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I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about a childhood romance I had with a much older man.  The sort of romance that’s hard to share in broad daylight, but one that is beautiful all the same.  In thinking about it and trying to write about it in a way that’s honest and fair, I keep returning to my thoughts about romantic stories for little girls.

In the context of our current cultural attitudes, it sounds creepy to talk about little girls and romance, but the truth is that little girls like romance.  Not your standard, adult romance, with flowers and champagne.  Romance for little girls is often dark, scary, snatched out of the teeth of death.  Fairy tales are full of it: young girls being alternately wooed and terrorized by men they fear and/or long for. Take your pick: Beauty and the Beast, The Seven Swan Brothers, The Little Mermaid, who felt as though she walked upon knives, all for the love of a man. Pair them easily, not with the sugar-coated Disney versions, but with movies like Labyrinth, where a mysterious man offers dancing, jewels, glittering admiration, oh, but at a cost.

A pall of sexuality hangs over little girls, threatening and bizarre. You know that it does. Even if you want to look away, it’s there when you’re not looking.  I don’t believe the threatening nature of sex ever dissipates; it’s just that as little girls grow up, we acclimate ourselves to its dark nature.  We learn to avert our eyes and open our legs.

City of Lost Children

City of Lost Children

If you’re curious, I’ll add another movie to your roster of romantic films for little girls: The City of Lost Children.  I’m sure many people won’t approve of me thinking this is a children’s movie, just as people were horrified by my suggestion that Pan’s Labyrinth would be suitable for a certain kind of child. The things is, I remember how dark childhood was, how unsatisfied I was with saccharine family movies, how false they were.  I loved movies like Labyrinth, Legend, and The Dark Crystal, but often wished they were darker, more romantic.

The City of Lost Children, oddly enough, is the sort of movie I longed for at the age of ten.  Directed by Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (the twisted pair that brought you Delicatessen), it often gets described as having a convoluted plot, even an impenetrable plot.  This is only true if you try to watch the movie in an adult frame of mind, if you grasp at all the random threads and try to tie them up into some macramé whole. Use your child mind and the plot is really quite simple.

Man loses his brother.  Man meets girl.   Girl helps him.  Girl dies.   Man is heartbroken, but wait!  Girl isn’t dead.  Reunion.   Man and Girl fall in love, form a family, save his brother.

All the other stuff is stage dressing: mad scientist, clones, a brain in a fish tank, evil conjoined twins, child pickpockets, stolen dreams, Santa Claus nightmares.  Fascinating, bizarre stage dressing, but not essential to the basic plot.

Miette and One

Miette and One

If “Man and Girl fall in love” disturbs you, ask yourself, “What are little girls looking for?”  Especially little girls who are fatherless.   The girl in the movie, Miette, is an orphan, but in this day and age, even girls who aren’t orphans are fatherless.   It affects their lives in myriad ways, but most importantly in the way they choose the men they love.  When she meets a circus strongman, named One, who is often simply referred to as “the big moron,” there is an immediate connection.  He needs her help, but why does she offer it?

It’s as simple as desire.  She desires him.   She desires what he represents: strength, gentleness, a big man crying over a lost little boy.   Who has cried over her?  If he is a man-child, enormous but not terribly bright or sophisticated, she is certainly a girl-woman, old before her time and jaded.

Perfect Man

Perfect Man

What makes it so romantic is that the movie doesn’t shy from it.   It doesn’t place a paternal Hollywood distance between the two mismatched characters, but dares to show a physical intimacy between them that is both childlike and portentous of adult physicality.   It dares to show a thing you’ll hardly see between two adults in a Hollywood film–a man giving a woman a foot massage.  Hovering in the periphery are further suggestions: during a visit to a tattoo parlor (seeking a map), One gets a tattoo of a heart reading “Miette pour la vie.”  Miette forever.  The sort of tattoo a sailor gets for his sweetheart.  As One rubs her feet, she asks what he plans to do after he finds his brother.  A job, he answers.  A house.  A wife What kind of wife? she asks. There is plenty of time, he assures her, to figure that out.  Plenty of time for her to grow up into that wife.

Radiateur

Radiateur

Miette is a dark-haired girl in a red dress, and after her alleged death, One goes on a drinking binge with a dark-haired prostitute in a red dress–an adult Miette.  When the real Miette arrives, she is alive but sour with jealousy.  On the darker side, when One turns against Miette and tries to kill her (this is part of the elaborate plot, with fleas armed with a brutal potion that produces violence at the sound of an organ box grinder), the violence has the quality of a wedding night deflowering.  One doesn’t want to hurt her, but he has to, is driven to it by a force he can’t control.  Miette simply accepts it, as though she expects such a thing or deserves it.  After one particularly visceral slap across the face, she gets up, crying, and waits to receive another.  When he begins to choke her, she hardly resists.

