I was throwing my foulard over my shoulder and buttoning myself up against the bitterness of another Melbourne winter, half-longing that Sunday was Wednesday, when I would be in Bello and practically in a bikini (stripped, as I would be, of the brown overcoat, scarf and gloves), when my cover as a man of the crowd was temporarily blown and I made an éblouissement to the eye of a passing photographer.
A shout-out to Melbourne guitarist and composer Mastaneh Nazarian, one-fourth of the collaborative quartet Kafka Pony, who tied into your Melbourne Flâneur outside the Tin Pot Café in Fitzroy North as I was tying off the loose ends of my toilette in public, preparatory to braving the bitter wind, and managed to break through my brooding mood de bourreau enough to persuade me to lighten up a little and stand still for a few photos.
‘You’re not really that serious,’ she jokingly chided me as she wrangled me into bearing my fangs in a grin.
Il Divino, with his nez cassé, his saturnine, satyr-like features, and his filthy black rags and boots, would go glowering about le vie di Roma, according to Raffaello, alone and looking for all the world ‘like a hangman.’
As I explained to Mastaneh, even when I think I’m smiling, my face seems to naturally wear the mien of an executioner. Being an introvert, I am so mired dans les profondeurs of my dark dreams and deep cogitations, so far from the sunny surface of life on which le reste du monde mindlessly floats, that even when I make an epic breaststroke and launch myself off the ocean floor towards the surface in a display of exuberant extroversion, I still only get half-way, my ideas of extravagant, gregarious gaiety being, it seems, so subtle and leaden that they resemble the deadly seriousness of Keatonian, granite-faced gravity much more than gay levity.
As I joked to her while we walked to the Edinburgh Gardens, following a brief stop-off at her apartment to grab her camera, I noticed that she didn’t invite me up in case I was Jack the Ripper.
I must admit, I have become a deal less tolerant of adventitious tyings-into by interested strangers on the streets of Melbourne since the CV. As a gentleman of the old school, I dislike familiarity and informality as a rule, and I was a little vexed when Mastaneh tied into me in front of the Tin Pot.
She caught me coming out of the café, where I had been plotting the literary crime I intend to commit against the citizens of Melbourne, and I was still half-dreaming of the heroine of my literary thriller, trying to see and understand who this fatal ‘girl of my dreams’ is.
Mastaneh caught me in a state of confusion, a kind of hypnopompic state as I emerged from both the café and the trance-like reverie of introverted intuition in which I do my best writing. Coming slowly to my senses, I was attending with the drunk’s narrowness of focus to the extroverted sensing activities of sorting out my toilette ahead of a long trudge back to Abbotsford in the cold.
My tongue was tied and rather tardy in coming loose as she launched a dozen questions at me, and I was faced with that problem which perplexes the person who habitually lives, as I do, in the platonic realms of thought, and for whom a dandified appearance, howsoever glamorous, is but the least and weakest anchor attaching him to this material reality; to wit:—how to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’
I confess, between the befuddlement of awaking from the waking dream of writing and the regrettable reluctance to allow myself to be abordé by a stranger (a consequence of the Coronavirus), I didn’t make it altogether easy for Mastaneh to get to know me, but all credit to her for breaking down my resistance, getting me to stand still for an impromptu modelling session in the Edinburgh Gardens—and even getting me to smile.
It’s my anecdotal impression that people have become a great deal less pleasant to interact with—even casually—since the Coronavirus, so it was a blessed relief to have an encounter with a stranger in Melbourne that left me feeling richer, not poorer, for the experience.
When I think of the often grating encounters I’ve had with people in Melbourne post-pandemic, full of casual impolitesses towards me, an assumed familiarity and informality with a perfect stranger I find detestable, and a marked decline in people’s social skills and graces after two years of enforced isolation, I’m reminded of the poetic homily which the Toronto radio DJ intones at the end of the Canadian short film Cold (2013):
When I first moved to Toronto, a lot of people told me to be ready for the cold. It’s funny, you know, because you get used to the weather pretty quick. It’s the city that takes a while to warm up to you – the people.
We’re so safe in everything we do, hiding behind head-phones and cell phones, stealing glances on the subway, sticking to what we know, who we know. God, do we ever stick to who we know! Maybe if we didn’t, we’d realize that we’re all a little lonely out here. Each of us is a little cold.
