The Little Fugitive (USA, 1953, Morris Engel)
Wonders "Where did I put my towel?"
Where Ben and I take a trip down Nostalgia Lane
Truffaunt's tip of the hat to this film pretty much says it all. The 400 Blows is a much more serious work and also a better film, but LF is opening a door for it and will echo loudly later on in Small Change. Much of LF may be quintessentially American, drawing on Hal Roach especially, but at the same time, it's cinematic disposition resonates somewhere in a realm between later French cinema verite and earlier Italian neo-realism. As we have discussed, vestiges of the latter are in evidence in La Strada, which came out in 54, a year after LF. I mention La Strada by way of comparison with respect to the reality of the society depicted. Italy is still recovering from the war, still economically in rough shape with plenty of poverty all around. Look at the United States - Brooklyn that is - by way of contrast. Sure, the kids in LF are working class, especially deprived of a male breadwinner, as they are. But they're got a telephone and a television and enough money for birthday presents and trips to Coney Island. (We never do see mom find out that the six dollars she left with a shopping list was not spent on those groceries. But hey, it was enough of a miracle that they got rid of the Cat in the Hat before she came home.) In short, the reality backdrop of LF is general prosperity. This is historically factual. But even so, I have to second guess my acceptance of the social landscape of the urban setting.
I recently attacked The Straight Story for its can of corn about the Heartland. Something analagous is at work in LF. It is true that kids had more autonomy, particularly working class kids, playing stick ball between the parked cars and all that. But even in 1953, a seven year old on his own for 36 hours at Coney Island is far fetched. The problem is not that the film asks us to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the kid's adventure. The unrealistic problem is the implicit message that Brooklyn is one big folksy neighborhood where everyone can partake of the good life and there are no mean streets in the city. Personally, I find this mythology about Brooklyn more true than I find the mythology in The Straight Story. But I wouldn't be honest if I didn't add that LF is very close to home for me, just a generation after my dad's own Brooklyn childhood, and I can't help suspecting that this is imparing my best judgement.
No doubt, you are (especially) bored silly by all of this, thinking that none of it matters, because LF is such a delightful film. Some of the supporting child actors are, well, child actors, but this is actually kinda cool and feeds into the cinema verite/neo-realism vibe. Meanwhile, the two principals, particularly the star, are great. You can't help loving that little rascal, uh-huh, and it's downright thrilling to see him make his way in the world. I have been to Coney Island many times in my life, including as a kid his age in the early 60s. So to see it the way I remember it, shit, my brother and my grandmother went on the parachute ride. The thing is still standing and there is talk of fixing up the ride. Now that the residential area associated with the amusement park is coming up after decades of being a slum, the midway and all the rest of it are once again becoming commercially viable. The beach itself has never ceased to be an attraction. I swam there a couple of years ago. But I digress, demonstrating the validity of my concern about it all being close to home for me.
How could anyone not like this film? The whole family watched it and everyone ate it up with a spoon. As if the Brooklyn connection were not enough, I've got two sons four years apart. They were hooked by the opening frames of LF like a woolen sock caught on a thistle. My brother is coming up this August and I'm going to watch LF with him and my pop. How could anyone not like this film? But I digress again.
I just want to slip in my recognition of the many splendid shots in the film. There are some great images. Not just as a love song to Coney Island and celebration of childhood, unto themselves, reverberating as good images do, encouraging us to find deeper meaning. The parachute ride was obviously stunning, but I really liked all of the cinematography under the boardwalk as well as the crowds. I am proud to report that for the first time Jacob uttered the term "what a great shot" in reference to the beach, empty except for many trash bins, the rain coming down, and then our hero appears, dragging a bag full of bottles. I can't get him to read a damn thing but I must be doing something right, it is a great shot. The whole film looks just fabulous, in that way that only black and white can, but there is considerable craftsmanship and this was not lost on Truffaut and his peers.
How could anyone not like this film? My only grievance was that I was dieing for a Nathen's hotdog before it was over.
And Dan Responds:
How could anyone not like this film?
I'll take you up on your Lynchian intolerance after I've had some dinner. Here's the review I wrote for Apollo Guide:
"In keeping with the directness and honesty of this marvellous film, let us get this out of the way up front: Little Fugitive is a delightfully sweet and remarkably affecting film.
The deceptively simple storyline is built around this premise: Joey, a seven year-old boy, is convinced that he has killed his older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster), so he steals six dollars and runs away from home, eventually taking up residence at New York's carnival wonderland of Coney Island. There is a poetic modesty to the storyline and director Morris Engel's storytelling techniques. In fact, Little Fugitive is textbook minimalist filmmaking. For the majority of the two-month shoot, Engel's entire crew consisted of himself as cameraman and an assistant to run errands. The entire script for this film runs to fewer than 2,000 words, and much of the second half of the film transpires with long stretches devoid of dialogue – Engels simply points the camera at Joey (Richie Andrusco gives a remarkably unaffected and touching performance) and records the action.
Deploying a hand held 35-millimetre camera, Engels shows Joey navigating his way through this child's paradise, immersing himself in the pure sensual pleasure of being alive. Joey indulges every desire: he eats, drinks, plays, and rides whatever and whenever he wants. As the day wanes, his trepidation grows, but through it all Joey remains both resilient and resourceful.
These qualities are also expressed in the American frontier imagery that abounds throughout. Joey packs a six-shooter, roaming through Coney Island with his sidearm and a thirst for adventure (not to mention gallons of soda pop). He develops a lovely and loving relationship with a carny who runs the pony ride and teaches Joey how to ride. Underscoring this western motif is a soundtrack dominated by the howl of a lonely harmonica.
In a statement that is only slightly hyperbolic, Francois Truffault credits Engel's Little Fugitive, with its warm and inviting black and white cinematography, minimalist narrative and energetic naturalist style, as being a seminal work for the French New Wave directors who would storm onto the scene in the decade to follow its release. Even if this had not proven to be such an influential film, Little Fugitive manages to be, despite being apparently bereft of grand ambitions and content to tell its simple story as honestly as possible, a movie that transcends its self-imposed boundaries."
Fine catch on the western frontier motif. Obviously, I noticed the six-shooter and the pony obsession but I didn't process them. Interestingly enough, for me at least, this provides a bridge between my irritation with TSS can of corn and my tolerance for benign Brooklyn. If I wanted to cop out by way of rubbish, I might say that LF ironically undercuts the foundational mythology of the American West and therefore, by extrapolation, the later can of corn in TSS. I don't want to do this. I want instead to extend my discomfort with bountiful Brooklyn insofar as LF does not ironically undercut but rathers directly draws upon the western frontier motif. I won't push this. That would be ludicrous. The point is that both films dip into a general ideological pool about the goodness and the greatness of god's favourite country, the USofA. Still, I hold on to the difference between the LF citizens of very solidly social democratic New York in 1953 and TSS citizens of the pretty solidly redneck midwest in - what year is that film set in anyway? Most of all, I hold on to the difference between the lean and excellent LF and the almost as lean but nevertheless sappy TSS.
And Ben Continues:
Ran into the following, which I pass your way in order to prove that this ideological bunk is out there and pervasive, not a bogey man dreamt up by me. Just check out how this reviewer (Dennis Schwartz) buys into the mythology:
"The Lester Troeb harmonica music in the background made it feel like a cowboy adventure as it sets a wonderfully lighthearted mood. I felt so much better for seeing it, and it also induced me to reflect back on an age when American big cities were more innocent and a child could believably survive such an experience without coming to harm. You can read all you want about how the country has changed, but to see it so clearly as filmed in this magazine-like looking pic makes it all the more astonishing."
And Dan Concludes:
The Internet is full of guys like Dennis who look at the world through sepia-toned glasses, because America is full of guys like Dennis. Like I have to tell you.
I still think Lynch is offering up something a little bit more substantial than a paeon to a "lost" America. The story is told through the eyes of a dying man, and is portrayed by an actor who was himself dying of cancer, which adds a bit to the gravitas, and colours the film's perspective. I mean, Alvin is so straight it hurts, and he cannot fathom a world that is not straight like him, so he offers straight advice to weary and lost souls that is about as cornball (and, to be fair, heartfelt) as you can get. But I don't think we can or should mistake Alvin's point of view for Lynch's. His America is a bit more complex than that. Jesus, just look at that ramshackle shack that Harry Dean Stanton lives in. Think of the life that Sissy Spacek's character has led after the fire cost her her children. The war vets who are haunted by the memories of all their dead friends. There's a darker side here, it's just that Lynch underplays it in pursuit of Alvin's quest.
And I remained quite affected by the catch in Alvin's throat when (at first) he received no answer after calling his brother's name, so there's little doubt that the film worked for me, regardless of all the corn.