Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pocket Money 3 -- Children

Francois Truffaut with the "actors" in his movie, Pocket Money. From left (character names): Laurent Riffle, the hairdresser's son (who is well loved); Lecluc, the fledgling juvenile delinquent; Claudio Deluca; Petite Gregory in the arms of Truffaut; Richard Golfier, a child well taken care of; Patrick Desmouceaux; and Frank Deluca, brother of Claudio.

The real subject of Francois Truffaut's Pocket Money is the care and neglect of children and their relationship with adults. The school teachers are no-nonsense but extremely caring, working hard to ensure the children in their purview are educated. "I'm just as stubborn as you are," she tells a resisting student.

One story concerns the Petit Gregory, an adorable child being raised by his single mother. His father, his mother tells the school teacher's wife, left 3 months after Gregory was born and has not been seen since. First, we see Gregory's mother ask a neighborhood boy of six to take him home while she stops at the market. Then we see her walk up the stairs with him when the elevator in their apartment building is broken. They stop in to see the school teacher's wife and while the mother is chattering away about her blind date from the personals column of the newspaper, Gregory spills out the contents of her shopping bags and starts playing with a hammer. She wasn't watching. Next she gets to her own apartment on the ninth floor with him but discovers she has lost her wallet. She leaves him in the apartment alone, while she goes to look for it. Soon Gregory is on the ledge of the window chasing the cat and soon.... he remains unharmed, but his fate could easily have been otherwise. His mother wasn't looking.

We see the story of Sylvie, whose mother--or the mistress of her father, it is not clear to me which--refuses to take her to the restaurant with them on a Sunday, because Sylvie insists on taking a dirty stuffed animal bag that she has "cleaned" with water from her fish tank. Instead of either insisting that she not bring the bag but come or allowing her to come with the bag, they say, "Ok, stay here then by yourself." She then devises an attention-getting way to get food from the neighbors and once she has it, says to herself proudly and happily: "Everyone was looking at me. Everyone was looking at me."

The most neglected child is Lecluc, who is brought to the school at the end of the term as a welfare case. His address is in a non-residential area. We never see his parents but we see him sitting outside rather than being inside. We see his constant petty thievery. One day he is thrown out into the rain because he was an hour late and spends the night in town before he collapses into sleep in front of the school gate. When he has to undergo the yearly medical exam, it is discovered that he has scars and marks that indicate physical child abuse. The school nurse rushes to the principal's office, the principal calls the police, soon the boy's mother and grandmother (note father is long gone) are under arrest, and we see them in handcuffs being led out of their rickety shelter to a van with neighbors banging on the van windows like an angry mob.
The Teacher, Monsieur Richet

This story becomes the prompt for the teacher's explanation to students of what has happened to Lecluc. "I know we are all thinking about Julien Leclou. It's in the press.and you've heard your parents talking at home. Before you go on vacation, let's talk about Julien. I don't know much more than you do...but I'll tell you how I feel. First, Julien will be taken care of by Welfare.He will be placed in a family. Wherever he goes, he'll be better off than in his own home...where, in his own words, 'he was beaten.' His mother shall lose her maternal right. For Julien, it may be quite a few years before he'll know the freedom to come and go as he pleases. Julien's case is so tragic that we cannot help comparing our lives with his. My own childhood was also quite painful. I couldn't wait to grow up. I felt adults had all the rights. They can lead their lives the way they want. An unhappy adult can start again from scratch. But an unhappy child is helpless. He may not know how to put it in words, but he feels that he cannot even contest his parents' right to hurt him. An unloved and battered child feels guilty. That's what's so tragic! Of all mankind's injustices...injustice to children is the most despicable!"

Given that Truffaut himself suffered extreme neglect by his mother and stepfather (born out of wedlock, he never knew his father), this has to be seen has his own personal belief. After deploring the fact that politicians do not concern themselves with children's needs because children don't have the vote, the teacher concludes: "I feel kids rate a better deal.That's why I became a schoolteacher.Life isn't easy.You must steel yourselves to face it.I don't mean ''hard-boiled.'' I'm talking about stamina!Some of us who've had a difficult childhood...are better equipped for adult life...than those who were overprotected with love.It's the law of compensation.Life may be hard, but it's also wonderful.When we're confined to sickbed...we can't wait to get out and enjoy life.We sometimes forget how much we really love it.You're about to go on vacation.You will discover new places...and make new friends.In September, you'll move up a grade.We'll enroll both boys and girls.Time flies. Before long, you'll have kids of your own.If you love them, they'll love you.If they don't feel you love them...they'll transfer their love and tenderness to other people...or other things.That's life! Each of us needs to be loved! Well, boys, school is over."

