“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!
Special shout-out to one of my readers in Brisbane, Mr. Glen Available of Scenic Writers Shack. Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the fulfilment of the infinitely delayed promise to Mr. Glen that the third instalment in my ongoing series of extracts from the novel I am currently writing, set in what he describes as ‘Australia’s third best city’, would be delivered ‘soon(ish)’.
‘Soon(ish)’, for me, evidently means eighteen months after Episode 2—but in my defence, Your Honour, I plead extenuating circumstances and throw myself upon the mercy of the Court. As I explain in the video above, I was all set to shoot Episode 3 at Broadford, or Seymour, or some equally picturesque spot in the vicinity of same, in March of last year when the Coronavirus caused us all to slam down steel shutters everywhere.
I never got to Broadford, but I think the universe was saving the video for a more suitably picturesque locale—the beautiful San Remo, a mere bridge-span from the world-famous Phillip Island, which you can just see behind me in the video.
I only had to get through three lockdowns (including one last week at San Remo itself) before circumstances finally smiled upon me and I had the perfect opportunity to shoot this video. Perfect, that is, except for the light shower you see occasionally moistening your Melbourne Flâneur, who was sans his trademark trenchcoat because the BOM promised him a sunny day!
The excerpt I read in the video is set in the Pig ’n’ Whistle, a veritable Brisbane institution with venues all over town. I was in the Brunswick street pub, in Fortitude Valley, one evening, debriefing my brains with my journal, when I happened to look up and see a scene from John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) playing, silently, on the TV in the corner of the bar. It was the scene where Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones are enjoying una bella giornata on the terrace of an Italian villa, and no twist of fate could have pleased me more than to have an opportunity to regale you with my blow-by-blow analysis of Bogie’s textbook seduction with the Italianate backdrop of San Remo and Phillip Island alle spalle.
I hope it was worth the eighteen-month wait.
Eighteen months to go from 62 per cent completion of the second draft to 91 per cent might seem, to the blissfully uninitiated, a rather leisurely pace of literary production. What was, when I last updated you in this post, a novella of less than 40,000 words has, in that time, crossed the Rubicon into novel territory and is now advancing on 60,000 words. It’s been a difficult project for me since its commencement more than four years ago, and it’s only since February last year, when I finished revising and rewriting the section I share with you in the video, that I’ve really started to get a firm handle on this project.
Mr. Glen, in a recent post on his blog, admits—stout fellow—that he hasn’t the stamina for the marathon which is novel-writing. It’s a brave admission. But you may as well say that you haven’t the strength to write a book, for whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the discipline of long-form writing is the same, and I would argue that the literary demands of non-fiction are as great, if not greater, than those of fiction.
Even I, after five books, went through a dark period just a few years ago, when this story was still in the infancy of its second draft, where I came to the sobering conclusion that it would die stillborn with me and I would never publish another book. Like Glen, I feared I hadn’t the strength and stamina to write in the tens of thousands of words anymore.
Fortunately, I recovered my mojo pour les mots, and though, having just passed my thirty-eighth lap of the sun last month, I find my physical energy for the mental exertion of writing is appreciably less than it was when I was 28, or 18, I nevertheless feel, as a writer, that I’m just coming into my prime.
It’s a strange intimation from the universe, for I’ve made no renovations in my style; that, I think, was set in stone by the age of thirty. Rather, I think, a writer, as he ages, uses his voice more adroitly. What he has to say and how he says it more seamlessly dovetails into one another; and perhaps, like all artists whose late styles have a loose, bravura freedom about them, a sense of the elegant essence of their youthful style now unconstrained—like Henry James in his late novels, for instance—there is more efficiency in how what an aging writer has to say dovetails with the way in which he says it.
Oy vey, that was a rather late-Jamesian sentence. But to summarize: the two, in other words, are more firmly and happily wedded.
The exigencies of being a businessman, of hiring my Montblanc out aux autres, of course eats into one’s time and energy for one’s own writing, but if anything, the mid-life rigours of running my pen on the rationalistic basis of a business has put infrastructure and processes under my own writing process, so that, even if I still sweat blood over every word I commit myself to, trying to make it le seul mot juste, I’m still more efficient than I was when I practised my art merely for art’s own sake.
And when, during our epic second lockdown in Melbourne, the decline in confidence correlated with a dip in demand for my personal services, I had not just the free time but the infrastructure and processes in place to really advance this work in progress—along with all my other artistic projects.
You’ll have to peel off my fingernails one by one to get me to admit there’s any good in lockdowns, but for writers or anyone else who is the least artistically inclined, I can offer this from my own experience of house arrest: Treat your art in a business-like manner and develop an infrastructure and internal processes for managing your time and assessing your progress. For when something like a four-month lockdown comes along, it’s manna from heaven in terms of making day-to-day progress on your projects.
And this commitment to day-to-day doing, I think, is the essential difference between being ‘an author’ and being ‘a writer’.
I first heard Hunter S. Thompson advance this line of reasoning many years ago, and it stuck with me. I don’t remember where I read it, but it may have been in The Rum Diary (1959). You can be the author of a book, he said, without necessarily being a writer. It doesn’t necessarily require any literary predisposition to be the author of a published book—and I can say without any irony or glib disparagement that the publishing landscape of today amply justifies Mr. Thompson’s view.
Of course, on deeper examination, the equation balances the other way, too: you can be a writer without necessarily being an author. But that realization is less revelatory than the one implicit in Mr. Thompson’s distinction between writers and authors.
And that realization is this: The fundamental difference between being a writer and being an author can be boiled down to the grammatical difference between being someone who does something and someone who has done something, between the present-tense act of writing itself and the past-tense achievement of having written a book which has then been published.
I’ve never forgotten how my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Foley, drummed into us the notion that the ‘-er’ and ‘-or’ suffixes mean ‘one who’—one who does something in the present tense. A writer, therefore, is ‘one who writes’.
But, English being a devil of a language, it doesn’t quite work the other way around. An author is not ‘one who auths’.
Shakespearean as it sounds, ‘to auth’ is not an occupation; it’s not even a verb. And yet to be ‘an author’ of a book signifies a past-tense achievement, some work that has been written and has been crowned with the ultimate literary laurel of publication, but which does not indicate that the individual in question is presently engaged in literary labours.
Having published five books, I guess I have the right to call myself ‘an author’, to rest on those laurels, but if I firmly believe, as I said in my last post, that a man is what he does, it follows that he isn’t what he has done.
It gets philosophical here, for at some fundamental level, to do is to be. When an animal stops doing, it dies. And then it stops being. The same with a man. When we stop engaging with all the living passion of our being in the creative activities which define us and instead sit in the empire of our past achievements, we’re as good as done.
In the dark days when I seriously thought my days of ‘authoring’ were over and I wouldn’t have the distinction to call myself an author on a sixth day of my life, the work in progress on that day being achevé, my thoughts born and holdable in my hands as a book, the only thought that cheered me was the notion that the doing is the thing.
We confuse being ‘a writer’ with being ‘an author’, the doing with the done, and consequently place too much value on publication as the quantifiable, verifiable product of our labours, when really it is the present-tense production of words, written by our own hands on pages, that signifies the ‘one who’ activity of being a writer.
As Jasmine B. Ulmer observes in her journal article “Writing Slow Ontology” (2017), there is an ontology, a specific mode of being coupled with this activity of doing. One isn’t a writer when one has ‘done’ the writing, but as one does it. The internal economy of the being who writes is connected, in that present-tense activity, with the words that pour out of his hand, thought and act being uniquely united in the process of writing.
And the awareness that there is a unique ontology to my profession and my art-form, that there is a unique mode of being in this doing which I do for its own sake, day by day, drawing slowly, inexorably, and with hope and faith towards the single day when what I am writing is done and published—but never counting on that day, never taking it for granted as a given vouchsafed by God—is particularly relevant to what I write; to what I have to say as a writer; and how I say it through my style.
This work in progress, like all my books, being a Sistine Chapel I’m always on my back to, the tirelessly retouched tableau of days of my life first sketched in the pages of my journal, is the infinitely rewritten act of that first writing, and therefore of experiences and sensations which my being actually did and had done to it.
And when it comes to the question of why a man would waste whole days of his life (as it might seem to denser souls) tirelessly rewriting in successive drafts the history of minute acts and experiences in other days of his life, the answer is circularly resolved by the ontology of the craft: I am a writer, and writing is what I do.
