Ode to a simple red balloon

One red balloon. A red balloon held by a young boy. They are inseparable. The child is entirely dependent on the balloon, and vice versa. How long can the audience sit, watching this «adventure»? Watching the two protagonists – as the lifeless balloon gradually begins to display senses and feelings – exist and grow together? Does the boy go to school? Does he tell the balloon to wait for him? Does he go back home? His faithful balloon keeps watch outside his window as he sleeps. They play hide-and-seek. There is little dialogue, but it is not necessary anyway. The images do all the talking. «The Red Balloon» by Albert Lamorisse, shot in the mid-1950s, runs for 80 minutes. Is this too much or too little time for such a subject? How can a modern-day audience – addicted to action, violence and fast-paced scenes – sit through this simple, silent, surrealist story? Lamorisse has composed a small sonnet about friendship and innocence. His lens «invests» in the balloon. And at the end, when the balloon falls to the ground, deflated and shrivelled after an attack by a gang of neighborhood bullies, a sigh is heard in the Plaza cinema, and some even dab their eyes with handkerchiefs. The audience is mostly adults. And these grownups follow the story of the boy and the balloon with the intensity of a thriller. The balloon, a boy and a piece of string. A return to sensitivity, creature comforts and a secret complicity. What parent would dare give a child a simple red balloon in this day and age? And what child would ever ask Santa for such a gift? Even families in the direst of financial straits save up for an orgy of presents for their younger members. Quantity is the only comparative measure. Size matters. The toy industry’s profits soar through the roof this time of year. The shelf life of (or interest in) a toy can be counted in mere minutes, even seconds, some abashed parents admit. Insatiable Lilliputian consumers, hungry shoppers of tomorrow. What do they get out of this and why? It doesn’t matter. The offering is not what matters but the exchange. Imagination has left the building. A shiny red balloon hovers above watching it all happen. Its monetary value is minimal. Free of cost, it roams free, it does not grab a child’s fancy, it does not guide it. It allows the child to act at will, to laugh, to cry, to wander, to get lost, to find the string again. To play. How much space, I wonder, have we left in our lives for a simple red balloon.