When Alizée turned north into Lygon Street out of Fenwick, she saw him wandering slowly in the opposite direction past the Eolian Hall. His head was turned towards the creamy déco pile, evocative, in its Mediterranean blancheur, of her homeland as it shimmered faintly in the midday heat. The bottlegreen brim of his Fedora described a gloomy arc of shadow which just veiled his eyes, further occluded by the bluish haze of smoke from his Candela, as he tacked past the hall in a not altogether steady drift, whether dreamily attracted by its magnetism, or faintly oppressed by the rising heat, it was difficult to say at that distance.
He had adjusted his wardrobe to the weather and was wearing the limegreen dress shirt, its French cuffs folded back and cinched together by gold links which matched the garters hitching up his sleeves. The skyblue waistcoat hung open, exposing a suggestion of suspender where the book, hugged loosely to his breast, pushed back the edge of his vest. The dark green patterned bowtie was a little askew, its jaunty angle mimicking the rakish slant of the Fedora’s brim. He wore the checked, mustardcoloured slacks, the breaks of which bounced gracefully over the tan, brogued wingtips of the derby boots along with his slow, loping gait as he sauntered past the hall, regarding it abstractedly and yet with a set to his mouth, around the butt of the green cigar, which implied contentment with life.
Alizée quickened her pace until just before he passed the Eolian Hall completely and turned his head back to twelve o’clock. When he seemed on the verge of noticing her, she slowed up abruptly to match his casual saunter, raising her right hand, encumbered, as always, with the iPhone, and waved it at him.
—Buongiorno! she greeted him enthusiastically as they closed the distance.
He took the Candela out of his mouth and saluted her with it as he approached.
She came on with her habitual onslaught of high energy, running into him just before the triple row of terraces under the creamy, partly mutilated cornice which dominated this block of Lygon Street, its mascarons, jutting from corbels, projecting from ends of plaster, gazing fixedly into the green wastes of the General Cemetery across the street, stoically ignorant of the exuberant display of affection to their collective left. For Alizée did not hesitate to kiss him fully on the lips as she flung her arms around his neck, rocking him back a little in his centre of gravity with the collision of her lips as he returned the embrace more equivocally, resting the free fingers of his right hand lightly, briefly on her flank.
—Una bella giornata, vero? she enthused. Che sole! che cielo! For once, Melbourne seems like home—though not, I should say, a Natale!
—Sì. I think we’re past winter now, he admitted coolly as he stepped back from her embrace, returning the green cigar to the corner of his mouth for a quick drag.
He turned his head a little to the right, blew a plume of smoke politely to one side of her, but his hard grey eyes remained firmly fixed ahead, on Alizée, as they took the measure of her very quickly through the veil of smoke. In an instant, his cool manner had softened a little. Though the eyes lost none of their probing, assessing quality, they seemed to smile at her.
—You’re not in your shop today. What are you up to? he asked with amiable brutality.
—Faccio del shopping, she said, holding up the green Woolies bag depending from her left hand. The bag was very light—empty even. E tu? What are you reading?
Without waiting for a reply, she grasped the book, a slim paperback, not rudely, but with a certain proprietorial familiarity, the fingers of her left hand curling around the pages until they were against his shirtfront. His face wore a faint, wry expression which might have signified amusement or annoyance as he let her take it away from him.
She flipped her wrist back to reveal the front cover. It was a French giallo. The cover showed a young brunette, slim with attractive, pointed features—not entirely dissimilar to Alizée herself—in a silk slip with spaghetti straps—rather like the green cotton playsuit she was wearing—squeezing her small tette together and regarding the graceful shadow between them with the proud absorption of feminine possession. The photograph had been solarized so that the lowlights of the brunette’s skin were weirdly purple and the bronzy slip had been rendered garish and fauvistic. The title was Le facteur fatal, by an author—a Belgian perhaps—calling himself Didier Daeninckx.
The left corner of Alizée’s mouth made a small reflexive moue.
—Tu lis d’trucs comme ça?
He shrugged Gallically, the end of the Candela sketching a volute of smoke—like a question mark—with the sprezzatura of the gesture. He gave an impression of being bored by the conversation.
—I just found it in an opshop in Brunswick Road, he said, jerking his thumb back over his shoulder, indicating the direction he had come. With the vertical movement of the cigar, the question mark crossed itself out.
—Je l’ai acheté pour lire du français.
With a slight inclination of his head,—like a very reduced bow,—he proffered his left hand, palm upward, to her, his eyes, fixed on hers with a polite insistence which seemed, simultaneously, to mock the courtliness of the silent request for repatriation.
Alizée returned Le facteur fatal to him.
There was a brief vacuum in the conversation filled only by the circulation beside them as they regarded each other for a moment of doubtful comfortability, their eyes palpating faces that were still inscrutable to each other even after six weeks. Alizée broke the pause cautiously.
—I haven’t seen you around for a couple of weeks, she essayed hesitantly;—not since the day we went to Williamstown together. I thought you must have gone somewhere to see your family—per Natale, perhaps?
His face lost none of its pleasant inscrutability, his eyes seeming to glitter as they squinted through the last puff of smoke he took from the Candela. He took his time dropping the fuming butt to the asphalt and heeling it out with his derby. He toed the flattened cylinder towards the bluestone gutter with what seemed a thoughtful bunt of his boot.
—I had to go to… Sydney per una settimana – o giù di lì.
—Ancora una volta? You were in Sydney last month as well.
Alizée’s eyes acquired a cautiously roguish twinkle.
—Ton métier de flâneur te porte loin.
His eyes searched her face for a halfbeat, and then:
—We never sleep.
Their eyes smiled at each other and her face flushed attractively beneath the Mediterranean tan, although the smile, on his side, did not quite reach his lips.
He broke eye contact with her after a circumspect interval. A southbound Route 1 tram was passing them, slowing with a screel of its wheels. It braked in the long perspective of Lygon Street under the petrified falaises of the City skyline erupting through the green amoncellement of trees that stood sentry along the fenceline of the General Cemetery. He watched as it drew to a stop at the corner of Fenwick Street, the train of southbound traffic pausing deferentially in its wake, and three passengers alighted from the B-class, going their several ways with caution.
One of the typical denizens of Yarra, this one an arts student who fancied herself a feminine John Lennon, with dark, round, silverrimmed sunglasses, a loud, mannish shirt and thin black jeans, the hems of which were rolled up to reveal her Doc Martens, passed them bearing a canvas tote over her shoulder, an obnoxious slogan against the government stencilled on the side of it. He looked down at his brogues and let the girl pass before speaking. When he did so, it was with an experimental essay at confidence that seemed scrupulously mindful of not appearing too forceful in pressing its suit, too inconsiderate of the manifold reasons Alizée might have for rejecting the proposition.
—Look, he said, I know you have no family in this country, but I understand that you might have other… engagements on Monday.
He paused momentarily. Alizée declined to take advantage of this fenestration in his speech as an opportunity to rise to the bait it implied.
He went on a deal more softly, and his eyes, though still sharp, still probing, still assessing her visage minutely as he spoke, almost gave an impression, as they narrowed slightly, of having hit upon a happy inspiration couched in the proposition his voice was rehearsing, one he himself had not previously divined.
—Would you perhaps like to take a cheeky avventura with me on Christmas Day? un picnic, perhaps? to an undisclosed location to be advised when your eyes are looking at it?
At the word ‘avventura’, the blue jets in Alizée’s silver eyes flared up appreciably.
—I don’t think it’s going to be as hot as this on Monday, he added as an afterthought, an additional justification to the good; an exculpation of Melbourne’s unbankable weather, of the debatable antipodean pleasure of passing a blazingly hot Christmas Day outdoors more generally—if she needed it.
Alizée did not. Her face broke into broad enthusiasm at the idea.
—O, un’avventura sounds brilliant! And if the weather isn’t fine, we will adventure anyway!
A soupçcon of roguish sidelight entered her eye briefly once again as her bangs shook with the enthusiastic upward movement of her head in a jerkish nod—or perhaps it was the sun alighting on her forehead as those parenthetical twin curtains moved briefly aside from their usual halfdrawn position occluding her features.
He seemed a little taken aback by how well this proposta had been received and watched her access of enthusiasm from those removes, the cool depths of assessment, with the wry indulgence of a parent giving a delightful child its head.
—Buono, he said in the next second, when she had settled down. Then I will make i preparativi. I’ll go to Rathdowne Street now and pick up a few things.
—Hai bisogno che porto qualcosa?
—Del vino, perhaps. I’ll leave it to you. Whatever you like.
His voice had acquired a seductive firmness and his mouth now joined his eyes, as they held hers gently in parting, in a very definite smile.
—A lunedì, he said softly.
—A lunedì—Ciao, caro!
She launched her lips at him again and he took the collision more gracefully this time, though he still demurred to linger long in her embrace.
—Ciao, he said, giving her one gentle pat on the derrière en passant and slipping smoothly past her to continue his southward flânerie, with more purpose in his stride this time.
He made the corner quickly, and when he had rounded it into Fenwick Street, he stopped abruptly just inside. His eyes were turned down to the pavement and, with the gravity of his reflections, his face slowly resumed its habitual cast of dour pensiveness as his eyes scanned the asphalt for something that was within himself. His posture seemed to relax of its own accord and he leant his shoulder to the white plaster wall of the house on the corner as he thought.
The persistent passage of traffic and trams behind him did not seem to reach him.
Then, rolling suddenly around, he turned, voltafaccia, towards Lygon Street and the grille of the General Cemetery. He moved stealthily forward two steps until he presented the narrowest possible profile to the street and, transferring the book to his other hand, reached into the left pocket of his waistcoat. He produced the small rectangular hand mirror and, holding it down at his hip, angled it back up Lygon Street until, in its arc, it caught the profile of the Maltese ragazza in the olive playsuit with the embroidered bodice.
Alizée had not advanced very far from where he had left her. She was standing in front of the Eolian Hall and was studying it intently. Her head turned from left to right, not in the big movements she had used with him, but in small ones, as if she were looking for something—a clue, perhaps, or something she had lost.
Then, as he watched her in the angle of the mirror, his face devoid of expression, she raised the iPhone and took a photo of the pile.
—Look, you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have it, that’s O.K. We can take it out in trade.
—In trade? What trade? I don’t have that either.
—You don’t have what?
—Anything to trade. I told you; I haven’t got it.
—You haven’t got it.
—No, I haven’t got it.
—Well, it’s no big deal. Spag is not unreasonable. If you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it. If it can’t be gotten one way, it can be gotten another. We’ll take it out in trade.
—But I haven’t got a trade.
—Look, I think we’ve got a failure of communication here. You say you haven’t got a trade.
—That’s right. Can’t you give me more time?
—Look, we’ll come to that in a minute. I just want to be sure we’ve got each other. You say you haven’t got a trade.
—Yes, I haven’t got anything to trade.
—Right. That’s where we’re not getting each other. If you’ve got nothing to trade, we can’t get it from you.
—But if you give me more time; a week, say—
—Look, we’ll come to the time element in a minute. Where we’re failing to get each other is on the trade issue. Now look, Spag’s not an unreasonable fellow. If you haven’t got it to give and we can’t get it from you, we can get it another way. We’ll take it out in trade.
—But I don’t have a trade—
—You don’t have a trade, but I do.
He showed the other the pistol.
—You’re out of time. Spag told me to get it from you. You haven’t got it, so now I’m going to give it to you.
—Dean Kyte, “The Trade”
The Architecture of my secret planet
In The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (1996), theatre critic Michael Billington quotes G. K. Chesterton: ‘There is at the back of every artist’s mind, something like a pattern or type of architecture. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet.’
On The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, in the ‘flânography’ of my videos, films, and photographs, I have given you, chers lecteurs, more than intimate access to my ‘secret planet’. As a flâneurial writer and filmmaker, in my dreamy dérives around Melbourne, I’ve shown even those readers who know the city as well as I another side of it, hitherto unsuspected—a dark, bleak world of urban ruin.
It’s the sinister vision of ‘friendly menace’ featured in the “Melbournoir” spread of The Melbourne Flâneur zine; it’s equally the vision of absolute nihilism and despair which pervades the black-and-white photographs I’ve chosen to illustrate The Spleen of Melbourne CD.
You can get an intimate sense, therefore, of ‘the strange flora’ (for there is no fauna, nothing living in these post-diluvial liminal spaces) on my secret planet: as a flâneurial artist who finds his heaven in the hell of the city, I live in an arid, calciferous, petrified forest, a mental desert of shattered crystals, the standing stones of an urban wasteland.
Is the desert so very bad? It is no worse than our cultural deserts, which we call cities.
—C. G. Jung, Black Books, Vol. III, January 1914
The kind of world I would wish to make, or in which I would wish to flâneurially wander, is, as the dream-Melbourne of my videos, films and photographs gives ample evidence, an Eliotian Waste Land.
The flâneurial investigation of urban landscape as much as the interrogation of the shifting sands of women’s moods and appearances seem equally to have a hold on my psyche. In those mysteries, the calamity of our times appears most evident to me.
The video above is in the first category, and certainly “The Trade” will feature in the next iteration of The Spleen of Melbourne project, when it takes on its second incarnation as a collection of short videos and Super 8 films.
As my good friend—and a good friend of this vlog—Hermetrix once observed on our Bellingenian jaunt last year, architecture means a great deal to me. The subjects of my photographs, the ‘actors’ in my films and videos are buildings and bits of shabby urban architecture, like the florid pedestrian underpass in Watsonia North which provided me with a photogenic subject for what would become “The Trade”.
Tripping past this cavernous maw, with its three teeth and its concrete face totemically tattooed with graffiti, shortly after we were released from our epic second lockdown in 2020, the Aragonian frisson de photogénie was activated in me and I knew I had a videographic subject for a future entry in The Spleen of Melbourne project.
The affinity I have for architecture is obvious in my visual œuvre. What is less obvious is that ‘the first art-form’—(for the necessity to construct a formally functional shelter is even more fundamental to human beings than their ability to communicate with each other through language)—should be deeply linked to my writing.
The knot between them is Gordian and can’t be separated. You could cut out the obsession with women more easily from my literary œuvre than the love of architecture.
Track 11 of The Spleen of Melbourne CD, the ficción“Office at night”, which I discussed in my post on Edward Hopper’s flâneurial art, is entirely a ludic jeu de perspectives architecturales in which I play a game with the listener, setting them the puzzle, à laRobbe-Grillet, of determining where they are in space with respect to a ‘verbal blueprint’ of Block Court and its immediate environs.
In the material symbol of the concrete architectural form, therefore, I see the analogue in space for my own intellectual concetti.
In the grisly face of this unremarked coin of the Greensborough Bypass I perceived something which excited me, some symbolic structure of thought, some reef in my unconscious against which my intuition instinctively barked itself, recognizing another clue to the æsthetic mystery of life I am tracking and trailing through the streets of Melbourne, and which, some eighteen months later, would slowly resolve itself, as the waters gradually receded, into the ambiguous ‘image’ of the video and the dialogue of “The Trade”.
It follows “Office at night” as another development in the literary crime I am plotting. The Godot-like ‘Spag’ referred to in “The Trade” is actually a character in one of the ficciones on The Spleen of Melbourne CD, although I’ll leave it to you, chers lecteurs, to determine which one.
As a sub-project of The Spleen of Melbourne, while I delineate the lineaments of the literary mystery that is slowly being carved, as an architecture of thought, out of the fog of my unconscious, when I find myself in a vicolo cieco of that imaginary Melbourne which maps to the actual one of my flâneuristic experience, I find it a useful activity to occasionally write a ficción exploring some aspect of the labyrinthine intellectual architecture I am groping my way blindly through.
And in “The Trade”, I was interested in exploring the voices of two characters who have lately come to extrude themselves, buttress-like, from the stony mass of Melburnian mystery as salient excroissances in that abstract cathedral of my thought—and at least one of whom is speaking in the short story. I was interested in learning how these characters speak, and my intuition (which is my only guide in mapping out this postmodern mystery of contemporary Melbourne life I will set before your ears in due course) eventually told me that there was a ‘Pinteresque’ quality to their speech—one that was, ambiguously, both humorous and menacing at the same time.
Pinteresque, adj. (and n.): Of or relating to Harold Pinter; resembling or characteristic of his plays….
Pinter’s plays are typically characterized by implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, apparent triviality, and long pauses.
—Oxford English Dictionary
And a shout-out to another good friend of The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, Mr. Glen Available of Scenic Writers Shack in Brisbane, who, upon listening to the soundtrack of the video on Bandcamp, was kind enough to drop me a line and say that it both intrigued him and gave him a few chuckles. This was unexpected feedback gratefully received;—for although I thought I had probably got the atmosphere of ambiguity and menace I saw in the image of the underpass right, I wasn’t so sure about the humour.
The fact is, although your Melbourne Flâneur has a sense of humour, chers lecteurs, I don’t think I’m a ‘funny person’. With my saturnine nature, I’m quite dour. I live on the dark side of life. I’m exceedingly comfortable with ambiguity, obscurity, veiled threat. In the puzzling dark, I see the rending horrors of our time vaguely sketched.
I’ve since read the dialogue of “The Trade” at the Alternatives Bookshop in Bellingen, with the public health warning attached that I’m not at all certain, despite Mr. Glen’s good will, that the piece is ‘funny’. It did, however, gouge ‘a few chuckles’ out of the audience, and if there’s any humour at all in the ficción, it’s a kind of ‘technical’, poetic humour that relies on the constant emphasis and rhythmic repetition of a few simple words—‘give’, ‘got’, and, of course, ‘trade’, the ambiguous double meaning of which, as both verb and noun, supplies whatever ‘punchline’ there is.
I think I was perhaps influenced by Mr. Pinter’s short revue sketches, written in 1959, when the exotic name of ‘Pinter’ was first sending a frisson of apprehension through the British theatrical establishment. This was the year before Messrs. Bennett, Cook, Miller and Moore revolutionized British comedy with Beyond the Fringe, and as Mr. Billington tells us in his biographical study of the Pinter vie et œuvre:
Revue, in those pre-Beyond the Fringe days, tended to come in two sorts: the glitzy kind, which invariably seemed to feature an Apache dance outside some ill-lit Parisian boîte, and the more intimate variety specialising in inbred, sophisticated camp. But the form was subtly changing under the influence of writers like Peter Cook … and was leaning towards cryptic studies of the irrationality and inconsequentiality of human behaviour. Indeed, Cook … and Pinter … have always struck me … as artistic blood brothers.
What is striking about Pinter’s revue-sketches is the way they examine the same kinds of themes as his plays: the strangeness and solitude of the human animal, the subjectivity of memory, the use of language as a weapon of domination or a means of maintaining contact…. As he himself told The Times in November 1959:
In both [revue-sketches and plays] I am primarily interested in people… In many British plays I find myself put off by the spectre of the author looming above his characters, telling them [the audience] at every stage just what they are to think about them. I want as far as possible to leave comment to the audience; let them decide whether the characters and situations are funny or sad.
—Michael Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, p. 107
I agree with this intention, for certainly with “The Trade”, I was not seeking to write anything that was either funny or threatening. I was just trying to get an amiable conversation down, the most banal and unenlightening conversation possible, the kind of unilluminating snippet of conversation you might catch a snatch of walking through a suburban underpass. It would be up to the viewers to decide what they made of it, since I had no more information about the characters than that both of them are well-acquainted with the mythical Spag.
In that technical focus on the ‘mechanics of language’, how the ‘machine’ of a dialogue moves, with the escalating, accented repetition of key words acting like cogs and gears to advance a very simple, vestigial plot, I might have been thinking of Mr. Pinter’s sketch “Trouble in the Works”. As a parody of technical language, with its highly suggestive names for obscure machine parts, it escalates to a pitch of hilarity ending in a single word with a punning double sense. And in its overtly comic intent, of all Mr. Pinter’s revue sketches, “Trouble in the Works” is probably the most in-line with traditional English music-hall comedy pre-Beyond the Fringe.
The music of language and silence
But more characteristic of his style (and more interesting to me as a writer who takes a rather grim view of life) are short duets like “The Black and White” and “Last to Go”, which are not really ‘funny’ as such, but rather ‘wry’, and even melancholy. We know from the report of Mr. Pinter’s friends and girlfriends that he was great flâneur of London in his youth, that he loved ‘the caffs’, like the Black and White Milk Bar in Fleet Street, that he felt a great affinity for tramps and other gentlemen of the street, and in a way that is sui generis to Mr. Pinter as one of the foremost comic playwrights in modern English, these short, poetic sketches of la vie londonienne scribbled in muted tones possess a kind of dry, wry humour which is derived from two characters sadly singing a duet in the music of language and silence.
Sir Jeremy Isaacs: There’s words and there’s silence between words.
Harold Pinter: Yes.
Mr. Isaacs: And is there silence within the words?
