In this poetic video essay, Dean Kyte explores film scholar Vivian Sobchack’s concept of ‘lounge time’.

‘[Vivian] Sobchack builds on Bakhtin’s salon chronotope to identify the cocktail lounge and/or nightclub as a key film noir setting. What emerges in Sobchack’s analysis is the “lounge time” chronotope, which incorporates such public but anonymous sites as the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the hotel room, the diner, the roadside café, and the motel. In contrast to the respectable domestic spaces of the home, these sites of aimless time and transient space give rise to louche characters and particular sets of, often criminal, activities.’

—Douglas McNaughton, “‘The Great Game’: Grids and Boxes in Cold War Screen Spaces” (2019)

Double Indemnity dramatizes this distancing from and yet reflection upon the nature of ordinary experience…. For anthropologists like [Victor] Turner, the characteristic cultural performance is ritual, in which participants find themselves on the border between “secular living and sacred living,” in a “limbo that was not any place they were before and not any place they would be in”…. Double Indemnity evokes a secular limbo. Walter and Phyllis, to use the term popularized by Turner, find themselves in a liminal social space, defined by its bordering engagement with contradictory social spaces…. Within this paradoxical space, the ordinary forms of everyday living are shown by Walter and Phyllis as what they always already are, that is, performances whose authenticity is by definition in question.’

—R. Barton Palmer, “The Divided Self and the Dark City: Film Noir and Liminality” (2007)

‘You have just met a woman, you are inches away from the greatest sex of your life, but within six weeks of meeting the woman, you will be framed for a crime you did not commit and you will end up in the gas chamber, and as they strap you in and you’re about to breathe the cyanide fumes, you’ll be grateful for the few weeks you had with her and grateful for your own death.’

—James Ellroy, Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light (2006)

Lounge time is this ‘liminal social space’, a limbo where the secular acquires, via the gloss of the sexual, a patina of the sacred.  In the chapel of the cocktail lounge, with its soft lighting (softened further still by the fog of cigarette smoke and dulled edges of drink), the social rituals of pickup transform an ordinary bar of chromium, zinc and glass (materials which, in the kaleidoscopic contrivance of their multiple reflectivities, dramatize ‘this distancing from and yet reflection upon the nature of ordinary experience’) into a site like Walker Percy’s ‘wonder’, an oasis outside of space and time, a place the noir man and woman were not in before they met, nor any place they will be in après cette rencontre—c’est-à-dire, la scène du crime.

I’ve felt it myself more than once, this quality of lounge time, at bars and pubs in Bellingen and Melbourne when sex seems imminent (and immanent) enough to touch.  It’s an eerie ambiance where the extension of space becomes borgesianly consubstantial with the temporal dimension, and ordinary, slightly tawdry surroundings are transformed, made exotic by the rare encounter with the erotic—which is necessarily dangerous.  Ennui, secular prisonworld apparently without end, makes the noir man a ripe rube for this brief encounter with the exotic erotic, and the familiar tools at the ritual of chasing away ennui, the chalice of glass and the censer of cigarette, are eager assistants at the epiphany of transsubstantiation, casting an aureole of precoital mystery around the noir woman, who condescends, in her own ennui, to allow herself to be seduced.  L’homme fatal equally presents to her a firedoor through which she may flee l’enfer of her embêtements ennuyeux et fâcheux—which are usually consubstantial with some other man she’s bored with or being bothered by.  Thus, this courtly Emil Jannings type presents a distinguished head upon which the maidenly mantis can prey, dispatching one man by chivalrous aid of another who has conveniently chanced across her path.

It is the chance aspect of both Daygame (when played by night in the setting of the bar) and noir, with its character of unremitting, dreary ennui in the unendurable monotonie of ordinary places and days (for the spaces of noir are temporally consubstantial with the experience of time as a jail) that appear eternal and impermeable to chance, which makes the secular transcendence of imminent sex implicit in the experience of lounge time apparently miraculous, ‘merveilleux’, plein with Percy’s wonder.  Luck seems so foreign, alien, foregone, impossible to the characters of noir, and yet the whole néant of the noirniverse is predicated on la malchance et le guignon.  Indeed, the irrationality of luck, its omnipresence even in its absence, is the one newtonian, urizenian law, firm as iron, in l’univers du noir:  ‘Yes, Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you, or me, for no good reason at all…’

In Maslow’s terms, lounge time is such a ‘peak experience’ for the men and women of noir, the place, the privileged moment they recur so often to in their flashbacks and confessions, because it was the one moment where they felt as if all their esperances were actualized, when it seemed as if the endless desert of their luck had broken its drought and they had found—miracle of miracles—in this place—le bar—which had delivered them no good luck before, the gushing rock, the shining penny, the sure thing, in the prospect of this étranger et étrangère they had not yet slept with.

—Dean Kyte,
“Invitation to a murder”

I’m grateful to Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London for bringing film scholar Vivian Sobchack’s concept of ‘lounge time’ to my attention a couple of years ago. You can read Pamela’s fascinating article about lounge time in the silent films of G.W. Pabst (and my response to her article) here.

In brief, as the first quotation, by Douglas McNaughton, at the head of my essay above explains, Ms. Sobchack’s concept of lounge time is an extension of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘salon chronotope’. Well, this takes a little unpacking too before we get down to brass tacks.

Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher and literary critic. As Mr. McNaughton elegantly summarizes it in his journal article (thus saving me a bit of trouble), Bakhtin came up with the concept of the ‘chronotope’ (the ‘time/space’), which he defined as ‘the intrinsic interconnectedness of temporal and spatial’ elements in a novel. The chronotope, in other words, is the warp and weft of space and time which forms the background tapestry of a fictional narrative. They need to be verisimilar with one another, and together they provide a sense of verisimilitude to the foreground actions of a fictional narrative.

But ‘chronotope’ is not simply a fancy narratological word for the ‘background’ of your novel. As Mr. McNaughton (citing Bakhtin) states in his article: ‘Chronotopes are “the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied.”’

In other words, the chronotope, as the complex nexus of realistic space and time, reaches directly into the narrative: locations and actions in time directly influence the foreground drama and the dynamics of character which take place against the backdrop of realistic space and time. It’s sort of like a spatiotemporal ‘archetype’ of setting that determines the kind of archetypal characters, situations, and stories that can realistically emerge from the matrix formed by the intersection of particular geographies and particular periods of time.

Bakhtin, as a pioneering narratologist, identified a number of ‘master chronotopes’, ur-spatiotemporal configurations, in novels, including the ‘salon chronotope’, which is a conspicuous setting in French nineteenth-century literature from Balzac to Proust.

But, as the notion of the salon implies, the salon chronotope is no more a ‘setting’ than it is a ‘background’; it’s more mystical than that. As space and time metaphysically meet in this physical room of a grande dame’s house, the chronotope of the salon is a kind of ‘cultural phenomenon’ that informs the total world of the narrative beyond the drawing-room. Tout Paris, c’est le salon (the whole social world of Paris is the drawing-room), if you’ll pardon the pun, and the intersection of physical spaces in time and culturally specific phenomena within them produces a set of determinable characters, situations, and plotlines which can occur within these physical/metaphysical, cultural time-spaces.

That’s the chronotope.

And as regards the salon chronotope, for example, we might say that the typically French, typically nineteenth-century story of the social ascension of Rastignac, charted by Balzac from Le Père Goriot (1835) to Les Comédiens sans le Savoir (1845), is morphologically the same chronotopic story as Georges Duroy’s social ascension in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami (1885), as is the passage of Proust’s narrateur from petit-bourgeois petit bonhomme in Du côté de chez Swann (1913) to elbow-rubbing equal of the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes by the end of Le Temps retrouvé (1927).

At a morphological level of recursion, they are all the same story, for the cultural phenomenon of the nineteenth-century Parisian salon determines the kinds of characters that can exist in nineteenth-century Paris, and the kinds of story that can be told in the space-time of nineteenth-century Paris, the democratic ascension of a clever young bourgeois man to the fashionable heights of quasi-nobility being one of them.

Ms. Sobchack built upon Bakhtin’s concept of the salon as a particularly potent spatiotemporal site of drama, and in an influential essay, “Lounge Time: Postwar Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir” (1998), identified the transient settings of bars, nightclubs, cafés, cocktail lounges, hotels, motels and roadhouses as the key chronotope of film noir.

And again, it’s not that films noirs are set exclusively in cocktail lounges, it is that the spatiotemporal ‘atmosphere’ of the lounge as a transient, temporary space of flâneurial ease punctuating longer passages of anxious wandering through the urban night informs the Gestalt, the total world of film noir. As Ms. Sobchack explains in her essay, the of phenomenon of transient, shared public spaces where one momentarily rests from a condition of anxious displacement (such as the lounge) in post-war America determines, as the salon does for nineteenth-century Paris, the kind of characters that can exist in an American movie in the 1940’s or 1950’s, and the kind of story that can be told in America in the 1940’s and ’50’s.

It turns out that a film noir, an existential story of nihilistic crime resulting from a man’s succumbing to the temptation of a woman’s seduction, is one of those archetypal stories.

Why should this interest me and why should I have been so activated by Pamela’s post when she alerted me to the concept? Because it was one of those rare instances in intellectual life when someone else throws an astonishing sidelight on a problem so knotty (and so deeply, obsessively personal, it seems) that you can barely articulate the dimensions of it to yourself, such that there is a poverty of coverage about it in the literature, and thus, when you do come across a thesis closely linked to it, you are surprised that anyone else has even thought about the problem.

The recherché intellectual question of ‘the mood’ of places (which I seem to conceptualize to myself as an intersection of particular space and particular time), and how to represent the ‘character’ of places, independent of transient human occupancy, has become an increasingly salient æsthetic preoccupation in my writing and filmmaking over the last four years.

As I think my essay above makes clear, the first really important element that Ms. Sobchack’s concept illuminated for me is that, in almost a synæsthetic sense, in the film noir, space is time, and vice versa. The clue is in the name she gives to her concept—‘lounge time’, which connotes not merely a transient place where the characters of noir pass their time, but also the character of time’s passing in such places. There is a certain idleness, a certain flâneurial oisiveté implicit in the notion: time, in the space of the bar or cocktail lounge, does not pass quickly, ‘like sands through the hourglass’, but slowly, spasmodically, like the dripping from a leaky faucet.

There is, in other words, a Bergsonian (and even Borgesian) quality to how the characters of film noir experience time in the cocktail lounge. They experience temporal duration as spatial extension, and I give the image of the labyrinthine prison, the sæcula sæculorum of Catholicism, ‘from everlasting to everlasting’, ‘world without end’, as the metaphor for this Borgesian, Bergsonian space-time.

