Arguably the icon of onscreen childhood angst is Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). His desperate gaze out to sea is one that is seared onto the cinematic consciousness. Fast-forward more than half a decade and Hide Your Smiling Faces (2013) sparks the discussion of whether debuting feature filmmaker Daniel Patrick Carbone has mirrored the arrival of Truffaut onto the filmmaking stage. With time having allowed a thorough judgement of Truffaut’s childhood drama, we’ll wait to see how close Carbone has come to replicating the past, and whether Hide Your Smiling Faces can be considered this decade’s equivalent of Truffaut’s early masterpiece.
Behind the veil of silence in Hide Your Smiling Faces is a discursive meditation on the rendezvous with death of two young boys. A child’s world changes with the realisation of fragility and the consequences that spiral outward, threatening established friendships and the familial dynamic.
Carbone portrays himself as a filmmaker who appreciates the sensual nature of film and the dance between filmmaker and the work, but also how film and audience caresses the sensibilities. It is a patient piece of filmmaking that values the language of silence as a means to nurture a connection between the characters and the film’s audience that leads to a special sense of feeling.
Carbone discusses the films and filmmakers that have influenced his style, the representation of children in film, and the emphasis of mood over plot, as well as creating action through inaction and a story that touches on both the physical and the metaphorical death.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
I wish I had a great answer for you, but the honest truth is that it was something I always wanted to do. I don’t think I realised it for a while, if only because kids don’t think too much about turning something into a career. But it was something I always did – I always had a camera, and I remember begging my parents to buy me a digital one as soon as they came out.
So I was always the kid running around with the camera, making his friends do stupid stuff and filming it before editing it on my computer. Then at some point I realised that that were people in the world who do this for a living, and you could even go to college to study film.
I would watch as many movies as I possibly could, while trying to learn about different directors. It was the thing that I wanted to do as early as I can remember, and I’m one of the lucky people who get to do what they always wanted to do. I’m not necessarily making a living financially at this point, but it is certainly how I spend most of my time. So it just kind of happened, although it was always my number one fascination, and there wasn’t necessarily a light bulb moment. Rather it was a series of increasing interest built together.
In Hide Your Smiling Faces it is almost as though the plot is subservient to the mood. Are there any directors that have had a particular influence on you during the early stages of your filmmaking career?
Filmmaking for me has always been about the clash or interaction of audio and image. I love all kinds of films, but those that have affected me the most are the stories that could only ever be movies. I watch a lot of movies where you think, oh that would make a really good play or I bet the book would be more interesting, and so I like it when I see a film I think could only ever exist as a film. The movies that do that to me are the ones that are not as concerned with keeping a bunch of sub-plots in the air or listening to characters babble on.
Tarkovsky was an influence on me because I saw his film The Sacrifice (1986) when I was young. Since early high school I’d read about it, but then again it was one of those films that you would always hear about. I was in awe of the fact he was able to make me feel so many different emotions without having people speak often or without feeling the need for much of a story. So filmmakers like him, although some of Kubrick’s films were especially influential, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is another good example of a movie that put tone and the feeling of the audience whilst they were watching it over the traditional three act structure. Nor did it even feel it necessarily for every character motivation or the outcome of every action to be understood. Then there are contemporary films such as Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher (1999), which has the poetry of these people’s lives rather than the A, B, C plot.
But there are all types of films that have been an influence, and I hope that this film works for all of the genres that come through, because Hide Your Smiling Faces is imagery and audio on the big screen in front of an audience and it’s the only way to see this story.
You are so sparing in your use of dialogue that the only way I could describe it early on was the approach of action through inaction. You are not trying to put words to the action or disrupt the silent emotion or the mood. Rather you are content to just let them exist, and therein you are trying to create this interactive experience that is almost a dance between the audience and the film.
I also look at the inaction as being somewhat specific to this film because of the ages of the boys. I think that a lot of the people who watch the film and don’t come away from it with a positive response tend to perceive the boys as acting unrealistically or that they would never sit there in silence together. But if people are able to think back on what it’s like to be young – although everybody has a different life experience, what makes art so interesting is that one person watches the film and interprets it one way, and the next person’s interpretation is the complete opposite. I was trying to stay true to my memory of what being a kid at that age was like, and boys that age don’t have heart to heart conversations, nor are they always doing something. I spent a lot of my time sitting and thinking, especially in a moment such as this. I remember the feeling of being lost and being in my own mind when my grandparents and my friend in college passed away. So I wanted to try and bring that across in the film.
Communication between men and especially young boys is often non-verbal, and it is often about those few moments where there is a physical interaction if only because of how little is happening in their lives in certain moments. So when something actually does happen it carries them away. I know some people are bored by this style of filmmaking, which is understandable. But it was my hope that because of a lot of the inaction, when action does happen it is both more powerful and meaningful.
In one sense children belong to the world and yet in another they do not because they’ve not reached that certain point in their life. Hide Your Smiling Faces captures that feeling of being caught between worlds.
Sure, and I think that’s a beautiful way of putting it. What is interesting is that even though these boys are five years apart neither are more confident with their place in the world, and this is something that even adults can relate to. It is the first time where it dawns on them that they are not invisible.
Kids are constantly putting themselves in danger whether they realise it or not, and all of the things within the movie are based on things that I actually did – playing with the gun which one of my friends fathers owned, standing up on that bridge, running around and pushing each other as well as wrestling in the water. I wanted to capture that moment where you realise that there are consequences to your actions and responsibility is suddenly dropped on top of you. It is that moment where the world you thought you understood is suddenly turned upside down.