Mr. Pinter: Oh yes, I think so; I think that… there’s a silence… beneath the words very, very often. In other words, our words—it seems to me—quite often… hide… are actually… performing a rôle, a function, which is to… hide or tarnish, or to tarnish upon the silence that exists. I mean this silence, I’d like to be more precise about what I mean by that word silence in this particular connection, which is … I understand, a silence of fear, a fear of being known, a fear of knowledge, really. Fear of not only being known, but of knowing other people; that fear of intimacy.
Mr. Isaacs: And we use words to protect ourselves from that—
Mr. Pinter: —To cover it—to protect ourselves; yes, that’s the word I was actually looking for. To protect ourselves, yes.
And as you can see in this Pinterish transcription of the grilling he underwent on the BBC’s Face to Face program, that ‘music of language and silence’ I’m referring to was not a literary affectation on Mr. Pinter’s part designed to confound and infuriate critics, or to bore and bamboozle audiences, but an eminent characteristic of his own speech patterns, full of smug evasion, groping hesitation towards the truth, awkward constructions of sentences and clumsy, colloquial Anglicisms.
Unique among English writers, he had an ear, as has been tirelessly reiterated, for ‘the way people talk’—the way they really talk; which is to say, how they say nothing.
As Mr. Pinter said in “Writing for the Theatre”, his famous address to the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in 1962, ‘It is in the silence—[the place where the characters are silent and in hiding]—that they are most evident to me,’ and he went to make the distinction between two kinds of silence:—‘[o]ne when no word is spoken’, and the other ‘when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed’ to tarnish upon this void.
It is the chief characteristic of Modernism to find the Void in all the art-forms—the blankness in painting, the silence in music, the emptiness in architecture, the invisibility in photography, the stillness in cinema. Where that Void is, God is absent, and the modern artist in the West seeks to raise the alarm to his fellows, to point, to gesture towards the God-shaped hole, to scream out in halting, garbled tongues and alert the masses that we have murdered our Highest Value—the Source of all our values—and are dancing, revelling in His blood.
In the theatre, Mr. Pinter found the silence between the words spoken by human beings confronted with this implacable and terrifying Void; the silence within the very words we speak to tarnish over the Abyss; the silence beneath that very sound and fury signifying Nothing.
The celebrated ‘Pinter pause’, that unnerving ventilation of his plays, that silence and stasis between the lines spoken the actors, is itself actually a crucial line of dialogue, the hiding place where, for Mr. Pinter, human beings are most evident, most naked in their fear.
It was for this reason that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005;—for his revolutionary apprehension that silence itself is a major term in the English language—as in all human language—that we, as writers, the scientists and explorers of human speech, are yet to come adequately to grips with and incorporate into our literary lexicon; for his experiments on the stage in ‘uncover[ing] the precipice under everyday prattle’, and his penetrating investigations, ‘forc[ing] entry into oppression’s closed rooms’.
Mr. Pinter’s utterly unique, therefore, among comic writers, whether for the theatre or more generally in English letters, in that there is nothing ‘comedic’ in his lines—nor, for that matter, is there anything ‘menacing’ in them, despite his early and lasting reputation as the writer of ‘comedies of menace’.
The Pinter line, broken, clichéd, grossly banal, both pregnant with meaning and utterly devoid of it, simply is as everyday English speech is. And into this void of ambiguity, in the face of this uncomfortable confrontation with the fractured poetry of our own tongue, we are forced to bark out a nervous laugh and let off a shiver simultaneously as we recognize our own tics and foibles and foolish verbal strategies in singing over this gulf of silence that separates us from the person in the next seat.
The desire for verification on the part of all of us, with regard to our own experience and the experience of others, is understandable but cannot always be satisfied. I suggest there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily true or false; it can be both true and false. A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all these things. The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression.
—Harold Pinter, “Writing for the Theatre”, Plays One, p. 11
The literary architecture of Sleuth
The rôle of architecture, and its relevance to literature, is pertinent here. As a thoroughgoing homme du théâtre, the most influential actor-dramatist in English letters since William Shakespeare, architecture, both concrete and abstract, is as relevant, I will contend, to Mr. Pinter’s art as it is to mine.
The architecture of a stage as the setting for a drama; the architecture of a room, that battlefield of verbal violence, power and domination in his comedies of menace; and the asymmetric, pyramidal architecture of power itself as manifested in domestic space: this is, to revert to Mr. Chesterton, ‘the pattern or type of architecture’ on Mr. Pinter’s secret planet, ‘the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander….’ And as Mr. Billington goes on to say:
That makes it sound romantic-idealist, but Pinter’s own secret planet turned out to be a cratered paradise destroyed by the serpent of sexuality and the desire for domination.
—Billington (1996, p. 26)
He neatly summarizes for us the key motifs of the Pinter world we find time and again repeated in his plays and screenplays—‘a room, a space, a territorial battle, a triangular encounter between two men and a woman, a reversal of power.’
That summary not only sets the stage, but it tells us in one sentence the entire plot of almost every Pinter play and screenplay. And curiously, it’s the motif, startlingly present and clearly delineated, as Mr. Billington tells us, in Mr. Pinter’s first surviving piece, written in 1949, when he just nineteen, and his last script, for the film Sleuth (2007), nearly sixty years later. It shows how much his work was of a piece.
But despite the award of the Nobel Prize two years before the release of Sleuth, I suspect that by 2007 Mr. Pinter had become somewhat of a ‘fabled figure’, one of those writers of the 1960’s, like his contemporary M. Robbe-Grillet, whose truly revolutionary impact on literature and film had been so thoroughly absorbed and digested by the popular culture that subsequent generations, X-ers and Millennials, could no longer truly appreciate how unique and original literary stylist he was, and what a gift it was to have this final film, written virtually on his deathbed, from the hand of one of the great writers of the previous century in our own.
Given that it recapitulates in a postmodern form the lifelong themes, motifs, concerns and abstract architecture of one of the landmark dramatists of high, literary modernism, Sleuth seems to me an elegant demonstration as much as it is a culmination and a summation of Pinter, the man and his world.
Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth (1970) is, without putting it pejoratively, the absolute opposite of Mr. Pinter’s theatre. It’s theatre as spectacle, an absolutely first-rate entertainment, as is the 1972 film adaptation written by Mr. Shaffer himself and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
And with respect to the two film versions of Sleuth, I don’t think the usual criticism about the original being better than the remake obtains in this instance: the original Sleuth is an absolutely first-rate entertainment, but the remake, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, transcends the original material and improves considerably upon it.
This is largely thanks to Mr. Pinter’s script, which shears away ‘the fat’ of theatrical spectacle, the convolutions of the plot which give Sleuth I its scopic pleasures as both play and movie. Sleuth II is slightly more half the length of the original, and at less than eighty minutes, is considerably shorter than most movies made even in 2007, when the taste for bloated two-and-a-half-hour spectacles had not yet quite taken hold of commercial cinema.
As we will see further on in this section, this ‘stripping away’ of the commercial ‘fat’ of theatrical spectacle to reveal the lean essence of human drama is eminently characteristic of Mr. Pinter’s approach to screen adaptation and central to his conception of the ‘architecture’ of a piece, both abstractly, as a written blueprint on a page, and concretely, as enacted theatre.
In spite of Mr. Branagh’s bristlingly cinematic treatment of the Pinter script, Sleuth II is even more of a ‘play’ than the original Shaffer script; which is to say that Sleuth I is a theatrical entertainment, while Sleuth II is theatre: it is Art.
As a point of comparison, note the architecture in Sleuth I. The baronial estate belonging to mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Sir Laurence Olivier) is a space of intrigue reflective of the man: we—and Sir Michael Caine’s Milo Tindle—discover Wyke dictating his latest locked-room mystery in the cosy midst of a labyrinth beside his mock-Gothic pile.
The space of his Wiltshire manor (designed by the great Ken Adam, so we know this ‘bad interior design’ is no mistake) is ‘busy’ with gewgaws, automata, and all manner of mechanical gadgets and games. This overwhelming and unsettling baroque encombrement of the frame is but itself a busy frame for the similarly baroque performance of Lord Olivier. As Mr. Caine said of his performance, Lord Olivier plays Wyke as a ‘dangerous English eccentric’: his mania for games and puzzles, theatre and play-acting sets us immediately at a remove. Consummate stage actor that he is, we ‘enjoy’ Lord Olivier’s performance, and thus the piece as theatrical spectacle.
Even the film’s title sequence, zooming in on a diorama, alludes to its origins on the stage as a ‘play’, a game of counterfeit appearances into which we, the audience, willingly enter, and self-consciously sets up a mise en abyme effect: house, hedge-maze, game, puzzle—all elaborate visual metaphors for a nested, ludic text, a casse-tête of multiple layers, like sliding panels, the pleasure of which, for the viewer, resides in rearranging the overlapping surfaces of recursive lies until they lock into place and this rebus forms ‘the picture’ of what is really going on—the ‘truth’, the ‘solution’ to Sleuth’s game of theatrical Cluedo.
This is why I say that Mr. Shaffer’s original conception of Sleuth is an absolutely first-rate ‘entertainment’. We are not plunged too deeply into the eccentric nightmare Milo finds himself in as he must navigate and extricate himself from the labyrinthine toils of Wyke’s dangerous game, but remain at a remove, entertained and not involved.
We know, since the detective story is a genre of fiction whose commercial value, as entertainment, is strictly linked to technocratic capitalism’s assumption of a rational symbolic order, that there must be a rational ‘solution’ to Wyke’s apparently irrational game, and only rationality can get Tindle out of his predicament.
These are the capitalistic assumptions of crime as a genre of commercial entertainment, and the concrete architecture of Sleuth I reflects a rational order beneath the surface disorder of apparent ‘busyness’, a belief that the foundations of reality are as firm as an English country house, the lineaments of which can be eventually divined beneath the ivy-covered walls.
Compare this architectural vision to Mr. Pinter’s in Sleuth II. I’ve already quoted Mr. Pinter’s famous credo given at Bristol, that he believes ‘there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false’, and that, moreover, a thing ‘can be both true and false.’
This radical scepticism about reality, apart from being another key feature of modernism in art, is incompatible with the capitalistic assumptions of the commercial crime genre. Mr. Pinter, in his early comedies of menace, as in his end-of-life adaptation of Sleuth, is writing what I call ‘literary crime’: As an artist, as a researcher who is earnestly investigating, through the medium of written words, our modern confrontation with an existential Void that lies beneath our language, Mr. Pinter is not possessed of any received assumptions, any commercial certainties about a ‘solution’ to our global problems, about what is real and what is unreal, about what is true or what is false.
In that world of ambiguity and radical scepticism which is Mr. Pinter’s secret planet, the concrete and the abstract architecture of his interpretation of the Sleuth plot strips away the baroque busyness of Mr. Shaffer’s play to its essence: ‘a game with a knife and a gun’, a contest, a competition between two men, a naked power play between Andrew Wyke (now played by Michael Caine, graduating to the Olivier rôle) and Milo Tindle (now played by Jude Law).
Michelangelo, great sculptor, but equally a great architect, said that sculpture (which I would contend is directly derivative of architecture) is unique among the art-forms in that is an art of subtraction rather than addition: the sculptor reveals the form within the stone by taking away.
Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto
c’un marmo solo in sé non circonscriva
col suo superchio, e solo a quello arriva
la man che ubbidisce all’intelletto.
The greatest artist hath not any idea
Which the rude block, circumscribed by its excess,
Does not first contain in itself; to free the captive
Is all the hand which obeys the intellect can do.
—Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto” (my translation)
Compare this to Pauline Kael’s remark that, in contradistinction to most screenwriters, who add (often infuriatingly) what is not there to the material they adapt, ‘Pinter’s art is the art of taking away.’ Dirk Bogarde, who had the benefit of interpreting two Pinter scripts for the screen, The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967), co-signs Ms. Kael’s statement, saying that ‘addition was a very rare event because you just don’t find writers of his calibre in cinema.’
There’s a reason why we call artists like Mr. Pinter ‘playwrights’ in English rather than ‘playwriters’: like a shipwright, or a naval architect, he maps and constructs a form—abstract in his case—that must, despite its great ventilation and airiness, nevertheless be solid and serviceable, that must ‘float’ when given to a crew of actors and their captain, the director.
With Mr. Pinter, the written form, the wrighted form, must be ‘right’.
Mr. Pinter finds the sculptural, the essential architectural form beneath and within Mr. Shaffer’s busy, baroque script, and the coincidence of it is that, when you strip out all the commercial set decoration, the wheezing, steam-driven mechanics of mystery and suspense, the hard, naked architectural ‘form’ of the Sleuth plot maps precisely to the one artistic apprehension Mr. Pinter has about life, the one thing in the whole calamitous mystery of the modern world he’s absolutely sure about and can write with authority on—the concrete architecture of dramatic space, and its relationship to the abstract architecture of power.
The Sleuth plot is, au fond, about two men standing before us, naked in their humanity, and locked in a gladiatorial duel to the death.
The minimalist approach to mise-en-scène in Sleuth II not only reflects the architecture of Mr. Pinter’s writing, his ‘ventilated style’, but a different conception of ‘the game’ and game-playing, which is also architecturally structured by ‘rules of combat’, as the central conceit of the plot. Whereas Mr. Shaffer favours a labyrinthine thriller, ‘full of twists and turns’, Mr. Pinter strips the game back to a primitive struggle for power, a hierarchical ‘game of positions’.
Games people play
Detective Inspector Black: So what did you two do when you got together?
Wyke: We played a game.
Black: A game…
Wyke: A game with a knife and a gun.
Black: A lethal game?
Wyke: No. Just a bit of fun, that’s all.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
Games, as rules-based architectures modelling social relations, figure very significantly in the Pinter œuvre, which is not surprising given that this poet and playwright was also a fanatical cricketer and, by all accounts, an extremely competitive sportsman. Mr. Billington detects a deep link between dangerous masculine competitions and the sacredness of male friendship chez Pinter.
The vector of connection, as Davood Gozli observes in his Transactional Analysis of Sleuth II, is obviously homoerotic, but we should be careful about stopping here. To say that Mr. Pinter, with his stripping away of architectural excess, raises to the surface a subterranean homosexuality which is implicit in the Wyke/Tindle rapport of Mr. Shaffer’s plot, that their relationship in Sleuth II is simply the adventitious manifestation of a latent sexual deviance the two men discover in each other is, as I will show further on, too superficial an analysis, and fails to adequately describe the truly depraved nature of the game that Wyke and Tindle are playing in its deepest, and final, iteration.
The potentially lethal ‘game of positions’ between two men who are simultaneously perverse friends and deadly rivals has its most archetypal and architectural expression as a dramatic and cinematic image in Mr. Pinter’s first film, The Servant. I’m talking about the famous scene on the staircase in the ‘chic’ but claustrophobic London flat belonging to Tony (James Fox), where he and his manservant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) viciously peg a tennis ball up- and down-stairs at each other.
There are evidently rules to this obscure game and an object to it, though I cannot, for the life of me, work out what the object is. Are they trying to defend the two bibelots set in niches at either end of the staircase? Then too, there is clearly a ‘strategy’ to the game that reveals its atavistic nature as an archetypal (as well as architectonic) ‘game of positions’, as evidenced by the servant Barrett’s complaint that the advantage lies with the master, Tony, for he himself is ‘in the inferior position of playing uphill.’
This archetypal image from The Servant literalizes the hierarchical game of positioning for dominance that is the chief architectural pattern of social relations on Mr. Pinter’s secret planet. The ball, an inoffensive symbol of co-operative play, is literally weaponized as an injurious projectile. And where we have weapons, we have crime.
The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
Yet our equipment all the time
Extends the area of the crime
Until the guilt is everywhere.
—W. H. Auden, “New Year’s Letter (January 1, 1940)”
On Mr. Pinter’s secret planet, there is no solution: only the crime remains.
This is the distinction between what I am calling ‘literary crime’ and crime fiction as a commercial genre of entertainment. For the serious artist who is necessarily a researcher into ‘the situation of our time’, as Mr. Pinter is, there can be no comforting, rational ‘solutions’ to the existential problems of modernity, as technocratic capitalism assumes, but merely the acknowledgment that ‘our equipment’—the technological equipment of modernity—is the very weaponry we have used to commit our ‘Original Sin’ as Faustian men:—the murder of our God with the golden calf of Science, the murder of our Highest Value, and the Source of all our values.
The modern equipment of technocratic capitalism, the exponentially smarter shovels we iteratively design to dig ourselves out of the mess we are in, spreading the crotte even further afield, is the Cluedo arsenal of ‘smartknives’ and ‘iGuns’ which implicates us all in a game of mutually assured destruction.
Banished from the architecture of Mr. Pinter’s Sleuth is the mechanical gadgetry whose complicated and occult workings are concrete metaphors for the meshes of Wyke’s intellectual game in Sleuth I. With a kind of ‘Lord of the Flies’-style atavism, Mr. Pinter strips out the machinery of the commercial crime entertainment to its most fundamental ‘equipment’—a simple knife and gun, the primitive fulcrums by which men leverage elemental power over each other.
Behind the façade of the eighteenth-century villa in which Mr. Caine’s Wyke resides, we—and Mr. Law’s Tindle—are confronted with an eminently gladiatorial space: an über-masculine, über-brutalist concrete cube that resembles an art gallery or a stage set, a place for ‘performance art’.
Both characters claim that the house has been designed by Wyke’s wife, Maggie, the ostensible object of their contest, but it hasn’t a feminine touch at all: even the absurd and uncomfortable chairs don’t match.
Wyke: Like the house?
Wyke: You know who designed it, who the ‘interior decorator’ was?
Tindle: Yes; your wife.
Wyke: You knew?
Tindle: Yes, I knew.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
If, indeed, this arena has has been architecturally designed by a woman, it’s is a Spartan space designed for men: it’s a boxing ring, a field of battle in which Wyke and Tindle are going to verbally beat each other to a pulp for possession of Maggie, the third term in their triangular territorial contest, and who, despite never being seen, can still be regarded as an active competitor in this game of mutual attrition.
At a meta-level, the game between Wyke and Tindle is an example of what Eric Berne, in his famous bestseller Games People Play (1964), terms a ‘Sexual Game’. More specifically, it’s a game he calls “Let’s You and Him Fight”, in a which a feminine player engineers a duel between two masculine players for sexual possession of her.
As Rick Baer says in his video essay comparing the two Sleuths, the design of the house in Mr. Pinter’s ruggedly skeletal and architectonic version of the script is not merely ‘uncomfortable’, but ‘downright hostile’. It’s not a home at all, but a ludic space that has been deliberately designed to unsettle, to arouse and agitate two men to an outcome, rather than to relax and soothe them. Neither the audience nor Milo are ever at ease in the place, and Wyke’s uncanny ability to remain unflappably comfortable and in charge of his abode—which, as Mr. Baer says, ‘seems to telepathically understand Wyke and do his bidding’—suggests a spider in its web, capable of making its home in the most precarious places and circumstances.
Analysing Mr. Pinter’s take on the Sleuth plot through Dr. Berne’s lens of psychological games, I’ve detected at least seven distinct phases to the ‘meta-game’ played by Wyke and Tindle across the two acts of the film:
English Gentleman: a game of verbal badminton
Caper 1: Robbers
The Real Game: humiliation (emasculation) through masculine force.
Caper 2: Cops
Caper 3: Robbers
Reprise of English Gentleman
The Real Game: humiliation (emasculation) through feminine seduction.
As you can see, I’ve identified at least three distinct psychological games in operation in Sleuth II, each of which is played at least twice. When all three games are cycled through so that both Wyke and Tindle have had an opportunity to assume the ‘superior position’ over each other, we have the ‘meta-game’ that is Sleuth II.
Playing at ‘being English Gentlemen’
The game I’m calling “English Gentleman” is the fundamental Pinter game, and one which we encounter at some point in almost every play and script. “English Gentleman” is not a ‘gendered’ game: it can be played by two men, or by a man and a woman. I don’t know of an instance in Mr. Pinter’s œuvre where it’s played by two women. Gender is not salient to the game; I merely use the word ‘gentleman’ to qualify the archetypal nature of ‘Englishness’ I’m perceiving in Wyke’s and Tindle’s initial interaction, the pattern of which, on reflection, I see repeated in the architecture of all Mr. Pinter’s plays and films.
In their first meeting on the steps of Wyke’s house, Andrew draws attention to the size of both his and Tindle’s cars. You might say that “English Gentleman” is a game of ‘Mine is Bigger Than Yours’, only in reverse:—the object of being a true ‘English Gentleman’ is to deprecate oneself, to minimize oneself, to make oneself appear more modest, more polite, more civil, more civilized than one’s opponent—to make him appear to be the ‘bigger’, more gauche, more vulgar man.
