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’.
If you are a photographer and would like to explore how I can provide you with bespoke assistance in sensitively curating your work into an artisanal-quality book through provision of my Artisanal Desktop Publishing service, I invite you to download this brochure, or to contact me directly.
Vitus Bacchausen wishes that somebody would make a movie about the flâneur, but admits, for prescient reasons, that such a film would be impossible to make within the constraints of commercial cinema.
Why, Bacchausen wonders, have there been no ‘flâneur movies’?
There are two answers to this question. Firstly, one may adduce a not insubstantial list of characters in film who might be described as flâneurs.
The first, and most obvious, candidate is Scottie Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), who, when quizzed, gives his profession as ‘wandering’. But you can also reel off putative examples like the wandering protagonists of Antonioni’s films, such as Lidia in La Notte (1961), Vittoria in L’Eclisse (1962), and the photographer of Blowup (1966).
You could point to Jesse and Céline in Before Sunrise (1995), or the eponymous heroine of Amélie (2001). Petra Nolan of the University of Melbourne even makes a plausible case, in her PhD thesis, for Walter Neff, the vagabond insurance salesman of Double Indemnity (1944), as ‘the cinematic flâneur’ par excellence.
The key word is ‘plausible’.
All the examples adduced above are plausible, and a convincing prima facie case could be made for any of them as cinematic flâneurs, one which would appear to refute Bacchausen’s contention that the figure of the flâneur has not really found his place in cinema.
But my second answer to Bacchausen’s question refutes the one I’ve just given.
I would say that if you look more carefully at any of the films cited above, you must come to the conclusion that they feature characters who partake in flânerie, but that these characters are not themselves flâneurs pur-sang.
In an earlier post, I gave a fairly strict definition of what is a flâneur. I offered three traits which I regard as non-negotiable characteristics in any definition.
Firstly, the flâneur is a pedestrian. He walks, not occasionally, but as his primary and preferred mode of transport.
Secondly, he is an acute observer of the world that files past him as he walks, and as Bacchausen notices, there is, in the sport of observation, a distinctly æsthetic end to the chase. The flâneur is a hunter who chases after beauty.
Thirdly, there is a pronounced element of the dandy in the character of the flâneur. Charity begins at home: unless he firstly recognizes himself to be a worthy æsthetic object of attention, it is highly unlikely that a man who is not assiduously attentive to the details of his own deportment is going to exhibit the level of unusual acuity of attention toward the æsthetic details of the external world which I ascribe to the flâneur.
A man may walk shabbily abroad looking longingly after beauty, but that man is not a flâneur. He is the Average Frustrated Chump you see shambling down Swanston street.
Given the definition above, it’s hard to see how the characters adduced in the first answer are flâneurs, though it can certainly be conceded that they partake in the activity of flânerie in a more or less dilettantish way.
Jep Gambardella, the Roman giornalista of La grande bellezza (2013), is the only character in film I can think of who satisfies my three-point definition as a ‘cinematic flâneur pur-sang’.
So the question remains: Are there flâneur films?
The answer is yes, but it is the character of the films themselves, rather than any characters they contain, which may be regarded as ‘flâneuristic’.
At the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, Slavoj Žižek made some intriguing remarks vis-à-vis. Hitchcock; to wit—how Hitchcock’s films have an uncanny quality, at certain moments, of appearing to ‘think for themselves’.
In Psycho (1960), for instance, there are two extraordinary moments, one immediately after the shower scene and the other immediately before the second murder. In both cases, the camera detaches itself from the point of view of the character it has locked onto and acts ‘queerly’, as though it had an intelligence and agency of its own, moving through space and looking at things quite pointedly, as though it were mutely trying to tell us something, the way our unconscious appeals to us through images.
Žižek calls this ‘thinking through film’, and it’s a highly rarefied cognitive process which seems to emerge from the apparatus of cinema itself—something like Baudelaire’s sensation that the image of sky and sea, and a little yacht trembling on the horizon, seemed to be thinking through him—‘musicalement et pittoresquement, sans arguties, sans syllogismes, sans déductions’ (‘musically and pictorially, without quibbles, without syllogisms, without deductions’).