Melbourne is not quite as intemperate as Toronto, but certainly, the metaphor of the city’s weather as an analogue for the froideur of the people transfers rather neatly to Melbourne: each of us has become a little colder in the last two years, not least of all your Melbourne Flâneur, who has become a great deal more guarded in his dealings with people and colder of eye.
Despite the Victorian Government’s rhetoric, staying apart has certainly not kept us together socially, and I make no bones about the fact that, having observed a noticeable decline in people’s social skills during the past two years, the less I have to do with my fellow Melburnians post-pandemic, the happier I generally am.
What a regrettable state of affairs! It really oughn’t to be that way. As the Toronto DJ says at the beginning of Cold:
Well – I just think what makes the city colder is the fact that we’re so busy trying to stay out of each other’s way….
—Devo G., Cold
Although she tied into me awkwardly, my interaction with Mastaneh was perhaps the first pleasant encounter I’ve had with a stranger in Melbourne in two years—the first one where I didn’t wish that my mien de meurtrier was not merely a façade of pre-emptive defence against being bothered by someone who wants to take energy and value from me rather than, as Mastaneh did, generously give it.
Her impromptu approach was a pleasant premonition of what I was to expect later on in the week, for your Melbourne Flâneur is currently ‘out of the office’ and on holiday in Bellingen, that little town tucked away on the North Coast of NSW which is like the whole of Melbourne folded down to two small streets—a street-corner even, the corner of Hyde and Church streets being as legendary in the flâneurial experience of your peripatetic scribe as either Collins or Bourke streets.
If Paris is my spiritual home, my Mecca of memory and flânerie, and Melbourne my ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’, a colony in the cultural caliphate of that ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, then Bellingen—(Bello to the locals)—is some kind of ‘home away from home’ for me:—it has, like Paris, some spiritual resonance for me, some sympathetic vibration which makes my heart beat more easily here than it does even in Melbourne.
I’ve looked forward to my holiday for almost as long as I’ve been away. Last year I wrote a post, “The Bellingen Flâneur”, in which I recorded the gratifying discovery that, after five years away from this town, which I lived in comparatively briefly and left under a cloud of heartbreak to take up my life in Melbourne, I had merely to take one circuit of Hyde Street to find myself back in the bosom of people who thought well of me—a revelation which I hadn’t at all expected.
A poetic note I wrote in my notebook earlier this year, as I sat on the platform at Macedon Station, says it all:
I’m always searching for Bellingen, I realized, as I strolled beneath the low, lichened branches of Macedon, but I did not find it here. As I passed the welltended hedges, the verdant rues-murs of Victoria street, like Proust before the hawthorns, I had an intimation of something—too dim to be the image of a memory, yet too sharp to be a presentiment—but, like the inverted exposure of a negative, I could not say what it is. Except, perhaps, it occurred to me, it might have been the equation of an analogy: Macedon is to Woodend what Dorrigo is to Bello: beautiful but dead.
Why am I always searching for Bello? What did I leave behind there when I came down here? what life, or vision of life? I don’t know. But if I’m honest, even more than Paris, it seems a paradise lost I’m always searching for, a heart’shome, in these Victorian climes. Perhaps, as much as I hate to admit it, in Bellingen I found a community, a collective of which I was a part.
I ‘hate to admit it’ because, being a dandy and a flâneur, I am necessarily a solitary soul—wolfish, un homme à part. The dandy-flâneur may indeed be Mr. Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’, ‘the type and genius of deep crime’ who refuses to be physically alone. He may find himself, as its guiding spirit, the genius of that ambulating loci, in the amorphous foule as it vomits itself over the sidewalk, but like the old man of Mr. Poe’s tale, the dandy-flâneur, as a man who stubbornly stands outside the hierarchy of bourgeois masculine values, has nothing but an icy, Flaubertian contempt for the crowd he is ‘in’ but not really ‘of’.
He is only ‘of the crowd’ in the sense that Mr. Poe gives in his classic formulation, as being ‘the type and genius of deep crime.’ I have written elsewhere of the dandy’s ‘operative identity’, his ‘cover’ as a spy, a saboteur and æsthetic terrorist, a résistant to bourgeois, capitalistic values who blows up his whole life in an economic Non serviam, detonating himself in a vision of Truth and Beauty in the densest midst of the blandest crowd. The crowd too is part of the dandy-flâneur’s ‘operative identity’, a shield and a cover, a part of his fashionable armature, under cover of which he prosecutes his æsthetic crimes of resistance against the bourgeois madness of technocratic capitalism.
