420, Weed and the 1969 Surrealist Film
Paris N'Existe Pas

And then a side trip to Stanley Kubrick land and The Shining

Paris N'Existe Pas (English: Paris Doesn't Exist) is a surrealist film directed by Robert Benayoun. a French film critic who directed three features. His second movie was Serious as Pleasure and is probably only to be remarked upon for having Jane Birkin in it. And he did a film on Jerry Lewis as he loved Jerry Lewis.

There are a few things to unpack with Paris N'Existe Pas but the easiest seems relevant to 420 culture.

The story about "420" is that several high school kids--Steven Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz and Mark Gravitch--coined the term in 1971 in California. They met daily to smoke and one day they met at 4:20 and they started using it as their code word for smoking weed/getting high and going on adventures. The how of it all is related in short form on Wikipedia but great effort has been put into to substantiating and confirming it below:

Looking back at the absolutely unexpected and totally wild origin of 420
420 Waldos: Documentation and Verification
Waldos and The Grateful Dead -- The 420 Origin Story

In 1975, the term went from private to public through an association with The Grateful Dead. Reddix's brother, Patrick, was friends with Phil Lesh, the bass player. Lesh asked him to manage a couple of his bands, and hired Dave Reddix as a roadie. Through association, "420" was adopted as slang and was disseminated from there.

I'm not saying these individuals didn't do this and don't have their story. I'm not questioning their story, that vein of history. The case has been rather soundly made for tracing at least the post-1975 American use of "420" to them, and one might suppose that "Flight 420" as slang for getting high derived also from this.

But (and never mind getting into any meanings of 42 and permutations) I found it amusing that this film associates 420 with weed two-three years before the California kids began to do so.

Paris N'Existe Pas opens with the Chirico's lovely painting, "Enigma of the Hour", one of mysterious figures standing before a building that impresses with the a metaphysical antiquity of civilization, one that makes one consider how we cause and are caused by. The building, as well its figures, seem to stand outside of time, an artifact of memory, but the centerpiece of the second story of the facade is a clock that reads 2:55. Then we have a scene in which a man is late, frustrated he has missed his train. Cut to a woman showing up at an airline desk and she's told there is a flight every 2 hours. A clerk tells her, "For instance, flight 420. You leave at midday and arrive the same day at 11:30 a.m." How is this possible? "Different time zones," the clerk explains, and we're shown a wall of clocks behind her with different times. Cut to a poster of a woman skiing on a green mountain top, the caption encouraging one to prepare a skiing trip in the summer. Cut to the man who was late going to a clock shop to have his watch repaired. He says it's always five minutes late.

The brief opening is all about the flexibility of time, and Chirico's "Enigma of the Hour" has been said to hint at the eternal moment. We certainly, in his paintings, feel a dream-like collision of the present, past and future, boundaries collapsed, each invading the other.

Time has not yet begun to break down for the lead character, an artist named Simon (Richard Leduc), when he arrives at a party at Laurent's (Serge Gainsbourg) to meet up with his partner, Angela (Danièle Gaubert), who says they've drawn the curtains and stopped the clocks. She may very well mean literally, for the curtains are closed and we can't tell from the interior whether it's day or night, but the general meaning is they're having such a great time that they don't know what time it is. Laurent has the privilege of being the lead brain, and he discusses with Laurent how he is stuck in his art. Another artist is discussed. Other real artists and their philosophy of work may be used as a basis for discussion, but it seems they're discussing an imaginary artist and imaginary art.

SIMON: He takes all kinds of rare objects, a complete series of the Minotaur , a manuscript by Zola, a canvas by El Greco...

LAURENT: A negative by Louis Lumiere...

SIMON: Yes. A dress that belonged to the Pompadour. He burns all that in front of a solicitor...

LAURENT: Using petrol...

SIMON: Until it's completely incinerated. He puts the ashes in a small container. He adds a list.

LAURENT: Authenticated and certified.

SIMON: He gives it a title, "Annihilated Spatial Absolute".

LAURENT: "Number 24".

SIMON: And it becomes priceless.

