Friday, 25 December 2009

[2] "...Well it doesn't, Mister Potter."


"Now, you listen to me! I don't want any plastics, and I don't want any ground-floors, and I don't want to get married - ever - to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you're... and you're... Oh, Mary, Mary... Would you?... Would you?..."

"Just a minute - just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… Why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what's wrong with that? […] You, you said – what'd you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken down that they... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about – they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be."

"Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls! Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!"

EDIT: Go here for an excellent article by James Zborowski on some of the joys and complexities of It's a Wonderful Life.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

[1] "You think the whole world revolves around you and your money..."


"Where's that money, you silly, stupid old fool? Where's that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison - that's what it means... One of us is going to jail - well, it's not gonna be me."

"Hey look, mister - we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint "atmosphere". Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?"

"You call this a happy family? Why did we have to have all these kids?"

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Robin Wood: 1931-2009


“You know, I believe that if there's any kind of god, it wouldn't be in any of us, not you, or me, but just... this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it's almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”

– Céline (Julie Delpy) in Before Sunrise

Robin Wood was one of the greatest and most influential of film critics. He was also one of the main causes of my learning to love writing about the cinema. Some kind of personal tribute to mark his passing feels absolutely necessary, since – apart from anything – it is probable that this blog itself wouldn’t exist had I not encountered his work.

Many film scholars and cinephiles who grew up in the 60s and 70s can trace their serious interest in film back to Wood’s classic book Hitchcock’s Films (1965). It is easy to see why, given it appeared both before Hitchcock’s reputation had been consolidated (Wood felt it necessary to open the book with a question that would never be asked today: “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?”), and indeed before American film itself was regularly treated with seriousness by English language critics. However, I (and many friends and colleagues my age) am proof that one certainly needn’t have been around at this seminal moment in order to have been inspired and influenced by Wood’s work.

The first piece of Wood’s that I definitely remember reading is his article ‘Rethinking Romantic Love: Before Sunrise’ (from Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond). It was with a beautiful, sharp shock that I read its first words:

I knew, the first time I saw Before Sunrise, that here was a film for which I felt not only interest or admiration, but love.

Most of the articles and books I had previously read as a film studies undergraduate attempted an ‘objective’ tone, avoiding first-person emotion at all costs. Wood, clearly, was attempting something different. What drew me in was not only the fact that he felt the same way about this film as I did, but that he had felt it necessary to open an article in such a forthrightly, nakedly personal manner. It seemed to me that this writer was being open about something that was being problematically repressed in so much other scholarship: the absolutely central, unavoidable, importance of the critic’s own personal response – what V. F. Perkins calls “the evidence of feeling”. The article went on to engage in a detailed, impassioned reading of Before Sunrise from various angles (authorship, structure, historical context, ideology, performance, style), yet this reading had clearly been prompted, as Wood makes clear, by love. Never before had I been moved by film criticism.

Looking back on this moment now, perhaps the reason I was so immediately seduced was because Wood was writing from a perspective of love about a film that I too loved, which in itself was concerned with love. In one sense, there was probably already enough romance in this to have caused a young fan and critic of Before Sunrise to swoon. Yet, even more, I remember being struck in particular by the way in which the emotions Wood admitted to were placed in perfect dialogue not only with the film, but with the critical act itself. Towards the opening of the piece, Wood (making reference to a line of dialogue from the film) says that he immediately knew Before Sunrise was a film that

I would ultimately want to write about, as a means at once of exploring it more systematically and of sharing my delight in it with others – of finding that "magic" in the "attempt".

Then, at the end, writing of the film’s own beautiful final sequence (watch it here), he writes:

The sequence evokes the ending of Antonioni's L'Eclisse, but without its sense of desolation and finality: rather, the feeling is of sadness and happiness inextricably intermingled, regret for the separation and the uncertainty but a deep satisfaction in the degree of mutual understanding and intimacy two human beings have achieved in a few hours, how nearly successful the attempt to bridge “this little space in between”. And, as Celine says, the “answer”, the “magic”, must be in the attempt. The same might be said of the critic's relationship to the films s/he loves.

