Todd Field’s Little Children in Relation to the History of Cinema

Sergei Eisenstein and Dialectical Montage

Russian film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein saw the concept of dialectical montage, which he pioneered in films such as Battleship Potemkin, as “not an idea composed of successive shots stuck together but an idea that derives from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another” (FTC, 27). Diametrically opposed to his old-school countrymen Les Kuleshov and Vsevolod Pudovkin, who saw montage as more of a way to stack the “bricks” of a film in symmetrical order (FA 18-19), Eisenstein’s prowess with this revolutionary technique was displayed succinctly in the opening two minutes of Potemkin’s “Men and Maggots” section.

The film opens with a turbulent sea full of waves out of control. After a title card quoting Lenin allows the audience to see the volatility of the political climate (mimicking the choppy waters), Eisenstein chooses to highlight a group of sleeping soldiers. By juxtaposing the men hanging in gently swaying pods, evoking babies being rocked in their cradles, the director suggests that any lingering innocence is about to come crashing down like the frothy waves above deck. These introductory images foreshadow the violent clash on the Odessa steps, but also indicate a pent-up rage against authority the seamen are harboring in their hungry bellies, a passion for revolt. An idea is gestating in their unconscious sleeping minds as they rock back and forth with the rhythm of the water and their reality, once they awaken, will become as turbulent as the churning sea.

Eisenstein uses dialectical montage in the first scenes to familiarize the audience with a world that they might not have yet seen or experienced, but Todd Field, in Little Children, uses his opening shots to bring the viewer into a world that might already be familiar: the suburbs. However, Field forgoes re-presenting the obvious and chooses to open the film with a blurry, fleeting tracking shot that is almost disorienting. There are flashes of nature glimpsed during these few seconds, warm sunlight and bucolic tree-greens are merged together to give the impression of a swamp. The lush emerald and gold immediately gives way to something more ordinary as it is revealed the shot is being taken from a car speeding down a residential street littered with cookie-cutter houses, BMWs, and backyard playgrounds.

These staples of suburbia then crash into the gleaming gears of a room full of loudly ticking brass clocks, bronze miniature statues and delicate antique china figures of children. They are possessed of exaggeratedly saucer-like dead eyes. Still and fragile, these figurines are meant to suggest the simultaneous purity and grotesquerie of real children and when set against the first shot, they beckon the viewer to slow down, change pace (or gears, as in the clocks), and to take a closer look at the evil that is lurking beneath the lacquered veneer of ceramic glaze that coats their bizarrely anachronistic costumes. Field borrows from the subliminal nature of Eisenstein’s opening imagery, mirroring the way he used seemingly non-connected imagery to suggest a tone and a mood of disquiet. But then he goes one step further, putting his two initial images into a contemporary context via a shot of a television news “reporter”, spewing directly to the camera in a confrontational style the same tired line about the sex-offender danger facing the new sacred cows of America: children.

When these three scenes collide, it almost feels as though Field would like the audience to think that we have moved away from the traditional values that were born around the same time the porcelain objets d’art were. That was a time when one could still be friendly and open with one’s neighbor, or say hello to a passing child on the street without being suspected of being a pedophile. Field is saying that those salad days are long gone, as though the child, or the crusade to “protect” the child from danger, has rendered the youth of America as glassy and stilted as the disproportionately bobble-headed ceramic people so carefully positioned in the second shot of the film. Real children are now placed on the shelf as well.

Field achieves this bruising synthesis of ideas through disparate, brief, yet thorough application of Eisenstein’s theories of dialectical montage. There are no readily stackable “bricks” here, only explosive collisions of “modes of thought” that contribute to Eisenstein’s theory that “art is always conflict” (FTC, 24) and that shots only have meaning when they collide with one another to create a specific meaning in the mind of the viewer – after all, to Eisenstein, human thought was art.