And Bergson leads us back to M. Proust, my cher maître, for, like the dear, divine Marcel, anyone who has read my flâneurial writing knows that I’m obsessed with spatial specificity and geographic particularity, and the temporal experience of walking through a precisely described physical landscape is likely to take much longer subjectively than objectively, the time between each footfall being measured by the tumult of thoughts that the landscape inspires in me at each step.

In Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012), for instance, it takes me about a hundred pages to walk about a hundred metres, from the edge of the square Caulaincourt to my bed. In Things we do for Love (2015), I more modestly manage to take two train rides and a walk from Indooroopilly Station to Indooroopilly Shopping Centre in only a thousand words, but in Follow Me, My Lovely… (2016), I again haul you on a nine-hour, 20,000-word tour of Bellingen by night and by day as I bounce the most beautiful girl I’ve ever gotten into my bed all over town.

And in the forthcoming Sentimental Journey, expect to walk your eyes off, dear readers, as I march you (at bayonet-point, it might seem at times) through various Gold-Coastian, Brisbanian and Bellingenian locales.

The chronotopic relation between space and time;—the experience of space as time (and vice versa);—is, you might say, rather an entrenched and synæsthetic habit of thought in my writing.

Certainly, I see this apperception of time as spatial extension and space as temporal duration rarely represented in art, and little of the curious obsession I have for it represented in the academic literature, which made the encounter with Ms. Sobchack’s concept refreshing.

For perhaps even more than in my writing (or perhaps just more clearly, more appropriately to the medium), it is the organizing æsthetic principle which informs my filmmaking and videography—the films and videos you watch on this vlog. The confused perception of time as space and space as time is not merely the most conspicuous feature of my flâneurial writing, but it is, I contend, the most conspicuous quality of flâneurial filmmaking.

Elsewhere on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, I’ve answered the question ‘Are there flâneur films?’. In that post, I stated categorically that there are flâneur films, but that it’s usually more a character of the films themselves—that is to say, a matter of style or cinematic technique—than the characters a film possesses that makes it ‘flâneurial’.

More precisely, it’s how a film deals technically, stylistically with space and time that tends to give it a flâneurial character. And as I said in the post “What is a flâneur?”, it’s an absolutely non-negotiable part of being flâneur, core to the definition, that one is a pedestrian by nature.

The word ‘pedestrian’ itself combines connotations of spatial extension and temporal duration, the time it takes to move through a landscape being directly linked to the mode of travel. There must be in the flâneurial film, therefore, a sense (so uncommon—even alien—to the apparatus of cinema) of being tied to a singular perspective, and a singular mode of movement through the world, one that is distinctly human and limited by the human viewpoint and human movement.

As Alan Saunders and Robert Sinnerbrink of Macquarie University discuss in this episode of ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze set the foundation for a flâneurial mode of cinema when he proposed that there was a ‘sensory motor-action scheme’ at work in filmmaking at least up to the outbreak of the Second World War, and one which is most perfectly realized in classical Hollywood cinema up to the ‘outbreak’ (I think we can call it that!) of Citizen Kane (1941).

In the first volume of his Cinéma (1983), M. Deleuze deals with this type of filmmaking, what he calls ‘l’image-mouvement’ (the ‘movement-image’), and he identifies three types of image which combine to form this sensory motor-action scheme: ‘l’image perception’ (the ‘perception image’), ‘l’image affection’ (the ‘affective image’), and ‘l’image action’ (the ‘action image’).

In fine, in M. Deleuze’s theory, we see; we feel something about what we see; and then we act in reaction to what we see. Perception leads to affect leads to action. Montage, the great discovery of the Soviet silent cinema, with its juxtaposition of images of perception, images of emotion, and images of action in a dynamic, plastic composition which is unique to the art-form of the cinema itself, is really the innovation that crystallizes the movement-image as a the central organizing principle of classical narrative filmmaking.

And as Messrs. Saunders and Sinnerbrink discuss, the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock is really the æsthetic high-water mark of classical Hollywood filmmaking in the movement-image style. Rear Window (1954), for instance, is entirely predicated upon the cumulative effect produced by montage as proposed by Soviet theorist Lev Kuleshov, and the tripartite formula of perception, affective, and action images are the technical basis by which Mr. Hitchcock, as a consummate ‘engineer of fright’, cumulatively produces the mechanics of suspense in that picture.

In fine, as Rear Window so peerlessly, rigorously, and consistently demonstrates, the palpable effect of that picture (as of all Mr. Hitchcock’s best work) produces a visceral somatic experience of suspense and fright in us precisely because the total assemblage of the film is rigorously anchored at every moment to this sensory motor-action scheme. Along with James Stewart, we look at something; we are emotionally affected by what we see; and the affect produces a bodily reaction in us. Donald Spoto, in his essay on Rear Window in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (1976), notes that the moment when Raymond Burr looks directly at the camera still manages to produce the reactive action of an apprehensive murmur in the audience, despite familiarity with the film.

Indeed, it is this ‘mechanical’ schema about how we perceive spatial relations which gives classical cinema its engaging, involving quality, and it seems to explain (albeit in too neat and over-simplified a fashion) our experience of the world as bodies in space. The miracle is that a mechanical object with no consciousness of its own can (with the aid of judicious editing in post-production) ‘mimic’ how we perceive, react and act in relation to other spatial objects—including people—with some chronotopic verisimilitude.

In this conversation with Violet Lucca and Imogen Sara Smith, one of the most pragmatic and rigorous film scholars of our time, David Bordwell of the University of Wisconsin—Madison, explains why this should be so by comparing 1930’s cinema with 1940’s cinema.

As Mr. Bordwell and Ms. Smith discuss circa minute 16, thirties cinema is ‘behavioural’, ‘externalized’; it’s about putting on a show that the audience can easily read off through the spectacle of action. And as Mr. Bordwell explains, this æsthetic Gestalt is perfectly consonant with the implicit assumption of thirties cinema, which is that there is a kind of externalized ‘causal social mechanics’ at play which chronotopically produces, for instance, the thirties archetype of the gangster. As Ms. Smith points out, the characters of thirties cinema, whether they are gangsters, chorines, or screwball couples, seem to have ‘no interior life’: they are pure movement and externalized behaviour, bodies in kinetic (which is to say, photographable) spatial relation to one another.

Certainly, as Walker Percy observes in a memorable passage in The Moviegoer (1961), it is the spectacle of the movement of John Wayne ‘kill[ing] three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach (1939) that is palpably affecting for the spectator.

The difference between thirties cinema and forties cinema is something like the difference, I would contend, between commedia dell’arte and Shakespeare’s comedies. Though roughly coexistent, one derives its comedic force from visible actions in space, while the other derives its comedic force from the dynamic collision of antagonistic personalities over time. And ultimately, we find the verbal whaling of Benedick and Beatrice upon one another more comedically satisfying than the mutual physical attrition of Punch and Judy.

Moreover, I would contend that thirties cinema, whether it takes the particular form of the gangster movie, the Busby Berkeley musical, the Fordian western, or the screwball comedy, is the last frenetic spasm of pleasure produced by the movement-image as the defining æsthetic criterion of the cinema as a distinct art-form up to 1940. If Mr. Bordwell’s and Ms. Smith’s intuitions about thirties cinema have confirmable validity, I would say that a general morphological sense of people, objects, and society as being ‘mechanical’ and ‘mechanically determinable’, as a set of discreet bodies in a kinetic spatial relationship to one another that can be photographed in action, is what defines cinema from the Lumière brothers and Méliès up to 1940.

In fine, I am arguing that the conditions of a mechanised modernity chronotopically produced the matrix for cinematic stories which favoured the movement-image between 1895 and 1940. The assumption that the ‘source code of reality’ is fundamentally mechanical, and that even social relations are dictated by a Newtonian physics of bodies in spatial relation to one another, underlies stories in all media, but most particularly, and most perfectly, in the cinema.

M. Sartre’s definition of cinema as ‘le délire d’une muraille’ (the frenzy on the wall) could apply to any film from the actualités of the Lumières, to The Great Train Robbery, to Griffith, to Vertov’s delirious celebration of the worker’s paradise, to surrealist cinema’s fascination with the speedy repetitions and revolutions of machinery, to screwball comedy’s Punch and Judy show. The intoxicating spectacle of early cinema as pure, joyous movement photographed was somatically pleasing to audiences up to 1940. Nothing more was needed to make movies pleasurable than that photographed images of real objects in the world should move, and the miraculous correspondence between the mechanics of cinema and our own sensory motor-action schema produced this satisfying affect.

But in his second volume of Cinéma (1985), M. Deleuze identifies a rupture in the schema, so that it becomes difficult, dopoguerra, to know how to act in relation to what is being perceived. At about the time of the Second World War (a period of psychological schism which coincides with the ludic iconoclasm that Orson Welles, enfant terrible, will wreak upon the art-form in Citizen Kane), the cinematic image starts to become more temporally salient than spatially.

M. Deleuze identifies what he calls the gradual emergence of ‘l’image-temps’ (the ‘time-image’) during the war years, until it becomes an entrenched trend in cinema post-1945.

Now, it’s not an æsthetic coincidence that the phenomenon of film noir should emerge, as Citizen Kane does, at the commencement of American involvement in the war, nor that the trend toward darker and darker crime pictures should increase with American participation in it, and become an entrenched æsthetic movement after the war ends. The close relation of Citizen Kane to The Maltese Falcon and its successors has been remarked by many film scholars, but certainly, from a technical standpoint, the chief innovations of Kanechiaroscuro lighting and deep focus photography—are not merely techniques it bequeathed to film noir, but techniques which create the conditions for M. Deleuze’s time-image.

In fine, the technique, in Citizen Kane, of flooding a soundstage with so much sculpted light that one creates an image that is crisp and sharp to the furthest recession of the picture plain, one in which the ‘white space’ of perfect darkness is as photogenic and afforded as much visual weight as well-lit areas of action, now places the onus of ‘what to look at’ squarely upon the individual spectator. This was certainly not the way of 1930’s Hollywood films, where shots were lit in a façon laiteux and creamily focused so as to direct the audience’s gaze to the salient object of the shot.

With this new flâneurial liberty of the eye to roam about the image, time becomes a factor of salience in perception and action. You could say that the ambiguity between perception and action in films from 1941 onwards creates a delay, an interval in which one must process the affect created by a visual space in which everything is now equally salient for oneself.

Certainly the film noir, where the hyper-vigilant clarity of deep focus photography combines with large areas of screen real estate in ominous shadow, creates spaces in which everything is a potential threat—or where a threat could come from any sector of the screen.

No character can speak authoritatively from a space which is being continually cut into ribbons of light.

… [I]n film noir, the central character is likely to be standing in the shadow. When the environment is given an equal or greater weight than the actor, it, of course, creates a fatalistic, hopeless mood. There is nothing the protagonist can do, the city will outlast and negate even his best efforts.

—Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir (1972)

The delay between perception and action as one cognitively processes the affect created by the ambiguous noir image of unfathomable depth and unfathomable darkness is a temporal equivalent, I submit, to that visual metaphor which T. S. Eliot, in “The Hollow Men” (1925), calls ‘the Shadow’:

Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

...

Between the desire
And the spasm
...
Falls the Shadow

The delay between perceiving and acting is, for post-war man, ‘the Shadow’: what is perceived in movies from Citizen Kane and film noir onwards is no longer clear, and thus there can be no pure, innocent jouissance obtained from the spectacle of action. Nothing that one does, now, ‘after Auschwitz’, is innocent and without consequence, and, as W. H. Auden presciently observed in his “New Year Letter” of 1941:

The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.

I suspect that the reason M. Deleuze’s time-image all but takes over the cinematic discourse by war’s end is that we are now confronted with images in which masses and masses of bodies lie motionless. The cameras linger in avid horror on the spectacle of sites where atrocious action occurred with fulgurant mechanical speed.

In an image where there is no movement, time, as I said, becomes the salient factor.

And as Ms. Smith observes at 33:45, time now becomes the subject of forties cinema in the same way that space held salience in the cinema of the thirties. More specifically, the extra-temporal narratival structures that come into vogue in the forties, and which are used with such brio in the film noir (the flashback, the voice-over, the superimposition, the dream sequence, etc.), are obsessed with the subject of the past. It is perhaps no coincidence that the greatest film noir references this obsession directly in its title:—Out of the Past (1947).

There is a definite sense of loss, of rift, of irrecoverable rupture in the films of the forties, and I would suggest that when you are confronted with moving images in which there is no movement, in which you are forced to perceive the consequence of human actions on motionless human bodies, these extra-temporal narrative devices which suggest memory and dream serve to supply the missing action, the joyous movement of living bodies that has been cruelly and irrecoverably lost.

But this sense that additional time is now required to parse and process the affect between perception and action is equally present in Italian Neorealism, in the cinema of Ozu, and that of Tarkovsky, who was wise enough to apprehend that the material he was sculpting his films in was not light, but time. As Mr. Sinnerbrink observes, these filmmakers (along with Welles and Renoir, as for instance) are actively seeking to ‘block’ the circuit of the sensory motor-action schema, and a handbrake is applied to narrative momentum through the cinematic strategies they devise to enhance the ambiguous affect of images.

Italian Neorealism, as a European cousin to film noir, employing many of the same cinematic techniques that Hollywood directors would apply to generic thriller material after the war, such as filming on location and employing non-professional ‘actors’ in the commission of their jobs, serves to effectively illuminate this point.

As Mr. Sinnerbrink says, in Italian Neorealism ‘you’ve got characters in an environment they no longer understand. … The faith or belief in how the world should be … has been severely shattered.’

Indeed, as far as action and movement goes, there is an ‘impotence’, oftentimes, displayed by the characters of Neorealism, best exemplified, I think, by De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948). In that film, the ostensible action which drives the entire narrative (and which is so slender a premise that there is really only enough ‘story’ in it to sustain a one-reel silent comedy), the recovery of the stolen bicycle, is abortive, frustratingly unresolved.

Antonio’s ricerca through Rome (we can’t call it a flânerie, nor even the Italian equivalent, a passeggiata, for it’s too existential a trudge to be undertaken for idle pleasure) as he seeks to find his stolen bicycle is essentially a chase through dreams—or a nightmare. It’s as hopeless a quest as waiting for Godot, and that Sig. De Sica should extend so slight an idea for a film into a drama as endless and desolate as Beckett’s gives you a sense of the emotional ‘freight’ that the affective image must now bear, after the war, as it crowds out the perception-image and the action-image, problematizing the one and infinitely delaying the other.

The time-image of post-war cinema is all affect. The delay that is created by problematizing perception and deferring a decisive action in response to it means that more time is required by the spectator to scrutinize the ambiguous image and decide how he feels about what he is seeing. Paul Schrader says this about the famous shot in De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952), in which the camera holds for nearly thirty seconds upon a simple action—the striking of a match:

It was no longer about the activity of striking a match, it was about how long are you going to sit to watch? The filmmaker is using the power of cinema itself against itself to get you into a sense that you have to participate.

—Paul Schrader, “Transcendental Style in Film | Paul Schrader | TIFF 2017”

Moreover, as Kogonada observes in his video essay “What is Neorealism?”, in comparing David O. Selznick’s cut of Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953) side-by-side with De Sica’s own cut of the same film, Terminal Station (1953), we can easily see that Sig. De Sica consistently employs a narrative/editorial strategy of holding longer on shots, withholding the cut, allowing the camera to linger on extras whose stories we never get to explore, after the main characters have left the frame.