I look forward in hope and faith to the day when I can say this work is done and I can share with you the whole story of a few minutes of my life when a woman gave me a strange revelation between her legs, one which has always stuck with me as a tale I owed it to her soul, her being, as much as to my own, to tell—a modest testament to what James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), calls ‘the reality of experience’.
But if I were to meet with an accident before the work was achevé, that day of doneness when, mother unburdened of her travail, and I could call myself, for the sixth time, ‘an author’, I would feel more sanguine about the prospect than I used to as a younger man. Franz Kafka died a writer rather than an author and couldn’t even finish the three novels upon which his reputation rests. Indeed, he ordered his friend, Max Brod, to burn his writings, the evidence of his peculiar being on this plain, which must have seemed to him a hilarious hell.
The doing was enough for him. He would have been joyously, beatifically content if we had lost the evidence of his unique being. Achievement and the past-tense plaudits of publication were anathema to Herr Kafka’s perverse soul.
So I say to other writers who, as I do, despair of finishing what they start, the doing is the thing. Be a writer and let the achievement of your project take care of itself in the doing of your days.
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.
In whatever city Chinatown is located, these Chinese embassies are zones of mystery and ambiguity.
And the tragedy for the flâneur is that these places we know so well know us so little. We are erased from the faces of places as soon as we depart them. We are as unpermanent a mark upon the memory of their streets as a lover’s caress is upon our skin.
And for the flâneur, the Daygamer left over in the labyrinth, whose streets are the dædal of his days, to re-encounter the coin de rue where he passed a moment of amour with some passante and to encounter no trace of her, nor of himself, evokes a sensation not of ‘déjà vu’, but of jamais vu—jamais vécu.
—Dean Kyte, “Chinatown(s)”
The one compromised pleasure that a man used to moving his gams as energetically as yours truly can take in the current, prison-like atmosphere of Melbourne is that forced confinement focuses the flâneur’s gaze inward.
Like Xavier de Maistre, who, in Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794), takes the reader on a six-week walking tour around the room of a young officer under arrest in Turin, during the Melbourne lockdown, I’ve been taking flâneries through the footage I’ve shot in the course of my travels.
Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the product of one such prostrate promenade undertaken in bed as I flick through the files on my laptop.
One tires, after a time, of the narrow view afforded onto King street, and in such a blank, impersonal setting, eyes which are used to scanning the streets for occult meaning turn inward. Except in Paris, my introverted intuition has never been stronger than during this time: forced to look within myself for the visual stimulation I would usually seek externally in walking through the world, these days when I write or fool around with my old footage, new syntheses of memories and dreams emerge, new crystallizations of thought and image kaleidoscopically collide in miraculous revelations.
The prose poem I intone in the video above, “Chinatown(s)”, is one such synthesis of dream and memory, one such crystallization of thought and image.
I shot the raw footage on a rainy night in Little Bourke street a couple of years ago. Melbourne’s Chinatown is a particularly photogenic sight to see on nights when it’s raining hard, the red lanterns and the neon signs reflected viciously and viscously by the treacherous slate sidewalks.
Initially, I shot the footage with the intention of using it as the basis for one of the interactive menus on my latest Blu-ray Disc, Cinescritos: Writings in Image & Sound (2018). I set the camera up at a particular site in Little Bourke street which was as near as I could recall to the exact spot where I had tied into an attractive-looking dame whose life—and body—had briefly intersected with mine.
The dark and teary sky weeping on the camera lens, creating kaleidoscopic aureoles around the lanterns, had been intended to silently suggest what that spot means to me now.
But in looking back at the footage from the distance of two years hence, I suddenly recalled that this spot in Chinatown was significant to me for another brief but flaming intersection of bodies and lives: A deux pas behind the camera is Tattersalls lane, where, on another rainy day even further back in time, I had been lugged by a girl I had just as randomly picked up at my ‘office’ in Centre place.
One of the fun things for couples to do in Melbourne is to take a dérive around the city on a rainy winter’s day. Clinging to each other, flâneur and flâneuse, we took a random randonnée in the vicinity of Chinatown, escalating each other all the while.
In the course of our dérive, she steered me into Section 8, one of the more unusual Melbourne bars. It’s a popup bar cobbled together out of shipping pallets and packing containers in a carpark off Tattersalls lane. It’s not an ideal intimacy venue, but on an overcast, drizzly weekday morning when no one else is game to sit outside, you can end up going pretty far with a girl at Section 8—if the vibe between you is right.
We ended up going very far indeed that day—though not, the management will be relieved to hear, at Section 8. The place where she parted from my arms, a block east of Chinatown, was even more exposed than that, and again, the gentle rain that fell upon us as we inhaled each other’s kisses would seem, an eternity of minutes later, like a curtain of tears before my eyes as I watched her walk away forever.
I wrote in another post that I feel, after all my aventures, like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’: every femme is fatal for me, pumping a slug in my heart. And as I watched this one exit behind the curtain of tears that Melbourne lowered over the back-alley stage of our brief encounter, the mystery of the real, the way that what is external to us seems somehow to uncannily reflect the inner landscape of our consciousness, was an appropriate metaphor to mirror my perplexity at her départ.
So there is, as I evoke in the prose poem above, a sense of ‘oneiric encounter’, of sensual threat and promise for me about Melbourne’s Chinatown. It’s a place I tend to avoid in my flâneries, for the unbelievable successes in Daygame I’ve enjoyed there—(like dreams, they seem, in rational retrospect, almost too good to be true)—have left a couple of scars upon my heart.
Those two blocks of Little Bourke street evoke for me the ineffable yet dagger-like douleur au cœur I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.
And because of the fragrant odour of sensual threat and promise they evoke, Chinatowns more generally arouse this acute, erotic melancholy in me. The last night I spent in Paris, a girl hauled me back to her apartment in the Chinese quartier of Belleville. I remember standing at her balcony that late summer evening as she showered off the day’s work. Snoop that I am, I was looking across the street—as narrow as Little Bourke street—at the little dollhouse lives of the Asian families in the apartment-house opposite.
Their quotidian reality seemed as sensual to me as the wooden railing beneath my hands, the image of them before my eyes as sensual as the image in my mind of the girl, as magnificent as a bather by Ingres, sudsing her pearl-like belly in a room behind me.
And like her, like the railing, like tout Paris, they too would disappear from before my eyes in a couple of hours.
In the prose poem, I refer to these enclaves of sensual mystery as ‘Chinese embassies’, for there is a sense of autonomy about Chinatowns, in whatever city you encounter them.
They are privileged zones. The Chinatown of a city is like an arcade without a roof: it has all the phantasmagoric characteristics of the ‘dream street’ that Walter Benjamin identified with the passage.
Their friendship arches, like the two polychrome portals which bracket the approach to Chinatown in Swanston and Exhibition streets, serve to delimit the zone of foreign exclusivity just as the entrances of an arcade delimit its exclusivity from the street. Their lanterns hang above the street like the gas-lamps which hang in serried rows around the peristyle of the arcade.
The only difference is that, instead of internalizing the external by putting a roof over the street, Chinatowns externalize the internal, by unroofing the multi-storey rue-galerie of shops, exposing these ‘cathedrals of commerce’, with their naves and side-chapels, to the scrutiny of heaven.
As Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong observe in their journal article “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019), this organization of the street upon different levels, mixing the commercial with the residential, the public space with the private, is more semantically crucial to how we interpret the architecture of global Chinatowns than in other built-up urban areas.
‘While Chinatowns worldwide vary in their histories, configurations, peoples, power, and imagery,’ McDonogh and Wong write, ‘they are invariably lived at street level …. [T]hese street-level interactions mean that our eyes stray upwards only momentarily to arches, signs, or cornices or downward to half-hidden shops….’
Franz Hessel, in his book Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital (1929), declared emphatically that ‘[t]he flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new.’
McDonogh and Wong touch upon the fact (although it seems to me that they miss its fundamental significance) that the verticality of Chinese calligraphy in neon signage attached, over several storeys, to the façades of buildings is key to the unique way in which the flâneur ‘reads the street’ of global Chinatowns.