The teacher's own wife, Mrs. Richet, is expecting when the movie begins and has her baby toward the end of the film. She seems to be the "Kitty" figure of Pocket Money, but here she is the one who understands children and their needs. When describing Petite Gregory's accident to her husband, she notes, "Whereas an adult would have been laid out for good, kids are solid. They stumble through life, but they're not hurt. They're much tougher than we are." Nevertheless, when her own baby is born, she calms her husband's fears of the child being hurt. The neighbor boy comes to see the new baby and asks a lot of questions about him and then asks: "Do you leave him alone?" "No," answers Mrs. Richet, "I'm always with him."

Friday, June 27, 2008

Pocket Money 2 -- School

Thiers, France, built on the hill.

In the scene for the opening credits in Pocket Money, we see children tumbling down the streets of Thiers, a town built on the hills where all the streets run up and down. They are carrying satchels and running to school--a no-nonsense place. The schoolyard is bare--no swings, no monkey bars, no sliding boards. Inside the classroom, the scene is equally barren--a few maps, but no decoration in the classroom or the hallways. The chalkboard and desks. There are about 25 children at least in the classroom--in this case, it is an all-boys school which is to go co-ed in the next year.

In the front of the classroom is a young teacher, slim and as no-nonsense as the surroundings. No friendly introductions, right down to business. She listens to boys recite from The Miser by Moliere (as homework the boys had been tasked with memorizing 15 lines). Those who do not know it are sharply rebuked. Equally rebuked are those who say the lines without appropriate emotional expression. The teacher reads it as an example and calls on another boy. When he still recites in the lines in monotone, she yells, "I am as stubborn as you are. I don't care if it takes all day." In another scene she quizzes the boys on history: she says a year and a place, and she calls on a boy who must reply with the event that happened in that year and place. In yet a third scene, she is teaching punctuation by examining a poem.

Compared with today's teaching methods in the United States, the onus is on memorization--that is, internalization of the material. The onus is also on the students to learn, not on the teacher to give them a meaningful or happy experience.

A French classroom, a photo taken by the teacher and on his blog.

Yet if the teacher seems abrupt by American standards, she cares deeply for her students. When it emerges that one of the boys, a small-time delinquent, is regularly beaten at home when signs of abuse, including cigarette burns, are discovered, she bursts into tears and feels terribly guilty that she had not noticed and had been "hard on him."

A male teacher who figures prominently in the movie is a bit more free-wheeling and encourages greater participation from the students. We hear fragments of his geography class--clearly French children know where France is, but they are expected to know many more details about the planet. Here again, the focus is on memorizing the lesson. There are scenes in which children are helping each other with their homework after school--quizzing each other on the memorization or helping each other with math.

School goes all day, from early in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. A friend of mine who lived in France notes that children are sent to daycare before school, whether the mother stays at home or not. Kindergarten is all day.

Harriet Welty Rochefort, an American who married a French man and lives in Paris, noted in her book, French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French, that she left her son off at school by saying, "Have fun" but that French mothers left their children with the words, "Be good." Although American, I always have said, "Be good," when my daughter and I part, so this may be a measure of France's resistance to 1960s countercultural feel-good-ism, which the author seemed often to represent.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Francois Truffaut's Pocket Money

I highly recommend Francois Truffaut's Pocket Money (L'argent de poche, called Small Change in English), which I saw this week, for a fascinating glimpse into daily life in France and the life of children anywhere. This unusual film concerns pre-high school children in the town of Thiers in central France. The movie was filmed in 1976, and Thiers' own residents are the actors, particularly the children. Truffaut's daughter, Eva, who was then 15, also has a part. The film deals with the interactions of middle and working class children with their parents, their teachers, and their friends. Almost like a documentary with stories, the film seems to confirm things I have read about French family and school life and the famous style of French women, even in a small provincial town. Of course, given that Pocket Money was produced 32 years ago, I cannot vouch that the film is a window into French daily and school life today.

First Fashion ...

