Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Intimate May Wrap-Up

Intimate May was a month of quirky films. This is probably the natural result of my topic selection... "intimacy" is an abstract enough idea that it doesn't provide a very strong framework for discussing relationships. It's far less strong than my "Chromatic" month of films back in March, and in fact, it didn't even work as well as "Gritty" or "Renegade" in terms of unifying a space for discussion. Nonetheless, it resulted in another month of solid cinema, so it was a worthy critical exercise.

I was hoping to write more about animals in film, but I missed Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. The only wildlife-oriented film I saw this month was Watership Down, and it was a film built more around adventure and folklore than around the natural world per se. Interestingly, it was also the only "intimate" film that focused on the character of a community, rather than isolating an individual. This was a reversal of the standard gestalt of the intimate film: Billy the Kid, The Red Balloon, and Babies focused on their subjects by extracting them from their lifeworlds and only representing those worlds as a distant context, the negative space against which the individual is scrutinized.

By constructing a community out of its characters, and creating a strong narrative of travel and discovery, Watership Down did the opposite: it followed its subjects into the enigmatic English countryside, and thereby made this outside world seem endlessly deep, rather than shallow and provisional. This accounts for the beauty and strangeness of Watership Down, which, through its carefully-rendered rabbit adventurers, provides us with a glimpse into a complex and deeply-realized, fully spiritual, living natural world.

Children got a little more play this month. Three movies about children filled out the bulk of my Intimate May films, and they represented three different age groups: infancy in Babies, middle childhood in The Red Balloon, and adolescence in Billy the Kid. In these films -- two documentary in nature, one whimsically fictional -- you will see a commitment to looking inward, to examining expressions and gestures and moments of silence and repose. In all three cases, this inward gaze is part of a search for identity: first, on the part of the subjects themselves, and second, for the benefit of the audience members, who are personally invested in the formation of these young, malleable personalities.

Of all the children followed in these films, Pascal, the protagonist of The Red Balloon, seems the most universal... perhaps even to the point of lacking personality. He is a proxy for everyone's middle childhood, a curious, playful schoolboy who's turned a fascinating inanimate object into an imaginary friend. He occupies the world that we all lived in as children: a world where biology wasn't an obstacle to consciousness, and where the whole world was alive, and seemed to gravitate around us alone. He faces trials, but they don't change him or mold his personality, at least during his screen time; when the world becomes really difficult, he is delivered from it.

This mysterious deliverance relates directly to the universality of little Pascal's character. He doesn't represent an individual child so much as he represents childhood itself, a sort of perpetual, untouchable ideal of youth that all of us should recognize easily and inhabit occasionally. When he's threatened by another form of immaturity -- the selfish, undisciplined, barbaric type -- he can't suddenly become a strong, fully-formed adult. He simply needs to drift away from the fray, protected by the imaginary world he's created, and allowed to continue on as Pascal the eternal little boy.

In the wake of The Red Balloon, Billy the Kid is actually a more difficult movie to watch, because there is no deliverance, no denial, and no recourse to the Platonic ideal of childhood. Our unflinching looks into Billy Price's eyes always serve to remind us that he's insecure, struggling, and grappling directly with all the problems brought on by adolescence. The film is successful precisely because it's difficult to watch, and yet, it's bearable and endearing, a sort of testing ground for the survival of hope and idealism.

And unlike Pascal, Billy changes. You can almost feel the whips and spurs of the lessons he learns about love, success, and frustration, and by the end of the film -- a beautiful sequence taking place at Billy's chorus concert -- you can appreciate that he's a bit more conditioned, a bit more serious, and notably stronger and more aware of himself. Structurally, the concert is a perfect end-point to a film about a boy in flux: we see him from all angles, as a social participant when he's walking with a group of girls, as a solitary walker when he ascends the steps of an empty auditorium, and in all cases, as a purposeful, well-dressed teenager, as close to an adult as we'll see him in the course of the film.

In a sense, the "change" we see in Billy is a sort of resignation, an acknowledement that some dreams were never meant to come true in the first place: in the absence of triumph, it's an affirmation of survival, and hope for the future. That's what makes Billy's film sad in comparison to The Red Balloon; it's also what makes it a real saga, instead of a mere fable.

So if The Red Balloon was timeless, and Billy the Kid was a captured cross-section of the part of life called "adolescence" (a "duration," if you want to speak Bergsonian), what was Babies? Like Billy's story, it was a fragment of a life, bracketed by subjective landmarks (birth and first steps). However, within this bracketed space, Babies had no strong continuity... if there was any at all, it was undermined by the technique of showing four stories simultaneously. Thus, Babies spurned the obligation to represent a "process" and opted instead to provide an immersive experience, where we could see a world with new eyes and learn about it through our eyes and ears, removed as it was from the baggage of declared meaning.

After these films about children and animals, there remain two films from Intimate May about adults: Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, and Christopher Nolan's Following. In both of these films, intimacy takes on an entirely different purpose, signaling discomfort, even danger, as the characters draw face-to-face with things they don't understand.

Following and Nosferatu both start out focusing on characters who are simply too curious. Christopher Nolan's Young Man doesn't realize that by following people around his city, he is actually exposing himself, no matter how incognito he tries to be. By giving yourself over to a particular purpose so completely -- and by being nonchalant when his obsession starts to attract interest -- he invites manipulation by people who are simply better at his game than he is. Jonathan Harker's game is equally dangerous: he sets out with a mission on behalf of his firm, and in its pursuit (or, more likely, simply in arrogant pursuit of adventure) he ignores the warnings of man and nature and steps into the darkness. Not only is he enveloped by it... he also inadvertently invites it to return to the civilized world on his heels.

Our closeness with these characters -- the Young Man and Harker on one hand, and Cobb and the Count on the other -- allows us to see that intimacy doesn't always bring clarity. In fact, in getting closer to the villains of these stories, we continually discover greater depths and more complex mysteries. Indeed, the intimacy deepens the enigma. For Cobb, this is clearly intentional... he's just smart enough to always give away only what's useful. For Dracula, it's because understanding simply isn't possible. For whatever human part of him is expressed in his brooding soliloquies, there's another part that keeps us at a distance: the part of him that's a hopeless parasite, an agent of disease that's devouring itself. For every inch we're drawn in, we find ourselves further repelled.

It has been a complex month of movies. All of this month's films come highly recommended (I'm getting more lenient as I analyze more films). I wanted to list my favorites, but it's difficult, even here at the end... they're all such different films, with such different resonances. Whatever one you may decide to watch, come prepared to get very personal with a complex subject. This is a camera's dream: to look so closely at its subject that you can feel its breath on the lens.

I don't think I'm going to continue with the month-long themes... there are so many different, interesting movies coming out in June that I'd rather shorten my movie runs to two, three, or four at a time. Some of my forthcoming interests include creature horror (The Fly, George Romero... leading up to Splice); Spaghetti Western (I have a short list, just because I want to see them; or maybe inspired by the release of Red Dead Redemption); books based on Jim Thompson novels (leading up to The Killer Inside Me); and Terrence Malick films (I have reasons, but they're too random to try to record here). At any rate, stick with me... I'll continue with quality posts, even if I let go of my structure a little bit.

INTIMATE MAY Intimate Moments:

Nosferatu the Vampyre (Herzog, 1979) - Jonathan's fate is sealed
The Red Balloon (Lamorrisse, 1956) - Be a good balloon
Following (Nolan, 1998) - Someone else's stuff
Babies (Balmes, 2010) - Standing up is hard
Billy the Kid (Venditti, 2007) - I'll do whatever I want with my hair
Watership Down (Rosen, 1978) - Farewell to the old warren

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