As you say they no longer belong to that dream world of being a kid where anything is possible; where you can go anywhere and do anything; where there is nothing outside of your parents to stop you, to the realisation that you are a small part of something much bigger. You can get metaphysical if you go down that way of thinking, but that was definitely the goal. It was not necessarily to answer questions and say that some tragedies have an explanation, though you could spend all day making a whole movie about people investigating this accident, and trying to figure out who’s to blame. But at the end of the day what I’m more interested in is that it did happen; it’s a tragedy, and whether we know all the nitty-gritty details it still isn’t going to change the fact that it happened – there is a life lost and the boys have realised their fragility. I wanted the audience to be in the mind-set of being confused and on the precipice of the idea of a new period in your life. So the idea of being stuck between two stages was definitely the intention.
Cinema presents death as both a physical and a metaphysical event. Whilst you have the actuality of death, you also have the metaphorical death. When an event occurs that changes the person emotionally or offers them a new perspective, then the individual encounters a kind of death. Hide Your Smiling Faces shows these boys as wilting flowers before they burst into new life when they approach that new place.
Absolutely, and I love that interpretation. I think a lot of times for movies that deal with dark subject matter it’s hard to see the beauty, and with the opening shot of the snake in Hide Your Smiling Faces people have asked, “Why would you start off with this disturbing and dark image?” But for me there is something beautiful about that natural cycle of life and death. Yes these boys went through something very difficult, but they are going to be better for it. If you want to put a message on the film then it is that we are better off going through some of life’s more difficult situations, because it makes us stronger and more knowledgeable, and we have a stronger sense of identity as a result.
So I think that is absolutely correct, and my hope is that at the end of the film it doesn’t feel that by going through this event that these kids are just left feeling sad, and that they are now going to have a negative outlook on the world. I don’t think that is it at all. Whilst they are developing an imperfect understanding of how the world works, and what the next step in their life might be, at least it is the start of some form of understanding. During the next period in their life they will have experiences and relationships to draw upon that they didn’t have before. I hope that there is a little bit of hope in their experience because sometimes the worst things that happen to you end up being the experiences that help you grow the most.
Speaking with Tom Gilroy for The Cold Lands (2013), he spoke of how his film emerged through dreams. C.G. Jung believed that dreams are a means to solve the problems that we cannot solve in our waking state. If anything created on a creative level is channelled through your own personal experiences, and if there is dream logic to films then for a filmmaker, actor and writer film serves a similar purpose to dreams.
I relate a lot to that way of thinking, and not only are you inspired by those sub-conscious things, but I believe people are most honest with themselves when they are daydreaming or actually dreaming. You can turn off your social filter and let your sub-conscious tell you a story which is a roundabout way of seeing a different part of your own mind or way of thinking. So what you say is absolutely true, and a lot of times my characters are versions of myself. In some ways it is very explicit, and there are those scenes that are based exactly on things that happened to me. More often than not I like my characters do things that I can’t do, because film is this a safe and artificial place; even though it is very much based on reality. I like the freedom of writing down new kinds of characters who are an extension of me, and through who I get away with things that society will not let me get away with in the real world. So in more ways than one it is kind of a dream world because there is a little bit of you in there, and you are guiding it, although you don’t realise it at the time.
A lot of the scenes you write you don’t know why you write them, but you feel so passionately about them that you know you’ll figure it out later. This is a wonderful experience and it is similar to figuring out what a dream meant when you wake up. You write a scene; you shoot it; you fight for it, and you make sure it ends up in the film. Maybe the tenth time you watch the film with an audience is when you realise why you had that idea, and why it had to be in the movie. I think that is an amazing experience in itself.
Mark Cousins in his recent documentary The Story of Children and Film (2014) looked at images of children in cinema, and drew on how the representation differed between various countries, and yet presented them as belonging to one grand cinematic narrative. What are your thoughts on the way that American cinema depicts children in contrast to world cinema, and what context does Hide Your Smiling Faces fit into?
I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this because I love Mark Cousins’ work, and The Story of Film (2011) is one of the most amazing films I have seen – I absolutely have to see it.
I don’t know how much I can add to the story, but I will say that from my experience often American films about children all fall under the same banner of ‘Coming of Age’, which I do consider to be unfair to some movies. But they are less inclined to get to the heart of what makes kids, kids, and actually embrace how intelligent they are. A lot of times children don’t have social norms they need to follow, and so they are more honest, and this was something I tried to touch on in Hide Your Smiling Faces. When the adults show up in the film they are in no better a position to grieve or make sense of this event than the kids are. But at least the kids are trying to talk about it whereas the adults turn off; turn to religion or in the case of the boy’s father he becomes reclusive. So my goal with those little elements was to ask, why is what these kids are doing any worse than what the adults are doing? They seem just as lost, confused and as fragile as the kids do. I think that is true in reality, and a lot of times in films, and particularly in American films it is more about trying to get your first kiss, trying to have sex for the first time or trying to get on the sports team. It is not that those things are not important and don’t colour your future like the other negative events or more difficult situations. I do think however that there is a tendency to stay on the surface level, and not necessarily allow kids to be fully fledged people with beliefs, fears and real interests.
This is something that is definitely more common in other parts of the world, and it is why I am drawn to European cinema, and it is why I love Ratcatcher so much. European films about kids let them be real people with real emotions. There are some great American films with kids, and George Washington (2000) is one of those. But even Stand by Me (1986) which Hide Your Smiling Faces gets compared to a lot sees them deal with some difficult situations, but then there is also a scene where everyone eats pie and throws up [laughs]. They always have to take the edge off for the American audiences so that it feels appropriate. So I wanted to see if I could show kids in a way that I feel the rest of the world sees kids – as equals with a lot of intelligence but also a lot to learn.
But I don’t know… I’m by no means an expert but that was sort of the intention to make an American ‘Coming of Age’ movie that doesn’t feel like an American ‘Coming of Age’ movie.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.