In Bellingen, I made a spectacular explosion every day on Hyde Street in my hat and my suit which, as people have frequently told me since, was an éblouissement which gladdened their eyes. In Melbourne, too, I make the same daily detonation, but the crowd is thicker, denser, more obviously a shield behind which even as conspicuous a dandy as myself can fade into the background of the crowd, an æsthetic terrorist ready to pull the pin of my poetic wit in the midst of this foule.
As a man of fashion, I pose a narrow portal onto immeasurable depths. And as a writer, the best and truest part of who I am lies in another dimension to the fashionable frame that wanders, lonely as a cloud, as a mere man of the crowd.
Melbourne has certainly grown a little colder since the Coronavirus, and I wish I hadn’t become more reluctant to engage with people.
In the days when I used to do Daygame myself, I believed it was the best way to cut across the frame of coldness people wear in the city to insulate themselves against importunate approach. You never know who an attractive stranger is—or could be—until you cut across their frame with a pre-emptive offer of value and warmth.
I didn’t know what a talented person was generously giving me her attention when Mastaneh tied into me. It was only when I was through two days of train travel and safely ensconced in Bello that I was at my leisure to see who Mastaneh was. As a literary man, I can only approve of a band with the good taste to name itself after a writer who was content to be another anonymous ‘man of the crowd’ and subversive saboteur of bourgeois society, and I invite you to check out Kafka Pony’s music on Bandcamp and show them some warmth.
Mastaneh gave me a good lesson as to what to expect when I got up to Bello, and what I missed about the place—that sense of warmth, of community.
I didn’t just shuck my overcoat when I got up here, out of the cold of Melbourne and into the bosom of people who think well of me, despite my singular oddity as the dandy of Hyde Street. I got into the warmth of who I really am when I don’t feel I have to wear the face of an executioner just to get from one end of Collins Street to the other unmolested by energy vampires.
It would be nice if, instead of staying out of each other’s way, we could get back into each other’s way in Melbourne—not with the sense that I have so often experienced it, post-pandemic, of strangers seeking to take energy and value from one another, but in the way that Mastaneh so generously demonstrated—of seeking to freely give a little warmth and value to a stranger.
Someone ought to stop me. Last Saturday I took a flânerie to Kyneton, a town I’ve long intended to visit, and trawling the thrift shops for a fashionable trouvaille (as is my wont), I walked out of the Salvation Army op-shop in the main street 75 scoots lighter.
I hadn’t even been looking at it. Perusing the glass cabinet behind the counter where they keep the precious stuff, my eye had been pursuing a pair of Parisian cufflinks with interest when it fell on the lowest shelf.
Camouflaged under a heavy patina of dust and looking as battered and dinted as a busted fender was a dark grey Fedora doing everything it could to fool the unwary that it was unwearable.
My connoisseur’s eye knew better.
As a man with more hats than Zaphod Beeblebrox could ever wear, one glance told me that it was my diminutive size. And if a hat is my size, dear readers, you better believe it’s got my name written on the sweatband.
God help me. Someone put the cuffs and camisole on me quick before my mitts reach my pocket!
It was too late. I asked the lady if she would let the beast out of captivity for a moment, and she obliged. It didn’t jump up and lick my face, but then it didn’t need to. It knew it was in the hands of its new owner.
The only surprise on my side was when I turned the hat over and gave it the customary glance inside the crown. I had thought that I was dealing with a vintage Akubra, some model they don’t make anymore, and I wanted to see what creative name the marketing boys had dubbed it with.
There was a lot of gold lettering on the leather sweatband, and all legible, telling me that this hat hadn’t been worn in two or three generations. But instead of the Akubra logo I had expected to find, I saw the much rarer shield of the John B. Stetson Company U.S.A., and beneath it, the words ‘MADE IN AUSTRALIA’.
It’s hard to find an Australian-made Stetson these days. I have two others, a Springaire and a Whippet, the latter of which I was wearing when I found this baby in Kyneton.
Aussie Stetsons were made by Akubra under exclusive licence between the 1950s and 1970s, representing a synthesis of two new-world hat-making traditions. The ruggedness of the American plains and the Australian outback both demanded native brands of durable headwear suited to those environments, and the Stetson and the Akubra brands have since become synonymous with the myth of the cowboy in one country and the myth of the bushman in the other.