With a pinch of Japanese and Chinese at my disposal, the lurid neon swooshes of Hànzì leering in the night is a little less obscure to me than to most occidental barbarians. Nevertheless, as a cunning linguist, the pleasure I derive from ‘reading the streets’ of Chinatowns is not unlike the difficult pleasure I derive from attempting to read a book written in a language I am not yet proficient in: the words, sentences and pages formed by the hieroglyphs of all those things Herr Hessel enumerates are not just fragrantly ‘new’, but however bright the Sinograms beam, there are still lacunas in my understanding as vast and dark as the night itself.
You can perhaps intuit why I equate the quotidian yet mysterious banality of Chinatowns with the matter-of-fact mysteries of female behaviour.
This admixture of clarity and obscurity is the exclusive province of those ‘zones of mystery and ambiguity’ we call Chinatowns, and they seem an environmental metaphor for the ‘trade’ (deniable as such because it is plausibly deniable) that women make of love. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the Chinese genius for commerce in a hostile environment locates what is readable by the barbarian with a minimum of interpretation squarely at street level. The exotic mysteries of the Orient, however, are discreetly concealed in storeys above or below.
The intrepid—or foolish—flâneur who ventures into Chinatown must cast his eyes in the direction of his desires, must read the promises or threats opaquely veiled behind façades, just as a man must read a woman’s essential character behind the glittering mask she puts up as a front. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the ‘resolutely ordinary’ character of actual Chinatown streets interacts with our imaginary of them as ‘mythic’ and ‘mystical’ places. Likewise, behind the smoke and mirrors, the prosaic banality of women interacts with our ‘pedestalization’ of them as idols of virtue or of vice.
The ‘walk on the wild side’ afforded by Australian Chinatowns is a pretty tepid flirtation with vice. Brisbane’s Chinatown is now—like the rest of Fortitude Valley—a desert of gentrification. Sydney’s is a very shabby affair. Adelaide’s seems like an appendix to the Central Markets—which is where the real flâneurial action lies.
Only in Melbourne, it seems to me, can some vestigial sense of exotic danger still be experienced in Chinatown, and it is, I think, a function of Victoria’s more intimate and symbiotic historical relationship with China. Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t an ‘historical Disneyland’ of a Chinatown, a ‘World’s Fair’ pavilion set down between Swanston and Exhibition streets; that much of its history has mercifully been erased.
No, it’s part of the historical fabric of Melbourne itself as a nineteenth-century city, a Gold Rush city, with all the cosmopolitan grandeur of fabulous wealth built on the corrupt grasping of international chancers.
Though he makes no direct allusion to Chinatown, in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), the great nineteenth-century novel of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, Fergus Hume situates Little Bourke street as the epicentre of poverty and vice. After a dazzling tour of its big brother (as busy as its proverbial reputation), he leads us into Little Bourke street, whose lineaments we can still vaguely discern in Chinatown to this day:
‘But his guide, with whom familiarity with the proletarians had, in a great measure, bred indifference, hurried him away to Little Bourke Street, where the narrowness of the street, with the high buildings on each side, the dim light of the sparsely scattered gas lamps, and the few ragged looking figures slouching along, formed a strong contrast to the brilliant and crowded scene they had just left.’
San Francisco is another of these ‘nouveau riche’ nineteenth-century Gold Rush cities whose tony veneer of sophistication is like so much gilt over its foundations built on the hard graft and grasping for gold, and like Melbourne, it is famous for its Chinatown.
The symbiotic relationship that the Chinatowns of these cities have to their circumambient urban fabric is, I would contend, a function of the historical symbiosis of Orientals and Occidentals in San Francisco and Melbourne.
Their Chinatowns are more than ‘Eastern embassies’ that have failed to really take root on Western soil: they are, through their Gold Rush heritage, thoroughly assimilated into the fabric of their cities. The piquant charm of the Far East they add to the gaudy neoclassical architecture pining for the respectability of a European capital is part of the peculiar native charm of San Francisco and Melbourne.
The similarity between these two cities separated by an ocean is striking. In his story “Dead Yellow Women” (1925), the quintessential writer of San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett, has the Continental Op loosen his laconic tongue just enough to provide this vivid description:
‘San Francisco’s Chinatown jumps out of the shopping district at California Street and runs north to the Latin Quarter—a strip two blocks wide by six long….
‘Grant Avenue, the main street and spine of the strip, is for most of its length a street of gaudy shops and flashy chop-suey houses catering to the tourist trade, where the racket of American jazz orchestras drowns the occasional squeak of a Chinese flute. Farther out, there isn’t so much paint and gilt, and you can catch the proper Chinese smell of spices and vinegar and dried things. If you leave the main thoroughfares and showplaces and start poking around in alleys and dark corners, and nothing happens to you, the chances are you’ll find some interesting things—though you won’t like some of them.’
Swap Swanston for California street, and Little Bourke street for Grant avenue, and the description might almost hold for Melbourne—including the final, stinging remark. For if I have found the femmes I’ve stumbled over in the laneways leading off Little Bourke street to be ‘interesting specimens’, in my bafflement after the fact, when I’ve woken up from the opium dream of their seductive charms, I haven’t liked the feeling that I’ve just had my breast pocket picked.
As an operative of the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch, the Op is what we might call a ‘professional flâneur’ in Chinatown, though he would prefer the title he often gives himself of ‘manhunter’. I might occasionally tail some quail in Chinatown, but the Op is a big game hunter, after birds of any feather who are up to their necks in bad juju.
McDonogh and Wong state: ‘Chinatowns as mythic places often are linked to icons … of underground mysteries from film and literature that contribute to the global imaginary of Chinatowns.’ They remark ‘how powerfully Chinatown is an imagined space in popular culture, where truth and fiction mingle and images flow from cinema to history to tourism.’
Which leads me to the greatest depiction of this fluid, feminine zone of mystery and ambiguity in literature and film—Roman Polanski’s flâneur movie par excellence, Chinatown (1974), in which the eponymous, putative setting hardly figures as a physical place.
Chinatown, to which the movie’s hero, Angeleno private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), makes constant, obsessive reference, is the primal scene of sexual trauma from which he cannot escape. Gittes, with his sharp suits, Florsheim shoes, and polished Hollywood manner, may have transcended his days as a flatfoot in L.A.’s Chinatown, but his profession as a ‘bedroom dick’ puts him right back in the torrid zone of fluid, feminine ambiguity.
He tells his paramour, black widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), that Chinatown is a place that bothers everyone who works there. ‘You can’t always tell what’s going on,’ he says to this dame who’s as difficult to read as a Chinese newspaper. ‘Like with you.’
When you’re playing spoon with such a dish, it’s best to follow the advice the District Attorney gives his men in Chinatown and do ‘as little as possible’—for, as Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), tells Gittes, while ‘you may think you know what you’re dealing with, … believe me, you don’t.’
Gittes is the flâneur figure-cum-detective: his social mobility gives him a unique droit de cité in L.A., transcending the strata of society from grand monde to demi-monde, allowing him to read the tenor of the streets with the same vertical orientation that the flâneur must use as his compass in Chinatown.
In this world turned on its side, one might almost say that in the all-encompassing diffuseness of the criminal and sexual conspiracy he finds himself drowning in, ‘Chinatown’, for Gittes, is hardly a localized place but a state of doubleness, of recursive multiplicity that constitutes the whole of L.A.—a fluid nexus of evil whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
And, of course, at the heart of Gittes’ fearful yet fascinated relationship with Chinatown, there is his relationship with a woman—or women, rather. ‘Cherchez la femme,’ Mrs. Mulwray philosophically says as they lay abed after exertions, echoing the demands and directives of Gittes’ clients—and other interested parties—that he should ‘find the girl’ if he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery.
But like water, there is no bottom to women’s mystery, and the alluring vessel is as arbitrary a beginning or ending point as the portals set over Chinatowns worldwide.
These are some of the thoughts I attempted to express in the video and prose poem above. In these times when contact with the outer world of Melbourne is forbidden to me, I turn my gaze inward and meditate on the mysteries of the women I have known in my flâneries around town, whose painful memories and perplexing dreams I thought I had drowned in the heart of me.
But, like the Lady in the Lake, they are not drowned, merely sleeping, and can be awoken once again by a pure heart.
I’ve made the soundtrack of this video available for purchase on my Bandcamp profile. If you would like to shout me half a coffee, you can download “Chinatown(s)” for $A2.00 and have the pleasure of my dulcet tones intoning the prose poem in your lugs pour toujours. Just click the link below.
