BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 21, 2003
The statistics are staggering. Winged Migration, a French documentary about birds in flight, took four years to make. It employed, as it proceeded, a total crew of four hundred fifty. It was shot in a global variety of places-or over them, rather-to capture the four principal migration routes: those used by North American birds, European and Asian birds, Asian birds, and Southeast Asian birds. Needed for the cinematography were gliders and model gliders, helicopters and model ones, light motorized aircraft, and balloons. More than fifty species of birds were followed, usually on their southward autumn flights but also heading northward in the spring.
The statistics matter because the resulting ninety-minute film is lovely and astonishing. Everyone who has ever seen a migrating flock of birds, of any kind, has wondered at least for a moment about them. Some information is given to us painlessly by a narrator—for instance, the long-distance champions seem to be the waders that migrate 6,200 miles twice a year from the Arctic Circle to Africa and back. But this film clarifies—dramatizes—an obvious yet marvelous fact: while we trudge along, wherever we are, thousands and thousands of other creatures are weaving away at invisible patterns of flight over our heads. What is astonishing is the patterns. And it is lovely because, from Icarus on, at least an iota in every one of us has longed, however briefly, to fly. Aircraft, even gliders, are not the same thing.
The director-writer-producer was Jacques Perrin, the Frenchman who has been an actor but has been spending more of his time as a producer of films about natural history and anthropology. (Perrin produced the enthralling Himalaya seen here in 1999, an account of isolated Nepalese villagers and their trading treks through snowy heights.) Perrin planned the whole of Winged Migration and, with friends, devised the aircraft mentioned above that could accompany birds without frightening them. Yet technique doesn't quite explain how he knew that a certain tree on one bank of the Amazon was the place to which a parrot, in all its gaudiness, would fly from the other bank. This involved a different sort of planning.
The varieties of plumage and shape in birds, no matter how loyal we have been to National Geographic, are still breathtaking. The way in which birds organize their flights is still mysterious. (How do they know what a V is and the order in which to form it?) For any viewer of this film, a few of the dozens and dozens of episodes will stand out. I think of several. Laggard or ailing members of a flock are quickly abandoned: the greatest good of the greatest number is the silent motto. A pelican (I think it was) snatches up a fish, then is perplexed with it crosswise in its beak. Standing in the stream, it has no place to lay the fish down and grasp it otherwise. So it juggles the fish in the air until, head first, the fish slides down the pelican's gullet. And for sheer beauty nothing in the film surpasses the shot, from above, of a flock of white geese flying over a landscape of autumn foliage.
What an extraordinary idea it was to make this film. What a splendid achievement.
Sociologists of the future will have been greatly helped in at least one way by film-makers of our day. One sector of today's society has been fixed thoroughly in films: adolescence. Quite apart from documentaries, fiction films in recent years have dealt with troubled and uncertain adolescents around the world. France, Belgium, Britain, China, Brazil, Finland, and Mexico are only some of the venues, besides of course our own sunny shores. The number continues to grow, material for social historians.
Most of the situations in these films are genuinely troublesome, and most of the films about them are sincere. But sincerity is not enough when, a few minutes after a film begins, we know we are going to make a familiar journey through the parental and sexual and environmental troubles of teenagers. It would take a fairly brutal coolness to dismiss these films en bloc as a tired genre; still, by now the best of them only increase a viewer's sense of helplessness. What can any of us do to improve these social problems? What can any of us do to hasten the youngsters' maturity?
Peter Sollett has an answer to these questions-an answer that is always available but seldom found. He makes his people interesting. Raising Victor Vargas is about Latino teenagers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and as we learn this, we brace ourselves for tedium. But the tension soon relaxes because these teenagers themselves are appealing. This is Sollett's first feature film-he has previously made only one short-and it shows, more than exceptional talent for cinema itself, his ability to evoke character, in a kind of sidewise offhand way, and to create a sense of community both within and around the film.
The story is agreeably negligible. Sollett is less concerned with plot twists than with moderate action that will reveal his people. Victor is about sixteen, a young rooster in the neighborhood. He is attracted by Judy, a pretty but reserved coeval, at the local swimming pool. She is less attracted, but he finally wins her friendship. He is a troublesome youth, difficult for his grandmother to handle, but there is a reality in Victor, a hint of possible deep feeling, that has more effect on Judy than his various ploys of wooing. They become intimate.
More happens. In an environment where boyfriend and girlfriend are identification tags, licenses for intimacy, Victor and Judy discover that there is more to their attraction for each other than the usual dating. Set in a context of daily tugs and troubles with Victor's younger brother and sister and their friends, the film is about the discovery of love.
The appeal of the film grows from the two leading actors. Victor Resuk is funny, moody, hungry in the leading role, and Judy Marte as Judy has, besides her good looks, considerable poise. Most of their scenes are basically familiar; but these two young people are free of cliche. Sollett tells us that all the dialogue was improvised. He had written a screenplay for the guidance of the producers and the crew, but he asked the actors to improvise, to speak as they knew these characters would speak in these situations. This ad hoc approach is hardly new, but the result here is exceptionally good. Most of the improvised dialogue, in quarrels and resolves, has a kind of cozy ungainliness and spark.
Title Correction. The French film reviewed here two weeks ago as That Girl From Paris is really called The Girl From Paris. Pardon, mam'selle.