Simon says, with his art, he instead stares at a blank canvas which serves as a gateway to..."I may be old-fashioned but I still believe in something like vision".

Simon and his girlfriend have been going through a rough spot in their relationship, and when he insults her she storms out. Following her, he takes a drag on someone's joint, begins to return it but doesn't, he rather rudely bogarts it and exits.

At home, time promptly begins to break down as he experiences fluidity, going into the past and future (premonitions). Eventually, he falls in love with, or at least in fascination with, Félicienne (Monique Lejeune), a woman from the past who had lived in the apartment 30 or 40 years before. She is attractive, young, and her features and build are in some ways so similar to his girlfriend that at times I admittedly had a difficult time telling them apart, particularly when fashion defines appearance, and this confusion seems to have been intentional as the male protagonist and other characters always keep the same look. Not so counter-intuitively, rather than different fashions/styles individualizing, if the persons concerned are already similar enough then their appearing in a variety of styles can accentuate their sameness. The women's length of hair and styling frequently changes, which very intentionally doesn't help matters. Indeed, after a scene in which we see the past woman's hair styles change a number of times, as she sits before a mirror, Simon then attempts to style his girlfriend's hair up in a bun like Félicienne was last shown wearing. One may think of Vertigo and Jimmy Stewart altering Kim Novak to change her style to that of the "dead" woman she had earlier pretended to be. Jimmy Stewart was insistent that her hair must be up.

Simon tries to manipulate a newspaper that is dated 8 July 1968. At the beginning of the film, when the man who was late for an appointment took in his watch to get his fixed, an older woman was there who was trying to pick up a watch she had dropped off in July of 1947, either the 8th or the 9th, she's uncertain which day. The woman at the clock shop, picking up her watch 21 years later, seems to connect with all this, at least the director is reminding us of her when he shows us Simon looking at the paper on 8 July 1968. Simon focuses upon the date, trying to force it to change before his eyes, but this doesn't happen.

Simon imagines his novel experience of the anatomy of time has to do with the weed he'd smoked, but he is told that it was plain weed, not laced with anything.

Laurent, who has smoked up a storm throughout the film--waving a seeming regular tobacco cigarette in a long holder, unable to say a sentence without taking a drag--eventually reproves Simon that he's missing out on the present. Laurent's smoking was so persistent in the film that it became annoying and stood out to me. Serge Gainsbourg was known for smoking five packs of cigarettes a day, but it also struck me that Laurent is perhaps intended to be a version of Alice's Wonderland caterpillar.

Simon's experiences become so intense that he is unable to tell what is physically there in the present and what belongs to the past. During a tense exchange with his girlfriend, we view him standing on a plaza, plenty of room around them, but then we see he is instead standing at the top of a nearby flight of stairs that lead to a lower street. He takes a step back and falls down the stairs. Later, he walks into a street and is hit by a truck. Earlier, he'd had a view of a women safely crossing the street with cars going through her, he seeing a number of past moments combined but she safely traversing in her own time zone. Simon, whose boundaries have busted, is finding himself unable to manage interacting in the present while living in another time zone.

During a critical discussion, Laurent, trying to convince Simon he is on the wrong track, that this is unsafe, snaps at him as his mind wanders, demanding he focus, and it is a unique moment in the film. The tone has changed. The extreme has been reached and Simon must respect the outermost boundary that has repelled him.

LAURENT: Suppose you've developed an abnormal, morbid sensitivity to past events.

SIMON: And the future.

LAURENT: Then what? Will you prepare a thesis on Paris streets in 1932? It's absurd.

SIMON: Not really. If we could develop skills like that, we could revisit history, at least our recent history, examining small daily facts. For example, to revisit the Commune by following a small piece of bread, or standing near a fence. I've been thinking...doing some cross-checking, resolving small mysteries, reviving an entire era.

ANGELA: You don't live in the past. This is '68.

SIMON: Precisely. The world runs on, events rush ahead, there's not enough time. In the midst of the action, we make mistakes, and no one ever analyses the causes. Whereas, for me, everything can be still, I can relive some fateful minutes and analyse them.

