If Laura was still unconvinced of la bellezza di Bello, I proposed a flânerie of Hyde Street after dark. Unjekylled du jour, it wore its other face, the fearsomely romantic night, bright, in places, with livid bruises of light.
—Just look at this! I exclaimed, my voice full of the wonder: the night, and the light, and the silence.
I intoned those syllables with the reverence of an incantation, such is the awe that the perfumed music du noir, le 無 du néant, the 哀れness of nothingness, inspires in me.
Like the floating world of a Japanese screen, my friend the mist, that flâneuse affouleuse, wafted coldly down from Dorrigo like powdered gold, sifted by the streetlamps, to encumber la rue with her noisome bruit du néant.
—I’m scared of the silence, Laura said, as I walked her back to her van—or rather, she walked me back at her Sydney pace, her steps beating a tattoo in doubletime to mine, drifting in consonance with the mist.
Like Tanazaki, all that is obscurity excites my soul:—darkness, emptiness, stillness, and silence. I love les nuages, les songes, les ombres, les femmes, la brume, the mist of their mystery, and the conspiracy of their secrets.
—Dean Kyte, “Éloge au noir”
Well, your Melbourne Flâneur’s Bellingenian holiday is fini and I find myself in Sydney. On Friday morning I booked out of Bello il Bello with the deepest regret, but by the kind of uncanny coincidence that can only happen in Bellingen, I found myself thrown together on the train with a friend for whom I had a birthday present packed in my bagage.
Being able to take the train down to Sydney, a city (I say with no offence to my harbour-hugging friends and followers) I was not really looking forward to seeing, with a friend from the landscape I was déchiré to have to leave behind made the sorrow of that parting a little sweeter to bear.
For I discover that the Bellinger Valley still has a hold on my soul, years after I lived in that verdant éméraude entre Urunga et Dorrigo. For as decadent a city-slicker as yours truly, for a fashionable saunterer whose spiritual home is on the avenue des Champs-Élysées, whose pole-star is l’Étoile, and, failing that, is condemned to swan along Collins Street, to find that Hyde Street, the high street of a country town, is as memorable and significant a boulevard in my soul’s restless errance across the hellish plain of this earthly life is no small discovery.
You might recall, chers lecteurs, that I rushed up there this time last year, dodging the dreaded Lurgi when travel was verging perilously on verboten. Coronavirus or no Coronavirus, I had to see a woman I had not seen in years, but whose remembered image was the Dulcinea that had sustained me throughout sundry Melbourne lockdowns.
I feared, as I said in that post, that we had arrived unwittingly at ‘the terminus of love’:—that when I had turned my back on her at Roma Street Station, in Brisbane, several years before, determined not to look back but only forward to the next time I would see her, that this Eurydice was slipping behind me into the darkness of the past nevertheless.
It was a failed mission in many respects, and as I say in the dedication to my book Follow Me, My Lovely… (2016), if I learnt anything from doing Daygame, it was that ‘the hungry wolf never gets fed’: whenever you go after a woman with a desperate purpose, that hunger, that needy desperation, conspires with fate to throw off your vibe, and you end up going home alone.
I did not know whether, in my hunger to see this particular girl, I had voodoo’d my vibe with her, pushing her further away rather than drawing her towards me by that celestial clockwork which synchronizes the intermeshing Ferris wheels of our fates, or whether there was something else up there in that landscape I had arrived too early for. But my powerful intuition—(that same intuition which had dimly whispered to me as I turned away from C— at Roma Street Station, ‘You will never see her again in this life’)—told me that there was still something else in Bellingen for me, still lessons to be learned in that landscape, still a date I was destined for, even if the little gondola I was riding in had somehow gotten misaligned by my desperate vibe last year and I had yet to come into kissing contact with the other party, in the other gondola, I was due to meet there.
If you don’t know Bellingen, this talk of ‘celestial clockwork’ and ‘Ferris wheels of fate’ will doubtless sound like the ravings of a madman, but anyone who has set foot in that town knows there’s something about the vibe of the Bellinger Valley that makes inexplicable magic happen. The valley is sacred to the local Gumbaynggirr people as the place where their women went to give birth. The things that people need to heal their souls, they find in Bellingen, and the valley draws you in and won’t let you go until you’re healed.
Then it pushes you out without ceremony and tells you to get on with life.
So I was desperate to go back to Bello, but the desperation and the hunger were not to see this girl. More, I felt a soul-sickness when I left the place last year, something within me that I had left undone—or had arrived too early for—and which I needed to go back and complete—or experience.
And, certainly, there was the growing sense for me, during my two-week holiday there, that the renunciation of women, the slow whittling away of them from my life which has taken place since I left Bellingen for Melbourne in 2016, is not a done thing yet. I still have karma with the dames that I am yet to fulfil. I began to feel, despite myself, that there was still an encounter to be had, still something in a similar line to what I had experienced with Emma, the Norwegian tourist I took on a nine-hour flânerie of Bellingen, by night and by day, in Follow Me, My Lovely….
That book is only the most significant, the most memorable record of several flâneries de nuit I took with women through the streets of Bellingen in the years when I lived there. And as I said in my penultimate post, if you have never strolled the streets of Bello at night, in the dead of winter, with a beautiful girl on your arm, you have never experienced the most romantic place in the world for such a rotation.
Even in repetition, with another woman, it’s still a singular, rotatory event.
And it was just one of those ‘rotatory repetitions’—the experiencing with another woman of a singular pleasure I had experienced with so many before her—that is recorded in the video and prose poetic essay above.
I’m hard to move these days, having encountered, in my career as a pocket-edition Casanova, every kind of chicanery and con-artistry that women are capable of. And certainly, nel mezzo cammin di nostra vita, feminine beauty has little sway on me anymore. I’ve become hardened, rather dismissive of women since living in Melbourne, holding them in Delonian mépris. As I write in a prose poem on The Spleen of Melbourne CD:
Even smiling women bored him now: he had encountered all their infinite mendacities and deceptions, such that not one could impress him as being an original article.
And this girl certainly didn’t impress me as ‘an original article’—not immediately, at least.
But, as happens in Bellingen, I kept running into her over the course of a weekend, and each time she stopped to talk to me, she told me that she was leaving; that she had overstayed her scheduled stop here by several days, but couldn’t seem to pull herself out of the town’s mystic gravity. But this time she was off; it had been nice to meet me; good luck with the writing, etc., etc….
When our paths intersected at the top end of Hyde Street on Sunday morning (the spot depicted in the final shot of the video—and in the thumbnail), she sounded pretty determined this time, and I fully expected that she meant it.
But then, that evening, as I’m sitting in the Brewery, sipping my Porter and trying to shift some stuff out of the buffer of my memory and into the pages of my journal, positively the same dame turns up to chow down a woodfired pizza before getting on the road. She still can’t buck the Buñuelian forcefield around Bellingen, that strange gravity that draws you in, if you’ve got healing to do, and won’t let you leave until it’s done.
I’m a little annoyed that this girl is interrupting me when I’ve come (after my Parisian habitude of outdoor écriture) to the public venue of the Brewery for a little privacy, to closet myself with my brains, but I put Moleksine and Montblanc aside and go into a mode I’m known for in Bello—that of a sympathetic ear and occasional counsellor, as she asks me if, perhaps, she should stay here, having set out from Sydney on a solo around-Australia van adventure only a dozen days before.
