Thursday, December 20, 2012

New York and Toronto DIY Filmmakers (+ review of THE BLACK BALLOON)

The French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma recently dedicated a special issue to what they described as a new generation of New York do it yourself filmmakers (N.670), which included Ronald Bronstein (Frownland), the Safdie brothers, Ramin Bahrani, the guys from Borderline Films, Marie Losier (The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye), Konstantin Bojanov (Avé), Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel), and Zbigniew Bzymek. The magazines editor Stéphane Delorme and Nicholas Elliot highlight that even though these films “don’t resemble one another” that they are all “made in New York and have a home-made quality to them, as they are made in their filmmaker's homes, on the streets, with the filmmaker's own money or that of friends or with the help of the Internet.” The filmmakers all have different interest and come from different backgrounds and nationalities, which reflects the city’s diversity.

One thing that I find to be interesting about this group of young and up-and-coming filmmakers is that they provide a conceptual model for urban entrepreneurial filmmaking to happen elsewhere, and there seems to be a new generation of filmmakers emerging here in Toronto that seems to be following in this path. Who are these new up-and-coming filmmakers in Toronto? There is Kazik Radwanski (Tower), Antoine Bourges (East Hastings Pharmacy), Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis (Amy George), Igor Drljaca (Krivina), Simon Ennis (Lunarcy!), and Blake Williams (Many a Swan). They are all young filmmakers whose films reflect something exciting going on in the city and, for the majority of them, have only completed a few short-films and perhaps one full-length feature.

The two particular films that are under this Bronstein-Safdie influence are Tower and Amy George. Just like the protagonist from the New York films, these two films have a protagonist that wander around their respective neighborhoods trying to reach out to others to have meaningful connections but instead those desires always seem to be thwarted. What makes Tower and Amy George different than the American films is their Canadian spirit and more precisely a local sensibility. In Tower, Derek is pursuing his animation career, living in his parent’s basement, working construction, and starting a relationship. While in Amy George, the teenager Jesse is trying to have a normal life, get along with his parents, connect with a girl that he likes, and finish a photography project.

This group of emerging Toronto do it yourself filmmakers are still early on in their careers and if this early work shows this much promise, who knows what they will eventually create? Radwanski’s film Tower is scheduled for a February 22nd theatrical release at the Royal. While the Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis new project The Oxbow Cure is an important film to look out for in the New Year. Even though the filmmakers in Toronto may look at the ones in New York as a model, what they are doing is different and speaks more strongly to a local culture. It is just a matter of time before you hear more about them…


After the great Daddy Longlegs, and alongside their ongoing Red Bucket Films projects and what appears to be a small gallery space the Museum, Josh and Benny Safdie return to filmmaking with the short film The Black Balloon (Spade Films), which is now available to be screened online at the film-viewing and start-up website, Seed & Spark. The Black Balloon is the story of a balloon that wanders around New York that “learns that humans are complicated creatures with extreme highs and lows, but full of life nonetheless.”

The Black Balloon begins with a stressful man trying to manage a class of students through the busy streets of New York, while holding a bouquet of balloons. This is a similar character to that of Lenny from Daddy Longlegs as in trying to take care of these kids there are many other things that are distracting him, making the task more difficult. The bouquet of balloons that he’s holding from theor white strings are impressive: there are red ones, pink ones, white ones, green ones, blue ones, yellow ones, and purple ones. Together they make a pretty sight. All of the kids, who are being looked after by this single parent supervisor, stare up towards the balloons in amazement. But as the man is helping the kids cross the street, he inevitably accidentally lets go of all of the balloons, and they go flying off into the sky. One balloon flies higher than the rest of them and this is going to be the one that the story will focus on: the black balloon, of the film's title. 

The Black Balloon is similar to Donald Barthelme'a short-story The Balloon (which, on a side-note, was also a big inspiration for David Foster Wallace), of a balloon that unexplainably starts floating over New York City, but which also represents an extension of one of its character unease over a partner that he’s missing. If for Barthelme the balloon is an imaginative object to represent this lost thing then what does the black balloon represent for the Safdies? The blackness of the balloon is the same color of a blank, black cinema screen. The balloon is going to join people in moments of crisis and create empathy for their plight. This is like cinema itself. The black balloon represents something that watches people in time of need as well as something that comforts, encourages and helps. It is this use of the balloon as a metaphor for the potential of cinema that makes The Black Balloon so beautiful and complex.

The black balloon gets stuck in a tree and then gets picked up and thrown into a garbage truck, which brings it to a garbage dump. The balloon makes its escape from there and floats back, through snow, to return to Manhattan. There it wades through the busy, crowded street until you hear, “Ratso, keep your chin up!” This guy, who turns out to be a big schleppy long-haired man who speaks in a strong Jewish accent and is wearing a bright yellow jacket, turns out to be a television producer who has been recently fired for making an inappropriate joke about the American President, and is waiting for an old colleague who he chats with during her lunch-break as she gets a hot dog from a street vendor, and who he is trying to get to let him back into the company’s office. She says no, and then the balloon joins him. It’s strange how the balloon starts following him, and at first he’s in shock (“Where are the cameras?!”), but eventually they start to get along. Ratso, to no one’s surprise, is a hustler and uses his new friend to steal a dress from a high-scale fashion boutique to use as a gift to re-friend his colleague. When he gives it to her, she notices that it’s stolen and refuses it and walks away. And so does the balloon.

It worth commenting upon the episodic nature of The Black Balloon and how in between each encounter the balloon is free-floating around and engaging with the locals. The music in the film is by Gong and the synthesizers with their futuristic sounds give these temps mort scenes a dreamy quality. The next stop for the balloon is in a park to watch-over a little girl. At first the little girl is upset because her mother is not paying attention to her but instead to the new man in her life. The mother is always sending the little girl away, either to look at or get something, while she uses the opportunity to kiss the man that she’s now with. There is a Sofia Coppola quality to these scenes in capturing of the young girl’s boredom and frustration. The girl plays with the balloon for a while and it circles around her, but she tries to pop it with a stick, and that is when it narrowly escapes.

The next stop for the black balloon is with a poor middle-eastern man who uses the balloon as an excuse to visit his son and show it to him. Except that his son, Moustafa, is busy at work and it turns out that the man only went to hit him up for free food. He then asks the balloon to go and to leave him alone. The balloon drifts throughout the night and the following day the balloon returns to a NYC Balloon truck and decides to rescue all of the other balloons that are stuck in there. The black balloon hits the back window of the truck several times so that it shatters and all of the other balloons that are in it escape and fly out and are free. This is where the films open aired cinematography by Sean Price Williams can be really appreaciated as the colorful dots dance around the blue sky. And with this beautiful conclusion The Black Balloon is a great addition to the balloon film genre alongside Albert Lamorisse’s Le ballon rouge (1956), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) and Peter Docter’s Up (2009).


Unknown said...

Very good article, well done. I'm a DIY Toronto filmmaker myself putting the finishing touches on my first film now so it was nice to read about other young filmmakers in the city doing the same thing, I'll definatly be checking out their work thanks to this article. If you like, check out my preview on youtube, search Hayter Street preview and I hope you enjoy it.

David D. said...

I'll definitively check it out. Good luck with everything, Andrew!

Unknown said...

Thank you and ill hollar when the films done