In other words, in Sig. De Sica’s version, the chronotopic setting for the foreground drama, the warp and weft of life that surrounds and enfolds the fiction, is allowed, in Neorealism, to ‘billow in’, like a curtain breathed upon by a gentle breeze, and fill the vacuum temporarily left by the absence of the characters after they have left the frame.

The action of striking the match is perhaps more neatly illustrative of my point, but both techniques partake of a general variety of narrative strategies in cinematic storytelling that privileges the time-image over the movement-image after World War II. That is, as an action that can be photographed, the striking of the match is no longer miraculous as a movement. The match fails to light. It requires a repetition—two repetitions, and they both fail. It requires even a second match and a fourth attempt before the maid in Umberto D. can light the stove.

The time it takes to perform an action is now the spectacle. It’s no longer the movement as an act in space, but the duration of the movement, as an act across time, that becomes visually salient and significant.

And perhaps we can even say that the difficulty of performing an action successfully becomes significant, since there seems to be a misalignment in the maid’s sensory motor-action schema, a momentary misalignment between perception and action before the final, successful striking of the match. In the fraught post-war world, not even the most simple actions (which the cinema of the thirties would have taken for granted) are as obviously simple as they appear.

And applied more broadly to the world beyond the narrative, longer shots which invite a chronotopic reality, redundant to the narrative, to enter and take up compositional space in time as the ‘white space’ of shadow does visually, means that the duration of a film becomes, in the forties, co-extensive with space: As a physical object, the film becomes longer, just as it becomes temporally longer.

Mr. Bordwell notes that forties films, with their obsessive preoccupations with time, now start to aim for a ‘novelistic density’, but he doesn’t notice this point, viz.—that if we accept the premise that thirties movement cinema is a cinema of spectacular theatrical display, the spatial extension of the image is one of length and width, like a framed painting, or like a play framed by the proscenium. But in the forties, cinema becomes, like the novel, a truly temporal art-form where the extension is into the experience of time—the time it requires to apprehend and appreciate the artwork.

The ‘thickness’ of a novel is an index for its temporal, experiential dimension. Likewise, the physical ‘length’ of a piece of film becomes indexical for its time relation. When directors like De Sica, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Renoir and Welles slow down their shots, add frames which freight the film with additional ambiguous affect, problematizing perception and delaying action, what can be potentially discovered in the frame by a self-directed spectator thrown back on his own resources of deciding ‘what to look at’ becomes, potentially, experientially infinite. Like a novel one periodically rereads, discovering something new each time, returning to a film whose spatial extension of length and width is predicated on the time-image now becomes a flânerie through un jardín de los senderos que se birfurcan.

What Mr. Sinnerbrink calls ‘a loss of faith in the world’ which the characters of Neorealism (and film noir) feel is really a loss of faith in the visible appearances of the world. The time-image is deeply sceptical of indexical appearances; hence its ambiguity. A direct line can be traced from the disappeared bike in Ladri di biciclette to the disappearing body in Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), and from Antonio’s impotent quest to recover his bike to utterly abortive quests for meaning, like Jack Nicholson’s odyssey in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975).

The disappearing body of Blowup completely defies a semiotic, indexical interpretation of reality, a 1:1 relationship between image and world—which is a relationship the movement-image confidently assumes.

The pre-war confidence of the movement-image is permanently displaced by the post-war uncertainty that things are what they appear, and that we may act confidently on the report of our senses, a sensibility which is implicit in the time-image.

That seems to be the lesson of World War II: the apparently innocent joy of modern, mechanized movement done at dizzying speed ultimately produces piles of lifeless bodies.

M. Deleuze argues that we can ‘think’ through cinema, that cinema itself is a ‘medium of thought’. If we take the cinematic image of Fernand Léger’s gaily pumping pistons as a logical premise, it is hard to predict from that image of exhilarating force and speed the mechanics of the Final Solution, which is the inevitable conclusion of the unconscious logic of modernity—man as an interchangeable, eminently dispensable, disposable part in his own machine, to be thrown on the scrapheap, or fed through it like fodder, only to come out the other side as offal and carrion.

Between the idea
And the reality
...
Between the conception
And the creation
...
Falls the Shadow

To return more fully to film noir, which, in exercising a particularly nihilistic brush over generic mystery and thriller material, deals by metaphorical displacement with ‘the baffling crime’ of the Second World War, which surrounds everyone and implicates everyone in the forties, we begin to understand the chronotope of lounge time, the necessity for the compromised respite which transient, shared public spaces provide a traumatized and displaced American population.

In the lounge, we drown ourselves in drink and try to fumigate our brains with cigarettes, exorcising them temporarily of the devils we have seen and been. The lounge itself is a site and a period of delay: it too is a Shadow—but a welcome one. The shadows outside the bar, ‘the situation of our time’ which is the circumambient night and the threatening city of film noir, are a purgatorial holocaust we must trudge through when we have used up our ‘money time’, this moment of flâneurial ease between chapters of anxious hustling out there.

Film noir is not a genre in this understanding; it is an allegory. Film noir is a set of stylistic, æsthetic cinematic strategies and conventions which are visually applied to generic mystery and thriller material in such a way as to displace and disguise crime movies as cathartic allegories for the all-enveloping ‘Big Crime’ of modernity, the master chronotope that is the Second World War.

