Saturday, April 12, 2008

French Particularities No. 17: Les Chaises

Between rides, Les Chaises is still for several minutes as people climb up onto the platform and choose their chair. The platform is like a stage, and they are the performers, lost, looking for the seat with their name on it. It's a relief to sit down, and when they do, they're suddenly a member of the audience, waiting for the show to start.

There are two kinds of chair: twin seats and single seats. Small boys and girls like to sit together on the twin seats. Adults prefer the single seats, large men glancing uneasily up into the steel rigging of the chair some twenty feet up where they see a steel bar that looks like a specially adapted coat-hanger strung with two light, whippy chains.

Teenage girls have been on Les Chaises many times before and have grown cocksure. They twist the chair so that the chains wind up like a rubber band, until eventually they are standing on tip-toes with the chains wound into a tight braid above their heads. When Les Chaises starts to move, they are whipped off their feet and start to spin chaotically, madly. They let out screams that mingle with the fake-happy organ music that has started to seep out from inside the central pillar.

The transformation from static to dynamic is brutal and graceful all at once. The chairs rise up into the air like enchanted furniture. Suddenly the riders are silouhetted against the sky, hair-flying, arms and legs outspread. Against gravity they rise and fall as the great mexican hat of Les Chaises nods like a drunken hombre on a long summer afternoon. It is a dream, they are the black albatrosses swarming before his eyes, looking for a tree to perch in the middle of the ocean. The branches grab at their ankles, the music grows cold. The heavy men feel gravity pulling at their legs. The young women grasp their bosoms.

Each tries not to slip forward on their seat, gripping the silver handles of the chair or the arm of a companion. Some imagine flying, others falling. Some think of the moon, others try to spot the faces of their mothers, fathers, blurred on the ground below, quick flashes of a past life suddenly transformed by perspective.

The heaving machine begins to slow, the chairs start to descend. Everyone has survived. The riders leave their places, say goodbye to the stage. There was never any risk, was there? The great hidden machine has let them fly, giddily, fatherly. They trusted it, the painted panels, the naked ladies at their bath, the Fragonard madamoiselles swinging in forest glades, the muscle-thick ropes supporting all their blustering silk and lace, their pale pink shoes taking flight.


Lucy said...

Chair-a-plane! I'd forgotten all about them until quite recently seeing two short films made from old footage by Geoffrey Jones on the Rhythm of Film dvd. Where are the ones you describe here?

Lovely writing, very vivid.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hi Lucy, the pictured ride is at the Le Jardin d'Acclimatation, a great children's fun park on the west side of Paris by the Bois de Boulogne.

I have seen another in Paris from time to time near the Tuileries by the Louvre.

The Geoffrey Jones film sounds interesting. I'll look out for it.

Joe Milutis said...

Since you are the man of all particularities French, and I am the one "making the start out of particulars" in New Jersey, I'll have to point out that my first experience of Les Chaises was at Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ.