Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Red Balloon (1956) - A Film Where Magic Realism Exists

The Red Balloon (1956) Albert Lamorisse
The Red Balloon is a meditation on innocence and what it means to be a child.  It’s a visual poem in film, thirty-four minutes in length directed by master, french film director Albert Lamorisse.  In a poetic narrative, a little boy named Pascal finds a red balloon tangled up on a street lamp in the Parisian neighborhood of Ménilmontant.  

The classic buildings, the windows, the shops and the busy day embark on a gray melancholic tonality until Pascal, while walking along the sidewalks on his way to school discovers a big, bright, red balloon flailing in the wind while silently calling him to rescue it from the entanglement.  Color is a major protagonist as the red balloon breaks the monochrome ambience and it brings a wonderful warm smile to Pascal.

Pascal is delighted with his new found toy and continues his walk to reach school on time.  But when Pascal is rejected from riding the city trolley, he has no choice than to go by walk and face scoldings for being late.  Pascal continues on his way running even faster to school and the red balloon develops affection for the boy and sympathizes for having missed the trolley ride.  Slowly, Pascal understands that the inanimate balloon has a personality and life of it’s own and is filled with tender innocence just like a child.      

The story of the film is very simple.   Every child enjoys playing with balloons and when Pascal sees the balloon, he is thrilled to have found something that could now belong to him.  In return, the red balloon may have finally found a special friend full of life as the way innocent children are, and they both connect like magic making the inanimate object come to life.  Balloons are for children, and children are for balloons - they’re symbols of joy.    
The Red Balloon (1956) Albert Lamorisse

The aesthetic of the film is meticulously well composed with an important role played by the protagonist and the red balloon itself.  The camera is placed to tell the story from the child’s height with the red balloon following him along the streets.  Deep depth of field and soft grays compose most of the scenes with a burst of bright color coming from the balloon until almost the very end of the film, when a parade of balloons produce a rainbow explosion of colors. 

When Pascal arrives to school, he has to leave the balloon in the care of the groundskeeper.  But the balloon being very mischievous, will not stand for that, so he flies into Pascal’s classroom thru a window, causing havoc and excitement in all the children.  The schoolmaster, having a strong sense of order, dismisses Pascal from the classroom and takes him to the room for the punished to spend several hours in isolation.  The balloon, Pascal’s new friend, ventures out into the street in search for “help” to rescue Pascal out of the isolation room.  Even though the balloon can’t talk, we can affirm that it has a pure affinity towards Pascal. 

When the school day is finally over, Pascal is taken out of the isolation room and he is reunited with his red balloon.  The balloon follows Pascal thru the streets of Paris and they joyfully play games of hide and seek until they come across a gang of children whom are fascinated by the big, red balloon and decide to take the balloon from Pascal.  The red balloon makes us forget reality and we are reminded of our own childhoods.  We feel pain for what may happen to the balloon in the hands of the mischievous gang of children.  The solidarity and bond is evident between Pascal and the balloon in a world with hardly any dialogue.  The skillful use of orchestrated music captures the emotions and the spirit of the child, and the sentiment of the balloon in their attempt to get away from the gang of ill intended kids.  In a surprising moment, the gang manages to grab the balloon and “stone it to death” rendering the balloon lifeless on the ground.  Pascal, surrounded by the monstrous bullies is left to whimper over his lifeless, deflated balloon when suddenly a boy is seen stomping the rest of the air out of the balloon, as if the last stomp will take the last breath away.    

Magic realism exists in this beautiful story in a quiet yet big way.  In a transcendent moment, first one balloon appears, then another, and another, it’s a parade of colorful balloons splashing the screen with excitement in solidarity to Pascal, whom truly recognizes that balloons are joyful beings.  They come from everywhere in response to the terrible tragedy of the red balloon and to become the new friends of Pascal.  This is the scene of triumph, in which Pascal takes the strings of the balloons and is lifted up into the air by all the playful, colorful balloons of Paris.  
Boy With Red Balloon
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

In this classic inspirational film, I can’t help but become nostalgic of my own childhood, buying a balloon from a street vendor and running thru the streets with the wind.  I came across the film in my film studies as an adult, but it nonetheless stirred a feeling of warmth and appreciation for all days gone by.  Ever since I discovered this little gem film, I watch it every now and then and expose as many children to it as possible.  The glorious message, even though there is tragedy, comes out triumphant and it is eloquently expressed without words, they’re not needed, it’s an unspoken understanding.  