Of course, part of the beauty of the personal quality of Wood’s writing is simply that it allows you to feel as if you in some sense know him, meaning that to engage with his arguments is to – as he once said of another critic’s work (Jim Kitses’ Horizons West) – “engage with another mind, another psyche, in a fully human way”. For Wood this was not just a question of honesty: it was a matter of the irreducibly social nature of criticism as an act of intellectual and emotional communication. I think this fact is made poignantly transparent in the quotation above.

Wood finds a way to make the entire article – like the greatest cinema – have a ‘form’ that is inextricable from its ‘content’. The personal nature of his writing here is not only a matter of frankness, but also a necessary response to the themes of the film, to the relationship between critics and films in general, and to the relationship between critic and reader. Furthermore, in one final layer of coherence, Wood’s writing very often ensured that the particular nature of this relationship between critic and reader was – as I can attest to – one of love.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Notes on Paranormal Activity, Antichrist, and Andrew Britton


Paranormal Activity and Antichrist ostensibly come from entirely different filmmaking traditions and seem to implicitly address themselves to different audiences. This has meant that, as we would probably expect, they have been received in very different ways by the critical fraternity. The former has tended to be treated as an arthouse picture steeped in a symbolism considered to be either intellectually profound or emptily provocative (depending on the reviewer), while the latter has largely been regarded as an ingenious, but ultimately functional, genre exercise designed to elicit scares and nothing more. There are, however, undeniable parallels between the two films which demand to be engaged with – particularly given they were released within months of one another. I’m nowhere close to reaching any conclusions on these parallels, but the fact that they are so clearly there, combined with the fact that (as far as I am aware) no one seems to be noticing them, is interesting enough to require a few words.

I’m certainly not saying it’s wrong to view these films in the ways I’ve described – indeed, in order to retain perspective and context it is necessary on some level to do so. Antichrist of course is the latest in a long line of intentionally controversial and formally inventive works by the international art cinema’s leading provocateur, Lars Von Trier; likewise, Paranormal Activity certainly is a pleasantly creepy updating of the ghost movie and a fun night out at the cinema. But such categories, dictated by production, mode, and marketing, can sometimes blind us to more deep-rooted similarities that are grounded more in matters of narrative (and, as a consequence, ideological) convention.

One immediately obvious, and broad, convention shared by the films is the horror genre: in Antichrist this genre is viewed through the lens of art cinema, and in Paranormal Activity it is tweaked via the style of recent ‘realistic’ horror movies such as The Blair Witch Project (1999). Another shared tradition is that of the male/female ‘two-hander’, since both films are focused almost entirely on a heterosexual romantic couple. Beyond this, though, another more specific convention that I think both films clearly engage with is what Andrew Britton has called the "persecuted wife melodrama" (and elsewhere the “Freudian-feminist melodrama”).

Britton set out his case for this cycle of films in the essay ‘A New Servitude: Bette Davis, Now, Voyager, and the Radicalism of the Woman’s Film’ (which can now be found in the indispensible Britton on Film). Put very simply, Britton describes the persecuted wife melodrama as being focused on a female protagonist who is married to an impressive and overbearing man, and who (for reasons that vary across the films) comes to feel hysterical, threatened and trapped in both her marriage and her marital home. The narrative tends to see the husband exert considerable control over the woman, to the point at which he may either be revealed as the cause – or at least as standing in the way of the cure – of his wife’s distress. Depending on the film, the narrative will conclude either with the expulsion of the husband or the revelation that the woman misunderstood his malevolent intentions towards her.

This is a tradition Britton sees as indebted to the image of women in Gothic 19th Century literature (particularly Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), and which found expression in classical Hollywood in films such as Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Minelli’s Undercurrent (1946), Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949), and Ophuls’ Caught (1949). Bringing the cycle slightly further up to date, I would suggest that another key movie is Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – a film that brings the tradition’s conventions directly into contact with contemporary horror, and which can thus be seen as a necessary stepping stone on the path towards the cycle’s presence in 2009 with Antichrist and Paranormal Activity.

