The Impossibility of Children’s Cinema: On Todd Haynes’s “Wonderstruck”

But that’s a guess. Deafness is pictured as a loss, a kind of vulnerability. There are stuffed giraffes and dinosaurs and awe-struck children. I keep coming back to the image of the child under glass for the ways it so neatly crystallizes the lifelessness necessary for a collector’s art. Rose stands in front of a Natural History Museum diorama turned cinematic screen
At the end of the day, Wonderstruck is a movie about cinematic history. There are all number of dioramas. The violence inherent in this narrative is not about representation — what’s shown or not shown on screen. Compare this stance with a very different kind of project, the 2014 Ukrainian film, The Tribe, directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. The mafia leader is the guy that flicks his words, like shaking water off his hands. Todd Haynes) wants us to notice things. But there is no illusion that the fact of watching makes us alike, or even familiar. His friend, the one that keeps interrupting their teacher, takes up more space, his forearms scissoring in front of his chest. Seeing the world through Rose entails a return to the diegetic conventions of the silent era, but here these conventions are recoded as deaf experience more generally. The friendlier cousin to the sublime, wonder is a kind of awe without danger. As a narrative of deafness based on the period before either deaf character learns to sign, Wonderstruck plays into this tragic frame of loss. They can be worn on our faces and made into hats. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away to New York to find her mother. Both children end up at the Museum of Natural History. To see something with the eyes of a child is to view that something anew, as though for the first time. It’s better to say that his movies hold everything taut, feeling out the textures of a what for? The logic of the set design is accumulative, everything and this and this and this. Craftwork is the work of the collector, of the painstakingly handled diorama or scrapbook or scale-sized model of New York, pieced together by hand. Wonder is not probable here. But metaphors are tricky, in that once that ball gets rolling, it is hard to stop. But Haynes’s film primarily takes place before these eventualities. After his mother dies, Ben (Oakes Fegley) takes a bus from Minnesota to New York City, on a quest to find his father. What is most brilliant about this historical narrative is partly an accident. in the workings of everyday violence. This story intersects with another, filmed in black and white. In Haynes’s film, the miniature worlds are routed through the eyes of the child protagonists, for maximum wonder. There are teeth and tusks and fossilized coral reefs. The first story is set in 1977. Moreover, the temporal arc of wonder isn’t really at stake, in part because innocence is not part of this picture, in part because full-fledged understanding or familiarity are off the table as possible destinations. In this framework, deafness and childhood become overlapping models of innocence. If Wonderstruck is maximalist craftwork, all glitter and jazz hands, The Tribe might be its tonal opposite: a purposefully stark narrative, filmed in a post-Soviet landscape absent of primary colors. Wonderstruck (dir. That is to say, Wonderstruck is violent, too, in its way. In its wake, however, consider two more perverse media twins: in one, cinematic history is a series of wondrous, miniature worlds, silent era to New Hollywood; in the other, Hollywood is boxed-in and closed off too, through the open secret of routinized sexual assault and harassment. The audience is faced with another audience, on the other side of the action. It is a comfortable surprise, one that we can settle into. There is the Museum of Natural History, home to the Cabinet of Wonders. It is a wonder factory, all those doll-like miniatures, the vehicles of wonder, so much grist for the moviemaking mill. The bad guy in this narrative is Rose’s dad, who pushes for sight-reading so that Rose might acclimate into the hearing world. What is impossible in children’s literature is not the existence of the literature itself, but this imagined, absolute division between child and adult: the innocent and the experienced; the sexless and the sexual; the primitive and the civilized. Green track jacket on the left taps gray hoodie on the shoulder to explain something. Instead, what is violent is the way it casts aside or conceals what goes into making the exemplary, impossible child a vehicle for cultural nostalgia. In this more promiscuous grammar, the film is a comfortable chair. DECEMBER 8, 2017

LOOK AT the Cabinet of Wonders. It’s a jewel box of precious, tiny portraits, all indexed to a long-lost past. Seeking her estranged mother, Rose lands, full of wonder, in New York City