LAURENT: You're regressing, avoiding reality, dismissing what's happening now. It's a conservative attitude.

SIMON: I'm not looking for anything specific. And it's all very limited. I can't see into the distance, and can't go back more than 30 or 40 years. Of course I could force myself, but the recent past gives me a lot of trouble. I keep going back to the same minute, the same second. And I don't want to run around during the Empire or the Restoration. So I make do with simple things, or else I'd go completely mad.

LAURENT: Don't I know it.

SIMON: You don't understand. In the middle of this furniture, these rugs, I've learned more than I could from 30 volumes of chronicles.

Simon values his experience but his ability to move around in time is already abating. Saying goodbye to it all, he takes one last trip through the past, lying in bed, almost all of what we see being moments with his girlfriend, as if trying to learn from them. Then, he is released. Or he believes he is. Audrey isn't confident, saying she feels he is holding something back.

During a drive home from a visit with Laurent, Audrey asks Simon what he's thinking and he replies he'll never know if it was all in his mind, if it was real, or if he was crazy. There's no way to prove that he had ventured into the past.

Audrey and Simon relaxing, their lives having seemed to return to normal, she reaches for his watch which she had expected to be on his left wrist, but it isn't, it is on his right, which is actually the wrist upon which he's worn his watch throughout the film. She asks him what time it is. Outlining her profile with his thumb, he says it is "4 hours 27 minutes and 30 seconds".

A little past 420.

He then sees a girl with a hula hoop, and is surprised by this, wondering if children still play with them. Appearing to doubt he is in the present, though it seems Audrey has seen the girl as well, he approaches the child and tells her he will give her a franc if she can tell him what day it is. She says, "Today." Smiling, satisfied, he gives her a franc. He turns and we see the side of the building in which he lives. It is out of focus. Then it comes into focus, as he goes out of focus, and we see a woman enter the frame from the right, walking a dog. It is the woman from his apartment's past. She walks by him.

What are we seeing? We are being shown Chirico's "Mystery and Melancholy of a Street", a painting in which there are two vanishing points. There is a girl in it who plays with the same style hoop as with the girl on the sidewalk. We realize that the wall of Simon's apartment building is the left wall in the painting. The shadow that is approaching from the far right in the painting, its arm outstretched, which will always remain a mystery in the painting, becomes the woman walking the dog on Simon's street, her outstretched arm holding a dog leash.

This film was made in 1968 and released in October of 1969. I don't know if it was released in the states (IMDB only gives release dates for France, Switzerland and Poland) but it may have made the art houses in a few US cities. I do wonder if "420" was already floating around connected with weed/getting high, but not very widespread perhaps, and these 420 high school kids had bumped into hearing this but may not have recollected it when they initiated their 420 code in 1971.

I looked and I didn't see anyone connecting "420" with this film in which we have "flight 420".

And now for the side trip to Kubrick Land

Paris N'Existe Pas and The Shining

I've written in The Possible Influence of Roger Vadim's 1962 Film Le Repos Du Guerrier on The Shining on how, when I saw the table upon which Renaud was going to write his novel, I thought how similar it was to the great table upon which Jack writes his novel.

The Shining - Passing what will become Jack's desk

Because I've covered the relationship between The Shining and Le Repos Du Guerrier (Love on a Pillow) in the above linked article, I'm going to discuss the major points only in brief here.

Both Renaud's and Jack's work areas are expansive wood tables rather than desks. They make a statement in how much space they occupy. Renaud works tirelessly at his book, as does Jack. Genevieve is forbidden to look at Renaud's book, as is Wendy. One day, Genevieve takes a peek at it and as the audience looks over her shoulder we are surprised to see only the single repeated sentence, "The lady went out at 5 o'clock."

How Renaud's single repeated sentence is revealed to the audience is much the same as how Jack's single repeated sentence is revealed to Wendy and the audience of The Shining. Jack's one repetitive sentence is a replay of Renaud's. Renaud's sentence was "La marquise sortit à cinq heures" and had appeared in Andre Breton's 1924 The Manifesto of Surrealism. Paul Valéry had vowed to Breton he would refrain from writing, "The Marquise went out at five", which was to avoid the trap of what was deemed to be a highly artificial manner and standard manner of writing that had nothing to do with reality.

