Paul Schrader

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

The final fifteen minutes of Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips are among the most intense I have seen in any movie in years (particularly the final scene). Certainly, the whole 134 minutes—though it feels like 90 minutes or less—is intense. But its climax and catharsis are breathtaking. It left me feeling shaken, inspired, grieved, and shell shocked, with a distinct sense of "what just happened?!"

Flight of the Red Balloon

When I heard that a re-make of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic short, The Red Balloon, was in the works, I wondered: how could such a film (about a boy in Paris who spends a day with a seemingly sentient red balloon) work today? And when I heard that the updated version was a project commissioned by Paris’s Musee d’Orsay (to celebrate their 20th anniversary) and would be directed by acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (Three Times), my curiosity was piqued.

I saw the new version this weekend, and I was absolutely blown away. It surpassed all my expectations and quickly jumped to the second spot (behind Paranoid Park) on my best of 2008 list so far. The film is less a remake of Lamorisse’s Oscar-winning version than it is an homage. The original film was only 34 minutes in length and free of dialogue; the 2008 version is 130 minutes and only intermittently “about” a red balloon.

One thing that I am always a fan of is out-of-the-box adaptation. That is: a film that takes inspiration from something else in theme, tone, and perhaps style, but which becomes something undeniably new in the process. A great adaptation works within an aesthetic context and frame, but expands and personalizes it as well. Hou’s work here maintains an uncanny respect and fidelity to the original, and yet pushes it further in to the mystical and metaphorical—as well as the geocultural.

It is totally fitting that a film so thoroughly about Paris is realized, in 2008, by a Taiwanese artist with a decidedly eastern sensibility. The significance of this is at least twofold: first, because we live in a globalized world and Paris—as anyone who has been there in recent years can attest—is a thoroughly international city. Secondly, the subject upon which The Red Balloon meditated (childhood), is no longer a solely western concept. The ideal of childhood (as innocent, light, and fancy free—like a red balloon) is something the whole world can relate to.

In his envisioning of The Red Balloon, however, Hou mixes in some cold, hard reality. The film opens with seven-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) walking around Paris, and then riding a subway, with a curious red balloon following his every move. The literal adaptation pretty much ends here.

The rest of the film is also centered around Simon’s life, but the red balloon—which infrequently appears outside Simon’s bedroom window—is relegated to the fringes, to the spaces outside the frame. Instead, we get two hours of thoroughly compelling slice-of-life observance of Simon’s daily routine, along with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), his nanny Song (Song Fang), and various other characters who float in and out of the story.

The film is, in many respects, about the juxtaposition of child and adult life. Simon and Suzanne represent the two extremes, while Song seems to occupy a place somewhere in the middle. Song is a film student in Paris for school (from Taiwan originally), and her role as nanny is one of protecting Simon’s childhood innocence, while mediating between the various “adult” intrusions that invade the family’s spaces. Song is a quiet, almost passive presence, and seems to represent the perspective of Hou—an Asian “outsider” standing on the margins, offering the artistic filter and frame wherein we can observe this family.

Suzanne is the opposite of Song: she is as frazzled and vivacious as her out-of-control blonde hair. Every scene with Suzanne becomes a three-ring circus of intensified emotion, amped up rhythm, and chaotic conflict. Juliette Binoche shines in what I think is her best performance since Blue. She is utterly familiar as the “barely keeping it together” single mom—sometimes strong, sometimes undone, but always busying herself with something. She is a striking contrast to Simon (and Song, for that matter), who lives life at a leisurely pace, wowed by the little things (pinball, video games, statues in the park, paintings at the museum) and never too disturbed by the big ones.

Still, Simon’s childhood can’t help but be victimized by his chaotic surroundings. His parents are divorced, his stepsister (his closest friend) is in Belgium, and his mother is—on her good days—a basketcase. As such, the magic red balloon (which Hou employs as a poetic symbol and aesthetic device) is sadly marginal to Simon’s existence. It shows up more in mediated form (painted on a wall, captured on Song’s digital video camera) than in physical reality—an interesting statement on the hyper-mediation of contemporary youth.

Indeed, the film’s reflexive comments on art (seen mostly through the character of Song with her video shooting, or Suzanne’s job as a puppeteer) are quite interesting. There is a sense here that “childhood” is more of an aesthetic construction than physical reality—borne out of decades of children’s literature, fairy stories, puppet shows, etc… But the film is also highly concerned with the redeeming of physical reality as such. There is a child-like wonder to be found beneath the surfaces, materials, and cadences of existence, Hou seems to infer. His camera is intensely observant in the way that a young child is—focusing on the things that exist and the actions that are happening in front of his eyes. He is not concerned with abstraction or complexity, just observing the curious circumstances of daily life. And it makes for some truly gorgeous cinema.

