Friday, June 14, 2013

Any good idea is worth beating to death!

Compare and contrast: one is dark and moody - in fact it's kind of broody - Fritz Lang's 1927 expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis. The anonymous worker helplessly grapples with the hands of a huge clock, a piece of machinery that seems to rule everything (including time itself). This is one of the film's creepiest and most disturbing images.

And then there's this guy who plays it for comedy - Harold Lloyd in his own masterpiece, the 1923 comedy Safety Last! But what sort of thunderbolt of inspiration gave him the idea to dangle from an enormous clock? If we free-associate, we come up with a few things: the hands on the clock/HIS hands on the clock, time running out, turning back the hands of time, the clock striking midnight, the crash of the stock market that ended the dizzy joy of the '20s: and who knew it was coming, who could hold back that inevitable stroke of doom?

This guy is also swingin', and it can't end well. The bizarre scrambled numbers on the clock face make no sense (for surely they ought to go to 11), and neither does the constant, frantic manipulation of the hands to avoid some sort of industrial disaster. The size of the clock doesn't quite square with Harold's, but the idea? Did it come to Lang in a dream? Was he thinking of Harold Lloyd at all?

Harold's fear is height, and the Metropolis drone's fear is immolation, a literal meltdown. In any case, they have to hold on, though the struggle seems hopeless. 

Exposed like the Wizard of Oz, here the clock becomes a bizarre mechanical wheel of fortune, its awful impersonal gauges and dials a reminder that technology is always in charge (and I have to say this, it also looks quite a bit like a banjo, a pie plate, or maybe even a tambourine). . .

. . . whereas Harold is just a scared little man trying not to die, a tiny surreal black figure swinging for his life. Is Lang's vision Harold turned inside-out or fed through the evil machinery of his imagination? Does Metropolis reflect the "mechanical" quality some critics claimed detracted from Lloyd's work? Are the cogs and flywheels that endlessly whirred in Harold's mind making themselves manifest in this horrorscape? Or is the whole thing just a big fat coincidence?

We'll never know now.

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