Well, the video above does, anyway. The footage—and the story contained in the brief essay I regale you with in the video—comes from a weekend stay in the inner-city suburb of Paddington some eighteen months ago.
I had just finished a housesit in Gosford. I had been invited to stay a couple of nights in one of those beautiful old terrace houses which are so common in Sydney, looking after a couple of dogs for the weekend before I booked back to Melbourne.
The terrace house was a couple-three blocks back from Oxford street, overlooking the Art and Design campus of the University of NSW, housed in an old brick schoolhouse. The terrace was two storeys and a sous-sol, one of those gloriously perverse constructions with Escher-like staircases, mashed in a block of similar houses on a slight slope.
When I have a housesit, I don’t usually go out at night. As a flâneur, the street is my home, and I feel like I spend enough time on it, spinning my wheels ça et là in search of romance and adventure.
But to be so perfectly placed in Sydney for 48 hours was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Night #1 I ambled up Darlinghurst road to Kings Cross for dinner. I was armed with my trusty Pentax K1000 and Minolta XL-401 Super 8 camera, both loaded for bear with Kodak Tri-X film.
My mission was to scout and clout some suitably seedy Sydney scenes on celluloid.
I chowed down in an Italian joint in Potts Point; took a tour of the lighted windows of the handsome homes in that part of town; dipped the bill on the terrace of Darlo as I scratched a dispatch to myself in the pages of my journal; and bopped back towards the pad.
My bowtie drew some comment as I crossed Oxford street, but I managed to make it to the other side without being assaulted. As I was mainlining it down South Dowling street, my eagle œil de flâneur clocked something curious in Taylor street, a narrow, one-way artery branching off the Eastern Distributor.
That’s the footage you see in the video above. My eye was caught by the gentle, teasing undulation of the verdant leaves veiling and unveiling the moon-like gleam of the streetlamp. I set up my camera on the corner to capture it.
I sauntered back to the terrace house and ambulated the hounds, first one and then the other, before we all reported for sack duty. The dogs were staffies, but the older one, Bella, was weak on her pins and only needed to go as far as the corner and back. Buster was young and vigorous, and I was under orders to give him a tour of the whole block before retiring.
I got him on the lead. The eerie, pregnant peacefulness of Paddington after midnight, an inchoate intimation of which I had scoped in Taylor street, symbolized for me in the striptease played by the leaves and the streetlamp, took hold of me as we passed the dark terrace houses.
I tried to imagine the inconceivable lives behind these elegant façades, the way you might take the front off a doll’s house to get a glim of the works inside. I couldn’t do it. The lives of Sydneysiders seemed too rich and strange.
We turned the corner into Josephson street, another narrow, one-way thoroughfare similar to Taylor street. Buster got the snoot down to do some deep investigating while yours truly lounged idly by, doing some snooping of his own.
I took a hinge on the quiet street, attempting to penetrate the poetic mood of this friendly darkness which was in Josephson street too. This ‘mood’ seemed to be general all over this part of Paddington. I patted the pockets of my memory. What did this place remind me of…?
It was then that ‘The Girl’ tied into us, and if you want to know what happens next—you’ll have to scroll up and watch the video essay!
It’s adapted from a couple of paragraphs I scribbled in my journal a couple of nights later, when I was on the train back to Melbourne, meditating on my weekend as a ‘Sydney flâneur’. As the familiar scenes unspooled beside me on the XPT, taking me away from that brief oasis of unexpected experience, a nice coda to my Central Coast ‘holiday’, I got some perspective on what that poetic mood—which possesses me in all my photographs and videos—might be.
Nothing refreshes the flâneur, that restless spirit perpetually in search ‘du nouveau’, more than a fresh city to test his navigatory chops on. My experience traipsing the streets of Paris has given me a navigatory nonchalance in any new urban environment which often astonishes—and sometimes even alarms—people. Put a map in front of me and I’ll betray my bamboozlement by turning it ça et là, but my sense of topographical orientation—the map I make of places in my mind—is very good indeed. I don’t have to be in a place very long before I’m naming streets to locals as though I’ve lived there all my life.
Sydney, however, still poses a challenge for me. One of my readers, James O’Brien, put me on to the trick. According to James, the secret to navigating Sydney is to think of it in terms of hills and Harbour: if you’re going uphill, you’re heading towards the Blue Mountains; if you’re going downhill, you’re heading towards Sydney Harbour.
It’s a neat trick. I wish I had known it during my 48-hour furlough in Paddington.
On the Saturday, I decided to test my mastery of Sydney in a walk which will no doubt leave my Sydney readers wondering how I managed to do it without map or compass, a tent and several days’ provisions, and the assistance of a sherpa.
And indeed, as I look at my parcours in retrospect on Google Maps, the rather incredible breadth of that expedition (which included a few wrong turns) does seem to show up the difference between a ‘Melbourne flâneur’, like yours truly, and a ‘Sydney flâneur’.
A Sydney flâneur, I dare say, would never have attempted it, because the main difference between Melbourne and Sydney is that the former is a much more ‘walkable’ city.
In Melbourne, you can walk quite a distance, if you’re inclined to. To walk from the city to Brunswick, or from the city to St Kilda, is not a wearisome proposition. The streets are logically arranged, the terrain is not fatiguing, and the experience is altogether a pleasurable one.
But to be a Sydney flâneur requires strategy rather than rugged endurance.
To walk from Paddington to Green Square via Bourke street, then back up to Redfern via Elizabeth street, and finally across to Newtown, with no map and nothing but the sketchy guidance of the bicycle lane to orient you, probably strikes my Sydney readers as the flânerie d’un fou.
With time out for coffee at Bourke Street Bakery and diversions for the dispensing of dosh on vintage bowties and button suspenders at Mitchell Road Antiques, how on earth did I accomplish such a trajet in one day with hardly an idea where I was going?
Je ne sais pas. But it was a thrilling experience to walk a city which I don’t think any city planner ever intended to be seriously trod. You may be able to travel through Melbourne without a car, but Sydney?
Though I cheated on the way back, training from Newtown to Central, and bussing from Central to Flinders street, I wasn’t done filing down the heels on my handmade Italian shoes that day.
Night #2, heavily armed with cameras, tripod and paraphernalia, I attempted an even more ambitious nocturnal sortie for a flâneur who isn’t altogether au fait with Sydney. My plan was to make a massive foot-tour to Circular Quay and back.
I struck out along Oxford street and rambled through Hyde Park around dusk. I inhaled a digestif at Jet, in the Queen Victoria Building, while I unburdened myself to my journal. Then I went on the prowl, Pentax primed, tacking stealthily towards Sydney Harbour by way of George street.
There was some sort of to-do in George street between the QVB and Martin place—I forget what, but a lot of revellers and rubberneckers. My cat-like spirit bristled at the noise and lights and I was glad to get clear of them as I stalked north.
There was a full moon set to scale the sky over the Opera House that night. Having purchased a fresh cartridge of Tri-X from Sydney Super 8, I set up my Super 8 camera by Circular Quay, counting off a long timelapse of the Harbour under my breath and remembering how I had once, on a disastrous second date, walked past this spot, arguing about the comparative architectural merits of the Harbour Bridge vis-à-vis the Opera House with a French girl I had picked up at Darling Harbour two days earlier.
We had not been able to agree on that or on anything else that day, and I had been glad to get my luggage out of her apartment, get rid of her, and get on a train back to Melbourne.
It was getting on towards midnight. I retraced my way back to Town Hall via Pitt street, the lunacy of the high moon and the memory of past amours working their poetic powers upon my spirit, inspiring me to squeeze off a shadowy shot with the Pentax here and there.
I was too foot-sore to trudge on to Central. I had been on my dogs all day, so I saved some Tuscan shoe leather and shouted myself a trip on the Opal card at Town Hall station. On the short train ride, tired as I was, I had my senses sufficiently about me to admire the hard, shiny Sydney girls, hot and fast as the slug from a Saturday night special.
Once I had had it in me to cut across their frames and charm even the hardest chica, but I was beginning to think my days as a pocket-edition Casanova were over.
I thought of the girl in Josephson street. Was I getting fussy in my encroaching middle age? Or was I just developing belated good taste?
When I got back to the terrace around one a.m., I got the hounds out for their third and final walk of the day, but lightning did not strike twice: I did not see the girl in Josephson street again.