There is something otherworldly about the mundane goings-on of this film—the everyday household activities and structures of normality that Hou’s camera is so captivated by. A good example of the sort of “entrancing everydayness” that this film captures is its recurring focus on a rather unimpressive domestic object: an old upright piano. For long stretches of time (usually unbroken shots), we find ourselves watching Simon receive a piano lesson, but then the camera is diverted to other movement in the room: a tenant cleaning up from a party the night before, Song watching in stately observance). We later see the piano being moved up the stairs to another apartment unit, and then another scene is devoted to its being tuned (by a charming blind tuner).

I don’t know that I can articulate the unexpected beauty of these scenes—which, like most in the film—serve no purpose for anything you might call “plot,” insofar as that even exists here. All I can do is say that the everyday, when as lovingly and observantly rendered as it is here, is certainly a site of transcendent beauty. Paul Schrader once wrote (in Transcendental Style in Film), that “transcendental artists” use the mundane representation of life to “prepare reality for the intrusion of the Transcendent.” The everyday, he wrote, “celebrates the bare threshold of existence, those banal occurrences which separate the living from the dead, the physical from the material, those occurrences which so many people equate with life itself.” When we are focused upon this root level of existence (and cinema—perhaps more than any other art—can focus us on everyday reality), we begin to see the beauty and mystery of life itself. The Flight of the Red Balloon uses this tactic to great effect. It is one of the alive films I have ever seen.

Stasis and Catharsis in Ten Contemporary Films

In Paul Schrader’s 1972 book, Transcendental Style in Film, the renowned filmmaker/theorist (with a Christian background… he attended Calvin College) outlined his theory for how transcendence is achieved stylistically in cinema. The ultimate embodiment of the transcendent, he thinks, is in something called stasis: “a frozen view of life which does not resolve the disparity but transcends it.” Stasis often occurs at the end of a film, and often in the final shot—when the conflict or “disparity” is not completely resolved, but “frozen” into stasis. “To the transcending mind,” Schrader writes, “man and nature may be perpetually locked in conflict, but they are paradoxically one and the same.”

This “Oneness” is a sort of resolution of the unresolved—an arrival at peace in spite of and because of a deep unsettledness within the soul. I think the concept has echoes of G.K. Chesterton’s notion of “divine discontent”—the idea that we should feel ill at ease with our human situation, and as such more aware of the divine other that will one day right every wrong. Discontent can be divine—and transcendent—when we view it as a sign of the perfect Source (God), apart from which all else is unresolved tension.

Thus, Schrader keenly points out (and I agree), that films exposing glimpses of the transcendent are often those that end on a note that is at once satisfying (catharsis) and whole (stasis), but also still in want. “The static view,” Schrader writes, represents a world “in which the spiritual and physical can coexist, still in tension and unresolved, but as part of a larger scheme in which all phenomena are more or less expressive of a larger reality—the Transcendent.”

Some examples Schrader uses to flesh out this idea include the final, lengthy shot of the vase at the end of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), or the shadow of the cross that becomes the final shot of Diary of a Country Priest (1950).

I’ve been thinking about current films (films of the last six or seven years) that Schrader might point to as pictures that exemplify stasis—that encapsulate a oneness or transcendence that leaves the viewer wholly affected and frozen in time. These are the films that, upon fading or cutting to black, leave you utterly breathless and emotionally (perhaps spiritually) wrecked. I’m not talking about tearjerkers or films that have shocking trick endings where everything changes in the final shot (don’t get me wrong, I love M. Night Shyamalan). I’m talking about films that leave you both devastated and satisfied, with a final image that is burned into your mind’s eye. Here are a few that are still burning in my mind (warning: spoiler city!):

A.I. (2001): The ending of this film was widely criticized by many for being both too drawn out and too sappy. But for me, it was the perfect, haunting ending to a film that remains remarkably affecting each time I watch it. It is devastating to witness Haley Joel Osment’s sentient little robot boy being forced to live for thousands of years without the human love from which he has come to derive his meaning. In the last scene, he gets to live one last day with his reincarnated mother, before they both cease to exist forever. I’m not sure what it is about this ending (perhaps the immense weight of time, mortality, and existence, which we are forced to consider), but as the camera pans back from the two going to “sleep,” something aches in the pit of my stomach.

Before Sunset (2004): Not all evocative, stasis endings have to be downers. In Richard Linklater’s marvelous Before Sunset (the sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise), the ending—while certainly not providing “Hollywood” closure—offers a breezy, life-affirming catharsis that is both ambiguous and perfectly settled. As Ethan Hawke sits on a couch in Julie Delpy’s Paris apartment, we watch as she playfully mimics a flirty Nina Simone. Then the scene just joyfully fades to black. I can’t recall a film that left me so wholly satisfied, despite not knowing exactly how the story ended up.