D.W. Griffith and Inter- and Intra-Frame Narrative

In The Muskateers of Pig Alley (1912), D.W. Griffith employs the techniques of inter- and intra-frame narrative, alongside one another, to create an exciting world of gangsters, movement and interest. While intra-frame allowed for the director to explore the hidden corners of the individual scene in new ways (through using a variety of long, medium and close-up shots to emphasize specific actions, staging or gestures), inter-frame narrative functioned as a tool that fused different frame spaces together to create a cohesive idea over a series of shots in different locations. In Muskateers, the opening scene demonstrates Griffith’s use of inter-frame narrative technique. Set in the protagonist’s tenement apartment, it shows the leading man leaving to go earn money as a street musician. The next shot posits the viewer not in the apartment, but in the vestibule just outside the door. “The Little Lady” follows him out to the hallway and then goes back into the flat to take care of the sick old woman. Griffith’s camera then follows her outside to the alley and the audience is again moved into another new space with the character. Following characters entering and exiting these differing spaces constitutes inter-frame narrative.

Field uses a variety of these classic techniques in Little Children, but my favorite example of the deployment of both inter- and intra-frame narrative happens in the striking scene set at the community pool. In an opening tracking shot from the point of view of Sarah walking from the ladies’ changing room, the character seems to go from one world to another. We switch from Sarah’s point of view to the director’s as the woman becomes the focus of the camera’s gaze. Field uses an array of long, medium and close-up shots to reveal Sarah’s secret: she is searching for her crush Brad, who had previously mentioned he comes to the pool every day with his son. The arrangement of shots not only highlights the wordless interactions between Brad and Sarah, but also paints a vivid picture of the community enjoying the summer day together with long shots of children harmoniously diving into the water, medium shots of ladies playing cards at metal tables and lingering close-ups of Brad and Sarah as they curiously circle and court one another. The use of intra-frame narrative here highlights and conveys their complex feelings of lust, but also establishes a strong sense of what the community is like, how close-knit they are.

Then in the very same scene, Field introduces neighborhood molester Ronnie, who jumps into the child-filled pool complete with snorkeling gear. The director takes the character and the viewer into two distinct spaces, above and under the water, to reveal Ronnie’s sinister intentions. While he is above water, still anonymous, the man who was just released from jail for a sex crime seems innocuous; he blends into the community. But then he goes beneath the surface of the water, into a surreal blue world where the limbs of young mermaid-like girls in bikinis seem just within Ronnie’s grasp (even though his parole explicitly forbids this). This voyeuristic point of view as the camera follows Ronnie from the real world into his fantasy helps to indicate that Ronnie is sick, and that he is not to be trusted. The staging of these scenes, with children in such close proximity to a felon with a predilection for very young girls, invokes tension in the viewer; we don’t know what Ronnie is going to do and that frightens us. Field’s use of inter-frame narrative in such a concise way allows for the audience to follow this disturbed character into two spaces, and in the process reveals a truth about him – that he too is child-like.

After these “truths” are revealed, Field switches back to intra-frame narrative and focuses on Sarah in close-up as she recognizes the criminal and realizes that all hell is about to break loose once the other parents also realize who is in the pool with their kids. Field then uses the same technique to focus the viewer’s attention onto the other concerned parents, who rush to fish the children out of the pool. Through the use of quick-cut long, medium and close-up shots of the parents in the scene, Field creates an aura of palpable hysteria emanating from the community as they realize what is happening in the pool.

Then, in a deft move, Field once again uses inter-frame narrative to follow Ronnie back under the water as the frantic children flail around in the water, desperately trying to “escape” him – it’s as though he wants one last cheap thrill before he is caught and ejected from the pool area. Switching yet again to intra-frame narrative, Field frames Ronnie’s eyes in a tight close-up to indicate he realizes his mistake as the cops take him away. The director then uses a variety of medium and long shots as the kids and parents celebrate his departure by diving back into the water and reclaiming the pool. The way Field switches back and forth between Griffith’s two techniques reveals many perspectives and different spaces both within and outside of the original frame space, in a single sequence, just as The Muskateers of Pig Alley was able to do in 1912.

