Innocence, Corruption and the Screening of Childhood
- Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Before his mother lapses into the coma, Ralph is a troublemaker in school – acting out in despair. With his father dead and his mother hospitalized, we discover that Ralph supports himself by selling off household furniture to the local pawnbroker. Like many 14-year-olds he is obsessed by girls and "impure thoughts." It is only when his mother's condition worsens that he recognizes the need to grow up, and discovers that it is not nearly as easy as he thought. Miracles, he is told, require purity, prayer, and faith. While he has confidence that he can win the marathon, Ralph knows that his thoughts are anything but pure, and he has a difficult time praying. Ralph wrestles toward adulthood through keenly adolescent struggles. His mentor, Father Hibbert, teaches Ralph the meaning of Christian purity (that repentance and forgiveness are the keys), and that prayer comes when needed. Without robbing Ralph of his vision, Hibbert introduces him to the adult reality of doing your part.
Films like "Saint Ralph" don't show the disappearance of childhood that Postman laments. They simply record a historical fact: When parents are absent, children are forced to mature. What "Saint Ralph" wisely chose to do was insert an adult mentor – demonstrating that a bunch of kids together could not come up with the right answers in life. A mature perspective is required.
Against the pure childhood of Opal, the struggling childhood of Charlie, and the abbreviated childhood of Ralph, stands "Bad News Bears" (2005, rated PG-13 for rude behavior, language throughout, and some sexuality). I once read an interview with Pauline Kael, the longtime film critic for the New Yorker, who wondered aloud whether all of the stage parents of little girls who did not get the role of Regan in "The Exorcist" were wistful: "When they see 'The Exorcist' and watch Linda Blair urinating on the fancy carpet and screaming ... are they envious? Do they feel, "That might have been my little Susie – famous forever'?" I had the same reaction to the children who played the team in "Bad News Bears" – a remake of the 1976 film about a degenerate Little-League coach who brings together a team of misfits. I wonder if the parents of the children who did not get these roles are sad that it is not their children, larger than life, up on the big screen, uttering obscenities, making vulgar gestures, and listening to a middle-aged man use sexual metaphors.
In this version, Coach Buttermaker has one of his Little Leaguers mix him a martini, and at the end of a game hands out non-alcoholic beer. He tells the kids he is taking them to batting cages, when instead he has them perform his job while he "supervises" and has a beer. At batting practice he beans all of his players while he drinks himself into unconsciousness. This is all supposed to be funny – but there is more.
Language. As Postman notes, in protecting childhood "There even developed language secrets – that is, a store of words not to be spoken in the presence of children." No such limitation exists in "Bad News Bears." Not only does Coach Buttermaker feel free to use all manner of vulgarities around the children, he willingly accepts as normal their using profanity toward him – and they do it with stunning regularity. The only thing that separates the coach from the kids is his brief tenure in the major leagues. Beyond that, he treats them as little adults, and (if such adolescent behavior is what is identified as "adult language" these days) they act like it.
Sexuality. In addition to keeping no language secrets, Coach Buttermaker does not see any need to hide adult sexuality from the children. He engages a strip club to sponsor the team, so each child wears the name of the sponsor – along with the graphic design logo -- on the back of his or her jersey. Workers from the strip club come to the games and cheer on the kids. At the games, Buttermaker uses sexually-laced metaphors. After-game debriefings are held at Hooters – a restaurant known primarily for its scantily-clad waitresses, who gather to dance around with the kids so that they can all sing a rousing chorus of Eric Clapton's hit song, "Cocaine." Buttermaker approaches his fast-pitching 12-year-old estranged step-daughter, Amanda, to coax her onto his baseball team – and she announces that all she is interested in is "nice hips and C-cups." When she freely speaks of male private parts, she tells Buttermaker, "I have the Internet; I'm not stupid." He is even willing to use his daughter as bait to try to lure a male player to the team.
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