There’s a moment near the beginning of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s 2007 movie, Flight of the Red Balloon, when a middle-aged woman wearing a white coat, gold scarf, and carrying a brown purse finds herself in the middle of the shot. She is, apparently, neither cast nor crew. Curious, she pauses for a second at the street corner, looks directly at the camera, turns her head back toward the actors, then hurries on. Her gaze cuts through the lens, through the film—it could be directed at any “you” seated in the theater or otherwise happily propped up in bed. But if you didn’t know to look for her, you might not catch her. I only noticed her the second time around.

There are a few more such moments in the movie. A second woman with red hair down to her waist, wearing a pink and mauve sweater, walks through the shot. Her gaze lasts only a second. Although I do not know enough about the history of film to say whether these shots have their echoes elsewhere, I can say with some certainty that in this particular film the quiet shock of an unexpected gaze is enough to jolt you out of whatever experience you were having.

What fascinates me is this: Hou could have filtered these interruptions out. He could have requested that the Paris police block off the streets. He could have cordoned off his art. But in allowing these women to walk across the scene, in inviting them or anyone else, really, to interrupt the shot, Hou calls the viewer’s attention to the fact that his film, which is obsessed with the parallel play of disparate worlds (a child’s and an adult’s), is not life. It’s an almost Brechtian move, as if someone were holding up a placard reminding us that the world of the film is not the world, that realism is not reality, even as it intersects with it—even as it is resolutely, unflinchingly real. Two worlds occupy the same space concurrently, and what we witness in the “trespassing” women is the allowance for that difference. At any given moment we are both inside of, and removed from, the world.

In September of 2007, I was assaulted by three men as I walked home from dinner. My nose and cheekbone were badly broken, and I had a long gash in my forehead from the brass knuckles one of the assailants was presumably wearing. It would require plastic surgery in the weeks that followed to fully fix my face (from the Latin facia, meaning form), but as the doctors in the emergency room manually adjusted my nose to a temporarily more functional state, I told them I had been broken open, and for that I wanted to thank the men who attacked me. They must have thought I was delirious, but I meant what I said. And I wondered how to hold on to that feeling. How not to close down to the world once more.

I had this sense: that my life as a writer had been a kind of lie. Or, to paraphrase my friend, the poet Amy Wright, I had been paying attention to the wrong things, or to the right things but in the wrong way.

I had been living in a world, but which world?

The writer Jean Améry suggests that once we experience reality as a physical confrontation, as violence, we can never be the same. The violated body remains violated; pain is a stain that cannot be washed out.

In violence, the idealizing of reality ceases, only to be replaced by something more abject, more frightening. Whereas “everyday reality is nothing but codified abstraction,” there are moments, although a life may go by with none or very few of them, when “we truly stand face to face with the event and, with it, reality.” We experience these moments, Améry says, as violence, and it is violent acts that most frequently precipitate them: when struck by a fist out of the blue, “against which there can be no defense and which no helping hand will ward off, a part of our life ends and it can never again be revived.”

As a writer, one must also contend with the fact that, as Alphonso Lingis writes, communication is “a continuation of violence, but with other means.” “In the dialectical cadence of communication,” says Lingis, there is “an interval in which each makes himself other than the other, when one sees each one speaking in order to establish the rightness of what he says”; but “to speak in order to establish one’s own rightness is to speak in order to silence the other.” In so speaking, the speaker silences himself. In becoming other than the other, there is no self and thus no relation. There is in fact no speaker, no speech, and no ethics.

What, then, is ethical speech?

In the original version of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short film, Le Ballon Rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon), a young boy follows (and is followed by) a red balloon through the streets of Paris. We watch the balloon move along sidewalks, through windows and doors; it crosses over walls and roofs. At one point, it waits for the boy outside of his school.

In Hou Hsiao Hsien’s version, too, an animate balloon enters the life of the small boy in the film, who, in the opening shot, stands outside a Metro station looking up at an unreachable red balloon caught in a tree. The boy, Simon, begs the balloon to come with him; he offers it a hundred candies, two million caramels, but the balloon does not appear to be listening. Until, that is, it starts following the path of the Metro train on which Simon is riding; later, it tries to push its way through the window of the small apartment he shares with his mother. His Taiwanese nanny, Song, is making a film about red balloons, and in the final scene of the movie, while Simon’s teacher discusses Félix Vallotton’s 1899 painting, Le Ballon, a red balloon appears in the skylight above the gallery in the Musée D’Orsay. As the children continue to discuss the painting, the balloon appears in one or another of the windows; the camera then cuts to a shot of it floating impassively over the famous rooftops of Paris. The movie ends.