At the time of writing, I own about a dozen hats, including four Akubras (three of which are vintage), three vintage Stetsons, a vintage Christys’, and a number of venerable hats from British and American brands so ancient they don’t exist anymore. These chapeaux are so old that even our all-seeing oracle, Mr. Google, is ignorant about them and incapable of giving me much enlightenment as to their age and provenance.
I have rarely bought a new hat. Almost all the quinzaine of hats I have ever owned, even those that have merely spent a season with me, have had a history preceding their visitation on my head, and the older the hat is, the more I adore it.
The Stetson Centennial, for instance, gives every evidence of hardly ever being worn, and certainly not in recent decades. But after I gave it a brisk brush, a thorough treatment with B.K. Smith’s Felt Hat Care Kit, and a good steam and block over the kettle, dust and dints dropped away like the years, and the Centennial came up as nicely if it had just come out of the Myer Store for Men.
And therein lies the point: abandoned in the corner of an attic for decades, suggesting, with their mute testimony, that they may never even have seen the light of day atop some gent’s head, these antique hats have their proper lives with me. Antique as they are, they’re not curios to be displayed and never worn. They do a daily job of practical work for me, braving rain and shine as the companions of my flâneries.
I love my hats with a mad passion, and it’s fair to say that if I have one irresistible vice, it’s the acquisition of more hats, whenever and wherever I find them.
These days, I can withstand the blandishments of a beautiful dame with Olympian aloofness. But if that Lorelei were to wave a 6¾-size hat at me, I would just about debase myself in the dust at her feet in my urgent urge to acquire it. Give me more hats, O God! Let me swim in a river of rabbit fur like Scrooge McDuck in his lucre!
I don’t know where this bankrupting addiction to headgear came from, chers lecteurs, except to say that it emerged along with the passion for suits in my teenage years.
The dandy, the true-blue, pure-blood dandy, acquires a style in his youth and never renounces it. He would sooner abandon his mistress than his style. Sometimes he chooses poorly in these tender years, naïf as he is in the ways of fashion, and selects a style that does not age gracefully with him. This was the unfortunate fate of Barbey D’Aurevilly and of Robert de Montesquiou.
I think—(although I may flatter myself on this score)—that I chose more wisely than those two gents. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda say in Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989), ‘[t]he dandy in historical regression most often directs his attention to those periods in history that provide a great wealth of æsthetic ideas.’ It would seem that for me, in my teens, when the love of suits and ties, hats and shoes overtook me as a commanding passion, that the years between roughly 1920 and 1960, between the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment and the idiotic youthquake, I found that period of history rich in æsthetic ideas that are resonant for me.
In my soul, I’m essentially a mid-twentieth-century man, a grey flannel suit man, a silent generationer, if we take the average of those two arbitrary dates. The twenties, thirties, forties and fifties are the decades of high modernism in art and literature, which is to say, the period when the classic is at its most avant-garde. My style, as a man of letters and a man of fashion, is both classic and avant-garde, which is to say, highly modern.
The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the single most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.
Having chosen the modern period as that period of history from which I draw æsthetic inspiration, and having a personal style, both literary and sartorial, that is simultaneously classic and cutting-edge, I think I have avoided the fate of those two aforementioned gentlemen. There’s still something very futuristic about the modern style, antique as it appears in our hellish period of postmodern decadence, and in a business meeting with other suited men, I can still pass, dandy that I am, as a contemporary at the forefront of creative imagination while simultaneously appearing to be a conservative standard-bearer of traditional taste.
The dandy ‘passes’ because he is the rigorous refinement of the rectitude and merciless geometry of men’s fashion: he is so ‘correct’ in his style that he shines with an uncommon éclat. Likewise, the littérateur of supreme style shines forth a unique light through the formal perfection of his manipulation of language.
In the art, the literature, the cinema of mid-century—and in its fashions—I seemed to see the diffuse image of my ‘Ideal of Personality’ as a teenager. And in the rule, the T-square, the compass and the protractor of mid-twentieth-century men’s fashion (which is to say, the suit, the tie, the shoes, the hat), I must have seen the elements of the dandy’s geometric art of correctness and precision, a supremely modern art where classical proportion meets avant-garde abstraction in the ‘putting-together’ of the individual’s vision of himself, just as the stylish writer communicates the totality of himself—his vision of the world—through the precise selection and assemblage of words.
Is it possible, dear readers, that I am the only writer who is known by his hat? The hat—more particularly, the Fedora—has become almost symbolic of me, and this seems infinitely à propos for an artist who makes his living by manipulating the abstract, cognitive tools of human language.
