Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive

This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at:

Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Monday, May 12, 2008

Children and Dogs

Here’s an old idea that I’ve tossed around on a_film_by once or twice.

We are all used to seeing people die in movies and not having it ruin our day. Many people believe that this restrained reaction is due to our knowledge that we are watching a fiction, our awareness that no one is really dying.

If, however, at the end or a row of anonymous movie extras being gunned down, the assistant director should accidentally place a child or a dog, the theater owner will hear about it. Some people’s days will in fact be ruined.

This surplus sensitivity to the onscreen deaths of children and domestic animals is extremely common. Spectators who endeavor to elevate their compassion for adult victims may succeed in leveling the playing field to an extent; but almost everyone understands, on a gut level, the special status of children and animals.

It seems to me that the near-universality of this reaction effectively refutes the idea that our indifference to onscreen death is due merely to our sophistication in recognizing the difference between fiction and reality.

Asked to explain this phenomenon, almost all interviewees say the same thing: “The child/animal is innocent.” The implication is that the adult is presumptively guilty, or at least that the occurrence of guilt in adults is sufficiently high that we should take no chances with them.

One can put forth an evolutionary explanation that we divide the world into members of our tribe, who help us survive, and others, who are a potential threat. Or one can opt for the more Freudian explanation that we all harbor an atavism that gives us a simple pleasure in the death of others, and that we feel freer to indulge this atavism with the excuse of self-defense.

In support of the evolutionary thesis, we observe that makers of fiction are skillful at using identification to change our reaction to the death of fictional characters. All filmmakers know that bit players will die unmourned, that the protagonist’s best friend is good for a bit of manageable sadness at the end of the second act, and that the death of the protagonist is an emotional experience that must be handled carefully. In effect, some characters become part of our tribe.

However, we are still capable of enjoying a tragedy in which the protagonist dies. The evolutionary thesis alone cannot explain this.

It could be that all three considerations – the argument from artistic sophistication, the argument from tribal affiliation, the argument from atavism – operate within us and combine to govern our reaction to onscreen death.



Blogger whitney said...

So interesting! I've been toying with this idea for a long time. Somehow the death of adults might tie into the Freudian death drive. We can identify with an adult on screen, so this works. However, kids are a bit of a mystery to us. Most of us can't even remember when we were that age, so identification is harder.

As for innocence, I once heard the phrase "hierarchy of innocence" that I found very useful. It's obvious, but I had never heard the phrase before.


May 15, 2008 6:57 PM  
Blogger David C said...

It has to be borne in mind that however upset many audiences will become at the death of a child onscreen, this will in no way compare to the anguish they would feel if they saw a real child really die in a film, or even more so in real life. So there's a hierarchy of reality too. This also applies to the manner of representation. Bob Clampett can show a dog being beaten with a plank in a cartoon and it's funny. A realistic image would probably shock and offend. A quasi-realistic image -- a safe is dropped on a small dog in A FISH CALLED WANDA -- is riskier but possibly acceptable. In the same film another dog is killed by a car. After Charles Crichton had lovingly arranged its entrails in the street, actor Michael Palin suggested "I think we'd better shoot a safety." He was right -- audiences could accept a graphic realistic image of a dead animal, even in a comic context. The replacement shot showed a cartoon flattening of a somewhat soft-toy like dog, and was deemed acceptable. I still found it a bit grim, since traffic accidents are something dog-owners realistically fear.
The fact that this kind of humour used to be unknown in films but has become more common connects perhaps to that Nietsche line, "A laugh is a eulogy for the death of an emotion."

May 16, 2008 3:49 AM  
Blogger David C said...

Should read "audiences COULDN'T accept". D'oh!

May 16, 2008 3:50 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Whitney - I hadn't quite made that connection, that we might be using identification to project our own death wish. But I don't know if we always choose our victims for maximum identification. Little kids like to torture everything, including insects. I have the feeling that our imagination lets us generalize our desire to hurt and kill over a wide range of targets.

And then it seems that whatever force field protects children and dogs is more powerful than just the inability to identify. It's as if we also have a propensity for empathy and protection, and that certain circumstances, like innocence or security, bring it out strongly.

David - there's no doubt that our knowledge that we're watching fiction comes into play to some extent. At the very least, if we watch an innocent bystander die on the street, then we're a bystander watching, which promotes empathy.

When I was reading comic books in the mid to late 60s, every building that a villain destroyed was empty and slated for demolition, and every boat was obsoleted and waiting for military target practice. One sensed that our desire to see destruction was straining against a societal prohibition, and that the Comics Code was trying to play Hans Brinker, sticking its finger in the hole in the dike. A few years later, the dike had broken. So is our death desire more dominant than it used to be, or does society go through periods of expansion and contraction in its attempts to inhibit our impulses? I'm guessing the latter, but I'm not sure.

May 17, 2008 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't believe in audience empathy. I tend to think people have these responses because the grown-ups on the screen have more than likely geared themselves up for being put in harm's way - maybe not by doing anything or acting in a certain way, but the filmmakers have "set them up." Certain scenes in PREDATOR are textbook telegraphed deaths; I remember at one point the camera creates a space around one guy that seems useless until you realize, half a second later, that it's intended to make an attractive frame for his imminent destruction.

