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20 October 2011 @ 11:45 pm
Psi for Children -- Matilda (Film) and Secondary Sources  
Because my review of the film itself was so long, I decided to make this a separate post.

This post is mostly about what Paul Meehan says about the movie Matilda in his book Cinema of the Psychic Realm, and my responses to it. In sum, his discussion of the film contains some inaccuracies, feels sloppily written, and includes some stuff I don't even understand.

But first, Wikipedia. I expect Wikipedia to be sloppy. The Wikipedia entry for the novel demonstrates that at least one of the authors pretty much thinks all psi abilities are the same things anyway,

"Characters in the novel never lose their sense of awe and fear of Matilda's telepathic powers (emphasis mine); in the film, characters seem unaffected by this. In the novel, Matilda loses her abilities afterward as a result of her being transferred to a higher class, causing her to expend the excess mental energy on her education as she now faces a more obvious challenge, while in the film she still uses them to move objects."

Psychokinesis, telepathy, same diff, all made up, who cares, whatever.

Minor gripe, I know, but this sort of thing happens all the time, folks writing telepathy when they mean psychokinesis, people saying telepathy to mean remote viewing, people saying clairvoyance to mean... almost anything at all, and so on. We're talking completely different experiences here, and yet there is often no effort made to even bother getting them straight.

On to Paul Meehan (Cinema of the Psychic Realm p. 56-58):

"In Matilda (1996), the constricting adult world is once more challenged by a psychic child. Six-year-old Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) is a precocious girl with a very high I.Q. and a love of reading. Unfortunately her parents, Harry (Danny DeVito) and Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), are a couple of self-centered lowlifes who have no interest in their daughter’s welfare. Harry operates an auto chop-shop and car dealership where he engages in illegal activities. Frustrated by her parents’ lack of attention and insensitive cruelty, Matilda begins to annoy them with pranks. One night, when forced to stop reading and watch a mindless television show, she expresses her outrage by blowing out the cathode tube in the family’s TV. This experience makes Matilda aware that she has special psychokinetic powers."

No, she becomes aware that she is doing it when she tips the glass. She isn't sure she did it when the TV explodes.

"The PK–enabled child is sent to Crunchem Hall, a private school presided over by the piggish, sadistic principal Ms. Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), who totes a riding crop and whose idea of discipline is hurling children out of windows or imprisoning them in solitary confinement in a claustrophobic closet called “The Chokey.” Matilda’s teacher, however, is the kind and gentle Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), who takes the youngster under her wing and is deeply impressed by the child’s prodigious intellect. This threatening environment serves to further enhance Matilda’s telekinetic aptitude as she begins to use her powers to strike back at the bullying principal in a series of pranks, which lead inevitably to a battle royal that pits Ms. Trunchbull’s brawn against Matilda’s PK."

No, the threatening environment (of school or home) doesn't "enhance her telekinetic aptitude." Her aptitude develops on its own; her getting really angry is how she initially learns to have control over it, but after that initial stage, it is practice which enhances her aptitude. I don't think it's an insignificant error to state that it is the "threatening environment" which "enhances her aptitude".

And I also think that last scene was an epic "pwning", not a "battle royale". It's a very one-sided display.

"Adapted from a 1988 novel by Roald Dahl, the film plays upon Dahl’s portrayal of the psychological terrors of childhood in a manner similar to another screen adaptation of one of his fantasy books, The Witches (1989). Adults, represented by Ms. Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents, are scheming, threatening adversaries who wield absolute authority over the child while smothering her uniqueness, and the vulnerable girl’s psychic powers are all that save her from a terrible fate."

Not exactly, no. Her powers save her and Miss Honey and the whole school... something is a little bit off with this characterization. And this raises another point, that in fiction, psi is this "superpower" that saves otherwise powerless people (i.e. little children, but not always) from the horrors of bad guys and adults and the world, whereas in actuality psi does nothing of the sort and actually creates a chasm of "otherness" and "difference" for the child to navigate, often with no guidance or support. I don't think is necessarily helps psi children to see psi presented in stories as "this fabulous superpower which will save you from bullies" when this is sometimes exactly the opposite of reality.

Meehan continues,

"Matilda’s rebelliousness leads directly to the development of her telekinesis in a manner that parallels real-world poltergeist cases, in which childish pranks escalate into paranormal activity."

1. As far as I am aware, real world poltergeist activity has nothing to do with, let alone originate and escalate from, childish pranks. /confused/
2. Matilda's rebelliousness does not lead to the development of her psychokinesis. She happens to be rebellious, and she also happens to be psychokinetic. One does not cause the other.
3. Also, aside from the exploding TV, I don't see any parallel here with real world poltergeist cases. ...And no one in this film ever uses the world "paranormal." There is no doubt left in this film that Matilda's abilities are entirely human generated.