I hope you enjoyed this reminiscence of one of my flâneries. I received a lot of positive feedback from followers and visitors to this vlog saying that they enjoyed listening to me reading the audio versions of articles I wrote on the subject of the Coronavirus. So I decided to start releasing the soundtracks of my videos—like the one at the head of this post—for purchase via my Bandcamp profile.
For $2.00, less than the cost of a coffee, you can have my dulcet tones on your pod pour toujours. Just click the link below to support me.
As Coronavirus restrictions ease, today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I get out and about for the first time in two months, taking a flânerie to Bacchus Marsh.
Don’t be deceived by the boggy name: Bacchus Marsh is actually quite a nice place to visit, particularly at the start of winter, when all the trees along Grant street, leading from the station to the township, set up an arcade of red and yellow leaves for you to amble under.
At Maddingley Park, I take a breather at the rotunda to share with you a sneak preview of the manuscript for my next book—a 31-page handwritten letter to my seven-year-old niece, which I wrote during lockdown.
As soon as things got too hairy on the streets, your Melbourne Flâneur, that aristocrat of the gutter, folded up pack, shack and stack and got his handmade Italian brogues parked in more private and stable accommodation than he is used to treating himself to.
For two months, I was sequestered in a West Melbourne hotel room, my world reduced to a single window looking out on a narrow sliver of upper King street. If I crowded into the left side of the window and craned my neck, I could entertain myself by trying to work out on what streets all the tall buildings in the Melbourne CBD were planted.
To say (as I do in the video) that I felt like I was in a ‘gilded prison’ is not to deprecate the kind folks at the Miami Hotel, who I’m very happy to recommend to any visitors to our fair city, but rather to suggest what a strange and vivid time it was to be a writer of a peripatetic persuasion, one who finds his home in the crowd.
In Australia, in the early days of the lockdown, we saw scenes of people returning from overseas being bundled and bullied into suites at Crown, on the government’s tab, and exercising, like les bons bourgeois that they are, their privilege to grouse on Instagram that their confinement in palatial conditions was not up to scratch.
These people enjoyed little sympathy from me. As a writer, the argument that such palatial prison conditions were doing a permanent injury to their mental health cut no ice. Rather, if the mental health of people forced to enjoy such self-isolation at Her Majesty’s expense deteriorates, it is evidence of how little developed are the mental resources of a chattering class to whom every ease and privilege is given in a society that clamours after more and more leisure aided and abetted by technology.
Harsh words, I’ll admit, but as a writer, I found my more modest confinement at the Miami a unique historical privilege which reconnected me with the ancient heritage of my craft and profession.
As soon as I was undercover, as those of you who followed my commentary on the Coronavirus crisis know, fearing the worst, I went straight to work and tried to scratch out every idea and cobble together every piece of research I could find in an effort to make good sense of what the continental was going on outside my little room.
For reasons of historical precedent I’ll explain, I felt—and feel—that the moral responsibility of the writer in a time of crisis is to throw the skills of his profession at the task of collective sensemaking.
And so, while my confrères at Crown faffed and fapped on Facebook and engaged in other acts of mental masturbation with their mobiles, I wrote.
And in fact, apart from penning six long articles on the Coronavirus (which, collectively, could constitute a book on their own), I wrote an entire book—five drafts in two months—for my little niece, attempting to explain the situation to her.
The fifth and final draft takes the form of a 31-page handwritten letter to my niece. It took 25 hours to write, and you can see in the video what the entire manuscript looks like. When spread out in three rows across a table capable of comfortably seating eight people, the manuscript is still wider than the tabletop.
It was an extraordinary experience to ‘write a book by hand’. I thought, when I sat down to handwrite the final draft, that it was simply going to be a ‘copy job’, that I was not going to add anything new or creative to what I had worked up in the previous four drafts.
But when I got in front of the first page of my personalised stationery, when I had my two Montblanc Noblesse fountain pens (one filled with Mystery Black, the other with Corn Poppy Red ink) primed, the experience of committing myself to the words I intended to publish felt like no other book I have written.
Suddenly, the page became a ‘stage’ for me. I was on the stage, and this was the performance. The four previous drafts were mere ‘rehearsals’ for the Big Night, and having learnt my ‘script’, I felt free to improvise upon it, to add and change things as I spontaneously wrote the message of hope and support I intended to communicate to my niece.
Sometimes my eyes even filled with tears as I wrote.
If you know what a ‘Flaubertian’ writer I am, how much I bleed to get a single word onto the page that I am even provisionally satisfied with, you can imagine what an experience it is to write a book that is a ‘spontaneous performance’, where the words I ultimately committed myself to as the words I intended to say for all time to my niece about the Coronavirus, about the rôle of technology in human development, about the future of her generation, were as ‘humanly imperfect’ as only the words of a handwritten letter can be.
If you’re intrigued to know what I had to say to my niece, I give you a sample of the first few pages in the video above.
And it’s not simply the fact that the ‘spontaneity’ of a handwritten letter gives the book a sense of the ‘humanly imperfect’;—it’s in the fact of writing the text by hand itself.
It’s hard to remember, at our technological remove, that for most of human history, most writers have actually written—by hand. No typewriters, and certainly no computers. Truman Capote’s disparaging remark of Jack Kerouac—‘That’s not writing; that’s just typing’—could, regrettably, be applied to most so-called ‘writers’ of the 20th and 21st centuries.
This isn’t merely an élitist distinction. There’s a qualitatively different experience to writing a complex work by hand. The genius-level cognitive co-ordination of hand, eye and brain that James Joyce and Marcel Proust enjoyed would not have produced the greatest novels of the 20th century if these gents had been trained to peck out their thoughts—even at the touch-typist level of virtuosity—rather than guide a fountain pen fluidly across a page.
Moreover, I don’t think it’s coincidental that James Ellroy, who I regard as the greatest living writer, works a mano, has never used a computer, and reportedly doesn’t own a mobile phone. This is a man who eschews distraction and espouses deep focus. The density of his plotting and the inventiveness of his language are testaments to the profound cognitive relationship between writing by hand and the capacity to compass complexity through the abstract symbology of written language.
And though I often get compliments on my handwriting, when I look in awe at the handsome copperplate of some 18th- and 19th-century writers, so perfect-seeming and consistent as to appear to be machine-etched, I feel like the Queensland Modern Cursive of the words I have committed to the page for all time in this book are less ‘elegant’ than I should have liked my niece to read.
But, en revanche, writing a book where the final printed text will be ‘by my own hand’—in the most literal sense—gave me a feeling of reconnecting to the ancient art of my profession—dating back to those scribes whose elegant calligraphy has communicated such ancient books as Genji Monogatari down through ten centuries to us.
We’re too acclimatized to the profound revolution in writing which Gutenberg’s invention of movable type opened up for us nearly 600 years ago. We don’t remember that most books—the Bible or Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry—were handwritten, illuminated manuscripts. Our over-familiarity with type and font, the uniformity of letters and ‘standardization’ of print, has fundamentally changed the nature of what we mean, in the 21st century, by the word ‘writing’, forgetting that machine-printed words are not, as Truman Capote observed, writing at all (in the sense of creative human agency), but typing.
And so, although my handwriting in this book is less than consistent from first page to last, the letters being less ‘uniform’ and ‘standard’ than we are used to expect in a book made since Gutenberg’s time, I quite like the notion of having written a book for my niece which I hope will have the feel of an illuminated manuscript, like an ancient spiritual text, something that connects her, in this hour of crisis for humanity, with all the crises the generations of humanity have endured before her.
For it’s equally hard to remember, let alone imagine, in the 21st century, that most human beings have not known how to read or to write. The profession of ‘scribe’ has always been a noble one—at least until the failed experiment of universal education depreciated it.
If any subtle message might be shaken out of the long articles I wrote on the Coronavirus during lockdown, perhaps it is the conviction that, in the most educated era that humanity has never known, this unnecessary débâcle could—and should—have been avoided. That it wasn’t can be laid squarely at the feet of universal education, which has manifestly failed to realize its promise of making each successive generation more intelligent and engaged with the world than the last.
When you master written language, your capacity to verbally reason, to accurately perceive and interpret the pattern within chaotic events, is increased. If you can write, if you can corral your thoughts in words, you become profoundly dangerous.
Is it any wonder that writers are always the first folks to be housed in the hoosegow when some authoritarian jefe comes to power?
