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Little Fugitive

Coney Island Baby.

There are little secret histories and agendas that tend to pop up when discussing any sort of artistic medium. In film, we’ll always find our favorites and, with a little investigation, tend to be able to trace virtually any major movement back to its strongest possible source. Despite the tragedy of having lost so many films to history – both early and modern – this is a happy byproduct of cinema being a relatively young artform, one whose instant popularity created an industry only too willing to feed us a seemingly never-ending supply of new and exciting variations. So the task of jumping in can be daunting if we don’t know where to start. What has unfortunately ended up happening is that we’ve allowed our Cultural Critical Consensus to do the work for us, shovelling lists of the Best Films of All Time down our throats almost as quickly as we can make new films to fill them out with. Then the next step is to venerate these sorts of objects as holy grails, allowing them to exist as points on a map or, more annoyingly, as sacred, untouchable artifacts rather than, you know, movies. I’m not even strictly of the opinion that there’s anything wrong with this approach. Lists are fine. Consensus is fine. But to accept at face value, sight unseen, that Citizen Kane or Tokyo Story or Bicycle Thieves are the best films ever made does a disservice both to those films in particular and to our own individual tastes in general. These are all Very Good Movies. But I’ve never been interested in sticking them in a museum and calling it a day. They were made to be watched and, hopefully, enjoyed. 

I say this mostly as a way to hold myself in check. I don’t see film, or even film criticism, as some lofty, dreary area of academia or as some kind of code to be cracked. We’ve allowed this to be the case, over time, for several reasons. One easy entry point is the emergence and almost immediate, universal benediction of the Cahiers du Cinéma. A bunch of angry nerds got together, decided they knew more than everyone else, and we all just sort of agreed. Before long they decided to pick up their own cameras and the rest is history.

Perhaps a more relevant and pressing reason is that now, in the age of streaming and instant cinematic gratification, we can watch whatever we want whenever we want. Most people don’t watch movies and pretend to be film critics. You can click on the new Netflix original series and binge some mindless entertainment just as easily as you can find the holy grails. Both, in my estimation, are of exactly equal value. But what comes along with this golden age of accessibility is an inevitable and – boy oh boy – annoying tendency to draw the same battle lines as before, only now we might find we have to justify ourselves and our taste in ways that simply weren’t a part of our larger cultural conversation before now. We’ve let box office receipts and algorithms and tedious, endless franchises dictate what comes up next on our screens. It’s not as if filmmaking has ever been a real meritocracy. It’s always been the case that anything other than the films with the most money behind them relative to their size and audience will have to die on the vine. But it’s important to recognize these warning signs that point down a dangerous road for low- and no-budget filmmaking. It’s equally important that we actually watch these movies when they appear, and talk about them and spread the word. Because with so many new films coming out all the time, they’ll fade faster and faster until we finally give these giants all the reason they’ll ever need to shut it all down and devote the entirety of the industry’s resources to toy commercials. At that point it’ll be too late. If there’s any tragedy more chilling than a film being lost, it’s a film being forgotten. 

Saying these movies are just meant to be enjoyed, however, shouldn’t take away from the fact that just as often, hopefully more often than not, they have something to say. Whether that takes the form of some educational or historical importance, a political rallying cry, a spiritual significance or just getting us to laugh at ourselves when we’re having a bad day, a film succeeds if it does the thing it sets out to do. That doesn’t have to be anything more than to take up two hours of our day but, again, it’s nice to hope for more than that when we can get it.  

Little Fugitive, while known as being the most celebrated inspiration for both the downtown New York art film scene and subsequent French New Wave, is more importantly a very short movie about a little kid spending the day at Coney Island eating cotton candy and riding ponies. That’s it. This is the movie that jump-started just about every major western film movement all the way up to today. It came at a time when Hollywood was on as sure a footing as it had ever been. No one was asking for this, nor did it matter much at the time to anyone with any kind of big time movie-funding sway that it happened at all. In fact, for all the greatness to be found in the film – and it is Very Great – I doubt anyone in 1953 would have or even could have guessed the kind of long-lasting impact it would have on the entire rest of film history. And all this from a small gang of New York street photographers who had never made a movie before. Even stranger is the fact that they weren’t the only ones doing this. There was the team of Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley making Little Fugitive, while at the same time Stanley Kubrick (also an already-celebrated young street photographer) was making Fear and Desire. Little Fugitive is a masterpiece that led its creators to a filmmaking career that eked out a couple more features before burning out completely, while Fear and Desire is an unwatchable piece of shit that led to Kubrick being among the few directors who are now a household name. The film gods are always consistent if often unfair.