Georges Melies and Mise en Scene

It seems fitting that one of the most important, fluid elements of all filmmaking, classic and contemporary, mise en scene, would be perfected by Georges Melies, a man who began his career as a stage magician. “Mise en scene”, which gives an “illusion” of reality for a viewer, is defined as “putting into the scene” (FA 112) and “was first applied to the practice of directing plays” (FA 112). In order to convince an audience that what they were seeing was “real”, Melies relied on this technique in his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, in which he created a “totally imaginary world on film” (FA 113) by using sets, lighting, makeup, costumes, and acting innovatively, actively controlling “those aspects of film that overlap with the art of the theater. In controlling the mise en scene, the director stages the event for the camera” (FA 112).

Though the elements of Melies’ mise en scene for A Trip to the Moon (trompe l’oeil painting on the sets, fantasy costumes and exaggeratedly theatrical makeup) make for a magical experience, Field chooses to employ the technique, albeit in a more grounded way, in his film to give the impression of a more disturbing reality. If Melies “conjured” a sense of wonder and mystery, Field does something similar in a more intimate sequence in his film: following the death of Ronnie’s mother May, the broken man returns to the home he shared with her to face his demons. Field’s careful, clever use of detail in the mise en scene does not tell a fantastical story of an intergalactic voyage, but does cannily recount one man’s entire life, encapsulating it into one scene packed with specific details, light patterns, subtle use of makeup and specific gestures to indicate a life of pain about to derail. In a way, like Melies, Field does transport the audience to another orbit – only instead of going to the moon, we are dropped off inside the disturbed mind of a sexual predator and are absorbed into the minutiae of his everyday life.

When Ronnie comes back to the modest, somewhat dilapidated home after his mother dies, he is greeted by an unfriendly pair of beige orthopedic shoes, a reminder that she will not be wearing them again. He carries a suitcase full of nightgowns in plain cotton, a worn robe, and boxes of Russell Stover candies, the kind you buy in a hospital gift shop. These now-sad objects that were meant to bring comfort to the only person who loved him, who is now gone, are reminders of the many disappointments Ronnie caused his mother.

Confronted head-on with her trusty yellow rubber gloves and carefully positioned bric-a-brac, Ronnie is doomed to remain stunted in his own growth forever, reminded of his failures by the presence of May’s meager bequests. The artifacts that Field chooses to scatter throughout the mise en scene are meant to serve a dual purpose: they are to recall this woman’s constant presence in Ronnie’s life, and also to function as a force that oppresses him, that compels him to stay firmly implanted in the past, suspended in the simple pleasures of a dead old woman. The details of May’s kitchen are impeccable: sunshine-yellow appliances, dingy white café curtains, dusty plastic fruit and graying fiberboard countertops set off by Walnut-veneered cabinets (the kind that were last popular in the late 1970s) bring to life that stilted place of love Ronnie came from, giving the audience a peek into where a man that everybody else in the film considers a monster, comes from. It is the kitchen of every hardworking blue-collar family. The mise en scene here is meant to put the viewer into a place of empathy.

At first, Field uses only ancillary lighting, such as small table lamps that cast a soothing, perhaps even nostalgic amber glow. But as Ronnie reads his mother’s final message in the letter written from her deathbed (which says “please be a good boy”, further infantilizing him), the aggrieved man’s mood turns from somber to confused, animalistic rage, and the lighting design turns sharper, clearer. Rather than being lit from the side by warm tones, Ronnie’s face is now besieged with white-hot beams of sizzling light coming from directly above him. The lighting becomes more oppressive (again, mirroring the other elements of the mise en scene) as he “interprets” his mother’s message, as though she has literally “shed light” on what he must do to remain “good” from beyond the grave.