It’s heartwarming to travel the streets of Paris and become friends with Pascal as viewers.  It’s a children’s world, one that we’ve all lived.  A world where perhaps we may have also have had to face bullies, or were punished for doing something mischievous.  A world where we can all appreciate life's innocent pleasures and enjoy watching a sweet, innocent child play with a balloon.  The Red Balloon is filled with enchanting, nostalgic images and they very well translate into our hearts like a love letter.

Albert Lamorisse is celebrated for the Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge,1956), as well as for White Mane (Le Crin Blanc, 1953), another one of my favorite french, classic films.  The Red Balloon garnered the Palme d’Or Grand Prize at the Canne Film Festival and an Oscar for writing the Best Original Screenplay in 1956.  Sadly, while filming The Lover’s Wind, in Tehran in 1970, while being up in the clouds like in his film The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse's helicopter crashed claiming the talented auteur's life; he was 48.  

by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Cocktail - Flor de Jamaica or Hibiscus

Cocktail - Flor de Jamaica or Hibiscus
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
We love cocktails!  A lot can be said about why we drink them, how the potions became popular all over the world and how they make us feel  when we enjoy them.  We can all remember stories and memories of special occasions with cocktails.  They seem to transport us to exotic islands or romantic cities.  A carefully crafted cocktail can take us on a time travel and make an evening seem more festive.  Even a hot summer afternoon can be lowered a few degrees or a chilly night can warm our souls with a sweet or savory cocktail.   

What is it about the cocktail that even awakens passion in us?  As we mix a drink, the alchemy of a cocktail happens instantly, right in front of  our own eyes.  The alchemy of a wine takes years before it becomes the wonderful drink.  Cocktail alchemy is magic to be experienced first hand.  There is a story about famous american writer H.L. Mencken, whom loved cocktails and was popular for his cultural criticism and writings.  As he was a man of ideas, he decided to invite a mathematician to a popular (and secret) watering hole or speakeasy, keep in mind this was in the 1930’s during the prohibition era in the United States, and so he asked the mathematician to calculate all the possibilities.  The mathematician came up with an equation that calculated the number of possible combinations of cocktails and came up with 17 million.  I believe that number falls short.. The possibilities are endless!

The flamboyance of cocktails are the design of mixologists just as food recipes are the design of chefs.  Here I present you a very popular latin flavor often served in the afternoons: flor de jamaica or hibiscus.  In Mexico especially, aguas frescas are sold by street vendors and flor de jamaica is one of the most popular flavors.  

Jamaica or hibiscus is a flower and when dried it is used to make tea infusions or flavorings for sauces or salsas.  The dried flowers have a tart, cranberry- like flavor and they contain vitamin C and minerals.  Traditionally the flowers have been used as medicine so imagine a cocktail that not only will help detoxify but supply vitamin C and cure ailments… That’s my kind of medicine!  
Hibiscus Rum Infusion
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Cocktail Flor de Jamaica or Hibiscus Cocktail


For the Infusion (make the night before):

6-8 oz of White Rum
2 cups of Water
3-4 tablespoons Hibiscus Flowers or about a small handful

Mix all infusion ingredients and pour in a glass container and cover.  Keep refrigerated overnight.  

For the Cocktail:

10-15 Mint Leaves
3 oz of Orange Liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Triple Sec 
1/2 cup of fresh squeezed orange juice
4-6 teaspoons of simple syrup or to taste
Slices of oranges and orange twist for garnish
Sugar & crushed Dried Chile (to rim glasses)


For this cocktail it’s best to use short glasses.  Coat the rim of the glasses with a bit of lime or orange.  Next roll the glasses in sugar and follow with a coating of crushed dried chile.  Set them aside.  In a cocktail mixer, muddle the mint leaves along with the orange juice.  Fill the cocktail shaker with ice.  Pour the rum infusion and shake vigorously.  Fill the glasses with ice.  Pour the mixture into the glasses and garnish with the orange twist and pieces of orange.  It makes at least two good servings.  Enjoy!