Protecting Innocents, Longing for Innocence: An Emerging Theme from 2012 Cinema


January 3, 2013

(ed. note): This is a guest post from Nicholas Olson, whose bio has now been added to our list of contributors. Looking forward to much more from Nick.)

Last year’s big theme at the cinema was nostalgia, or apocalypse, or both depending on who you ask. It struck me recently that several of my favorite 2012 films—the ones that have most resonated with me—have been, in one manner or another, about protecting innocents and the longing for innocence.

I suppose it’s appropriate to begin with the horror film, Sinister. If the defining image isn’t a family hanging from a tree, then perhaps it’s the outside of Ellison Oswalt’s (Ethan Hawke) closed home office door. Director Scott Derrickson gives us a frightful depiction of evil that suggests both its supernatural and its human iterations. We’re told that the demon in the film, Bughuul, “consumes children,” and because this demonic presence is an image-dweller, his consummation of children is specified by the powerful effect that images can have on a child’s psyche. At the same time, Ellison is so steadfastly pursuing a self-image of success and fame in such an inordinately selfish manner that he’s eating away at the stability of his marriage, and ultimately his children. Derrickson’s film is a warning against the Bughuulian impulse before it’s too late. And it’s also a righteous expletive against those who would whittle the complexity of evil down to “stressors.”

In this year’s charming Ghibli studio release, The Secret World of Arrietty, we’re invited to observe the formation of an interesting friendship between a young girl and boy. The latter is a normal sized human being—a “bean”—while the former is a little person—a “borrower”—the height of a pin needle. These young ones meet one another due to their mutual inquisitiveness. The problem is that Arrietty’s family—and Borrowers in general—live in fear of the much larger humans. When the housekeeper catches on that there are Borrowers rummaging about, she calls the exterminators and Arrietty’s family is in danger of extinction. Meanwhile, the young boy, Sean, has his own grave problems. Namely, he has a serious heart condition that threatens his life, and, to make matters worse, his divorced parents are too busy to be available in the midst of his trial. What’s beautiful about where this pleasant, quiet tale goes is the sense that Sean cares enough for his helpless little friends not to reduplicate his parents’ mistakes; his desire to refurbish and protect Arreitty’s home is motivated by familiarity with his own sense of a broken home.

One reason for my appreciation of The Dark Knight Rises is the way director Christopher Nolan goes about framing the third film’s tonal shift if we consider each film of the trilogy part of a three act structure. If Heath Ledger’s Joker dominates The Dark Knight, then Nolan does well to match the force of that killer performance with a third-act reconciliatory effort framed around Batman qua orphan, inspired fellow orphan John Blake, and Catwoman’s reluctant, but growing response to the caped crusader’s protection of innocents. Together, this force of reconciliatory good enabled me to be invested in Nolan’s film in a way that his other work doesn’t always evoke. Bruce Wayne is a lost soul, in part, because his parents were murdered when he was a young boy. He’s still in search of home. Batman’s impassioned protection of innocents has inspired another orphan boy who is now a cop; Blake has several moments in which he’s doing the work of protecting children in the midst of Bane’s destruction. But one of the film’s more satisfying moments is when Catwoman makes an inspired return to devastated, occupied Gotham just in time to protect a young boy from a couple of bullies. To know the heart of Batman’s battle is to know the impetus behind Nolan’s choice in referencing Dickens—it’s to know what becomes of Wayne Manor in the end of the film.

Looper begins as a standard, if accomplished, sci-fi noir thriller. But the second half of the film settles into a different tone and pace; if the first half of the film is the grimy, futuristic city, then the second half is the traditional pastoral. And much of this shift has to do with a young, extraordinary boy named Cid. Filled with themes of time travel and selfhood-as-becoming, Looper is also concerned with intergenerational responsibility. Rian Johnson localizes this tension in the parent/child relationship. The film’s protagonist, Joe, lost his parents at an early age, and the effects on him have been deteriorating. Joe’s older self, who has experienced some joy later in life, has come back to kill Cid in order to prevent from existing the mass murderer who the young boy would become. Young Joe doesn’t just protect Cid from Old Joe; he’s first significantly affected by the sight of a mother desperate to protect her son after she had once abandoned him. If there’s an image that defines what’s being wrought in future generations, it’s of a young boy sitting in the cornfield soaked in blood—the shocking, but meditative depiction evokes desperate sympathy for the innocence we’ve lost collectively. But Joe’s unexpected presence and change of heart seems to enable the boy to see that it is indeed his real mother who is sacrificially caring for him. It’s a realization strong enough to change the future, and abate at least some of the film’s bleakness.