This is the nature of the game that Wyke and Tindle enter into for the first quarter of an hour, the first half of Act I. “English Gentleman” is a game of passive-aggressive politeness—a parody, in effect, of what it is to be both ‘English’ and a ‘gentleman’. And if there is any ‘comedy’ at all in Mr. Pinter’s comedies of menace, it lies precisely in these games of “English Gentleman”, where characters pass a veil of insincere colloquial Anglicism over a verbal badminton match where they are batting poisoned darts at each other.
It’s obviously a class-based game, but we have to remember where Mr. Pinter ‘comes from’—temporally speaking: He’s a playwright who emerges in the late 1950’s and comes to dominate the British theatre in the early 1960’s, a period when the structural integrity of the British class system was being deeply challenged—not least by the voice and ear of this Cockney son of a Jewish tailor.
There is, therefore, in the game of “English Gentleman” a pretence of equality, of egalitarianism, the nervous sense, post-Suez, that if the sun is setting on the Empire at a rapid clip, then at least ‘we are all English together’, all united by a culture and a language that, in its irregular verbiage and often perverse idiomatic expressions, can at least keep the foreigners ‘out’.
That is really what it means to play the game of “English Gentleman” chez Pinter: In a British society where aristocracy is suddenly devalued, to be ‘English’ is suddenly to be part of a ‘common aristocracy’—the common patrimony of culture and language. And the English language being notoriously difficult to master, we see how, for a singular playwright like Mr. Pinter, that ‘musician of language and silence’, the arcane formulæ of colloquial English, that glossary of clumsy Anglicisms which suddenly ring tinny to his extraordinary ear, becomes as hermetic and exclusionary as jargon or terms of art.
Are you in or are you out? Can you mouth the coded platitudes of an English gentleman? Which is to say, given the embarrassing situation in which Wyke and Tindle find themselves in at the beginning of the Sleuth plot, can both men pretend not to notice the awkwardness of sharing a woman and wear the mask of vacuous English civility with each other to the hilt—a mask that becomes eminently Pinterian when the torrential silence of English colloquialism is poured over the Void between them? And more to the point, in this verbal badminton match, can either Wyke or Tindle play the game of passive-aggressive politeness so well that is the other is rattled into an unforced error?
Wyke: I understand you’re fucking my wife.
Tindle: That’s right.
Wyke: Right. Yes, right. So we’ve cleared that up?
Tindle: We have.
Wyke: I thought you might have denied it.
Tindle: Why would I deny it?
Wyke: Well, she is my wife.
Tindle: Yes, but she’s fucking me—
Wyke: Oh, she’s fucking you too, huh? Well, I’ll be buggered! [Guffaws, coquettishly half-covers his mouth.] Sorry.
Tindle: Yes, it’s mutual.
Wyke: You take turns.
Tindle: We fuck each other, that’s what people do.
Wyke [shortly]: Yeh, yeh… I follow.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
One can say, not unfairly to Mr. Pinter, that the quintessentially ‘English’ dialogue of Sleuth II, this game of “English Gentleman” is a little dated. That’s not a criticism; it’s what gives the film its charm. For the last time, we’re hearing the brittle, brutal dialogue that made Mr. Pinter such a revolutionary force in the sixties.
The British class system having effectively collapsed, and incivility having taken over public discourse in our century, people ‘don’t talk like that any more’:—they haven’t the ‘class’ to wear a mask of civility over their emotions the way ‘English gentlemen’ of the old, Pinterian school, like Wyke and Tindle, do.
The object of the game is to get the other man’s mask of politeness to slip, to get him to acknowledge, through an unforced error, the outrageousness of the situation—sitting across the table from the man who is (as Inspector Black will later put it) giving your wife ‘a good going-over’ and making amiable, drawing-room chit-chat with him. And as the dialogue above shows, the advantage goes, initially, to Milo: as the present possessor of Maggie, he is playing ‘in the superior position’.
But I said above that “English Gentleman” is, chez Pinter, a necessarily exclusionary game, one designed to ‘keep out’ the foreigner, the one who is ‘passing’ for an English gentleman in this radically democratized society rendered ambiguous by a putative ‘equality’.
In Sleuth I, Mr. Shaffer makes much of class, and of Milo Tindle’s dubious background. In the original conception of the Sleuth plot, Milo is a hairdresser, the owner of two salons, and the son of a poor Italian watchmaker, a certain Tindolini. In Sleuth II, Mr. Pinter jettisons much of this obvious social commentary, but what he retains is telling about how he conceptualizes the game between the two men.
In Sleuth II, Mr. Law’s Tindle is now an actor, mostly out of work, a specialist in killers and sex maniacs. He’s still got the Italian papà sullo sfondo, though Wyke, in a typical Pinter manœuvre, ignores this information and high-handedly attempts to tell him that his father might actually be Hungarian.
More pointedly, in an even more aggressive version of this gambit of calculated rudeness, it is Wyke who brings up what vestigially remains of the ‘hairdresser’ backstory and tells Tindle that he ‘thought Maggie said that you were a hairdresser.’
It is a customary gambit in Mr. Pinter’s plays for a character to take some piece of information which is flatly denied or contradicted by another character into his head and never let it go, stubbornly insisting on this self-invented falsehood or deliberate misunderstanding as a point of fact.
This is the essence of the game of “English Gentleman” which Mick, for instance, insists on playing with Davies in Mr. Pinter’s most famous play, The Caretaker (1960), refusing to believe that this scurrilous tramp isn’t ‘an experienced first-class professional interior and exterior decorator’, despite having made this elaborate ruse up out of his own head in order to trap Davies and evict him from his house.
In Sleuth II, the factitious fact of Tindle being an ‘Italian hairdresser’ becomes a running gag throughout the piece. In attributing the misapprehension to Maggie, Wyke places a veneer of plausible deniability on what is frankly a ruse to embarrass Milo and put him at a positional disadvantage.
The point of the gambit is that if Wyke can get Tindle to inhabit his frame, getting him to admit the validity of Wyke’s invented falsehood that Milo’s father is actually Hungarian, that he’s not English at all but really Italian, or that he’s not an actor but in fact a hairdresser, then he gains the superior position over him by dictating to his opponent the identity he has invented for this (as Wyke sees it) pathetic interloper in his house and his marital bed, and thus disposing of Tindle as a challenge to his masculinity.
These latter two intersections of identity—nationality and occupation—become particularly weaponized as fulcrums of power: To be ‘Italian’ (a ‘funny lot’, according to Wyke, who don’t go in much for ‘culture’) is to be distinctly ‘un-English’, and to be (of all things) a ‘hairdresser’ is to be distinctly ‘not a gentleman’. Worst of all is to be both Italian and a hairdresser, for, in the mordantly dubious construction Wyke places on these two things together, is to be, in the game of coded language that is “English Gentleman”, una specie di culattone.
And the Cockney Caine/Wyke of Sleuth II is not, I think, sans raison in pressing with leaden-footed heaviness on the triggering peddle of Law/Tindle’s dubious ‘passing’ as an English gentleman. I said above that the kind sub-Coward subversion of drawing-room comedy dialogue with which Mr. Pinter first came to the stage is ‘just not done anymore, old boy’; that young Brits of today just don’t talk like that.
For all the heaviness of his Cockney accent, Mr. Caine is more convincing as an English gentleman of the old school than Mr. Law, but that disconcerting ‘falsity’ of Mr. Pinter’s version of Tindle as being a product of the public school system, and thus on terms of equality with Wyke in that ‘easy grace’, the affected sprezzatura with which both men approach an embarrassing personal matter, is rendered with a beautifully studied ‘foreignness’ in Mr. Law’s interpretation of the rôle.
As a Gen-X’er, Jude Law is really too young to be well-acquainted, as Mr. Caine is, with the ambiguous codes of English speech in the collapsing class system that Mr. Pinter made his special field of research during the 1950’s and ’60’s. When Mr. Law’s Tindle, therefore, attempts to speak like a creature of the drawing room, those clumsy Anglicisms, those elaborate colloquial forms for saying nothing at all which ring so tinny to the ear when rendered by Mr. Pinter, sound actually as though they are being spoken by a foreigner.
When Mr. Law’s Tindle suggests that he and Wyke ‘get down to “brass tacks”’; when he greets Wyke’s criminal proposition with the ultimate in English clichés, that he is ‘all ears’; or, most especially, when he calls the older man ‘old boy’, he speaks almost as I write, with such dripping sarcasm and such bitter satire that neither Jamesian quotation marks nor Flaubertian italicization are enough in themselves to frame and underscore the freezing irony with which he is employing these empty bourgeois terms of polite art.
He speaks the colloquial English of the game of “English Gentleman” like a foreigner, an outsider, uno straniero to the environment of the drawing room—like an Italian, in fine, aping English manners and mores.
Wyke: … I’ve never heard of an Italian called Tindle.
Tindle [sotto voce]: My father’s name is Tindolini.
Wyke [bitterly]: Now that’s lovely. That’s like a little bell. Why don’t you go back to Tindolini? It suits you.
Tindle: You think so?
Wyke: Yes. So if and when you marry Maggie, she’ll be ‘Maggie… Tindolini’. She’ll get a kick out of that.
Wyke: What name do you act under, Tindle or Tindolini?
Wyke: Why have I never heard of you—?
Tindle [quietly]: You will, before long.
Tindle [quietly]:In spades.
Wyke: That sounds threatening—
Tindle: Does it—?
Wyke: Doesn’t it?
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
The big store
The game I am calling “Caper” is really the only game that Mr. Pinter retains from the original plot of Sleuth. “Caper” is that ‘movement’ in both acts of the drama where the commercial mechanics of the crime entertainment are thrown into some vestigial and perfunctory operation, a kind of dramatic bridging device designed to sweeten the transition between the two atavistic games that interest Mr. Pinter, “English Gentleman” and “The Real Game”, the former being a more civilized version of the latter.
Moreover, “Caper” is the only Pinter game in Sleuth II that maps more or less neatly onto the psychological games taxonomized by Dr. Berne. It’s in the genus of games he calls ‘Underworld Games’, and fractionates into two variants—“Robbers” and “Cops”.
“Robbers” maps to Dr. Berne’s “Cops and Robbers”, which, as he explains, is not like the children’s game of cops and robbers at all, but rather like hide-and-seek, ‘in which the essential element is the chagrin of being found.’ Wyke and Tindle’s hunt for the safe in which the jewels are hidden represents the sub-game of “Robbers”, and since Wyke, in the first iteration of the game, knows where the safe is, and both players know where it is in the second, the pleasure of the game, as Dr. Berne says, lies in Wyke’s feigned defence of the jewels (which are indeed well-hidden) while all the while betraying their location as he aids and abets Milo in finding the safe.
If father finds [the child] too easily, the chagrin is there without much fun. But father, if he is a good player, knows what to do: he holds off, whereupon the little boy gives him a clue by calling out, dropping something or banging. Thus, he forces father to find him, but still shows chagrin; this time he has had more fun because of the increased suspense. If father gives up, the boy usually feels disappointed rather than victorious. Since the fun of being hidden was there, evidently that is not where the trouble lies. What he is disappointed about is not being caught. When his turn comes to hide, father knows he is not supposed to outwit the child for very long, just long enough to make it fun; and he is wise enough to look chagrined when he is caught. It soon becomes clear that being found is the necessary payoff.
… At the social level [“Cops and Robbers”] is a battle of wits, and is most satisfying when the Adult of each player does his best…. Not being caught is actually the antithesis. Among older children, one who finds an insoluble hiding place is regarded as not being a good sport, since he has spoiled the game. He has eliminated the Child element and turned the whole thing into an Adult procedure. He is no longer playing for fun.
In some sense, while Wyke is the nominal Parent in the first iteration of “Robbers”, helping Milo, in the Child position, to find the safe like the good father of Dr. Berne’s example, both men, I would contend, enter into the Child position to some extent. From Wyke’s perspective, knowing that the safe really is in an ‘insoluble hiding place’, he nobly declines to turn the sub-game of “Robbers” into ‘an Adult procedure’, a sporting contest of wits between equals, but enters with Tindle into ‘the Child element’ of the game, ransacking his bedroom in simulated search of the safe with even more gusto than Milo.
In the second iteration, the presence of the revolver as a salient element in the game-play puts Milo in the Parent position. But he reciprocates the ‘sporting chance’ that Wyke gave him in the first iteration of “Robbers” and insists (albeit with irony; that is to say, at gun-point) that Wyke—who is now very obviously in the Child position—help him to find the safe, the location of which he pretends to be in ignorance of.
Thus I would say that, in contradistinction to Dr. Berne’s contention that there must be a ‘complementarity’ in the ego-states of players of psychological games, in “Robbers”, both men adopt the Child position to some extent, insofar as they both enter with gusto into the darkest aspect of children’s play—its savagery, its malevolence, its destructiveness. They share this savagery, malevolence and destructiveness more or less equally, and the sub-game of “Robbers” is (in its first iteration at least) the only time in Sleuth II we really see Wyke and Tindle on something like a genuine footing of equality.
The sub-game of “Cops”, on the other hand, reflects the classic dynamic identified by Dr. Berne: one player must take the Parent position, the rôle of authority, and the other, the complementary Child position. “Cops” maps to Dr. Berne’s Underworld Game “Let’s Pull a Fast One on Joey”, which, as he says, is the prototypical psychological game that forms the basis for the ‘Big Store’—the multi-iteration caper of the long con game, the architectural mechanics of which are described by David W. Maurer in one of my favourite books, the classic treatise on the subject, The Big Con (1940).
The confidence game, the social game of verisimilar appearances and strategic dissimulation, is the ‘crime of our time’ identified by Mr. Auden as the salient feature of technological, capitalistic modernity. The confidence game as an architecture of ambiguous, plausible, but ultimately fake appearances—an utterly abstract architecture, totally platonic—is, to my mind, the chief poetic metaphor for the situation of our time—the ‘meta-crisis’ of the sensemaking crisis, the impossibility, despite our technological ‘equipment’, of discovering ‘Truth’ with it:—For the knife of Science with which we ‘cut through’ reality, with which we have algorithmically engineered the ‘world of fakeness’, the labyrinthine galerie des glaces narcissiques in which we now find ourselves trapped and lost, is the same knife we have plunged—and daily plunge in our mutually implicating games of (self)-deception—into the side of God, murdering our Highest Value, and the Source of all our meaning.
And knowing my fascination with con games and other Machiavellian social games of strategic deception, dear readers, you will perhaps begin to appreciate why I admire the abstract architecture of Mr. Pinter’s version of the Sleuth plot as a serious literary investigation of ‘the crime of our time’, for he abstracts the literalized labyrinth of Mr. Shaffer’s original conception and gives the metaphor a further twist: The concrete architecture of Wyke’s house, full of the airy blankness of the Void, becomes a Borgesian maze of the mind where the ‘twists and turns’ are the abrupt and jarring incongruencies of character as each man reveals a different ‘facet’ of himself to the other, and the reversals in social positioning between them.
Moreover, in its industrial brutalism, like those empty spaces con artists rent out and deck out in the décor of a stock exchange or a private gambling parlour, and in his wholesale transference of the concrete architecture of ‘the Game’ of Mr. Shaffer’s Sleuth into the abstract arena of the mind, Mr. Pinter makes of Chez Wyke a ‘Big Store’, a protean conceptual space, like the ‘caja blanca’ of a gallery, for the bravura performance of ‘the Art of the Big Con’.
“Capers” 2 and 3, the con game engineered by Tindle, together comprise a ‘short con’ and is played as an end in itself: true to his Italian heritage, he merely wants to get revenge on Wyke by ‘pulling a fast one’ on him. Once he has both deceived and humiliated Wyke, the score is settled, and the meta-game, from his perspective, cycles back to the parodic civility of “English Gentleman”.
This is his strategic error in the meta-game, the error of an impatient youth when pitted against the cunning of old age; for as I said above, “English Gentleman” and “The Real Game” are, in fact, one and the same game, the only difference being that, in “The Real Game”, Mr. Pinter removes the mask, the veneer of civility and civilization altogether.
“The Real Game” is essentially ‘thereal Pinter game’, the game of Silence and the Void that lies beneath the characteristic game of “English Gentleman” which is a feature of all his plays.
Hence, when I said that the “Caper” is a bridging device in the architecture of Sleuth II between “English Gentleman” and “The Real Game”, we can see how Wyke approaches the long con, how he architecturally ‘orchestrates’ the game-play of Act I, versus how Tindle orchestrates the short con in Act II, and consequently where Milo’s fatal error lies.
“English Gentleman” must end in “The Real Game”: “English Gentleman” is ‘the set-up’ of “The Real Game”—which is, in turn, ‘the pay-off’ to the meta-game that is Mr. Pinter’s Sleuth. You cannot play the “Caper”—even a fractionated version of it—as Tindle does merely as an end in itself and then go back to the civilized sniping of passive-aggressive politeness.
As Wyke tells Inspector Black, ‘it’s not worth playing a game unless you play it to the hilt.’ And where ‘the real game’, as he admits, is a game of humiliation between two men, you cannot merely reduce the other to ‘a shivering, frightened, fucking wreck in front you,’ and then give him ‘a drink and a pat on the bum’ and let it go at that, as Tindle does.
The “Caper” is, as Wyke very well understands, a form, a gambit, ‘the convincer’ that serves an essential function in the overall architecture of the con game. Only a child, like Milo, would think that the “Caper” is the con game itself.
The object of the “Caper” is not simply to deceive your opponent and humiliate him with your deception, to ‘take off’ the other player in a short, smash-and-grab con of one iteration. It is to ‘frame the gaff’, to ‘bill the mark in’ to the Big Store of the long con, iterated over several turns of play; it is to take him off repeatedly until the mark is completely played out.
Thus we come back to the architecture of the house as ‘Big Store’. If we are to believe the report of the two characters and accept that Maggie is responsible for the design of the house, she has ‘framed the gaff’ in which the long con of Wyke’s “Real Game” is set to take place. In this reading of the architecture of the Pinterian meta-game, she is the ‘roper’ who has ‘mitted in’ the mark, Milo, introducing him to the ‘inside man’—Wyke—who manages the Big Store she has designed as a game for Tindle.
In other words, Maggie and Wyke are in on the “Caper” together, which is why I say that, despite the fact that we never see Maggie in the film, we can consider her to be a competitor in the triangulated game of “Let’s You and Him Fight”. A careful viewing of Sleuth II yields several clues in support of this hypothesis. Though it’s assumed, in this version, that the game is a perverse sexual conspiracy between Maggie and Wyke to destroy Milo, a variation on the game Mr. Pinter plays in The Comfort of Strangers (1990), such a dangerous caper could easily go awry—in which case I see the femme fatale Maggie very readily giving herself to Tindle, having dispatched, through him, a husband who has nothing to recommend him but his money.
This interpretation of the meta-game sees Maggie as the final iteration of the enigmatic Pinter woman we encounter so many times, particularly in his string of plays in the early 1960’s which deal, as Mr. Billington says, with ‘sexual politics’—The Collection (1961), The Lover (1963), and, most particularly, his masterpiece, The Homecoming (1964)—all plays in which a woman, despite her passivity, emerges as the only victor in an attritional sexual contest between men, rising above their claims to possess her even as she submits to being ‘the spoils of war’.
But in another, more intellectually delicious conceptualization, I see Wyke as being the roper for himself. He is both roper and inside man, and in the recursive, nested game of Act I, in which “English Gentleman” frames the simulated “Caper” of stealing the jewels, and this farce in turn frames the gaff for “The Real Game” which is the pay-off of “English Gentleman”, he mitts Milo in by introducing him to successive versions of himself, facets which are distinct from each other and thus mark the iterations of the game-play.
The ‘roper’, as he says, is the ‘crooked exterior’ of the Big Store/house which extends its hand to Milo on the steps in the first scene and ‘mitts him in’ to the big con. Under this is the inside man, the ‘simple, honest man’ Wyke claims to be, and as every inside man knows, you can only convince a mark to play a con game by appealing to his ‘honesty’—the truly larcenous nature behind his front as an upstanding citizen—and by giving the appearance of respectable probity yourself.
In the long con, each time you play a mark, you must let him win ‘the convincer’, that turn in the game-play that gives him the confidence to go on and greedily redouble his stake. You must let him win a couple of substantial hands off you before you lower the gaff and play him for the big block—everything he’s brought to the table. And this is what Wyke, the master manipulator, does in the games of “English Gentleman” and “Caper” in Act I: he lets Milo best him in the first two games, lets him get the girl and the jewels off him.
And once Tindle is ‘all in’, once he has bought into the ruse of the “Caper”, Wyke lowers the gaff on Milo, revealing the ‘jewellery story’ to have been but a blind, a Big Store for “The Real Game”:
Tindle [laughing nervously]: Listen—will you put that gun down?
Wyke [quietly, curiously]: Why?
Tindle [still laughing]: It’s pointing directly at me; I’m not very happy about it.
Wyke [curiously]: Why not?
Tindle: Look, is this a game?
Wyke: This is a real game.
