Children and film

by Ray Olson

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 35-38
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

young viewers 1, No. 4, Sumer 1978 (published by the Media Center for Children. 43 W. 61st St., New York, NY 10023).

This quarterly, solely devoted to children's films, apparently is the only such periodical in the U.S. The issue at hand is grandly entitled "the state of the art — children's films 1978." But it reports only on a one-day conference in New York sponsored by the magazine's publisher — an event that hardly covered the variety of films pitched at children. The conference made no attempt, for example, to treat the films that most influence children — TV shows — nor did it cover educational/ instructional films.

Pretensions to grand scope, however, are the least of the magazine's troubles. Rather, its worst offense is failing to take its subject seriously. Its writers bandy evaluative adjectives about without ever defining or examining them. And this is just the most obtrusive manifestation of a refusal, both in the conference and by the writers who report it, to ask questions about children and film. While reviewing the magazine I will ask some of those questions, discuss the importance of teaching film literacy, and point to young viewers' lack of perspective as the cause of its triviality.

This issue is as informative and mystifying as a daily newspaper: it reports events but not meanings. It addresses an audience that takes evaluative terms as descriptive and asks no questions about them. A film is said to be "good" or "technically" bad or "the best fairy tale film for children made in the last 40 years" as though these were statements of objective fact. This matter-of-factness about problematic qualitative language no doubt arises from the workaday attitudes of the conferees, who were film programmers in public libraries, schools, and museums, some educators and educational entrepreneurs, and a few independent exhibitors.

But this matter-of-factness prevents any genuine discussion. For example, in one workshop a panel of programmers talked about trying "to counter the negative effects of television violence and exploitation through free screenings of quality films for kids" (p. 15, emphasis added). There's another of those troublesome evaluative terms. What does it mean? Are "quality" films merely non-violent and non-exploitative? What are or would be non-violent and non-exploitative films? Why are violent films not "quality" films? What makes a film exploitative of children? How does film exploit children? Questions like these, central (I think) to knowing what "quality" — or "good" or "bad" — films for children are, didn't come up either in this workshop or elsewhere during the conference, or if they did, aren't reported.

Perhaps the conferees thought these questions weren't theirs to answer since they weren't "professional" critics. Yet, as Burt Supree, a children's author interviewed here, points out, critics seldom address themselves to children's media because

"It's not chic, it's not terrifying: in some way, it's just not important. As long as you entertain the kids for an afternoon, and they don't scream and hate it, people seem to think it's not very important how well it's done" (p. 14).

If Supree states the predominant critical attitude accurately, then teachers and librarians who use children's films, and others who work with and care about children and their development, must assume the work of discrimination and evaluation.

Well, there was a workshop on evaluating children's media, but attempts to answer the questions, "How do you determine if media is [sic] appropriate for kids?" and "What criteria should be used?" led only to debate over the "treatment of fantasy and reality in kids' films" and discussion of "children's so-called 'passive' [sic] viewing" (p. 13). Yet the first question is particularly pertinent to educational use and provokes several subsidiary questions. Is film necessary to communicate the subject? Does the use of film to communicate the subject trivialize or distort it? Does film cause alienation from the subject or some other off-putting response, such as emotional over-involvement with some detail at the expense of comprehending the whole? Are the children who will see this film adequately prepared to view it? That is, do they know enough of film technique to understand what they will be seeing — that it is animated or live action, that it is staged or real-life?

This last question must be a concern of every presenter of films to children, even the adult who casually lets a child watch TV at her/his own discretion. Children no less than adults should be able to watch films critically. They should be able to see how film manipulates a viewer's identification with the camera's eye and/or with persons in the film and how film creates and nurtures erroneous impressions. Once they have these abilities, they'll be better prepared to deal with the factual misinformation and consumer indoctrination that TV — to take only the most flagrant offender — routinely dispenses.

But how to give children these abilities? Let me cite a personal example. My daughter is a 10 year-old much enamored of the glamorous female TV stars. Among her favorite programs is CHARLIE'S ANGELS, in which three female detectives apparently perform a superhuman variety of athletic feats. As role models, the three actresses who play them present the kind of impossible virtuosity that leads a child who naively accepts them as standards for her own achievement to early frustration and feelings of impotence. While watching an episode at a ski resort, Gwyneth called me over to see how well the actresses skied. I said I didn't think they were doing the skiing. I explained cutting and pointed out that we saw the stars skiing only in long shot when we couldn't see who they really were.

"Oh, yeah?" she said when a close-up of one of the three apparently skiing came on. So I explained back-projection and called her attention to the figure-ground discrepancy that gives it away. Beyond debunking the star mystique, I think I gave her a few elementary tools for looking at films critically on her own. I know she's used them because she's told me about it.

This is some of what I mean by adequate preparation for viewing film, and of course, most adults need this kind of instruction in film literacy, too. Perhaps the adults' need accounts for the lack of attention to film literacy in young viewers. Instead of concern for children's ability to cope with film, there was a call for the workshop participants to "depart from adult ways of viewing children's films and try to see them as a child would." Maybe they already do. They were, and the writers in this issue are, mostly ready and eager to accept reports of children's favorite reactions as endorsements of individual films. Perhaps some children's approbation is so worthy, but usually children are naive and look to adults for some guidance. To use children's untutored opinions as the ultimate criteria for assessing a film's value is a dereliction of the adult responsibility to guide from knowledge. It is also a version of the attitude Supree has decried:

"As long as you entertain the kids … it' s not very important how well it's done."

Not all the writers here find children's immediate entertainment the highest criterion of value. Jeanne Betancourt in "a sampler of children's films" (pp. 2-3) evaluates several films from the vantage of her concern for children's development. She approves of DANCE ON A MAY DAY (1977) because it "says it's okay for boys to dance." She dislikes IRA SLEEPS OVER (1977) because it "soft-pedal[s] and simplif[ies] children's very real anxieties" (here about staying away from home overnight) and its themes "are pointed at adults rather than developed for children." (But how does she recognize, and what is, a development of themes for children?) She likes THE WHITE HERON (1978) because it is the story of "a young woman [who] makes an important personal decision, independent from the one pressed on her by a custodial adult and an attractive love-interest." Betancourt evaluates from a perspective that is identifiable although not directly stated. She is an exception, however, from the mystifying practicality of the other writers and conferees (as reported), who finally do seem to care most about whether kids like a film.

The conference and young viewers lack a perspective from which evaluations can be intelligibly made. Betancourt's praise for anti-stereotypical sex role models in the films she reviews may be a harbinger of a nascent feminism that should be encouraged to be more rigorous and fully articulated. Failing to find a perspective, the magazine will fail as a critical guide despite any value it retains as a communicator of production, distribution, and program-planning information. I do not expect young viewers to find any consistent perspective, let alone the feminist-socialist-anarchist viewpoint I think is desirable, partly because of the magazine's uniqueness. Since it's the only children's film magazine, it may feel obliged to welcome any, all, and no viewpoint in order to cover the field. This makes it all the more important for committed critics and journals such as JUMP CUT and Cineaste to consider the kinds and uses of films for children.

(In the spring of 1979 Sightlines, once the parent journal of young viewers, published a report on another conference on films for children. Although a larger affair than the conference young viewers covered, the conference broke no new ground, achieved no solid perspective. With most of the same writers, and the same participants, it seems, the Sightlines issue is practically interchangeable with the young viewers issue.)