As I have said, I don’t have a final reading on the significance of the inflections these films play on the persecuted wife melodrama. The fact is, though, that its conventions are undeniably present, and they ensure that both movies (not just the one explicitly concerned with gendercide) are as much about sexual politics as they are about ‘horror’. In the absence of a more in-depth analysis (which may well come at a later date), I will for now restrict myself to simply quoting a few of Britton’s points regarding the cycle and suggesting briefly how they manifest themselves in each film.

[NOTE: If you haven’t seen one or either of the films and want to avoid spoilers, then read no further.]

The marriage takes place at the beginning of the narrative, the rest of which is concerned with the bloody aftermath of “the happy ending”.

Neither film begins with a marriage, but the relationship in both is already well under way by the film’s start. This is fully in keeping with the famously disconcerting trend (embodied perfectly in the persecuted wife melodrama) that, in Hollywood cinema at least, a story about courtship is a comedy, while a story about marriage is a melodrama.

In some cases, though not in all, the film emphasizes the Oedipal aspect of the heroine’s love [by stressing that] her husband is older than she is and/or her superior in social rank.

This is certainly more obvious in Antichrist, where Dafoe’s character is both clearly older than Gainsbourg’s and seemingly a successful (judging from the couple’s apparent wealth and the fact that Gainsbourg doesn’t work) psychotherapist. In Paranormal Activity too, however, Micah is surely the earner in the household, given that Katie (like, in fact, Gainsbourg) is a student. In both films the male partner is also very strong-willed, and certainly perpetually behaves as if he were his partner’s superior.

Enter “the house” – archaic, marmoreal, labyrinthine, patriarchal: the prototypes are Brontë’s Thornfield Hall on the one hand and Poe’s House of Usher on the other.

In both films the uneasy domestic setting is key, and is where most of each film takes place. In Antichrist ‘Eden’, the holiday cabin, is clearly central to the drama and partly represents the malevolent forces at play in the narrative, both being wracked by storms like those that bedevil Poe’s House of Usher (resulting in the hellish falling acorns), and containing hidden secrets like Brontë’s Thornfield Hall (Gainsbourg’s thesis notes, the photographs). In Paranormal Activity we are told that the apartment is not the reason for the haunting, which would likely accompany Katie wherever she leads; yet the film nonetheless takes place entirely in the couple’s shared home, and the supernatural occurrences are initially only manifested in and on the fabric of the apartment (objects moving, lights and televisions switching on and off, unexplained noises [again, see: Usher and Thornfield]).

The marriage bed becomes the site of the heroine’s ultimate terror and humiliation and of the displacement of her sexuality into hysteria.

This most certainly describes the function of the marriage bed in Antichrist, since Gainsbourg’s guilt at having been unable to save her son is tied so intimately with sex, causing her to initially engage in sex obsessively and later to punish herself through a horrific and permanent disavowal of sexual pleasure: the circumcision. This theme is less overt but still present in Paranormal Activity via Katie’s refusal to let Micah film their lovemaking, and the fact that the great majority of the hauntings happen in the couple’s bedroom, where they set up the camera each night (guaranteeing that the image of the couple being frightened in bed is probably the most representative image of the movie – and also the film’s poster).

Masculinity, as the Freudian-feminist melodrama perceives it, is driven by an obsessional horror of lack, [represented in] the husband’s profound conviction of his impotence [which in turn results in] a corresponding project of domination.

This is where the conventions of the persecuted wife melodrama are felt most strongly in each film. Both Dafoe in Antichrist and Micah in Paranormal Activity are shown to be deeply threatened by the fact that they cannot rationally explain what is happening to their partners. They therefore engage in an extended process of domination over both the woman and her problem that is putatively presented as attempts to ‘solve’ them. In Antichrist this situation is exacerbated by Dafoe’s profession as a therapist, which causes him to take Gainsbourg away from the specialists treating her because he believes he can cure her himself. Micah also rejects offers of help from others (the psychic) in favour of solving Katie’s problems in his own way. Indeed, both are obsessed with handling their partners’ problems themselves in their way (despite many contrary pleas from the women in their lives), betraying assumptions of ownership and mastery (see Micah’s line, “I'm not having something coming in my house and fucking with my girl...”). In Antichrist the chosen tool of the indomitable power of male reason over the ‘irrational’ female is psychotherapy, in Paranormal Activity it is the video camera (at the film’s opening we learn Micah has bought the biggest, most expensive camera on the market – a purchase that it is certainly not especially difficult to read in Freudian terms). In both films there are veiled and not-so-veiled power battles going on in virtually every exchange the couples share – battles that the man, initially at least, wins every time.