The long and the short of it is that, despite a swearing-off of women I have largely kept to in the last four years, I find myself on my first instant date since before the Coronavirus, and here in what, in æons past, had served me very well as a date venue.
And it’s in this dangerously seductive atmosphere that has worked to my advantage in years gone by that I find myself being seduced. I now have a chance to really scrutinize this girl, to talk at length with her, and I begin to see, to my chagrin, that this instant date with the bespectacled blonde was the date with destiny I had been bound for.
Now, I said above that I’m not much moved by feminine beauty these days. My good friend Hermetrix, down from Brisbane to join me in a spree of intellectual bafflegabbery, also orbed this darb and will testify to the dame’s top-drawness, but in case, dear readers, you doubt my fortitude to resist a fine-framed dame—or in case you think this frill was less than the Ultimate Yelp in looks—let me give you my impression of her vibe:—for it is the vibe of women—their aura, their energy—that I see these days much more than their woo-bait.
With her tortoiseshell glasses and her rather dowdy brown get-up of puffer-jacket and loosely flared hipsters, in her energy, she reminded me of Dorothy Malone’s bookateria babe in The Big Sleep (1946): with her cheaters off and her hair down, she had the kind of cute librarian vibe I would have liked to have gotten stuck behind the stacks with.
The more she said to me, the more she ticked boxes in my mind—in pencil, at least—that I had given up hope of ever seeing ticked after C—, and I began to realize, to my chagrin, that this girl was my ‘type’.
Though I seem to have a lifelong fatal attraction for blondes, when I say that she was my ‘type’, I don’t mean in looks. I mean that her energy was of the sort that I very rarely run across these days—and which can still make me weak.
My ‘type’ is a kind of earthy, humorous, sensual girl, much more extroverted than myself, one who is capable and well-anchored, well-moored to the material plain of this anti-platonic reality I find so challenging to navigate, and who can thus draw me down, out of the æther of abstraction where I soar and sail, like a balloon adrift, buffeted by my thoughts, dreams, memories of the past and impressions of the future, and into my body, into the present.
Like many men, I’m turned off by intellectual women, but it must be a ‘meeting of minds’ with me: like one of these goofy, unworldly professorial types in a screwball comedy—Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, say—I need a Barbara Stanwyck type to trip me up, to get my head out of the clouds and right down to ground-level—even if it means I graze my forehead in the process.
Blake, al pari di molti altri uomini di grande ingegno non si sentiva attrato dalla donna colta e raffinata sia che preferisce alle grazie da salotto alla cultura facile ed estesa … la donna semplice, di mentalità sensuale e nuvoloso….
Like many other brilliant men, Blake was not attracted to a refined and cultivated woman. Rather, he preferred, to the graces of the drawing room, with its broad but shallow sense of culture, … a simple woman of cloudy yet sensual intellect….
—James Joyce, “William Blake” (my translation)
I too love an earthy girl with whom I can have an intelligent—but not intellectual—conversation. I’ve always been stimulated by the sensual wit of a down-to-earth girl who can burst the bubble of my lofty thoughts with some stunningly grounded insight.
In that respect, I’m a lifelong sucker for Virgos. Throw an earthy Virgo at me and watch my airy Aquarian aloofness founder before her demure modesty and meticulous material capability.
I also have a perverse attraction to Leos. For my sins, I seem to attract a lot of Leos into my life. It’s the attraction of opposite signs: in the Aquarian, the show-offy Leo finds what she would like to be; for while it is impossible for a Leo not to seek attention, it is equally impossible for an Aquarian not to attract attention.
And if a woman happens to be a Leo-Virgo cusper, as C— was, it’s like romantic kryptonite to me, as one born on the cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius. More than most cuspers, both natives are seeking to balance and reconcile very contradictory energies within themselves: the Leo-Virgo is torn between a desire for self-exposure and an equally strong desire to hide her light under a bushel, while the Capriquarian is torn between traditional materialism and revolutionary ideation, which often takes the form of dark dreams and transcendent visions.
Leni Riefenstahl, the adventurous cinematic muse of ‘the Austrian Gentleman’, was a Leo-Virgo, as was compromised collaboratriceCoco Chanel. Leo-Virgos tend to lead extravagant private lives which trip them up publicly—think Bill Clinton.
And if you encounter a Leo-Virgo woman, the chances are that she’s a spy of some variety.
On the other hand, David Lynch and Federico Fellini, with their surreal and disturbing visions, are good examples of the Capriquarian vibe. Everyday mystics living immersed in their vivid imaginations, they’re beguiled by the dark mystery of the bright, wide-awake world. The demonic monk Rasputin was one—as was gregarious gangster Al Capone.
As you can perhaps intuit, what these disparate types have in common is an internal battle between darkness and light, between secrecy and revelation on the one hand, and consciousness and the unconscious on the other. One likes to keep secrets and the other to explore mysteries. It’s therefore a rather unstable relational combination, despite the powerful attraction between their mutually complementary light and dark sides.
Moreover, there is an angle of 150° between the sun placements of these two natives, which is a difficult aspect, neither as hostile as an opposition nor as harmonious as a trine. This inconjunction creates some friction, as their personalities are not quite complementary, although there is a large overlap in their worldviews.
Where the Leo-Virgo and the Capricorn-Aquarian find common ground is in their mutual love of travel, adventure, and elevated conversation, which was the case with C— and I. When I first met her, I actually had a case for her little friend, who stubbornly declined to unzip the gab, while this blonde Leo got continually up in my face with her intelligent talk.
In a case of what John Vervaeke calls ‘reciprocal opening’, by the end of one conversation with her, I had had the ‘meeting of minds’ I so rarely get with girls: we had opened each other up in conversation, adventured down such a wormhole of mutually stimulating ideas together, that it was rather embarrassing to come out the other side and have to pretend there was no attraction there.
And I was forced, by my karma, to repeat that experience with this girl at the Brewery. Though she wasn’t my bête noire, a Leo with a heavy Virgo bias, she resembled C— for me, energetically. Yes, there was a passing physical resemblance between them, as there would be between any two dishy blondes, but it wasn’t really that which attracted me to her.
I often describe my encounter with the material world as being like that of a mole: I’m a blind creature with senses evolved for darkness, for the underground—the underworld—of the unconscious. Hence my insistence on ‘organized crime’ as an organizing theme of The Spleen of Melbourne CD. In my clumsy flâneurial trébuchements through the city, I burrow slowly into the subterranean network of my ideas, impressions, intuitions—the deep mystery that lies on the surface, in plain view. I sense, I palpate in my blind tâtonnements, the hidden structure and clandestine connections of reality without ever seeing the vast totality I am groping slowly through—except abstractly, conceptually, with the mystic vision of my mind’s eye.
It is there I see light and colour, not up here on the surface where you, my readers, live. Dragged out of my depths by the scruff of the neck and dumped on this superficial plain, I’m dazzled by the éblouissement, and just as when you look too directly at the sun, there is for me a ‘darkness at noon’:—everything that is bright and ‘normal’ for you is bleak for me with the dismal darkness of Kurtzian horror.
