The Impossibility of Children’s Cinema: On Todd Haynes’s “Wonderstruck”




LOOK AT the Cabinet of Wonders. There are teeth and tusks and fossilized coral reefs. The stuffed giraffe is only neck, attached to the roof like a chimney. Straight past the dinosaur bones, below the painted worlds, is a tiny human skull. Wonderstruck (dir. Todd Haynes) wants us to notice things. Any number of scenes might be frozen and studied at length, to make out the meticulous detail packed inside a crowded visual frame. It’s less Where’s Waldo and more like one of those Very Hungry Caterpillar–style picture books, where you pull up all the flaps to see what’s hidden underneath.

This kind of looking is available to us because Wonderstruck is full of precious, miniaturized worlds, all set out on display. There is the Museum of Natural History, home to the Cabinet of Wonders. There are all number of dioramas. There are scrapbooks and boxes of old pictures and walls covered with tacked-on magazine ads. There is a scale-sized model of greater New York. Part of the story is told with tiny figurines, their doll heads replaced with matchbook-sized portraits. Even in the street scenes, pedestrians loiter in front of period cars in front of picture window displays. The logic of the set design is accumulative, everything and this and this and this.

It’s visually dazzling, of course — as though Baz Luhrmann got his hands on The 400 Blows. And in terms of aesthetic categories, “wonder” is a good term for what these miniaturized worlds invoke. The friendlier cousin to the sublime, wonder is a kind of awe without danger. It is a comfortable surprise, one that we can settle into. In Philip Fisher’s account, the aesthetics of wonder are distinct from the beautiful, because wonder involves the future: it offers us “the pleasurable promise that what is novel or rare may become familiar.” Due to this reliance on novelty, being innocent of experience is part of what it means to be wonderstruck. Children are therefore great vehicles of wonder, in that so much of the world is new to them. To see something with the eyes of a child is to view that something anew, as though for the first time. In Haynes’s film, the miniature worlds are routed through the eyes of the child protagonists, for maximum wonder. Sometimes Wonderstruck seems aware of this circuitry. At certain moments, the camera frames the child inside the exhibit case, as though she were one more lifeless species, pinned under glass.

These shots are canny, for the ways they explicitly render childish innocence as an inert object, the child another thing to be looked at. But they are also an acknowledgment of the deeper, more disturbing logic of the film, which is not really about children per se, but what they might be used for. Wonderstruck turns its child protagonists into taxidermy. They are precious and lifeless collectibles, assembled as one more component part in the cinematic production of miniature, impossible worlds, laid out before us as scenes of wonder.

Rose (Millicent Simmonds) at the Museum of Natural History

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In The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1992), Jacqueline Rose argues that children’s literature is not about actual children. The children in children’s literature are adult fantasies of what children should be like. Now a classic in the field, Rose’s book turns back to the 18th-century foundations of our modern-day expectations of childhood. In these early philosophical accounts, the child is sexless and therefore innocent. She is somehow closer to experience, closer to nature. Unsullied by sex or social inhibition, the child has access to a primitive, unmediated world. What is impossible in children’s literature is not the existence of the literature itself, but this imagined, absolute division between child and adult: the innocent and the experienced; the sexless and the sexual; the primitive and the civilized.

In Wonderstruck, this particular genealogy of the child, taken from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Peter Pan, is on display across two parallel story lines. The first story is set in 1977. After his mother dies, Ben (Oakes Fegley) takes a bus from Minnesota to New York City, on a quest to find his father. This story intersects with another, filmed in black and white. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away to New York to find her mother. Both children end up at the Museum of Natural History.

These two children have few distinguishing features beyond their capacity to experience wonder. They are perpetually looking upward, at buildings and movies and ceilings. Not incidentally, both children are deaf — Ben from a recent accident, Rose from birth. During the course of the film, neither child has learned sign language. For this reason, Rose and Ben exist in a world where they can’t fully communicate with other people. Deafness is pictured as a loss, a kind of vulnerability. “It is very quiet,” says Ben, in explanation. Or later, more frustrated, to his hearing friend, “I can’t hear what you’re saying!”

For some time now, deaf cultures have argued against the rendering of deafness as disability, positioning the deaf instead as a language minority. This view focuses on the richness of sign language as a form of communication with its own distinct modes, as complex and various as any other dialect. For proponents of deaf culture, deafness marks a cultural identity and an alternate mode of communication, not a tragedy. As a narrative of deafness based on the period before either deaf character learns to sign, Wonderstruck plays into this tragic frame of loss.