She is exemplary for the passion and intensity with which she has internalized the desires, fantasies and ambitions which the culture encourages her to have.

This is manifestly the case for Gainsbourg, who – it emerges – has (at least following her son’s death, and probably earlier) internalised patriarchal culture’s most extreme misogynist attitudes, ultimately resulting in her belief that womankind as a whole is inherently evil. Has Katie perhaps taken on less pronounced assumptions regarding female passivity and male power, which cause her to allow Micah to so thoroughly dominate her?

The powerful female energies which the male protagonist has sought to disavow erupt, the house is destroyed, and the patriarchal line is extinguished.

In both films repressed female energy certainly eventually erupts, and violently, but with rather different consequences. In Antichrist Gainsbourg exacts a terrifying reign of violence upon Dafoe, only for Dafoe to recover and finally feel justified in killing her. Does Von Trier’s desire to provoke in this respect actually result in him forfeiting some of the more radical potential of the persecuted wife conventions? In Paranormal Activity, a more modest genre film, Katie is ultimately taken over fully by the demon and disposes of Micah, escaping to ‘whereabouts unknown’, thus enacting a destruction of an embodiment of patriarchy that earlier examples of the tradition could only begin to hint at. Perhaps one of the things to be learned from comparing these films is that genre movies still retain the potential to express ideas that would prove unacceptable in other forms – even perhaps in the form of the ‘shocking’ art film…?

These are very preliminary notes on the subject and, as such, the questions above are not rhetorical. I think there is a great deal more to be said about the relationship between these movies and the tradition to which I am arguing they relate, but this will have to wait till a later date. One thing at least that I hope is clear, though, is that assumptions about mode, production and implied audience need not necessarily blind us to potentially telling similarities between the ideologically-charged conventions used by seemingly disparate films.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

“Once upon a time there was a girl and the girl was very married.”

Once upon a time there was a girl and the girl was very married. And she danced to the music with her marrier. And then there was a big bad wolf sneaking while she was dancing. And then they looked behind them and then they saw a wolf and the wolf gobbled them up. And then they was alive again. And then they went home and they saw a broken chair. So much they liked the broken chair it broked into little pieces. And then they sitted on their new settee.
(Bethany, aged 4)

Although I imagine that in future this blog will be mostly dedicated to film, I came across something recently that has compelled me to devote my inaugural post to a different subject. However, while in one sense the topic is unrepresentative of what will likely follow, in another sense it is almost too on-the-nose in relation to what I envisage this blog to be for: a forum for loose attempts at, as Frank Kermode puts it, “making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives”.

So, to begin…

Last week I saw a show by the London-based children’s educational theatre company MakeBelieve Arts called The Woman Who Cooked Everything. A large part of the performance consisted of stories dreamt up by children between the ages of 3 and 5. The stories were produced using the ‘helicopter technique’ of storytelling and story-acting originally developed by the kindergarten teacher and education researcher Vivian Paley (who has written books with such magnificent titles as Bad Guys Don't Have Birthdays: Fantasy Play at Four). The show’s accompanying book describes this technique as follows: “Children dictate their stories to a workshop leader who scribes their words verbatim. At the end of the session the class gather together and act out the stories of their peers”.

This sounds to me like a wonderful technique: it invites the children’s imaginations to run wild, gives them the satisfaction of being listened to intently, encourages them to interpret one medium into another, and lets them see their work be performed. That’s not what I want to focus on here, however. Instead I want to look at the stories themselves. This is because what the ‘helicopter technique’ also apparently produces is some of the most baffling, hilarious and fascinating narratives you could ever hope to encounter.

