Tag Archives: Feral Children

Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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Rating: B-/ I never saw the original version of Pete’s Dragon, and from what I hear from the movie blogging community I wasn’t missing much. The 2016 reboot is a likable enough family film, although most of the human characters are paper-thin. There’s is one big reason to see this movie and that is the character of Elliot, the dragon, who is wonderful. Whereas Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon exhibited catlike mannerisms and Smaug from The Hobbit trilogy is more of a standard, reptilian variety of dragon, Elliot puts the audience in mind of a big, overbearing puppy, to the point of actually being furry rather than having scales. Continue reading Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

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   The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a very strange movie that raises more questions than it answers, confounds even the most open-minded viewer, and is insistently vague throughout. That said,  it is worth watching for it’s unique portrayal of it’s titular hero and, by extension, the whole of the human race. It’s a secular fable for the cinematically adventurous, written and directed by the king of weird and polarizing art house films, Werner Herzog.

I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with Herzog’s directorial work. I’ve seen a couple of his films, but I mostly know him as the weird guy in Julien Donkey-Boy who chugs cough syrup while wearing a gas mask and sprays Ewen Bremner down with cold water while bafflingly screaming “Stop your moody brooding. Don’t shiver! A winner doesn’t shiver!” As you might have guessed, my experience with Herzog has been strange and surreal, and while Kaspar Hauser does not reach the heights of outlandishness of Julien Donkey-Boy, it’s got plenty of unnerving to go around. It’s allegedly inspired by a real case that took place in the 19th century, very closely based upon a series of letters written on the subject around that time.

Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) is a misfit. He’s spent his entire life in the basement of a man (Hans Musäus) who calls himself his ‘daddy,’ where he is only given a toy horse to play with and is beaten frequently. The only word he knows is ‘horsey.’ He eats nothing but bread and water and is virtually unable to walk or move in a typical human manner. I immediately drew parallels between Kaspar and Nicholas Hope’s character in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, but poor Kaspar has it even worse than the titular Bubby, having been shackled to a wall for seventeen years.

Even more disturbing is the fact that it is never explained why the man is keeping him there. Is he incarcerated for sexual purposes? Is his captor just batshit insane? Is the sick appeal of keeping a man chained to a wall his whole life a turn-on in of itself? We really don’t know. And that makes the final moments of the movie even more insanely cryptic. But for whatever reason, the man gets sick of having Kaspar around and dumps him in a small German town to fend for himself, standing stock still and without purpose with a letter in one hand and a holy book in the other.

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When Kaspar is ‘rescued’ only to be placed in a local jail for lack of anything better to do with him, they assume he is both utterly mentally deficient and incompetent. A kind man named Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast) gets custody of Kaspar for the time being and begins to teach him how to function in society. The irony in this is that Kaspar soon begins to seem wiser and more genuine than any of the hoity-toity high society dandies who superficially observe his story.

He’s prone to be a bit of a philosopher, despite his odd appearance and slow halting speech. Kaspar is a delightful character, because he makes all the religious and moral authorities angry by taking all the demands that he be a proper human and a God-fearing Christian at face value. He’s a wise fool, someone whose ignorance actually lends him a less biased, more realistic view of life. He displays a soul by weeping at music that strikes him as beautiful, yet his elders can’t put him in a tidy box or clearly define him.

I have several problems with this movie, including the lead actor being portrayed as a teenage boy. Seventeen years old? More like a middle-aged Hobbit lookalike! (in fact, Schleinstein, a bit of a social outcast himself, was forty-one at the time of filming.) Jests aside, though, Scheinstein gives a effective, if somewhat one-note, performance. I also have to say that I was simply baffled by the ending. It was quite sad and, furthermore, was totally out of the blue. I think I would have preferred an ending that wasn’t so infuriatingly cryptic.

This is my favorite Werner Herzog (having seen My Son My Son What Have Ye Done and Signs of Life, neither of which struck me as particularly outstanding or memorable.) I don’t love this movie, but for better or worse, I think I’ll remember it.

In creating a unique and memorable character in Kaspar Hauser, the movie allows us to see life through an unbiased, unprejudiced lens- a lens truly untainted by worldly experience. Kaspar is like a blank slate onto which other characters try to project their beliefs and opinions, but, as inert and seemingly mindless as he is, he refuses to be a sheep for other people to control. He’s strong in a way that seems unlikely for someone of his kind, someone without influence, experience, or familial love. And we love him for it. Unsentimental and brazen, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is, in essence, an enigma, and one that might warrent repeat viewings. It might not be a particularly palatable film for the mainstream, but it has it’s astonishing moments.

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The Wild Child (1970)

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During a short period in my late teen years, I had a offbeat interest in feral children and the behavior of kids forced to sink or swim in scenarios of extreme neglect. A strange obsession for a much loved, protected, and comfortably middle class white kid, but I’ve always been fascinated by abnormal psychology; how the mind works, or doesn’t work, depending on the situation. So I had had Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” for several years, bought during the peak of my feral child phase, when I impulsively picked it up and popped it into my DVD player.

I don’t know much about Truffaut, having only seen The 400 Blows years ago, and I always get him mixed up with Au Revoir Les Enfants and Murmur of the Heart director Louis Malle. I was bored for the first few minutes of The Wild Child, but I quickly got into it’s modest but psychologically intriguing narrative. The Wild Child is not a sentimental film (certainly less so than The Miracle Worker, which it mirrors in many respects.) In some ways it has a clinical feel, but at the same time is empathetic to the characters and their motivations.

