Are there flâneur films?

Vitus Bacchausen wishes that somebody would make a movie about the flâneur, but admits, for prescient reasons, that such a film would be impossible to make within the constraints of commercial cinema.

Why, Bacchausen wonders, have there been no ‘flâneur movies’?

There are two answers to this question.  Firstly, one may adduce a not insubstantial list of characters in film who might be described as flâneurs.

The first, and most obvious, candidate is Scottie Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), who, when quizzed, gives his profession as ‘wandering’.  But you can also reel off putative examples like the wandering protagonists of Antonioni’s films, such as Lidia in La Notte (1961), Vittoria in L’Eclisse (1962), and the photographer of Blowup (1966).

You could point to Jesse and Céline in Before Sunrise (1995), or the eponymous heroine of Amélie (2001).  Petra Nolan of the University of Melbourne even makes a plausible case, in her PhD thesis, for Walter Neff, the vagabond insurance salesman of Double Indemnity (1944), as ‘the cinematic flâneur par excellence.

The key word is ‘plausible’.

All the examples adduced above are plausible, and a convincing prima facie case could be made for any of them as cinematic flâneurs, one which would appear to refute Bacchausen’s contention that the figure of the flâneur has not really found his place in cinema.

But my second answer to Bacchausen’s question refutes the one I’ve just given.

I would say that if you look more carefully at any of the films cited above, you must come to the conclusion that they feature characters who partake in flânerie, but that these characters are not themselves flâneurs pur-sang.

In an earlier post, I gave a fairly strict definition of what is a flâneur.  I offered three traits which I regard as non-negotiable characteristics in any definition.

Firstly, the flâneur is a pedestrian.  He walks, not occasionally, but as his primary and preferred mode of transport.

Secondly, he is an acute observer of the world that files past him as he walks, and as Bacchausen notices, there is, in the sport of observation, a distinctly æsthetic end to the chase.  The flâneur is a hunter who chases after beauty.

Thirdly, there is a pronounced element of the dandy in the character of the flâneur.  Charity begins at home: unless he firstly recognizes himself to be a worthy æsthetic object of attention, it is highly unlikely that a man who is not assiduously attentive to the details of his own deportment is going to exhibit the level of unusual acuity of attention toward the æsthetic details of the external world which I ascribe to the flâneur.

A man may walk shabbily abroad looking longingly after beauty, but that man is not a flâneur.  He is the Average Frustrated Chump you see shambling down Swanston street.

Given the definition above, it’s hard to see how the characters adduced in the first answer are flâneurs, though it can certainly be conceded that they partake in the activity of flânerie in a more or less dilettantish way.

Jep Gambardella, the Roman giornalista of La grande bellezza (2013), is the only character in film I can think of who satisfies my three-point definition as a ‘cinematic flâneur pur-sang’.

So the question remains:  Are there flâneur films?

The answer is yes, but it is the character of the films themselves, rather than any characters they contain, which may be regarded as ‘flâneuristic’.

At the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, Slavoj Žižek made some intriguing remarks vis-à-vis. Hitchcock; to wit—how Hitchcock’s films have an uncanny quality, at certain moments, of appearing to ‘think for themselves’.

In Psycho (1960), for instance, there are two extraordinary moments, one immediately after the shower scene and the other immediately before the second murder.  In both cases, the camera detaches itself from the point of view of the character it has locked onto and acts ‘queerly’, as though it had an intelligence and agency of its own, moving through space and looking at things quite pointedly, as though it were mutely trying to tell us something, the way our unconscious appeals to us through images.

Žižek calls this ‘thinking through film’, and it’s a highly rarefied cognitive process which seems to emerge from the apparatus of cinema itself—something like Baudelaire’s sensation that the image of sky and sea, and a little yacht trembling on the horizon, seemed to be thinking through him—‘musicalement et pittoresquement, sans arguties, sans syllogismes, sans déductions’ (‘musically and pictorially, without quibbles, without syllogisms, without deductions’).

Meditating on Žižek’s remarks, I began to ask myself what a cinema of flânerie might look like.

In fact, flâneur films are the oldest kind.  They have their roots in the actualité, the single, locked-off shot, without pan or cut, of the miracle which a moment of everyday life becomes when you train a camera at it for so long that it transcends its boring banality—like the shot of a sunset unfolding behind the Melbourne CBD which I’ve included at the head of today’s post.

The camera’s ability to gaze fixedly at a detached detail is like, and yet unlike, the flâneur’s acuity of observation, for our eyes do not ‘frame’ things.  When a shot is composed and unblinkingly held for minutes on end, and when, as in the video above, it is implied that this perspective is closely aligned but not identical with the point of view of an observer we cannot see, there is the uncanny sense that the camera itself has ‘intelligence’.

A film becomes ‘flâneurial’ when a moment of documentary actuality enters into it and is sustained well beyond what the average viewer would regard as a reasonable length of time.

To my mind, Ozu is the master of this kind of flâneurial cinema.  His ‘pillow shots’ are moments of ventilation in a film where architectural features and irrelevant details are held for longer than they would ordinarily be.  Ozu’s stubborn refusal to pan or dolly, to allow his camera to ‘look away’, imbues it with a sense of wilful, alien intelligence.

The other attribute of flâneurial cinema is the offshoot of the actualité, the ‘phantom ride’.  This is when the camera is placed on a train, tram or car, and, without moving itself, appears to float or glide like a ghost, registering the succession of actual events which pass it by.

The classic phantom ride, the masterpiece of the form, is the famous “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906).  Strapped to the front of a cable car, the camera floats towards the Ferry Building for 13 minutes, registering the life of the street with that alien fixity of attention we see in Ozu, never turning its ‘head’ to gaze about itself as a real flâneur would.

The capacity of the camera to move in this gliding, floating fashion, simulating human ambulation but very different from it, is a quality that Antonioni makes good use of in his passeggiate.

In La Notte, the camera, raised at some elevation behind Lidia, appears almost to stalk her as it stealthily tracks her tacking between bollards.  In Blowup, in the key scenes set in Maryon Park, the camera is subtly detached from the point of view of the photographer.  It pans to sweep the scene in a movement more eerie than a human head-turn because of its mechanical smoothness.  Or, in a moment of startling volition, it gazes up at the branches of a tree in what we realize only afterwards was its own ‘point of view shot’.

This uncanny sense of the film possessing its own intelligence and agency, principally through the camera, but also through cutting and the rest of the constitutive apparatus which compose a film, is, I think, what Žižek means when he talks about ‘thinking through film’.

‘To understand the film,’ he says, ‘you should include into its content the message delivered by the autonomy of form.  It’s at that level that true thinking in cinema happens.’

When a film has the volition to move—or not move—through the world as it wishes, and to study with its own fixity of attention those details of actuality which arrest it in its passage, the character of the film itself becomes ‘flâneurial’.

What do you think?

Are there characters in movies you would actually define as flâneurs, or, like Bachhausen and myself, are you at a loss to think of any who really meet the measure?

Is it possible for films to ‘think for themselves’, as I’m suggesting?

I’m interested to hear your comments below.

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