Dean Kyte reminisces about an encounter with Andy Warhol’s monumental painting Telephone [4] (1962).

I remember seeing the monumental black gallows of Andy Warhol’s Telephone many years ago. Like Louis Aragon, for whom the objects of modernity were transfigured by a kind of æsthetic frisson, Warhol seemed to have painted the platonic ‘Form’ of the telephone: the black Mercury who calls for us in the dead of night, the psychopomp bringing only bad news, upon whose line we hang, breathless.

As Aragon observed, what brings out the ominous symbolic shadowface cast by this homely object is cinematographic découpage and cadrage: ‘To endow with a poetic quality something which does not yet possess it, to wilfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify its expression: these are the two properties which make décor the appropriate frame for modern beauty.’

—Dean Kyte, “Black Mercury”

About twelve years ago, when I was writing film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art hosted a major retrospective of Andy Warhol’s art. It was quite a coup for GoMA, which in those days was still fresh and shiny: it had only opened its doors a year before.

I scribbled a feature article on the exhibition for one of the magazines I was writing for, focusing on the connection between Warhol’s art and the art of cinema. For the most part, I was underwhelmed by the bewigged one: there was something self-consciously fraudulent about Warhol’s art (the title of the article I was published was “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Fraud”), but one painting stood out for me.

Telephone [4] (1962) is a monumental floor-to-ceiling canvas, as hieratic in its overwhelming authority as an altarpiece. Painted in stark monochrome, this enormous gallows handset caught in its shaft of light and stretching over one’s head as ominously as an actual gallows revealed a rare degree of sustained patience on the part of Warhol in his finely observed rendering of it.

It’s perhaps an unremarkable painting, except for its size, but as I state in the video essay above, in cutting this homely instrument out of the cadre of everyday life and magnifying it in extraordinary close-up, Warhol seemed to me to paint the platonic ‘Form’ of what a telephone is:—an ominous messenger on whose line hangs life and death.

That painted close-up reminded me of a shot early on in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). It comprises the third scene, in fact, just six minutes into the picture: a close-up of a black gallows handset, vaguely limned by moonlight, while white net curtains billow behind it.

The phone’s ringing rather urgently on the nightstand in the apartment of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). There’s a few other objects grouped in a loose still-life around it: an alarm clock crouching rather furtively on a copy of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America; a radio set, stoically silent; a racing rag, its leaves loosely folded; Spade’s pouch of Bull Durham tobacco, its puckered mouth half-open in a toothless sneer; a shallow enamel bowl in which a pipe sleeps, the dark, seductive curve of its bowl like the haunch of a curled-up dog.

A groggy hand reaches out from off-screen and fumbles the ameche off the nightstand. In quite a lengthy sustained shot, elegant in its simplicity, Huston holds on the vacant space left by the absent telephone without racking focus: as you might do when someone takes a phone call in the room with you, the camera continues to stare vacantly into space, its gaze politely out of focus as it pretends to interest itself in the breeze playing idly with the net curtains in the background.

All the while, our lugs are hanging out half a mile rightwards as we strain to make out the muffled voice off-screen informing Sam Spade that his partner’s Christmas has been cancelled.

Permanently, you dig?

One shot, one setup, one scene.

It’s masterful filmmaking—and one ought not to forget that The Maltese Falcon was Huston’s directorial début: right out of the gates, this thoroughbred writer-cum-director demonstrates his capacity to elegantly tell stories through simple yet potent images.

Key to the effectiveness of this scene, I think, are the cast of props who support the peerless Bogart—particularly that memorable black gallows telephone which takes centre stage on the nightstand, ready for its close-up, ready to trill into life as a herald of death.

I remember seeing The Maltese Falcon on the big screen at the South Bank Piazza in Brisbane, and this shot of the telephone, as a kind of cinematic subtext that communicates, sotto voce, the ‘mood’ of the scene it sits at the head of, has an outsize impact when viewed at scale.

The magnification of the close-up, in detaching an everyday object from its circumambient reality, is what brings out this potent symbolic aspect—its platonic ‘Form’ as trumpet, herald, fleet-footed, instantaneous messenger—and it was this that I apprehended so powerfully—as a visceral sensation—in Warhol’s painting.