Wyke [grimly]: The real game has just begun.
Tindle [laughing, ironically]: What’s ‘the real game’?
Wyke: You and me.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
Men without women
When the mask of civility is lifted, when the veneer of civilization comes off, the game of “English Gentleman” reveals “The Real Game”, the game of Silence and the Void, that is beneath all of Mr. Pinter’s plays and films. “The Real Game” is ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’, which he facetiously claimed was what his plays were, au fond, all about.
In Sleuth II we see the final, brilliant iteration of ‘the real Pinter game’ when those two silences—a torrent of words and no words at all—are deployed as desperate, last-ditch, murderous measures between two men to tarnish over the existential Void between them.
In the long con game, a gun is a conspicuous prop in the play that is enacted for the benefit of the mark. A gun is also a form of convincer that is used to ‘cool out’ the mark once he has been ‘taken off’: the inside man, who has formed a conspiracy with the mark to keep an eye on the mark’s handler, the roper, typically ‘shoots’ the roper in outrage when the ‘sure thing’ he had with the mark goes awry. Being bound together as two ‘honest’ men, the mark is implicated as a witness to the inside man’s ‘crime’, and is convinced to take a run-out powder and cool off—sans all his cash.
In his version of “The Real Game”, Wyke uses the pistol he produces in the “Caper” to convince Tindle of his verisimilar intent to murder him. More specifically, he fires two live rounds—these are the convincers in the game-play—followed by a blank cartridge.
Wyke: I’ll tell you exactly what I did. I pretended to kill him. I shot him with a blank, I frightened the shit out of him. Your man was right, your spy, whoever he was. There were three shots: the first two were real, the third one was blank. He was terrified. When I shot him he fainted. When he came round, I gave a drink, pat on the bum, he left the house, his tail, if you want to call it that, between his legs – and I haven’t seen him since.
Black [incredulously]: You gave him ‘apat on the bum’?
Black [with growing outrage]: You gave him a metaphorical ‘pat on the bum’?
Black: How did he take it?
Wyke: He was fine, he told me that it was game, set, and match to me.
Black: So this guy had a sense of humour, is that what you’re saying?
Wyke: Oh yes, he left the house with a ‘twinkle in his eye’.
Black: So tell me, what was the point of all this—?
Wyke: Humiliation! It’s nice to see your wife’s lover a shivering, frightened, fucking wreck in front of you! As a matter of fact, I liked him; I thought he was attractive. I thought we could’ve become good friends. The shortest way to a man’s heart, as I’m sure you know, is humiliation. It binds you together.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
“The Real Game” at the heart of Sleuth II, therefore, is humiliation, but two distinct variations on the game are played in the two acts of the drama.
In Act I, Wyke avails himself, through the convincing prop of the pistol, of masculine force to humiliate Milo, and in embarrassing him, emasculating him. He reduces him to the condition of being a mere ‘Italian hairdresser’ of a man, placing him firmly in the ‘inferior position’, the identity he has constructed for him with that phrase, of being una specie di culattone.
But as Robert Greene tells us in the preface to his book The Art of Seduction (2001), there are two distinct strategies to obtaining power. One of them is through masculine force, and the other is through feminine seduction.
In “The Real Game” of Act II, both men engage in a game of mutual humiliation, mutual emasculation not through force, but via a strategy of feminine seduction.
Seduction requires the player to ‘adopt’ the inferior position as a ruse for eventual dominance through submission. One gives up a lot of the immediate, hard power one can exercise through force in order to gain a more subtle and enduring ‘soft power’, the power of persuasion, but also the power to withhold sexual rewards, and to blackmail or extort compliance in exchange for sexual rewards.
This is ultimately the power that Stella, in The Collection, exercises not only over her husband James, but also over the homosexual couple of Harry and Bill; that Sarah exercises over her husband Richard in The Lover, cuckolding him with himself; and that Ruth, in the most complex articulation of this essential architecture of power chez Pinter, exercises over her husband Teddy and all her male in-laws in The Homecoming.
I said above that there is an obvious homoerotic dimension to the Wyke/Tindle rapport in the Sleuth plot, one which is more or less latent in Mr. Shaffer’s original conception, but which it pleases Mr. Pinter, ‘the supposed trader in mystery and ambiguity’, as Mr. Billington calls him, to raise to salience through his excision of the commercial plot dynamics.
But I said also that we should be careful about falling too quickly on the facile conclusion that, au fond, the plot of Sleuth II is merely about ‘discovering’ this latent homoeroticism in the two characters, ‘outing them’, as it were.
That would be to do a fundamental disservice to Mr. Pinter as a dramatist for whom the Nobel Prize was an acknowledgment that he was a serious social scientist, a serious researcher into the physics and the chemistry of human relations, in the laboratory of the theatre.
The nature of “The Real Game” of modern human relations chez Pinter, of men stripped down to their primitive humanity and locked in these atavistic sexual contests for possession of a woman, a hierarchical ‘game of positions’ to determine who is ‘top’ and who is ‘bottom’, doesn’t reduce to an unambiguous homosexuality, but instead reduces to the ambiguity of the Void beneath our ‘social costumes’, the noisy game of “English Gentleman” we play with each other as a civilized version of this real, silent, gladiatorial contest to the death for personal power—the origins of political power in what Mr. Billington calls the ‘sexual fascism’ at the heart of Mr. Pinter’s plays.
But any intelligent men [sic] with a passionate commitment to male friendship, such as Pinter has, is bound to ask himself at some point whether male bonding carries with it implications of homosexuality. It is also intriguing how often Pinter returns to the subject of what René Girard calls ‘triangular desire’, in which two men are drawn together by their urge to possess the same woman.
—Billington (1996, p. 138)
There’s some confusion where “Caper” 3 ends and the reprise of “English Gentleman” begins in Act II. Having got the safe open and the jewels out of it, Milo oscillates between joking good-naturedly with Wyke and sadistically torturing him. This is because he is a younger man, impetuous, impatient, and inexperienced at this kind of calculated brinkmanship.
He plays the game with (as Dr. Berne says with respect to “Cops and Robbers”) the Child’s sense of fun. He doesn’t realize that Wyke is playing the meta-game from the Adult ego-state, that ‘[h]e is in the same class as the owner of a casino, or some professional criminals, who are really out for money rather than sport.’
Even when he’s caught off-balance by Tindle’s abrupt switches of mood, you can distinctly see in Wyke’s eyes that he is quickly clocking to where they are in the meta-game and pacing Milo. You can also see the point at which he perceives Tindle’s fundamental weakness as a callow, egotistical, impetuous youth, and resumes the lead by adopting ‘the inferior position’, the feminine position, with respect to him.
Wyke: You like games, don’t you?
Tindle: Some. Not all.
Wyke: But you like being incharge – of the game?
Tindle [somewhat uncertainly, as if sensing a trap]: Oh yes; sure.
Wyke: I like a man who wants to be in charge of things.
Tindle: Do you?
Wyke: Yes, I do.
Wyke: You know something, I – I like your mind.
Tindle [rather luxuriantly, as if used to being complimented]: Do you really?
Wyke: It excites me. I like the way you go about things.
Tindle: You mean… you like my ‘style’.
Wyke [pensively]: Oh, I-I like your style. I like it very much.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
Tindle has the typical vanity—and the insecurity—of the actor, and Wyke seeks to place him permanently in the inferior, feminine position he has designated for him by the subtle ruse of first adopting the feminine position himself. He pretends to be dominated by Milo’s mind (which Tindle interprets, vaingloriously, as his ‘style’ at game-play), by a mind that is equal in its Machiavellian intricacy to Wyke’s own.
He also seeks to put this Italian hairdresser ‘in his place’—in the ‘little boy’s room’ of the guest suite.
In Mr. Pinter’s plays dating all the way back to his first, The Room (1957), the conquest of a room by an invader who dislocates and ejects the inhabitant from it is the central motif, the essential pattern of the architecture on his secret planet. Finally, in his last work, the game involves putting one’s opponent in a room, inviting the invader into one’s space, and containing him in a corner of one’s domain and empire.
In Sleuth II, introjecting the invader into oneself—like a woman—swallowing and suffocating him in the claustrophobic room of one’s choosing, becomes the winning move in “The Real Game”.
Wyke [quietly]: I’m a rich man. What do you want to do? I can subsidise anything you want. You want to open a bookshop in the village? An art gallery? Or, of course – a little theatre! You’re a wonderful actor, you could choose all the plays and play all the leading parts.
But — this would be your home.
And this would be your bedroom.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
In a deliberately ambiguous Pinterism designed to raise, in the unsubtle, the suspicion that Wyke, beneath all the violence with which he has competed for Maggie, is merely an ‘old queen’, he tells Tindle that he is ‘my kind of person’, and Tindle, although taken aback, is clearly moved by this confidence.
Very few people have ever liked Milo ‘for his mind’;—plenty have admired him for his body, of course, but no one except Wyke has ever appreciated his lively wit and his child-like sprezzatura at play. And sensing an advantage over Wyke—that he has at last found his weakness—Tindle, the actor who can turn on a dime, begins to play up the ‘Italian hairdresser’ rôle for the old man—the occulted ‘queerness’ that Wyke has suspected in him from the start—as he entertains the idea of becoming the old man’s catamite.
Thus, you see, dear readers, there is not, as appears on first view, an uncomplicated sexual deviance adventitiously discovered at the heart of the Wyke/Tindle rapport in Sleuth II. Instead, having spent most of the film competing for the ‘superior position’ over each other, in the final iteration of the game-play, each man having truly met his match in the other, and having exhausted all the strategies of emasculation through force, both men now jockey to adopt and occupy the inferior, feminine position in the short-term as a strategy to ultimately dominate the other in the long-term.
“The Real Game”, in its ultimate iteration, is a game of mutual humiliation, mutual emasculation through the castrating tyranny of feminine seduction. The game, in its deepest iteration, is far more depraved than superficial sexual deviance: for, like scorpions crouching down so as to raise the stinging tail higher over the other, or crocodiles locked in a death roll, both men are going to debase themselves—cut off their own cojones, albeit momentarily—so as to seduce the other into an inferior position he can never escape from.
What gives feminine seduction its longer-lasting, though unstable, power when it is obviously the ‘weaker’ of the two strategies, lies in the ‘feminine prerogative’, that irrational inconstancy we men find so fatiguing and frustrating to deal with.
The superior, masculine position being the position of ‘conscious control’, it demands rational predictability. The inferior, feminine position, while complying submissively with the masculine, ceding willingly to its attractive display of force, reserves for itself the arm of irrationality, the right to perversely ‘change its mind’ on a dime, to be ‘owned’, ‘possessed’, but never ‘controlled’—for that would be to make itself ‘predictable’, and thus subject to masculine control.
Having been ‘boxed in’ to the guest suite, having been played into a corner by Wyke’s verisimilar pretence at being seduced, Tindle senses his predicament. The only strategy open to him from this square is to embrace submission to the hilt and to obtain a lasting dominance over Wyke through strategic deployment of irrational inconstancy—blackmailing and extorting submission to him by what he sees as Wyke’s secret sexual weakness.
Tindle: … [P]erhaps I am ‘your kind of person’, who knows?
Tindle: But you would have to be very – nice – to me; for instance, just at this moment, I need a drink.
Wyke [quietly]: You can get your own drink.
Tindle: No, you get it for me and I might be ‘nice’ to you.
Wyke: Nice to me?
Tindle: That’s what I said. [Snapping his fingers] Whisky, please!
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
The ‘feminine position’, as this dialogue demonstrates, is truly to be playing the game from Dr. Berne’s Child ego-state: the last weapon that is available to the feminine player is the impetuous tyranny of the ‘tantrum’, that nuclear option that women know they can threaten to deploy at any time, and the fear of which is usually sufficient to extort compliance from weak men, those, that is to say, who have insufficient will to access to their funds of force in a nuclear confrontation.
It’s a dangerous strategy, which is why I say that seduction is a longer lasting iterative strategy for obtaining and maintaining power than force, but an unstable one. While the feminine player can obtain and maintain an advantage over a weak masculine player almost indefinitely through the tyranny of seduction, it’s a calculated bet, and at some point, when the coercive nudging and tantrums finally becomes too fatiguing and frustrating, a weak man generally snaps, accessing all his supply of force, seeing and raising the nuclear option in a way the women can’t match, going ‘all in’.
This is the dangerous situation that Tindle is in. Like a needling woman, he doesn’t know how close he actually is to the button he is flirting with, cannot calculate or calibrate himself to the supply of force occulted by Wyke’s poker-faced silence. To paraphrase M. de Sade, in Wyke Milo ‘ne connait pas le monstre auquel il a à faire’: he does not perceive to what extent crime has been enthroned in the ‘dank and deep architecture’ of that perverse soul.
Tindle is playing from the Child’s position, but Wyke, a professional underworld gamesman as a crime writer and a past-master at these long strategies of slow strangulation, is playing from the Adult position: he is, as Dr. Berne says, ‘no longer playing for fun. He is in the same class as … some professional criminals, who are really out for money rather than sport.’
And as Mr. Caine revealed, while in Sleuth I Lord Olivier was constrained by the commercial architecture of Mr. Shaffer’s plot to play Wyke as a ‘dangerous English eccentric’, he and Mr. Branagh decided to base their interpretation of the Pinter Wyke on a psychological treatise they discovered on morbid jealousy—a condition which has often led to the murder of lovers by aggrieved spouses.
Thus, ‘the game’, “The Real Game”, from Wyke’s, the professional crime writer’s, perspective, is ‘The Most Dangerous Game’—the deliberate, calculated hunting of a human being as sport.
And yet it’s clear there is some genuine and mutual attraction between Wyke and Tindle that is more than merely platonic: the strategy of mutual emasculation through seduction couldn’t be effective if they weren’t actually seduced by something in the other. The woman is no longer salient: as a field of contest over which they have fought, as a token of palpable possession in the conceptual game-space, Maggie has been exhausted of her relevance and her value as the object of the game:—they have, as Wyke says, ‘cut her out’, ‘let her rot.’
She is ‘nowhere’, and as Milo admits, ultimately, ‘This is a game between us, “old boy”, between you and me.’
My kind of person
In Wyke and Tindle, these two figures of commercial ‘fun’ adopted and adapted from another playwright, we have the two sides of Harold Pinter himself, the writer and the actor, the master in charge of the game and the great counterfeiter. They come together in the deadly symbiosis of a final reconciliation, the final statement of a great artist on the concerns of his life—the concrete architecture of domestic space—of houses, of rooms—and how the private, personal sphere gives rise to the abstract architecture of political power.
Mr. Pinter is ‘my kind of person’. I like his mind; it excites me. I like the way he ‘goes about things’. I like his ‘style’ very much.
In the outback town where I grew up, I was a member of the local theatrical society as a teenager. In the first year of my membership, a season of four one-act plays was staged. Les gosses, the junior thespians, had their chance first up to ‘put on a show’, and then, after the dress rehearsals, and later, when the season was in full swing, I would slip around and sit front of house, anxious to watch the third play on the bill.
I had become fascinated by a play which featured two men in a room, one lying on a bed reading a newspaper, the other sitting on another bed, tying his shoe. It was Mr. Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1958). I had never heard such dialogue—unfunnily funny, banally menacing. And I had never heard such prolonged silence on a stage, like the continual, suspenseful build-up to a gag which never comes, or if it came, was not funny, was not a release in tension but a tightening of it.
Over about two months of watching the dress rehearsals, and then the play before an audience, it slowly dawned on my young brain who and what Ben and Gus, the two men in the room, were, and I became obsessed by the puzzle of trying to figure out how they move from their first positions through their weird iterated game-play, like a pair of music-hall comedians kibbitzing with increasing momentum through a routine where the laughter slowly dies, to the final tableau of the play, their final, silent confrontation with each other across the Void.
Having read the play many times, nearly thirty years later, I’m still not quite sure how he does it, how Mr. Pinter pulls off ‘the prestige’ of his magic trick, and yet the image of two men in a room at the end of that play has endured for me as one of the key æsthetic experiences of my life.
In the way the artistic soul inchoately senses, even in its youth, here was an image that had ‘high signal’ for me, that confirmed what I had already intuited about life—that the modern world is an absurd ‘black comedy’.
Then, when I was fifteen and sixteen, I had a go at our local eisteddfod and tried my hand at something I think was called a ‘Character Study’ or something like that—an ambitious competition, often the preserve of serious drama students, gosses who imagined they would go on to study drama at uni, and which involved performing a monologue of your choice, in costume, with appropriate props.
In the first year, I chose Pete’s revelation of his dream in Mr. Pinter’s The Dwarfs (1960):
Pete: The apprehension of experience must obviously be dependent upon discrimination if it’s to be considered valuable. That’s what you lack. You’ve got no idea how to preserve a distance between what you smell and what you think about it. You haven’t got the faculty for making a simple distinction between one thing and another. Every time you walk out of this door you go straight over a cliff. What you’ve got to do is nourish the power of assessment. How can you hope to assess and verify anything if you walk about with your nose stuck between your feet all day long? You knock around with Mark too much. He can’t do you any good. I know how to handle him. But I don’t think he’s your sort. Between you and me, I sometimes think he’s a man of weeds. Sometimes I think he’s just playing a game. But what game? I like him all right when you come down to it. We’re old pals. But you look at him and what do you see? An attitude. Has it substance or is it barren? Sometimes I think it’s as barren as a bombed site. He’ll be a spent force in no time if he doesn’t watch his step. [Pause.] I’ll tell you a dream I had last night. I was with a girl in a tube station, on the platform. People were rushing about. There was some sort of panic. When I looked round I saw everyone’s faces were peeling, blotched, blistered. People were screaming, booming down the tunnels. There was a fire bell clanging. When I looked at the girl I saw that her face was coming off in slabs too, like plaster. Black scabs and stains. The skin was dropping off like lumps of cat’s meat. I could hear it sizzling on the electric rails. I pulled her by the arm to get her out of there. She wouldn’t budge. Stood there, with half a face, staring at me. I screamed at her to come away. Then I thought, Christ, what’s my face look like? Is that why she’s staring? Is that rotting too?
—Harold Pinter, The Dwarfs, Plays Two, pp. 89-90
An ambitious choice. I came runner-up. I just lost my claim to the medallion with on the narrowest margin of points through an unforced error: in rehearsals, I had decided to start off the monologue facing away from the audience, a calculated gamble on my part. It’s a difficult opening from a standing start, particularly when taken out of the context of the scene, and I knew I would have to really project to get the first sentence or two out to compensate for that risky choice. On the night, in the auditorium, I didn’t quite have the power in my lungs I needed.
Having learnt my lesson, I came back the following year, determined to claim the medallion. This time I interpreted Len’s closing monologue:
Len: They’ve stopped eating. It’ll be a quick get out when the whistle blows. All their belongings are stacked in piles. They’ve doused the fire. But I’ve heard nothing. What is the cause for alarm? Why is everything packed? Why are they ready for the off? But they say nothing. They’ve cut me off without a penny. And now they’ve settled down to a wide-eyed kip, crosslegged by the fire. It’s insupportable. I’m left in the lurch. Not even a stale frankfurter, a slice of bacon rind, a leaf of cabbage, not even a mouldy piece of salami, like they used to sling me in the days when we told old tales by suntime. They sit, chock-full. But I smell a rat. They seem to be anticipating a rarer dish, a choicer spread. And this change. All about me the change. The yard as I know it is littered with scraps of cat’s meat, pig bollocks, tin cans, bird brains, spare parts of all the little animals, a squelching, squealing carpet, all the dwarfs’ leavings spittled in the muck, worms stuck in the poisoned shit heaps, the alleys a whirlpool of piss, slime, blood, and fruit juice. Now all is bare. All is clean. All is scrubbed. There is a lawn. There is a shrub. There is a flower.
—Harold Pinter, The Dwarfs, Plays Two, pp. 104-5
I won the medallion.
I didn’t go on to study drama. Unlike Mr. Pinter, as a writer I’ve found my calling to be an actor on ‘the stage of the page’, one of those introverted souls who give their private performance in the rehearsal of deep ideation undertaken in the backstage of life.
But I admire Mr. Pinter’s style comme homme du théâtre. As a dour, splenetic soul not much given to mirth, but with a liver that is a veritable and prodigious factory producing the black bile of bleak satire, I like his ‘comedies of menace’ very much. I howl with laughter at Sleuth: I like a joke that feels like a knife against my throat. His comedies of menace—The Room, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, even, to some extent, The Caretaker—fall under that rubric I am calling ‘literary crime’.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the era, that is, of modernity, it somehow became the writer’s dubious rôle and still more dubious responsibility to be ‘the conscience of his society’.