Meditating on Žižek’s remarks, I began to ask myself what a cinema of flânerie might look like.
In fact, flâneur films are the oldest kind. They have their roots in the actualité, the single, locked-off shot, without pan or cut, of the miracle which a moment of everyday life becomes when you train a camera at it for so long that it transcends its boring banality—like the shot of a sunset unfolding behind the Melbourne CBD which I’ve included at the head of today’s post.
The camera’s ability to gaze fixedly at a detached detail is like, and yet unlike, the flâneur’s acuity of observation, for our eyes do not ‘frame’ things. When a shot is composed and unblinkingly held for minutes on end, and when, as in the video above, it is implied that this perspective is closely aligned but not identical with the point of view of an observer we cannot see, there is the uncanny sense that the camera itself has ‘intelligence’.
A film becomes ‘flâneurial’ when a moment of documentary actuality enters into it and is sustained well beyond what the average viewer would regard as a reasonable length of time.
To my mind, Ozu is the master of this kind of flâneurial cinema. His ‘pillow shots’ are moments of ventilation in a film where architectural features and irrelevant details are held for longer than they would ordinarily be. Ozu’s stubborn refusal to pan or dolly, to allow his camera to ‘look away’, imbues it with a sense of wilful, alien intelligence.
The other attribute of flâneurial cinema is the offshoot of the actualité, the ‘phantom ride’. This is when the camera is placed on a train, tram or car, and, without moving itself, appears to float or glide like a ghost, registering the succession of actual events which pass it by.
The classic phantom ride, the masterpiece of the form, is the famous “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906). Strapped to the front of a cable car, the camera floats towards the Ferry Building for 13 minutes, registering the life of the street with that alien fixity of attention we see in Ozu, never turning its ‘head’ to gaze about itself as a real flâneur would.
The capacity of the camera to move in this gliding, floating fashion, simulating human ambulation but very different from it, is a quality that Antonioni makes good use of in his passeggiate.
In La Notte, the camera, raised at some elevation behind Lidia, appears almost to stalk her as it stealthily tracks her tacking between bollards. In Blowup, in the key scenes set in Maryon Park, the camera is subtly detached from the point of view of the photographer. It pans to sweep the scene in a movement more eerie than a human head-turn because of its mechanical smoothness. Or, in a moment of startling volition, it gazes up at the branches of a tree in what we realize only afterwards was its own ‘point of view shot’.
This uncanny sense of the film possessing its own intelligence and agency, principally through the camera, but also through cutting and the rest of the constitutive apparatus which compose a film, is, I think, what Žižek means when he talks about ‘thinking through film’.
‘To understand the film,’ he says, ‘you should include into its content the message delivered by the autonomy of form. It’s at that level that true thinking in cinema happens.’
When a film has the volition to move—or not move—through the world as it wishes, and to study with its own fixity of attention those details of actuality which arrest it in its passage, the character of the film itself becomes ‘flâneurial’.
What do you think?
Are there characters in movies you would actually define as flâneurs, or, like Bachhausen and myself, are you at a loss to think of any who really meet the measure?
Is it possible for films to ‘think for themselves’, as I’m suggesting?
I’m interested to hear your comments below.
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As he demonstrates in this prose poem based on the ‘flânograph’ above, Dean Kyte doesn’t just see the world differently, he hears it differently too. And the poetic way in which he describes his personal experiences is idiosyncratic to say the least.
For the Melbourne Flâneur, even moments of banality, loitering in Melbourne at night, waiting for the perfect shot, are freighted with epiphanic mystery…
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Enjoy the augmented experience of this ‘amplified flânograph’. To connect with Dean and experience his bespoke approach to your editing needs, drop him a line via the Contact form.
A short story in which I speculate on the fate of a character I wrote about as a much younger man—and who continues to haunt me still.
In this prose poem, Dean Kyte meditates on one of Melbourne’s most alluring paradoxes…
You can purchase the audio track on Bandcamp by clicking the link below: