Sunday, May 26, 2013

Riding the bus

Michel Gondry’s film The We and the I is set almost entirely on a New York bus, mostly populated by teenagers heading home after the last day of school before the summer: the bus starts off full to overflowing, and ends up virtually empty. Early on it’s mostly full of goofing around as the kids feed off each other; as it goes on, and the collective energy gets diluted, more serious issues and preoccupations come to the form. Since the movie is set in the present day, everyone has a cellphone, so that verbal and behavioural connections are constantly reinforced with electronic ones (in this environment, when someone doesn’t instantly receive the latest video in circulation, it can only be a conscious act of exclusion). Beyond providing glimpses of what they’re looking at, Gondry expands the filmic universe only sparingly, through brief low-tech visualizations of various fantasies and experiences, reminiscent of similar arts-and-crafts devices he used in his films The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind.

The We and the I

Gondry’s original conception of the film was quite vague and unfinished; he fleshed it out by working with real kids in an after-school Bronx program, so that much of what’s in there represents the participants’ own language and experiences. It must be taken in part then as an anthropological exercise, intended to capture something real and current and pressing about their lives and times. In this regard, much as you’d expect, the movie confirms some old impressions while asserting some newer ones. If, like me, you don’t spend that much time around teenagers, it’s easy to forget how sharply eloquent and inventive they are, and of course, how the dynamics of the group may punish those who can’t keep up, or otherwise fail to define their own space. Much of the conversation is a form of testing and positioning, of establishing who knows what and where it gets them. That aside, although the film is of course in large part a celebration, large elements of it might be assessed as fairly horrific. I don’t just mean the specific evocation of youthful death toward the end, but the low- and not-so-low-level harassment, invasion of personal space and property damage that seems on this evidence to be an inescapable part of their regular discourse.

Even more than for many new releases, it’s hard to see the logic of having this film open on one screen at the TIFF Lightbox in the same week as many other movies, with no particular fanfare or context: it’s overwhelmingly the kind of thing that one might take or leave, or at best leave for cable or DVD (when I went, there were fewer than ten people in the audience). This is the emblematic film which, if it has any hope of causing a ripple, can only do so as part of a broader conversation. Personally, I wouldn’t have had as good a time if the place had been full of boisterous Toronto teenagers, targeted into using the film as a springboard for active dialogue about their own lives, but it would have made more sense as a strategy for the film. To treat something like The We and the I as a regular filmgoing experience, presented for the sober engagement of regular cinephiles, runs the severe risk of denying the immediacy of what it represents.

Broader intentions

That’s not to say Gondry doesn’t have broader aesthetic intentions. In an interview he described how he had the original idea “about a more upper-class area in Paris, when I took the bus 20 years ago, and when the kids came out of school they were really shallow and aggressive. They would leave the bus one after the other, the group was getting smaller and the group would get more philosophical, personal.” That basic structure and shift is prominent in The We and the I, and although it seems valid as an exercise in group dynamics, Gondry makes the closing stretch much more philosophical and personal than what preceded it, using the “last day before summer” conceit to tease out various strands that one imagines might not be as pressing on a  regular day (for the riders at the end of the line, by the way, one can’t help thinking that there must be a closer school available – the film lasts over an hour and a half and conveys the sense of proceeding more or less in real time – but maybe that only tells you how little I appreciate the grind that a lot of kids have to put up with). It’s not that the material is implausible, but that it’s plainly compressed, and although that’s inevitable in any such project, one wonders here if it has the effect of romanticizing the milieu. But maybe that’s the whole point, to assert that this place and time, and these kids, support a whole range of emotional and thematic possibility, and of creative force (one kid makes a habit out of spinning engaging tall tales about his glamorous life, which Gondry visualizes in his trademark manner).

For another kind of example: at one point, the bus goes past a woman on a bike, her summer dress blowing, looking as serene as if she were traveling through a French meadow rather than the Bronx, and they all seem to catch their breaths at the unexpected loveliness, until one of them makes a vulgar remark and the moment’s gone. It’s a striking episode, and rather complicated: it taps into the universal longing for transcendent experiences, however fleeting; at the same time, it’s impossible not to register that this is virtually (and perhaps literally, I can’t quite remember) the only white woman in the whole film. The film would be poorer without this brief passage, and yet one wonders whether it’s a passage that belongs mainly to the “we” of the kids, or to the “I” of the director.

Beyond the bus route

On the other hand, if this imaginary group discussion I was visualizing taking place around the film was ultimately going to be worth anything, it would have to carry an aspirational quality – not that such communities should be ashamed or should focus on their own limitations, but it can’t be enough to say life goes no further than the bus route. The film has several students who are interested in art and others whose sensibilities appear a little broader; including the accomplished fantasist I mentioned. By its very existence, the film embodies the possibility of connection and crossing boundaries – Gondry is French after all, and his next project is a French-language drama with Audrey Tautou, which might seem as far removed from here as humanly possible. If the film were just about a bus ride through the Bronx, it might be hard to care that much, no matter what our sociological interests. But it’s a bigger journey than that.

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