Brighton Festival: Little Fugitive

Mark Cousins remains divisive, both among readers of film criticism and also those who caught his television series ‘Scene By Scene’ in the late 90s, or his more recent opus The Story of Film on Channel 4.

Some find his cadence grating, his references scattershot, while others can’t help but be enthralled by his own enthralment and maybe even inspired by the seemingly improvisational breadth of his knowledge of the form. But I suspect that both fans and detractors, earnestly or rhetorically, might occasionally find themselves asking the same question of him: “Where could I see this film?” Whether you’re infuriated by film critics’ tendencies to constantly reel off and refer back to obscurities, or you take a mental note to hunt those obscurities down, surely the ideal solution is that the films no longer remain obscure.

Cinema of Childhood is a series of screenings curated by Cousins that will tour the country from now until spring of 2015, bringing to light many lesser known titles featured in his excellent documentary A Story of Children and Film. The Brighton Festival has nine of them on its May programme at the Duke of York’s, and Little Fugitive, an influential and utterly charming American independent feature from 1953, is the first.

So much for me harping on obscurity – Little Fugitive won the Silver Lion at Venice in the year of its release, catching the attention of the group of critics and filmmakers who would go on to found the French New Wave later in the decade. Add to these achievements the design of a new camera, which could be strapped discreetly to its operator (making it an immediate precursor to the revolutionary steadicam), and suddenly Little Fugitive seems like a standout ‘big name’ from the rest of the programme. Yet none of the comments I overheard while leaving the cinema seemed to come from someone who already knew it. Pleasingly, there were several children in the audience. I wish I’d got to hear their reactions afterwards.

The film tells the familiar story of an intensified fantasy world, and a child’s experiences navigating it alone for the first time. But what differentiates Little Fugitive from something like The Neverending Story, or, perhaps closer to home, Spirit of the Beehive, is that its fantasy world could be filmed verité-style in an urban, densely populated environment, picking up many of its most profound and memorable moments on the hoof and sharing its curiously snatched observations with its own protagonist. This is because little Joey, like most of his fellow New Yorkers, chooses Coney Island for his escapism.

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Coney Island fascinates me not only because of its place in the cultural history of New York City, but also because I really love theme parks. Between the turn of the last century and the 1960s, it was home to several enormously popular parks. It was a seaside resort blown up to towering proportions, a long boardwalk strip with every fairground attraction known at the time, catering to an endless feverish bustle of city-dwellers. As a document of this social phenomenon, Little Fugitive is remarkable. But its cinematic reputation rests on the mobility of the cameras in response to this environment. The directorial team of Ray Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin (all stills photographers before this debut work) remain in a constant state of play with perspective, chasing angles and finding the beat of life in New York’s leisure time.

The film’s plot is a humble one. I previously mentioned Víctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive not just to make a facetious comparison between an avowed family classic and an arthouse standard (guess which one your kids would rather sit through), but because Beehive and Little Fugitive share a similar narrative incident that sends their youngest and most vulnerable characters out alone, in fear and flight, to a fantasy world.

In both films the older sibling plays a cruel practical joke on the younger without considering the possible consequences, abusing their influence and authority. Cocksure New York kid Lennie sets up little Joey by faking a pellet gun accident with the help of his cronies and some strategically placed ketchup. When Joey flees, convinced he has killed his own brother, he takes the train to the seaside amusement parks, where the reality of his crime quickly fades from significance. The audience knows it can only be temporary – I’m sure we all remember the feeling of delaying the punishment we knew was coming, just for a few more minutes of childhood escapism. But Joey’s playground also belongs to the whole city, and within an afternoon he has trained himself to be a cowboy, a baseball player, and a lucrative businessman in the trade of returning empty Coke bottles to the vendor.

Coney Island offers Joey the opportunity to follow his whims unhindered, and many of the film’s best sequences show us the exasperation, the focus and the joy on his face as his plans come together. (Lennie and his friends don’t think I can knock down these cans with a baseball, but I’ll show ‘em!) Joey finds a temporary space within which he can be autonomous, and in many ways he’s on a level with the adults despite the cameras remaining at (fully-grown) hip height or lower throughout. As the film progresses and daylight fades, Joey is framed from lower and lower positions. A camera is placed on a kerb as he wavers along its edge, setting himself another playful challenge. He has gained stature.

These perspectives give the impression that adults’ worlds are just as private and self-involved as Joey’s. We look up at their backs and shoulders as they rush along in any direction: the carousel, the pitching nets, the terrifying-looking parachute ride. (This also somehow applies horizontally, in the case of the totally oblivious couple who put their baby down and make out on the beach.) But none of these representations are anything but affectionate. Ashley, Engel and Orkin all lived and died in New York and Little Fugitive is their love letter to it.

I was left ruminating on the possibility that Joey’s achievements during his day out, so small and yet large, are an expression of that very American kind of persistence: he’s a self-made kid. And maybe there’s not so much disparity after all between the city and the fantasy world it’s constructed. It’s about the ‘realness’ of play, and Little Fugitive imposes no age limit.

Words: Dave Hamilton-Smith