Contemporary silent film Claire frames a story of longings once impossible inside a loose adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale. The movie quietly champions the themes of acceptance, fatherhood, and families of choice. The methods used to depict this tale are strictly early twentieth century, and the images they make are a dream-like mix of the quotidian and the mystical. All create a sense of the magic of love.
Claire was inspired by Princess Kaguya, also known as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In the fairy tale, Princess Kaguya is a changeling child. She’s discovered inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an elderly bamboo cutter wandering the forest. She’s no bigger than his thumb. He brings her home, and since he and his wife are childless, they raise the girl. They begin receiving compensation for the care they’d gladly give for free. Every time he cuts down a bamboo stock, he finds a nugget of gold.
Kaguya grows into a great beauty of normal human size. Despite her parents sheltering her, word of her beauty spreads, and she’s wooed by royalty, who want to marry her and take her away. She refuses by assigning them impossible tasks. She only feels the moon’s pull. While she loves her earthly parents, she cries to be separated from the moon. The tension comes from not knowing how and when she will leave her parents. Changeling children never stay. Will romance or the moon finally take her away from the couple?
Filmmaker Milford Thomas sets his version of this story on an Appalachian farm in the 1920s south. The movie starts with a child’s birthday party. A little girl is surrounded by friends and presents while her proud poppa, Josh (Mish P. DeLight) looks on. Suddenly the party is interrupted by a woman and man glaring reprobation. They take the girl away. Josh wakes up from his nightmare, arms flailing about, in bed. His partner lying next to him, Walt (James Ferguson), takes Josh’s hand, which calms him. We’re next shown scenes of their domesticity as they work their corn farm and live the settled, peaceful life of two elderly people who have been together a very long time.
Josh’s dream shows us the one thing he wants is a child, and his wish is fulfilled one night. He and Walt are startled awake by their animals making noise. When they look out their window to find out what the hullabaloo is about, they see their barn is filled with light. They find a glowing ear of corn inside. While they watch, the husk parts to reveal a glowing miniature, but perfectly proportioned girl (Toniet Gallego). She looks up at them with curiosity and hopefulness. They swaddle her like a baby and bring her into their home. They’re startled awake a third time when furniture gets knocked about. The tiny girl grew into a full-sized one overnight! The couple name her Claire.
Josh and Walt finally have a child to raise and spoil. They throw her a birthday party. They make a cake out of cornmeal. They wrap her present in dried corn husks. Her gift is revealed to be a miniature of their home made out of matchsticks and corn kernels. Inside the house are figurines of each family member. The scene is touching and foreshadowing. Even non-magical girls don’t stay home forever. The local school teacher, Miss Earwood (Anna May Hirsch), wants to send bright Claire away to France to study. Her pupil Richard (Allen Jeffrey Rein) attempts to court Claire, who’s confused about what she wants. She wants to stay with her fathers, but she can’t fight the pull of the moon. She climbs up onto the window sill at night to stare at the moon and cry longingly.
Thomas sets his movie in the past, but the subject of gay fatherhood and adoption remains topical, even though it is more common and acceptable today, yet his film isn’t polemical. In depicting one couple raising one girl, he shows us the love and wonder any father would feel doubled by two. Within the film’s more conservative time period, it’s only the nightmare child snatchers that show disapproval. Whether the townspeople understand Walt and Josh are a couple isn’t made clear, but their neighbors don’t question the men’s ability or motives in raising a girl. That’s not a plot point. Their daughter Claire accepts and loves them for who they are.
Her fathers must accept her for who she is. Every parent reaches the point when he or she must let a child grow up into her own person. Claire has feelings that she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know what makes her want to leave her earthly home for the moon. It’s painful and confusing for any child to individuate. The story of the changeling who stays a short time with her foster parents mimics the cycle of the adolescent becoming an adult. Within Claire’s magical story is a second universal one.
Thomas’s visuals aren’t as slick as the ones of The Artist or Blancanieves. He employs no expensive digital arts, and his sets are modest. He did not have the same resources as Michel Hazanavicius or Pablo Berger. He gave himself two challenges to make Claire. He had to do it on a limited budget, and he had to do it using vintage equipment.
What’s shown onscreen looks like early vintage filmmaking, and I mean that in the best possible way. He used a Mitchell Standard handcrank camera, the “same type of camera used by cinematographer Charles Rosher to film Mary Pickford in the 1922 Tess of the Storm Country.” Milford overexposed modern monochrome film stocks to get contemporary film to look vintage. He used multiple, in camera exposures to make his special effects. Only an underwater scene was shot on a modern camera. His stylistic influences include Georges Méliès, F.W. Murnau, and D. W. Griffith. Few intertitles are employed, save for a scene where Claire reads a poem by Shelley.
The movie’s soundtrack was recorded live in 2002 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. It was performed by the Orchestra de Lune, directed by composer Anne Richardson. Her score was influenced by “Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Aaron Copland.” In writing the score, Richardson said, “The images on the screen often spoke to me, as if the music were already there, waiting to be put down on paper.” Her score is dreamy, emotional, and intimate. The audience’s audible responses are affecting. Their laughs, hisses, and applause gave this home viewer the sensation of watching Claire in a theatre with an audience. How long the hearty applause at film’s end goes on will give anyone the impression of how much some fairy tales are needed.
1. “Groundbreaking Film ‘Claire’ Celebrates a Radical Fairy-tale.” GAVoice. GAVoice, 2 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
2. “Moving Picture Claire.” Moving Picture Claire. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
3. Hildreth, Richard. “Claire, 2001.” Home. San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2003. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
4. Phillips Jordan, Julie. “Atlanta Filmmaker’s ‘Claire’ Pays Homage to Silent Cinema.” Athens Banner-Herald. Athens Banner-Herald, 18 Apr. 2002. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.