There is a moment in Michel Gondry’s The We and the I when the kids on the bus that is journeying across New York all seem to stop what they are doing and to look in awe at a beautiful white girl cycling on the sidewalk in a floral summer dress.
The film switches determinedly to slow motion as we see the girl cycling, heads turning, and one kid, Jacobchen (Jacob Carrasco), leaping up from his seat to fix a closer look at her.
This will perhaps sound odd, but at this moment what I shall call the cinematic manifests itself in full force. This no doubt sounds odd because The We and the I is, of course, a film. That is, the whole film is cinematic – and so it is strange to say that this moment is particularly cinematic, because it implies somehow that the rest of the film is not.
The point that I wish to make here is not that the rest of The We and the I is uncinematic; but it is interesting that a technique as cinematic as slow motion manifests itself at a moment when these kids – otherwise stars of their own movie(s), as I shall discuss below – become spectators in another movie, the movie of the beautiful white girl on the bike.
Not only does this moment powerfully suggest that New York is a cinematic city, but also that it has more stories to tell than the one, or the many, that are being told on the bus that takes these kids towards their homes on the last day of school.
But this moment also suggests the way in which these kids aspire to be cinematic; the straight boys, the gay boys, and the straight and arguably gay girls, all seem to look with desire at the white girl – wishing, it would seem, to have her life, to be able to move in slow motion, carefree and easy, rather than cooped up on this bus with its interminable journey through a New York that passes from sunny to rainy and from day to night.
It is perhaps important that Jacobchen shouts out to the girl a derogatory remark along the lines of ‘great tits, gorgeous’ (forgive me, I cannot remember the exact line). For, Jacobchen perhaps subverts the notion that he is in love with this girl as an image to behold, but that he is also rebelliously determined to possess this girl.
It would then also be important that Jacobchen gets into a quasi-fight with Jonathan (Jonathan Ortiz), who also has clamped eyes on and lays spurious claim to the girl: they both want her.
However, forasmuch as their objectification of the girl on the bike and their dispute over her might seem to undermine their aspirations to have her – in that they are acting out the impossibility of having her – the slow motion moment nonetheless seems to suggest that all of the kids want her and/or her lifestyle, even if their way of expressing it is coarse and futile (the bus drives on; the girl is perhaps never even aware that she has been regarded in this way).
Even when Messiah-like Kon (Konchen Carrasco) upbraids his brother Jacobchen for speaking to the girl in this derogatory fashion, he also corrects him and says that she did not have big tits. In other words, even if Kon demands better behaviour from Jacobchen, he also still saw and watched the girl intently.
The reason that I wish to talk about this moment in the film is because it raises the intertwined issues of race and class that run throughout the film. In short, the kids on the bus are all of black, Asian or Hispanic origin – or a mix of these. And they all seem to come from working class families – kids who look after their mothers, what the rest of the world might term a broken home, etc.
For the film to suggest that they all aspire to middle class values, or even wealthy values – as signalled by their collective adoration of the girl on the bike – is where the film becomes interesting.
It is not a young person’s fault to aspire to the images of success and beauty that surround us day in and day out from birth. But The We and the I also suggests that while these kids seem to want to live in the white, middle class world, it is somehow closed to them.
This is most forcefully signalled by the way in which the film’s numerous flashbacks and fantasy sequences are not the ‘cinematic’ slow motion of the girl on the bike, but predominantly on mobile phones.
Take Kenny’s (Kenneth Quinones) elaborate fantasy about striding into cool bars, being told what great taste he has, and hanging out with Donald Trump: this mobile phone section undermines the splendour of Kenny’s fantasy by lending to it a grain and pictorial dirtiness that is the opposite of the slow motion sequence with the girl. That is, the mobile phone footage actually is, almost, uncinematic. These kids can dream, but their dreams are banal (as perhaps most kids’ dreams are) – and they are not the full-on brightly lit slomo of the girl on the bike.
In other words, the film seems to suggest that ‘real cinema’ is impossible for these kids: their fantasies are minor fantasies played out on minor, smaller screens, and recorded with minor, smaller filmmaking devices. And by ‘real cinema,’ we are really talking about social mobility: what are the prospects for these kids? How will they get to be, or to be with, or to have what the girl on the bike has?
However, while we might be moving towards an assertion along the lines of “The We and the I not only reflects upon the lack of social mobility for young ethnic Americans, but it also arguably reinforces it – by beatifying the girl on the bike so much, only to deny such beauty when we see their more sordid, grimy fantasies and memories played out on mobile phones” – I’d also suggest that this is can only tentatively be the case.
Let’s work this through a bit.
For, while the bus contains bullies, introverts, drama queens and, well, just teenage kids, they on the whole seem okay. Even the bullies seem not really to be too bad, or to be taken too seriously. That is, their boisterous insults and supposed nastiness carry with them a sense of fun, or at the very least liveliness, that in itself is empowering thanks to its expression of libido. That is, the energy of the kids is a sign of potency, of potential power, be that in the kids who are smart mouths, the kids who can play music, or the kids who can draw.