This is surely down to the verbal and unedited nature of the storytelling. These stories are not what you get when a teacher tries to get a child to write a story with pen and paper, or helps them to construct a narrative: this is an expression of the moment-by-moment thought processes of very young children as they struggle with the conflicting demands of their early understanding of story structure, their minimal yet deeply-felt life experience, their limited abilities with language, and the sheer batshit craziness of their fantasy worlds. The results are astonishing on a number of levels. Always inventive, often incoherent – yet clearly indicative of a strong desire to make sense of the world around them – these stories are bursting at the seams both with entertainment value and matters of critical interest.

I’m no child psychologist, nor am I particularly well-versed in children’s literature. I’m simply a fan and critic of popular culture with an addiction to close analysis and a particular interest in the ways in which narrative conventions both reflect and shape our view of the world. As such, on the one hand I want to look at a few of the stories contained in The Woman Who Cooked Everything with a view to bringing out some of the tensions they seem to display between unfettered imagination and conventionalised narrative form. Equally, I also just want to share with others what a treat it is to come across stories of such unfathomable, contradictory, delicious absurdity.

The story that gives the collection and the performance its name goes as follows:

Once there was a woman who liked to cook. She liked to cook everything.
(Millie, aged 4)

Yes…?! Setting up an undeniably intriguing conceit and then denying us any closure whatsoever by finishing before the narrative has even really got started, this is one of the most elliptical and un-story-like stories of the bunch. Yet, even here, we see the use of that most familiar of literary conventions: the setting of the scene with ‘Once there was…’ But the presence of this turn of phrase, which inevitably brings with it expectations of a traditional tale to follow, makes the arbitrariness of the ending even more confusing: we want to know the consequences, the effects stemming from this cause, but are instead left only with blank page. This is a more radical form of storytelling than the most postmodern of novels could hope to achieve: not only does the story simply stop rather than conclude, it also barely begins.

More mind-boggling still, however, is this mini-masterpiece from Alice, aged 3:

He got in again, and he got out again, He got in again, he got out again, He got in again, he got out again, he got in again, he got out this time. He went in this time and closed the lid.

I love this story. To begin with, there is the fact that it begins when ‘he’ (who, you might ask? We will never know) gets in ‘again’, thus implying a prior chain of events which doubtless consist of yet more getting into and out of whatever it is that is being got into and out of (what, you might ask? We will never know). It feels as if there is an actual, existing character’s life here, which we are joining in medias res – as if in Alice’s imagination this world is already concrete enough that she needn’t bother setting the scene, and that this is merely the third or fourth chapter of an ongoing story rather than an entire story in itself. Alice has actually achieved here the goal of much realist fiction: she has made it seem as if we are looking through a ‘window’ onto an existing world rather than at a ‘picture frame’ containing a world constructed specially for our benefit. Yet, if we look closely, there are also formal strategies that point to an inkling of classical order. To put a stop to the hypnotic repetition by using the (again) nonsensically concrete phrase ‘this time’ (full stop) is a stroke of bizarre genius for the way it implies significance without any hint of a reason for doing so (perhaps Alice understands why...? We will never know). Yet, structurally, the use of repetition-then-difference is something that poetry has been doing for hundreds of years – something I’m sure Alice doesn’t know, yet clearly also somehow feels to be correct. There is also even some ‘book-ending’ (i.e.: the end echoing the beginning) through the isolated uses of ‘and’ in the first and last sentences. Finally, the sudden revelation of a 'lid' at the end acts both as a surprising climax and, through being the last word, as a sort of lid to the story itself: against all odds, this story actually feels resolutely concluded.

Some of the more abstract stories, on the other hand, achieve a kind of closure by making us experience something like the sort of transcendence we expect from romantic poetry. See, for example:

One day flying pencils fly. And then they explode like fireworks. Then they vanish forever.
(Osayi, aged 5)

Or, even more poignantly (that use of ‘vanish’!):

Twinkle, twinkle, and the twinkle just disappears. The girl was sleeping and she go to her bed. And then the little girl just ran away. And she ran away and there was a fish eat her. And the fish just disappeared. And the fish just run away and see the stars. And then big eyes were coming; A dragon! And the dragon just run away and see the stars. Twinkle, twinkle.
(Daniella, aged 5)

Both these tales encourage the feeling that – were they written by adults rather than 5-year-olds – there should be something metaphorical at play here. That we know there almost certainly isn’t doesn’t necessarily detract from the sense that these stories are self-contained and oddly meaningful by virtue of an emotional logic that transcends their literal meaning, whether intended or not.