With senses like these, in the dim light of the Brewery, I was finally able to see this girl, to probe her energy by gentle verbal jousts and parries. Like a blind person seeing another’s face through moth-like pats and taps of their hands, I was able to run mine over the faceted, etheric network of this girl’s form. She looked vaguely like C—, but more than that, she resembled her energy—that exuberant extroversion and earthy, unaffected intelligence that draws me down, out of the paradoxical heights of my depths, into the body, into the present, and will always be a weakness for me with women.
Et son ventre et ses seins, ces grappes de ma vigne,
S’avançaient, plus câlins que les Anges du mal,
Pour troubler le repos où mon âme était mise,
Et pour la déranger du rocher de cristal
Où, calme et solitaire, elle s'était assise.
And her belly and her breasts, these fruits of my vine
Crept, more affectionate than naughty angels,
In to trouble the repose where my soul was cloistered,
In order to shake it from the crystal throne
Where, calm and solitary, it sat.
—Charles Baudelaire, “Les Bijoux”, translated by Dean Kyte
As I said to a good friend who particularly appreciates my translation of this poem, this girl, evoking C—’s kryptonite vibe for me, managed to ‘shake my crystal throne’.
I wasn’t angling to escalate the instant date with her. I was just trying to keep the foundering barque of my reeling ego on an even keel. I was so unprepared for the unexpected discombobulation she had caused me that I did not want things to go any further. But at some point, if she really wanted to know whether Bello was a place worth chucking in her van-tour for, I knew I had to share with her the experience of Bellingen that makes it, for me, the most romantic place on earth: I had to invite her on a nighttime flânerie through the dark and silent streets.
Such a flânerie makes up a sizeable percentage of Follow Me, My Lovely…, and you’re going to read about another two flâneries with a different woman in the forthcoming follow-up, Sentimental Journey.
The rotatory repetition of walking with a beautiful girl, one who evoked the energy of C— for me, through Bellingen at night was the karmic experience I had come back for. I had been too early for it last year, but now I was on-time to meet the encounter that my heart still craves from that landscape, where all the poetic symbols of mystery that beguile my mystic vision meet: in blackness.
We walked along Church Street and turned up Hyde as I escorted her back to her van, and I went as far with this girl as I was prepared to go with her that night: in the spirit of reciprocal opening that our conversation had engendered in me, I tried to share with her the vision that is most precious to me.
As the video above gives some evidence, coming from the noise and bustle of Sydney, she didn’t quite get it. She couldn’t see that invisible substrate of darkness, silence, emptiness, stillness—the 無 of Keatsian negative capability—which is always shining brightly before my eyes as a mandala of transcendent beauty immanent in the bleak and sanguinary hell of the present.
It’s the eternal subject of my writing; it’s the thing I try to capture on film and video (as in the video above, shot minutes after we parted ways, on the very spot where her van was parked), it’s ‘the sound of silence’ I try to capture in my audio tracks, and which I long to be able to share with a woman who might be, as Catherine was for Mr. Blake or Nora for Mr. Joyce, the ‘sister of my soul’, the one who can share the inward vision of heaven and hell—of heaven in hell—that burdens me.
I invited her to hang around and share that bath of silence and shadows with me as I set up my camera and my sound recorder to capture the vivid spectacle of nothingness, but unfortunately, her senses were not evolved to perceive ‘the wonder’ which is the balm of my soul.
But I don’t begrudge her for that. She gave me the experience I had come to Bellingen for this time last year—my final vision, in this life, dim and misty as a cloud, of C—.
If you enjoy sharing my visions, why not consider supporting me in what I do by purchasing the soundtrack to the video below for $A2? Or perhaps share it with a friend.
When I fled Bellingen for Melbourne, making, in one day, the greatest southward bound in my soul’s expansion, crossing a border as yet unmet by my eyes in this lifetime, my heart leapt in intuitive recognition of a place where it thought it might find a new home: When I first glimpsed Euroa flying by my window on the XPT, I had the brief intimation that here I might refind that paradise of bourgeois bohemia I had, only hours before, reluctantly renounced, fleeing the scene of my longestlasting happiness.
Many times since, shuttling in my aller et retour entre Sydney et Melbourne, I have, beyond Benalla in the one direction, and Seymour in the other, made a point to look out for it, that viaduct over a dusty stream, dapplegladed, which seemed to mark on a map in my mind, the afternoon after my départ de Bellingen, a past in un lieu perdu and a potential avenir, here, which recalled it.
When I had, for the first time, the opportunity to alight at this nom de pays which evoked nothing of Ned Kelly for me and everything of Bellingen, I knew—but not at once—my intuition’s error: this place is not that one. In seeing, one afternoon, a fleeting image of a landscape which reminded me of the one I had left the day before, I was mourning a life I had lately fled, not imagining the future I was flying to.
—Dean Kyte, “On having left, but not yet having arrived”
In my last post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I alluded to my dream of a ‘flâneurial cinema’, a cinema that is, in effect, the poetry of cinema’s prosy vision of life. It’s a topic I’ve touched on in other posts on this vlog, but today I’m going to explain what I mean by ‘flâneurial cinema’ by examining my own practice.
In essence, my concept of flâneurial cinema has its foundations in the famous definition of the term ‘documentary’ as coined by John Grierson. According to Mr. Grierson, a documentary film is ‘the creative treatment of actuality.’
The actualité is, in fact, the primordial cinematic form. It’s the thing that Edison and the Lumière brothers made when they merely pointed their silent movie cameras at some corner of life and started to crank.
No pans, no booms, no dollies, no cuts, no sound. Just the shot. Unscripted, undirected, unacted.
For me, the actualité, the plain, unvarnished shot of life, the least inflected cinematic shot you can get—even down to the absence of sound—the equivalent of a ‘moving photograph’, is the primordial, autonomous form of cinema.
The shot of actuality is the acorn from which the vast tree of cinematic genres has spread its branches. The most absurd—(some crude souls in love with spectacle would say ‘the most sublime’)—shots of CGI kayfabery that Hollywood shovels out to us today as ‘cinema’ would be unimaginable without the primordial shot of actuality. It is the foundation-stone of cinematic language, the shot from which we build the edifice of a film.
And it’s that primordial primitivism, a return to the fertile root of cinema in the plain, unmoving, silent shot of life, that undergirds my style of flâneurial filmmaking. The video essay above—a ‘video essay’ half-shot on Super 8 film—attests to that æsthetic of elemental, poetic revelry in the prose of reality.
In a taped interview conducted by fellow filmmaker Willie Varela in 1980, Paul Sharits discusses his extensive use of Super 8 and … attempts to strike what he considers an optimistic note by raising the topic of the imminent death of not only film but also video. He informs Varela that, within three years, computer-based systems will allow users to ‘image anything,’ with ‘no discs, no nothing. Digital, just a program … High resolution, total control.’ This is a sea change Sharits claims to be ‘waiting for,’ and he declares with confidence, ‘Some day, film and video will be passé, man. But not imaging systems.’ Since Varela still regards Super 8 as his format of choice and video as an inferior alternative, he replies that Sharits’ prognostication ‘sounds terrible,’ because digital imaging is ‘not the same as going out in the world and shooting something.’
The essence of flâneurial cinema is ‘going out in the world and shooting something’—something actual. Going out into the world is going deeper into oneself. The world without is the world within, and the flâneur penetrates the inward labyrinth of his sensibility and maps it by walking the variegated ways of the world with his Ariadne’s thread of film, charting the landmarks of his voyage en retour à soi-même.