My distaste for the precious is not just adult crankiness, though that’s there. In Philip Fisher’s account, the aesthetics of wonder are distinct from the beautiful, because wonder involves the future: it offers us “the pleasurable promise that what is novel or rare may become familiar.” Due to this reliance on novelty, being innocent of experience is part of what it means to be wonderstruck. The film is a kaleidoscope, is a machine made out of wonders. “It is very quiet,” says Ben, in explanation. As though every permutation of suffering needed to be carefully mapped out and recorded, the film presents a different sort of additive catalog. The children themselves are collectibles, walking rose-tinged glasses, through which we see the world anew, with wonder. The most common thing for critics to say about The Tribe is that there is too much graphic violence. This primarily occurs in Rose’s scenes, when the dialogue cuts in and out. We watch characters’ mouths move without sound, from Rose’s perspective, as if we, the audience, were also deaf. However, Haynes’s work has never been about the big reveal. The stuffed giraffe is only neck, attached to the roof like a chimney. As part of a particularly thick atmospherics, everything is controlled or carefully wrought. It is an initiation — Sergey is going to fight off the others. Set in a boarding school for deaf teenagers, The Tribe is filmed entirely in sign language, with no subtitles or voice-over. I suspect that The Tribe is so excessively violent, perhaps too much so, in order to shunt aside a certain kind of infantilization: these deaf teenagers are not the innocent, vulnerable Others to world-weary adults. It’s possible to say that Wonderstruck’s obsession with the childlike wonder of cinematic history merely conceals the violence that goes into its making. Sometimes yellow note pads provide a partial gloss, like intertitles. Deafness becomes another pose anyone can step into, by turning off the sound and looking more closely. is more difficult to locate. They are perpetually looking upward, at buildings and movies and ceilings. But they are also an acknowledgment of the deeper, more disturbing logic of the film, which is not really about children per se, but what they might be used for. Svetka (Roza Babiy) bounces on her heels, one foot to the other, while someone else negotiates her next trick. Wonderstruck turns its child protagonists into taxidermy. Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) is bad at eye contact and too romantic to be a good pimp. Even as a kid, I didn’t like overly precious children. It is the inside of a makeshift fort, which turns out to be a Cabinet of Wonders, too. The film is the fort which is also the old Museum of Natural History, full of tribal totems and animal skulls. Here the miniature worlds unspool: the picture book is about the Museum of Natural History and the picture book is about filmmaking too, as a collector’s art. But what would be precisely the right amount of violence for a film about post-Soviet sex traffic? The Tribe stages that distance literally, as a leaf-strewn spot in front of an abandoned building, two audiences facing each other, just before the fight. Part of the story is told with tiny figurines, their doll heads replaced with matchbook-sized portraits. This torqueing of perspective suggests that one thing is like the other: that the experience of being deaf is like watching a silent film. What The Tribe retains is a sense of alterity: here is a world that is full, but not accessible to everyone, or even most people, watching the film. Straight past the dinosaur bones, below the painted worlds, is a tiny human skull. Slaboshpytskiy)
By the end of The Tribe, I still don’t know the names of the characters, or really what they have said to one another. Through this logic, the film becomes smarter and more sinister. Haynes makes the cinematic analogy explicit; Rose’s scenes are shot in black and white, and we learn that her estranged mother is a silent movie star. During the course of the film, neither child has learned sign language. Assuming everyone gets used, the better question might be, for what? Any number of scenes might be frozen and studied at length, to make out the meticulous detail packed inside a crowded visual frame. What I see in this interaction is not what green track jacket sees. It should be said, however, that the film and the best-selling book upon which it is based, by Brian Selznick, is not totally on the side of orality. There is a scale-sized model of greater New York. Sometimes Wonderstruck seems aware of this circuitry. Not incidentally, both children are deaf — Ben from a recent accident, Rose from birth. It is not particularly realistic to begin every narrative with dead parents and cross-country quests, but this is the enabling framework of children’s literature. Anya (Yana Novikova) is a nervous hair-flipper but no-nonsense and will get in your face, especially if asked to take off her clothes. Rose (Millicent Simmonds) at the Museum of Natural History
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In The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1992), Jacqueline Rose argues that children’s literature is not about actual children. Or later, more frustrated, to his hearing friend, “I can’t hear what you’re saying!”