As I state in the video essay, Surrealist poet Louis Aragon seemed to be the first to notice this subtle interplay of cutting and framing in cinema as the means of making visible the poetic quality that everyday objects invisibly possess, and yet don’t possess at all.

In his article “Du Décor” (1918), Aragon stated (and as I translate it in the video essay): ‘Doter d’une valeur poétique ce qui n’en possédait pas encore, restreindre à volonté le champ objectif pour intensifier l’expression: deux propriétés qui font du DÉCOR le cadre adéquat de la beauté moderne.’

It would take a Surrealist to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary, and that the intense découpage and cadrage of the close-up is the means by which filmmakers can make the invisible, poetic, dream-like quality of ‘le merveilleux’, beloved property of the Surrealists, visible and manifest.

One need only look at a shot like the famous close-up of the key clutched in Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious (1946) to see, for instance, how Hitchcock makes the tiny object at the centre of the scene the overwhelming impetus and motive of the entire expensive party around her, surcharging it with a dream-like freight—a mood of irrational anxiety.

But Aragon’s prescient observation is not without precedent. He seems, in fact, to be re-stating in terms precisely geared towards the nascent visual art-form of the cinema a provocative maxim that Charles Baudelaire had stated, several decades earlier, for painting.

In Le Peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Baudelaire states that beauty is composed to two elements, the general and the particular, the timeless and the timely—or, to put it another way, the ‘classical’ and the ‘modern’.

One gets the sense with M. Baudelaire that he regards the absolute value of ‘Beauty’ to be, in its quintessence, something like a chemical compound that can be ‘extracted’ and ‘distilled’ into its constituent parts.

In his most provocative assertion, M. Baudelaire states that this quality of ‘modern beauty’ must always contain an element of the weird and strange about it—‘Le beau,’ he says in Curiosités ésthétiques (1868), ‘est toujours bizarre.’

That quality of ‘weirdness’ is the ‘novelty’ of modern beauty, a certain seductive repugnance we sample with reluctant, distrustful fascination, only to find, in time, that we have acquired the taste for it, incorporating it into the economy of ‘good taste’ which characterizes classical beauty.

When Aragon says, therefore, that cinematic décor, the set-dressing of mise-en-scène, is ‘the appropriate frame for modern beauty,’ he is, I would argue, enunciating a Surrealist ésthétique du merveilleux which has its roots in Baudelaire’s proto-Surrealist conception of the Beautiful as inherently ‘bizarre’.

Take a flânerie through Taschen’s All-American Ads: 40s and All-American Ads: 50s if you want to see to what extent a cinematically-derived æsthetic of grandiose enlargement and removal from quotidian context magnifies the ordinary commercial objects of modernity and transfigures them, through advertising, as the surreal, dream-like keys to the problems of everyday life.

Once you’ve seen a packet of Old Gold cigarettes dancing, with shapely stems, on a burlesque stage, you have seen how the Surreal went mainstream—or perhaps, how fundamentally surreal the ‘mainstream’ is.

What the French Surrealists (like the Italian Futurists only slightly before them) were trying to communicate in their sense of ‘the marvellous’ behind the ostensible objects of their commodity-lust, was, I think, their inchoate apperception of classical beauty, the eternal and timeless couched behind the bizarrerie of modern objects.

Cars and æroplanes and trains, for instance, are merely visual metaphors which, when cinematically rendered, communicate the poetic impression of the platonic Form of speed, as once, in pre-modern times, the horse did.

Likewise, the telephone, that quintessential object of modernity which has transcended and remade itself to become the quintessential object of post-modernity, potently symbolizes the speed with which news—and particularly bad news—carries, and which once was personified by the ancient figure of Hermes, or Mercury.

We have assimilated the novelty of the uncanny phenomenon which the telephone represents so thoroughly into our modern economies of taste that we cannot readily see this archetypal dimension, the magic of an ancient deity, in the banal faces of our mobile phones.

And yet I’m reminded of a passage in Proust, in Le Côté de Guermantes (1920-1), where the Narrator recounts the surreal experience of telephoning his grandmother in Paris from the garrison town of Doncières. These were days, Marcel tells us, when the telephone was not yet in as common usage as it is today.