Kubrick has been significantly influenced by surrealism.

Watching Paris N'Existe Pas, I had a slight déjà vu when we are first shown the table in Simon's apartment.

I didn't think too much of it, however, as it's just a dining table and Simon was not a writer. There's no reason for just a table to "ping" (though it did), and I released it, while at the same time I thought, "Before the end of this movie, there's going to be a definite Kubrick link to The Shining."

Then, representing for the viewer how Simon was moving around in time, objects were shown moving around on the table, as with stop animation.

At first, the movements are minor, but quickly become overt and undeniable. Objects move all about the room. As the film progresses, Simon finds himself having moved so far back in time he is viewing the apartment as it was 30 or 40 years beforehand. It occurred to me how like this was the situation in The Shining, in which Jack finds himself in The Overlook being served by a bartender from its past then attending a party populated by individuals from the Roaring Twenties. But what interested me more than that was how I was reminded of how Kubrick so plainly moved about objects in The Shining that it became noticeable to some viewers, though this is explained away by the majority as simple continuity errors, even the appearance and disappearance of heating/cooling vents in the pillars behind Jack's massive desk-table in the Colorado Lounge.

If that had been all, I would have thought of these things only as interesting parallels in treatment of a subject. Indeed, I was near the end of Paris N'Existe Pas and though there were the aforementioned similarities I saw no reason to believe there was a solid link between the two films. But then came the ending of the film, which I didn't cover above, and I changed my mind and decided there was a solid connection.

In Paris N'Existe Pas, after the scene of the girl with the hoop, Simon and Angela go into their apartment building where the manager stops them and gives Simon his mail. Upstairs, in their apartment, he looks around as if making sure he is in the present. Angela asks him if he's going to open the mail. With his having become unstuck in time, moving into the past, he had been studying old maps of Paris and old photos. Opening the envelope, he finds in it some old photos he had ordered when making those explorations.

Simon had just told Angela, down in the car, that he would never know for certain if he had gone into the past or imagined it, if he was crazy or not. Now he lays out the photos on the floor and Simon sees, Angela sees, and the audience sees Simon looking back at the camera in an old photograph.

Just as, at the end of The Shining, is the mysterious reveal of Jack in the1921 photo.

I've wondered before if it was possible the woman on Jack's screen in the 1921 photo right may be holding a joint and not just a cigarette. I had thought, maybe I'll one day come across something that illumines that part a bit. And now I wonder if it's a joint and possibly a reference to 420 in Paris N'Existe Pas, in which it's questioned if smoking the joint is the cause of Simon's becoming unstuck in time...and though it appears to be the cause, we also know it isn't, that instead his smoking the joint dovetails with whatever the cause is, the weed then just becomes a kind of connecting symbol. For instance, Laurent's party had already been described as a place in which a sense of time has been lost, no one knows whether it's day or night, and even Angela is unaware of how long she's been there, so when Simon tells her she's been at the party since "yesterday", she's surprised. When Simon arrives at the party to pick up Angela, Simon and Laurent discuss art that is made by incinerating objects, including the full series of the surrealist Minotaur publication, and Laurent, who non-stop pours cigarette smoke all over Simon, titled the prospective art "Number 24" (a permutation of 42). We can look at everything preceding Simon's 420 "trip" to different time zones as being a potential contributor, the exact trigger unknown, but as Simon questions if the joint is responsible the two are connected.

The photo in The Shining isn't static. Like The Overlook, things in it change. In the long view, the woman to the screen right of Jack doesn't hold what looks like the joint. Then there is the cross-fade and in the close-up it appears. That isn't just a matter of bad continuity. What appears to be a joint was either removed in the first version of the photo or added in the close-up. It is decidedly purposeful in its materialization.

As Paris N'Existe Pas ends with the same photo reveal as in The Shining, I started looking at some of the other similarities, such as Simon falling down the steps during a terse discussion with his girlfriend, just as Jack falls down the stairs (in the book he does not) when Wendy strikes him with a bat.

