November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Christopher Panzner / Nonfiction

Georges Seurat/Google Images

SLOW:

“A Tati Moment”

by Christopher Panzner

We walked down to the lake to have a picnic on an isolated, rare-for-France empty bench. It was so close to the edge of the water we could almost dangle our feet in with a stretch. We settled in, ripped into the baguette and faked it with some ham tranches and a flat brick of fresh Gruyère from the riverside market in the “Venice of Haute Savoie,” Annecy. Off to the left, a small efficiently-built municipal dock with four or five tiny or two-man skiffs tied up. Before us, the placid expanse of mountain lake on a gorgeous day, a few Sunday boaters here and there – the women rowing, this is France – far enough out to be a part of the lakescape, objects. And those even rarer Latin commodities of peace, quiet and space.

La la la… puffy cotton clouds, iris-blue sky, my girl, my sandwich, hours to kill.

From the periphery, under the temple of my sunglasses, the bow of a row boat slid into view from beneath the overhanging limbs of the sparse but leafy trees. Gradually, the shiny white hull of a brand spanking new, canoe-sized, flat-bottomed wooden toy slipped into full view, the bony figure of a middle-aged man rowing, his blanched napkin-white back to us. With amateur, elliptical strokes, the French fry arms dipped, splished and struggled with the tubular metal oars (tipped with white plastic paddles) in the locks, the crunch of bread crust and jawing of cheese providing the ambient soundtrack in my sun-dulled skull.

The first fissure in the tableau of apparent normalcy was… the captain’s hat. Even though habituated after twenty-something years in-country to the French penchant for buying the entire panoply of catalogue outfit, equipment and sundry frivolous accoutrements for any sporty outing, the accessory caught my now policing eye. A cursory inventory of his ensemble and the bristol vessel revealed what’s known in Yankee predatory retailing as a “sales job.” The hat, semiotically-speaking, indicating not only the unfortunate meeting of too big a budget with monstrous self-indulgent naiveté, but a rare bird, a wild hair, a Lilliputian Narcissus. In one fluid movement, the muscles of my face twisted into a bemused question mark, I bowed my head and peeped over my sunglasses sideways at my young French wife. Behind dark plastic lenses, onomatopoeia: crunch, chew, chew, chew, chew, swallow (pause, repeat.) “Nothing unusual here” answered the only slightly-lifted eyebrows.

Our protagonist, methodically awkward, clumsily paddled his way backwards through things that go bump in the day as we watched from balcony seats. Oblivious to our presence – our existence, even (characteristic of the self-consumed) – the dapper Argonaut made his triumphant return to terra firma, met at the quai with the deafening applause of… cicadas.

Tying up – or, at least, thought he was tying up – to a small, conical, anchored plastic red and white buoy nearby, he maneuvered parallel to the dock to disembark (etymological precision notwithstanding, only partially accurate in fact.) Starting with the oars, he then set down a tackle box, a duffle bag, and various other sparkling, anal-retentive kit with the precision of the Swiss. Then stood. Yes, stood, bolt upright in the middle of the small craft, miraculously defying the laws of equilibrium, the entirety of my own nautical experience (having grown up on the water), and brute common sense. I dabbed at my smile after finishing my sandwich, cracked open the Evian, took a swig and passed it, then settled in for what was certain to be a classic Slapstick highlight of my afternoon.

Our hero – our Osgood Fielding, our Harold Lloyd, our very own Monsieur Hulot – had other, grander ideas, however. Moments are the domain of the unwitting, victims of circumstance, accident; cameos on the stage of life, child’s play. No, what happened next was Comedy, Tragedy’s twin, the stuff of true plebeians (the Greeks, Shakespeare, Molière, Jerry Lewis) and possibly the most challenging theatrical art form there is. What followed was the work of a true artiste, an anonymous genius, a maestro; a nimble funambulist’s slippered foot on the slack rope between success and utter failure.

Know what the key to great – timing! – comedy is?

***

At close to 2 meters, the captain was approximately as tall as the small boat was long. Mathematically, the chances of not falling in the water fully-clothed were slim to naught. Physics having its own peculiar relation to risk, as luck would have it the sailor “fell” with a step to the dock. (Nervous giggling and reverse whistling together, rare even for the circus, is especially rare for an audience of two.) The tease of anticipation had temporarily blinded me to the other, deeper mysteries of human foible, however… but my disappointment was fleeting. As myriad other occult but punishingly real laws of Newtonian physics came into play, the true essence of Comedy began to emerge: it has a “logical” basis. Meaning, if your assumption is erroneous but you dogmatically apply the ironclad logic of the mathematician and the empiricism of the scientist, no matter what your conclusion, it will be absurd.

But Nature will not suffer fools.

Nadja Asghar IllustrationStraddling the ever-increasing gap between the boat and the dock, the skipper became aware of the alarming logical consequences of the growing distance beneath him and the pain in his stretching gracili, the inner thigh muscles normally used for squeezing the legs together and now useless for their intended purpose. Looking down as his mind raced with solutions, the hat slid off the balding crown of his head and hit the water – blop! – “butter side up.” Giggles turned into chuckles and head-shaking. Helpless to pick it up without falling into the water – only narrowly averted mere seconds before but now with the prospect of falling ass over tea kettle – the handsomely crafted white-with- black-patent-leather-brim-and-stitched-anchor-emblem chapeau drifted on its top between split legs and behind him, eased out by the wavelets produced by the rocking of the boat onto the lake. Abandoning it temporarily to deal with more pressing matters, lightning mental calculation now meant choosing between the dock and the boat, with the caveat being that if he chose the dock, the boat would drift away (ergo, somehow getting wet to retrieve it); and if he chose the boat… unfortunately, circumstances would not permit going to the end of the reflection. He chose the boat, landing with a thud in a squat after a deft two-step, hands on the rolling gunwales.

