Friday, 6 April 2012

"Hugo" v. "Homeland": why are American TV and film kids either perfect or perfectly revolting?

Kids in American films and TV dramas mostly fall into one of two categories: they are either extraordinarily wise and adult and sweet and compassionate – often with semi-mystical powers to boot – or they’re loathsome, foul-mouthed, drug-guzzling, parent-hating delinquents. They’re either teaching adults how to rediscover the true meaning of life – or they’re driving them mad by behaving like utter swine.

I was reminded of this last week when – in the same evening - I watched Stephen Spielberg’s latest film, Hugo, and an episode of the thriller series, Homeland. In the first, the two main child characters (I think they’re supposed to be around 10 and 12 years old, respectively, but they’re so unlike any children I’ve ever met, it’s hard to judge) are wise beyond their years, and sensitive, and hold conversations about their “purpose” in life.

Did you think about your purpose in life when you were that age? As I recall, I was more worried about why pear-drops tended to lacerate one’s tongue.

As for the thriller series, Homeland, it features a spectacularly surly, foul-mouthed and quite possibly sociopathic 15 or 16 year-old daughter who we’re all secretly hoping will die in pain before the end of the series.

I can only assume that the pampered offspring of Hollywood liberals – who will, of course, have been brought up with almost no behavioural constraints, because boundaries would be, like, repressive, yeah? – are uniformly revolting and ill-behaved. I also assume that Hollywood liberals try to live in a more “authentic”, existentialist, spontaneous way than the rest of us – shagging anything that moves, boozing, taking drugs and supporting anyone who doesn’t want to be constricted by society’s petty, stifling, bourgeois rules (i.e. "laws") - and are therefore secretly longing for someone to come along and impose order on their lives, to give them rules and boundaries, to show them how to replace a bohemian lifestyle that has brought them misery with a mode of living that will afford them some semblance of contentment. And they disdain "authority", because that would probably mean listening to adults of a conservative disposition - so that only leaves children as a non-threatening source of wisdom.

Of course, none of their entertainment industry chums are equipped to provide them with sensible advice - they’d probably tell them to try a new psychotropic drug, or get into Kabbalah, or adopt an African baby, or get divorced for the fifth time, or make themselves feel good by supporting some modish liberal cause. And they’ve been visiting shrinks since the first cheque arrived – and that hasn’t worked. And their wife and kids hate them. So their psyche produces perfect little child-adults to give them hope.

Okay, that might explain why we get so many ridiculously perfect children on the screen – but what psychic need are all the utter onscreen horrors meeting?

Terminator 2
I began thinking about this many years ago after watching James Cameron’s excellent film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The teenage boy - who, we know, will turn into John Connor, the heroic leader of human beings in their future battle against the machines – starts off as a vile, foul-mouthed little criminal whom we’d all line up to taser. Why did Cameron have to make him so repellent?  Of course, the boy’s character transformation provides one of those transformational narrative “arcs” so beloved of storytellers (and audiences) – but I couldn’t help wondering about the home life of the people involved in creating the story. Are they praying to God that their own kids will eventually morph into charming, resourceful, respectful young adults?(I hasten to add that I haven’t got a clue as to James Cameron’s domestic arrangements.)

When Spielberg directed ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, he managed to create a bunch of utterly believable, likable, everyday kids who weren’t that bright or that well or badly behaved and who didn’t possess a semi-mystical insight into the meaning of life. They were - you know - kids. Thirty years later, in Hugo, he has produced two of the most unbelievable child characters I’ve ever run across: it’s as if he’s forgotten what children are actually like. (Or else he has kids who drive him totally tonto – again, I haven’t a clue regarding the director’s home life, and even less interest.)

Similarly, either all American high schools are absolute hells on earth, full of bed-wetters, bullies, drug addicts, whores and vengeful sadists – or the people who make American films and TV shows all spent their junior years being mocked, rejected, spat on and beaten up. Was any American who later entered the entertainment industry ever happy at school? If they were, why do horror film directors always arrange for  teenagers who have girlfriends or boyfriends  to be killed off by whichever corporeal or supernatural nutjob happens to front up at the cabin/tent/empty house where the kids are having a good time? I used to think the obsession with punishing teenage sex was to do with American Puritanism – but I think it’s the fact that the killer’s victims actually have friends that seals their fate.

Of course we’re talking about fiction here – and, in the case of Hugo, the film is based on someone else’s novel – so it may be that the people who make US films and drama series enjoyed blissful childhoods, and have nice, normal children.

But, if that’s the case, why do  so few normal kids turn up on our screens?

Nothing to do with any of the above, but I thought I'd mention that in Hugo, Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a Parisian train station official, produces possibly the worst "comic" performance I have ever seen: it is astonishingly inept, both vocally and physically. In Homeland, on the other hand, Damian Lewis as the US soldier released eight years after being captured by Islamists, gives one of the most mesmerisingly powerful performances I've ever seen on television. Brilliant.

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