Building In Air

In the 1956 film Around the World in Eighty Days there is a scene where Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and his manservant Passepartout (Cantinflas) are in a hot air balloon and are travelling over white capped mountains. At one point, despite being in a hurry to return home inside eighty days, and being pursued by baddies, they fill a champagne bucket with snow from the peak of one of the mountains and chill a bottle of the good stuff in it.

When I was a small child this had a profound effect on me. No, not the alcohol aspect, although that is a bit of fun, and certainly not the dangerous part – although perhaps if you call it “adventure” and remove the ne’er-do-wells twirling their capacious Nineteenth Century moustaches as they plan your fate after capture the element of risk would probably have seemed worth doing in a kind of resourceful and unconventional sort of way.

But no, the attractive thing wasn’t the danger and it wasn’t the risk and it wasn’t the romance. It was being in an environment transposed onto another environment. In this case the environment of the balloon basket is a safe, still, conventional space with a floor and walls which could be part of a room in a house or maybe a section of verandah or deck. But when it is attached to the balloon the basket environment moves and becomes overlayed on another environment. The most obvious example is being in the apparent security of the basket, while at the same time being surrounded by air and with the ground so far away (down there) – in other words floating, or feeling like you are flying – but more attractive to me was the notion that your balloon basket you could hover among the tops of trees, with relative stability, and observe woodpeckers pecking and other birds singing, and just general get a good view of the tops of trees, but preferably nestled right in amongst them, and the view isn’t something you are supposed to see as you are supposed to be on the ground, looking up, and if you were to see it from this close, then you should really have climbed up here to see it, but you haven’t you are in a structure which is a bit like an extension of a balcony, and that’s part of the magic of the whole idea.

It wasn’t a big stretch for me to alight on the idea of the house – not a children’s structure but a genuine house in the trees – and think that a very tranquil and worthwhile sort of place and something I would love to have. Such a house has privileged access to what you shouldn’t have access to, and it also seems to sequester a small part of the experience of being in the trees to those in that house and so in that way it claims a piece of it – a piece which is unique to that house, up in those trees, and thus something even more special than the idea of being up and secure and safe, way off the ground, where it is as comfortable as home but without all the other houses.

Another film made me continue these thoughts of spaces moved around and stretched and squeezed was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). The character Grandpa Potts has a little potting shed or summer house, which is only barely large enough for him to sit down in, and it also gets carried away (in this case by a flying car), and it seemed somehow to be a comforting idea to me, this tiny house. Or tiny room, removed from the rest of the rooms, on its own and just big enough for one. I wanted a summer house or potting shed, or whatever Grandpa Potts’ little building should be called, and I still do want one. Very much so.

I’m aware that I could be admitting to some deep psychological need here, or even indicating that I have a problem of some sort. These structures form little dreams of safety and comfort, which are very old, yet they reside in me still, buried under more recent concerns, but still there, lingeringly.

And so the other night when I came to attempt sleep and I turned the light off I thought of these things, and others besides, the strange little childlike obsessions and desires which made very little sense then and still make bugger all now. And I thought of a rooftop garden, and it only now occurs to me that the trigger was another film, Mon Oncle (1958) by Jacques Tati. The protagonist lives in an old part of Paris and there are many things growing in the upper parts of the slightly shabby, but very beautiful, old houses and flats. And that’s what I thought of, an apartment of my own mental composition made up of a large square room, ringed by book shelves, with wooden panelling and views of a city all around the room, and from a doorway in one wall there is a patio area full of plants and flowers and hedges with both delicate and hardy, colourful and green, and up above all of the noise and consternation, which is majestic to gaze upon, is a little oasis. An island of calm outside, and through a door an island of calm inside too.

I thought of this and felt sleepy.

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Published in: on February 9, 2012 at 7:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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