It should be said, however, that the film and the best-selling book upon which it is based, by Brian Selznick, is not totally on the side of orality. The bad guy in this narrative is Rose’s dad, who pushes for sight-reading so that Rose might acclimate into the hearing world. The good guy is Rose’s brother, who eventually brings her to a school for the deaf so that she might learn to sign. But Haynes’s film primarily takes place before these eventualities. Without the positive content of signing, deafness is primarily figured as lack.

In this framework, deafness and childhood become overlapping models of innocence. Deafness positions the children as closer to visual experience, unmediated by language and unsullied by sex. This primarily occurs in Rose’s scenes, when the dialogue cuts in and out. We watch characters’ mouths move without sound, from Rose’s perspective, as if we, the audience, were also deaf. Sometimes yellow note pads provide a partial gloss, like intertitles. Haynes makes the cinematic analogy explicit; Rose’s scenes are shot in black and white, and we learn that her estranged mother is a silent movie star. Seeing the world through Rose entails a return to the diegetic conventions of the silent era, but here these conventions are recoded as deaf experience more generally. This torqueing of perspective suggests that one thing is like the other: that the experience of being deaf is like watching a silent film. Deafness becomes another pose anyone can step into, by turning off the sound and looking more closely.

Compare this stance with a very different kind of project, the 2014 Ukrainian film, The Tribe, directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. Set in a boarding school for deaf teenagers, The Tribe is filmed entirely in sign language, with no subtitles or voice-over. If Wonderstruck is maximalist craftwork, all glitter and jazz hands, The Tribe might be its tonal opposite: a purposefully stark narrative, filmed in a post-Soviet landscape absent of primary colors.

Trailer for The Tribe (2014, dir. Slaboshpytskiy)

By the end of The Tribe, I still don’t know the names of the characters, or really what they have said to one another. But other things are clear enough. The mafia leader is the guy that flicks his words, like shaking water off his hands. His friend, the one that keeps interrupting their teacher, takes up more space, his forearms scissoring in front of his chest. Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) is bad at eye contact and too romantic to be a good pimp. Svetka (Roza Babiy) bounces on her heels, one foot to the other, while someone else negotiates her next trick. Anya (Yana Novikova) is a nervous hair-flipper but no-nonsense and will get in your face, especially if asked to take off her clothes.

Earlier in the story, the camera pans right as the ringleader approaches a crowd of students, who all start signing at once. It is an initiation — Sergey is going to fight off the others. It’s not really the fight that interests me, but the moment before, when the students in the background all start signing at once. They are clustered in different cliques and gossip circles, some feigning punches and others rolling their eyes.

What The Tribe retains is a sense of alterity: here is a world that is full, but not accessible to everyone, or even most people, watching the film. The audience is faced with another audience, on the other side of the action. But there is no illusion that the fact of watching makes us alike, or even familiar. Wonder is not probable here. This scene might be a surprise, for some, and might be beautiful, in its way. But it does not promise comfort or familiarity. The Tribe asks us to look but doesn’t make any promises about seeing and knowing. Moreover, the temporal arc of wonder isn’t really at stake, in part because innocence is not part of this picture, in part because full-fledged understanding or familiarity are off the table as possible destinations.

It’s still a packed frame. But the visual demands feel less hectoring, less bossy. Look, for instance, at the students, perched on the horizontal pipeline between graffiti-covered brickwork. Green track jacket on the left taps gray hoodie on the shoulder to explain something. She nods, yeah, that. But that’s a guess. What I see in this interaction is not what green track jacket sees. The Tribe stages that distance literally, as a leaf-strewn spot in front of an abandoned building, two audiences facing each other, just before the fight.

A fight breaks out in “The Tribe.” 

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Perverse twins, The Tribe and Wonderstruck might work best as a double feature. It wouldn’t be a screening for children, though. The most common thing for critics to say about The Tribe is that there is too much graphic violence. As though every permutation of suffering needed to be carefully mapped out and recorded, the film presents a different sort of additive catalog. But what would be precisely the right amount of violence for a film about post-Soviet sex traffic? This question about quantity quickly feels glib: too much here, not enough there. Assuming everyone gets used, the better question might be, for what? I suspect that The Tribe is so excessively violent, perhaps too much so, in order to shunt aside a certain kind of infantilization: these deaf teenagers are not the innocent, vulnerable Others to world-weary adults.