It’s a rôle and responsibility I sneer at, which I think is a misapprehension, a conflation of logical premises, but which I recognize as an inevitable consequence, just the same, of the faulty, scientistic, capitalistic logic of modernity: Conscience and conscience—the French ‘consciousness’—being one, the writer, the literate artist who is the guardian and custodian of his society’s language (and thus its historian and its prophet) is charged with performing that ‘deep ideation’, working through the problems of his time with what I call ‘the algebra of human language’—words, that abstract symbology which is the conceptual architecture of human consciousness.
Mr. Pinter did just that. He perceived ‘the crime of our time’, the crisis in meaning that is the result of technocratic, capitalistic modernity, the way we have murdered all our values with the knife of Science, and how it has alienated us from the world and from ourselves.
He wasn’t an entertainer; he did not treat the serious subject of crime trivially, as commercial entertainment. He was a literary artist, and the ambiguity of his plays, their banality, their irresolution, are the bane of those who seek ‘entertainment’ in the theatre, comforting distraction from the networked problems which, in the course of the last 100 years, have mounted to such a point that we cannot, in our lifetimes, now see around them.
The baffling crime of our time is all around us, and we are all implicated in the game of our mutually assured destruction. We commit it every day, haul the Void closer to ourselves with the nihilistic criminality of our own ambiguous banality.
We’ve all got our hands on the roulette wheel, and everything we do is a ‘move’ that, in externalizing the costs of individual rent-seeking, our vain grasping for personal ‘influence’, to the collective, iterates us all towards a mutually assured, universal holocaust.
As an artist, Mr. Pinter was comfortable to remain in a state of ‘negative capability’, not drawing any conclusions, for the networked problem is so vast that its variety confounds the algebra of human language. We have not the abstract symbology to sculpt the conceptual architecture of the hell that is now all around us. A thorough model of the problem is yet to be articulated in writing, and without a model that compasses the scope of the variety, a networked solution cannot be ideated.
In fine, we have not the language—the words—to even know what the reality is that is around us.
We have not described it; we have not yet modelled it, and we cannot—yet—but we must try.
I tire of that species of writer who, as Mr. Pinter says in “Writing for the Theatre”, ‘clearly trusts words absolutely,’ those souls who still labour under the naïve commercial assumptions of entertainment, believing that there is a direct ratio between words and their referents, that they unproblematically compass the variety of reality, that the world is ‘known’ by the words we use, ‘conquered’ by human language, and ‘knowable’, ‘conquerable’ through them.
Le monde lui-même n’est plus cette propriété privée, héréditaire et monnayable, cette sorte de proie, qu’il s’agissait moins de connaître que de conquérir…
Notre monde, aujourd’hui, est moins sûr de lui-même, plus modest peut-être puisqu’il a renoncé à la toute-puissance de la personne, mais plus ambitieux aussi puisqu’il regarde au-delà.
The world itself is no longer a private property, inheritable and vendible, a species of prey, of which it is a less a matter of understanding it than of conquering it….
Today, our world is less sure of itself, possibly more modest, since it has renounced the all-powerfulness of the human being, but also more ambitious, since it looks beyond it.
—Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Sur quelques notions périmées”, Pour un nouveau roman (1961, p. 28, my translation)
The ‘radical scepticism’ about the world of verisimilar appearances evinced by Mr. Pinter should be a salutary example to us as writers.
It’s time to ‘buck your ideas up’, as he says in Sleuth. The time for entertainment is over. It’s time for us, as writers, to ‘get down to “brass tacks”’, to begin to map the dimensions of the meta-crisis, to articulate the architecture of the networked hell that is all around us, and we only do that through the earnest modelling of actuality that is serious Art.
The network of impressions and intuitions that come from serious artists like Mr. Pinter, writers who use the algebra of human language to scope what they see—to report ‘high signal’ to the collective—is, I think, the only, but probably insufficient, means we having of compassing the variety, the only way we can bring the human dimension accurately and faithfully to the equation unbalanced by Science.
The Spleen of Melbourne project is my attempt to do just that, to present impressions from the field of my flâneuristic researches, through my prose poetry and ficciones, such as “The Trade”.
So too is that ‘literary crime’ I’ve been plotting since lockdown, and of which “The Trade” is a further experiment, a further attempt to articulate what I think is really going on in the world, the great ‘crime of our time’, the global confidence game of ambiguous appearances, of fakeness and personal grasping for ‘influence’, we engage in daily, the problem to which there is not yet a solution, since our language, as Mr. Pinter showed, is yet too weak to map accurately the reality of it.
If you find value in my ideation and would like to support me in my research, consider purchasing the soundtrack to “The Trade” below for $A2.
“Office at night”: A ficción by Dean Kyte. The track above is best heard through earphones.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur I release a new ‘amplified flânograph’ for your delectation, chers lecteurs—one of those snapshots bagged in the course of my flâneries, enhanced with an atmospheric soundscape and a short story to animate and enliven the static image.
The photograph above was taken about two weeks before I booked out of Melbourne for warmer climes. I don’t usually shoot on colour film, being a black-and-white purist, so I wanted to use up the roll before I headed north. There were two nights in mid-May when I went a bit mad, and this image of a bald man on the ameche in his office on the first floor of Block Court, just before he shut up shop for the night, was snapped on the first.
Usually when your Melbourne Flâneur is between homes, he’s a night-cat, prowling the streets of the city after dark, and sometimes armed—with cameras, of course. But with all the lockdowns we endured in Melbourne last year, it had been a long time since I had been locked and loaded for a nighttime expedition to hunt down ‘the wonder’, ‘le merveilleux’, the magic mystery of the city at night.
It was a cold and bitter evening even in mid-May, and I cast off from The Miami Hotel, in West Melbourne, at sunset on a crazy trudge around the CBD and Carlton, bagging a number of sights I had thought, in my constrained flâneries during lockdown, might make good images—better ones in colour than in black-and-white.
Photographically inclined followers of this vlog will perhaps recognize this feeling, but when I exercised my inner cat (who had been housebound for too many months) and went on my first nighttime hunt in ages, the predatory activity of adding images to my bag took on an impetus of its own: The crazy, zigzagging walk, alone at night, through disparate zones of poetry and danger, guided only by the associations of memory, as I recalled some romantic place where I had added a girl to my trophy tally, or the instinct for a mystic image which seemed to hover, shimmering and glimmering, in the dusky light of a distant streetcorner, took on its own drunken momentum.
And the sound of that momentum (largely unknown to you souls too young to know the rigorous dérèglement de tous les sens induced by the LSD alchemy of film) was the mechanical ratchet, like a rising tempo, of winding on and snapping one image after another.
I’m usually stingier than Scrooge when it comes to using up my film, but that night I went through a third of a roll of Ektar, and the image above, taken halfway through my passeggiata ubriaca, was definitely the most memorable, an experience in itself.
It was so memorable an experience, in fact, that nearly two months later, as I was on the train to Coffs Harbour, I was inspired to write the first draft of a short story, “Office at night”, based on that image. I wrote two further drafts at Coffs and two in Bellingen during my holiday up there. The soundscape which accompanies the short story was also created in Coffs and refined during my fourth lockdown in Newcastle.
The six-minute tale is a fictionalized version of the taking of that photograph. I had always wanted to get a shot of Block Court, one of the great art déco arcades of Melbourne, and I think I was right in believing that it would look better on colour film than in black-and-white, as that eerie green glow over the bay window—like the Empire Hotel sign in Vertigo (1958)—gives some indication.
It was around 6:15, nearly an hour after sundown, when I hustled up Collins street to nab the shot. I just happened to be in time to see light in the office on the first floor directly over the arcade. There was a bald man framed in the corner of the window frame. He was standing in profile behind his desk and was taking a call on his mobile phone. He gave the impression of having just gotten up from his desk to leave for the evening when the phone call had come through and had been caught in that transitional moment of being physically still in one place while having left it mentally.
I don’t usually take photographs with people in them. I get photographed a good deal myself, and so I’m aware that there’s a certain moral dilemma about ‘stealing people’s souls’ which I’d rather avoid. And in any event, my interest (as you’ve doubtless gleaned from my films, videos, and photographs) is architecture, not people. Empty spaces are the actors in my dramas, not those pesky humans. I will usually disdain to take the shot if someone strays into my frame—unless their back is turned or (as in the instance above) they’re at a sufficient distance as to be individually unrecognizable—a mere generic sign for the human presence in the empty architectural spaces that fascinate me.
So I had to make a quick decision about whether to clip the bald man’s soul or pass up the shot, but that second source of light on the first floor directly over the arcade was too photogenic—as was the bald man’s presence, en plein action, right in the corner of the frame, as smeary a sign for the human presence as an artist’s signature in the corner of a canvas.
Those impromptu additions to the image of the arcade at night I had imagined were ultimately too good to pass up.
I’m not so hot at photographing action—which is another reason why I disdain to photograph people. I’m too considered a photographer, take too much time over composing the shot and testing my settings, to be good at snapshooting. But in this instance, I knew I had to be quick to get the shot without traffic—either vehicular or on the hoof—getting between me and the image of the arcade with the lighted windows above it. Moreover, I had to nail down the bald man before he changed his pose too dramatically or rung off.
I had hardly time to check my settings. I was really winging it—and in fact, I had to grab two shots, because the first one did involve some unphotogenic intrusions of silhouettes passing before the arcade. By the time I wound on and recomposed for shot #2, the bald man was hanging up.
There’s a useful phone kiosk à deux pas down Collins street, more or less in front of that engraved pilaster you see on the left-hand margin of the frame. I had my Pentax K1000 resting on the metal tray, which I was borrowing to note down the time, the settings I had used, and the exposure of the two shots. As I was rounding out my notes (a job that took no more than a minute), I looked up and was just in time to see that the lights in the office above the arcade were off. My eyes flicked to street level, and I was just in time to see the bald man walking out of Block Court and turning east up Collins street, towards Swanston.
And that image—both the photographic one that I took and the memorable, puzzling image a minute later of the darkened office and the man walking out of the arcade—is, in essence, the backstory which forms the story of “Office at night”.
Now I don’t know who the bald man is, and I don’t know what goes on in the office on the first floor above the arcade. I did try to find that information out when I was writing the subsequent drafts of the story in Coffs and Bello, but decided that I would rather the mystery to remain inviolate.
In any event, those facts are immaterial to the story that I tell in the ficción—mere MacGuffins, as Mr. Hitchcock would call them.
Don’t even ask me who the bald man is my fictionalized version of the story: I don’t know who he is even in my imagining of him, though I know what he does, and I have a very vague idea of what he takes out of the safe.
The point is that the image of him, with his gleaming pink pate and ill-fitting grey jacket, both taking the mysterious call in the office and leaving it to walk up Collins street towards the Paris End, carved itself indelibly upon my memory in those few brief seconds of sighting him through my viewfinder and, a minute later, when I looked up from my Moleskine to see him walking away from me forever.
Which is to say that, despite the physical distance between us, and despite the fact of his ignorance of me watching him, I formed ‘a connection’ with the bald man. The bullish bald head and the jacket too tight for his stocky body were the two details on the surface of that image that were enough to catapult me across Collins street and into the office with him, to empathize with him even in his mystery.
For the next seven weeks, first in Melbourne, and then, for much longer, in Wagga Wagga, as I worked at unkinking the larger story of which “Office at night”, like my previous flânograph on this vlog, “Dreidel”, is an experimental episode, the ‘total image’ of the bald man—of my brief encounter with him—stayed with me, percolating in my unconscious in other landscapes, so that, when I came to be sitting on the XPT, bored, tired and anxious on my way to Coffs as I struggled to breathe behind my mask, the total image of him swam up to consciousness again to distract me briefly from my discomfort, and to be transcribed in a fictionalized version of our encounter and connection, apparently from his perspective.
Why should this ‘total image’ of the bald man, of my brief encounter with him at a distance, have had such an enduring impact on me that I carried that image, in my mind, to Wagga, and Coffs, and Bello, and even to Newcastle?
Well, in large part it has to do with the fortunate intersection of what I had consciously come to Block Court to do on that particular evening in mid-May and the wholly unexpected illumination of another facet in my evolving æsthetic philosophy of flânerie which that lighted window on the second storey above the arcade represented.
During our dreary second lockdown in Melbourne last year (the one in which we earned the unenviable honour of being ‘the most locked down city in the world’), when opportunities for flânerie were constrained by a five-kilometre radius; only two permitted hours of exercise per day; a strict curfew; and the Stasi-like harassment of the cops, I took to wandering around the immediate neighbourhood of The Miami Hotel, in North Melbourne, and particularly, in my daily quest for that black nectar, the ebony ambrosia to which I am matutinally addicted, to the Mecca of cafés around Errol street.
An idea began to form for me in the streets of North Melbourne, one of those ideas, as Walter Benjamin says, that ‘feeds on the sensory data taking shape before [the flâneur’s] eyes but often possesses itself of abstract knowledge—indeed, of dead facts….’
Last year, during our second lockdown, I wrote a post entitled “A flâneur in Chinatown” in which I cited a journal article by Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong, “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019). While McDonogh and Wong used the metaphor of the verticality of global Chinatowns as an analogue for the verticality of Chinese writing—and the consequent illegibility of these densely layered urban spaces to Occidental eyes—I began to look at my circumscribed flâneurial neighbourhood through McDonogh and Wong’s lens of inscrutably illegible verticality.
Melbourne is actually a rather low-built city. But the impression of horizontality as a superordinate architectural æsthetic which strikes one rather forcefully in Adelaide, for instance, is not immediately obvious to the naked eye in Melbourne. On the contrary, Melbourne gives one a somewhat deceptive impression of verticality, which is perhaps partly a function of its density and narrowness even in suburbia.
But even in the inner-city suburbs with their famous and picturesque row houses, such as North Melbourne, the terraces rarely extend above two storeys. I think, in addition to the density of these terraces built cheek-by-jowl and the narrowness of the old streets and lanes tranched between the major thoroughfares, the grandiosity of the façades contributes to an impression of verticality which is slightly deceptive.
The horizontality of Melbourne is somewhat concealed from immediate perception by such nineteenth-century tricks as the love of iron Corinthians pegging the corrugated skirts of wide awnings to the edges of the street, as we see so picturesquely along that block of Errol street leading to the North Melbourne Town Hall; by rows of pilasters and harmoniously arched windows of Venetian Renaissance variety leaping along upper-storey façades; by the cowled escutcheons which bear the central plaques telling the musical, perfumed names of the terraces, or featuring crenelated shells, deeply recessed, evoking the Way of St. James; by plinth-like corners terminating in spiked and spired urns, and mass-produced mascarons bearing what I consider to be ‘the face of Melbourne’, that neo-classical, rather matronly dame of nondescript aspect with her Venusian hairdo.
I love all this with a rapture that sends me into flights of poetry, but it was the windows—particularly those arched, Venetian Renaissance-style windows, not entirely indigenous to Melbourne on our shores, but deeply characteristic of the place as of no other town or city in Australia—which captured my attention in my morning scuttles outdoors for coffee.
More than once, of a morning, as I waited on the sidewalk in Errol or Victoria streets, regarding with curiosity the row of terraces opposite me, I had to be awakened from my rêverie by having my name called twice. And in Queensberry street, standing in the bluestone gutter outside Bread Club, I was particularly fixated on the four, paired first-floor windows above Ace Antiques and Collectables across the street, around which faded advertisements for The Age and the Herald Sun still barely emblaze the red brickwork.
Who lives behind these first-floor windows which look down on Melbourne through winking, half-drawn curtains, or sleepy, half-lowered shades? Does anyone at all? In some perhaps, but in the suburbs of Melbourne immediately adjacent to the CBD where I was, that potential seemed more doubtful than likely, since the ground floors of many terraces in West and North Melbourne are occupied, as their nineteenth-century architects intended, by shops.
The question of who—or what—was up there on the storey above the street became a source of flâneurial fascination for me, the one riddle of the city which lockdown allowed my legs to consider as they carried me to one coffee shop or another. Forced to read into their sombre depths from the angle of the street below, I tried to make up with lateral movement what I couldn’t gain in vertical, eyeballing them in a tracking pan as I surveilled them in my passage so as to gain the widest arc of vision into their interiors from below.
Alas! to no avail. A view of ceiling, sometimes truncated by a slash of grimy, half-drawn curtain or half-lowered shade, gave some suggestion of a resident human presence domiciled (perhaps indigently) in the dress circle above the stage of Errol or Victoria streets, but just as often, an intimation of haphazardly piled and abandoned boxes, or dusty emptiness, implied their use as storerooms—sometimes storing nothing at all.
I began even to wonder if these first-floor windows were accessible to the tenants or owners of the ground-floor shops, or if, like Rapunzel’s tower, internal staircases hidden to my eyes had atrophied and fallen away in the sedimentary archaeology of Melbourne’s history, so that all that remained was an empire of empty or forgotten rooms which hovered at that stratum in the air above the city, and which could only be reached and explored if you cast a ladder up to the windows.
The mystery of who or what is up there on Melbourne’s second storeys remained, like the bald man’s grift on the first floor of Block Court, inviolate.
It’s not as though this question of what is on the upper storeys of buildings, inaccessible to penetration beyond their ground-floor commercial façades, hasn’t occurred to me before. Take an hour off to sit in the Bourke street mall and regard the opaque windows of the Diamond House and the Public Benefit Bootery, for instance, and the question of what all this commercial space—apparently empty, apparently even in disrepair—above the famously affaireux level of Bourke street is being used for will doubtless occur to you too.
But it took reading McDonogh and Wong’s journal article during lockdown for me to really begin formulating embodied ideas—these Eleusinian inferences and intuitions about the mysteries of actuality which strike the flâneur, in his ambulations, with the abstract force of ‘dead facts’—of my own.
And it’s from that place of inference and intuition, my sense of the tantalizing inaccessibility of the life (or lives) behind upper-storey windows when seen from the level of the street, that the mystery I’ve attempted to articulate in “Office at night” proceeded.
Those lit first-floor windows fortuitously intersected with my errand to make a record of Block Court on colour film at night, and the latter image (which would doubtless have been beautiful in itself) was enlivened by the image of the former, personified by the figure of the bald man engaged in his eternally mysterious activity of taking a phone call to which I had no access in a space to which I also had no access.
Prior to my encounter with McDonogh and Wong, the image of lighted windows at night had long fascinated me. There is an inaccessibility about these too, for although the ground-floor lighted windows of houses would appear to allow the voyeur to gaze directly in and see who, or what, exists inside the black box of the façade, when seen in lateral passage from a moving vehicle (from whence the image of lighted windows at night obtains its mysterious romance and power), this voyeuristic desire is denied.
Many has been the time, taking the overnight XPT between Melbourne and Sydney, or between Sydney and Brisbane, when, nearing some little country town in the dead of night and seeing a small flurry of these lit windows at a distance, I have felt (as I did with the bald man) a sense of my soul leaping across darkness and distance and wishing, for a moment, to be within that lighted window; to sample the atmosphere of respite from movement which it shines, like a welcoming hearth, to the weary traveller in flight past it; to know who also is awake at that hour (albeit in the moored comfort of their own home) and how their little bower is decorated.
I had a more localized experience of this sensation in Melbourne, on my birthday, some years ago.
I had dinner and drinks with some friends at Fed Square and had left their convivial company, as I often do, feeling more dissatisfied by the social experience than satisfied by it. I was staying at Fairfield that week, in one of Melbourne’s old brick-veneer bungalows. This one had been modernized and redecorated somewhat, but not so much, fortunately, as to ruin the charm of stoical discomfort which these old-fashioned suburban homes possess.
As it happened—annoyingly—Metro was doing trackwork on the Hurstbridge line that week, so I had to transfer onto a rail replacement bus at Clifton Hill which would swing by the inner-eastern stations of Westgarth and Dennis before depositing me at Fairfield.
It was late when I left my friends, and later still when the Hurstbridge train terminated at Clifton Hill and I transferred, along with the other tired, late-night refugees from the city, onto the bus. As it passed through Westgarth in the dark, I had that same experience of seeing an occasional lit window streak across the panes reflecting nothing back but my weary visage, and I felt my heart lift and leap towards these fugitive examples of Melbourne’s charming old suburban homes—brick-veneers behind low, redbrick fences and California bungalows with their columned porches—in which some soul, wealthier than I, was still awake.
There was the sense that the ‘black boxes’ formed by their attractive, tantalizing façades, beckoning to me (weary traveller that I was), were somewhat like Rubik’s Cubes, or Chinese puzzles:—they contained the mystery of an unimaginable life within which my mind, nevertheless, set itself to imagining, seeing a world of old-fashioned luxury and ease, of bibelots and bric-à-brac consonant with their exteriors—a world of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ I would feel eternally at home in and would be endlessly content to explore, like a museum.
But the mystery of penetration had to be foregone as the bus bore me on to bed, and I could at least be satisfied that this week I would be able to penetrate one such example of the general mystery of what lies behind the façades of Melbourne’s delightfully decrepit inner-city houses.