We think—wrongly, at this historical pass, because the conventions of noir have been so disgustingly abused by subsequent generations of filmmakers with no generational experience of all-encompassing crime and trauma and guilt—that film noir was a much more codified æsthetic movement than it was. Even if the term ‘film noir’ was unheard of in America until just before the end of the classic cycle, surely the filmmakers who created this very visually and narratively distinctive body of films were more conscious of what they were doing than they were.

But why should they be if, as I am arguing here, film noir is kind of cathartic allegory, an æsthetic penance by which one exorcises the unforgotten but deeply repressed memory of all those lifeless bodies whose joyous movement one has curtailed in wartime?

In his conversation with Ms. Lucca and Ms. Smith, Mr. Bordwell states that his research has positively shown that in the forties ‘mystery’, as a generic category, became a kind of ‘meta-genre’, that there was a craze in 1940’s Hollywood cinema to inject an element of mystery into almost every other kind of generic story. Although he doesn’t reference Citizen Kane directly, this is the best possible example of the prototypical film noir that isn’t a film noir, a mystery story where the mystery isn’t ‘Whodunnit?’ but, ‘What is the meaning of “Rosebud”?’

In fine, ‘mystery’ becomes a ludic device that structures narrative in forties films. In other words, an impression of ambiguity which disrupts straightforward narrative perception and action—and the affect of anxiety that this delayed resolution produces in the audience—comes to the foreground in how audiences of the forties experience narrative (which is to say, as a subjective interpretation of reality).

This makes sense. If the world around you is in epic upheaval, epic disruption due to war, making sense of what you see around you and knowing how to act appropriately becomes a business of plumbing mystery. As I said with respect to Antonioni, a semiotic sensemaking strategy, assuming that things are actually consubstantial with how they appear, is not necessarily a successful means of navigating a salience landscape of totalizing, existential disruption.

I would argue that people in the forties are essentially so traumatized by the split between appearances and actions that they are primed to accept mystery as an affective temporal dimension to cinematic images. If the perception-image is point A and the action-image is point B, audiences after 1940 become progressively primed to accept that there is a third point between appearances and actions which the films of the thirties elide, and this third, temporal point is the realm of ‘mystery’.

In some sense, the ‘lining’ of a mystery story, the true, unperceived actions which animate it, occur in another, interstitial dimension of the cinematic narrative between the perceptions and actions the narrative consciously notices as images and scenes registered on film. Which is to say that there is ‘lost’ or ‘missing time’ which makes the narrative-as-film necessarily ambiguous, and hence ‘mysterious’.

And this interstitial dimension often coincides with those ‘extra-temporal’ narrative devices which are such a salient structuring feature of film noir: the flashback, the voice-over, the superimposition, and the dream sequence.

Moreover, it is precisely these innovative cinematic techniques which the film noir avails itself of and uses more adroitly than any other type of film in the 1940’s which makes it a kind of ‘avant-garde cinema’ during the cycle of the classic period. As Mr. Bordwell points out, the widespread adoption of mystery as a meta-generic narrative style in the forties means that generic thriller material now becomes consequentially respectable as something to exercise your cinematic chops on, and (as film noir’s symbiotic association with the B-picture demonstrates), the making of thrillers becomes a cheap, effective way for filmmakers (especially young filmmakers) to demonstrate the scope of what they can creatively do with film form.

In fine, as I argued above, rather than being a genre in itself, film noir applies a set of æsthetic visual strategies, cinematic techniques and conventions which have their own chronotopic freight to generic narrative material. A generic crime story, a mystery or a thriller becomesnoir’ when a certain visual æsthetic is applied to it: unique to this visual æsthetic as to no other that I know of is a certain chronotopic weight which determines, as I said in my response to Pamela’s post, the nature and the kinds of stories that can be told in settings which are painted with the brush of noir.

In other words, this set of æsthetic visual strategies, cinematic techniques and conventions as a chronotopic meta-setting directly affects the foreground narrative. The types of photogenic and cinematic techniques that filmmakers apply to photograph the places, whether they be settings on a soundstage or actual locations, that constitute the typical locales of film noir in the 1940’s directly impacts the nature of the generic crime story that can be told against such spatiotemporal backgrounds.

In a sense, the visual choices foreclose other narrative choices, dictating the kinds of postmodern narrative devices that can satisfactorily accompany such an avant-garde visual style, narrative devices which are verisimilar to the avant-garde æsthetic. A film consequently becomesnoir’ because the dark visual treatment forecloses other narrative options and dictates the kinds of characters who can emerge in a locale painted with the brush of noir, the kinds of situations that can develop in such a place and time, and ultimately the kinds of stories that can be told by the dynamic interrelation of characters with each other, and with the setting.

Moreover, this totalizing visual æsthetic, with its potent photogenic affect, creates the fundamental conditions for the ambiguous time-image, which is so essential to film noir.

Finally, to return to my original premise, how does lounge time, as the organizing chronotopic principle of film noir, the visual æsthetic which carries the seed of the time-image implicit within it, relate to flâneurial cinema?

Well, as I said at the beginning, the clue is in the name that Ms. Sobchack gives to her concept: lounge time suggests a space that is simultaneously temporal, and a period of easeful respite from anxious wandering that is simultaneously a physical site of rest. It suggests an extra-temporal, interstitial realm or dimension, a place and an hour of luxe, calme et volupté.’