In my films and videos, I generally focus on empty space, art and architecture because in these motionless places and landmarks, I continually see the inward image of myself reflected in these externalized symbols of emptiness, stillness, silence and darkness—the self-哀れness of 無.
In the absence of the human presence, in the absence of movement, in the absence of sound, and even in the absence of light, the things of actuality, these 物の哀れ, have a vivid ‘livingness’ for me, particularly in their contingent interactions with le temps—time, but equally, the weather which does the corrosive work of time.
Flâneurial cinema, in its focus on actuality, is exclusively un cinéma des ‘images-temps’—of Gilles Deleuze’s time-images: In my films and videos, I’m capturing images of time, not movement, the slow—indeed, almost invisible— movement through time of unmoving things which have a soul and transcendent beauty for me. And, trammelled through the cinematic apparatus of filming and editing, I hope that I bring the transcendent, eternal aspect of the ephemeral things of this world to life once again in my films and videos.
Almost every day for three weeks last April and May, I passed the former Court House in Euroa in my flâneries up and down Binney street. Euroa, as I say in the video essay, had long been a nom de pays with as much significant potential for me as the names of Balbec or Venice had for M. Proust. A fleeting image of it from the train when I had first fled Bellingen for Melbourne fooled my intuition into believing that there I might find another Bellingen, redux.
When finally I had an opportunity to investigate the town, I realized, with some disappointment, that I had been mistaken in that tantalizing whiff of vibe I had got from it en passant. Although it’s a very nice town, with many beautiful buildings of provocative weirdness well-preserved, it hasn’t the bourgeois-bohemian atmosphere of Bello.
One of the more provocatively weird is the Court House, built in 1892, ‘a rare example of a courthouse designed in American Romanesque style,’ as the legend alongside it advises. ‘It is noted for its picturesque massing, the heavy portico with its arched entry and the large bulls-eye vent over the portico.’
I recognized it as a landmark in my consciousness, though of what I could not say. But the image of it—that mass of red bricks, the yellow leaves of the linden weeping in dishabille before it, the green bench fencing off the linden on three sides, the red-and-white poteaux marking the school crossing and rhyming vividly with the red bricks and white trim of the Court House behind them—somehow this sunny image of stillness, silence, and emptiness, this sanctuary of restful attente before the halls of the law, with its unblinking bull’s eye, kept calling out to me as the complex of some thought, or dream, or memory as I passed it.
Perhaps, in retrospect, as I suggest in the Super 8 images of the aspects of the Court House façade, and its spatial relations with tree, benches, poteaux—images which came to me, pre-cut, in my mind, in the order you see them monté in the essay—it is the image of the sanctuary I sought—le nouveau Bello—but didn’t ultimately find in Euroa.
Even now I can’t be certain what relation the images I shot of the Court House that morning and the words I felt compelled to write immediately afterwards—the first draft of the short essay I narrate over those images in the film—had for me, unless I was unconsciously channelling some complex of thought, dream, or memory which the image of the Court House evoked and educed from me.
The smaller filmstrips of Super 8 were more difficult to edit than 16mm … but many reconfigured this supposed limitation as an opportunity to edit in camera and subsequently compared this aspect of 8mm production to ‘a kind of writing with the camera’ or ‘sketchbook cinema’.
—Windhausen (2011, p. 74)
This, too, is a crucial aspect of flâneurial cinema: in its focus on images of time rather than images of movement, it is, perforce, un cinéma littéraire.
Many have been the occasion on this vlog where I have hammered the point (as I do with my clients) that writing is the algebra of thought. M. Truffaut spoke of ‘le caméra-stylo’, the camera as a pen, and the director as the ‘auteur’ of his film. We speak of ‘cinematography’ as ‘writing with movement’, just as we speak of ‘photography’ as ‘writing with light’, the implication being that certain ‘graphic’ manifestations of cognition are better transcribed and translated with the visual lexicography of images than the hieroglyphs of words.
The embodied act of flânerie is of a consciousness moving through a spatio-temporal environment, the external world of Nature, observing the refracted ephemera of time and space, as M. Baudelaire said, like ‘un kaléidoscope doué de conscience’ (a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness).
In Super 8, we have a viewing medium capable of kaleidoscopic colour and abstraction—just compare the backup shots I took with my trusty Olympus Stylus, flat, digital, prosy, to the poetic, psychedelic world of impressionistic blues, reds, whites, yellows, and greens in the Vision3 footage. It’s the same place viewed from the same setups, but the actuality of the world is gloriously transformed.
Digital is prose. Writing with Super 8 is poetry.
As it turned out, when I got the developed and digitized Vision3 footage back from nano lab in Daylesford and fed those shots into the mock-up edit I had made with the digital footage, just to see how that Super 8 montage I had seen in my mind might play, the contrast in textures between two modes of seeing—the prose of digital versus the poetry of film—made both sets of actualités worth preserving in the same piece.
The result is a ‘fildeo’, a ‘vilm’, some film/video hybrid for which there is no name other than the one I have given it:—‘flâneurial cinema’, a type of filmmaking, a type of videography couched in that primordial root of mechanical vision, the greatest special effect I know of, the quotidian miracle of the actualité.
There was a time, right at the dawn of cinema, when the poetry of the prosy actualité was enough to inspire wonder and awe. Maxim Gorky wrote a memorable essay—itself a poem in prose—on his first encounter with the Lumières’ cinématographe in 1896, “Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows”. It must surely rank with De Quincey’s and Huxley’s reports of psychedelic experience as one of literature’s great dispatches from an altered state.
Admittedly, the great man’s reaction to his flâneuristic ‘trip’ was one of mingled fascination and horror at this ‘grey world’ where the boulevards of Paris teemed with ghosts in a silent frenzy, but still, fascination and horror count as wonder and awe.
Seventy years after Gorky’s surreal dérive grâce aux frères Lumière, Jean-Paul Sartre called the spectacle of cinema ‘les délires d’une muraille’—the frenzy on the wall. By then, the actualité had been subsumed and assimilated as backdrop and pick-up shot into the manifold ramifications of generic cinematic fictions.
But the phrase, as a summation of what le septième art is, au fond, is a telling one: The frenetic delirium of actuality and the wall upon which it madly batters itself in simulation, trying to break out of the screen and into our actuality, are both key to defining what cinema ‘is’.
In our ‘post-cinematic’ era—cinema strictly defined as a palpable artefact shot on film—the tendency among moving image-makers is to use the term ‘filmmaker’ rather too loosely to describe their visual productions.
Certainly, I was guilty of that sin for many years. But, when I first got into Super 8, I became deeply conscious of the difference between videography, between shooting and editing a moving image artefact in the low-risk, low-cost, completely abstractive environment of digital screens, one which has no life as an artefact but on digital screens, and filmmaking pur-sang.
The discipline is altogether different, more rigorous, and once you’ve gotten into film, it brings a whole other sensibility of rigour and care even to your videographic productions.
Even if a film is shot on film, the strip of celluloid itself is almost useless. It’s what M. Odin calls an ‘operator’, an object that requires a device, a ‘modem’ in fact, to modulate and demodulate the signal written on the celluloid in a way that is legible by our eyes and brain.
