "The impropriety of performance: children (and animals) first" - feel like distinct entities, much like individual contributions to an edited collection. This is not to say that they are not in themselves interesting (and they are, very) but simply to recognise a lack of overall cohesion.

A number of key themes emerge from the book, the most important of which is the question of temporality. Childhood, as represented in film, tends to dislocate and trouble linear time, and Lury examines a number of films, such as Chris Marker's La Jetée/The Pier (1962) - "a story of a man marked by an image from his childhood" - and Hideo Nakata's Ringu/Ring (1998), which focus explicitly on time in relation to childhood and memory.

The chapter that I found most interesting is the final one, in which Lury considers the vexed question of performance, of "acting and not-acting". What makes the child's "performance" so compelling is its position along this axis, the extent to which the child is "really" doing what the viewer sees on screen. Lury contextualises her discussion in relation to the concept of risk, both in terms of exploitation and in terms of the unpredictability of performance.

While the two are clearly closely connected, it is the former that most concerns Lury, particularly in the discussion of crying with which she concludes her study. The question that recurs is whether, as viewers, we can be "entirely certain that the tears we witness are 'all an act'".

It is precisely this question - the "are they really ...?" - that "opens up the contradictory and competing understandings of what it is, exactly, the child does when it appears, or performs, in film" and that Lury so effectively explores in this rewarding book.

The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairy Tales

By Karen Lury. IB Tauris, 224pp, £45.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9781845119676 and 9683. Published 30 March 2010

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