For some time now, deaf cultures have argued against the rendering of deafness as disability, positioning the deaf instead as a language minority. For this reason, Rose and Ben exist in a world where they can’t fully communicate with other people. At certain moments, the camera frames the child inside the exhibit case, as though she were one more lifeless species, pinned under glass. She is somehow closer to experience, closer to nature. It’s not really the fight that interests me, but the moment before, when the students in the background all start signing at once. Trailer for The Tribe   (2014, dir. They are precious and lifeless collectibles, assembled as one more component part in the cinematic production of miniature, impossible worlds, laid out before us as scenes of wonder. Without the positive content of signing, deafness is primarily figured as lack. In these early philosophical accounts, the child is sexless and therefore innocent. And in terms of aesthetic categories, “wonder” is a good term for what these miniaturized worlds invoke. She nods, yeah, that. With an eye looking backward, toward that earlier body of work, let’s say we consider Wonderstruck through the metaphor it proposes — that filmmaking is a collector’s art, a mini–Museum of Natural History or a mega-shoebox diorama. Cinema is a lost craft, here reanimated through the wondrous gaze of an impossibly precious child. The problem is the implicit narrative — that the avenue toward love is a certain kind of preciousness that might be inhabited by any child, any child at all. In Wonderstruck, this machinery goes into overdrive: like the scrapbook or diorama, the deaf child is one more curatorial selection, all part of a wider longing, not for children’s cinema, but for children as a pathway to lost forms of wonder, best exemplified by the golden age of silent film. The Tribe asks us to look but doesn’t make any promises about seeing and knowing. Now a classic in the field, Rose’s book turns back to the 18th-century foundations of our modern-day expectations of childhood. In Wonderstruck, this particular genealogy of the child, taken from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Peter Pan, is on display across two parallel story lines. Each inset world is a part of the collection, to be used for the production of wonder. Earlier in the story, the camera pans right as the ringleader approaches a crowd of students, who all start signing at once. “A curator’s job is an important one,” reads Ben, in one of the movie’s more ponderous moments of dialogue. This narrative does not investigate the whiteness of universal childish innocence, or the way that class and nation play into our understandings of what is cute and what is pathological. In a more generous vein, this insistence upon the collection of miniature, somewhat twee worlds might be a story about moviemaking as craft. Unsullied by sex or social inhibition, the child has access to a primitive, unmediated world. Even in the street scenes, pedestrians loiter in front of period cars in front of picture window displays. Look, for instance, at the students, perched on the horizontal pipeline between graffiti-covered brickwork. The good guy is Rose’s brother, who eventually brings her to a school for the deaf so that she might learn to sign. ¤
Jill Richards is an assistant professor in the English Department at Yale University. In Wonderstruck, the for what? These two children have few distinguishing features beyond their capacity to experience wonder. It’s less Where’s Waldo and more like one of those Very Hungry Caterpillar–style picture books, where you pull up all the flaps to see what’s hidden underneath. Children are therefore great vehicles of wonder, in that so much of the world is new to them. This scene might be a surprise, for some, and might be beautiful, in its way. But other things are clear enough. This kind of looking is available to us because Wonderstruck is full of precious, miniaturized worlds, all set out on display. The children in children’s literature are adult fantasies of what children should be like. This view focuses on the richness of sign language as a form of communication with its own distinct modes, as complex and various as any other dialect. It’s visually dazzling, of course — as though Baz Luhrmann got his hands on The 400 Blows. But the visual demands feel less hectoring, less bossy. To be sure, Wonderstruck obsessively returns to meta-narratives for its own mode of production. Deafness positions the children as closer to visual experience, unmediated by language and unsullied by sex. This question about quantity quickly feels glib: too much here, not enough there. They are clustered in different cliques and gossip circles, some feigning punches and others rolling their eyes. It might seem particularly galling that this violence disproportionately affects the most vulnerable and powerless workers in Hollywood, who then become our access points to the wondrous. Having said that, I am uninterested in the critique that the children of Wonderstruck are bad because they don’t seem real. It’s still a packed frame. There are scrapbooks and boxes of old pictures and walls covered with tacked-on magazine ads. But it does not promise comfort or familiarity. For proponents of deaf culture, deafness marks a cultural identity and an alternate mode of communication, not a tragedy. I sometimes suspect that Julianne Moore remains Haynes’s actress of choice for all the different ways her jaw muscles so visibly quiver, mouth closed, as she clenches and unclenches her teeth. It is easy enough to say that these are children made for adults and a picture of deafness made for the hearing. It wouldn’t be a screening for children, though. A fight breaks out in “The Tribe.”  
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Perverse twins, The Tribe and Wonderstruck might work best as a double feature. These shots are canny, for the ways they explicitly render childish innocence as an inert object, the child another thing to be looked at. No one could have predicted that Wonderstruck would come out precisely at the same moment as the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal.