24 January, 2010

Escape from reality, but into what? Eight movies about children's imagination.

Albert Lamorisse's most enduring legacy may be his development of the game of world domination, Risk, in 1957. But almost as well-known is his 1956 short, mostly silent film Le Ballon rouge, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay--the only time a short or a dialogue-free picture has ever won in competition with a feature film. The Criterion Collection released the short on a disc that also featured Crin-Blanc, Cheval Sauvage, a 1953 short by Lamorisse that is an interesting and perhaps depressing companion piece to the more well-known movie.

Both movies feature young boys who are cute, persistent, lonely, and innocent who form intimate bonds with non-human and likewise innocent friends against a backdrop of an insensitive and violent world.

In White Mane, (Crin-Blanc), young Folco (Alain Emery) is bathed in soft, radiant light, dressed in unblemished white despite his time spent fishing in the swamps of southeastern France, with cherubic blond hair, clean features, and a face betraying the calm and wisdom of many decades. From afar he watches the roping of White Mane, a vibrant all-white stallion whose strength and determination have made him the leader of his herd. The local ranchers--soiled, grizzled, loud, and harsh--have decided to tame his wildness, to make him submit to their ownership and authority, to crush his freedom and exploit his strength. To their chagrin, he defeats them and escapes. Several attempts fail, and a swearing ranger offers him up to hell in frustration. Folco, watching their struggles and in admiration of the horse, asks if he can now have the horse since they have given up, and they condescendingly explain that he could certainly have the wild beast if he could ever achieve the impossible task of catching it.

Small, harmless Folco armed only with a fishing net, a rope, and his implacable will manages to rope the curious stallion. White Mane cuts loose, racing at breakneck speeds through the watery marshes. Folco holds tight. He is dragged through the mud. His desire to be with the horse is greater than his humiliation, pain, or fear. He must prove himself of the utmost determination in order to gain the horse's respect. White Mane slows, halts, and glances back. This tiny, gentle creature, now slathered in mud but still gripping the rope, doesn't want to whip, conquer, exploit, or abuse him. He merely wants friendship, love, closeness. The bond is formed.

When White Mane suffers an injury from a competitive horse after returning to his herd, he seeks the boy's help. Folco gently bathes his hooves and uses his own clothing to bandage the bleeding wounds. Folco proves himself the best friend out of people and horses.

But men do not keep promises and they are not comfortable with being outshone. The ranchers return, and forgetting that they gave the rights to the horse to Folco, they attempt to take back the seemingly tamed animal. They use their greater size, numbers, strength, and weapons to intimidate the boy, cursing at him and threatening his life. Our two heroes, equally armed with their loving bond, their purity, their resilience, and their strength, flee across the beautiful, sun-bleached dunes of Camargue until they are blocked by the shores of the Mediterranean. Trapped between humanity at its evilest and nature at its most infinite and frightening, the film reaches its climax.

I'll return to the ending later. First, back to The Red Balloon. The plot is simpler: Pascal (Lamorisse's own son) discovers a large red balloon on the streets of Ménilmontant in Paris. The balloon is slightly out of reach at first, but he coaxes it to come to him and it does. Gradually it becomes clear that the balloon behaves in ways counter-intuitive to normal physics, that it, in fact, seems to have its own will and emotions. The boy and the balloon stroll together hand in hand, drawing wonder, envy, confusion, and irritation from passers-by. The relationship is not without obstacles. Soon a trolley conductor refuses to let the balloon board, and the boy walks with it in solidarity. The balloon's desire to be with the boy in the classroom elicits alarm from the teacher, commotion from the classmates, and anger from the principal. Despite adversity, they stick together. But soon the mob becomes unavoidable, society and the corruption it brings closes in, and an army of envy and prejudice rises up against the pair. A band of roaring bullies chases the frantic couple through dirty alleys and murders the balloon in a field of dirt.

But then the reversal happens: balloons of all colors from all across Paris are awakened by the unjust sacrifice and run to Pascal's aid. He grabs on and the enormous, colorful cluster ascends him to the heavens. As the small child floats precariously above the city, the film ends triumphantly.

At the end of White Mane, the horse plunges into the crashing waves of the sea with the boy holding tight. The ranchers know better and, finally expressing some sensibility and caring or perhaps just lying again, yell for the boy to turn back, that their current path in the treacherous deep can bring only death. As the horse and boy disappear into the waves, the storytelling narrator optimistically explains that the horse did not turn back and that the boy held on trustingly and that they eventually reached the "wonderful place where men and horses live as friends, always."

When you think of cluster balloon flights into the stratosphere, you tend to imagine Larry Walters, who in 1982 ascended three miles into the sky over San Pedro, California, in a lawn chair attached to 42 helium-filled balloons. His story is an oft-repeated anecdote about achieving the impossible, reaching your dreams, and overcoming human limitations like fear and gravity. Tellers of the anecdote tend not to mention that he shot himself in the heart in 1993 at the age of 44.

Lamorisse's films offer no practical outlet to his child protagonists. His boys are isolated, silent, unwatched. Pascal's parents, siblings, and nannies are completely absent, and while Folco has a family, the father is old and tired and unable to keep up and the brother is merely a baby. Their only friends are sentient, non-human beings that seem to be sent from heaven, guardian angels that offer protection and the promise of a safer haven--whether high in the sky or on the other side of the sea--that does not exist outside of the fantastical worlds of the films. Maybe the balloons will set him down gently in some nice courtyard. Maybe there really is an island with an equestrian utopia in the waters south of France. But more than likely the kids are about to die. In the world of Lamorisse, society grows increasingly bleak and destructive with time and experience. Children may be born with a tabula rasa, but their relationships with other humans quickly fill that slate with the ugliest ideas. The only way to escape corruption is to escape society altogether, which Lamorisse presents as a transcendent choice.

It's odd that this dark lesson is presented in movies with such beautiful settings, soaring scores, artful cinematography, and cute children. I find it unfair not to allow the protagonists any realistic escape, but Lamorisse is of course not alone in his belief that angelic children cannot escape harsh reality except through death.

In Guillermo del Toro's 2006 El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth), young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is torn between two similar worlds: the brutal reality of Franco's post-Civil War Spain and the not-necessarily-true fantasies of her fairy tale books. The adults in her life--her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil), her army stepfather (Sergi López), her family's housekeeper (Maribel Verdú)--tell her she's too old for make believe, that she should put down her books and face the real world, that such nonsense is only for silly children. These adults, of course, are miserable. Her mother is widowed, lonely, "sick with baby" in a troublesome pregnancy, and married to a man who belittles her and doesn't particularly care for her except for the fruit of her womb, which will provide him with a male heir. Her stepfather, the vicious and single-minded captain of an army outpost in the Guadarrama mountain range, is almost pitiful in his obsessive need to carry on his legacy through a son. And Mercedes the housekeeper, whose brother is one of the Maqui guerrillas fighting against fascism in the forest, is constantly in fear for her own life (she's a spy in the captain's household) and those of her comrades.

The stepfather tortures, kills, and fumes, the housekeeper sneaks and prays and plots, and the mother collapses into a bloody, sedated fever. Ofelia remains unexposed to most of the violence and despair, but as she wanders her new house and its strange surroundings, escaping into her own adventurous imagination, her fantasies exhibit parallels to the violence around her. To prove her legacy as the daughter of an ancient underworld king, she must fulfill three tasks. First, she must destroy the fat, greedy toad that is choking the roots of a once illustrious fig tree (which may have to do with fascist choking the life and culture of beautiful Spain). Next, she must retrieve a dagger from the lair of a horrifying, child-eating monster who sits before a sumptuous banquet (which visually matches a scene of the horrifying, child-killing stepfather, sitting before a crowded dinner table at a party while discussing a new, very strict rationing program he is going to institute in town).

The world of the adults and Ofelia's world remain physically separate (though thematically similar) until the third task, when she is ordered by the eerie faun (Doug Jones) to kidnap her baby brother and take him into the ancient, dangerous labyrinth. Her mother has died. Her stepfather has gone on a murderous rampage. The housekeeper has been discovered and captured by the army. All hope for the real world has evaporated. Ofelia, in hot pursuit by her bloody and poisoned stepfather, steals the heir and flees to the center of the maze, where the faun presents the dagger and explains that the blood of the innocent infant (just a tiny bit!) must be spilled in order to unlock her magical kingdom. Only by sacrificing two drops of blood can she return to her ancient throne as princess of the underworld.

She hesitates. She won't let an innocent baby be harmed. The faun demands: cut the baby and be saved by magic or refuse and return to reality. Ofelia grows up. Fairy tales are for children, and now she must be adult enough to protect the baby. Sometimes, too, fairy tales can be just as ugly as reality. She refuses. Her stepfather catches her and kills her. But as her blood spills into the puddle of rainwater, an illuminated epilogue with a cheery faun and her mother and father resplendently adorned atop luxurious thrones explains that the final task was to sacrifice herself instead of the innocent. As her real body bleeds to death in the dark rain, her fantasy body is crowned and welcomed home, and so the film effectively combines a range of interpretations suitable for both those who care to believe in the redemptive power of imagination and those who see only the evil of the physical world, with an interesting middle range for those who realize that even in fairy tales horrible things can happen and that even on our miserable earth a noble deed such a sister selflessly protecting her brother can occur.