We’re now surrounded by a plethora of such devices. We don’t need, as Maxim Gorky did in 1896, to be in a specific space for the modulation encoded by the cinématographe to be decoded by it onto a wall. That experience—the most purely cinematic of all possible cinematic experiences—is what M. Odin defines as an ‘exclusive rigid connector’—a ‘connector’ being, in his parlance, the device-mediated relationship we, as viewers, have with the multitude of spaces in which cinema occurs.
The projection of a movie in a dark room, the time prescribed of a more or less collective screening, became and remains the unique experience of perception and memory defining the spectator and that any other situation more or less alters. That alone can be called ‘cinema.’
—Raymond Bellour, as cited in Odin (2016, p. 178)
We now carry in our pockets devices analogous to the same elegant design of the Lumières’ cinématographe, capable of both shooting a moving image in one environment and projecting it on a screen in another—or even in the same environment a moment later. Contrary to M. Bellour’s contention, whatever is artistically unique about the experience of cinema is now a kind of ‘portable caliphate’ we evoke and enact within ourselves.
This is the condition of the ‘inclusive rigid connector’, which does not exclude all possible environmental permutations of viewing other than a darkened, chair-filled box ergonomically designed for the optimal accomplishment of a collective screening. The nature of inclusion, M. Odin says, is that a ‘mental cinema screen encompasses and erases the physical space’ surrounding the spectator.
The relationship of connection to this imagined cinema space still remains rigid, as in the traditional, exclusive relationship, because in this internalization of the monolithic cinema screen ‘the spectator makes the effort to mentally force the physical communication space to mimic the cinema space, even in conditions that might first seem incompatible with the cinema experience’.
As a writer, I like precise definitions of words. Along with M. Bellour, I would be quite willing to dismiss the hand-wavy notion that anything other than cinema pur-sang could possibly be ‘cinema’ if it weren’t for the fact that I am neither a digital native nor someone who did all their growing-up before the choking empire of digital screens overran our environment.
But if I am not a ‘digital native’ pur-sang but, rather, one of the first colonists to establish a beachhead in the realm of the digital environment, I am, like all my readers, a native of the world of screens, of which the monolithic cinema screen is the first invader, the conqueror of our impressionable sensibilities, and still the Emperor.
As someone who actually has memories of growing up mostly in an analogue world, and for whom the exclusive rigid connective experience of cinema pur-sang is not a curious anachronism on the bill of fare of media consumption but the Emperor of all moving visual media, I can attest that there are certainly generational differences between screen natives.
The most ‘native’ of these generations born in an era of translucent boxes which surround them, and which are projected, mentally, from the tiny screens in their hands as they walk, are those for whom the computer and the mobile phone were not late-coming novelties when they were already on the threshold of adulthood, but an abstractive environment which was already the environment in which their childhood development took place.
Their lack of a sense of ‘privacy’—indeed, their rejection of the entire notion of privacy—stems from an ontological sense that a screen is not something to shield someone from the gaze of the world but something upon which you actively project the persona of your ego.
We children of the Cold War, like our most purely filmic, pre-televisual ancestors, went to the cinema as to a confessional, to indulge our dreams and phantasies in the privacy of darkness. The great god ‘Screen’ equally boxed us up in our private booths as much as brought us together in communion.
But the post-Millennial generations live in such a mediated relationship to Nature that media is their environmental medium:—they live in their screens. They are naked in their tents, and their tents are made of glass.
Super 8, as a medium of cinema, while it is clearly filmic, with all the æsthetic autonomy that comes along with the plastic film form, thus satisfying my criterion of what is cinematic, clearly does not fit with M. Bellour’s. Indeed, it falls awkwardly among M. Odin’s needlessly nice taxonomy of mental cinemas.
As Super 8 is not generally intended for theatrical exhibition, it is not an exclusive rigid connector, and by M. Bellour’s definition, would not even be classed as ‘cinema’, despite being an artefact of film.
Yet, by M. Odin’s definition of the inclusive rigid connector, Super 8 still ‘aims at preserving the specificity of the “cinema” experience, [although] here the spectator makes the effort to mentally force the communication space to mimic the cinema space’.
This was certainly the case for Super 8 in its classic usage as a convenient small-gauge format for home movies. The object operator (the fifty-foot reel of celluloid itself) was fed into a projecting device in domestic circumstances, a darkened living room with loosely arranged chairs that imperfectly mimicked M. Bellour’s pure cinema experience.
In Les Structures de l’expérience filmique (1969), published at the height of Super 8’s popularity, Belgian psychologist Jean-Pierre Meunier used the term ‘film-souvenir’ to describe the type of domestic cinema we, in English, call ‘home movies’. But the translation is deceptive. As Marie-Aude Baronian puts it in her essay “Remembering Cinema: On the film-souvenir” (2019), the term would more accurately describe ‘a film that addresses an object that is existent and known; in other words, the opposite of a fiction film’.
To put it in still other words, the film-souvenir is a kind of actualité, but one that ‘looks beyond the image, to the person-in-general that it depicts, in order to produce and maintain his existence even during the screening’.
… Meunier’s term ‘refers to films made for private purposes, with the goal of acting as a keepsake or record of an event in the individual’s life, such as weddings, vacations, family gatherings, etc.’ …
The hyphen indicates the closeness and dynamic relationship between souvenir and film and, in so doing, accentuates the value and motif of film as a mnemonic device.
—Baronian (2019, p. 224)
This is certainly far from M. Bellour’s narrow conception of cinema. M. Meunier, en revanche, sees the kind of domestic filmic productions for which Kodak designed Super 8 as ‘mnemonic tools’ or ‘remembering machines’.
The notion of film-souvenir also surpasses its formal and cultural dimensions to become, as it were, the consciousness of cinema itself [my emphasis].
I wonder if the film-souvenir is not solely in the attitude of the spectator, but, as it were, in the attitude of cinema tout court. It is as though the film-souvenir epitomizes, in a sort of media-archeological fashion, the emergence of filmic practices (including proto-cinematic ones) and the numerous practices that pervade the digital age. In that case, could the film-souvenir not be the zero degree of cinematic practice; one that reminds us that, beyond the desire to comprehend (documentary) and to participate (fiction), film is an ongoing search for something or someone that is no more or, at the very least, ‘out of focus’?
—Baronian (2019, pp. 224, 225)
Super 8, therefore, is ‘a medium of memory’, a type of cinema that isn’t capital-C ‘Cinema’, in M. Bellour’s sense, but goes far beyond the traditional cinematic experience to evoke, as in a séance, the living spirit of people who might even be in the same room with us as we watch the film, to re-member them, to reconstitute their living presence in time, just as our memory does.
As Meunier writes: ‘We “play” at believing in this presence, but we never get there since we are always aware of the absence of the other’ (p. 122). And he adds: ‘In the home-movie attitude, our behavior consists of a vain effort to “presentify” the object, an attempt to enter into the intersubjective relations with other people, which necessarily leads to disappointment’ (p.123). This type of identification entails a vain effort to induce a presence that ‘remains irremediably out of our grasp’ (p. 124).
—Baronian (2019, p. 221)
In some sense, my narration in the video essay above serves this purpose: I evoke an invisible place (Bellingen) through a visible one (Euroa). The photo-poetic suggestion is of similarity, analogy; and yet both image and, ultimately, words conclude, with some disappointment, that one is not the other, that the images on the screen are not even similar to the place of memory. The triumph of finally seeing and shooting a place I have long desired to visit ends in Mme. Baronian’s ‘sense of failure’ as I recognize that I do not see in Euroa what I had thought that I might see there.
