Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#17) Lamorisse's THE RED BALLOON

This really was what I needed today, or rather tonight.  I spent all day at work and then decided to stick around in this empty office all the way up in the ass-crack-of-Manhattan (i.e. at the tip-end near the Bronx) to do some extra work that I do from time to time with filing.  And then, to fill some of you in on my personal details as they're a need-to-know basis in this blog, I saw a notification on my blackberry schedule pop up that R.W. Fassbinder's World of Wires was playing tonight at the MoMA... in fifteen minutes.  (I then proceeded to go into a tirade much like the Duke of York does when asked by Lionel in The King's Speech to let out some obscenities and they come FLYING out).  That, added with one of those finger-jams in-between a chair and a desk and then a freeze-up of the computer, left me quite an un-happy Jack indeed.

So, off I sauntered off to another computer at the office, and turned on Netflix-instant.  The reason I was staying at work in the first place was to wait for my wife as I offered a ride home.  As she would need another hour or so to arrive, I figured this wasn't enough time to watch a full 90 minute feature, but I wasn't in the mood for a short cartoon or TV show, and wanted to kill two birds by notching off another on my now-far-behind Netflix-a-Thon.  And then this popped up...

The Red Balloon is one of those movies that you either see when you're a kid or you have to catch up on when you're an adult.  I sadly come in at the latter stage, having for some reason not have been one of the many children who get to see this on 16mm film prints at elementary schools, nor introduced by my parents (no, no, they wanted me to watch "real" films when I was eight like Citizen Kane and The Shining, but I digress).  But either way you come to it, it really is one of those must-see pictures that comes along.  And while it's a short film, it has the substance and weight for a memory of a feature, and perhaps can carry more meaning by being so short.  It's one of those things in cinema, like Singin' in the Rain or Chaplin pictures, that you have to affix the word 'WONDERFUL' like it's an FDA seal of approval on beef.

There isn't much to it, on paper, as it would seem to be just the misadventures of a little boy and his red balloon in the streets of Paris.  But what-oh, what a balloon it is!  As told by Albert Lamorisse, his tale is shot in a pre-New-Wave (or just right at the start of Nouvelle Vague) on the streets and usually hand-held and with all non-actors and some people just right off the streets, but with the kind of aesthetic that one would see in modern memory in Spielberg pictures.  In fact if this wasn't sen by Spielberg multiple times before making E.T. the Extra Terrestrial I'll eat my stock of hats.  It's a boy and bed friend story, and with fantastical proportions.

How fantastical?  On the obvious side of things, it's that the balloon, it so would appear, has a 'mind' of its own.  This is charming on a level all kids will relate to, but also that adults, if one isn't too cold and hard and cynical-bitten, can harp back on: inanimate things not only can but *do* take on lives of their own.  What's whimsical (or perhaps if one has to put it cute) about the film is how the balloon is alive everywhere, and eager to try and follow the little boy Pascal wherever he goes.  Sometimes the boy can't stand to be without him, but other times, like a dog, it just has to stay outside.  "No Balloons Alloooowed" is all but written on some of these adults' store doors.  Stupid adults, who needs em?

The other fantastical thing to me was the look of the film, the colors of it.  The city, which could be Paris or any other urban place - I kept on picturing the one Charlie Bucket runs around in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - and it's full of drab colors, grays and beige and some blacks and browns, and the kids and streets and buildings all have this look, and the weather as well is ugly and muddy and wet.  And then there's this red balloon, looking much like a lollipop on steroids, and it bounces around looking almost just like a special effect.  The balloon is the eager puppy-oddity of the world that sticks out enough to be noticed, and sometimes not all of the people (i.e. other kids) who wouldn't treat it right pick on it.  I could go into further exposition about it being a metaphor for imagination in the modern world, but then I'd be here all night and where would you be?

Indeed that's where the conflict and drama comes up in The Red Balloon is how it so sticks out and has such a disposition to follow its own balloon-nose (it even chases a skirt at one point in the form of a blue balloon a little girl carries) that other kids can't stand it.  Why should Pascal have all the fun?  Why hog all of the balloon?  And in such a drab post-war environment where nobody has much color at all should there be such a bright rouge thing like that floating about.  Thankfully the end of the movie, once it reaches its semi-tragic conclusion, picks back up to something that is so downright genius that it made me forget every worry I had in the world for just a moment and I savored the screen of a little boy and his "friends" the balloons.

If balloons could talk, these two might go "R-r-r-reeeeddeee!" "Bbluuue!"
This is quality artistry; not one shot is wasted and the attention to the balloon as a character more than a prop is incredible.  At times I had to wonder if it was just a special effect, that they somehow rotoscoped it in in some kind of early 50's fx miracle.  But no, it's all there, and the joy that the boy feels is reflected for the audience.  I would hate to meet the crumudgen who would say 'this is lame' and go on with their miserable lot.    It's a cheerful story told with a cheerful outlook on life, akin to something out of Jim Henson or Walt Disney when he's not at his schmaltziest.  And most importantly it's there as a work like Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (if not quite as complex intellectually) in how it works so well for children as they can project themselves with the main character, and for adults it brings one back to that feeling of youth and gleeful abandon with escapism (and, as reviews I've read of it seem to give the impression, everyone who sees it as a child remembers it fondly).  And with barely any dialog!  Pure cinema, as one might say!

And did I mention the music?  That, too, is timeless.  

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