Surviving 2020 has meant living, simultaneously, in two incompatible timelines. There is, on one hand, the relentlessness of the present moment. “Now! Now! Now! Now! Now!” 2020 screams in our faces, constantly, like a bullying mindfulness coach. And yet we can also feel ourselves being pulled out into the deep stretch of history. We are so clearly living through the worst chapters of a civics textbook. Even as we suffer, we know that our hyperventilations and breakdowns will be archived and studied by some patient people in a saner future. And so we feel displaced. We have become living fossils, ancient even to ourselves. Still, somehow, there is so much fresh pain.
Over the last month, as a coping mechanism, I have been watching the same viral video over and over and over. It is not a campaign ad or a supercut of triumphant congressional zingers. In fact, it is the opposite: a brief clip of old-timey French people pelting one another with snowballs. This is my favorite film of 2020 — a tiny masterpiece that perfectly distills not only our current mayhem but also, more profoundly, our baffling displacement in time.
The footage was captured in Lyon, in 1897, by the Lumière brothers, who were among the world’s first filmmakers. It was originally black and white, of course, and herky-jerky because of the low frame rate. But this snowball fight has recently been colorized and smoothed, and the result is shockingly modern.
The video shows 52 seconds of joyful carnage: a gaggle of antiquated French people hucking compacted snow at one another’s faces with terrifying ferocity. Although it’s hard to get an accurate head count in the chaos, there is something like 15 of them: men in suits and hats and women in long puffy sleeves, their skirts protected by aprons. The combatants start on either side of a stately tree-lined street, but soon they end up all scrambled together. It’s like one of those big battle scenes at the end of a superhero movie — a gracefully choreographed free-for-all, a ballet of annihilation. Fighters swivel and dodge and stoop down to reload; alliances form and disband; heads disappear in explosions of snow. Brave fighters suddenly fall.
If you watch the snowball fight over and over, as I will do for the rest of my life, certain characters begin to stand out.
Down in the bottom-left corner, a thick man with a strong black mustache fires a cheap shot: a wild fastball, from point-blank range, that barely misses its intended target, a slim man who is busy looking the other way. The slim man turns, cocks his left arm and wallops the big man on his thigh.
From that point forward, these two are locked in savage, jolly combat. They reload and pelt each other multiple times, until finally — overtaken, perhaps, by the homosocial energy crackling between them — the big man staggers forward and lunges to tackle the slim man like a bear attacking a deer. But once again he misses: The slim man sidesteps and, grinning, shoves the big man into the snow. The big man pops back up, like a mustachioed snow-zombie, and starts pelting the slim man again from behind.
My favorite character, and the closest the film has to a protagonist, is a man in a bowler hat and a coat so long it flaps around his legs like the cloak of a levitating wizard. He looks as if he has just stepped out of a bank meeting, and yet he abandons himself to this childish street warfare with eager glee.
While the other fighters stand more or less rooted in place, the man in the bowler covers a surprising amount of ground — he is a free agent, prancing around with lumbering lightness, entering and exiting clusters of people, galloping across the road, following his bliss, attacking willy-nilly with a funky sidearm toss. He seems to take as many shots as he gives, and by the end of the film his black coat is thoroughly dusted with white; you can see the snowballs’ impact blasts as clearly as bullet holes.
And then there is the bicycle. This is the peak moment of brutality, when the whole group loses its collective goddamn mind. Right from the start, you can see the cyclist coming: a small figure, growing larger every second, gliding smoothly on an angle toward the fray. Before he even reaches the crowd, he starts to take distant fire. And yet he is determined to ride on. When he arrives, all the warring factions turn to unite against him, unleashing a wickedly targeted cyclone. The cyclist takes hard shots to the arm, the face, the back, the neck. Still he pedals forward, hunching his back, spinning his long legs — a stoic hero, intent on gliding through the violence, determined to reach the safety of the other side.
But he can’t. The cyclist absorbs one blow too many. He collapses like a broken toy.
His legs fly up in the air; his hat lands upside down in the snow. Before he can even get up, the cyclist is pelted again, and someone tries to steal his bike — but the cyclist stands and rips it away, then hops back on, abandoning his hat, retreating, pedaling off the way he came, taking powdery sniper fire as he goes. It is an object lesson in futility, in noble intentions thwarted — one man’s vision destroyed by the sudden madness of a crowd.
Off in the middle distance, two men stand near a street lamp, watching the mayhem, never moving, like Beckett characters, thinking who knows what.
On an intellectual level, we all understand that historical people were basically just like us. All those stiff figures frozen in blurred photos and smoke-stained oil paintings — the endless parade of side-whiskers, small dogs, billowing dresses, baggy trousers. The ancestors who laid down our roads and built our houses and planted the trees whose leaves still clog our gutters. The mulched lives that made us possible. They lived, as we do, in the throbbing nerve-pocket of the now. They were anxious and unsure, bored and silly. Nothing that would happen in their lifetimes had happened yet. The ocean of time was crashing fresh waves, nonstop, against the rocks of their days. And like us they stood there, gasping in the cold spray, wondering what people of the past were like.
And yet it’s hard, across such wide gulfs of time, to really feel this connection. So to watch this snowball fight, to see these people so alive, is a precious gift of perspective. We are them. They are us. We, too, will disappear. We will become abstractions to be puzzled over by future people. That certainty, in the flux of 2020, feels anchoring. We are not unique. We move in the historical flow. The current moment will melt away like snow crust on a mustache.
In Lyon, this street from the snowball fight is still there. It still looks basically identical: the trees, the buildings. I am staring at it now on my computer screen, and in my mind I am already planning a trip, imagining a pilgrimage, in some unrecorded future.