Capote (2005): Sometimes the stasis of a film is reinforced by some postscript that comes onscreen after the film’s final image. In Capote, an already wrenching final image (of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a plane, looking forlornly out a window) is enhanced by the words that follow as the screen goes black: “In Cold Blood made Truman Capote the most famous writer in America. He never finished another book. The epigraph he chose for his last, unfinished work reads: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’”

Children of Men (2006): In the case of Children of Men, the most affecting stasis comes from the aural denouement—the voices and sounds of children playing which bookend the film. As Kee and Theo drift out to sea, quietly and away from the chaos of the previous two hours, all appears lost. Theo is bleeding, and soon succumbs. Kee is alone with her newborn baby. Suddenly the rescue boat (“The Tomorrow”) appears, and our hopes are renewed. But instead of providing a full resolution, the images stop there. “CHILDREN OF MEN” flashes against a black screen, with the children’s laughter heard faintly in the background. It’s ambiguous. It’s disturbing. It’s uneasy peace.

L’Enfant (2006): Many of the films by Belgian directors the Dardenne Brothers contain endings in which some sort of cathartic resolution is achieved, but quickly halted (as in, the screen goes black in the middle of some intense, penultimate scene). This is the case in L’Enfant, a film about a man (Jeremy Renier) who does unspeakable things in order to make financial ends meet. The power of this film’s ending is in its juxtaposition to the emotional distance of everything preceding it. Not until the final few minutes does Renier—having been completely broken down—show any emotion at all. This scene provides a stunning catharsis, but very little resolution. And as the screen abruptly goes black, the unifying power of that final image is left for the awestruck viewer to mull over.

Lost In Translation (2003): Sofia Coppola really leaves us hanging at the end of this film. The two main characters (Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray) share an intimate few whispers as they say farewell, and we don’t have a clue what they say to each other! Oddly, though, this unanswered question gives the film’s somber ending a wonderful sense of uncertain hope. Maybe they’ll meet again, maybe not. One never knows with these sorts of evanescenent encounters. As the Jesus and Mary Chain song (“Just Like Honey”) plays over a montage of the empty streets of Tokyo at dawn, and the characters go their separate ways, a morning-after mix of bittersweet joy and existential ache abides. Another day. Life goes on.

The New World (2005): “Life goes on” is a good way to look at the theme of this amazing film from director Terrence Malick. In the film, Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) is put through the ringer, being relentlessly battered by love, change, regret, and ultimately death. Through it all, though, Malick reminds us of new life—of nature, and trees which grow always ever upwards, even when branches fall off. The final shot of the film, then, is a profound encapsulation of this theme. After a stunning closing montage (to the music of Wagner’s swelling Das Rheingold), the final shot looks upwards at a tree, stately and shining in the sunlight. The music stops, a single leaf falls to the ground, and the screen goes to black. Amazingly, the credits roll over silence (initially), which amplifies the meditation over stasis even more.

Nine Lives (2005): This little-seen, remarkably conceived film is really a collection of nine short films—each shot in solitary, 12 minute camera takes, and each with its own stasis ending. Each story is a snippet of one woman’s life, and as such we know neither where they’ve come from nor where they’re going. Because of top-notch writing, directing and acting, however, we invest in these characters enough to be jarred when their segment flashes to black and the next one begins. A couple of the episodes end on especially moving notes (the episode with Robin Wright Penn in a supermarket, for example), but the final one with Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning takes the stasis cake.

The Pianist (2002): The ending of this film is pure catharsis. After two and a half hours of death and horror, our protagonist (Adrian Brody) is finally redeemed, and over the end titles, he performs Chopin’s magnificent Grande Polonaise for piano & orchestra with the Warsaw Philharmonic in a concert hall. Like the beautiful music played throughout the film, it is both sad and triumphant—equal parts emotional release and spiritual requiem for lost beauty and innocence. Very few films’ end titles are so riveting that not a single audience member leaves for five+ minutes. But this was the case when I saw The Pianist.

United 93 (2006): This was the best film of 2006 for a number of reasons, not least of which is its incredibly intense climax and subsequent catharsis ending. After 100 minutes of heart-pumping, visceral filmmaking (the soundtrack is literally rhythmic heart-pumping) we are brought to final ten minutes—a stretch which affected me physically (as in, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat) more than any film I can remember. Then, when the plane finally crashes and the music reaches its haunting home chord, the chaos is silenced and a numb sense of shock and lamentation takes over. I found it hard to move in my chair during the credits.

These are just ten examples that I thought of off the top of my head, but doubtless there are many more. What films do you think of when you think about powerful stasis or catharsis endings?