Three minds, suddenly thinking as one, became simultaneously aware of a rift, a tear in the cosmic curtain, a tragic oversight in the chronological re-ordering of the universe: the oars had been the first to go ashore. Now sitting squarely beyond reach, the captain assessed the damage, disparagingly alone in his lifeboat. Smirks were exchanged by two of the three minds, the third forced to deal with yet another drama slowly unfolding: in order to secure a ring to the buoy, little known to the uninitiated,  the hinged bolt on the “C”-shaped ring had to be screwed tight (to complete the reverse “D”) or it would not hold. Although our novice seaman had surely secured his line with one of the complex knots he had no doubt seen neatly affixed to a varnished oak plaque in some harbor curio shop and had no doubt practiced unceasingly (to avoid ridicule from seasoned fellow seadogs), the hardware had not come with instructions. This unfortunate contingency meant that the now oar-less boatswain was soon to be truly adrift, the knotted bolen on the end of the bow line, with a dip of the buoy and a discreetly audible cling, slipping from the ring and into the water. With deadpan, mime-like gestures, he pulled the rope back into the boat, stowed it and pondered.

The pause and deafening silence almost betrayed us as we struggled to remain anonymous, voyeurs, having simultaneously concluded that the only way to avoid detection was to stifle our laughter in each other’s arms. Bursts of muffled guffaws were interrupted only to eye-check the progress, his mental processing of the scope of the calamity. Undaunted and, apparently, still unaware of his appreciative audience, Capitaine Haddock drifted some distance from the dock, swept along by a meek but determined current.

Our laughter, now tinged with pathos, somewhat subsided. Alas, the intermission was soon to end.

Imperturbable, the seaman – having been defrocked from captain to simple deckhand–pushed up the sleeves of his double-breasted, brass-buttoned, epauletted waistcoat and went to work with a will. Unable to reach both sides at the same time, he paddled on one and then the other with his hands, getting soaked and, on his knees, dirty in the bargain, succeeding only in zigzagging further from his destination. Humiliated at the indignity of the task his cruel mistress, the Sea, was imposing on him – or Vanity finally getting the best of him since someone, somewhere, on his way home or, heaven forbid, at home, would have to see him filthy and soggy (no one dressed as he was would have thought to bring a change of clothes) – he paused to collect his tortured thoughts and consider the options.

What I learned about Slapstick from this man’s gift, up to this point, was extraordinarily simple: set up an ordinary situation with an extraordinary accent (i.e., a peacock in a hen house); have a theme (“The Colossal Vanity of Man”) and sub-theme (“Ineptitude”); keep it simple, but elaborate (“e-la-BOR-ate,” not “e-labrit”); and pile on just enough consequences to prolong the action not stop it.

But the key, finally, is to take your time… because the payoff is all in the rhythm.

And to that cue, our obliging leading man grabbed his shiny new “snag” (a short aluminum pole with a hook on the end to catch up lines) and started furiously raking, windmilling his way back to the dock; punting, as it were, without the advantage of touching bottom… allegrissimo. Finally, with the head of steam you could muster with a pool cue for an oar, he made it. Fortunately for us, too, since we were out of breath, having clapped and thumped one another on the back in repressed, convulsive laughter for the duration of the cruelly comical final act.

Once safely back at the mooring, our intrepid adventurer tended to unloading the remaining gear from the boat and set about fixing the buoy. He tightened the bolt on the C-ring and, when satisfied that it would hold, set the wrench back on the dock. The seamanship learning curve being what it is, he was soon aware of yet another academic but unwritten rule of thumb: always place things down perpendicular to the dock since there are spaces between the boards (in this case, just wide enough to accommodate the thickness of the wrench if set down, by some casino odds, on its side, exactly parallel to the boards and dead center in that space.) Ba-loop! It was more than we could take but we bit our lips and held on for dear life. After some prolonged and careful consideration, our mariner left the only-once-used wrench where it lay (and where it probably lies to this day), packed up and, his arms overflowing with gear, limped off inland.

As the sun began to duck behind the mountains, bringing dusk hours early, the curtain fell on a lone, white captain’s hat bobbing in the middle of the lake… a gift, a lesson and a warning.

 ……………………………………………………………

Illustration by Nadja Asghar

About the author:

Christopher Panzner is an American writer, illustrator and  fine artist who lives and works in Paris. For many years he worked in the film and television industry, essentially in European animation. Three animated features he contributed to, double Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville, Venice Film Festival selection The Dog, the General and the Pigeons,and Blackmor’s Treasure (as Associate Producer), were part of an eight-film retrospective of contemporary French animation at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006 called “Grand Illusions: The Best of Recent French Animation.” He currently illustrates books of contemporary poetry, classics, and is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of LHOOQ magazine. 

“A Tati Moment” is the first in a collection of short stories by the author called SLOW.

 

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