It’s for this reason that the art of the scribe was kept out of the paws of the plebs for so many centuries. To write—to really write—is to think, and I look with disgust—for my niece’s sake—upon a world where people are increasingly put through sixteen to twenty years of formal education and yet are still peasants in their thinking, giving no more evidence of being able to marshal and master their thoughts in a coherent, complex, logical argument than our magickal-thinking forebears.
As I say to my niece in the book, we are no more ‘advanced’ than our earliest ancestors. It is simply that we are habituated to more complicated conditions of life.
The lockdown was a period when it was easy—too easy—for people to succumb to boredom and ennui, to indulge digitally in the lassitude and laziness which is the Shadow of our speed-mad species. Prey to ‘the vultures of the mind’, undistracted by our manifold distractions, and oppressed by the very leisure that we clamour for, most people probably tried to drown themselves all the more in the delusive fakery and shallow abyss of screens during their ‘holiday from life’.
But—thank God—I am a writer, which means I was not wigged out at being locked in a hotel room with only my thoughts for company for two months. Like William Blake, through my self-isolation I had mental health and mental wealth to sustain me. Instead of seeking distraction, I was able to pour out the very resources of thought as ink onto paper.
Most writers, I realized as I stood at my window, looking, it seemed, at an invisible tempest swirling through the streets of Melbourne, have lived in times of profound chaos and unrest. The privilege of education, the noble calling of their profession, enjoins upon them the moral responsibility to be ‘a witness to chaos’.
Whether natural disasters have disrupted the times they live in, or whether their societies have undergone enormous upheavals due to war or political division, the writer is the ‘journalist’, the faithful witness and reporter on ‘what life was like’ at these moments of history.
If you can write, by which I mean, if you can really think; if you have mastered, through the long apprenticeship of education, the abstract symbology of written language to the point where you can make dexterous calculations in the algebra of verbal reasoning, you cannot stand idly by at these moments, but the capacity to think, to reason, to explore ideas through language, and ultimately to shed some clarity on chaos by writing down the formula, the pattern of order you perceive in the disorder swirling all around you, is a moral mission arising from the competency of your professional cognitive skills.
As I stood at the window of my cell, I felt connected, in some spiritual way, with some of the great writers of history whose lives have passed in the midst of chaos. Somehow their handwritten words have survived earthquakes, wars and plagues to guide humanity because some clarity in their delicate perceptions was worth preserving, despite the rending chaos which could easily have torn their words in shreds and scattered them to the winds.
Particularly, I felt a connection to that writer who is one of the most astute calculators of chaos in human affairs, il gran’ signor Machiavelli. Many a time I stood at my window in those two months, blind, like Mr. Kurtz, to what I was looking at as I meditated on the horror of our time and the fears I have for my little niece’s future, and I felt like the divine, diabolical Niccolò avidly surveying the carnage of Florence as it continually changed hands.
He, I knew, would have loved to have been alive in this moment of global upheaval and naked power grabs.
This is not a situation I would wish on my niece. But just as I feel privileged to have lived through such a crisis myself, I also think it’s a good thing for her to have experienced a world-historical event like a global pandemic so early in her life, and I hope the words I am going to give to her shortly will equally stand as an experiential guide for her going forward, something that will help to orient her as this event has done.
I am now at the design and layout stage, so the book will shortly be available for sale in the Dean Kyte Bookstore. If you would like to register your interest in purchasing a copy when it becomes available, you can do so by dropping me a line via the Contact form, and I’ll be sure to get in touch with you as soon as it is ready for release.
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.
It’s a bit cheeky, but in today’s post, I’m sharing with you the same video I posted on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog last week. The same, that is, but different.
I just got back some Super 8 footage I shot in Bendigo from the folks at nano lab, Australia’s small gauge film specialists. At the time I wanted to get the video above online, the reel of Kodak Tri-X was at their lab in Daylesford undergoing ‘magic’.
So I sneakily put some ‘placeholder’ shots into the intro and outro which I hoped I would be able to later replace with some Super 8 footage—if it was any good.
Tri-X, as Kodak’s signature black-and-white film stock, is very difficult to wrangle. You can get some absolutely magical shots with Tri-X, but it doesn’t peer into the shadows very well, so you have to be either very good or very lucky—or both—to get consistently good results from it.
I’m not that good. In Bendigo, I was experimenting with the manual exposure settings on my trusty Minolta XL 401 Super 8 movie camera, so much of what was on the reel came back overexposed.
But when I dragged the gamma way down on the footage, I got some lovely shots of the Venus Pudica in Rosalind Park and the Alexandra Fountain—the more so, I think, for their being so grainy. Brief as they are, I think they add a nice bit of contrast to the digital footage in the video, and I’d love to hear your reactions.
People are always a bit nonplussed when they discover I’m so hipped on Super 8. As I was finishing up the shot of the Talking Tram trundling into Pall mall, a guy came up to me and asked me why I was shooting on film—as if I was breaking some bourgeois law of conformity.
‘Most people are using digital,’ Constable Plod of the Conformity Police complained as he signed my citation.
Shooting on Super 8 is indeed an expensive hobby, but there’s a qualitative æsthetic difference to Super 8 which sends me.
In my previous post, I stated that flânerie is an ‘altered state’: the invisible poetry which hovers behind objects in the urban environment is made visible through the flâneur’s ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens,’ as M. Rimbaud puts it.
And in my recent post on flânography, I argued that this artform I had coined was the ‘poetry of photography’. I declined in that post to set forth my thoughts on the relative merits of analogue and digital photography vis-à-vis flânography, but a discussion of Super 8 seems like a good place to examine that distinction.
For me, the medium of film—and particularly Super 8—goes much further than digital photography and videography can in manifesting that ‘invisible poetry of the visible’ I talked about in the earlier posts. The chemistry of film grain does something magical that pixels cannot do in making that elemental molecular and atomic substrate vibratingly visible.
You can see that most pointedly in the overexposed shots I inserted into the video, where raking down the gamma reveals the Venus Pudica and the statues of the Alexandra Fountain as hardly anything more than dense constellations of buzzing black and grey atoms on a white field.
For me at least, the ‘murkiness’ of film is more like how I actually see and experience the world—a kind of ‘darkness at noon’.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got 20/20 vision the same as you. But those of you who have read Dean Kyte’s books will know that they’re a bit of a ‘trip’: even the most banal and quotidian experience erupts for yours truly (c’est moi in the snappy chapeau) in recursive dimensions of abstract meaning, and much more than digital videography, Super 8 has the ‘look’ of my life—the flâneurial experience of groping mole-like through the dazzling, sun-bright darkness of the blindingly obvious.
There’s a high-resolution quality to the experience of flânerie which the low-resolution quality of Super 8 paradoxically matches in a Baudelairean correspondance.
If you compare the video footage to the Super 8, I don’t think we will be in too much disagreement when I say that the digital footage looks more ‘like’ the things depicted in Bendigo than the film footage, the same way a realist painting of a person, tree or building looks more ‘like’ the subject than an impressionist version of same.
But when I got my Super 8 footage back from nano lab, the black-and-white flâneurial footage looked more like how I remembered Bendigo to look from the distance of a week and a few hundred kilometres. There is not that dead, flat ‘factuality’ which raw digital footage has, but a reconstitutive ‘being’ in film footage—as though it’s happening all over again, but for the first time.
As a medium, Super 8 has a look more like our memories—fuzzy, fragile, juddery and inexpertly framed. And shot on Tri-X, even cars and people look different when rendered through the rheumy eyes of Super 8: a scene as modern for me as two weeks ago now looks like it took place in a distant past.
In the altered state of flânerie, you are aware of the density of things, but also of their porous transience, and somehow the fragility of Super 8 captures the ‘eternality of the ephemeral’. You can see the grand buildings of Bendigo’s Charing Cross passing behind the Talking Tram in the footage: these magnificent buildings have lasted for over a century, but they too will eventually fall into dust.
As Céline (Julie Delpy) says to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise (1995) as they regard a poster for a Seurat exhibition: ‘I love the way the people seem to be dissolving into the background. … It’s like the environments, you know, are stronger than the people. His human figures are always so – transitory.’
I feel the same way when I look at the shots I took of the Venus Pudica: the tenacious endurance of inertia in marble sculpture—and also its fragility—are equally manifest when you see the outlines of this goddess fading in and out with the buzzing, porous granularity of changing sunlight registered so subtly and yet so roughly and approximately on Super 8 film.