The title of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s lovely film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is indicative of the mysterious human capacity to narrate the details of our daily lives. This focus on narration is especially effective here because it’s couched in an unfolding homicide procedural. A group of men—including two in handcuffs, a prosecutor, a police chief, a doctor, a couple of grave diggers, and other embodiments of civil upkeep—have gathered in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere in a small Anatolian town. The homicide investigation has led the contingent in search of the body. But these scant details are not prominent; they are in the background, pressing us to look closer and narrate many of the unspoken details for ourselves. In the forefront are the little conversations about the difficult, but mysterious, nature of life—hard conversations that a homicide investigation might produce.

While narrative turns are subtle in Ceylan’s film, I think the most significant moment is when the group stops at the Mukhtar’s house for food and rest. When the feast is interrupted by a power outage, the Mukhtar calls for his daughter to bring candles. Her beautiful young face–illuminated by the candle’s light–becomes something like a humane icon that changes the whole trajectory of the evening and its participants. Amidst the night’s conversations on life’s difficulties is the motif that the children are at stake. They must be protected from the enfolding cold and darkness. You get the sense that the reason for this group’s desire to protect and preserve children from the inevitable darkness–and, perhaps, their being enamored with the Mukhar’s young daughter–is their desire for innocence. We narrate the details toward this particular end–not only making sense of the darkness, but imagining the possibility of erasing it. For the child, pursuing meaning is pure joy; for the adult, the need to “make sense” of the story can often become a corrupted venture. The young daughter is an image of purity that declares guilt upon the transgressor and confounds those willing only to see by the light of mechanistic reason. Images of innocence have the power to demand confession; and they also have the power to renew and refine our sight.

Wes Anderson’s films have always had a childlike quality about them, but Moonrise Kingdom might be the most effective and affecting among his remarkable oeuvre. It’s a story about Sam Shakusy and Suzy Bishop, two pre-teens who meet at summer camp, bonded together through mutual familiarity with familial dysfunction. From a young age, Sam has been an orphan passed around to foster parents and summer camps. Suzy has suffered the consequences of her parents’ malfunctioning marriage. Her dad is the epitome of aloof, and her mom, who has a propensity for violence, is having an affair with the island cop. With adults behaving childishly in its negative connotation, Sam and Suzy decide to run away out of legitimate desperation for an intimate bond.

Unlike the community they’re running from in which their gifts are squelched by scorn, Sam and Suzy find in one another a love which breeds confidence. Despite his clumsy appearance, Sam puts his deft survival skills to work in order to protect Suzy at all costs. His guidance in the woods is matched only by his desire to make Suzy feel special. Suzy is rarely without her binoculars and books; she has a keen insight, a wisdom that enables her to see beyond surface level appearances, including seeing the good in Sam. United by their exclusion, Sam’s and Suzy’s unique gifts have a magical quality about them, as if out of a storybook adventure, and these gifts serve to bind them together in sympathetic affection, safety, and hope. What’s wonderful about this runaway story is that the duo’s mature covenant eventually returns home and establishes its kingdom where Sam and Suzy first met: aboard the churchly ark. The threat of flood judgment against those who would foster hate for the downtrodden has receded, and a fresh harvest of restored relationships has cropped up. The adults just may become like Sam and Suzy—childlike in its best connotation. If you can’t recognize the imperative to embody such a connotation, well, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

I began with horror and I want to end with grace—or, with a hairdresser and a kid with a bike. Young Cyril is a red blur; suited in his red jacket, he’s seemingly always either running or riding his bike at a furious pace. Primarily, Cyril’s in search of his single father, who has effectively left his son in foster care to fend for himself. Cyril maintains faith that his father has only left him for a time, but as he slowly discovers the extent to which he’s been abandoned, Cyril’s hope begins to transform into a fragile sense of inadequacy. Why doesn’t anyone want him? There before Cyril are two options to fill the void left by his father, and tellingly, both appear to take care of him by taking care of his bike (after his father had sold it upon abandoning Cyril). Samantha, a hairdresser, recovers the boy’s sold bike; Wes, a no-good, small-time gangster offers to fix Cyril’s bike. The former offers Cyril genuine love and security out of sheer grace; the latter offers the pretense of love and security in the hope of leveraging a vulnerable boy into a loyal henchman.

Cyril tries the latter option, but it has him running more furiously only to stay in the same place of insecurity; the hairdresser’s graciousness, though, allows Cyril to ride a new bike with different gears—one that takes on a quality of calm endurance. Samantha’s love for the child is the breath of life, or the life-giving water—whichever metaphor you prefer. In 2012—from Bughuul to Samantha the hairdresser—I’m reminded of that most important saying: the kingdom belongs to such as these. All at once it’s a warning, an imperative, and a joy.