And to extend the metaphor a little further, I had something of the sense which I imagine cat-burglars to have when I saw those occasional lit windows in Westgarth, provocatively beckoning me to peep at them and pry them, so forceful was the denied desire of the voyeur in lateral flight past them to pause, to stop, to investigate, and to know what manner of life lay behind the beautiful black box of the façade.
In some sense, I am fortunate, with my itinerant manner of life as a ‘writer-at-large’, to have had a wide experience of Melbourne homes, in many suburbs, and rather than being a cat-burglar, I am more like a safecracker: by the instinct bred of professional experience, I turn the mysterious dial of social convention and the door of the vault swings open to occasionally reveal to me the secret of what lies behind Melbourne’s beautiful suburban façades.
Être flâneur, c’est être voyeur.
One who understood this deep alliance between fleeting observation in movement and fixed, illicit spectatorship was Edward Hopper. During our second lockdown, I read Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography(1995), a book I cannot recommend but from which I managed to dredge a few things that were barely useful to the ideas about windows and verticality then forming in me.
The window, of course, is the signature of Mr. Hopper’s art, the frame within the frame which subjects the private sphere of occluded domesticity to public speculation, the proscenium which externalizes the internal.
When I chanced serendipitously on the bald man publicly framed in private action in the bay window on the first floor of Block Court, it was with the consciousness that his presence in the corner of the lighted window above the empty arcade made the collision of these two images I’ve described somewhat ‘Hopperesque’.
And of course, when I came to write the ficción accompanying my flânograph, I chose the title “Office at night” with a deep tip of my Fedora towards Mr. Hopper, whose 1940 painting of that title, with its equally ambiguous narrative, hangs in the Walker Art Center at Minneapolis.
Of that work, Mr. Hopper explained to his patron at the Walker:
My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me. … Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.
—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Mr. Hopper’s spirit of scrupulous crypticity, where the angle of vision is emphasised as salient, and the surfaces of things are described with a minuteness that almost invests them with an aura of obscure significance, but where all the internal, interior qualities of narrative are stubbornly elided, certainly guided me in the writing of this story.
And, certainly, I ‘worked on’ the central image of it much as Ms. Levin describes Mr. Hopper ‘working on’ the images of his paintings, trying to draw out something very vague yet very crystalline from himself through successive sketches and couches of colour as he modelled the concrete, physical details of images that are ultimately clairvoyant inner visions. A comparison of the five drafts I wrote of “Office at night” (including the final version in the audio track) would reveal significant differences, showing how much I cut, changed and sculpted the details in order for each one to add up to the final revelation of perspective expressed in the last sentence.
Likewise, the angle of vision in Mr. Hopper’s Office at Night is significant, if only because it jars the spectator. We are not moored to the floor, with its rich green carpet, but ‘rather high in the air’, floating within the office.
The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the ‘L’ train in New York City after dark glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind.
—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Like myself, Mr. Hopper loved the flâneuristic experience of travelling by train at night, the way vision in movement mingles with a certain voyeuristic scopophilia excited by the flashes of light and life issuing from windows which ‘tell a picture’, but ‘no obvious anecdote’.
Another of his ‘snapshots’, Night Windows (1928), also painted from the vantage of an elevated train in flight, features three windows, like the bay window of the office on the first floor of Block Court, which presents a kind of ‘triptych’, the central panel of which is the slightly pornographic image of the fesses of a girl in a pink slip bending over, her head out of frame.
Just as I said the gleaming pinkness of the bald man’s pate and the fashionable faux pas of his ill-fitting jacket were enough to suggest a ‘character’ to me in the weeks after seeing his fleeting image, Mr. Hopper said obliquely of his pornographic Madonna in Night Windows:
The way in which a few objects are arranged on a table, or a curtain billows in the breeze can set the mood and indicate the kind of person who inhabits the room.
—Edward Hopper, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 219)
Which is to say that, chez Hopper, the external world, comprised of superficial details, is the interior landscape of the ‘characters’ depicted: his interiors are their psychological interiors externalized. Just as we cannot see a person’s character but obliquely, as manifested in behaviour and action, dark façades, like the corner of the building depicted in Night Windows, are ‘cranial vaults’ which allow us, through their ocular fenestrations, to catch oblique glimpses of the private person fluttering about, like a moth, among the furnishings of their mind.
Moreover, what gives his paintings their uncanny, slightly surreal quality is his unique manner of representing people by the objects which surround them. I do not mean to imply that Mr. Hopper engages in any cheap literary symbolism of the type that we are used to, where x object is perfectly equivalent to y person—pas du tout.
Rather, as a writer with a visual bent myself, one who abhors the human presence in his films and photos and is perversely entranced by the photogenic possibilities of humans’ artistic and architectural products, the ‘ruins of modernity’ manifested as, and personified by, statues and buildings, I see a fraternal sensibility in operation chez Hopper: As in a dream, architectural details—houses, railroad tracks, tunnels, advertising signs, chimneys—are the people of his paintings. By an immense, convoluted process of displacement, things which have no obvious figurative similitude to the human being nevertheless stand in for the absent people of Mr. Hopper’s architectural ‘portraits’.
In one of his rare, groping moments of self-explanation, Mr. Hopper stated:
It’s hard for the layman to understand what the painter is trying to do. The painter himself is the only one that can really know…. And in the case of the objective painter, he uses natural phenomena to communicate … perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.
The ‘universal vocabulary’ of concrete objects is Mr. Hopper’s private symbology, and you will recall, chers lecteurs, that in my last post I alerted you to Louis Aragon’s provocative claim, in Le Paysan de Paris, that the image—and the concrete image at that—is the singular source of the poetic and the surreal.
Hence, when I say that concrete objects, the elements and details of architecture ‘symbolize’ people in some substantial sense in Mr. Hopper’s work, it is with an eye to M. Aragon that I class Mr. Hopper among the surrealists—at the very pinnacle of the movement, in fact, an honour he would doubtless deprecate.
But he is more surreal than the surrealists, for in his conscious devotion to ‘objective painting’, to the draughtsman-like description of material reality, he unconsciously paints the sur-reality, the reality that is over and above this one, sharing with M. Aragon the same stubborn, innate sense that le merveilleux is not a Platonic conception but is deeply embedded in the world’s mass. For Mr. Hopper too, certain sights, certain places, certain objects become divinely transfigured merely by the fact of their ugly, debased being as actuality: they take on ‘neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol’, nor do they ‘so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea.’
In that sense am I suggesting that buildings and architecture, as well as the modest objects of modern life, are deeply symbolic of the absent people in Mr. Hopper’s paintings. By a kind of Freudian dream displacement, people become the buildings they inhabit, and a painting like House by the Railroad (1925), for instance, can easily be read as a portrait of Mr. Hopper’s starchy Gilded Age youth, ‘gone with the wind’, struggling, like the gangling Nyacker himself in his stiff wing collar, to maintain a faintly ridiculous Victorian dignity against the locomotive onslaught of modernity.
To take just three examples, all painted in 1939, of how the concrete manifests its deep symbolism chez Hopper, there is such a dream-like collapse between the ‘natural phenomena’ which constitute Mr. Hopper’s universal vocabulary and the symbolic freight these objects of the world are intended to carry in Bridle Path, Cape Cod Evening, and Ground Swell.
These paintings which have, in their ostensible subject matter, nothing at all to do with the war in Europe and the looming threat that conflict posed to isolationist America, are in fact deeply obsessed by it. Indeed, there is not only such a surcharge of symbolic freight placed upon the ‘natural phenomena’—a rearing horse confronting a dark tunnel in Central Park; a dog amidst tall grass pricking up its ears; a shelf of wave threatening a pleasure craft on a sunny day—that serve as a universal vocabulary for Mr. Hopper’s anxieties about inevitable American involvement in the European conflict that these images, as symbols, collapse under the burden of communicating a diffuse and generalized state of anxiety, but, as in a dream (and there is an undeniably oneiric quality to Mr. Hopper’s employment of natural phenomena as a hieroglyphic vocabulary), between the original symbolic meaning, the hyperobject of world war that he intends to vocalize and express, and the final image, several displacements occur, so that the symbol undergoes multiple slippages, transfers, transformations, as in an intellectual game of Chinese Whispers.
It is as though, in these three paintings, Mr. Hopper is placing the original symbol of the war in Europe through such a succession of verbal and visual rhymes as to arrive at three separate images which, as ‘natural phenomena’ conveying only a disquieting sense of generalized anxiety, have nothing even implicit to do with the subject of the war, but in which, as in the images of the Tarot, the subterraneanly latent, chthonic significance of the original symbol can just barely be read in the manifest content of the tableaux.
Flâneur that he is, Mr. Hopper draws (to put another spin on that Benjaminian principle of ‘embodied knowledge’ I enunciated earlier) inferences and intuitions from a world of concrete symbolism: the ‘dead facts’ of concrete objects release, under his slavishly descriptive brush, the perfume of the marvellous and the surreal which is deeply embedded, as their Platonic substrate, in the DNA of dead matter.
As a quintessential surrealist, Mr. Hopper belongs for me among a very small cadre of artists—M. Ingres in the world of painting, and Mr. Hitchcock and Ozu-sensei in the world of cinema. What distinguishes these four artists is their slavish, obtusely unimaginative commitment to the depiction of concrete reality. They are so committed to the cause of realism that, as Sr. Picasso admiringly admitted with respect to M. Ingres, they are the greatest abstractionists of all.
The ‘abstraction’ of Mr. Hopper (again, he would deplore to be numbered among the non-objectivists) is similar to the abstraction of Ozu-sensei; and that abstraction, as a function of cinematic décor, is similar to M. Aragon’s apperception that the objects of the world ‘embody’ ideas rather than ‘manifest’ them. In Mr. Hopper’s concrete abstraction, as in that of Ozu-sensei, the objects of reality (or the reality of objects, if you prefer) are so compositionally potent in sensuous form and colour that they embody a symbolic character—the transfiguration of themselves sensed by M. Aragon.
Like Ozu-sensei, Mr. Hopper is one of the great painters of incidental still-lifes—those ‘few objects arranged on a table’ which reveal the psychological potency of a given space.
And it is perhaps this quality of the spiritual life of ‘things’ that M. Baudelaire referred to when he said that the marvellous and the poetic surrounds and suckles us like the air, but that we are oblivious to it. It requires some visionary sensibility that these artists had but denied—even to the point of doing violence to their own souls, attempting to ‘amputate’ it through repression—a ‘photogenic orientation’ towards the objects of reality, to draw out of them that store of poetry they are so fecund in—la photogénie—the abstract aspect they concretely embody.
These four artists lived so rigidly in their consciousnesses that the unconscious, for them, was pushed into such repressed abeyance that it could only manifest itself as concrete images that are abstractly distorted reports of reality. David Fincher talks about the ‘iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s vision, the suffocating rigour which murders creativity, foreclosing all other creative possibilities but the one he has decided upon in their cradle.
All these artists put up their iron umbrellas, erecting a suffocating bell-jar over their work, through whose translucent but distorting glass we see a world we recognize as rational fact, but fact viewed through the irrational prism of a deeply personal vision. For Ingres, Hopper, Hitchcock and Ozu in their respective ways, the rigorous, iron-clad verisimilitude of technical draughtsmanship is the very superstructure from which their deeply personal and idiosyncratic dreams emerge.
And for all these artists, the fetishization of material verisimilitude produces an ultimately symbolic, dreamlike effect upon us, but one which is eminently disavowable by the artist himself because the conscious concentration on describing what is material and actual is so scrupulously rigorous as to occupy all his artistic energies.
The deep affinity between Mr. Hopper’s painting and the art of the cinema has been exhaustively examined—not least by Ms. Levin, who devotes an appendix to the subject in her biography. Mr. Hitchcock himself was not shy in giving credit to Mr. Hopper, graciously confiding to interviewers that the Bates maison in Psycho (1960) was directly modelled on the House by the Railroad.
The trans-disciplinary respect was mutual. Mr. Hopper too, Ms. Levin tells us, was an avid cinephile, regularly ducking into cinemas in his predatory flâneries after fresh subject matter, and he kept abreast of developments in cinematic storytelling well into the age of Godard.
The cinema, and its root art-form of photography, were identified early by critics (not always favourably in an era of encroaching non-objectivism) as being unusually apposite to an understanding of Mr. Hopper’s painting.
I don’t think it is exactly accurate to say that Mr. Hopper was one of the last remaining adherents of ‘photorealism’ in a desertifying ocean of non-objectivism, the tide of which was ever-rising in his lifetime, and which he fought, with the valiant conservatism of his faith, to repulse. His style, to my mind, is slightly too gauche in its ponderous grasping for crystalline precision to be rightly compared with the dazzling illusions of photorealism that academicians like Cabanel and Bouguereau were capable of.
This is partly what I’m indicating when I talk about Mr. Hopper’s ‘inadvertent’ surrealism. He was an American commercial artist at the turn of the twentieth century, and his æsthetic is fundamentally based on the realistic and naturalistic premises of American commercial art.
He anticipates—but also, to my mind, emerges from, or in reaction to—the pulp fiction æsthetic of American commercial art. The ‘realism’ of this ‘genre painting’, its photographic veracity—which is to say, its legibility as an image—is in turn founded on the gritty ‘objectivity’ of nineteenth-century literary naturalism, imported into the Anglophone world from France. We know that Mr. Hopper was an immense Francophile, that he knew the language intimately, and was thoroughly versed in French nineteenth-century prose and poetry.
Mr. Hopper draws on the same ‘hyper-lucidity’ of pulp fiction and paperback cover artwork, a brand of realism that is both gritty and natural, and surreal and melodramatic. Being designed explicitly to advertise narratives, the paintings of pulp fiction are deeply premised on the narrative conventions of literature: the static, photographically veracious image must convey a proto-cinematic sense of ‘story’, of a beginning preceding the image we see; a middle it concretely represents; and an end, after it, we can anticipate—multiply—in tantalizing predictions of what might happen next.
Likewise, there is a sense of ‘narrative in motion’ in Mr. Hopper’s paintings which is a far more ‘literary’ corollary for the hyper-lucid mode of pulp fiction artwork. And to have a narrative that can be discerned across a narrow tranche of time in a single image, you require photographically realistic figures in recognizably naturalistic locales and situations.
But while Mr. Hopper partakes of the same conventions as American commercial painting, and while a tantalizing ambiguity similar to Mr. Hopper’s does exist in pulp fiction illustration, the point of divergence is this: the image depicted in the pulp cover painting tends to be what M. Cartier-Bresson calls ‘le moment décisif’ of the narrative in motion, whereas Mr. Hopper routinely chooses a ‘transitional moment’ in the narrative told by his paintings, one which renders their legibility, despite their photographic veracity, problematic.
Art director Robert Boyle, a close collaborator of Mr. Hitchcock, sees this same tendency between the two artists and calls it the ‘penultimate moment’:
‘The Hopper Look’ is the look of a moment in time before something has happened, or very often after it’s happened, but never at the moment of the happening. If you see a young woman in her room, very often bare, and she’s in a contemplative mood, has it happened? Or is it about to happen?
We’re used to the quick delivery, and we’re not always intrigued by the development. And with a Hitchcock film, the development is the interesting part. And I don’t mean to just say Hitchcock; I think this is true of most good films – maybe all of them.
The painting Mr. Boyle is referring to in that quote is Mr. Hopper’s Eleven a.m. (1926), another image in which the upper-storey window plays a significant rôle as a vector for voyeurism, although in this early instance, as in many of his later paintings, the angle of regard is reversed, from within to without.
Eleven a.m. … shows a woman in a quiet pose…. Yet, as so often, Hopper’s suggestion that this is a real, precise situation is not entirely borne out by the visual evidence….
Hopper presents us with a transitional situation. He permits us a tiny glimpse of the city outside, and, at the left, he gives a non-committal suggestion of another room behind the slightly open curtain. … The sense of mystery, instead of residing in an immaterial phenomenon, is engendered by the simple fact that we cannot see its origin. It is not metaphysical, but merely outside our field of perception.
—Ivo Kranzfelder, Hopper, p. 37
The décor of physical space is in some sense consubstantial with this transitional quality of time in Mr. Hopper’s paintings: he chooses what he going to be ‘real’ about, and works over certain areas of the canvas while treating others summarily. The effect of this is to complicate our reading of the image, to put us in the position, as Mr. Boyle observes, of wondering what has happened, or if it has happened yet, or what indeed may happen in this locale and situation which is photographically veracious enough for us to instantly recognize it, but not so realistic as to give us, as in the hyperlucid world of pulp fiction painting, an immediate sense of spatiotemporal orientation at the decisive moment of action in the drama.
In Mr. Hopper too, it is the ‘development’ that intrigues us, and the quick delivery of American commercial painting is infinitely delayed.
And thus, as the critics of his time recognized, while there is something of the ‘snapshot’ quality of photography in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, his brand of realism is not of the ‘photorealist’ variety—the kind of hyperlucidity that photography had already rendered redundant by the time MM. Cabanel et Bouguereau came on the scene:
This is an art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement. Nature’s sayso is not the artist’s affirmation.
—Edward Alden Jewell, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 220)
Ms. Levin tells us that during his youthful apprenticeship in art and flânerie in Paris, Mr. Hopper flirted briefly with photography, taking pictures of architectural details such as those immensely photogenic staircases in Parisian apartment houses, the streets of the Rive Gauche, and the bridges spanning the Seine, emulating the lonely, melancholy manner of M. Atget, but that he gave up photography as an aide-mémoire to painting because ‘the camera sees things from a different angle, not like the eye.’
And this is the point that many photographers—particularly digital photographers—fail to grasp, but which, as a writer who takes photos and makes films, I am painfully aware of. It may be redundant to say it, but the camera is not capable of that ‘art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement’ which can only proceed from a human consciousness deeply schooled in some art of representation. The camera, reporting Nature’s sayso with unimaginative veracity, sees things ‘from a different angle’ to the artist’s eye.
Particularly when the photographer works in the expensive medium of film, as I do, he becomes distinctly aware that what looks like it could potentially be ‘an image’ when regarded with the naked eye sometimes loses its apparent photogeneity when the arbitrary cadre of the viewfinder is set around it. And just as often, the putative ‘image’ of some architectural detail composed in the viewfinder with settings carefully adjusted turns out to be a picture of rien de tout.
In other words, what dissatisfied Mr. Hopper about photography, an art-form he would appear to have some natural affinity with, is that the photographic image can rarely tell a story. The mere veracious reporting of everything in the frame at a given moment of time, unselected, unemphasised, unarranged, is antithetical to his deeply literary style of painting, where there is a transitional sense of ‘narrative in motion’.
It’s exceedingly difficult—impossible in nine instances out of ten—to take a ‘good photograph’, which I define as one that requires no words, no story that has to be supplied after the fact as a commentary, to gloss what is visible in the image. That moment in time should be compositionally sufficient to supply a beginning and an end to the action frozen in time in the image which may be logically inferred—and almost no photographs, of the many billions that have been taken, do this.
Certainly, it is my consciousness of the insufficiency of photography as an art-form, its inability to reliably supply that narrative dimension of time to physical spaces (a problem which the invention of cinema solved), that has led me to write fictions like “Office at night” ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ my own photographs.
And certainly, in making a deep tip of my Fedora to Mr. Hopper in “Office at night”, I wrote that short story as a deliberate exercise with the conscious intention of ‘reverse-engineering’ the transitional, literary nature of his painting from imagistic description back into descriptive words, that sense, in his painting, that the obscurity of time is consubstantial with the obliquity of space.
I start my narrative at the moment the photograph was taken, the bald man finishing up his phone call. It’s a transitional moment, the moment, as Mr. Boyle says, after something significant has happened, and implying that the scene comes before some other significant happening. As in a Hopper painting, legibility of the bald man’s affect and behaviour is rendered difficult, for although the narrative voice carries on matter-of-factly as if the subject of the phone conversation were known to us, we cannot infer the cause from the effects we witness in the story.
The cause remains, as in Eleven a.m., ‘outside our field of perception’—but temporally, not, as in Mr. Hopper’s painting, spatially.
If you listen to the track a few times, you’ll notice that there are times when the description of objects, spatial relationships, the bald man’s affect and behaviour, seems needlessly minute for such a short story—minute to the point of redundancy. And yet there are other instances where, with the summariness of Mr. Hopper, I have treated these same details cavalierly.
Listening to the story a second or third time with the last sentence in mind will reveal the reason for this inconsistency of vision in a narrative whose tone gives the impression of being an objective report. As in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, perspective, in the final mental tableau completed by the crowning sentence, is shown to be the key to how clearly we see and interpret objects and their spatial relationships, and how clearly we can read behaviour and affect.
That inferential synthesis is really the purview of cinema as an art-form. It appropriates the spatial veracity of photography and supplies the missing dimension of time which gives physical objects in relational actuality to one another an experiential coherence, and it can, from without, approximate with more or less success the internal psychological drives and dynamics of human beings which is more perfectly realized in literary narratives.