The film-souvenir, the memory written in moving images, on celluloid, across time, is an interstitial, hybrid space in M. Odin’s taxonomy of mental screen worlds where Super 8, as the pre-eminent medium of memory, would appear to neatly fit, as in its natural niche.
Even if Super 8 exemplifies the cinematic attitude ‘tout court’, as theatrical products, Super 8 films have the ‘para-cinematic’ existence of inclusive rigid connectors, and an apparatus of what M. Odin calls ‘pragmatic introducers’, deliberate interventions designed to replicate the theatrical experience as much as possible in the conceptual screen space, are required to give them even the similitude of being capital-C ‘Cinema’, or ‘cinematic’.
Mme. Baronian’s apprehension of this ‘cinematic attitude tout court’ makes it clear that the caliphate of cinema extended far beyond the experience of sitting in a purpose-built viewing box long before the digital revolution diffused the cinematic experience across multiple platforms, formats, and media. It’s clear, also, that if what Mr. Windhausen terms an ‘anti-artisanal’ small-gauge film format designed for informal home exhibition carries within its tiny celluloid windows ‘the consciousness of cinema itself’—all the higher cognitive capacities of thought and ideation, of dream and memory, in visual form—then the locus of ‘Cinema’—its Mecca—does not really reside in the Kaaba of the purpose-built viewing box.
As a form of actualité, the film-souvenir of Super 8 is the acorn from which cinema, as a means of poetic visual cognition, spreads its branches. And its take-up by artists and experimental filmmakers from Derek Jarman to Guy Maddin indicates that this ‘intimate’, ‘domestic’ form of moviemaking, which has, at best, a tangential relationship with ‘Cinema’, possesses an intrinsic æsthetic of its own that, paradoxically, goes right to the very heart of ‘what cinema is’ as a device for remembering actuality.
… [T]he compact cameras of … Super 8 …, machines small enough to be used often in everyday life, are seen as altering the look of the pro-filmic world in a manner analogous to distillations and distortions of memory.
—Windhausen (2011, p. 76)
It isn’t ‘Cinema’, and yet Super 8 is the essence of cinema: it is the mental screen made actual. This humble medium of memory is the Caliph of the conceptual caliphate of cinema. It’s the stone that the DeMillian builders of ‘Cinema’ refused, but which has subsequently become the cornerstone of the edifice of cinema in its true, poetic function as a ‘remembering machine’, just as, for M. Proust, Swann, the dubious Jew, forms the cornerstone of his own monumental machine of memory.
In its original filmic function, under home-theatrical conditions, Super 8 might be considered an inclusive rigid connector, but it might equally be what M. Odin terms an inclusive flexible connector, in that the mediation of the space around the mental screen in the living room ‘aims at doing everything to preserve our cinema enjoyment, including intervening into the physical viewing space and the cinema space itself.’
But we’re no longer watching Super 8 film in conditions which seek to evoke, even in an ersatz manner, the theatrical conditions of a cinema for which it was never commercially intended: the medium itself, these days, prohibits this. I shot the video essay above on Vision3, a film-stock that has been expressly designed by Kodak as a colour negative film, with the intention that it will not be projected but instead transferred straight to a digital format.
Thus, with my own ‘films’—films on the digital video formats of WMV, or MP4, or MOV—a potential flexible connector is introduced into the experiential mix, one at the discretion of the individual viewer. And I know from my stats on Vimeo that most people who watch my ‘films’ view them on computer screens, mobile phones, and tablets.
These viewers have it within their own power to make the inclusive connector of their experiential relationships with my films as rigid or as flexible as they want or their technology of the moment permits.
M. Odin defines the open connector as one where ‘viewers enjoy, without asking themselves too many questions, the different ways of watching a movie on the various screens available to them’. And, indeed, one could say that the digital video after-life of films like mine, which are shot on Super 8 but can never be screened as a film in a pseudo-theatrical setting, now enables us to have an ‘open connector’ experience with the object operator of the film, one where the multiplicity of potential viewing formats is accepted by spectators as a natural assumption of the environment of screens.
Super 8, it seems to me, as a filmic medium of cinema, an object operator which demands multiple mediations and interventions to view it—and even invites them—is the ultimate mental screen space.
It’s film that was never intended to be ‘cinema’ in M. Bellour’s purist definition of the word, and yet, whether projected in the domestic, communal setting of the home theatre or given a digital after-life on a palm-sized screen, the object operator of Super 8 still retain film’s plastic, æsthetic autonomy of form.
As such, it’s a type of cinema that exists purely in the mind, in conceptual space, in the imaginary cinema of living room or digital screen, and it’s perfectly adapted to its interstitial, liminal condition of film as both physical artefact and digital artefact.
Although Super 8 is technically a device operator, an operator which requires a projecting device to demodulate the signal registered on those tiny 8mm squares, the mere object operator of the film, its status as a physical artefact, is now so uncommon in our abstracted, digital media environment as to make it a fetishistic ‘device’.
To preserve its heritage, the ‘family’ institution has used, throughout history, various operators: graves, chapels, sculptures, painted portraits, medallions, fetish objects (hair strands, menus, candied almonds) that are displayed under a glass dome in the living room or bedroom, or captured on sound recording, photography, film (16mm, 9.5, 8, super 8), analog then digital video. These operators can be classified into two categories: operators with the status of objects (they are there, present, visible to everyone) and operators whose function requires the use of a device that allows them to produce meaning and affects (without this device they communicate nothing). This distinction seems essential to me in order to understand what happened to home movies.
In the early years of cinema, people kept emphasising the benefits of this technology compared to photography. In its issue dated December 30th 1885, the newspaper La Poste wrote: ‘When these devices [film cameras] will be available to the public, when everyone will be able to photograph their loved ones, not in their immobile form, but in their movements, in their actions, in their familiar gestures, with words on their lips, death will cease to be absolute.’
—Odin (2019, p. 180)
As that quotation from La Poste makes evident, the collective consciousness of the cinematic time-image, the significance of cinema as a device for remembering the dead moment, the actuality that can no longer be seen in actuality, was present fully ten years—almost to the very day—before the Lumière brothers inaugurated the first cinematic experience, the first cinematic ‘happening’ of actualités, at the Grand Café in Paris.
To a far greater extent than the photo, the home movie, by means of the life that movement confers on it, is conducive to inducing a high degree of nostalgia, regret, or other sentiments in us.
—Meunier, as cited in Baronian (2019, p. 226)
The simulacrum of life in cinema is really dead, a memento mori, a reminder of death, and thus movement, in this view, makes every image a time-image.
For me, part of the appeal of getting back to cinema’s roots, even in a deeply modified, hybrid fashion, is that, despite the uselessness of the Super 8 film itself for projecting through a device, there is some physical artefact of the art should the digital artefact succumb to death by decommission, by format change, and not survive.
Moreover, as I was getting to the end of my fifty-foot cartridge of Vision3, having got all the shots of the Court House, the tree and the bench which I had envisioned as a preassembled montage in my mind, I saw that there were still maybe ten or twenty seconds left on the reel, a few feet and frames with which I could grab a quick shot of myself sitting on the bench I had filmed, empty, in front of the Euroa Court House—which image you can see in the thumbnail of the video above.