Ultimately, of course, he will save her.  She will save him.  Together they will rescue the little brother and be a family.  That’s what little girls want.

Happy Ending

Happy Ending

(As an aside, let me note that one of my favorite actors, Ron Perlman, plays the strongman One. His French is serviceable, any deficiencies in pronunciation nicely hidden under a Russian accent. The little girl playing opposite him is Judith Vittet, 9 at the time of filming, and she’s charming, cynical, broken, and strong by turns.)

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As many of you know, I don’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Yule.  I belong to the very small cult of Cinemites (not to be confused with the Sin-a-mite cult, who really know how to throw parties.)  Each year on December 25, I indulge or over-indulge in movies.  Typically, Cinemas is celebrated at a large multi-plex theater, but it can also be observed in the more humble form of the Ritual of the DVD’s.

Most years, hubby and I see 3 or 4 movies, but one year we saw 4 movies at the theater and another 3 at home.  We spent the next day with our eyes burning, and a bit hungover from all the popcorn, pop, and candy.  Since then, we’ve tried to celebrate in moderation.

This year was a disappointment for a number of reasons, beginning with a concept called “Fork and Screen.”  This is billed as an upscale movie-dining experience, where you watch the movie while eating an alleged meal, which I suspect is a slight step up from the microwaved monstrosities already passing for food in the regular part of the theater.  The gimmick behind this is that not only does one pay exorbitantly for the dubious food stuffs, one pays extra for the privilege of watching a movie while listening to people chew openly on hamburgers and pizzas.  (As opposed to the common theater experience of listening to people nibble furtively on popcorn and candy.)

At the theater we visited, they enforce the gimmick by offering certain films only in the “Fork and Screen.”  Namely, you couldn’t see Milk in a normal theater.  You could only see it in the Foodatorium.  Because we didn’t want to pay into the gimmick, we didn’t get to see it.

It threw our entire schedule for the day off.  We hadn’t planned to see The Spirit, although we both enjoyed its precursor, Sin City.  However, it was the only movie starting at the time we’d intended to see Milk, and we weren’t opposed to seeing it.

We saw about forty minutes of it.  We would have seen even less, but I think hubby and I were both waiting for the other to cave first.  Finally, we both leaned together and whispered, “I can’t take this.”  It was so bad that we got our money back.  I rarely walk out of movies and never have I asked for my money back, but this was special.  I like comic book movies.  As long as they’re visually interesting, I don’t even mind the ones with stilted dialog and glaring plot holes.  The Spirit had both, plus half-hearted absurdism from a phoning-it-in Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansen.  And it wasn’t anywhere near as visually interesting as the original comic strip.

Walking out of that movie put us in another bind.  We hadn’t intended to see The Day the Earth Stood Still, but again: that’s what was playing at the right time.  At least it was in IMAX, which renders even mediocre things minimally interesting.  Which is good, because DESS was fairly mediocre.  There’s not even any point in adding to the jokes about Keanu Reevers doing well at emotionless aliens.  Its only selling point was that Jennifer Connelly is immenently watchable, even when she’s starring in dreck.  (Oh and getting to see The Watchmen trailer on the IMAX screen was a bonus.)

We abandoned ship after that.  There were other movies we wanted to see, but Cinemas seemed tainted somehow.

This is how you know I’m a true Cinemite.  You’ll never hear me complain about the cost of movie tickets, or even refreshments.  I don’t care.  I’d pay double to see a good movie.  The problem with the movie industry is mediocrity.  It sinks billions of dollars into movies that aren’t worth watching.  Storylines that are tired, dialog that’s forced, characters with uncertain motivations and goals, ninth inning changes of heart that are unbelievable, and enough deus ex machina to choke a Trojan horse.

It all serves as a good reminder of what not to do when writing a novel.  A reminder, too, that even if you write the best novel you can, Hollywood may devour your story and shit out a movie you’d hate to pay $10 to see.

On the bright side, at least no one got hurt at the theater where I celebrated Cinemas.  Unlike in Philadelphia, where a man shot someone for talking during the movies.  You know who I feel sorry for?  The other people in the theater.  First, some jackass talking in the movie and then another jackass pulling out a gun and shooting the place up.  This is a sacred temple, people.  Have some respect.

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