However, the use in the ‘twinkle, twinkle’ story of another instance of ‘book-ending’ is one more testament to how often familiar narrative tropes recur. For instance, twenty of the forty stories in the collection begin with some variation on ‘Once upon a time’, ‘once there was…’, ‘one day…’, and so on. This is obviously something the kids have picked up from stories they’ve encountered: they know that this is how stories are supposed to begin. As we saw in ‘the woman who cooked everything’ though, part of these stories' charm is witnessing how such a solid beginning can quickly unravel when told by a person who has learned some of the notes, but not the music, of conventional storytelling. Take, for instance, the basic story structure of ‘equilibrium – disruption – new equilibrium’. Most of the children seem to know that a story needs some kind of antagonism, or at least change in status-quo, in order to achieve the tension necessary for narrative. But, equally - thankfully, as it turns out - they haven’t yet mastered the arts of either plausibility or consistency. For instance:

Once upon a time there was a fairy ghost. And then the fairy ghost turned into a lion. And then the flowers came down from above. Some children came along and the children said, “Please can we have some flowers?” And the lion said “RRRAAAA”.
(Georgia, aged 4)

(As an aside – let’s first acknowledge the brilliance of ‘fairy ghost’, a creature referred to in such a matter-of-fact way that we know Georgia can picture it, and also know we’d love to be able to too: is this a type of ghost that is also a fairy, or a fairy that died and became a ghost...?) We see here a definite linear development, but one not bound by anything resembling causality. The fairy ghost turns into a lion not because, say, a witch has cast a spell, or even because it has performed a transformation on itself, but just because. Then flowers descend ‘from above’ – strange, to be sure, but perhaps fair enough according to the principles of just because that govern this story. Now some new characters - the group of children - enter the story and (probably understandably) want some of the aforementioned flowers – a wish answered with an entirely naturalistic roar from the lion - who was, of course, so recently a fairy ghost. Impeccably linear, near classical in its movement from one equilibrium (a fairy ghost minding its own business) to a new equilibrium (a lion being the apparent guardian of the flowers-from-above), yet utterly inexplicable at the same time: the tension here between structure and (by adult standards) insanity is a beautiful thing to behold.

Another nice tension in a number of the stories is that between surreal situations and the entirely rational way they are recounted by the author. For example:

One day there was a little girl. She lived inside a prince and she couldn’t get out. And when she got up her legs were too tight because the prince folded up his legs and that was the end.
(Shamari, aged 4)

Clearly, this is a wonderfully odd twist on stories about little girls and princes. However, it also treats its central situation in a fascinatingly naturalistic manner that actually invites us to relate to the girl’s situation: yes, we think, our legs would be too tight if we were inside a prince and he folded his legs. (Let’s note too, again, the desire for solid closure despite all the craziness: ‘and that was the end’.) Or, another example:

Once upon a time a little girl was walking in the pond and a dinosaur came to gobble her up, and she was running as fast as she can, but she went out of breath. Then she was trying to go home and the dinosaur took her home. And she said, “Thank you,” to the dinosaur. And she hugged him. And she told her mum that she went too far. And her mum said “Who bring you back?” And she said, “The dinosaur.”
(Judith, aged 4)

Apart from the requisite ‘once upon a time’, this story seems almost procedural in its straightforwardness, as if Judith were merely relating to a journalist, step by step, the events leading up to this little girl returning safely home (the constant repetition of ‘and’ obviously helps here). There is also something beautiful about the way the pay-off manages to make a story about a dinosaur giving a little girl a ride appear borderline banal by doing something that endings are never meant to do: reiterating exactly what the reader already knows.

