The Black Balloon, a whimsical short by the acclaimed brotherly directorial duo Joshua and Ben Safdie, follows the titular inflated spheroid through a series of New York City neighborhoods as it passes through the hands of several hapless Manhattanites in various states of hopeless misunderstandings with others. Clearly a nod to Albert Lamorisse’s immortal French short, The Red Balloon, as well as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s own homage to same, The Flight of the Red Balloon, it’s also a love letter to New York City and the legions of residents just getting by from moment to moment, sidewalk to sidewalk. The Safdies are clearly disciples of the ultimate chronicler of New York getters-by, John Cassavetes, invoking his films’ live-wire interpersonal intimacy in many scenes. (One character named Ratso is also a reference to Dustin Hoffman’s role in Midnight Cowboy, as if he’d survived his tubercular ordeal in that film to become a pudgy, lovably middle-aged putz).
Watching the film, one can’t help but feel that New York City is as much of a character as the floating piece of rubber that gets top billing. Maybe it’s just that the film made me miss my home of ten years, but I could not resist playing a side game of trying to identify the location of every scene, looking to Google Maps wherever my memory failed me (it helped that a good half of the film takes place in Midtown, where I held an office job for most of my New York existence). It didn’t take long before I started wondering if I could reconstruct the film entirely through Google Maps, which led to this video.
Aside from this being an incredibly fun exercise, this mapping video also points out the relationship between movies and the places their production inhabits. (This happens to be something that’s on my mind these days, as I’m currently working on a project investigating the production of a Hollywood blockbuster in my current home city of Chicago.) Paying close attention to where a film is shot, one notices how elements of place shape the story. (Hal Hartley’s Meanwhile, one of the best NYC films in recent memory, illustrates this brilliantly). The entity agnes b., a high-end couture retailer, is one of the presenters of The Black Balloon via its Love Streams label; not coincidentally, its Soho flagship is used as a shooting location (leading to a rather far-fetched plot point, which the video illustrates). Conversely, a dumpsite in the film goes unnamed, which leads one to wonder if it had been filmed without permission. Too bad, as it would have been instructive to know where New York City’s trash gets hauled to—it’s a side of life that the movies brush under the carpet all too readily, even though the accumulation of waste is a reality more pressing than ever.
These days, I’m more interested in how reality pokes its head through the fabric of movie fantasy, in ways that make these movies more interesting than they might be otherwise. The realm of fiction and escapism is what we compulsively cloak ourselves in as we make our way through life, and most typically through a series of screens—movie, television, computer, mobile device. It’s gotten to the point that to actually see moments where rays of reality peek through these flatscreen facades creates a sensation as stimulating as any fiction.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. He tweets as alsolikelife.