Hamlet claimed that he could be ‘bounded in a nutshell’ and yet call himself ‘a king of infinite space’. Similarly, that vast universe of imagination I Napoleonically command could be circled by the girth of a Fedora’s crown, say, 6¾ in size—6⅞ at most.
In thinking about this post, I scoured that sovereign empire I reign over as a despot, like Herod hunting out the boy babies, but I could not think of another writer whose image we automatically associate with the hat as a symbol of the cognitive world he commands. The closest I could come to another writer for whom the hat seems to have some stylish significance as a sartorial gesture towards literary panache is James Joyce.
As a fellow Aquarian (and thus no stranger to setting outrageous trends, literary and otherwise), Mr. Joyce had a dandistic taste for exotic headgear. Several photographs show the immense, lucid dome of Shem the Penman variously swathed in a newsboy’s flat cap, a Greek fisherman’s cap, a straw boater, and dinted, shaggy Fedoras worn with sprezzatura.
Undoubtedly, the Irish monarch of modern English letters liked a crown as much as I do. But despite this, I would hesitate to say that the first thing most people think of if they deign to bust a bissel of thought on the author of Ulysses is his hat. If anything, it’s his cane, the precious ‘ashplant’ he bequeaths to pretentious Stephen Dedalus.
So, being an ‘outdoor auteur’, a devotee of the café terrace, the park, and other undesked expanses in which it is impracticable to write, it could be that I have made the hat as much a part of my literary toolkit as my Montblanc, my Moleskine, or my manual typewriter.
I just turned 39 last month, and I bought my first hat in 1999, when I was 16 years old, so I have been wearing un beau chapeau for more than half my life—and much longer than it has been fashionable to do so.
My first hat was a black Derby of American origin—a particularly bold choice for a neophyte, and it was a bit of a false start in my hatting journey, for I recognized with the wisdom of hindsight that a Derby, or bowler hat, is better suited to a round face rather than to my narrow, delicate features.
It’s a hat that looks splendid on a fat man. Sydney Greenstreet, for instance, in The Maltese Falcon (1941), incarnates the corpulent elegance of classic British tailoring while on safari in San Francisco à la recherche du ‘black bird’, and he caps his cutaway ensemble off superbly with that signal symbol of ‘Britishness’, the black bowler hat.
Likewise, Alfred Hitchcock is everything the well-dressed London rubbernecker ought to be when he assists, at the beginning of Frenzy (1972), at the revelation of the Necktie Murderer’s latest divertissement along the Embankment. The black bowler hat completes the Master of Suspense’s funereal uniform in his brief cameo, the upward arc of the brim giving him a more than maudlin air as it contrasts with his pendulous jowls and protuberant downturned lips.
I still have my Derby, some 22 years later, and feel déchiré about the prospect of ever parting with it, even though I rarely wear it. As the most formal of my hats, it’s on active retirement, reserved for black-tie, or the races.
If you’re a gentleman, you ought to have at least one good hat that you wear regularly. A hat is the crown to any outfit you wear, and there’s rarely a man who is not improved by a good hat on his head.
And here’s a word of wisdom I can offer to the hesitant hat-virgin: If you fail to catch the hatting bug after your first acquisition, at least make sure that your sole purchase is based on what will sit well on your features; for a good hat should complete a man’s face. It should not only fit your head in girth, but in style.
With my second acquisition, made in 2000 when I was a mere gamin of 17, I was on surer footing than with the Derby. It was then that I purchased my first Fedora, a black number by Varden, a Melbourne brand that I believe has gone the way of all flesh, and which I purchased from a theatrical outfitter in Brisbane.
My goodness, did I cop some stick for wearing that hat! I was porting Fedoras years before the rappers re-popularized this piece of headgear to my generation, and you wouldn’t believe the brass-ball confidence it took to carry my crown off before the rappers made the Fedora ‘respectable’ to my millennial contemporaries.
Though the imprimatur of ‘legitimacy’ that the rappers’ gave to the Fedora subsequently made it easier for me to port my crown, it is questionable whether, in the long run, they have done the hat I loved avant la lettre any favours by their adoption of it.
Legion are now the online memes in which manboys port sweatshop ‘Fedoras’, cheaply made from synthetic patterned fabrics. And in Australia, one has to regularly swallow one’s bile at the sight of wrinkled-kneed Boomers, dressed like their grandsons in Bermuda shorts and printed T-shirts, pretending they’re at Byron with their scabrously woven sweatshop Trilbies.