The oisiveté of M. Baudelaire’s credo of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ is the beatific condition to which the flâneur aspires. And yet, like the harried, displaced protagonists of film noir, his condition of dandiacal poverty, the existential stress of being a ‘man of leisure’ on no private income, means that he must trudge on ‘à travers le grand désert des hommes’ just as the hopeless losers of film noir must trudge on through the asphalt jungle.

An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. With each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grow the temptations of shops, of bistros, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next streetcorner, of a distant mass of foliage, of a street name. Then comes hunger. Our man wants nothing to do with the myriad possibilities offered to sate his appetite. Like an ascetic animal, he flits through unknown districts—until, utterly exhausted, he stumbles into his room, which receives him coldly and wears a strange air.

—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Convolute M: “The Flâneur

We crave the lounge, the place and time of leisure and pleasure, that womb-like matrix where the two intersect. And, as for M. Baudelaire, that terrestrial heaven is not only the place and time we would invite our daughter, our sister, the Elected One of our soul to join us in, but it is a place and time that is eminently feminine and consubstantial with her. That place of timeless ease is the eternal Her.

In lieu of an eternal milieu where we can stop walking, we plunge on, into the barren ocean of time, au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!

I said at the start that flâneurial cinema, in contradistinction to the implicit æsthetic of cinema itself as a modern art-form predicated on mechanical speed, is pedestrian and tied to the slow rhythm of the foot. As such, flâneurial cinema is entirely predicated on the time-image: the movement of walking itself, while being an extension into space, is far less salient than the qualitative experience of walking, which is an extension of movement into duration.

Mr. Sinnerbrink has a couple of interesting tournures which are instructive on this point. At 14:11 of his conversation with Mr. Saunders he says: ‘With Ozu and with Orson Welles (others as well, like Jean Renoir), what you get are images that no longer are strictly driven by the narrative purpose, but start to take on a kind of descriptive function’ [my emphasis]. And again, at 22:28, he refers to ‘pure optical and sound descriptions’ [my emphasis].

We’re told, in classical screenwriting theory (as in writing more generally), that one should ‘show not tell’. The movement-image is all show. But the time-image, I submit, is the visual equivalent of a passage of description in literature: it doesn’t necessarily advance the well-oiled machine of the plot as the movement-image does, but, as Kogonada effectively demonstrates in his video essay on De Sica, describes something of the chronotopic reality which enfolds the drama.

The time-image, in fine, ‘tells us’ something about the nature of the world which is auxiliary to the drama, ‘redundant’, even, by the standards of a classical, mechanical cinema predicated on the movement-image.

And thus, if flâneurial cinema is entirely predicated on the time-image, it is entirely predicated on what Mr. Sinnerbrink calls these ‘pure optical and sound descriptions’ which are not ‘strictly driven by the narrative purpose’. Like the lounge, these extended moments which ‘describe’ the chronotopic actuality of the world are moments of rest, of pause, images which allow the eye to flâneurially explore the frame at ease.

Mr. Schrader calls it ‘leveraging boredom’, and certainly I know from personal experience that my films and videos, with their static setups and long takes looking at nothing, the void of empty spaces at dead hours of dawn or dusk, late afternoon and late night, the times of day (as in film noir) when the conditions of light impose their own æsthetic mood on places, are an ‘acquired taste’.

Some people don’t get these paradises of rest and are deeply bored by them. But I know, from having screened some of these films and videos in Melbourne and elsewhere, that for most people the rigorous simplicity of my technique, my foregrounding of the time-image and eschewal of the movement-image, produces a ‘restful’ effect of respite that contrasts pleasantly with the work of other filmmakers who are more focused on people, and the human dramas which take place against these chronotopic backgrounds.

I rarely move the camera, and thus spatial extension of the world (that is, what is visible within the frame) becomes temporal extension: a corner of the world regarded fixedly over time. Moreover, as the soundscapes of my films and videos are wholly invented, like these extra-temporal narrative devices in film noir which evoke the dimensions of time and memory and dream, the imagined aural landscape in and beyond the world delimited by the frame makes the image extend both in space and in time—into the imagination of the audience.

Ultimately, perhaps, it is the extra-temporal dimension of the imagination which the flâneur seeks, a place outside of space and time where he can quit his walk and permanently rest, content that le nouveau will infinitely find and refresh him there.

And having taken you, dear, indulgent readers, at bayonet-point on an epic flânerie through several disparate quartiers of my mental geography, let us turn in at this place and rest our dogs.

If you found my wild intellectual promenade invigorating, dear readers, you can support me via Bandcamp.

Some recent visitors to this vlog have decried the lack of a “Donate” button at the bottom of my posts. I prefer to give value for value, so if you’d like to signal your appreciation for what I write, I’d like to give you something of lasting value in exchange for your support. I’ve made the soundtrack of the abridged version of “Invitation to a murder” featured in my video essay available for purchase, streaming and download via my artist profile on Bandcamp, so for $A2.00 (make it more, if you like) you can have permanent access to the track.

Put me on your pod or phone, and then, when you need a moment of respite from the hurly-burly of the world, check in to my imaginary lounge and let my words lull you into a momentary place of restful ease. Just click the “Buy” link below, or feel free to “Share” the track with a friend.

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 “Buy” 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 $A2.00, less than the cost of a coffee, you can have my dulcet tones on your pod pour toujours.  Just click the “Buy” link below to support me.