To fully appreciate Little Fugitive for the wild, unruly blast that it is, we need to first take it back and strip it of its trappings as a Piece of History. The fact is that it’s just a fun movie. If it seems contradictory that I’m at once admonishing the Angry French Nerds for forcing their Cinema Cult on future generations while thanking them for talking about this film at all and keeping it alive in the first place, well… both are true. But what I’m stressing is that, for all the high-minded intellectualization of the medium popularized by the Cahiers du Cinéma gang, the keystone of their movement is just this silly little home movie from Brooklyn. That’s funny!

As a piece of narrative, it’s slight in the extreme. The more obviously scripted passages, while always charming, seem to serve as little more than connective tissue between the alternatingly action-packed and dreamy Coney Island segments that make up the bulk of the film. That isn’t to say they’re perfunctory at all. The film’s mission statement seems to be that everything in front of the camera is worthy of attention not because the camera is pointing in that direction, but rather it’s the other way around. There’s a palpable excitement and sense of wonder to every single shot. There’s even the one “bad” shot of the film, a quick out of focus cut to Joey’s brother Lennie as he sits in the living room. We feel it belongs there, is a deliberate act to leave it in. It may have been bad luck or circumstance on the day or in the lab, but in the end the shot works. Lennie is groggy, out of it, has been sitting waiting by the phone and falling asleep in his mother’s chair. This is the sort of final intellectual filmmaking decision that interests me more than anything planned out and storyboarded years in advance. The film is allowed to live and breathe.

The stark black and white photography captures the same feel and flow of Lamorisse’s White Mane, released the same year, as well as anticipates the vérité features of Wiseman a decade later. This may at first seem incidental, but to look at other features of the time, even those smaller films on the lower end of the budgetary spectrum, is to notice the wide contrast not only in technical value but in overall sophistication. Looking at Fear and Desire (again, don’t – piece of shit) or The Bigamist (great), we see Kubrick fumbling wildly between trying to emulate the more slick and polished studio pictures of the day and a purely amateurish level of directorial control. Lupino, while already the far stronger director, had at her disposal all those elements that could have allowed her to run on auto-pilot had she so chosen, such was the pure technical power of her small but professional crew. Ashley, Engel, and Orkin had no such luxuries, so it all had to come down to film stock, lenses, and a keen sense of timing. To be able to capture such luminous, gorgeous footage, they’d have to have been unwaveringly confident in their abilities as artists, unable to rely on anything or anyone but themselves. We could take this alone, with nothing else factored in, and see the work of art with pretty clear eyes. That they actually made a movie worth watching and not just a series of pretty pictures is akin to some preternatural genius. 

For starters, have you ever been to Coney Island? The appeal of Little Fugitive, in large part, owes to the fact that you can just see the cinematic possibilities all around, as if every shot and cut and transition must have just been burning a hole in the filmmakers’ brains. This is partially, of course, the simple appeal of any boardwalk pier. The rides, the lights, the people, the music, all of it triggers a specific sense memory for anyone raised on the east coast who grew up around or with ready access to these environments. A small town carnival would have worked just as easily, but the directing trio found in their backyard the perfect setting for their pint-sized runaway epic. 

