A Story of Children and Film
Written and directed by Mark Cousins
In his latest project, Mark Cousins treats us to a broad and sweeping analysis of the ways in which children are captured in film. His starting point is a candid home video of his young niece and nephew, Laura and Ben, playing in his Edinburgh flat, which enables him to identify some of the archetypal representations of children in film. It takes the form of a personal cine-essay, using spontaneous connections and free association to build affinities between the most disparate of films and work towards a kind of conclusion. Drawing on extracts from 53 films from around the world, Cousins proves once again to be a knowledgeable and insightful commentator, a true cinephile of extraordinary scope.
His distinctive, idiosyncratic narration guides us through the clips, highlighting the aspects that illustrate whatever point he is making at the time. He jumps around between films, making few historical or cultural distinctions that don’t relate to cinema itself, focusing almost exclusively on the children and how they are perceived by their directors. There is a joyful universalism, almost naiveté, about how he goes about his work, eagerly bridging the gaps between all cinemas and all children. He moves effortlessly from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, and puts additional focus on what appear to be personal favourites on the topic, like Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon and Shinji Somai’s Moving.
Some of the most interesting observations include an examination of children’s theatricality, comparing an extremely young Shirley Temple, who sings with forced, adult gestures, to Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me In St. Louis, who sings out of tune and makes mistakes as she dances with a group of adults. The latter clip is more believable as O’Brien is behaving quintessentially like a child; Cousins notes that it hardly looks like she is acting at all, rather just showing off to the adults alongside her.
The imaginative qualities of children also form a key part of the film. Their propensity to create new worlds and literally inhabit them means that they are often isolated, or indeed able to escape, from adults. Cousins discusses framing extensively, explaining why it is particularly relevant to how children are shot. So much of their lives depend on what is happening out of frame, like those adults in cartoons who have their heads cut off by the camera, yet their immediate emotional needs are taken from what is immediately in front of them.
As the title suggests, it is not designed to be a definitive film on the subject, which would be impossible, but rather showcases the director’s own reflections during a specific period of time. Cousins is continually stating that these are his own thoughts, that something reminded him of one film or another; if he had started out with a different home video, he would certainly have taken us on a different journey. Far from being a criticism, this aspect is one of the most exciting things about A Story of Children and Film, that it opens up so many different worlds and possibilities, new films to watch and new ways of looking at them. Having said that, Cousins does reach a definite conclusion: children are inherently cinematic. Having been enthralled by so many wonderful examples, it is hard to argue with that.