In quite a miraculous shot I didn’t plan and couldn’t predict, bathed in the beautiful shadows of Super 8, hovering between colourful sunlight and deep shade, ‘a bright blot / Upon this gloomy scene’, there is my silhouette, recognizable yet rendered almost invisible by the shadows, as vague and yet as human as a figure on a cave wall at Lascaux.
In other words, on the fetish object of the film itself, there are a few feet in which I exist in longevity, if not perpetuity; for film, despite its fragility, is still a more robust and enduring medium than digital. And again, M. Odin’s classifications break down when it comes to Super 8, for the operator, in this instance, is both object and device: without the enlarging, projecting device, that little sign of me severally repeated at the end of the fifty-foot reel, like a signature on the artwork, will be difficult to see with the naked eye. But even if the last Super 8 projector in the world perishes before that reel of film does, I will still be barely visible on the object of the film itself.
M. Odin is conscious of this problem, the fallacy inherent in the statement made by La Poste, for while a separate projecting device is required to optimally view the object operator, the figure of a loved one inscribed on a sliver of film does not bring him or her back to life. Death continues to be absolute, and the image of the loved one’s movements a time-image.
The solution to this, he proposes, is the ‘dream screen’, a device operator ‘that one can hold in one’s hand, watch as long as one likes, as many times as one likes, alone or with others, a screen that one can carry around, that one can keep with oneself at all times’.
In essence, the dream screen collapses, as the early cinématographe did, image-capture and image-projection into one device, and in the digital after-life of Super 8, where images shot on film can only be screened as ‘videos’, the fetishistic dream screens we port on our persons would appear to square the circle of the object/device problem.
My films and videos are made for this ‘dream screen’: in the last financial year, 39% of all the views of my videos on Vimeo came from either mobile or tablet devices, and the curious thing I’ve observed in the last year and a half is that mobile and tablet viewers tend to be more engaged when viewing my works on these smaller dream screens than desktop or television application viewers.
But beyond the quantifiable stats, the flâneurial cinema of my films and videos are adapted to this diffuse, miniature medium, this conceptual cinema one ports with oneself and imaginatively imposes, by an act of will, upon the environment, because the æsthetic of dreams, of memories, of ideas, of altered states, of abstract, conceptual space informs all my art as a writer and as a filmmaker.
My œuvre is itself native to this conceptual caliphate of a purely ‘mental cinema’, for, in some sense, the mental cinema is a literary space. And similarly, the writing of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the only novelist to successfully establish a second career for himself as a filmmaker, imitates the imagistic and the cinematic, the sense of framing, tracking, panning and cutting, of the contiguity of literary ideas-as-images, and their Eisensteinian disjunction in dialectic with each other.
One might say, with respect to M. Odin’s argument, that the conceptual cinema of the mental screen is, to use André Gide’s term, a ‘mise-en-abyme’, a set of nested frames, and that the variety of introducers and connectors—the media and devices and ‘frames’ by which we screen films—also places them in this reduplicated, recursive dimension of the dream, the memory, the idea, the altered state, which is the abstract, conceptual, eminently literary space.
Carrying our cinema(s) about with ourselves in our va et vient as portable dream screens, we lead ‘framed’ lives, and M. Odin calls this the ‘constructed screen’, whereby the in-built cinematic apparatus of framing, zooming and panning which are features and affordances of our tablets and mobile phones constructs a kind of ‘cubist’ relationship with the external world of Nature.
We frame it by cutting it up into little squares; we frame others, and we frame ourselves in selfies.
… [T]he mobile phone works both as an optical filter (with the zoom it becomes a sort of ‘cultural series’ of prisms, lenses, distorting mirrors, etc.) and as a frame that, as emphasized by Laurent Jenny, violates reality by coercing it. The physical screen is the place of a construction that transforms its into a mental screen leading the viewer to see the world through the pictorial space.
—Odin (2019, p. 182)
Similarly, in experimenting with a dual analogue/digital shooting strategy, as I did in the video essay above, using the latter as ‘backup’ and seeking to emulate in digital the setup of the Super 8 camera as closely as possible, the 4:3 aspect ratio of Super 8 ‘coerces’ actuality to conform to a tighter frame of vision and, consequently, a narrower frame of memory, which, as you can see in the digital sections of the video, the wider aspect ratio of digital more ‘objectively’ expands.
This is to say that the autonomous plastic form of Super 8, the narrowness and constriction of the gauge, acts as much as the impressionistic artifacting of the photo-chemical medium to induce these ‘distillations and distortions’ of vision that are analogous to memory. The narrower aspect ratio is like the constricted diaphragm of our concentrated, microscopic vision on some small corner of actuality we wish to preserve to memory, and which, whenever we seek to re-evoke it, to re-member it, running it through the projector in our mind, we distort and make less clear, gathering more dust and scratches on the positive which obscure the belovèd image.
M. Odin cites my belovèd maître, M. Proust, who made the field of memory his literary empire, and who, in several passages of À la recherche du temps perdu, presents a proto-cinematic, cubistic vision of the external world of Nature, such as the famous approach to Martinville, with its church spires which seem to move across the landscape, or, as in M. Odin’s example, the vision of Balbec severally framed, as on a strip of film, through the dawn-flooded windows of a train carriage.
As M. Proust’s always à propos impressions of the external world make clear, the act of sensitive observation is itself a framing device. Having read one of his memorable analogies, one never sees a thing in the external world of Nature quite the same way again. The moon will always be an actress before her entrance, a box at the theatre an aquarium, a long-distance phone call a propitiation of the Danaids. In making the field of memory his sovereign literary empire, he too induces the altered state. He too creates an abstract, conceptual space in which, as in a dream, things with no obvious relation metaphorically ‘rhyme’ with one another in a way we instantly recognize as a ‘true’ perception of the latent nature of reality, however extravagant M. Proust’s juxtapositions may seem.
Framing is not just simple observation: the screen is a mental operator, a filter that produces distance and changes the perception of reality as it introduces points of reference (the edges of the frame) that lead us to build relationships that do not exist in reality.
Very often, this process is coupled with a will to communicate. … All photographers and filmmakers know this: framing means choosing a ‘view’ on the world and transmitting it to the viewer.
—Odin (2016, p. 183)
And moreover, the self-conscious act of photographic or cinematic ‘framing’ which attends this diffuse, democratic, conceptual cinema reflects, as M. Odin states, ‘a will to transform the world into an aesthetic space’.
This is precisely the dearest existential desire of the dandy-flâneur, that quixotic résistant to the anti-human horror of decadent, late-capitalistic modernity. And failing—as we must do—in our vision to reform the world except through the personal vision of Art, we pedestrian men of fashion turn our pathological desire for ‘a world of Truth and Beauty’ upon the only thing in this landscape of wreckage, ruination and horror we can reform and make an æsthetic object—the object operator of ourselves, a screen upon which we project our civilized ideal of the world.
I have not quite made up my mind whether M. Proust, famously elegant as he was, could be legitimately considered either a dandy or a flâneur, let alone the two combined. Phillip Mann, in his book The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2018), is also undecided on this score, although he suggests that the Proustian Recherche, while not being a dandy novel in the manner of Disraeli, Bulwer-Lytton, or Huysmans, takes full account of the panoply of techniques the dandy employs to æstheticize his life.
