April 3, 1918 [The Blue Bird]

It's my wife's birthday, and we all went to see Maurice Tourneur's film of Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird—of happiness, of course, as elusive as the thoughts of an infant—actually, almost exactly so, for we always think we know children, gaze on their smooth faces and see innocence and dreams and the urge to believe. And those things are in there, but they are hampered by the uncertainties of life down among the knees of the adults, who run the world without them, making ready. But children, we must admit, have no clear notion of—let alone appetite for—those things so carefully set before them, a shadowy banquet of vague courses. And so children form a second world, obscured from their parents' eyes, where hopes vie with fears; and the small size of everything nearest to them—their hands, their gait, their understanding—forms that world, long before they step into the looming, dim mansions their fathers prepare for them. And that child-world may glitter—but so will any object when a tear hangs on an eyelash. And it may glow—but the light is high and behind them, so everything also takes on shadows. I have tried all my life to see that world—but it has faded, as Wordsworth notes, and all we have left are these Platonic analogies of light and shadow, as fitful as firelight in the Cave. I play the game down there as best I can.

And so, at times, does Tourneur. In silhouette they move, cut-outs against the screen. The house seems fit for dolls, and the old woman from across the way is hooked over and hunched down like a storybook witch—but unfolds as a fairy. Tourneur's camera-effects—the film running in reverse, the fading, transforming images, the sudden cuts to indicate appearance and disappearance—ask us to step into the children's dream; but what more readily comes to mind are Méliès and the Lumière brothers, and their simple tableaux of "the inside of Things," as Fairy Berylune puts it—all alive, from cat and dog to milk and sugar—and Light herself, and the souls of the unborn (including Edison, waiting with a light bulb for his Birth Day), and the disquieting comfort of the dead—all of it plain and painted, until the departed grandparents are as welcome a sight as the unborn brother. But before they can touch either Pre- or After-life they must confront "wan sicknesses" and "shades and terror"—even War himself—flashing like cannon-fire, then gone. The fears lurk behind veils, just as the unborn children slip behind their own gauze, a mélange of every notion adults encourage (but children suspect), until the "endless repast" of Excess belches in their faces, the Morality they barely understand roughly shouldering them back into bed, the Blue Bird both an illusion and a promise of the comforts of home—where at the end everything looks ravishing, the treasure that has waited at their feet the whole while.

I wonder if that dream and promise is more the adult's than the child's. At the film's end, the boy looks at us and exhorts, "Be sure to look first in your own homes" for the Blue Bird, "where he is most apt to be found." And as he stares at the camera, I can't help but think of Tourneur right beside it, happy his dream has found a voice. But as the scene fades, the child abides, and keeps his own counsel.


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