It’s in this sense that Mr. Hopper’s painting is more closely aligned with cinema than with photography, despite the limitation of stasis. Mr. Hopper is a poet, essentially, but he is a prose poet, a master of the short story.
As I intended with “Office at night”, his paintings are like a handful of pages ripped out of a novel: they puzzle and intrigue us precisely because they are the moments of ‘development’ in a larger narrative they assume we are following, like a film, but can only see in a single frame, like a photograph.
Many of his works are like camera shots consciously framed to give us a purified version of that strange blend of communicativeness and incommunicativeness that is ‘Hollywood.’
—Parker Tyler, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 506-7)
The paradox in Mr. Tyler’s quote is illuminating, for if we can conclude one definite thing about Mr. Hopper it is that ‘communication’ was very important to him, a problem made galling by the fact that this very poetic, literary man with the quality of the novelist about him was more adept at writing in the hieroglyphs of images than in words.
… Introspective and intellectual, yet distrustful of verbal communication, he continued to struggle when he had to express himself in writing. As he had throughout his life, he preferred to speak through visual images…. In his painting, this visual communication took on a subtlety: details, shapes, colors, postures, scale, and specific juxtapositions join to convey many levels of meaning.
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 282
Ms. Levin tells us that after reading the book The Naked Truth and Personal Vision by the director of the art gallery at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Mr. Hopper felt sufficiently exercised to write to him:
I do not know what the ‘Naked Truth’ is, but I know that a ‘personal vision’ is the most important element in a painter’s equipment, but it must be communicated [doubly underlined].
—Edward Hopper, letter to Bartlett Hayes, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 486-7)
We noticed above his telling remark that the ‘objective painter’ uses ‘natural phenomena to communicate perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.’ As a literary man at heart, he recurs to the metaphor of vocabulary to express what kind of tools are in his ‘painter’s equipment’.
Robert Frost, a poet whom Mr. Hopper greatly admired, and with whom he had a distant, occasional correspondence, stated that ‘every poem is an exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood’, and as Ms. Levin explains:
[Hopper’s] reality, as always, was fabricated, not just from casual memories collected, but out of his personal vision. His every painting is an ‘exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood.’
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 493
It is this ‘exaggeration’ that I mean when I talk about the ‘poetry’, the abstract quality deeply embedded within the mass of the objects of reality. In the paintings of Mr. Hopper or the films of Ozu-sensei, the ‘photogenic orientation’ of these artists abstracts the harmonious exaggeration of their poetry from objects, that harmonious exaggeration being the mood which is an emergent property of the Gestalt of décor in Mr. Hopper’s paintings as much as in Ozu-sensei’s films.
Writing in the first issue of the journal Reality, which he founded in 1953, Mr. Hopper made what amounts to his manifesto on this score, stating with earnest conviction:
Great art is the outward expression of an inner life of the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision [my emphasis] of the world.
—Edward Hopper, “Statements by Four Artists”, Reality, Spring 1953, p. 8
In some sense, as I said above, the means of expression at which he was most adept was incompatible with his message, the ‘inner life of the artist’ being perhaps better communicated through poetry or fiction than through the sculpting of the outward forms of objects in paint. Hence the admixture of ‘communicativeness and incommunicativeness’ which makes Mr. Hopper’s paintings seductive and intriguing.
In this struggle to communicate by one artistic means a message which is better suited to another medium, I can certainly sympathize with him, though in the opposite direction; for if Mr. Hopper, as a visual artist, is really a poet or novelist manqué, as a writer with a distinctly visual style, I am definitely filmmaker manqué. We have both missed our callings and have attempted, in mastering the arts we came to early in our lives, to make them do the opposite of what they are intended to do. He attempts to tell stories through images. I attempt to paint images through words.
But there is another sense in which the notion of a ‘personal vision’ to be communicated by imperfect means links us fraternally. I commenced by saying that to be a flâneur is to be a voyeur. Personal vision predicates both avocations, the latter pathologically, although if I am arguing for the studied idleness of flânerie as a fine art (and I am), in its close relationship with dandyism, it too is certainly also pathological.
We cannot claim for Mr. Hopper election to the academy of dandies, but he does belong to a very rare corpus of visual artists we can justifiably call flâneurs, other exemplars of this rare species being MM. Manet et Degas. Among painters, these gentlemen represent the arcane strain of flâneurism that runs, like the barest trickle of an underground stream, often lost for decades, the torch being carried by one man alone who doesn’t bear a direct heir, through the intellectual tradition of European modernity.
Mr. Hopper undertook his apprenticeship in the arcane tradition of flânerie on the holy ground of Paris, a spiritual successor to MM. Manet et Degas, and like them, he is un romancier des mœurs. The libertine French spirit suffuses his repressed Puritan soul, and smuggling that deep saturation of Parisian influence back into America, he paints the modes and manners of his native place and time with the same Flaubertian irony of those great moralists, MM. Manet et Degas.
To be a flâneur is to live a much more transitional, a much more osmotic existence than most people are comfortable with. The exteriority of the street is our salon; we are no more privately ‘at home’ than in the public sphere. And certainly, there are flâneries and there are flâneries that one might take: the æsthetic quest for the marvellous and the beautiful we undertake by day is very different from the more ruthless, predatory hunt after these same things we undertake by night.
Light (or the lack of it) determines the moral nature of the beautiful and marvellous things we discover in sunlight or in shade.
What comes out of Ms. Levin’s biography is that Mr. Hopper had a predilection for the nocturnal hunt. It more deeply inspired him, which is paradoxical, as his Puritanical Yankee nature reacted with apparent fear and loathing at the moral quality of the beautiful and marvellous things he saw in Paris at night. He was constitutionally unsuited to embrace his eyes’ desires and was self-condemned, like his youthful hero, M. Degas, to artistic voyeurism, flâneuristically sketching his croquis of Parisian mœurs in cafés.
Both Night Windows and Office at Night were products of nocturnal prowls. New York Post film critic Archer Winsten wrote that Mr. Hopper ‘spends a great deal of time walking in the city he loves and has always loved. He likes to look in windows and see people standing there in the light at night. For this same reason he likes to ride on els.’
Mr. Hopper betrayed himself as the perfect type of the artistic flâneur, the deceptively indolent man of the crowd driven by a deep, barely expressible vision of surreal beauty, when Mr. Winsten asked him what he did—outside of painting—for ‘fun’.
I get most of my pleasure out of the city itself.
—Edward Hopper to Archer Winsten, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 270)
The idea of ‘fun’ is as imponderable to a working artist as to an idle flâneur. Our only pleasure lies in the scopic activity of looking, whether with the fixity of the voyeur, or in fleeting movement, collecting those croquis des mœurs on the run, dashed down in a notebook as poetic snapshots of the city, this ruinous theme park of modernity we are wandering through in a continuous death march. The enforced leisure of our work is our pleasure.
And what makes Mr. Hopper a card-carrying member of this extremely exclusive clique of flâneurial artists is very much his subscription to an æsthetic cause articulated by M. Baudelaire in Le Peintre de la vie moderne; that is, to draw out the eternal from the ephemeral, to ‘crystallize’ or ‘arrest’, as Mr. Hopper said to his wife, ‘a moment of time acutely realized.’
We think of Mr. Hopper as a great painter in oils, a medium which, in visual terms, is the equivalent of the novel—slow to paint, slow to dry, with a heavy, enduring stasis about it, a substantiality equivalent to eternity, and not at all well-suited to the ‘portability’ of the transitory flâneurial quest to catch impressions on the fly.
But just as M. Manet was an exquisite café watercolourist, and M. Degas was capable, in his monotypes, of recording impressions of brothels almost daguerreotypic, Mr. Hopper was, in the twenties, a great printmaker, as capable as they of capturing immediate—almost photographic—sensations of the city. And all his life he remained a great field-sketcher, taking notes, in his flâneries, which he would then ‘work up’ into those novelistic fables of American morals and manners given enduring life in his oil paintings.
Herman Gulack recalled running into Hopper at the Automat, sitting by a window with just a plate with two rolls. When Gulack asked if he would like a cup of coffee, he replied that he was only making believe to be a customer in order to observe the view through the window and across the street. Hopper, having made sketches for the overall disposition of his composition, would then retain in his memory his impression of what he had seen.
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 518
It’s much easier, in the main, to be a flâneurial writer than a flâneurial artist, for, like spies, we can not only scope out our intel and note it down in the field without breaking cover, but because we carry the novelistic tableau we are painting in words in our heads, we are able, like guerrillas, to paint it in the sites and sights of the city without being discovered, to sail in, make our terroristic assaults upon the banality of the city, detonating our visions of beauty in the midst of the unsuspecting crowd, and sail out again.
Certainly, in my work, the weapon of the camera aids me in arresting that tableau of the ‘spleen of Melbourne’ I am building up in words. I’m not quite ready to tip my mitt and tell you, chers lecteurs, what great literary crime I am up to, but yes, both “Office at night” and “Dreidel” are episodes in a larger narrative, and the image of a third short story based on one of my photographs, a further clue to the big plot I am plotting, is just about developed in the darkroom of my mind and ready for writing.
If you enjoyed “Office at night” and want to hear episode 3 sooner rather than later, you can inspire me by plinking some coffee-cash in the fuel fund below. I have just had a new batch of branded Melbourne Flâneur postcards featuring “Block Court, Collins street, evening” printed, and if you purchase the MP3 audiostory of “Office at night” for $A5.00 using the link below, I will send you a copy of the postcard, featuring a short, personalised message of thanks just for you.
“Office at night” [MP3 audiostory and postcard]
An atmospheric short story where more is going on than meets the eye—or the ear. Purchase the MP3 of Dean Kyte’s new ficción and receive the postcard above, signed by Dean and featuring a handwritten, personalised message just for you!
“Dreidel”: A short story by Dean Kyte. The track above is best heard through headphones.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur, a treat for you: no video, chers lecteurs, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted what I call an ‘amplified flânograph’—that is, one of the photos I occasionally take on my flâneries amplified by an atmospheric soundscape of the location.
The last amplified flânograph I posted on The Melbourne Flâneur was in March last year, when we still had our heads stuck in the sand over Coronavirus. It featured my photo of Uniacke court, a laneway off Little Bourke street, which formed the basis for a soundscape and a super-short story.
I know how much you enjoy these evocative short stories based on my photographs, so I took the photograph above (which you can also find in The Melbourne Flâneur zine) and used it as the jumping-off point for a soundscape and short story set in O’Donnell Gardens, an espace vert next door to Melbourne’s world-famous Luna Park.
The main feature of O’Donnell Gardens, as you can see in the photo, is an impressive sandstone fountain in Art Déco style erected in 1935 as a memorial to Edward O’Donnell, who was a municipal councillor for the then City of St Kilda. According to Monuments Australia, Cr. O’Donnell served ‘without interruption for over forty years’, being first elected to council in 1888, serving as mayor of St Kilda on six occasions, and eventually losing the election of 1932, a year before his death.
As far as I know, the memorial no longer operates as a functioning fountain, but it’s a thoroughly photogenic piece of public sculpture in the high style of Art Déco, and on the grey, rainy day I snapped two half-frozen and depressed-looking pigeons using its niches as the one warm place to shelter, the grizzly griffins gave this 1930’s Déco memorial a very grim and Gothic air.
You wouldn’t believe it (unless you live in Melbourne, where any absurdity is possible, weather-wise), but I took this picture on 1 December, 2019—the first official day of summer, where my journal entry for that day notes that we reached a wintry top of just 17 degrees.
My journal also grumpily notes that I ‘made the mistake of not taking my overcoat as I set out to take a flânerie around St Kilda’ (which I had not visited in over a year) on that day. I remember being very sick of the way that winter was dragging on that year, so I evidently decided that ‘enough was bloody enough’ on what was supposed to be the first day of summer, and tried to get away with just wearing my trusty trenchcoat as a topcoat on what turned out to be a windy, wintry, rainy day.
Yes, even experienced Melbourne flâneurs make these optimistic rookie errors, dear readers.
But despite being underclad to the tune of two couches of wool, I was, as ever, everything the well-dressed flâneur ought to be in my greenish-grey double-breasted suit, lime-coloured shirt, aqua tie, and grey Stetson Whippet. Apart from putting my Pentax K1000 camera on the leash for a walk around St Kilda, seeing if anything photogenic would pop out at me in that locale and under those weather conditions, I was doing a bit of Daygame en passant, and I was evidently a picture myself to the feathered, fur-shawled Dutch girl I tied into in Carlisle street, whose return remark to me when I laid the genuine compliment on her was: ‘You look like a movie.’
It was a movie-ish kind of day.
There are days in Melbourne when weather and architecture combine suggestively and, seen through half-closed lids, the streets look vaguely Parisian or San Franciscan. As you know, I’m an analogue purist, shooting on film—black-and-white film at that. I think the analogue photo above—the only shot I snapped that day, the only image to which I deigned to commit a frame of film—shows that surreal, suggestive quality—an Australeuropean, Californated Gothic Déco—which, in evoking other places, is entirely, uniquely Melbourne’s own.
Melbourne must surely be one of the greatest cities for flâneurial street photography in the world. To a certain sensitive sensibility able not only to see but to imagine—and to paint its imaginings in the veritable reality that is seen and photographed—it possesses the cinematic, surreal qualities that Paris had for Atget and Brassaï, albeit in a vestigial, adulterated form.
That vestigial adumbration, adulteration and attenuation is what requires the ‘sensitive sensibility’ not only to perceive it but to draw it out in photography, and to my mind, only the discipline of film—the additional difficulty of getting good results with the medium—can really do it. I occasionally take a picture with my phone, flicking on the grey-scale filter (which is as close as a digital camera can come to velvety blacks and silky whites) beforehand. But the image is never as good, never as poetic as the picture my Pentax would see in pure black-and-white, through the mist of film grain.
That’s more like how I see Melbourne: it’s not a city meant to be seen sharply, as through the Hi-Def lens of a DSLR. It’s meant to be seen as in a dream, through half-closed lids. Nor is it, I think, a city meant to be seen in colour, despite the garish street art which helps to give it its surreal quality. To me, Melbourne’s a black-and-white city, a city of film, like Paris.
At the beginning of 2020, when the bushfires in Gippsland were so huge and so intense that they drifted their pall over Melbourne, there was one extraordinary afternoon when it was both rainy and smoky, so that it seemed as if the city was blanketed in a San Francisco fog.
I took my Pentax out and prowled around the CBD, getting some once-in-a-lifetime shots: a view of Eureka Skydeck from Bond street, for instance, its top half fading into invisibility. The trams along a misty Swanston street. The clock tower of the Town Hall and, a mere two blocks further up Collins street, in the Paris End, the iconic tower of No. 120 half-shrouded.
On that afternoon more than at any other time when I have captured aspects of this city on black-and-white film, Melbourne seemed to me like a city of dreams, a surreal, poetic city seen through half-closed lids, evoking other places with its mélange of architectural quotations and native elements, like weird weather and clanging trams, all its inimitable own.
In a post last year (also available in The Melbourne Flâneur zine), I called flânography, this dreamy style of film photography, contingent and yet decisive, that I occasionally practise as I wander the streets in my psychogeographic dérives, ‘the poetry of photography’.
And if I flatter myself that there is actually some extractable poetic content in images like the one above, it’s the poetry of amplification in the imagined audiostory I’ve attached to it—which in turn was ‘extracted’ from the soundscape I made to amplify and evoke my memory of the image I actually photographed that day.
Like nested boxes, the soundscape came out of the photograph, and the story out of the soundscape.
As in my videos and films, the story, or ‘script’, you might be surprised to learn, was actually the last part to be created. Like the surround sound you experience in a cinema which adds depth to the two dimensions of the image on the screen, I merely wanted to amplify the world of O’Donnell Gardens beyond the edges of the frame, and out of the ‘image’ of that environment of sound, a story unconsciously emerged—nothing I witnessed that day, but authentic elements of Melbourne life which my writer’s eyes and brain have seen and filed away only to emerge years later, jumbled together like the displaced symbols of a dream, in the story inspired by the photograph above.
I mentioned in a recent post that during our second Melbourne lockdown, when opportunities for flânerie were curtailed by cops and curfews, I went deep into this dreamlike state, re-membering in fiction the places and people I had encountered in some of my most baffling experiences as a pocket-edition Casanova tying into dames on the streets of Melbourne. That project is still highly classified and marked for my eyes only, but consider “Dreidel” another provocative down-payment on the dark plot I’m plotting, where the wide-awake world of Melbourne is not at all what it appears to be…
If you’ve enjoyed this ‘amplified flânograph’ and are interested in hearing more audiostories based on my photos on a more regular basis, you can support my work by putting some coffee-money in the fuel fund below. I have some postcards featuring the photo above, and if you purchase the MP3 audiostory of “Dreidel” for $A5.00, I will wave the magic wand of my Montblanc over a postcard, write a personalised message to you on it, sign it, stamp it, and send it to you with all the compliments of your Melbourne Flâneur.
(Please note that the postage of one  diamond-encrusted dreidel to you will cost extra.)
“Dreidel” MP3 audiostory
An unusual gift exchange occurs near Melbourne’s Luna Park in this intriguing and atmospheric short story by Dean Kyte, inspired by one of his photographs. Purchase the MP3 and receive a complementary handwritten postcard featuring the photo, personally addressed to you and signed by Dean Kyte!
A cartridge of expired Kodachrome 40 Type A film of indeterminate date; a Chinon Super 8 motion picture camera dating presumably from the 1970’s—these two bounced and lunged with the movement of the 58 tram, Toorak-bound, as it turned left—that is to say, eastward—in an S from William street into Flinders lane, and thence almost immediately right—which is to say, south—into Market street. Of this elegant manœuvre, the only instance where one of Melbourne’s 25 tram routes proceeds for even one short block along any of the ‘little streets’ or laneways which accompany the city’s major thoroughfares, neither film nor camera (which were then in operation to record this unique spectacle) captured anything. Instead, during the ninety-second journey, both film and camera were fixated upon another image of uncertain definition, whether a scratch in the glass pane directly in front of the operator, through which he was filming, a mark too fine to be clearly perceived upon its surface except by film and camera held close to, or else a hair or fibre, itself of unusually elegant curvature—almost the only thing, despite its abstraction, with sufficient force of being to impress itself with permanence upon the expired film, rendered nearly blind by time, as a clearly discernible object—one which happened to lodge in the camera’s gate at the commencement of the journey, shuddering in consonance with the movement of the tram, and alighting coincident with the end of the trip at Flinders and Queensbridge streets, it is difficult to say with certainty.
Thus history, in its nearsightedness, chooses to record the passage of odd figures upon a background it retrospectively reduces to rheumy grain.
—Dean Kyte, “Objectif”
I got a nice surprise on Christmas Day: a cartridge of ancient Kodachrome Super 8 film, which I sent to Film Rescue International in Canada to have developed in October, was now ready for download.
I had low expectations for this film: my guess was that, at the time when I opened the cardboard box, cracked the mint-condition foil wrapping, and snapped the magazine into the butt of my Chinon Super 8 camera, the cartridge was at least thirty years old—probably closer to forty.
The cartridge of expired Kodachrome came with the camera, which I picked up for $20 at Hunter Gatherer, the boutique op-shop in the Royal Arcade. The shop assistant sliced ten clams off the price because I almost ruined the white shirt I was wearing just in handling the camera: the rubber eyepiece had melted all through the case and had gotten onto everything—including the box of film.
That gives you some sense of the conditions in which the film had been stored.
Nevertheless, I wanted to see if anything could be gotten out of three-and-a-half minutes of ancient Kodachrome. I locked and loaded my prize and went hunting for sights to clout.
I took it to Ballarat and prowled all through the Art Gallery, spending a lot of those precious frames on the two enigmatic Norman Lindsay paintings housed there. We took what I intended to be our own “Trip Down Market Street” together—(Market street, Melbourne, that is)—and various other things I don’t recall.
The problem is that you can’t get expired Super 8 film developed in Australia: the good folks at nano lab, in Daylesford, who have the domestic market cornered on this expensive obsession, won’t do it. Instead, they’ll refer you across the pond to Film Rescue International.
So what is, under normal circumstances, a prohibitively expensive hobby becomes more expensive still with expired film stock. There’s the cost of international postage to consider, and dealing in Canadian dinero, which adds a bump to the price.
Plus a long lead time, as you wait for your parcel to get across the pond and for Film Rescue to queue it into their bimonthly processing regimen.
Plus the fact that the colour dye couplers for Kodachrome no longer exist, so Film Rescue has to process your film in black and white.
All good excuses for me to procrastinate getting the film developed, and as I exercised my procrastinating skills, my cartridge of Kodachrome suffered further mistreatment: I stuffed it in my duffel (which, with my peripatetic lifestyle de flâneur, does not stay stationary for long), and for two-and-a-half years I lugged it all around the country under all kinds of weather conditions.