Last year I asked and answered the question, ‘Are there flâneur films?’, and my conclusion was that the flâneur in film is more a quality of certain films themselves—something in the way they are shot and edited—than a human character or presence within them—prototypical flâneur movies like Before Sunrise to the contrary.
Despite the expense of shooting on film, Super 8 seems to me to be the perfect medium to produce such a ‘flâneur cinema’ or ‘cinema of flânerie’ precisely because the medium itself is attuned to this more impressionistic way of seeing the world, and because the camera itself is lightweight, discreet and versatile—ideal for a dandy engaged in curious æsthetic espionage.
As Jeff Clarke, the CEO of Kodak, has rightly observed, we—human beings—are analogue too; we’re not digital.
Our bodies and the world we live in are not made up of pixels. We’re not reducible to passels of ‘data’. It’s meet that we should see the world with the same messy, organic frame as Super 8.
And it’s the handcrafted, artisanal experience of working with film, working with something as real and tangible and fragile as myself, that really sends me when it comes to shooting on Super 8.
I feel a sense of vital involvement, my total being is engaged when I work with film. It’s the rapport of one physical, analogue being working with another. And this vital engagement of energies between real, living things is one of the qualitative æsthetic differences of working with film.
If I could have said one thing to Constable Plod which explained why I was using film instead of digital to capture the shot of the Talking Tram, it would have been that. As a ‘film maker’, I felt like I was actually ‘making’ something which required art, craft and skill to accomplish.
There’s no particular ‘skill’ required in digital photography or videography, but using film demands the development of skill—particularly the skill of patience, which is hardly required in our HD, ADD world where you can carelessly click a pic with your phone.
I had to wait twenty minutes at the corner of Pall mall and Mitchell street to ultimately get the shot of the Talking Tram passing through Charing Cross. I had my camera set up on my dinky tripod, my settings checked, double-checked, and triple-checked. I had tested the tension of the pan lever several times and the position of the spirit level. I had all my senses on high-alert for the least spectre of a tram shimmering in the furthest distance of that broilingly hot day—all so I would have enough time to get set for it when it passed into frame.
And one of the upsides of working with film is that I think my videography has benefited enormously from the development of the skills demanded by film. I’m much more deliberative in my framing and composition when I set up digital camera, and much more attentive to the qualities of light.
It’s over to you, chers lecteurs. What do you think?
Do you agree with ‘us analogue purists’ that film is far superior to digital in every æsthetic respect, or would you rush to the fray to defend ‘the way of the future’ against the infidel Luddites?
Are you interested in getting into film? Were you once into film and ‘went digital’—and would you like to go back?
I look forward to having a lively discussion with you in the comments below.
And if you would like to look at all the raw footage I shot on Super 8 in Bendigo (including some alternate takes which didn’t make the cut in the video above), I’ve posted that below. Nothing fancy, no music or sound effects, just the facts, ma’am.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I take a flânerie around Bendigo, pausing only in my perambulations to breathe some poetic airs upon your ears in beautiful Rosalind Park.
The good burghers of Bendigo named their green space after the heroine of As You Like It, but as you can see in the video, there is something otherworldly about this ‘emerald isle’ in the midst of the city, such that it reminds one of the enchanted island of The Tempest.
There’s always an erotic edge to my writing, and like a pendulum, I oscillate between the sublimely romantic and the frankly pornographic, so it should come as little surprise that I am such an admirer of Baudelaire, or that I have translated so many of his love poems.
Though I had some slight acquaintance with M. Baudelaire beforehand, it was as a flâneur in Paris—the city of flânerie, the city of Baudelaire—that I really got to know the divine, diabolical M’sieu.
As I perfected the art of wandering the streets of Paris, the Latinate rap of Baudelaire’s high-flown rendering of low-brow subjects was a constant cicerone in my ear, directing me towards the tawdry tableaux which Paris flashes like her undergarments at the voyaging connoisseur of voyeurship.
‘Parisian life is abundant in poetic and marvellous subjects,’ Baudelaire observed. ‘The marvellous envelopes us and suckles us like air, but we cannot see it.’
Certainly I feel the same way when I set up my camera to capture those little vignettes of Bendigo, shots of rien de tout, which bracket the video above. Statues, street art, architectural details, empty vistas:—Bendigo (which bores the Bendigoans) is fecund in that surreal quality of the marvellous, the poetry which hovers behind the banality of things much-seen.
Baudelaire’s ambition was to make the Parisian see this invisible air in which he ambulated, to turn the exquisite flâneur experience of the ephemeral into a flâneur poem. In the same way, if there is any ‘poetry’ in the shots of nothing I insist on boring you with in my videos, it is the poetry of the ‘boring’ urban life which Baudelaire, lover of novelty and ennui, both wanted to escape from and escape more fully to.
Flânerie is an ‘altered state’ which reveals the invisible poetry of the visible city. Baudelaire, as the père of flâneur philosophy, was an inveterate chasseur after artificially-induced altered states which liberated the surreal poetry that is the resident spirit of the banal.
He praised the state of drunkenness as the essence of the poetic experience, and wrote a scholarly treatise on the poetic effects produced by hashish. And of course, Baudelaire was an amateur of that other intoxicating, protean substance which produces a poetic effect on men: la femme.
As a flâneur, he was a Daygamer avant la lettre, as may be witnessed by his ode to an anonymous passer-by. It’s one of Baudelaire’s most delicate and evanescent love poems, ineffably romantic and yet unmarred by any effeminate sentimentality whatsoever.
In a handful of lines, Baudelaire perfectly conveys that ephemeral experience which all men of the city know:—the lightning-flash moment when you see a woman you desperately want to approach surge forward from out of the crowd; the single second in which you clearly see a whole parallel existence with her; and the second afterwards when, jostled on by the crowd, you decline to embrace the destiny with her which you so clearly previsioned:
A bright light… then the night! Fugitive beauty
In whose glance I have been suddenly reborn,
Will I never see you again in all eternity?
Elsewhere, very far from here! too late! perhaps even never!
For I know not where you fly, and you know not where I go,
O you who I might have loved, O you who knew it!
Translating Baudelaire is not easy. As Alan Ginsberg remarked, if you can’t read him in the original, you have to take the aggregate of all the translations in English to get a sense of what he is saying.
It’s not that Baudelaire’s French is particularly difficult, although he does some vexing things with tense that English is not supple enough to elegantly convey. It’s rather that the images he manages to paint by combining a lofty, distant tone with the startling incorporation of things deemed ‘unpoetic’ produces a remarkably lucid effect with remarkable compression.
As with Shakespeare, there’s quite an unusual ‘range’ in Baudelaire’s language. He’s equally at ease with the most recherché classical allusions as he is with the slangy argot of the Parisian gutter, and he demands not only a requisite range from his English translator but a sense of how to convey in modern English the quality of ‘shock’—and even of ‘offence’—produced by this admixture of tone.
Few translators who have ‘tried their hand’ at Baudelaire have a good sense of him, methinks, for with the grotesquerie of his subject matter, it is too easy to make a schlocky parody of Baudelaire in English.
One requires an exquisite sensibility for the sublime horror (or horrific sublimity) of everyday life to approach Baudelaire on his own terms of unquiet desperation with normal, bourgeois existence. In fine, one requires an ample dose of that quality which he himself defined (finding no better word for it in French) as good old-fashioned English ‘spleen’.
In Flowers Red and Black, the poem which most conveys this choking, stifling sense of sublime horror (or horrific sublimity) is “The Jewels”, my translation of “Les Bijoux”.
It’s the most sensual, erotic poem in the collection, and the one I am always asked to read at poetry gatherings because it’s almost like a short story: in the space of a few minutes, people feel as though they have been completely transported into the small, stuffy chamber, lit only by firelight, in which Baudelaire and his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, are engaged in foreplay.
The heady incense of the smoke, the play of weird lights rising from the fire, the music of Jeanne’s ‘chiming jewels’, and the way she undergoes a metamorphosis before the bard’s eyes, changing into a tiger, swan, slutty angel and classical catamite by turns, always gives people the hallucinatory sense, sans drugs, of the ‘altered state’ which Baudelaire experienced in sexual love.
And yet, because the banality of this everyday scene takes on a heightened potency and is attenuated to such an exquisite degree, there is a stifling, almost suffocating sense of sublimity into which an erotic horror enters, like the almost painful pleasure of the ‘petite mort’.