Paul Meehan then says:

"In contrast to the portrayal of screen psychics as evil or “other,” Mara Wilson’s Matilda is eminently likeable. One delightful scene shows Matilda dancing to a pop song while psychokinetically causing small objects to fly around the room in an expression of psychic joy."

I will grant you that she is not presented as evil, and that she is very likeable. But that in no means she is not presented as "other". Matilda is VERY "other": she is a child prodigy, who, in the words of the narrator, by the time she was four, "already knew she was somewhat different from her family." In fact, the whole movie, start to finish, is about how "other" Matilda is, from the moment she writes her name in baby food to the last scene where she makes that book fly. It's almost offensive that he could write that this movie doesn't make her "other", because she's a likeable "other".

Positive "othering" is still "othering," and like positive stereotypes, it is still a problem (there is also a part 2 on the same blog here). Yes, I am glad that all the popular presentations of psychokinetic people aren't like Carrie. But Matilda, too, carries its "othering" messages and narratives about the "place" of psychokinesis and other psi experiences in those narratives and in real people's lives. And if this and Luke Skywalker are the only "positive" way psychokinetic people are framed in mainstream media (which as far as I know, it is), this is a problem.

Most, if not all, psychokinetic people are not tiny, female, white, cute child prodigies. (Most, if not all, are also not cute white guys "destined to be heroes" and save the galaxy, like Luke Skywalker.) The movie has a likeable protagonist, but I seriously doubt that anything in this book or this movie will help someone who is not psychokinetic understand what it's like to be someone who is. I also seriously doubt that anything in this book or this movie will help someone who is psychokinetic better understand themselves (and their relationships with other people).

And I do not agree with Meehan that the scene with Matilda dancing around and making stuff fly (which he thinks is "an expression of psychic joy" and not just "a kid who happens to be psychokinetic just having fun") is "delightful" -- it's kind of a disappointment to see the movie throw this in just to have a cartoon-like show-off special effects scene which does nothing for the plot, and which makes her having fun in the room all by herself into a LOOK HOW COOL IT IS TO WATCH THAT PSI KID PLAYING WHEN SHE THINKS NO ONE IS WATCHING! moment. And I know what's going on in the scene is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it makes me uncomfortable to see a psi kid made the subject of that treatment in a movie. It's as if the movie is saying "Dance, little psi kid, show it off for the audience! Then we'll have you 'save the day', and after that you'll never have to use any of these abilities again. They are for our entertainment, not for you. Got it? Good."

If the movie ended on the note that she still could use her abilities whenever she wanted, and she still actually planned on doing so, that would make the audience uncomfortable. That would make her abilities hers and not the audience's, and make her unpredictable, scary and possibly dangerous. Then we would have the audience thinking about the possibility that they might be going to school or work with someone like this -- and we can't have that. So Matilda's "happily ever after" must include how she rarely uses her abilities again, and when she does, it's just for minor things like grabbing a book from across the room.

It's also the reason that for this narrative to work, Miss Trunchbull must be 100% evil and unequivocably bad -- if there was any grey in there, if the audience had any opportunity to sympathize with Miss Trunchbull, then they might not see Matilda's choices as "justified" and "acceptable". The idea of a six-and-a-half-year-old psychokinetic girl taking matters into her own hands where there is moral ambiguity is simply not acceptable to an American audience; such a narrative would make psi clearly hers, whether the audience was with her or not, and this is too frightening for American audiences. With Miss Trunchbull 100% evil, the audience has already tacitly given it's permission to Matilda to do what she needs to do, and there is never any chance of a moment arising where she is doing something which the audience has not given "permission" for her to do.

Which is also why her happily ever after must include a statement that she never "needs" to use it again. It says "Don't worry, audience, now that the movie's over and she won't have your tacit permission to do this anymore, she won't actually ever be doing anything you may disapprove of. Our little 'no more miss nice girl' will be a good girl from now on."

Meehan concludes,

"The underlying theme of the film is expressed in advice Miss Honey gives to Matilda: “Believe in whatever power is inside of you. Believe with all your heart.” Comedian Danny DeVito, who stars along with his real-life spouse Perlman, directed this lively bit of kiddie fare."

I don't agree that this is the real underlying theme of the film. If that was really the message, then why does Matilda have to stop being who she really is at the end, and give up this power inside of her (not literally, but practically)? She has expressed how powerful and empowered it makes her feel to use it, yet her "happily ever after" includes rarely using it from then on.