Even that being the case, the directors show true ingenuity in centering their action almost exclusively within this location. The whirlwind of action as Joey discovers the freedom of a day alone on the boardwalk is dizzying. To have been in that audience to see the carousel sequence during its initial run in New York City must have been absolutely jaw-dropping. The flurry of action following the Pepsi-induced sugar rush, shots lasting no more than a second, cutting constantly, staggeringly, Engel’s tiny hand-held Woodruff camera swooping through the attractions, barely able to keep up. One of the most famous shots in the film has Joey knocking a baseball straight into the lens, knocking cameraman Engel right on his ass but still not flinching for even a second. It really can’t be overstated just how revolutionary the film truly is. Employing not only a camera system of Engel’s own design but also the simple, effectively cobbled-together lighting and sound schemes – not to mention Eddy Manson’s pipe organ and harmonica score – this is a movie with such a pure, unfiltered and completely handmade texture that even today looks and sounds ahead of its time. The sharp, almost jarring jump cuts, years before Godard, build towards a climax of action that nearly ruptures the screen before falling silent as day turns to night and the film finally settles into a reprieve, our first chance to even think about catching our breath almost an hour in.

All this inventive playfulness is fantastic, but the ways in which the film consistently finds new little corners to explore is what elevates it to its status as among the greatest American films ever produced. Seen today, it’s such a bizarre amalgamation of sure-handed randomness that it’s surprising that more directors haven’t copied it more directly. There’s a gentleness to every frame, each new moment so sweet and often unassuming despite its sometimes head-spinning raucousness, that it becomes literally disarming in its approach. You wouldn’t imagine Tipper Gore or the NVALA pointing to Little Fugitive as an emblem of everything wrong with modern media, despite the obvious fact that its barely-there plot kicks off with a mock murder orchestrated by a group of bored kids emulating what they saw on tv the night before. Even an extended early sequence of one neighborhood friend calmly showing Joey how to load and aim a rifle at his brother doesn’t read as anything more than just kids having fun on a lazy afternoon, and the ensuing ketchup-assisted bloodbath would’ve barely registered as real violence thirty years on, if it even did in 1953. 

For one thing, the film has none of this on its mind, and probably couldn’t be bothered to think twice about such matters. As a sustained piece of experimental filmmaking, it has to be seen to be believed, but likewise it keeps us so engaged every minute that this is hardly the entire point. These were filmmakers who wanted to tell a story and then had to scrounge and dig to create the avenues for themselves to do so. It’s an antsy film, never settling for just one scene or set piece at a time. The directors would more or less calm down in subsequent features, relying more heavily on their scripts and small ensemble casts, having already mastered their new (always evolving) technology. Here, it’s all exploration. Each new sequence is really two, or three. Playing games and eating snacks requires money, so Joey must collect bottles to turn into the deposit depot, which leads to the young mother and baby on the beach, which leads to him hiding, and to a pony ride, and on and on, until we realize there’s been a story unfolding after all. Not a clockwork screenplay, but instead a progression of intentional yet natural events. 

There is also the mixture of raring to go, race against the clock urgency to the final act that accentuates the melancholy of the opening shots of Joey’s second day on the beach after spending the night under the boardwalk. We get the real sense that some time has passed, and the hallucinatory first hour and change gives way to a gentleness that reminds us that this is a real little kid. The goofy photographer Joey meets when he first arrives is replaced by the man at the pony station, who finally takes action and figures out what’s going on, calling Lennie to come get his kid brother. Yes, these are necessary plot mechanics, but they feel grounded and organic in a way that never feels forced or out of place. It’s the weariness, the hangover that we feel most heavily. When the brothers finally meet up on the beach, Lennie outing himself for having lied and, really, broken Joey’s heart, we feel that betrayal. It’s a character beat from Joey and an incredible performance from Richie Andrusco, who would never act again, that lingers with us. It only lasts a second, but it’s a remarkable piece of acting.

That the film has the little surprise twist ending that it does is the final example of how steadily the filmmakers have led us all the way through. This is the sort of story that could’ve ended with a big event or nothing at all. Its documentary-like structure gives it the leeway to simply fade to black at just about any point and have all the rest still work. But they tack on one last little note to say everything’s alright, almost as if they’re daring you to have taken any of this even halfway seriously. It also reminds us that there has in fact been a very adult drama happening in the background of all this action, something these kids have basically ignored in favor of making sure nothing got in the way of them enjoying their weekend. But it’s so tossed-off and is resolved so quickly that we’re given permission to have forgotten about all that. It’s a note of innocence rather than triviality, and it reinforces that the film has, in fact, had a point. We were just meant to enjoy it.

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