In the 18th Century, dedicated scientist Jean Itard (writer/director Francois Truffaut) takes on his hardest challenge yet: a dirty, wild, malnourished boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol) found in the woods of rural France. The boy, eventually named Victor, is taken to the School for the Deaf and Dumb where he is eyed and prodded by curious onlookers, actually becoming a spectacle for visiting Parisians.  Finally, when the people at the school tire of their dancing monkey and contemplate dropping the boy off at a institution for the incurably retarded, Itard takes charge and brings Victor to his home on the outskirts of Paris.

There Itard and his housekeeper, Madame Guerin (Francoise Seigner) set out to train the child to be a proper human being. But Itard becomes increasingly obsessed with indoctrinating Victor into civilization, taking his failures incredibly hard and busying himself with instructing his young charge with rewards, punishment, and earnest attempts to give  the kid a normal life. However determined Itard is, he still fails at the most rudimentary aspect of the boy’s education- treating him like a human child and not a science experiment. He becomes increasingly frustrated at his inability to teach Victor language, and considers surrendering him to a potentially dreadful institution.

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  The Wild Child is based on the true story of the ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron,’ and from what I understand it is fairly faithful to the facts. What the scientists, the townspeople, even Itard fail to realize is that Victor’s behavior isn’t that of a incurable crazy or an imbecile. The way Victor acts, emotes, and relates to people is quite normal for someone of his unusual upbringing. He doesn’t like wearing clothes; he never had to wear them in the wild. He doesn’t understand stairs. He abhors the idea of eating with a fork. Are these the traits of a moron? Of course not, he’s never had to do things differently. In truth, Victor’s ability to survive in the wild and hunt and gather from a very young age requires much more ingenuity than being a proper 18th Century Dandy, but the ‘normal’ upstanding citizens don’t see it that way. They just think he’s defective and stupid.

The boy who played Victor was an adolescent gypsy boy and nonprofessional actor; in truth, he often doesn’t appear to be acting. The child on which this movie is based is speculated to have been Autistic, it would explain why his parents rejected him  at a young age and tried to kill him (as evidenced by the scar on his throat) before driving him into the woods. Whether or not Victor has an Autism Spectrum Disorder or has just been deprived of a normal childhood and developmental milestones, Jean-Pierre Cargol displays one of the most natural, unshowy portrayals of severe Autistic-like behavior I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Victor watching this movie; it’s the obsessed, chilly Itard that comes off as weirdly alien. However, Itard’s sometimes harsh methods of behavioral modification is preferable to the alternative of being shackled up in a mental ward. It is Guerin who approaches Victor’s challenges with  the unconditional love of a mother. She is a catalyst to the unfeeling, judgmental Frenchmen who treat Victor like an animal and an outcast.

There aren’t a lot of close-ups or expressions of sentiment in The Wild Child, but it’s a great film for people with any interest in psychology whatsoever. Despite the lack of earth-shaking events, there’s a lot going on under the surface, in contrast to loud, big-budget movies that are ultimately hollow.  The main conflict involves Itard struggling to discover if Victor has a innate understanding of empathy and fairness, or if he only reacts as such because he’s been conditioned to. Whether what he finds out ultimately satisfies him is anyone’s guess. The Wild Child is a slow-moving film but those interested in sociology and the inner workings of the human mind should find a treasure trove of intriguing thoughts and ideas.

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Mama (2013)

“Mama” is a eerily different and creepy ghost story with great performances from the child actors. Young Victoria and Lily (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) have spent 5 years in a cabin in the woods after their father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldaudies,) alone except for a ghostly presence they call Mama. When they are rescued by and put into the custody their dad’s twin brother (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his metalhead musician  wife Annabelle (Jessica Chastain,) who doesn’t want the responsibility of kids.

The special thing thing about this movie is the lack of typical ‘bad guys’ (Mama is disturbed and overprotective, but also a tragic figure) and the CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT many horror films lack. You end up both feeling for these little girls (who return to civilization filthy, emaciated and feral) and being a little creeped out by them due to the clever writing and the girl’s great performances.

The CGI can be a little shoddy and there are plot holes present, but that didn’t deter me from enjoying the creepy, emotional, and compelling story. There where some very touching moments and I found myself still becoming uneasy on my second viewing, which hardly ever happens. I found the development of Annabelle’s character and her transformation from rocker with no real responsibilities to devoted surrogate mom fighting a jealous supernatural force interesting.

I will now voice my minority opinion and say this movie was better than the recent supernatural thriller “The Conjuring.” While “The Conjuring” was perhaps a movie with better visual effects and more audience appeal, it never really got me interested in the characters. They were simply victims, struggling against a tide of bizarre supernatural events that were beyond their earthly grasp.

On the other hand, I felt like the characters in “Mama” were well written and developed, and well I thought the young girls were the highlight of the film, the rest of the cast was quite good too. The child actors display range and prowess beyond their young years, and I hope to see more of them in the time to come.

And then there’s ‘Mama’, who’s overall a rather confusing character, but also eerie and ambiguous. You feel for her, and you fear her wrath, in equal measure. I recommend this movie to horror buffs, but also to people who like just a good emotional riveting story. It’s not a horror classic, but it’s worth watching as ‘light horror’ for genre fans and scaredy cats alike.