I suppose I've never gotten over seeing folks die in the movies. It's awful. The best I can say is I'm numbed when the camera alerts me of something like this in advance. If framing/cutting conventions are deliberately tweaked to subvert expectations, a movie can still get a rise out of me. (Examples abound in the Coens' NO COUNTRY (***SPOILERS FROM HERE UNTIL END OF POST, SORRY***): the execution-style deaths of the two "managerial" crooks, played for laughs, is heralded well in advance by the initial "hope you don't mind ridin' 'bitch' line" while the death of the truck driver who nearly rescues Moss is sudden and bothersome, as are what I call the "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" deaths of Moss and Carla Jean.) Spielberg, I think, is the very last word in smacking the audience awake with deaths, and it's very instructive that the most "earned" deaths in his films - i.e. the targets in MUNICH, psycho Tim Robbins in WAR OF THE WORLDS, the Martians themselves - are the least affecting by far (and they are not cathartic in the least).

But I get ahead of the topic. Children and animals are the Carla Jean Mosses of cinema. They did not invest themselves into the conflict. They did not take the two million dollars in drug money (criminal guilt / complicity), they did not wage a pissing match with Javier Bardem (who is not an authority figure, he is an ungoverned force of destruction whose very nature offends some to apoplexy), and he does not seek help from the proper authorities (which does not deliver Llewelyn Moss into audience-projected criminal/moral complicity but renders him foolhardy in some eyes). Plus he seeks respite in the arms of alcohol and another woman, the final nail in his very elaborate coffin.

So adults = guilty? I don't think it's so simple. But adults are illuminated by spotlight, tagged, and painted with fluorescent dye. Kids and animals are not.


May 17, 2008 7:03 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Jaime - it seems to me that audiences would be upset if a movie "set up" a child or an animal in the way you describe for adults. If so, there's still a difference to be accounted for, apart from film technique.

(Spoilers for No Country for Old Men coming.)

Llewellyn Moss is an established character with all sorts of emotional pushes and pulls created on his behalf. I was rather shocked at his death: it's unusual to see an identification figure disposed of between scenes in such a cavalier fashion.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'd rather consider someone like the poor driver who is killed by Chigurh's compression gun in an early scene. He has no intrinsic guilt, or any stakes in the film's action. He's actually a bit of an identification figure on a small scale: audiences can be expected to wonder whether they would have complied so readily with Chigurh's instructions. He dies to demonstrate a novel weapon, and all the complexities that surround gruesome death swirl around this character in the audience's mind. Different viewers may be disturbed or thrilled (both, for most viewers, I'd guess) to different extents.

Despite this fluidity of response, I think that putting a child in that man's place is going to introduce a whole other dimension to our reaction.

May 20, 2008 8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How would you recast the scene five-year-old or a kitty? That would take some stretching (in screenwriting and camerawork), and, in stretching, you encompass and neutralize whatever additional dimensionality you call for.

Clark Griswold's cat gets toasted in CHRISTMAS VACATION... yet the ID/protection mechanism isn't given the same jolt as the woman-running-really-fast who gets vaporized in WAR OF THE WORLDS.

Maybe I've just got a screw loose. I've been told as much.


May 20, 2008 8:19 PM  
Blogger David C said...

Because the genre conventions say that you don't kill kids in genre dramas (I've done it in comedy -- seems to work!), even if you "tagged" a kid for death with obvious signifiers, the audience still would be shocked becauise it just isn't done.
Massive exception: JAWS.

May 22, 2008 2:56 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Jaime, David - yeah, filmmakers can contrive ways to kill children and animals humorously. Clearly there are multiple factors governing how we respond to that sort of thing.

That's why I tried the thought experiment of recasting a scene with a child instead of an adult, or talked about a queue of victims with a child accidentally included. There are too many variables otherwise.

Still, it doesn't seem to me too big a stretch to reconfigure the No Country killing with a child or dog.

May 22, 2008 8:43 PM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

Did you hear it?

Yes, the child.

The child?

Indeed — the child!

There is no child here...

But... the dogs...

There are neither children nor dogs here...

There aren’t?


Good night.

Good night.

-from Vampyr: The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray by C. T. Dreyer. Forthcoming from MoC.


May 24, 2008 10:55 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Ha! That's great. Here's a quotation back at you, from Truffaut's review of Kurutta kajitsu (Crazed Fruit, aka Juvenile Passion):

"One would have to say that the greatest filmmakers are over fifty, but it is important to practice the cinema of one's own age and try, if one is twenty-five and admires Dreyer, to emulate Vampyr rather than Ordet. Youth is in a hurry, it is impatient, it is bursting with all sorts of concrete ideas. Young filmmakers must shoot their films in mad haste, movies in which their characters are in a hurry, in which shots jostle each other to get on screen before 'The End,' films that contain their ideas. Later on, this succession of ideas will give way to one great, overriding idea, and then the critics will complain about a 'promising' filmmaker who has grown old. So what?"

May 26, 2008 10:55 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home