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The Fine Art of Homage

Onésime horloger (Onésime the Clockmaker)

Jean Durand, Gaumont, France, 1912

Paris qui dort (The Crazy Ray / At 3:25)

René Clair, Films Diamant, France, 1924

Zazie dans le métro (Zazie in the Metro)

Louis Malle, Nouvelles Éditions de Films, France, 1960

Jean Durand’s Onésime horloger is about the pace of modern life—a pace which, ironically, the hero finds too slow to satisfy his pressing desire to receive an inheritance immediately rather than twenty years in the future. His solution is to speed up time by reconfiguring “the regulating clock,” and Durand depicts an accelerated world by means of fast motion—an effect achieved by undercranking the camera when shooting moving objects; fast motion, for example, accounts for the effect of vehicles and people scurrying through the streets of Paris in time to Onésime’s temporal desire (1). Clearly, then, Durand’s fanciful notion of cause and effect entails the association of two symbolic mechanical devices: the clock, which governs the pace of modern life, and the apparatus of cinema, which represents the results of the hero’s intervention in the clockwork process.

Twelve years later, another French director, René Clair, alluded to Onésime horloger in Paris qui dort, in which city traffic is accelerated by the power of a mad scientist’s ray gun to alter the tempo of life from exaggerated velocity to complete stasis (2). Like Durand, Clair creates the illusion of accelerated traffic by means of fast motion. Most of the film depicts life at an utter standstill because the evil Professor Ixe prefers a world in stasis, but a colleague objects, and life speeds up only when the latter momentarily shifts the ray gun’s setting to the opposite end of the scale. Like Durand’s, Clair’s underlying cause-and-effect conceit thus entails the association of two symbolic mechanical devices, both of which are distinctly modern: the ray gun, by which the tempo of life can be governed, and the apparatus of cinema, which mimics the results of the gun’s settings. Not surprisingly, the clock also figures among Clair’s symbolic associations: we are given a glimpse of the city clock stuck at 3:25.

The long central interlude of stasis in Paris qui dort alludes to the fact that a projected film is actually a series of still images brought to life by modern technological ingenuity, which requires that each image be briefly suspended as it passes through the projector gate (see Chapter 1.1): like the city clock, Clair’s symbolic projector has become, in effect, stuck. Consequently, the effect of a movie—of the movement from one image to the next—is achieved not by the frame-by-frame movement of the filmstrip, but rather by the movement of audience members from one framed scene to another. For this purpose, a small group of characters who have remained free of the ray gun’s effect are privileged to constitute the audience of this all-engrossing film in which they are literally engrossed. Their behavior—including the breakdown of social distinctions, the extension of altruistic gestures, and, ultimately, boredom without the hustle, bustle, and variety of life—thus reflects the salutary effect of their ad hoc movie. At the same time, of course, the sudden (cinematic) irruption of motion into a world temporarily rendered (cinematically) static, though representing a restoration of life-force energy and a certain form of liberation, also indicates a return to normally chaotic conditions.

The irruption of chaos in the films of Jean Durand typically constitutes a state of liberation from the constraints of an abstract world symbolized by the imposition of clockwork order (see Figure 9.16). In Onésime horloger, however, we’re told that “by listening to life, Onésime made it more beautiful.” We must assume that he has thus eliminated the need for corrective anarchy, for Onésime horloger consists almost entirely of accelerated scenes in which harmony is wrested either from potential chaos or from the void. In one scene, for example, workers refurbish and furnish a bare room, turning it into a tasteful and comfortable living space (3).

With Zazie dans le métro, however, we witness again the preference of the comic cinema for slapstick and satiric disorder: Zazie, says director Louis Malle, is “a direct descendant of the comic cinema that has always tended to denounce the absurdities of the modern world.” A loosely woven story about a precocious foul-mouthed 10-year-old girl from the country (Zazie) who spends a weekend in Paris with her rakish uncle, the film takes us on a tour of the city in order to introduce us to a sampling of “modern” (i.e., post-World War II) cultural obsessions, particularly consumerism. Because Zazie persists in asking questions about everything she witnesses, she disrupts the complacency underlying the acceptance of “absurdities,” and this disruption inevitably takes literal form as an anarchic brawl reminiscent of Durand (4).

Much as his source novel is a playful critique of fictional language and technique, Malle’s adaptation is a compendium of cinematic trick effects, including fast, slow, and reverse motion, rapid editing, time-lapse cinematography, and jump cuts (elliptical cuts that interrupt the continuity of a shot). Jump cuts, for example, punctuate a series of vertical pans as the camera follows Zazie and another character in a vertiginous descent down the Eiffel Tower (5), which at another point turns into a lighthouse doused by a huge ocean wave. The city below is bathed in oversaturated color, giving a dreamlike aura to images of material reality captured on location: “All Paris,” muses Zazie’s Uncle Gabriel, “is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream.”

Malle’s Eiffel Tower sequence pays explicit homage to Clair’s Paris qui dort, in which the upper reaches of the Tower are above the ray gun’s range and thus serve as a refuge for the survivors of its effect. Like moviegoers experiencing a respite from the workaday world by entering the dreamworld projected on the screen, they enjoy a privileged moment of leisure, amusing themselves (often precariously) in life lived in the gridwork of the Tower (6), which reduces material reality to an open-air superstructure that serves to frame the enchanted dreamworld of the city glimpsed below. Indeed, American critic Annette Michelson argues that Clair conceives the Tower as a “complex optical instrument” for framing still images of a dreamworld in the manner of “filmic apparatus.”

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