As romantic as his love poems are, there is nothing wilting and effeminate about Baudelaire, which is perhaps why women like this book. His voice is forceful and potent, and it seems to combine well with my own style as a writer, such that we make some ‘beautiful music’ together.
I’m thinking of publishing a second edition of Flowers Red and Black, revised and expanded, even including some of Baudelaire’s prose poems. But that project is some way in the future.
In the meantime, I have a very limited stock of the first edition on hand—about a vingtaine. It makes an original St. Valentine’s Day cadeau, and the dames do grok it. As I say in the video, I’ve been reliably informed (regrettably post facto) that ladies have regaled one another with my verses in bed.
I’ve also had a friend rip off my translation of “Les Bijoux” and try to pass it off as his own poem to placate a squeeze who wasn’t in the mood to be squeezed. (She saw through his play at once, which only served to further inspire her ire.)
This allows me to get in touch with you to arrange payment and delivery details. It also enables me to get some particulars from you so that I can write a thoughtful, personalised message on your behalf to the lucky person you want to give the book to.
Plus, I will flourish the magic wand of my Montblanc Noblesse over the flyleaf and affix my personal seal in wax to it, so your first edition will be doubly exclusive.
One of the icons that Melbourne is known for is “The Skipping Girl”, Australia’s first animated neon sign, which formerly advertised the Skipping Girl Vinegar brand.
From the Art Deco rooftop of a converted factory in Victoria street, Abbotsford, she jumps rope over 16,000 times per night, and one of the most romantic things to do in Melbourne at night is to take the route 12 or 109 trams to Victoria Gardens and watch this 84-year-old icon repeat her nightly performance.
An icon is an image, a symbol which substitutes for an absent other whose spirit is supposed to reside in the icon, animating it, and receiving the adoration which would otherwise go directly to the sacred personage, if they were present.
It’s interesting, therefore, to reflect that the Skipping Girl, who was once the icon associated with a brand of vinegar which is no longer manufactured, has become the genius loci of Melbourne. But when I took the ‘flânograph’ above with my vintage Pentax K1000, she did not represent for me so much a symbol of ‘old Melbourne’ which had disappeared, but someone who had disappeared, an absent other I will always associate with the Skipping Girl.
As I explain in the video below, the first time I encountered the Skipping Girl, I was stepping off the 109 tram with a Dutch girl I had picked up eight hours earlier. We were about to go upstairs to her apartment, across the road in Richmond, and make love.
When I saw that neon icon beating time against the night, it was like seeing an X on a treasure map: this icon of Melbourne would always be, for me, a perpetual monument to a personal conquest, marking the spot of my greatest victory in Daygame.
In his essay “The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape” (1982), documentary filmmaker Patrick Keiller describes the flâneur as a literary motif signifying two types of experience. Following Schiller’s distinction between the naïve and sentimental poet, I think we can summarize Keiller’s two types of flâneur as likewise being ‘naïve’ and ‘sentimental’.
The ‘naïve flâneur’ is more like the classical, nineteenth-century dandy conceived by Baudelaire. As Keiller says, he ‘takes the city as his salon’. He’s a romantic adventurer—a Daygamer, in essence—whose ‘chance encounters are largely with people’ rather than with those architectural citizens of a city, buildings and monuments. Whatever dreamlike quality there is in the encounter between this flâneur and the city derives from ‘his surrender to the randomness of urban life.’
The ‘sentimental flâneur’, en revanche, is a solitary dériveur who drifts through the city as though it were a petrified dream, experiencing the ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ which renders the banal street marvellous. As Keiller says, this flâneur ‘may meet others, he may fall passionately in love, but this is not his motive, it merely enhances his experience by enabling it to be shared.’
As a Melbourne flâneur, I have always felt like a synthesis of these two figures, but tending more towards the latter. I can ‘do’ Daygame, I can take adventitious advantage of the randomness of urban life to seize a romantic encounter; but, being a genuine introvert, I am more constitutionally inclined towards solitary drifting through the externalized ‘Forms’ of my thought which streets, parks, statues, monuments and buildings seem to symbolize for me.
Keiller cites Surrealist poet Louis Aragon, who, in Le paysan de Paris (1926), describes this paradoxical sensation of seeming to experience the platonic forms of things embodied in the constitutive elements of the city.
‘The way I saw it,’ Aragon writes, ‘an object became transfigured: it took on neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol, it did not so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea. Thus it extended deeply into the world’s mass…’
For Aragon, this sensation was a presentiment of ‘a feeling for nature’, but it would be more specific to say that it was a feeling for the ambiguity of urban nature.
‘I acquired the habit of constantly referring the whole matter to the judgement of a kind of frisson which guaranteed the soundness of this tricky operation,’ Aragon writes.
This ‘frisson’, as Keiller observes, is not dissimilar from that feeling of ‘rightness’ a photographer intuitively senses immediately before he presses the shutter release button. This sensation is the moment when a swatch of street cuts itself out of the banal tableau of urban nature and quadrates itself in the abstract frame of a mental viewfinder as an ‘image’, as something marvellously photogenic.
The sentimental flâneur, Keiller contends, carries a camera to record these marvellous transfigurations. But, sentimental soul that I am, when I went back to photograph the Skipping Girl, nearly a year after my conquest of the Dutch girl, I was not photographing the Skipping Girl and her miraculous transformation of the night.
I was attempting to photograph the absence of the Dutch girl, for whom she was an icon.
In his book with Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography (1982), John Berger writes that ‘[b]etween the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss.’ It is an abyss of absence, of ambiguity, which carries with it ‘a shock of discontinuity’.
‘The ambiguity of a photograph does not reside within the instant of the event photographed,’ Berger writes. ‘The ambiguity arises out of that discontinuity which gives rise to … [t]he abyss between the moment recorded and the moment of looking.’
In my ‘flânograph’ of the Skipping Girl, that abyss was doubled:—for there would be an abyss between the moment of looking at the developed photograph and the moment I was now recording, just as there was, for me, an abyss between the moment I was recording and the moment the photograph was intended to record, some ten months earlier.
As a writer, I have long played with the idle idea (impossible to realize) of writing a book completely without words. The flânograph of the Skipping Girl was one of a series of photographs I took with my battered Pentax for a ‘picture book’ I intended to compose for my little niece, a wordless collection of black and white images of things and places I had encountered in my flâneries, and which, in their silent ambiguity, might give a child an ineffable, inenarrable sense of the life of an uncle she had never met.
Was there an enduring, impalpable resonance of the unseen, unknown and unknowable event sensible, apprehensible by the viewer of the photograph of the Skipping Girl, démeublé of its ostensible subject, the Dutch girl? Could the feeling—menacing; enigmatic; melancholy—of this particular square of urban nature—what we might call ‘the Spleen of Melbourne’—‘speak for itself’, eloquently and without words?
These were the questions I wanted answers to. And like Eugène Atget, of whom Walter Benjamin said that he photographed the empty streets of Paris as though they were ‘scenes of crime’, I went back and photographed the scenes of my Melburnian conquests—the Skipping Girl, a sodden Windsor place, a certain tree in the Carlton Gardens—now eerily empty of myself and the lovers of a moment who had left mortal wounds in my heart.
This feeling for the menacing, enigmatic, melancholy ambiguity of urban nature which precedes the click of the shutter; this ineffable, inenarrable frisson is what I call ‘flânography’, and it’s something other than photography—something more than merely ‘writing with light’.
It’s a sensitivity to the absent, the invisible, the unspeakable. It’s the poetic cry of the silent image which establishes historical evidence of the ‘baffling crime’ which is the personal ‘situation of our time’, and which the asphalt jungle gives colour and cover to.
If there is a ‘noirishness’ in the flânograph of the Skipping Girl, it is because, when I look back on my brief encounter with the Dutch girl over that abyss of ambiguity which it records, I feel (as I do after all my amours) like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’ at the hands of a femme fatale.
Like a consummate con artist who gets his pocket picked, I gamed her and ended up getting gamed by her.
When writing with light starts to become ‘poetic’ instead of merely prosaic; when the weak intentionality that a photographer possesses to express himself through a box is leveraged to the maximum, such that the urban landscape is transfigured and transformed into an image that is personally expressionistic, then photography starts to become ‘flânography’.