In short, Gondry seems to cut his kids enough slack that we do not dislike them as much as all that, even if they are part-time bullies and even if they do some gleefully irresponsible things on this bus journey.
Since Gondry cuts the kids this slack, the modesty of their ambitions – rendered in modest mobile phone footage – suggests in some sense a sort of dignity. In other words, there is tension between the film making out that mobile phone ambitions will never be fully cinematic and the other approach to this issue, which is that mobile phone images are equally if differently cinematic – and for these kids more powerfully so, because it is the mobile phone that allows them to express themselves most forcefully.
Nonetheless, we are still faced with the notion that these kids are aspiring to be white. This is also figured in Teresa’s (Teresa Lynn) blonde wig. Teresa has been bunking school after drunkenly molesting one of peers, Laidychen (Laidychen Carrasco), who is also on the bus. In a bid to make herself over, she wears a blonde wig. Immediately she is harrangued about it: appearing, or aspiring to appear, white is in some respects selling out on who she and the rest of these kids really are. But even if the kids – Teresa, too – accept that she is not white and should be proud of who she actually is, this ambition still remains.
Importantly, the kids continually repeat watching and send to each other a video of Elijah (Elijah Canada), a kid not on the bus, who may or may not be one of the Chen clan, and who – *spoilers* – is announced as having been stabbed dead near the film’s climax.
We can contrast this with the footage and images of Teresa molesting Laidychen taken by Michael (Michael Brodie) and Big T (Jonathan Scott Worrell). Here, Michael has erased all images and footage (even though the film itself shows this to us – Gondry able to pass into deleted territory that the kids no longer can).
If Elijah’s fate as the ‘star’ of a viral video (it features him falling on his ass as he slips up on butter placed on a kitchen floor) is to be killed, while Teresa is allowed to live on thanks to the suppression of the footage that shows her at her worst, then The We and the I might suggest that it is by precisely avoiding becoming cinematic – by not falling into the trap of wanting to be white? – that one can survive in this world. Seeking and wanting one’s own fantasies, one’s own secrets, perhaps, is to retain and/or develop independence, while to aspire to the dreams fed to us by the white and middle class-dominated media is to not be independent at all.
And yet, the fact remains that Gondry can still show to us the images of Teresa and Laidychen, even if the other kids on the bus do not see it. That is, Gondry as white, middle class filmmaker has access to all areas; his films pass across all of the registers, from the supposedly cinematic to the supposedly uncinematic, as if he were fluent in everyone’s fantasies. That is, it is the privilege of the middle class to imagine the fantasies of the working class, to be able to hang with the non-white kids – while at the same time being able easily to swing back by into the white, middle class world and to reflect upon what one has seen.
Although Gondry would seem to express solidarity for his characters – perhaps, romantically put, he has a love for a common humanity – he still is demonstrating his ability to speak to and with all peoples, a skill that the subjects in his film do not and perhaps cannot possess.
Gondry’s fantasies of being able to cut across all divisions are marked by his trademark shots of simultaneous moments in different locations being played out on the screen at the same time: a swish pan takes us from inside the bus to a different location as if they were in fact the same space; kids in a pizza parlour can be seen in the bus window, even though they are not physically visible to the people on the bus.
These surely are visually arresting moments – and they are part of the package that has quickly singled out Gondry as a filmmaker with a notable, auteurist style.
But they also reinforce the fact that Gondry’s romanticism is a middle class fantasy.
It is not, at the last, that Gondry is at fault somehow for being limited in the kind of film that he can make. And perhaps I am misguided in effectively arguing that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet, when in fact humans do share common ground and a common humanity that links us all.
But when biology – our common humanity – is married with culture – by which I mean the social and ethnic divisions that are the offshoot of a capitalist society – are put together, the tensions between the two come strongly to the fore (even if culture and biology are more intimately linked than we would like to think).
We might all aspire to become light or to become cinema – to be, to be with, or to have the girl on the bike. And we might all bar the very exceptional few fail in this and only have mobile phone fantasies. And we should be proud of our mobile phone fantasies, even if they are gritty and ugly to those who have been indoctrinated by the so-called ‘cinematic’ (only white girls on bikes are beautiful; the rest is somehow sordid). We should be proud of our mobile phone fantasies, because they are ours and not the expression of us pandering to be something we are not.
But can Michel Gondry be the person to tell us this?
My only answer is that I wish that the kids themselves had made the film. Correction: the kids themselves do make this film. But I wish they’d been credited more clearly for it. But then that is just me hoping in my white, class way to find an ‘authentic’ expression of ethnic, working class America – something that probably does not exist.
There is no way out of this conundrum. I cannot offer any answers. But without any answers, maybe we can begin properly to think about this matter (if I am in a position to make such a declaration, to assert in any way whatsoever what thinking is).
Amazing how a moment in a film – a girl on a bike – can trigger a reading of that film that sends ripples throughout the rest of its fabric.