And yet habit takes so little time to strip of their mystery the forces with which we are in contact that, not being connected immediately, the only thought I had was that this was taking a very long time, was very inconvenient, and I had almost the intention of making a complaint. Like all of us these days, in my opinion, she was not fast enough in her brusque changes, that admirable fairy for whom but a few moments suffice to make appear beside us, invisible yet present, the being to whom we might wish to speak, and who, remaining at her table, in the city where she lives (for my grandmother, this was Paris), beneath a sky different to ours, in weather that is not necessarily the same, in the midst of circumstances and of preoccupations we are ignorant of, and of which this being is going to tell us, finds herself instantaneously transported hundreds of miles (she and all the surroundings in which she remains immersed) close to our ear, at the moment when our fancy has ordered it. And we are like the character in the tale to whom a genie, acting upon the wish that he expresses, makes his grandmother or his fiancée appear with a supernatural lucidity, in the midst of flicking through a book, of shedding some tears, of gathering some flowers, right beside the spectator and yet very far away, in the same place where she currently is. We have only, in order to accomplish this miracle, to bring our lips close to the magic horn and call—sometimes for a little too long, I admit—the Vigilant Virgins whose voices we hear everyday without ever seeing their faces, and who are our Guardian Angels in the dizzying darkness whose portals they jealously guard; the All-Powerful Ones by whose grace the absent rush to our sides without it being permitted that we should see them: the Danaids of the invisible who ceaselessly empty, refill and pass to one another the urns of sound; the ironical Furies who, at the moment when we are murmuring a confidence to a lady-friend, hoping that no one might overhear, cruelly shrieks at us, ‘I’m listening!’; the servants constantly irritated by the Mystery, the shadowy priestesses of the invisible, the Young Ladies of the Telephone!

—Marcel Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes (translated by Dean Kyte)

Like all of M. Proust’s exquisite observations, that passage reminds us palpably of his awareness of and presence to the ‘livingness of life’ that easy habit and overfamiliarity with our devices (who haunt us like magickal familiars) have made us blind to.

His ‘personification’ of the inanimate device of the telephone as a classical deity—fairy, genie, Vestal Virgin tending the wires, guardian angel, Danaid, Erinye—to be appeased and placated, a tyrannous servant who carries us the news instantaneously, and yet, despite circumnavigating the globe at the speed of sound, is a household god we still regard as much too slow, reveals the poetic quality of this quotidian object which, in Aragon’s words, ‘does not yet possess it.’

The telephone is too ‘new’ to be classically beautiful, but when, whether through M. Proust’s exquisite attentions to it, or through the cinematic poetry of detaching and framing, it is decoupled from its surroundings and regarded as an æsthetic object in itself, it too is as weirdly noble as a classical statue personifying our human foibles and passions.

I watched Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) a couple of nights ago, not having seen it in many, many years. Much like M. Proust’s vision of the telephone as the thread of the classical underworld, there’s a scene late in the picture where the telephone as symbol becomes the wires of the web which connects the criminal underworld of London, drawing inexorably tighter to entrap hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark).

Suddenly the innocuous sound of a telephone bell becomes a harbinger of betrayal as Fabian realizes that the fellow crook hiding him out has already phoned ahead to the gangster who is hunting him.

In a wonderful piece of acting, beautifully abetted by the lighting and décor, Widmark gently takes the receiver from the hand of his host and gently lays it down in the cradle with that beautiful hollow click the old Bakelite handsets make.

It’s a lovely gesture in its economy, conveying by means of acting, lighting and décor—just as in The Maltese Falcon—the potent yet underlying mood of menace which the big black rotary dial phone, similar to one I feature in my video essay, has as an æsthetic object—the telephone as weapon.

You can’t shoot a man with an ameche and you can’t knife him with one. But that sweet trill of the bell can be a death sentence, as it is to Harry Fabian.

You can purchase the soundtrack to my video essay, “Black Mercury”, for $A2.00 by visiting my profile on Bandcamp. Just click the link below.

Today The Melbourne Flâneur comes to you from Sydney!

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.

“The Melbourne Flâneur”: “The Poetics of Noir”, by Dean Kyte
“The Poetics of Noir” (2020)