And Wendy's trip back in time is to watch The Summer of 42 on a television set that has no electric wire. Yes, getting rid of the cable makes it a tidier shot. But, still...

There is no single way to view The Shining or any of Kubrick's films. By way of their construction, multiple layers are had and in-built are a multiplicity of references and meanings. Each of his films has in it a clear break from preconceived reality for the primary character. They become unstuck. The audience participates to a certain degree with that experience, but they are generally so conditioned to expect realism that they accept reality disruption until something itches their limit and they recoil and ask, "Wait a minute? What the hell was that about?"

The reveal of the haunted photo is now a trope, but in 1980 it really was a surprise when Kubrick zoomed in the wall to show Jack smiling back from 1921. As with Paris N'Existe Pas, I don't think it is a simple matter of horror and ghosts. Reflecting on Simon's appearance in the photo, we need to consider statements on his experience, most significantly, "...for me, everything can be still, I can relive some fateful minutes and analyse them." This is a description of a freezing of time like the capturing of a moment in a photograph. Simon's desire is to learn from what he examines and change it.

In Simon's last dive into the past, which is controlled and purposeful, which he says is for himself and Angela, we at least twice see something that we've not previously viewed in the film, a green field in which we have, in the distance, a glimpse of Angela and Simon dressed in white, she on the left and Simon next to her on the right. This scene stands out because it is of Angela and Simon in a place other than the city, and we've not been introduced to it before. Where does it fit into the story? As it turns out, it is on this scene that the film ends, immediately after the other photo reveal, and we find that Angela and Simon out in the field are also examining a photograph (though we view it from behind, we can tell it's a different photo than the one we've earlier viewed), only now Simon is on the left and Angela is on the right. There has been a change, a reversal, and it's rather anticipated by Angela, when she reached to look at Simon's watch, and believed it would be on his left wrist rather than on his right.

The shot of Angela and Simon in the field at the end, and what we see earlier during his time trip, are two different shots, but it doesn't matter. The reason it's two different shots is because Benayoun didn't want to fully give away earlier that Angela and Simon were in the field looking at a photo. After we've been shown Simon in the old photo, are we taken back to the green field and it's then made clear they were also looking at a photo there, and it's likely the viewer won't realize the image has been reversed as our preoccupation is wondering what the field has to do with anything. When did this take place? Did Simon, when he was traipsing around in the future and past, change something? What we know is that Simon said he was making that one last trip for himself and Angela, to save their relationship, and that this is a rather idealized scene, out in the field with the flowers, the two surrounded by nature, dressed in white. We are left to puzzle over it and make of it what we might.

Cut to a black screen, and Benayoun caps with a quote from Borges.

Time is the substance from which I am made.

Time is a river which sweeps me along but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it's a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.

Benayoun hinted at Borges' tiger comparison with images of an art tiger during the stated final trip through time Simon took for sake of his relationship with Angela.

This was less a "movie" than a filmed essay on time, and I was fine with that. Foremost among its quirks--the story, editing and pace occasionally took on the air of an educational film, or how some of the older stop-motion experimental films can have an almost clinical aura to them, mood sacrificed for idea. The artist was supposed to be wrestling with an artistic block, as well as a problem in his domestic relationship, and neither of these sub-plots were sufficiently explored to feel like much more than an extraneous structure for sake of having some frame of a traditional plot, which can sometimes happen with surrealist films. The actors were wooden, as was the imaging of them. I'd say this felt like surrealism making a stab at the mainstream, but if that was the case Benayoun wouldn't have begun with a painting by Chirico, then a man who was late who never reappeared in the film, as well as several other characters who were expressions of "time"? He veers back and forth between experimental and wanting to reach a broader audience, and never quite finds its center. And, again, that was all right. One sits with it for sake of the ideas and to watch the attempt to make a film that may reach the mind in a different way than words, photos, or paintings, to examine how the director contends with the problem.

Jan 2023. Approx 4400 words or about 9 single-spaced pages.

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