And if this is the movie's message, that kids should believe in whatever power is inside of them, with all of their hearts, why does Matilda's power ultimately belong to the narratives of other people (i.e. Miss Honey's freedom, the audience's entertainment and comfort) instead of herself (her life is actually just beginning), and why is it framed in terms of the benefit to those other people and not in terms of Matilda's own personal growth and empowerment? Why does she "never need to use her power again"?

On page 58, Meehan writes (and this is perhaps the most perplexing thing he writes),

"Unlike the more emotionally loaded depiction of psychics in the suspense, horror and science fiction genres, in drama, comedy and children’s films they are more usually portrayed as ordinary people. This is especially true of children’s movies, where the pint-sized psychics in Escape to Witch Mountain, Matilda and The Last Mimzy are cute and cuddly and are made to seem just like the kids next door."

"Made to seem just like the kids next door?"

There's one big problem here: Matilda is presented as very much not the typical child in many different ways, which is made clear right at the very beginning of the movie. She is absolutely not portrayed as an "ordinary person", which is kind of the whole point of the whole movie. Aside from being psi, she's a child prodigy. She's writing her name in her food before she is old enough to talk. In the book, she has the vocabulary of an adult by age one and a half.

The kids in Escape to Witch Mountain aren't actually "ordinary people" either: they turn out to be literally extraterrestrials. They just look like human kids, and don't know they're aliens because they have amnesia. The last Mimzy involves (originally) normal kids who get caught up in very not normal events and who develop psi as a result of interaction with alien devices.

If the psi kids in these films actually were ordinary, if they and their experiences were not "othered", then there would be no problem with Meehan's statement (other than the implication that psi kids can't actually be normal kids next door). But what we have is Meehan asserting that kids who are obviously not typical children are nonetheless presented as "ordinary people" in spite of those very obvious differences (child geniuses, alien children, time travel, encounters with future technology, orphans with amnesia, etc.).

How are these children, who are not ordinary children, presented as "ordinary people"? What about the experiences of these children is "ordinary", for psi children or for non-psi children? Nothing.

After a lot of thinking about this, I think one possibility is that by "ordinary people" and "kids next door", Meehan actually means "people who are not psi" -- that the presentations of psi kids in these movies make them "look just like people who are not psi". In this interpretation, the implication is that psi people obviously aren't so-called "ordinary people", but they can look cute and cuddly and "normal", just like non-psi children.

As opposed to crazed psychopathic freaks, I guess, like the wild-eyed psychopath surrounded by flames and screaming people in this movie poster.

Another related possibility is that by "ordinary people" and "kids next door", Meehan means "people who are not scary" and "kids who are not scary". Like the guy in that movie poster. So the paragraph actually reads,

"Unlike the [freakish and scary] depiction of psychics in the suspense, horror and science fiction genres, in drama, comedy and children’s films they are more usually portrayed as [people who are not psi/not scary people]. This is especially true of children’s movies, where the pint-sized psychics in Escape to Witch Mountain, Matilda and The Last Mimzy are cute and cuddly and are made to seem just like [kids who are not psi/not scary kids]."

And I am with him that the narrative goes to great lengths to make sure Matilda does not appear scary to the audience, but I of course object to his implication that psi children are not "ordinary children" and "kids next door" to begin with. Forget the very obvious exaggerations in movies like these -- I smell an implication that what psi children really experience also doesn't get to count as "ordinary", that it excludes them from actually being "just the kids next door". (Even if they live next door to people.) To say that someone is "made to seem" as if he or she is normal begins from the implication that he or she is not normal.

Which is "othering".

Who is he to say that the typical "kid next door" doesn't include psi children? I don't want to hear about how even psi children can be made cute and cuddly and "just like the (non-psi, not scary) kids next door". They're made to seem so cute, they even seem normal! Awww. Except no, ewwww.

In sum, he's saying that extraterrestrials and kids who have access to far future technology and child prodigies who can write their names before they can speak (and who have adult linguistic capacity at the age of one-and-a-half) can still be "ordinary people" and "like the kids next door", while psi people are still default-scary and have to be "made to seem" ordinary, normal, and non-scary if the book or movie wants the audience to sympathize with them.

And this process includes not just the camera shots and make-up and music, but also the narrative itself: how "good" and "bad" are framed, the audience's role in giving tacit "consent" for the characters' psi actions, and who the psi characters' abilities really belong to.

Which, for "good" characters, is usually (almost always) not them.
 
 
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