Modern cinema can teach us how youth and media are widely understood in our cultures. Cinema, like works of literature and visual art, can represent and diagnose our widespread fears and fantasies about young people and about how we, as cultures, bring them up. Back 150 years ago, for example, Charles Kingsley’s moral fable The Water-Babies challenged child labor. Today, the journal “International Research in Children’s Literature” publishes scholarly analyses of how children’s literature can both help in children’s growing up and impose on them social and moral codes from the dominant culture. Similarly, analyzing the way in which childhood is represented in movies can help illuminate today’s cultural concerns with children’s growing up and the ways in which they are positioned by social and moral codes in the digital age.
Extreme Fears About Media and Learning
The award-winning Greek film Dogtooth, which is lined up for a 2010 Academy Award for best foreign film, is a seriously unsettling dissection of modern family life, parenting and adolescence. Superficially, it’s a movie about parents imprisoning their own children, a paranoid total fantasy of protection from a toxic outside world. Yet it’s also, more subtly, a movie about learning and media.
On an isolated hill, a disciplinarian father and acquiescent mother and their three grown children live in total insulation from the outside world. The children are in fact infantilized adults, physically mature but suspended in a psychologically pre-adolescent state. The house and its gardens, which appear at first to be a middle class idyll, are completely barricaded with high fences against a supposedly dangerous outside world.
Inside, the three children are now being trained, like dogs, to protect the home from whatever dangers might threaten it. Their father trains them to bark and to patrol the garden on all fours. None of them even has a name. The siblings refer to one another as “The Eldest,” “The Son” and “The Youngest Daughter.” The film inverts the media stereotype children are like animals and suggests instead that they can be brutalized and bestialized by over-protective paternalistic petting.
Even outside, the modern world has been appropriated into the total fantasy. When airplanes fly overhead, the parents claim they are toys. Father occasionally drops a few fish into the swimming pool, too, so that he can demonstrate his traditional harpooning skills.
Within the domestic and libidinous sphere, the children’s sexual development brings its own challenges. Father is forced to bring a girl to the house to satisfy the son’s hormonal urges, despite his complete emotional immaturity. Later, though, the son chooses to have sex with one of his sisters instead.
The film is unsettling because it resonates with a number of recent sensational accounts of child abuse. The most obvious reference is to Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his own adult daughter in a specially constructed basement beneath his home for 24 years, fathering seven children with her in that time. Other references are to “feral children” who have been found living wild with packs of dogs or treated as pets rather than human beings by their parents.
Dogtooth is a fierce comment on both the physical and psychological suffering caused to children by those who are most supposed to protect them.
The cultural resonances in Dogtooth with appalling acts against children, however, are counterpoised with a more satirical concern about the influence of a technologized and mediated modern world on children’s lives and learning.
In the film, the home is like a domestic fortress barricaded against modernity. Inside, the few indications that the media world exists at all have been manipulated. The house contains a tape recorder which the children use to learn new vocabulary, such as that a “telephone” is a salt cellar, a “highway” a weather phenomenon, a “zombie” a small flower. There is a TV, on which the family only ever watches home movies, and a record player which father uses to play a song written by “grandfather,” which turns out to be Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” (though the parents rather domesticate the racy lyrics). What little media the children encounter merely reflects their parents’ domestic fantasy back at them rather than connecting to a cultural sphere beyond.
The children, then, have been cocooned from virtually all outside media and technological contact. Even when father goes shopping he has to stop on the way back and slice off the labels. So this total paranoid fantasy, unlike survivalist or self-sufficient communities, is actually in a rather complicated relationship with consumer culture, relying on it while seeking to disguise its reality.
It’s a kind of postmodern paternalistic protection where toys of aircraft replace real aircraft; where home movies replace real movies, where faked song lyrics replace real lyrics. Jean Baudrillard would have called this pure simulacra: the generation of a representation that has no origin in reality, a Disneyland hyperreality, and which eventually replaces reality.