But finally, during lockdown, I decided to send it across the Pacific to our confrères in Canada and pay the price of discovering what, if anything, was on my cartridge of used and abused film.
Not much, it turns out. Apart from three very washed-out seconds at the end of the reel showing a tram passing before the Elizabeth street entrance of Flinders Street Station, the only clearly visible thing on the reel is the odd figure in the film above.
As I say in the short film I made of this miraculous mistake, I’m not altogether sure what it is, but it accompanied me all through my tram trip along Flinders lane and down Market street, an unwelcome passenger I did not see at the time, but almost the only thing on the whole reel that my film and camera did see.
I had just finished reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s collection of short stories Instantanés (Snapshots) (1962) the day before the reel of Kodachrome turned up in my inbox, ready for download. When I saw this curious figure sketched on the otherwise blank film, the only image clearly preserved for posterity on a reel of film which is probably as old as I am, and which required decades of abused waiting and movements through space and time before its life intersected with mine so that we could both fulfil our destinies together as recorders of images, I was reminded of Robbe-Grillet’s ambiguous ‘court-métrages en mots’, and thought I would have a go at writing something in his style to accompany the short film I made of the out-take above.
I scored Instantanés off Amazon during Melbourne Lockdown 2.0, when the level of unread words left on my nightstand was verging on blinking red light territory. I was sold on disbursing my dough to the Bezos monolith after watching this discussion on Robbe-Grillet in which English writer Tom McCarthy intriguingly describes the first story in the collection, “Le mannequin” (1954), accompanied by his own ‘cute-crappy’ illustrations of it. (His exegesis of “Le mannequin” is between 4:28 and 7:15, if you’re interested.)
If you’re unfamiliar with Alain Robbe-Grillet, it’s probably not surprising. I find that most French people I mention him to don’t know who he is—at least not until you mention his most famous assignment as scenarist of L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961)—and even then, they tend to confuse him with the film’s director, Alain Resnais. This despite the fact that M. Robbe-Grillet was elected to the Académie française in 2004, to take his place among ‘les Immortels’ of French literature.
I guess having the magick formula ‘de l’Académie française’ after one’s name doesn’t count for much with the average Frenchman these days.
His writing is definitely an acquired taste, and the taste is difficult to acquire, because M. Robbe-Grillet is the most bitter, asper of all writers. There is no sweetness at all in his implacably ‘objective’, almost anti-human, novels, which focus obsessively on a world of external detail. Against these backgrounds, delineated with almost geometric precision, his ‘characters’ move, like the chess-piece people of L’année dernière à Marienbad, as vectors, algebraically quantified by letters (‘A’, ‘X’, ‘M’, etc.) rather than qualified by names.
M. Robbe-Grillet was the foremost exponent and theoretician of the nouveau roman (or ‘new novel’), a typically French literary movement of the fifties and sixties which rejected the humanist assumptions of the classical nineteenth-century novel, the novel of human-focused drama and intrigue with its roots in Balzac. You can well imagine that such a rigorously experimental literary movement would appeal to the French and that it would have little appeal or traction in the Anglophone world, for whom the premier nineteenth-century novelists are writers like Austen and Dickens—people deeply interested in other people.
So while M. Robbe-Grillet and his coterie (including Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras) made some strategic incursions into the Anglosphere, the nouveaux romanciers were largely a phenomenon restricted by the language of a culture—and thus of a particular place—and seem, in retrospect, to be very much a product of their time. They were part of the first generation of postmodernists, and in their work of rigorous deconstruction, they did for French fiction what writers like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida were doing for French non-fiction at the time.
And as we have seen with the poisonous fall-out of postmodernism in the Anglosphere, these ludic games with language that French intellectuals like to play—and which the wonderfully supple French language allows—do not translate well into English. The airy structural ambiguity of French, with its genders and tenses, collapses into oversimplified terms in English, which is a much more pragmatic language of ideas than French, focused as it is on material reality, efficacy of practical outcomes, and the terse eloquence of clipped statements that convey facts with no wastage of words—all the virtues of our ‘scientific’, ‘journalistic’ language which have made Hemingway, since the 1920’s, the supposed ideal of Anglophonic literature.
Given our cultural taste for the concrete and material, you might think that M. Robbe-Grillet would have found more popularity in the Anglosphere. It’s true that he had, with Richard Howard as his translator, the best possible letter of introduction to our world at the height of his intellectual respectability in France.
But despite the rigor of his factual, objective style, M. Robbe-Grillet is not merely a French Hemingway, and the deleterious narrowing of our ideals of good, clean, English prose does not adequately prepare us for the sum that cumulatively emerges from M. Robbe-Grillet’s laboriously delineated parts.
His French is not at all ‘simple’ as we might say that Hemingway is the epitome of good, simple English prose. He was a scientist, an agronomist, prior to becoming a novelist, and because his language is so precise, M. Robbe-Grillet’s French vocabulary is surprisingly large, studded with technical terms of art which further tax the English reader as we attempt to mentally construct the spaces described sentence by sentence in his novels and stories.
To give an example of how complex his deceptively simple language is, here is my translation of probably the most famous single passage in the whole of M. Robbe-Grillet’s œuvre—the description of a slice of tomato in his first published novel, Les Gommes (The Erasers) (1953):
A truly flawless wedge of tomato, machine-cut from a perfectly symmetrical fruit.
The peripheral flesh, compact and homogenous, of a handsome chemical red, is regularly thick between a band of shining skin and the cavity where the seeds are magazined, yellow, well-calibrated, held in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly along a bulge of the heart. This heart, of a slightly grainy, attenuated pink, commences, on the side of the lower depression, through a cluster of white veins, one of which extends itself towards the seeds in perhaps a little uncertain manner.
On top, an accident, barely visible, has occurred: a corner of skin, peeled away by one or two millimetres, raises itself imperceptibly.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Les Gommes (translated by Dean Kyte)
Alors, you get the sense in this snippet of the formality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language, which I haven’t substantially changed, just transferred across to English, and his use of the present tense and passive voice as a means of rendering an ‘objective’ present.
It’s almost impossible to adequately translate ‘d’un rose atténué légèrement granuleux’ which, as an adjectival phrase juxtaposing softness and roughness, lightness and slightness in four words, appears almost to contradict itself when one starts, from a literal place, to render it in English. Moreover, you get a sense of the technicality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language with the ‘heart’ of the tomato sitting inside its ‘cavity’ (‘la loge’). I’ve been a little creative in availing myself of the very obsolete English verb ‘magazined’ as a translation of ‘où sont rangés’ in an attempt to give my vision of the seeds, ‘bien calibrés’, of this tomato ‘découpé à la machine’ as being almost like the bullets of a well-balanced automatic weapon.
If a prose poem dedicated to a quarter of a tomato doesn’t turn you on, you won’t get much kick out of the stories of Instantanés, published after L’année dernière à Marienbad, with its long tracking shots, its sculptural tableauxvivants, and its unreliable narration, had demonstrated what M. Robbe-Grillet’s very cinematic style of writing ‘looked like’ when translated to film.
But what I like about these super-short stories is that he seems to do in words something similar to what I try to do with my short films: they are descriptions of locales in which nothing (or nothing of dramatic import) happens, and yet there is a vaguely sinister air about the environments he describes, whether it’s the unattended room of “Le mannequin”, the theatre of “Scène” (1955), or the Métro station of “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain” (1959).
And in a couple of stories, like “Le remplaçant” (1954) (in which a dull history lesson is juxtaposed with a boy’s attempt to jump up and grasp the leaves of a tree outside), or “Le Chemin du retour” (1954) (which ends with an embarrassed trio failing to communicate their gratitude to the boatman who rescues them from an island), there is a sense of an ultimately more satisfying, more sinister moral emerging as a function of Robbe-Grillet’s description of the plotless, undramatic actions of everyday life—more satisfying and more sinister because the morals of these ‘fables of the everyday’ seem even more obscure.
I think it’s no coincidence that M. Robbe-Grillet (along with his nouveau roman colleague Marguerite Duras) is really the only writer to have ever made a second career for himself as a filmmaker: more than merely being boring ‘photographs in words’, the ‘snapshots’ of Instantanés are deeply cinematic short films.
In “Scène”, for instance, the description of a theatre performance, you can almost sense the placement of the camera in M. Robbe-Grillet’s words: for most of the story, it feels fixed at a point you might regard as the natural placement for a camera photographing a play—a master-shot that frames the whole proscenium, with maybe a telephoto lens affixed which allows us to see some of the smaller details alluded to in the text.
Then, at a point far advanced in this brief story, the implicit ‘camera’ of M. Robbe-Grillet’s prose draws back appreciably: the ‘master-shot’ through which we have been watching this performance is not the true master-shot at all. That shot would encompass the auditorium as well as the stage. By introducing an unexpected line of dialogue into the text, he creates a ‘cut’ that changes our perspective, a new placement in space that simultaneously alters our conception of the time at which the performance is occurring.
That line’s a bit of a spoiler, and I’m not going to give it away here. Infinitesimally slight as it is by comparison with the traditional plot twists the dramatic mechanics of the nineteenth-century novel have taught us to expect, the slightness of that revelation makes it all the more satisfying in reading and is an example of those sinister and obscure morals about the hidden order of the world which seem to emerge as the natural function of M. Robbe-Grillet’s implacable commitment to objectively describing the visible.
Moreover, certain of the stories, like “La Plage” (1956) and “L’escalier mécanique” (part of the triptych “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain”) evoke, as cinematic images, one of M. Robbe-Grillet’s abiding themes, that of temporal recursion.
If he will permit himself a metaphor (and Alain Robbe-Grillet is so dogmatically unromantic a writer that he will permit himself very few), the one metaphor that comes up time and again is the equation of the infinite repetition of space with the endless loop of time. The slow, stately tracking shots through the mirrored corridors of the château in L’année dernière à Marienbad is the visual evocation of this theme, which is equally present in the improbable recursive structure of Les Gommes, in which a detective sent to a city to investigate the murder of a man the night before ends up assassinating him exactly 24 hours later, with all the clues he gathers in the course of the day pointing to this unpredictable yet inevitable fait accompli.
Like Borges, the visual metaphor of the labyrinth, the repetitive extension into space which symbolizes the infinitely ramifying extension into time, obsesses M. Robbe-Grillet as a perfect geometric arrangement to describe the hidden order of the objective world. As in Koyaanisqatsi (1982), the cinematic image of people riding up an escalator in the Métro in “L’escalier mécanique” leaves us with the uneasy sense that the five people we watch getting on the conveyor belt at the beginning of the story are the same people we watch getting on again at the end of the story.
At the end of a fascinating, funny, and delightfully informal lecture at San Francisco University in 1989, M. Robbe-Grillet is challenged on the influence of the cinema upon the nouveau roman. A young man who is not easily dissuaded by the great man’s Gallic shrug of indifference presses his point: surely the nouveau roman, with its concern for surfaces and objectivity, is a reaction of the novel itself to the medium of cinema, just as Impressionism was a reaction against the objectivity of photography?
‘Ouais, j’n’cwois pas,’ M. Robbe-Grillet drawls, indulging the possibility, but clearly antagonistic to the idea, albeit humorously so. He shrugs with all the Olympian Gallic boredom he can muster—De Gaulle-grade stuff—and shakes his head. ‘Cwois pas.’
The cinema, he says, is more of a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence: it’s there in the culture, one of innumerable major landmarks which have erupted in modern life—like Marxism, or psychoanalysis, for example—and one which had equally influenced Surrealism and Existentialism before the advent of the nouveau roman.
It seems a remarkably facile—even disingenuous—remark for a novelist almost unique in having had a second career as a film director.
It’s indeed inevitable, as M. Robbe-Grillet admits, that the novel, after the invention of cinema, should adapt—or seek to adapt—itself to the innovations in the grammar of storytelling which are natural to the visual medium. But his style of writing (like that of his nouveau roman colleagues) is more deeply engaged with visual storytelling, with the problematic assumptions of objectivity which clear depictions of external surfaces allow, than would have been imagined without the referent of an economical visual storytelling medium for literary storytelling to react to.
For myself, as a wordsmith who is, paradoxically, primarily a visual thinker, a writer whose first love is film, not books, and who enjoys making short films as a relaxing creative alternative to the mental rigors of crafting perfect words, it’s not an error in my process that I make my films before I write the scripts for them.
I’m deeply marked, as a writer, by the grammar and conventions of visual storytelling. It is indeed a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence upon my books, but in terms of my films, they must work first of all as films—as the cinematic unfoldment of visual images across time—before I write the prose poems, ficciones or video essays I will read over them as narrations.
Even in the film above, where the image is no image, where I can’t say objectively what it is that has made this permanent imprint upon the fifty-foot conveyor belt of film as the only thing that can be clearly seen, the image comes first.
And there is, for me, a satisfying, albeit sinister moral about the hidden order of the objective world in that the one film I could make from those fifty feet of ancient, expired Kodachrome was a film in which the one objective image was a mistake that must be subjectively interpreted.
The temporal labyrinth of film records an endless loop of nothing but one inscrutable mistake that perfectly repeats itself each time, like a Rorschach test which is also a koan about the simultaneously objective and subjective nature of reality.
What I subjectively saw through the Chinon’s viewfinder as we bounced through Flinders lane and down Market street was not what it and the Kodachrome were objectively seeing at the moment when we three were realizing our destinies together as recorders of images.
As M. Robbe-Grillet says, the essence of his writing, and what, I think, brings it closer to the medium of film than that of any other writer, is that his rigorous objectivity is but a mask for the most rigorous subjectivity. It is both simultaneously. And only film and literature working together can realize each other’s strengths as both objective, and subjective, storytelling media.
Achtung!The track above is best heard through headphones.
It’s been a while since I have uploaded to The Melbourne Flâneur what I call an ‘amplified flânograph’, an analogue photograph taken in the course of my flâneries around Melbourne with a third dimension added to it—a suitably atmospheric prose poem read by yours truly.
I think you will agree that voice and soundscape add a dimension of depth to this image of Uniacke court, a laneway off Little Bourke street between Spencer and King streets famous to aficiónados of Melbourne street art.
It’s one of Melbourne’s ‘where to see’ places—and no more so than when it’s raining.
The image above was not my first attempt to capture Uniacke court on black-and-white film at a very specific time under particular weather conditions.
This shot, taken on a rainy Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. during winter last year, was the second-to-last exposure on my roll of Kodak T-MAX. It was something of a miracle, because not only did I want to capture this image on that day, at that time, under those conditions, but the laneway acts as service entrance for a number of bars and restaurants, so you have to judge the timing of the shot very well: Uniacke court tends to fill up with cars around 6:00 p.m., blocking the wonderful mural by Melbourne street artist Deb on the back wall.
I had attempted to nab the same shot less than two weeks earlier. Knowing that I had only six shots left on the roll, and that it was unlikely that I would get my dream day, dream time, dream weather conditions, and a conspicuous absence of heaps heaped up in the court, I had come past on a Thursday evening, around 5:40.
Wrong day, wrong time, no rain, and plenty of jalopies jungling up the laneway all equalled a wasted shot I squeezed off reluctantly.
But when my dream day, time and weather conditions rolled around ten nights later, you can bet your bippy I hustled my bustle up Spencer street P.D.Q. against a curtain of driving rain to clip the redheaded cutie holding court over Uniacke court.
And only one car to mar my Hayworthian honey’s scaly embonpoint!
The short ficción I’ve added in the audio track accompanying the photograph is the feeling of that image, the feeling of ineffable mystery which initially drew me to Uniacke court and caused me to make a mental note that some fragrant essence of the place makes itself manifest on rainy Sunday evenings at 6:00 p.m., and that I ought to make the effort to haul out my ancient Pentax K1000 at precisely that time, under precisely those weather conditions, and try and capture that ethereal, ectoplasmic essence on black-and-white emulsion.
Like those weird ellipses in David Lynch’s films, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what dark aura I found emanating from the fatal femme’s breast.
In a recent post, I called flânography ‘the poetry of photography’, and described it as an attempt to photograph the absent, the invisible, the unspeakable energy of places. In many ways, the addition of an expressly poetic description of the laneway and the construction of an ambient soundscape intended to immerse you in my experience is the attempt to ‘amplify’ that absent, invisible, ‘indicible’ dimension of poetry I hear with my eyes in Uniacke court.
Last week I ran into Melbourne photographer Chris Cincotta (@melbourneiloveyou on Instagram) as he was swanning around Swanston street. In the course of bumping gums about my passion for Super 8, Chris said that, while he had never tried the medium, he was all for ‘the romance’ of it.
Knowing his vibrant, super-saturated æsthetic as I do, I could see, with those same inward eyes of poetry which hear the colourful auras of Uniacke court, how Chris would handle a cartridge of Kodak Vision3 50d. And that inward vision of Chris’s vision was a very different one indeed to my own.
That flash of insight got me thinking about the way that qualitatively different ways of seeing, based in differences of personality, ultimately transform external reality in a gradient that compounds, and how, moreover, two individuals like Chris and myself could have developed radically different visions of the same subject: Melbourne.
It could be argued that, if you spend as much time on the streets as Chris and I do, the urban reality of Melbourne could rapidly decline for you into drab banality. But for both of us, Melbourne is a place of continual enchantment, though I think the nature of that enchantment is qualitatively different, based in fundamental differences of personality.
The individual’s artistic vision encompasses a ‘personal æsthetic’, based in one’s personality, which dictates preferences and choices in media which compound as they are made with more conscious intent and deliberation.
Where Chris prefers the crisp clarity of digital, which imparts a kind of hyper-lucidity and sense of speedy pace to his photos, I prefer the murky graininess of film—still compositions which develop slowly.
While Chris tends to prefer working in highly saturated colour that is chromatically well-suited to highlight Melbourne’s street art, I work exclusively in black-and-white.
And while I know that Chris labours with a perfectionist’s zeal in editing his photos so that the hyper-lucid clarity and super-vibrant colours of his images faithfully represent his vision of Melbourne, I prefer to do as little editing as possible, working with the limitations and unpredictability of film to try and capture my vision of Melbourne ‘in camera’ as much as possible.
If I were to offer an analogy of the æsthetic difference created by these cumulative preferences and choices in equipment, medium, and attitude to editing, I would say that Chris’s photographs feel more like the experience of Melbourne on an acid trip, whereas my own pictures give the impression of a sleepwalker wandering the streets in a dark dream.
The city is the same, but the two visions of it, produced by these cumulative technical preferences and choices, are very different.
But where does the vital æsthetic difference come from?
Ultimately, the personal æsthetic which dictates different preferences and choices in equipment, media, and attitudes to editing are couched in two different artistic visions of the same subject, and these inward visions produce two radically different ways of physically seeing Melbourne.
With his crisp, colourful, action-packed compositions, Chris, I think, has a very playful, ludic vision of Melbourne: he sees it as an urban wonderland or playground.
And this is perfectly consonant with his gregarious, extroverted character. For those of us who are fortunate to know him, Chris is as much a beacon of light diffusing joyous colour over Melbourne as his own rainbow-coloured umbrella, and I notice that he effortlessly reflects the colourful energies of everyone he talks to.
If I am ‘the Melbourne Flâneur’, I would describe Chris Cincotta as—(to coin a Frenchism)—‘the Melbourne Dériveur’: his joyous, playful approach to exploring the urban wonderland of Melbourne with the people he shepherds on his tours seems to me to have more in common with Guy Debord’s theory of the dérive than with my own more flâneuristic approach.
Being an introvert and a lone wolf on the hunt for tales and tails, while I’m as much a ‘romantic’ as Chris, it’s perhaps little wonder that the ‘Dean Kyte æsthetic’ should be very different, more noirish as compared to Chris’s Technicolor take: the romance of Melbourne, for me, is dark, mysterious, and I see this city in black-and-white.
Melbourne is not a ‘high noir’ city like American metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles. Rather, there is a strain of old-world Gothicism in Melbourne which, when I sight sites like Uniacke court through my lens, reminds me more of the bombed-out Vienna of The Third Man (1949), or the London of Night and the City (1950).
And if Chris is a beacon of colourful light to those of us who know him, the ambiguity of black-and-white is perhaps a good metaphor for my character, from whence my personal æsthetic proceeds.
If there is a ‘Third Man’ quality to Melbourne for me, it’s perhaps because there’s a touch of Harry Lime in me—the rakish rogue. Like Lime, whose spirit animal, the kitten—an ‘innocent killer’—discovers him in the doorway, you might find me smirking and lurking in the shadows of a laneway, revelling, cat-like, in the mysterious ambience of ‘friendly menace’ in the milieu, what I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.
If you haven’t checked out Chris Cincotta’s work on Instagram, I invite you to make the comparison in styles. It’s fascinating to see how two artists can view the same city so differently. And being so generous with his energy, I know Chris will appreciate any comments or feedback you leave him.
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?