Picture Book

If childhood is a movie, do you watch it or do you make it?

Since it became available on Netflix earlier this year, I’ve watched Moana dozens of times. I’m a stay-at-home father, and my two young children request the film on an almost daily basis. I’m happy to comply. On its own, it’s serviceable, with catchy songs and some good jokes, but compared with the rest of what my kids want to watch, it’s a cinematic masterpiece. Any day I can convince them not to watch Paw Patrol is a victory.

For those who haven’t seen the film multiple times, it tells the story of Moana, the daughter of Tui, the chief of a Polynesian island village whose people dwell in huts and harvest coconuts — what the movie depicts as an idyllic lifestyle. But as with other Disney heroines, Moana chafes against tradition. Like Belle or Ariel, she wants to leave her home and have an adventure in the wider world. Unlike in those heroines’ stories, though, Moana’s story doesn’t begin in medias res. When we meet her, she’s a toddler, wandering around the beach and babbling at the waves. Tui scoops her up and begins singing “Where You Are,” a song about the duties of leadership and the pleasures of staying put. Over the course of this song, the montage of Moana’s life unfolds, and she goes from toddler to young girl to the young woman who will leave her island to save her people.

During my many viewings of Moana, I’ve wondered how this scene shapes my children’s sense of themselves and their lives. Childhood, as portrayed in the film, is a series of archetypal scenes to be sped through on the way to the real action of the story. Could this make my children impatient to get through the expository business of growing up so they get down to the real business of saving the world? Maybe, but that’s belied by the fact that often they want to watch the montage repeatedly, asking me to rewind so they can watch Moana grow up again and again, as if childhood is a gif, looping back to its beginning.

They ask to watch Moana grow up again and again, as if childhood is a gif

This sort of montage is not at all unique: Portraying a character growing up through a musical montage has become a standard trope of the animated children’s movie, as familiar as the dead parent of fairy tales. Frozen, now the dominant template for successful animated movies, contains a time-lapse musical montage, set to a song called “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?,” as does Up, which carries a couple over an even longer expanse of time — from their first meeting as children through the entirety of their marriage, until one of them dies in old age.

Why have montages become so prevalent in kids’ movies? Viewing them as an adult raises questions for me: Are these scenes preparing my kids to speed their way through an ever-accelerating society? Is it teaching them pre-emptive nostalgia? But from the point of view of my children, these sequences are perfectly normal. Their lives are already a montage.

It’s ironic that montage has become a go-to cinematic technique for depicting the development of a lone individual. Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian filmmaker, pioneered the technique during the heady days of the early Soviet Union, using it to depict vast historical events, enormous collectives struggling against oppressive forces. As critic Jonathan Crow notes, “Eisenstein compared montage to Karl Marx’s vision of history, where a thesis smashes into its antithesis and together, from that wreckage, forms its synthesis.” The quintessential example of Eisenstein’s use of this technique is the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925), which shows a group of Russian protesters being massacred by Czarists, cutting among different angles, more edits than had ever been seen in a film before.

Once jarring and unfamiliar, the rapid edits of most montage sequences no longer disorient viewers with dialectics. They have become instead a highly conventional way of compressing the passage of time into a series of highlights. Now that we have the technology to amass a lot of footage of our lives and the people in them — and distribution channels to disseminate that footage — the utility of montage as a way to organize personal histories becomes more apparent.

My children were only a few minutes old when they were first photographed. I had my phone with me in the delivery room, and I took pictures as they were cleaned, swaddled, and presented to me and my wife. Every day of their early lives we took dozens of pictures. The camera rolls on our phones swelled with footage, as though we were cinematographers filming a documentary about our lives. Sometimes we didn’t look at the pictures again until weeks later, if at all. There were so many moments to capture, but in the midst of taking care of young children, time to consume them was almost nonexistent.

Thankfully, the massive corporations that now watch over our daily lives were there to help. We downloaded the Google Photos app to store our photos, but it does more than that. It also offers to aestheticize them, creating slideshows and montages via algorithm, returning my memories to me in the form of little movies.

I can open the app right now and see photos I took at a particular location several months ago. I can scroll through, revisiting the expressions on my children’s faces, noting how they have grown and changed even in just a short span of time. But I can also view montages that Google Photos automatically creates, editing my images into short bursts of what translates as narrative. These productions stem from the work I have chosen to perform — the work of documenting my life and my kids’ lives — but rather than the director, I am demoted to camera operator.

Give Google Photos a few moments to search your archives, and it will create a montage set to music, scoring the images with one of the instrumental soundtracks in its database. It’s as if my life has become the montage from Moana. You may be immune to such nakedly sentimental ploys, but more times than I can recall, I have been reduced to tears by the videos that Google creates for me.