I suspect Pan's Labyrinth was to some degree inspired by Victor Erice's 1973 El espíritu de la colmena. In The Spirit of the Beehive, a young girl (Ana Torrent) in Franco's 1940s Spain is introduced to fantasy, death, disappointment, and fear. Ana's source of inspiration isn't a fairy tale book but a dubbed showing of Frankenstein, in which a pitiful but deadly monster mindlessly kills an innocent girl before being hunted and killed himself. The film, it seems, introduces her to the concept of death, and she begs her slightly older sister to explain to her what dying is all about. Her sister mischievously avoids the questions, insisting that nobody really dies in movies and filling her head with magical tricks she can use to summon the monster, who according to her lives in an abandoned building outside of town.

The days pass. Ana's father is cold and brooding and possibly connected to the Falangists. Ana's mother is miles away in her own romantic fantasies. Ana's sister continues to mess with Ana's mind, at one point pretending to be killed in a prank that terrifies the girl and brings her closer to a conception of death as the ultimate fate for everyone.

Eventually she comes face to face with death. While playing around the building that Frankenstein supposedly lives in, she meets a fugitive republic soldier who has been injured. She brings him food, a watch, a coat, and other gifts. When the watch she'd stolen from her father suddenly returns to his possession, she begins to worry. Returning to Frankenstein's house, she finds only blood, bullet holes, and her father, who has secretly followed her in order to reprimand her assistance to "the enemy." Deeply disturbed, Ana flees into the forest. She sleeps under the moon and communes with the ghost of Frankenstein. Eventually she's found and brought back home--mute, shaken, forever changed, but at least alive. Without asking for it, Ana has been forced into adulthood, into her coming of age which acknowledges the inevitability of death. The meditative, largely silent film does not end with complete despair, however. Ana still retains her hope and her sense of wondrous possibility as she calls out once more to the ghost.

Not all movies with the theme of childhood escape are so death-centric. Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, which was later released by Disney's Pixar as Spirited Away helping it to become the largest grossing non-American film of all time, depicts an escape into fantasy land that results not in death or brutal despair but uplifting enlightenment. I won't go into the plot because I think it's mostly nonsensical, with illogical occurrences spinning widely out of control, unexpected obstacles springing from nowhere and just as unexpected solutions being presented just in time. In the end, a supposedly sullen, stupid, and whiny young girl is transformed into a courageous, caring, and vibrant young woman. But I don't think the film, however captivating its animation, is effective. In the too brief exposition we get at the beginning, Chihiro doesn't seem exceptionally whiny or rotten or stupid, though plenty of the ugly adults around her tell her so, so any character development of a character whose real world existence is only loosely elaborated upon is, well, minimal. The movie is a lot like Henry Selick's 2009 Coraline, which at least did a better job of delineating the title character's flaws, strengths, and desires even if the fantastical plot lacked parameters and structure. (And, again, eye-popping animation.)

And then there's Spike Jonze's 2009 Where the Wild Things Are, which may be the only film where the protagonist willingly rejects the lonely world of unreality. Based on Maurice Sendak's popular picture book, the film stars the talented Max Records as Max, a lonely, imaginative kid who's being abandoned by all those he loves. His friends, though never specifically mentioned, bail out on him to hang out with newer, cooler friends. His father, whether through death or divorce, exits the picture. And at the beginning of the film, his teenage sister--his best friend--abandons him for a boyfriend and cool kids with a car. Sad and angry, Max marches his snow-wet boots into his sister's room and wreaks havoc, specifically destroying not her CDs or her cool new things but the loving gift he once gave to her, the symbol of their bond. If he can't have it perfectly, unceasingly, at all times, whenever he needs it, he doesn't want their friendship at all, doesn't want even to remember that it ever existed. He destroys the gift, but he instantly regrets it. As strong and independent as his rage might make him at moments, he needs the love of others, however frangible.