M. Proust, in other words, constructs a conceptual persona, ‘Marcel’, le Narrateur, as carefully as the dandy constructs his image. The Narrateur is the dream screen—or the magic lantern, in M. Proust’s case—upon which he projects the image of his own life, rarefied through memory—which is to say, through the creative treatment of actuality.
And if I grant that the technique of æsthetic reconstitution in the Recherche is dandistic, I would add that M. Proust’s ambulatory technique, full of asides off the Guermantes way or the way by Swann’s, the two paths of social progress which direct his neophyte’s journey to the heights of Parisian fashion, is eminently flâneuristic in both design and execution.
The dandy, as Hr. Mann tells us, is a modern Narcissus, and in a world of screens where these operator objects/devices are now used to project rather than to shield the ego, to project a vision of the persona, often unreflecting, often un-self-aware, which we more and more often call ‘narcissistic’, into conceptual space, wherein lies the difference between Narcissus, the dandy in love with his own unattainable Ideal of Personality, which he nevertheless strives to gather into himself in the transcendent image of Art, and narcissist, the bourgeois consumer of images who is in thrall to his or her own selfie?
The matter is a delicate one, but the distinction, I think, lies in this: As I said at the beginning when I spoke of flâneurial cinema as ‘going out into the world and shooting something’, the dandistic gaze, paradoxically, is turned outward on the world, as I think M. Proust gives monumental and consistent proof of doing across 3,000 pages in his Recherche for himself.
Narcissus finds his image mirrored back to him in the Truth and Beauty of the external world of Nature—evanescent, barely (or rarely) graspable, but out there, somewhere, in some transcendent platonic image of what the world—and life—can be like on the best days of flâneuristic æsthetic investigation.
The narcissist, on the other hand, is completely self-regarding and incurious about the external world of Nature, which is merely a backdrop that ‘frames’ his or her selfie. Existing in a totally artificial, conceptual environment of screens, the narcissist is trapped in a self-referential mise-en-abyme of psychosis.
It is only by a creative treatment of actuality, by getting out of oneself and going out into the world and shooting something—some external object in Nature that is real, and tangible, and actual, one that stands as a landmark and a symbol in the inner landscape of the filmmaker—that we escape the abysmal, recursive psychosis which the artificial environment of screens has induced in us.
… Narcissus is not completely without object. The object of Narcissus is psychic space; it is representation itself, fantasy. … If he knew it he would be an intellectual, a creator of speculative fiction, an artist, a writer, psychologist, psychoanalyst.
—Judith Butler (as cited in Mann, 2018, pp. 255-7)
Or a filmmaker.
Going out into the world and shooting something is going deeper into oneself. The world without is the conceptual space of the mental screen, as M. Odin has shown us. The images we choose to crop and frame and subject to the process of ‘cinema’ are very much self-portraits of our own vision and sensibility.
And in the hybrid way in which I manipulate film form, through the abstractive tools of digital media, I am very much seeking a rapprochement with cinematic ‘content’.
Any personal vision in contemporary moviemaking must now come solely from its content, not its form.
—Scott Stark, as cited in Windhausen (2011, p. 72)
But if, as Mr. Windhausen says, ‘for film, the experiment is over’, and the personal vision now lies in the content of a film, not its form, I would argue, as Slavoj Žižek does, that the autonomous, plastic form of film itself, in this conceptually exhausted space, is cinematic ‘content’, an assimilated trope or device of the medium in the conceptual caliphate of cinema(s).
I’m very much of the view that digital media exert such preponderant countervailing resistance to artistic manipulation that the enormous breadth of affordances in digital media negates personal vision.
But I’m a writer, an artist raised in an analogue era and educated in the most analogue and conceptual art forms. I think, by contrast to many artists embracing the digital far less cautiously than I, that my personal æsthetic, what I call the ‘Ideal of Personality’ which manifests itself, for an artist, as his intrinsic sensibility and style, has been sufficiently cultivated by the rugged self-reliance that analogue media, such as the humble pen and typewriter, engendered, the ability and the necessity to cognitively conceptualize and execute the literary work of art for oneself, that I bring a countervailing resistance to digital media’s resistance to manipulation, and that my manipulations of cinematic form ultimately produce ‘content’.
If, as I said at the beginning, flâneurial cinema is a ‘literary’ cinema, then by my definition of writing as the algebra of human thought, flâneurial cinema is a continuation of that cognitive activity, a writing of thoughts, ideas, dreams and memories, inward, altered states in a conceptual space of images composed of the external world of Nature.
There is, therefore, an external object which the dandy-flâneur seeks to represent in the conceptual space, the dream screen upon which he represents himself. We call this external object ‘style’, or ‘artistic vision’: we recognize the independently verifiable world of the senses refracted through the peculiar lens of some subjective mode of seeing, the writer’s unique manner of laying words on the page in such a way as to build up the densest representation of the external world as inward conceptual space.
It is the world, but not as we have seen it before, a world of rare Truth and Beauty, and we see it mirrored, reflected in the elegant sensibility of the artistic dandy, who shows us, as much in his own person as in his artistic productions, his ideal what the world could be.
I’ve found my style as a filmmaker, and it lies in the same dandistic, flâneurial style that undergirds my writing. In the void of emptiness, stillness, silence, and darkness, in images of the external world that reflect the self-哀れness of 無, I continually see the Narcissus-portrait of myself, my inner world, writ large.
Thus, as a screen native at the cusp of the analogue/digital divide, if there is a ‘projection of the self’ in my flâneurial films and videos, it is one where the image of the external world is turned inside out and made into a mental landscape.
Every film and video I shoot is a selfie of some kind, even if the human form—(least of all my own)—never appears in it. In my flâneurial cinema of actualités taken of empty spaces, from which I rip the recorded location sound and substitute for it my own cobbled-together soundscapes, I forge a psychic space which reflects my inward vision of outward things in a creative treatment of actuality.
I create cloistered worlds, artificial paradises of dream, memory, idea, altered state and conceptual space which give an outward representation in images and sounds of the perfect world, the Ideal Image of a World of Truth and Beauty within myself, which I hope I reflect in myself, in my person, and in all my artistic productions.
The dandy invents nothing. It is reality that is rendered artificial. Abstract dreams inspired by memory unfold from a position that seems already to be impervious to time. The dandy has a past but no future. …. While the dandy per se confines himself within the tragic world of Narcissus when he employs his æsthetic memory in the cultivation of his own person, the writer-dandy and by extension the director-dandy are arguably in a privileged position as they can apply their ideals to the limitless realm of fiction. The latter even has the potential to fulfil the depressive’s ultimate dream, the creation of a hermetic, artificial and complete world in accordance with his own highly individual ideal of beauty, his specific tastes….
—Mann (2018, pp. 257-8)
If you’d like to keep me in Super 8 film, you can purchase the soundtrack to the video essay below for $A2.00 via Bandcamp. It’s an expensive hobby, and I’m planning to put out more Super 8-based content this year on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, so all your support will be greatly appreciated.
‘[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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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 areflâneur 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Kane—chiaroscuro 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.
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.
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.
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 becomes ‘noir’ 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 becomes ‘noir’ 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.
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.
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.
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  (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.
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.
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.