In Dogtooth’s paranoid domesticity, there are unseen dangers outside the fences and libidinous impulses within to be controlled, resulting in a horrible parental conspiracy which constructs the family, rather than Disneyland, as an idealized, hyperreal theme park of domesticity.
The conspiratorial parenting style of Dogtooth is in the vein of what the American historian Richard Hofstdter, writing in 1964, called the “paranoid style.” The paranoid style is characterized by heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy. The paranoid person, Hofstadter claimed, “is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
The parents of Dogtooth represent a paranoid parenting style which detects amoral conspiracies in popular media, household consumables, and even in the very vocabulary of modern culture. Dogtooth’s parents construct for their children a simulated or fabricated fantasy of domestic simplicity and family love, free of the supposed contaminants of culture.
The movie’s narrative climaxes when the eldest daughter comes into contact with the “bad influences,” as her father puts it, of VHS video. In particular, she obtains video recordings of Jaws and Rocky, from which she then acts out key scenes with her siblings. These enactments range from the playful to the dreadful: she pretends to play the shark from Jaws in the swimming pool, but also rehearses smashing her own teeth out at the bathroom sink.
The references to these films is extremely symbolic. Jaws launched the idea of the blockbuster summer movie, while Rocky made the image of pumped-up macho masculinity part of the cultural iconography of the late 1970s onwards. They are both symbolic of a grand convergence of the motion picture with consumer culture, and the creation of a rather mundane blockbuster template (not to say the sequels format) based on paternalistic violence. Both movies are concerned with paternalistic protection from an aggressive outside influence, with both Rocky Balboa and Chief Martin Brody taking on the predatory “other” that has intruded into their communities.
But in Dogtooth the significance is amplified because it is the movies which are the source of the father’s paranoia and conspiratorial imagination. In the paranoid style described by Hofstadter, the father in Dogtooth views the media suspiciously through a conspiratorial imagination. The videotapes themselves are his great white shark and Apollo Creed, contaminating the domestic hygiene of his fortress home in the wilderness.
The children’s access to media throughout the movie is closely controlled and regulated, even manipulated or fabricated so as to conform with the domestic ideal of filial acquiescence.
The parental paranoia is unsettling because of what it suggests about the control of children’s learning and their development of understanding and meaning.
Education and Violence
A few years ago, the 2006 French film ils seemed to provide a more straightforward image of modern childhood. In ils, a young couple living in a crumbling country house is terrorized by a group of hooded youths. Like the youths who politicians like to claim are ruining our neighborhoods and city centers, these kids like to steal cars, make crank calls and scary noises in the night. They also turn out to be feral and murderous, finally hunting down the couple in the sewer system and dragging them off to their deaths.
This seems like a simplistic attack on thuggish youth, yet another example of the contemporary tendency to treat kids as if they are animals. The English translation of the title, Them, is even the same as the title of the classic 1954 man-eating ants movie Them.
Ambiguously, though, the female character in ils is a school teacher. Similarly, the 2008 British thriller Eden Lake also features a school teacher being hunted by kids, and in turn becoming a hunter and a killer of kids.
This suggests that both movies, like Dogtooth, are seeking to locate their concerns about contemporary childhood in issues of learning and in the ways that children’s development is controlled.
There is an odd link between education and violence.
In addition, at the very end of ils, when asked why they had murdered the couple, one of the children claims, “They wouldn’t play with us.” So the ominous “Them” of the title turns out to be the adults, not the kids.
Those closing words, “They wouldn’t play with us,” diagnose again the worrying fear many adults feel about bringing up and educating children.
It also highlights fears about paying insufficient attention to children, not playing with them, not interacting with them … or of interacting with them too much, of infantilizing them even throughout their adolescence.
In this sense, these films seek to dissect the paranoid parental fantasies which turn children into beasts and animals, and seek to turn the spotlight away from the media that so concerns the parents of Dogtooth and shine it mercilessly onto the acts and power of adults themselves.
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