Ronnie stands alone amongst the chiming cuckoo clocks, ticking metal gears and the titular ceramic statues. With May gone, the “little children” (some of which recall the facial rotundity of Melies’ “moon-man”) seem to be malevolent, even mocking. They remind Ronnie that what he loved most is gone and that it could possibly be his fault. Eyes lined subtly with a smoky kohl to emphasize a burning desire behind his laser-blue eyes, each crevasse of his weathered face emphatically lined and acne pock-marked, the makeup in these scenes conspires with the other intrinsic mise en scene elements to tell the story of a man completely beaten down by circumstance, at his breaking point. Surrounded by his mother’s treasured collections, with nothing of his own, Ronnie demolishes each taunting clock and smashes each of the “little children” to bits in a fit of rage – destroying all traces of his mother’s love, transitioning to the next phase of his tortured existence in a scene that “conjures” images of a “delightfully unreal world wholly obedient to the whims of the imagination” (FA 114), meticulously crafted by a sad, dead woman, and realized by Field’s restrained use of Melies’ pioneering mise en scene techniques.

Edwin S. Porter and Parallel Editing

The American-born Edwin S. Porter began his career as a projectionist, a position which was an early version of what we now call “editor”. While he would become influential for being one of the first filmmakers to utilize camera movement in new, exciting ways (such as “pan and tilt”), Porter’s main claim to fame was the mastery of parallel editing, a relatively simple conceit by today’s standards. Porter, in his 1903 film, showed the world that multiple stories can co-exist on the screen, interacting with one another in “parallel” to create a fuller filmic world. Transposing the story of what is happening in the train’s offices with the action on the train, Porter was able to create a world of double meanings and suspense for his audience. In Little Children, Field uses this technique repeatedly, but notably in the end sequence where four of the main characters face their respective fates.

Sarah and Brad are planning an ill-conceived escape from their spouses and have decided to rendezvous at the local park at night to concretize their love. Sarah is shown hastily placing her young daughter onto the floor of her Volvo station wagon in order to get to the park faster. As Sarah begins to make what will amount to an eventual series of mistakes, Field cuts to Ronnie in his mother’s home, selecting the crude instrument that he will use to castrate himself, perhaps to draw a parallel to how Sarah, who depends on her wealthy, older husband to sustain her spoiled middle-class existence, is about to “castrate” herself by leaving him for the jobless Brad. Into this action, shots of Larry, who has bullied Ronnie and rallied the community against the man, are inserted. He is shown walking into Ronnie’s home, presumably to do him further harm.

As Sarah absentmindedly swings her child in the darkened park, neighborhood boogeyman Ronnie skulks through the gate, limping and clutching his midsection. Crying like a child, obviously broken from reality, Ronnie’s presence does not deter Sarah from waiting for Brad, whom Field then introduces in another parallel story, duffel bag in tow, running at breakneck speed to the park to (presumably) meet up with Sarah. Even as the scene in the park suggests a mounting tension, the scenes with Brad take a detour, becoming more relaxed as he settles into the company of the skateboarding boys he has envied throughout the movie. These scenes are pieced together in a way that emphasizes Brad and Sarah’s single-mindedness, their stubborn refusal to accept that the denouement of their “love” will be just as boring as the rest of their suburban existence.

Field’s insistence on cutting the entire sequence to underline each of the four characters’ simultaneous actions creates a palpably tense atmosphere that unsettles the viewer. The way Field employs parallel editing to highlight each character’s dramatic arc becomes a catalyst of pulse-pounding suspense and a distinct rhythm emerges as each parallel storyline reaches a thrilling crescendo and crosses paths with the others. This technique also allows the viewer to glimpse heretofore unseen ambiguities in the principal characters: Brad’s juvenile selfishness, Sarah’s stupidity, Ronnie’s insanity and Larry’s previously hidden heart.

Gunning Reflections

According to Tom Gunning’s “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In) Credulous Spectator”, “attractions are a response to an experience of alienation” (875), and Todd Field’s Little Children revels in this sentiment by “heightening its use of discontinuous shocks” (875) – or by presenting everyday “attractions” (evils such as pedophilia, infidelity and lying) as being omnipresent in our most familiar places, lurking right under our noses and begging to be found out. The film presents a version of reality that most people would not want to come into contact with, which stirs complex emotions and puts us into a position of empathizing with often flawed, sometimes unlikable characters in the hope that through our own alienation, we will identify with the characters or see a part of ourselves in them.

Is Little Children a spectacle exploding with “big” visual pleasures and “cinematic illusions” (876)? Not necessarily. The film does, however, toy with the spectator’s role as a kind of voyeur who gains a degree of pleasure from seeing the “cinematic illusion”, or reproduction of realities, which showcases behaviors that are generally considered taboo in American culture, corresponding directly to what Gunning says about the film’s “ability to convince spectators that the moving image was, in fact, palpable and dangerous, bearing toward them with physical impact” (863). As spectators, we are intrigued by the taboos with which the film confronts us, which fuels an attraction or curiosity to the verboten.

Gunning goes on to say that “contemporary film theorists have made careers out of underestimating the basic intelligence and reality-testing abilities of the average viewer and have no trouble treating previous audiences with disdain” (863), something I believe Field firmly goes against, presenting relatable archetypal characters for the viewer but also disseminating enough information to us so that we can make our own “informed” decision about the dramatic action, even when the waters become morally murky. Field places a great amount of trust in his audience’s capability to interpret this information and to become an active participant in the “dangerous” world he has created.

In Little Children, the “astonishment” for the spectator comes not from a whirlwind of effects or a flashy visual style, but from the realization that the behavior of ordinary people (who might be living in one’s own safe suburban enclave) has the capacity to be monstrous – whether molesting a child, being a bad mother or simply espousing self-righteous judgment. Gunning says that “confrontation rules the cinema of attractions” (869) and in Field’s film this friction occurs in the ways characters interact with one another and the spectator, confronting our ideas of normality and challenging our conceptions of what is good and what is bad. In American culture, we are told that pedophilia is wrong, and anyone who questions this is suspect. But in Field’s film, part of the shocking conflict arises when the viewer is forced to empathize with Ronnie, to become oriented with his pathology, and to actually reconsider the values we have internalized. It is a provocative place that Field asks his viewer to enter, dangerous even. The way in which Little Children is constructed to resemble reality only helps to absorb the audience into the story, and the shock (and the pleasure) comes from realizing that we might know these people or might actually be these people.

We have become, according to Field and Gunning, fragmented, desensitized and even sanitized to a degree by “safety” and “normality” – but fortunately the director injects the vital element of “the thrill” into the experience of Little Children. “The taste for thrills and spectacle, the particular form of curiositas that defines the aesthetic of attractions, is moulded by a modern loss of fulfilling experience,” writes Gunning (875). Whether it is Brad’s obsession with regaining his vitality through extreme sports or observing the skateboarding teenagers (and later trying to assimilate into their group), Sarah’s flagrant affair with Brad, or Ronnie’s predatory inclinations, Field is saying that we all have these thrill-seeking impulses, and that “the abstraction and alienation” we feel cause us to pursue these thrills even more (873). Whether it is an identifiable fictional character acting out in a sexual or physical way or a cinematic thrill-seeker searching for a film that will express these desires for them without the fear of reprisal, the participation of the spectator is intrinsic in the view of Gunning and essential for understanding Field’s subversive work. We may no longer be as surprised when trains roar across the screen as audiences were at the time of the Lumiere films, but the form still has the potential to shock us and make us question our own motives with its myriad of possibilities and the “uncanny effects” of “realism” (864).

Works Cited

A Trip to the Moon. Dir. Georges Melies. Perf. Beuette Bernon, Jeanne d’Alcy, Victor Andre. 1902.

Battleship Potemkin, The. Dir. Sergei M. Eisenstein. Perf. Vladimir Barsky, N. Poltavtseva, Aleksandr Antonov. 1925.

Great Train Robbery, The. Dir. Edwin S. Porter. Perf. Justus D. Barnes, Walter Cameron, A.C. Abadie. 1903.

Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In) Credulous Spectator.” Film Theory & Criticism. Cohen, Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, n.d. 863-876.

Little Children. Dir. Todd Field. Perf. Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Noah Emmerich, Phyllis Somerville. 2006.

Muskateers of Pig Alley, The. Dir. D.W. Griffith. Perf. Lillian Gish, Walter Miller, Elmer Booth. 1912.

Thompson, David Bordwell and Kristin. Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. 2008.