Google is not the only company creating videos from its users’ personal data. Facebook and Apple have products that offer similar experiences, telling us an unexpected story about ourselves. Watching Moana’s entire childhood and adolescence unfold over the course of a few minutes can seem strange, but watching something similar about me or my family can feel even stranger. You can see where things are headed from a transcendent, godlike perspective but are powerless to redirect the trajectory. It is like a redoubling of the anxieties of parenthood.

More times than I can recall, I have been reduced to tears by the videos that Google creates for me

Before my children were born, the photos on my phone were mostly of myself and my wife. Selfies, more often than not, one or both of us smiling into the camera lens held at arm’s length. Once our daughter was born, we receded to the background of our photos — and of our lives as well. Nearly every image archived on Google Photos since then showed our daughter smiling, sleeping, trying to walk, splattering bananas over her face. We appeared in the background of these photos, if at all. But I was the one framing what my life looked like. If I was in the background, I was the one who put myself there.

The automated montages complicate that sense of agency. They shuffle and splice the images according to a logic that, as near as I can tell, is designed to make me experience, in highly compressed form, the displacement that is the fate of every parent. Right now my two children need me virtually every hour of the day. As they grow older, they will need me less and less. One day they will leave, no longer needing me. Will I be left watching these automatically generated montages looking for a trace of myself?

I experience the time compression of montages as unreal, or hyper-real — an abundance of information and emotion that leaves me with vertigo. But I think my children experience it as ordinary and not just because they haven’t accrued enough life experience to feel otherwise.

Part of the pleasure of watched a gif dozens of times lies in coming to know them down to every last gesture and instant. After I’ve watched one several times, I have the sense that I am making it happen by watching it. When my kids watch the montages, they must experience something like this, the sensation that watching themselves somehow causes them to grow up. Or perhaps simply it makes them conscious of growing up in a visceral way that daily life doesn’t provide. Watching montages of themselves demonstrates the effects time has already had on them and suggests those to come. Sometimes I think they are teaching my children how to relate to time.

“We’re safe and we’re well-provided/ And when we look to the future/ There you are,” Tui sings to Moana. He’s happy in his life as the village leader, and he wants Moana to be happy in precisely the same way. Moana doesn’t want her father’s happiness, though. She wants to leave the island to explore. Tui does her best to stop her, but of course she breaks away.

I can’t help but be wistful when I watch the montages of my family. It makes me wonder if every aspect of our lives together has become fundamentally mediated, and unadorned daily life no longer to be found. I’m sure that my daughter, when she reaches Moana’s age, will hear such hemming and hawing and think I’m as laughably out of touch as Tui.

My kids treat the montages created by Google Photos the same as the one in Moana: They watch them again and again. Children love looking at photos of themselves, and it figures that they would love montages just as much. But what new meanings do these collisions create for their self-perception? Eisenstein believed that the highest purpose of montage was to juxtapose specific images to lead viewers to make connections and form meanings on their own. His films started a thought, and the viewer completed it. If the montage one is viewing depicts oneself, and the connection between images is generated mechanically by an opaque algorithm, what thought is completed in one’s mind?

Montages are teaching my children how to relate to time

When our oldest daughter turned one, my wife made a montage to commemorate it. She used iMovie to compile the photos and videos we had taken of our daughter over the year, editing them into a 20-minute movie complete with musical accompaniment. We burned the video onto DVDs and gave them to doting grandparents. Of course we kept one in our house, and our daughter quickly became enamored with it, even more than the montages generated by Google Photos.

And why wouldn’t she? The montage was created by someone who loves her and it comes through in every frame. There’s a moment in the video where my daughter looks at the camera and shrugs her shoulders like a ballet dancer warming up at the bar. The shoulder shake, we called it — every family probably develops such household slang that sounds cloying to outsiders. You can discern my voice in the background, directing her to do her signature move. She takes a while, but she finally complies, somewhat reluctantly. But once she saw herself doing it on the video, and she saw her family applaud her sense of comic timing, she started doing it far more often, shaking her shoulders incessantly and waiting for us to laugh, like a gif come to life.

It would be easy to wring my hands at this development. The clickbait writes itself: Our children’s lives are endlessly mediated, the stars of their own never-ending reality shows, and so forth. But that misses how the video allows my daughter to see herself as a participant in the creation of the narratives about herself, rather than just a viewer. When the person in front of the camera and the person behind it are relating to each through the medium of the montage, they are starting and finishing their thoughts together.

Adam Fleming Petty is a writer in Indianapolis. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Electric Literature