It was a funny-shaped object. A small tin box with irregularly rounded ends, a rectangular aperture in the middle and on the opposite side a small lens, the size of a nickel. You had to gently insert a piece of film—real film, with sprockets and all—in the upper part, then a tiny rubber wheel blocked it, and by turning the corresponding knob the film unrolled, frame by frame. To tell the truth, each frame represented a different shot, so the whole thing looked more like a slide show than a home cinema, yet the shots were beautifully printed stills out of celebrated pictures: Chaplin's, Ben Hur, Abel Gance's Napoleon. ... If you were rich, you could lock that small unit in a sort of magic lantern and project it on your wall (or screen, if you were very rich). I had to satisfy myself with the minimal version: pressing my eye against the lens, and watching. That forgotten contraption was called Patheorama. You could read it in golden letters on black, with the legendary Pathe rooster singing against a rising sun.
The egotistic pleasure of watching by myself images pertaining to the unfathomable realm of Movieland very soon had a dialectical byproduct: when I couldn't even imagine having anything in common with the process of filmmaking (whose basic principles were naturally far beyond my comprehension), there something of the film itself was within my reach, pieces of celluloid that were not that different from the photographic negatives when they came back from the lab. Something I could touch and feel, something of the real world. And why (insinuated my own dialectical Jiminy Cricket) couldn't I in turn make something of the same kind? All I needed was translucent material and the right measurements. (The sprockets were there to look good, the rubber wheel just ignored them.) So, with scissors, tracing paper, and glue, I managed to get a proper copy of the Patheorama model tape. Then, screen by screen, I began to draw a few poses of my cat (who else?) with captions inbetween. And all of a sudden, my cat belonged to the same universe as the characters in Ben Hur or Napoleon. I had gone through the looking glass.
Of all my school buddies, Jonathan was the most prestigious; he was mechanically minded and quite inventive, he made up maquettes of theaters with rolling curtains and flashing lights, and a miniature big band emerging from the abyss while a cranked gramophone was playing "Hail the Conquering Hero." So it was natural that he was the first to whom I wished to show my masterwork. I was rather pleased with the result, and I unrolled the adventures of the cat Riri which I presented as "my movie." Jonathan managed to get me sobered up: "Movies are supposed to move, stupid," he said. "Nobody can do a movie with still images."
Thirty years passed. Then I made La Jetée.
First published at Film Quaterly, 52:1, Autumn, 1998, p. 66.