Well, sure enough, all the women are dressed to go to market. No sweat pants, no t-shirts, no dishevelment on the street. Nice dresses with shoes and purses that match each other. Although the clothes are not out of the ordinary, they look nice. The women are filmed wearing mostly the same dresses in different scenes. So the idea would appear to be that you carefully assemble an outfit, which looks good; however, the outfits are few. The clothes are modest. Almost all the women have beautifully kept nails--even the teacher who otherwise seems to be dressed very demurely, has brightly polished long red nails, and Truffaut shows mothers painting their nails in two scenes. The little girls also wear very nice dresses all the time--many of them very nicely designed with lively fabric.

The interiors of the homes seen in the film are sparsely furnished by American standards--albeit often with some pieces of beautiful antique furniture. By our middle and working class standards, their homes or apartments are small and uncomfortable.

Food, and...

We get to see the famous five-course French meal--a weekday meal--when one boy, who has only a paraplegic father and no mother, is invited to stay at a friend's house for dinner. The mother--who comes fresh the kitchen wearing a ruffled blouse, heels, and a necklace with her hair coiffed and perfect nails--serves pot au feu (meat, potatoes, and some vegetables in one pot with broth), followed by a green salad with vinaigrette, followed by an assortment of cheeses, followed by different fruits, with a cake as the grand finale. The first three courses are accompanied with bread and When the guest leaves, he thanks his hostess for a "good frugal dinner"--reflecting the significance in France placed on the frugal housewife.


Women speak in a feminine way: They speak softly and their intonation (enhanced by that of the French language in general) adds to their femininity. Those women happy in married life are soft in manner with husband and children alike but are relaxed and not afraid to voice their wants or ideas. In the ordinary interactions of daily life, the adults are polite to each other (unless there is conflict). As in 1950s America, they greet each other as "Mr." or "Mrs."--not by first names. Children are also expected to be polite, addressing their elders with titles and not by first name.

Next: Children

I feel a bit ridiculous writing about French daily life in a blog that might be read by French people! French daily life is definitely different from that of Americans but I believe has much to recommend it. In posts to come I will write on the public school portrayed in Pocket Money and then about the different relationships of children with adults shown in the film, the subject that is Truffaut's true concern.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Disappearing Fathers

NPR and Fox News commentator Juan Williams asked Where Are the Fathers? in his column for Father's Day. The statistics he presents are shocking. One can only ask if this is yet another sad manifestation of the 1960s sex and feminist revolution. It would seem that the sexual revolution has left fathers off scot free, while women, as always is the case, must take care of the children no matter what.

The feminist drive to eliminate the division of labor between men and women in the family, hurl women into the work place, and inculcate the myth of the "independent woman" has also contributed to a condition in which it is normal for a woman to have a child out of wedlock and be left holding the bag--willingly or not. Our society seems to condone a man's irresponsibility and accept the woman's illusion that she can raise children without the father's help. The erosion of the idea of having a family as a necessary goal in life has created a vacuum in which irresponsibility on the part of both men and women can flourish.

Statistics show that single motherhood rises as the income decreases. This is a self-perpetuating spiral, since single mothers, having only one income stream, will tend to drop into the lower rungs of the economy. Hollywood, however, pushes single motherhood at every opportunity as a model for women of all classes.

Conception out of wedlock is not new in America. Both my grandmother and great-grandmother, I have discovered, were pregnant when they married, and they were middle class. In colonial times, according to A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, when a woman was pregnant out of wedlock and had not divulged the identity of the father, the midwife would ask her to identify him when she was in the throes of labor. Although the man would not be compelled to marry the woman, he was held responsible by the community to contribute to the financial support of the child.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the notions that fostered family formation--duty, honor, adult responsibility--are becoming passe in a society that puts the onus on unconstrained individual freedom, or rather, individual gratification. Taking responsibility for the consequences of one's actions was tossed out the window with Roe vs. Wade, and now we have a presidential candidate who says he would not want his daughters "punished" by an unwanted pregnancy.

I do not know how these trends may be reversed or mitigated. One thing is for sure: many babies, toddlers, little children, youngsters, and teenagers are all paying the price.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Our Lady of the Book

The Virgin with the Book, from Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation.

