Universal measures: 1001 Grams

Ken Alder

Northwestern University

 

image001Everything seems to be in order at the Norwegian Bureau of Standards, where Marie Ernst works as an inspector of weights and measures. This is as it should be, because the establishment houses the nation’s prototype standards, the final arbiters of those metrical conventions that govern a well-managed society—like modern Norway. With her hair pulled back tight and upright bearing, the 30-something Marie is a paragon of restraint and rectitude.  But even as she calibrates her balance scales and checks the gas meters, the forces of disorder encroach, allowing 1001 Grams to open its account book of losses and gains.

image002Over the past decade, Bent Hamer, the film’s screen-writer and director, has made a series of wry Scandinavian comedies about experts in lonely jobs.  O’Horten (2007) follows a railroad engineer on his final run. Kitchen Stories (2003) features a Taylorist efficiency expert who comes to sympathize with his experimental subjects. His one foray into American movie-making, Factotum (2005), starring Matt Dillon, is based on a Charles Bukowski story about a beat-writer who drinks and womanizes and falls out with his publisher. 1001 Grams (2014) is his best film yet: meticulously observed and charmingly rendered. We root for Marie even as her points of reference fail her.

Although Marie has devoted herself to maintaining the metrical order, she also practices sly subversions: sneaking a cigarette with her father, a senior scientist at the Bureau, in the narrow breezeway between buildings; watching warily from her miniscule electric car while her ex removes his effects from their apartment. Then, when her father falls gravely ill, she is asked to take his place at the annual Parisian meeting of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM).  In her hand luggage, she carries the Norwegian prototype kilo, a squat platinum cylinder packed meticulously inside its delicate double-dome glass vacuum and protective outer sleeve. She must escort this mysterious and precious cargo past suspicious customs officials so that it can be compared with the great French ur-prototype.

image005Has the Norwegian kilo lost weight over the past year, or has the French standard gained? Who can say? The kilogram is the last metrical standard to be based on a physical object. So while it is possible that surface contaminants have caused the French standard to gain an infinitesimal fraction of weight, it is also possible that the rest of the universe has been losing it. At the conference, where such matters are taken seriously, Marie meets a shaggy French physicist nick-named “Pi” who is working on the current project to redefine the kilo in terms of a natural constant. Perhaps it will soon be possible to secure the exchanges that govern our social life in an unchanging nature beyond the contingencies and slippages that beset our current state. Or perhaps not. On her return home, Marie encounters the banana peel of breakage and loss, and must return to Paris to recover her equilibrium.

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The film conveys its dead-pan humor with patience and affection. The tone is generous yet restrained, never quite tipping into either farce or melodrama, though both continually threaten to pull Marie down. The camera work is similarly quiet, poised at mid-distance, as in the work of Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese master of modern domestic life. As in Ozu, there is little exposition or chitchat, with feelings conveyed by posture and the camera’s attention. The deliberate pace may mean that this movie is not suitable for the classroom, where students are more used to a higher velocity of action or outrage. But the movie’s images and characters certainly hold the viewer’s attention. The actor Ane Dahl Torp does a lovely job of conveying Marie’s reactions with an arched eyebrow or tilted mouth. Laurent Stoker is looser and warmer as Pi, an amateur gardener and birder, with a French way with understatement. “Don’t worry,” he assures her about the kilo, “some countries have actually lost theirs.”

image008If Hamer manages to wring human drama out of a subject as banal as measurement, it is because he understands that the task of ensuring that standards remain boring and invisible makes impossible demands on their all-too-fallible guardians. Metric vigilance and its inevitable shortcomings have dogged the history of metrical standards since the era of the French Revolution, producing their own share of secret drama.

The savants who first created the metric system knew this first-hand. Under the aegis of the French Revolutionary government, they had declared that all the new units were to be based on constants found in nature so that they might serve (in the words of Condorcet) “for all people, and for all time.” For instance, the length of the meter—itself the foundational standard—was to be defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. But surveying the length of the actual meridian that ran through Paris proved to be a complex social operation, beset by all the imbroglios that such social processes are heir to. The two astronomers sent out from Paris in 1792 to realize this measure—Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain—took seven years to triangulate their way from Dunkirk to Barcelona. Along their zigzag route they were waylaid by the ferment of a nation in revolution: imprisoned as counter-revolutionaries, impugned as emissaries of exploitative landlords, and repeatedly stranded by war and hyperinflation. More to the point, they ran up against the contradictions of their techno-political enterprise.

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Méchain, burdened by the weight of his awesome responsibility, went so far as to suppress some of his data that did not seem to jive with the rest. It was a secret which hounded him to his grave. Moreover, during the final calculation of the meter’s length, the savants discovered that their data revealed that the earth’s shape was so irregular that every meridian was of a different length, invalidating the core universalist premise of the expedition. Not that it mattered. In practice, as Delambre understood, it was the platinum bar they built to enshrine the meter that served as the physical prototype standard for length. In the latter part of the 19th century, these prototypes were rebuilt to a more exacting precision, and in the later 20th century, they were again re-defined in terms of natural constants, albeit always so as to match the original erroneous measure. Except for the kilogram—until now.  In 2011 the Bureau of International Weights and Measures announced that as of 2018 the kilogram will be defined in terms of Planck’s constant. Thereafter, it is hoped, this “last artifact” will be grounded in universal nature—although an elaborate concatenation of precision science and legions of inspectors will still be needed to maintain our metric conventions.

You don’t need to know this technical and contentious history to appreciate Hamer’s human drama. What matters is that Marie and Pi care, and that in doing so they must balance the risk of disappointment against the hope of bringing their worlds into alignment. 1001 Grams offers yet another demonstration that comedy thrives when social conventions threaten to come undone. The 1 gram surplus in the “1001” title neatly suggests that our lives can never come into perfect equilibrium; there is always a human thumb on the scale. That’s not fraud: that’s life.

Bent Hamer, 1001 Grams, Color, 93 min, Norway, Germany, Pandora Filmproduktion, Slot Machine, ZDF/Arte, Bulbul Films.

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