In this week’s Times ‘Arts & Leisure’ section, Elvis Mitchell takes on every pop culture savvy parents’ nightmare: the child-in-danger film. Mitchell’s essay, For Parents, the Fear Factor Grows does a good job explaining the genre using some recent examples like The Missing, Mystic River, and 21 Grams, explaining that these films portray how “Childhood innocence is caught in the undertow and shattered on the rocks.”
Curiously absent from the piece is the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg, a director who has virtually built his career around children in danger. From the enslaved kids in peril in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) to those kids surrounded by hungry Velociraptors in Jurassic Park (1993) up through Haley Joel Osment‘s little lost robot boy nearly being doused with boiling oil while pleading “Don’t burn me! Don’t burn me!” in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Spielberg has brought us some of the scariest images of children in danger in film history. The director has played the child-in-danger motif every which way, from tragedy (the little girl in the red coat in 1993’s Schindler’s List) to farce (the friendliest spirit of a dead kid ever in 1995’s Casper). Luckily for Spielberg, he managed to dodge the ultimate kiddie danger bullet by not casting Michael Jackson in Hook (1991): of course, he may have also gotten hexed for life for it.
There’ve been a few mainstream articles and academic papers that refer to Spielberg’s child-in-danger fixation, but not many. It seems that the director’s mainstream appeal, abundant talents, and unrivaled power in Hollywood distract reviewers from the unseemlier aspects of his big budget entertainments. But just beneath the surface of Spielberg’s plastic fantastic films is a barely contained sadism that’s frequently aimed at kids.
The least mainstream (yet most focused) examination of Spielberg’s sadism comes courtesy of Apocalypse Culture author/editor Adam Parfrey‘s alternately kooky and cogent 1993 essay “Pederastic Park?”. Parfrey, for sure, goes too far in his assessment of Spielberg (and the side-by-side comparison of Hook and some truly disturbing pedophile fictions Parfrey somehow “found” in the published version of his essay place the author himself in the rather queasy company of those whom he critiques), but he does get at a certain repressed strain of sadism (often sexualized) in Spielberg’s films. Here’s Parfrey summing up Jurassic Park:
King King, The Lost World, and Godzilla, three monster epics cannibalized by Jurassic Park, achieved their thrills without resorting to on-screen menacing of tots. Indeed, only on milk cartons can we find children so physically raped as the celluloid juveniles of Jurassic Park. The film’s sadistic tone is established early on, when a fat child challenges the paleontological theories of protagonist Sam Neill. Neill turns on the boy, and in low, menacing tones, he demonstrates to the child how a prehistoric nasty would mangle and devour him. Adding a distinctly Peter Kurtenish frisson, Neill slashes near the child’s belly and crotch with a large, sharp claw.
Crispin Glover, who has a chip on his shoulder the size of Chad against Spielberg (he sued him after Spielberg used a Glover look- and act-alike in the sequel to Back to the Future, which Glover co-starred in and Spielberg executive produced) has also logged in his own bad Steven essay (also for Parfrey, in the book Apocalypse Culture II). Echoing Parfrey (and severly abusing the Socratic method) Glover wrote in 2000:
Does Steven Spielberg focus much of his fantasy life on young people? Did he portray children wallowing in sewers filled with fecal matter in Schindler’s List? Did he use children to finger-paint an adult in Hook?… Are the inclinations of Steven Spielberg above suspicion by the media-fed culture? Was Steven Spielberg very friendly with Michael Jackson? Wasn’t Michael Jackson supposed to play Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg’s version of the story? Now that Michael Jackson is no longer held in favor by the mass media, does Spielberg associate with him?
Sure, Glover is a well documented whack-job and Parfrey’s been called everything from “sick” to “fascist” so you might not want to take their word for it. Then again, neither of them pretends to be Mr. Family Entertainment. Spielberg should know to avoid such themes, especially since he reportedly swore off using children in dangerous F/X shoots after John Landis created some real life child-danger when two kids (and actor Vic Morrow) were accidentally killed during the making of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983, a film for which Spielberg also produced and directed a segment. (Interestingly, the segment Spielberg originally intended to shoot for that film involved kids terrorized by a bully.) You’d think after a tragedy like that, Spielberg’s appetite for depictions of child endangerment would go away, yet anyone who saw Hook or A.I. knows that’s not the case.
As coincidence would have it, there’s a new version of Peter Pan coming out on Christmas Day. Steven Spielberg was not involved with the production in any way. He’s busy producing Jurassic Park IV, coming to a theater near you in July 2005. It’ll be fun for the whole family—bring the kids.