This year at Cannes, where many of the dead seem to walk the Earth, Hostel Part II director Eli Roth repeatedly told interviewers that he couldn’t wait until it became okay to kill children in movies — “the last taboo,” he called it. It seems safe to say that Roth is a provocateur, perhaps even a legend in the abattoir of his own mind. And he might even have been on to something, if said taboo wasn’t already being kicked down the staircase in a stroller, regularly and with increasingly frequency.
Sixteen years ago, My Girl earned a PG-13 rating rather than a PG, because Macaulay Culkin died at the end of the movie. Three years later, Jeremy Davies was sleeping with his mother in Spanking the Monkey. One has nothing to do with the other, except to say that, by that point, taboos were collapsing like the ’64 Phillies.
In 1996, indie audiences were given what for many remains one of the all-time creepy images: Trainspotting’s crib-level POV of an infant, dead of his junkie parents’ neglect. And at that point, it really seemed all bets were off. Dead babies? Not to everyone’s taste: That same year, in Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s Euro-Tarantino thriller Portland, a thug stopped short of doing what the audience fully expected he would — throw a baby out the window. That was the line in the sand, Oplev said, that neither he nor his character could cross.
But even if defenestrated toddlers haven’t exactly come into vogue, the tally of the preadolescent deceased has multiplied over the last couple of years. In Guillermo del Toro’s masterful Pan’s Labyrinth, for instance, the young heroine is shot deader than dead at film’s end, regardless of how one interprets the movie’s coda-in-the-afterlife. In Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror portion of Grindhouse, a boy of about 9 gets his head blown off. In Todd Robinson’s recent Lonely Hearts, a prepubescent girl is drowned offscreen by the movie’s serial murderers and buried in the floor of a garage. In Fido, a couple of young boys are immolated for comic effect. Less gruesomely, but with equal finality, John Cusack’s young daughter in 1408 falls victim to an unnamed disease. A kid even dies in Disney’s Bridge to Terabithia.
The death of children isn’t new to entertainment — Shakespeare’s Richard III kills the little princes, and right now, on my television, a half dozen little girls are being killed on Law & Order. But the big screen is much more of a barometer of public acceptance, tolerance and taste: We watch movies in public, after all.
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In a recent interview, David Cronenberg told this writer that his approach to violence is a direct result of his atheism, and that a belief in the afterlife can allow a murderer to rationalize his act (the way suicide bombers rationalize theirs). As a filmmaker, Cronenberg thinks audiences should see and feel the gore associated with killing, precisely because it’s “an act of total destruction.” It’s chilling to imagine how Cronenberg might portray the death of a child (which he has never done, for perhaps obvious reasons), because it’s even more “total” than the murder of an adult. It destroys not only a past and a present, but a future. The thought that audiences are becoming immune to the spiritual horror of a child’s death is as scary as global warming.
In the Dark Ages, before stroller gridlock at Barnes & Noble, high tea at American Girl Place, or enrollment in preschool tutoring, children were so likely to die before they reached the age of 5 that parents really couldn’t get too attached. Medieval moms and dads, in fact, were known to engage in rousing games of “toss the tot,” in which swaddled infants were thrown back and forth like eggs at a carnival. Today, of course, we cherish the children — if not quite as much as we cherish the pets: In Anchorman, the final, gratuitous shot of an unscathed pup emerging from the river into which Jack Black has kicked him, has left many an animal-loving movie audience breathing easier, while keeping the militant animal-love activists from taking to the ramparts, or marching outside the homes of studio chiefs.
When it comes to kids, we’re getting less persnickety. It may be a reaction to the kid worship one sees in the form of $1,000 Bugaboos transporting overscheduled 4-year-olds, or the sanctity of any public issue regarding children. In a very funny routine, comedian George Carlin recounts the way kid issues have become no-lose ploys for many elected officials (“What about the kids . . . ?” he says sarcastically. “Do it for the children.”), leading up to a sputtering “Fuck the children!!” and getting one of the bigger laughs of his life.
Apparently, the movies are taking Carlin’s advice. Not literally, of course. That would be the real last taboo: The sexual exploitation of the under-aged will kill a movie quicker than Kevin Costner. When the conversational shorthand on last year’s Little Children became “Oh, the pedophile film” months before it was even released, it was clear the movie was going next to nowhere at the box office (although it did earn four Oscar nominations). It will be interesting to see how the current sex-slave drama Trade fares, given the age of the young women involved. Or whether, after reading this, Eli Roth considers casting the Wiggles in Hostel Part VI.