A Bluebird's Table has a fascinating discussion of the tradition of the image of the Blessed Virgin reading a book. It is part of a reflection on the question "Would Mary Blog?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Anna Karenina and La Broderie Anglaise

Why Anna Karenina

Vivian Leigh as Anna Karenina in the 1947 film, which was co-written by the French playwright Jean Anouilh

On Sunday I finally finished Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina after six (!) months of crawling through my 750-page edition. I read it in college but I wanted to read it anew because I wanted to read Gary Saul Morson's Anna Karenina in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely. I was interested in this book thanks to Alicia at Posie Gets Cozy, who related how Morson's essay "Prosaics: An Approach to the Humanities" (American Scholar 57, Autumn 88, 583) had changed her life. I was able to get a hold of Morson's essay through the journal database at my local library and it made me think a lot. When I found out about Morson's book on Anna Karenina, I wanted to read it but knew I wouldn't get much out of it unless I re-read Anna Karenina first. (This great novel was Oprah Winfrey's book selection for summer 2004. Straight off Oprah's blurb on the book describes it first as "sexy." Warning: Anyone who reads this book to find scintillating sex or any other kind of sex is going to be very disappointed.)

All I remembered from my first read of Anna Karenina decades ago was the story of Anna, her husband, and her lover Vronsky. In fact, as Morson points out, this story takes up only 40 percent of the book. Another 40 percent is dedicated to the landowner Levin, his wife Kitty, and her family. It is the counterpoint between these two story lines and their interweaving that Morson focuses on in his interpretation.

I haven't finished Morson's book yet but am rushing to share the following, because embroidery, or sewing, is also for me a symbol of the feminine desire to create beauty in the home and for the family and because Tolstoy's reference to broderie anglaise comes as the stretto in what is to me the most beautiful scene in Anna Karenina.

La Broderie Anglaise

Morson raises the issue of broderie anglaise (English white-on-white eyelet-like embroidery--see the example above) on page 70 of the proof copy of his book that I bought.

Morson writes:

Levin does not understand how Kitty could, instead of indulging intellectual interests, spend her time beautifying the house with her broderie anglaise. We may recall that when Stiva [Kitty's brother-in-law and Anna's brother] wakes up at the beginning of the novel, he drops his feet into slippers that, as a birthday present, Dolly [his wife and Kitty's sister] "has embroidered for him...on gold-colored morocco." Embroidery in this novel signifies the value of ordinary life through the effort to beautify it with one's work. Tolstoy's wife wrote in her diary:

L.N. was just saying to me how the ideas for his novel [Anna Karenina] came to him: "I was sitting downstairs in my study and observing a very beautiful silk line on the sleeve of my robe. I was thinking about how people get the idea in their heads to invent all these patterns and ornaments of embroidery, and that there exists a whole world of woman's work, fashions, ideas, by which women live... I understood that women could love this and occupy themselves with it. And, of course, at once my ideas moved to Anna... Anna is deprived of all these joys of occupying herself with the woman's side of life because she is all alone. All women have turned away from her, and she has nobody to talk with about all that which composes the everyday, purely feminine occupations."

[Morson then continues]: When Kitty insists on going with him [Levin, her husband] to his dying brother Nikolai, Levin imagines that she is simply afraid to be alone. But for her, sharing such an experience is so essential to the partnership of the marriage, which is not an alliance for amusement or pleasure. Precisely because she understands everything prosaically, she proves of great help to Levin and to Nikolai by attending to "the petty details":

[Morson then quotes Tolstoy in Anna Karenina]: It never entered his [Levin's] head to analyze the details of the sick man's situation, to consider how that body was lying under the blanket, how those emaciated legs and thighs and spine were lying huddled up, and whether they could not be made more comfortable... It made his blood run cold when he began to think of all those details... But Kitty thought, and felt, and acted quite differently. On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out the details of his condition, and to remedy them.... The very details, the mere thought of which reduced her husband to terror, immediately engaged her attention."

[Morson then writes:] The word "details" appears four times in this passage because the experience of death, no less than of life, is a matter of details. Kitty cares for, as she lives by, the smallest gestures in life. She improves the situation by making Nikolai's room cleaner and more orderly, by attending to every detail of his surroundings, until, at last, we see on the table her broderie anglaise. Levin acknowledges the correctness of her idea of love and marriage.

So ends Morson's discussion of the image of broderie anglaise in Anna Karenina. To me, Tolstoy's description of how Kitty transforms her brother-in-law's situation is incredibly moving and inspiring. You can read it online here. Read Chapters 16 through 20 of Part V.