Speaking of endings, it’s interesting to note that, while ‘Once upon a time’ gets a great amount of play, not a single one of the stories ends with the equally famous ‘happily ever after’. (Could it be that this phrase has accrued so much negative press over the years that now not even children’s writers use it so regularly as they once did?) However, despite the fact that the language of the happy ending isn’t used, its broader meanings and tonal functions have certainly been internalised, since many of the stories beguilingly present us with some potentially very unhappy situations suddenly and inexplicably being reversed to enable the story to end on an upbeat note. For example:

The tiger comes and the lion tried to eat the tiger. And the wind blow them over. And they was stuck together, rolling, and then they was friends again.
(Usaf, aged 3)


Once upon a time there was a little butterfly and it was flying all around the garden. And the sun was in its eyes. And it started to rain. And the sun died. And the butterfly died too. And it came alive again as a caterpillar. And the butterfly is back to life as a beautiful baby butterfly. And it was so happy.
(Jessica, aged 5)


There was a giant and Action Man killed the giant. And then Superman came to the rescue. And Superman was trying to shoot the flying birds but he couldn’t. Then Action Man was dead. Superman started to fight, then he saw the flying birds but he never killed them. He took them home because they were cold.
(Faisal, aged 5)

The self-consciously unconvincing ‘happy ending’ has long been loved by critics of Hollywood cinema for the way it highlights the supposed artificiality of the convention (probably most famously in the films of Douglas Sirk). What we have here is similar, but of a slightly different order. Clearly, the sudden turnarounds are unbelievable, and thus make us notice the convention as a convention; however, just as obviously, there’s no ironic intent here. As such, the artificiality feels neither cynical nor a cop-out, but is rather allowed to be charming and moving in its naïveté – a balance often strived for by happy endings, but seldom achieved so convincingly as it can be by someone who actually is naïve.

I want to finish by looking at what can happen when not only the structural, but also the potentially ideological, functions of a convention have been internalised – as seen in this bizarre and wonderful story by Freya, aged 4:

The princess was locked away in a castle. Then the girl rescued her. Then the girl gives her some money. The giant takes the girl into his cave. Then the girl goes back to her house, then the girl and the princess is running away from the giant. They haven’t got very far when they meet a big serpent. Then the little girl does run on ahead with the princess. Then the giant gets the princess and then the giant is dead and the little girl is married.

You’ll notice that there is no man in the story - except for perhaps the giant, who we can probably assume is supposed to be male. Yet the princess is certainly threatened by forces that would usually be embodied by a male villain, and which would traditionally pose an implied sexual threat: she is locked away in a castle, taken into a cave, and even – in what in any other circumstances would seem an excessively Freudian touch – accosted by a ‘big serpent’. Given the lack of men, it is thus rather surprising that the little girl is suddenly revealed to be married at the end of the story. Again, Freya has no doubt learnt that marriage is how stories about princesses are supposed to finish. Of course, it isn’t difficult to see that this convention – especially when constantly repeated to children – has rather pointed ideological overtones (as feminist critics have always pointed out). However, the fact that Freya provides this conclusion without having the ability to adequately prepare for it means that the story both draws attention to the arbitrary nature of the marriage-as-happy-ending, and even allows for some almost subversive meanings to emerge. Instead of a prince, it is here a little girl who saves the princess from the castle, flees alongside her, and even (inexplicably, but quite brilliantly) gives her some money. Judging from the set-up, then, it’s hard not to infer that at the end of the story the girl has in fact married… the princess!

I’m not arguing that this story is any kind of evidence for Freya expressing some of Freud’s “constitutional bisexuality”, but rather simply that, as I have said, the tensions between the unruliness of a child’s mind and the strictures imposed by narrative form can yield joyous and unexpected pleasures. Some of these are comic, some are melancholic, and some (apparently!) are borderline political. It’s enough, at least, to make you want to see what kinds of narratives might be written by a generation of children raised not on books written for them by adults, but on stories such as these. I have a feeling that what would be produced is a lot of happy endings, but endings that are happy in rather different ways, and for rather different reasons, than any we're used to seeing.