In Wonderstruck, the for what? is more difficult to locate. It is easy enough to say that these are children made for adults and a picture of deafness made for the hearing. That is to say, Wonderstruck is violent, too, in its way. I keep coming back to the image of the child under glass for the ways it so neatly crystallizes the lifelessness necessary for a collector’s art. In a more generous vein, this insistence upon the collection of miniature, somewhat twee worlds might be a story about moviemaking as craft. Craftwork is the work of the collector, of the painstakingly handled diorama or scrapbook or scale-sized model of New York, pieced together by hand. “A curator’s job is an important one,” reads Ben, in one of the movie’s more ponderous moments of dialogue. Here the miniature worlds unspool: the picture book is about the Museum of Natural History and the picture book is about filmmaking too, as a collector’s art. Cinema is a lost craft, here reanimated through the wondrous gaze of an impossibly precious child.

Seeking her estranged mother, Rose lands, full of wonder, in New York City

My distaste for the precious is not just adult crankiness, though that’s there. Even as a kid, I didn’t like overly precious children. Having said that, I am uninterested in the critique that the children of Wonderstruck are bad because they don’t seem real. It is not particularly realistic to begin every narrative with dead parents and cross-country quests, but this is the enabling framework of children’s literature. The problem is the implicit narrative — that the avenue toward love is a certain kind of preciousness that might be inhabited by any child, any child at all. This narrative does not investigate the whiteness of universal childish innocence, or the way that class and nation play into our understandings of what is cute and what is pathological. The violence inherent in this narrative is not about representation — what’s shown or not shown on screen. Instead, what is violent is the way it casts aside or conceals what goes into making the exemplary, impossible child a vehicle for cultural nostalgia. In Wonderstruck, this machinery goes into overdrive: like the scrapbook or diorama, the deaf child is one more curatorial selection, all part of a wider longing, not for children’s cinema, but for children as a pathway to lost forms of wonder, best exemplified by the golden age of silent film.

Rose stands in front of a Natural History Museum diorama turned cinematic screen

At the end of the day, Wonderstruck is a movie about cinematic history. What is most brilliant about this historical narrative is partly an accident. No one could have predicted that Wonderstruck would come out precisely at the same moment as the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal. In its wake, however, consider two more perverse media twins: in one, cinematic history is a series of wondrous, miniature worlds, silent era to New Hollywood; in the other, Hollywood is boxed-in and closed off too, through the open secret of routinized sexual assault and harassment.

It’s possible to say that Wonderstruck’s obsession with the childlike wonder of cinematic history merely conceals the violence that goes into its making. It might seem particularly galling that this violence disproportionately affects the most vulnerable and powerless workers in Hollywood, who then become our access points to the wondrous. However, Haynes’s work has never been about the big reveal. It’s better to say that his movies hold everything taut, feeling out the textures of a what for? in the workings of everyday violence. As part of a particularly thick atmospherics, everything is controlled or carefully wrought. I sometimes suspect that Julianne Moore remains Haynes’s actress of choice for all the different ways her jaw muscles so visibly quiver, mouth closed, as she clenches and unclenches her teeth.

With an eye looking backward, toward that earlier body of work, let’s say we consider Wonderstruck through the metaphor it proposes — that filmmaking is a collector’s art, a mini–Museum of Natural History or a mega-shoebox diorama. To be sure, Wonderstruck obsessively returns to meta-narratives for its own mode of production. Each inset world is a part of the collection, to be used for the production of wonder. Through this logic, the film becomes smarter and more sinister. It’s a jewel box of precious, tiny portraits, all indexed to a long-lost past. The children themselves are collectibles, walking rose-tinged glasses, through which we see the world anew, with wonder. But metaphors are tricky, in that once that ball gets rolling, it is hard to stop.

In this more promiscuous grammar, the film is a comfortable chair. It is the inside of a makeshift fort, which turns out to be a Cabinet of Wonders, too. The film is the fort which is also the old Museum of Natural History, full of tribal totems and animal skulls. The film is a kaleidoscope, is a machine made out of wonders. It is a wonder factory, all those doll-like miniatures, the vehicles of wonder, so much grist for the moviemaking mill. There are stuffed giraffes and dinosaurs and awe-struck children. They can be worn on our faces and made into hats.

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Jill Richards is an assistant professor in the English Department at Yale University.


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