Tuesday, 13 March 2012

In Hollywood, "child" is a male profession.

Over the last few weeks I've seen 'Real Steel', 'Hugo', and 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close'. Apart from being expensive mounds of glitter-covered rodent defecation, the main thing these three films have in common is that they feature cutesy little boys. I find that when it comes to child characters that could be either male or female, they tend to be male. Male, as ever, is default. Lawyer, doctor, alcoholic real estate developer; male, male, and male. “Child” is also a male profession in Hollywood.

'Léon', 'Matilda', 'His Dark Materials', 'Baron Münchhausen', 'Akeelah and the Bee'*, 'A Song of Ice and Fire', and many more films and books are all the better for having little girl protagonists, but Hollywood seems to think that if a film features a little girl, the film has to be about a girl – not a child. Boys are children. Girls are girls.

* 'Akeelah and the Bee' is a child's film that nobody else in the world has ever seen ever. But it's awesome.

Anyway, 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' is a film about a little child (boy) whose father died in the 9/11 attacks.

The boy finds a key in his father's bedroom and devotes himself to finding what the key opens. His other clue is the surname “Black” scribbled down by his father (meaning he wanders around saying “are you a black? I'm looking for blacks” a lot).

Mysterious! And boring, because why should we give a crap about a dead guy's key? That question is never answered, but we are treated to two hours of the little boy wandering around New York on his own and mysteriously not getting assaulted, mugged or kidnapped.

The main problem with the film, other than the child actor's shouty and clunky delivery, is that it builds from nothing, to nothing. At the very beginning of the film, the protagonist is at his emotional zenith. There's nowhere for him to go.

There is, however, one emotional strength to the film that was so subtle it might genuinely have been a scripting mistake. The boy obviously has Asperger's, and his only friends are his parents and grandparents. He plays walkie-talkies not with a friend of his own age, but with his granny. By the end of the film, he's battled through the ripples of his father's death, but he's still very alone and seems utterly unaware of a world outside his family.

'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' is one of the many modern films that denies the internet. There are one or two references to it, as if it's an obscure, tentative new invention, rather than one that was very much everyday by 2001, but if you're looking for someone, you hit the internet. You don't dart dramatically from house to house, phonebook in hand.

The film is also – predictably – hugely emotionally manipulative. Here's an example. In one scene, the kid is playing back answering machine messages his father left from the collapsing World Trade Centre. The boy plays one message after the other, each more panicked and urgent than the last. Then he gives a long pause before the final message. We want to hear it! He's teasing us. We want to hear the final answering machine message because we know it will be good. Full of screaming, hopefully, and sobbing and wretched final declarations of love before a violent and horrific death. Woo, we can't wait!

We're also reminded constantly throughout the film that it's not just about a boy who's lost his father; it's about a boy who's lost his father on 9/11. I don't believe that just because it was a decade ago we should let go already; I don't believe that time is always a natural cure, and I don't believe 9/11 is less relevant these days. If anything, it's more relevant today than it was yesterday, and will probably be even more so tomorrow. But I do believe that there are a thousand things more atrocious that have happened since, and I also believe that there are stories of loss that are much more worthy of a film. But nobody's interested in hearing the stories of the children orphaned by last week's rogue US gunman. Not ten years on, anyway.

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