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The goal of the present paper is to discuss the different and shared properties

The goal of the present paper is to discuss the different and shared properties of photography and film with reference to the use of photographs in the film Paris qui dort (also known as Le rayon de la mort in France, and Paris asleep or The crazy ray internationally) by René Clair (shot in 1923, the premier in France took place in 1925, in the United States – in 1926).

Anne Friedberg once characterised this particular movie as “a narrative built around the shift from photography to film.”[1]  This quote indicates a channel for the discourse on the topic, how the French filmmaker synthesised photographic and cinematographic means to create a complex visual tissue.

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To remind the plot of this earlier example of cinematic science fiction, the main hero of the film called Albert (Henri Rollan), who is the watchman at the Eiffel Tower, awakens one perfect day to discover that the whole city of Paris has been fallen asleep. While he strolls down the streets of the busiest European metropolis, the character observes people having been paralysed in their routine affairs. During his journey Albert meets five persons who have just arrived to Paris by airplane: Hesta (Madeleine Rodrigue), a self-made young traveller, a multi-millionaire who came to visit his bride (Antoine Stacquet), a hook and a police detective (Marcel Vallée and Louis Pré Fils), and a pilot (Albert Préjean).

These six occasional fellows in misery spend the night on the top of the Eiffel Tower and swoop into the city the next day to amuse themselves at their best.

Having returned back to their shelter with precious loot, Albert and company catch the SOS-signal on the radio. In result of a purposeful search, the adventurers arrive at the cellar laboratory of Dr. Crase, a talented yet frenzied scientist (Charles Martinelli). Miss Crase, the professor’s niece and assistant, meets the newcomers and tells them an interesting story.

It appears that Dr. Crase has invented a wonderful machine that could arrest time by its rays. When the scientist tested his invention, all the six heroes enjoying the moment “happened to be, at three twenty-five, the moment of immobilization, at an altitude beyond its reach.”[2] Dr Crase was talented enough to design the formula for freezing the course of life but forgot to devise an antidote. Upon persuasion, he corrects his mistake, and Paris is permitted to return back to the usual mode of life.

The members of the warm company separate from each other. Albert finds himself accompanying Miss Crase. The young man likes the girl and decides to see her back to her place but finds no cash to pay for the cab. He decides to immobilise the city one more time to stock up on money for the rest of his life. Albert rushes to Dr. Crase’s laboratory and struggles with the professor over the machine’s levy. Depending on their movements, the life in Paris is either set still or resumed in mobility. The battle ends up with an explosion.

The heroes of the movie try to explain to the police what has happened. Nobody believes them so far as the rest of the Parisians, who have fallen asleep, do not remember the period of immobilisation. Finally, Albert is almost persuaded that Dr. Crase and his invention have been just his nightmares. However, upon return to the Eiffel Tower hand-in-hand with Miss Crase, the hero finds a diamond ring in the aperture between the girders. It was one of the trophies that the merry gang brought from the journey across the frozen city. The ring makes Albert believe once again in the existence of immobilising rays.[3]

Before deciphering Friedberg’s idea about Clair having synthesised the performative possibilities of photography and cinematography, and before sharing some original ideas, the author feels obliged to analyse the technical and cultural backgrounds of these two interrelated media.

Researchers started investigating the semiotic value of photography as the precedent to cinematography as early as in the mid-19th century. At the dawn of invention, photography was perceived as a technique to make light “exert an action … sufficient to cause changes in material bodies.”[4] The idea was expressed by Fox Talbot in a book The pencil of nature, published in 1844. Rosalind Krauss chose the treatise as a field for analysis to discuss a dynamics of symbolic complexity associated with photography throughout its development. Her discourse is especially interesting so far as it explores the earlier metaphysical values ascribed to photography in the 1840s and the most recent semiological explanations of this art.

To summarise the section of Krauss’ article dealing with the earlier representations of photography, the latter was perceived as a complex phenomenon existing both at the physical and metaphysical layers. On the one hand, it was often compared to “the footprint that is left on sand.”[5]

To put it differently, a well-known light spectrum was refracted inside a photographic camera so that the representations of people and other animate and inanimate objects were imprinted on the plates and photographic paper. On the other hand, Talbot and his contemporaries were intrigued by “certain invisible rays” which let “the eye of the camera … see plainly where the human eye would find nothing but darkness.”[6]

[1] A. Friedberg, Window shopping: cinema and the postmodern, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, USA, University of California Press, 1993, p. 102.
[2] Miss Crase’s words, cited in A. Michelson, Dr. Crase and Mr. Clair, October, 11: Winter, 1979: p. 34.
[3] A detailed summary of the movie plot is provided by Michelson, pp. 33-34.
[4] W. Fox Talbot, The pencil of nature, facsimile edition, New York, Da Capo Press, 1969, introduction, n.p., cited in R. Krauss, Tracing Nadar, Photography, 5: Oct. 1978: p. 39.
[5] Krauss, Tracing Nadar, p. 33.
[6] Talbot, cited in Krauss, Tracing Nadar, p. 41.