When his exhausted, lonely mother (Caroline Keener) invites home a new potential boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), the last straw is broken. Max erupts into an animalistic rage and flees to the forest (it's always the forest where magic happens, any kid can tell you), where he discovers a boat and sails off to the land of the Wild Things. Jonze handles the camera artfully, allowing more of the imaginary world to seamlessly blossom with each cut. There needn't be any logic, order, or believability because we realize that the world exists entirely within Max's mind. When the Wild Things speak, they are aspects of Max's conscience speaking to other parts of his subconscious, trying to reason out solutions to his problems, trying to figure out why the world is so messed up. In reality, we can picture Max sitting under a tree, playing with sticks, tossing pine cones, kicking the dirt, and talking to himself.

In the movie, however, we see the world of the Wild Things, overgrown, impulsive beasts who say the first thing that pops into their monstrous heads. Insecurity, anger, and the demand for unrequited love boil over. When he makes mistakes, people should still be able to love him. Even if he's not all that special, people shouldn't just abandon him. When people make promises, they should keep them. His nagging doubts and most troubling fears are diced and strewn.

Amongst the Wild Things, Max is elected king. With the new responsibility, he attempts to impose his version of utopia, a world of perfect, eternal love where nobody foreign and unpredictable can enter and nobody can ever leave, where everyone sleeps in one jumbled pile at night, where fun is a requirement, and where friendship is an unbreakable commitment. This works only for a few hours, and soon the messiness and complications of reality start to break through. Utopia means nowhere, and no such perfect world exists. People make mistakes. People grow apart. People need space. Sometimes people can't forgive. Sometimes new people enter the picture who may be scary at first but aren't always bad.

In the end, Max bids farewell to his island kingdom and returns to his home, where his relieved mother feeds him chocolate cake and, in a touching moment, falls asleep smiling at him at the kitchen table. Racked with anxiety by his disappearance, she can finally rest now that her baby is home. In a perfect world, they'd stay up talking and playing and eating cake all night, but in the real world she's exhausted and all she can offer right now is a smile, the unspoken fact that she'll always love him, and a piece of cake. And, in the end, maybe that's better than any imaginary world.

A powerfully effective, emotionally raw, well-acted, and lovingly filmed movie, Where the Wild Things Are was my favorite picture of 2009, having affected me in a manner deeper and more truthfully than most things in my life, along the same lines as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (which also has similar themes to this blog).

I'll close with Le voyage du balloon rouge, a 2008 feature film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a leader of the New Taiwanese cinema who shot this film in France. Flight of the Red Balloon is not a remake of The Red Balloon; in the first few minutes, the short film is specifically referenced and explained. The red balloon has only a few cameo appearances, there is no mob of angry bullies, and in the end the young boy (Simon Iteanu) isn't whisked away to his imminent suicide. At the very most, Hou's film is a homage. The reflective, real-time film, with mesmerizingly slow scenes where nothing really happens yet emotions are evoked (in my favorite scene, a blind man tunes a piano--a toneless, non-melodic plucking that becomes its own atmospheric score--while the exhausted mother (Juliette Binoche) negotiates a divorce on the phone and Simon, talking to his sister about video games, tries to focus on the positive, with the long scene culminating in the mother drawing herself out of her anxiety to smile at her son, reminding him that she loves him--a scene in which possibly nothing or possibly everything happens all at once as the camera meanders around), is perhaps about a lot of possible things or perhaps about nothing at all. The same dichotomy between the purity of escapist imagination and the frustration of reality is present--here, the bleakness of reality is only a divorce, an obnoxious roommate, stress from work, and so forth (no torture or war crimes, for a change). What's important, though, is that even though the real world isn't always pretty, it's no cause for suicide. Unlike Lamorisse's unsupervised loner, Simon has a mother, a nanny, neighbors, and a sister who love him and care about him. He may be Pascal's spiritual descendant--a good kid who has inherited sadness--but he's not going to be chased through alleys or dangerously dangled miles above the Paris streets. And just knowing that is a powerful calmative.

Le balloon rouge
d/w: Albert Lamorisse
(Pascal Lamorisse)
TSPDT? #432

Crin-Blanc, Cheval Sauvage
d/w: Albert Lamorisse
(Alain Emery)

El Laberinto del Fauno
d/w: Guillermo del Toro
(Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú)
TSPDT? #739

El espíritu de la colmena
d/w: Victor Erice
(Ana Torrent, Teresa Gimpera)
TSPDT? #204

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi
d/w: Hayao Miyazaki
(Rumi Hîragi, Mari Natsuki)
TSPDT? #495

d/w: Henry Selick
(Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Keith David)

Where the Wild Things Are
d: Spike Jonze w: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers
(Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara)

Le voyage du balloon rouge
d: Hou Hsiao-Hsien w: Hao Hsiao-Hsien, François Margolin
(Simon Iteanu, Fang Song, Juliette Binoche)

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