In the painting, a young child in a hat runs after a red balloon drifting along in the sunlight; in the distance, two adults—the child’s parents, perhaps—are conversing. They are ensconced in deep shadows cast by tall trees, and their posture suggests an indifference to the child playing in the foreground. These same shadows seem to grasp at the child, who, as though sensing the danger of a darkening world, barely escapes their clutches as he moves in the direction of the balloon.

Classically speaking, ethics is the “science of morals,” the system by which the moral value of a particular action can be weighed. But for Emmanuel Levinas, ethics can never be a system per se, because it consists of relationships. It depends upon movement. The thesis shifts, the topic changes, the syntax twists, and one “faces” each face one encounters—a person, a problem, a painting. In this light, ethics “means” that, as one moves through the world and in relation to the people within it, one does so afresh, without baggage.

Ethics becomes a matter of unhinging the process from the processed, a matter of arguing, not argument. A de-facing of the face.

So that if there is a kind of stillness that kills, and if, in the months before I was assaulted, such a stillness crept in me (for stillness is a thing that creeps), the alteration of my physical face precipitated the uncovering of an ethical one—which is both my physical face and an un-faceable form.

What you might call a defaced face.

In order for me to speak in such a way that disavows violence (or that mitigates the violence inherent in speech), I must place my body, through my words, in your hands.

“Not truth,” writes Oppen, “but each other.”

And yet from Descartes’ time to the present, the self, rather than being seen as originating co-dependently with the world, thinks itself into being.

Hamlet’s problem is our own: being or nothingness. Ontology. Our more recent questions about absence and presence (the difference between the chair I speak of and the one I sit on) are perhaps extensions of the same. But coincident with our being in the world is our interruption of its continuity, or its interruption of ours. Something precedes ontology, but what?

Is to write to launch a red balloon? Can this essay fill, as though with helium, and lift the words above the fray, where they may freely float, indifferent to the world below? Should we set our words, like aeronauts, inside balloons, or does the lightness of their passage, in a world both violated and violating, betray an impossible position?

So I break off the ends of my thought, defer my theses—or maybe they have never been anything more than motivating principles that, like the decussating paths of birds in flight, approach one another from time to time only to diverge once more.

My propositions: errant balloons pushed along by the wind.

For Levinas the question is not whether being is, but how it justifies itself—and in relation to whom or to what. If he’s right, then another question lurks behind the work of art: how does it justify its existence in relation to the spaces it inhabits and the persons with whom it interacts? How does writing—no, how does a writer uncover himself? How does he reveal his face?

Interruption, writes Levinas, is a way to guarantee what Oppen wants: not truth, but each other—that the other sees our face and we theirs. It is a way to keep what we are saying from freezing, from solidifying, from standing still. Inasmuch as ethics involves the “risky uncovering of oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and the abandon of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability,” interruption is an ethical tool.

And so the physical interruption of the woman walking through the shot at the beginning of Flight of the Red Balloon is also metaphysical. One sees her actual face, but below it one discerns another face: a different, albeit overlapping, reality pauses and turns its head our way.

Two friends have a conversation in a café—a child interjects. Or, in the middle of the play, an intermission. In the middle of the show, a commercial. Even the eye interrupts itself: to see an object properly the eyes turn away from it, only to turn back to it again. An image requires its interruption.

In each instance, there is a breaking through, or between: the rupture of one plane of reality by another.

The mother and son at the center of Flight of the Red Balloon move through their scenes separated by an almost tangible veil of mutual incomprehension. They ask each other in turn, “Are you okay?” little knowing what that might mean for one another. The child, who wears a Brechtian placard on his t-shirt (“I change the world”) occupies a reality fully removed from that of his mother, the hectic pace of whose life would be unnerving were it not for the quiet, playful spaces the son carves out around her. And yet these two realities coexist: the world of the mother, who happens to be a puppeteer, and the world of the child, in which everything is potentially a puppet—that is, a realism conceived of in play.

The film’s unrelenting melancholy consists in the fact that the child will lose his childhood, which he may later try to regain—perhaps, like his mother, through art. Again, Hou suggests it is the tension between our real and imagined worlds—between the “real” trees and the darkened copies of them—that animates both. Art is not life, nor life art, though each must allow for the other, must provide a space in which to embrace mundane and even violent interruptions. A fist. A balloon. A woman who pauses before the camera, stares, then quickly hurries away.

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