Roving thoughts and provocations

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Groping in the Digital Dark

A young Jean-Yves in Michel Gondry’s Thorn of the Heart

In early September of 1909, while on vacation in northern Italy, Franz Kafka attended an airshow in Brescia. It was the first time he had seen airplanes in flight. In an essay, “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” he calls them “the machines.” When Louis Blériot—who had just become the first human to fly across the English Channel—takes his machine up into the Italian air, Kafka reports that, “Everyone gazes up at him enraptured, in no one’s heart is there room for anyone else.” Because this is, after all, Kafka, let’s call this the “Parable of the Machine”: as it enraptures, technology leaves us more alone.

I have been thinking of this parable in relation to the pace at which the film industry is loosing 3-D movies upon us. Over the course of the next year, nearly forty 3-D feature films are slated to appear in theaters. Some of these, like Stephen Spielberg’s Tintin (out in 2011), have been filmed with new high definition 3-D cameras like the ‘Fusion Camera System,’ used by James Cameron in “Avatar.” Others have been shot in conventional 2-D format and, via a process I can’t make heads or tails of, are being dummied up into films that can be projected in 3-D. As Manohla Dargis said in her review of the recently released “Clash of the Titans,” one such 2-D into 3-D release, “[it] segments the image into discrete planes, bringing to mind the unintegrated levels of a pop-up book.” Nonetheless, the idea is that advances in 3-D technology will make for a “more immersive” filmgoing experience, one that will leave us, in Kafka’s word, more “enraptured.”

And indeed, it is striking, perhaps even softly astonishing, in Avatar, to see a leaf, lit to vivid, virid transparency, hovering and quivering palpably before us as if within reach, a leaf that is not, despite what our brain is being told, there. One might say that such machined magic could bring us closer to our world (the ‘Fusion’ camera is also called the ‘Reality Camera System’). One can indeed imagine the thrill of such a camera mounted, say, on a glider and flown within a flock of real birds soaring above a real canyon. And yet, as so much mainstream Hollywood fare is pure escapism—genre films whose lack of resemblance to “real life” is their selling virtue—there is a curious tension in the advent of such technology: now that it can put escapist film environments all around us, we will increasingly become immersed in yet more powerful irreality.

As such, I felt extremely grateful, watching Michel Gondry’s new, and decidedly 2-D, L’Épine dans le coeur (Thorn in the Heart) that had its New York début at last month’s Rendez-vous with French Cinema, and will come out in L.A. on May 14. A documentary that explores the relationship between Gondry’s aunt, Suzette, and her son, Jean-Yves, Thorn in the Heart is the work of director who, for two decades, has been unstintingly innovative on a flat screen. There were his striking music videos for Björk and the White Stripes and dozens of other artists; his television commercials, many of which contain more ingenious filmmaking in thirty seconds than one might find in many feature films; and then his work as a feature filmmaker himself, first in the erratic comedy Human Nature, about a woman with hypertrichosis who decides to live in the wild, and then in the genuinely sublime Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Gondry managed to take the two most impossibly calcified genres—“Romantic Comedy” and “Jim Carrey”—and make of them a work of real poetry. More recently and more directly, Gondry’s Be Kind, Rewind, bore explicitly into the question of retrograde technology with its pell-mell paean to film’s handmade past on VHS tapes.

Thorn in the Heart is an entirely new sort of Gondry feature. A collage of Super 8 footage shot mostly in the 1970s by his cousin, the misanthropic Jean-Yves, and new digital footage shot by Gondry and his small crew, the film follows his aunt Suzette and her son through the French countryside of their present and past. At the center of their relationship is the death of Suzette’s husband, Jean-Yves’s father, an event over which widow and son have long been at odds. The film is a portrait of the pair and the gap that has opened between them through time, a gap Gondry measures with care, showing precisely how small it is, and yet how decisive such smallness can be.

The film is largely without obvious tricks, but like all Gondry’s work is composed with thought given to every inclusion, such that seemingly gratuitous effects—a toy train that winds its way between scenes—prove to be not twee touches but, in the end, essential features of the story’s small hoardings of emotion. Much of that emotion is an outgrowth of Suzette’s monologues, descriptions of the past that Gondry goads her into giving as she stands in front of the schools where she was a teacher, or with her former students who are now mothers themselves.

The small magic of the movie is one of character and its excavation, the presentation of lives that possess all the multi-dimensional reality we seem to be seeking in the digital dark.

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