Let us be clear: these cheaply-made, narrow-brimmed things clinging to the heads of Boomers and manboys are not Fedoras. A Fedora is not made in an Asian sweatshop from separate pieces of synthetic, patterned fabric machine-sewn together. It is a soft, malleable hat moulded from felted fur, such as rabbit or beaver, and as such, there is an artisanal handicraft to the creation of a Fedora.
Moreover, these imitation hats which the uninitiated partisans of YouTube cringe compilations are calling ‘Fedoras’ are, by any strict definition, no such thing. To call these ugly things ‘Trilbies’ is to give them too much dignity, but if they bear resemblance to any respectable variety of hat, the narrowness of the brim (which I suspect is more a function of the manufacturer’s miserliness than a function of fashion) brings them in line with the Trilby rather than the Fedora.
Another disservice that the rappers have done to the Fedora, and which their partisans have adopted by imitation, lies in the fundamental matter of how one wears the hat.
The problem is that the chain of succession in hat-wearing was broken by the Boomers somewhere in the mid-sixties. The abandonment of the hat, as of the suit, is one of those innumerable generational crimes for which the Boomers should be made to answer at a new Nuremberg. Contemptuous of their fathers’ style, the Boomers discarded suit and hat, and thus failed to model to their children how these items of apparel ought properly to be worn.
Consequently, when the rappers took up the Fedora a couple of generations later, they were not educated in the art of elegantly wearing it. One should never wear a Fedora straight down, with a level brim, on one’s head. Even worse, one should never wear a Fedora on the back of one’s head, like some striped-shirt hipster in Thornbury.
The Fedora, like almost all hats with a curved brim, is designed to be worn cocked forward on one’s temple, over one eye. This unwritten law was well-known to men between 1920 and 1960, in the days when a well-dressed man was not complete without his hat and fathers educated their sons in the arcanities of natural elegance by their example.
The Boomers would have had this example modelled to them by their fathers and grandfathers, but deprecating tradition, they abandoned the brimmed hat to go abroad bare-headed and bearded to the eyes, with Samson-like locks on full, flowing display.
I remember my mother said to me once, in the early years after the rage for Fedoras had been reignited by the rappers, that the hat suited me, but that she thought it rarely suited most men’s faces. I disagreed with this, as I do now, but I understood the subtler point she was making: most men who port a Fedora today don’t know how to wear it, and the Boomers who have taken up cheap imitations of the Fedora have actually forgotten how their fathers and grandfathers wore their hats.
Cock your hat—angles are atttitudes.
It’s not obvious that a brimmed hat, particularly a Fedora, should be worn at a distinct angle. It actually took me some time after acquiring my first Fedora to realize this fact. I would put it on in the first year and wonder why it didn’t look good.
It was Humphrey Bogart who taught me, by his inestimable example, how to port a Fedora with confident panache. While the hat, with its soft, casual elegance, eminently appropriate for most occasions, was the standard piece of all-purpose headwear for men between the wars, Mr. Bogart has become the only man one thinks of when one thinks of the Fedora.
Possibly this is due to the fact that, starting his film career in earnest as a screen gangster in the 1930’s, Mr. Bogart’s sartorial style owed a great deal to Messrs. Capone, Luciano et al., all great aficionados of the Fedora.
With the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Bogart seemed to transfer the image of the gangster to that of the crooked, though honourable, American gentleman in ambiguous circumstances—the M. Rick of Casablanca (1942), for instance. The Fedora, with its democratic adaptability, seems an appropriate hat for a man like Rick Blaine to port as he hobnobs casually with European refugees from all strata of society.
But to return to the Stetson as the best-selling brand of American Fedora, in the war years it became popular to say, quoting the company’s advertising, that one should keep information that might be valuable to the enemy ‘under your Stetson’. Mr. Bogart, representing, as no other Hollywood actor did in those years, the ‘grace under pressure’ of a kind of democratic American elegance, was perhaps the most famous wearer of a Stetson Fedora in the world at that time.
The Fedora is not a hat of the frontline, and yet it was the hat of the war years. That democratic adaptability which makes the Fedora casually elegant and appropriate for most occasions that a man might find himself in seems to fit neatly with the ambiguous image that adhered to Mr. Bogart during the war as a kind of ‘rugged gentleman’, a ‘cultivated gangster’, like glamorous M. Rick, who may be a racketeer, but who is ultimately shown to have a heart of gold.
Most days I port a Fedora of some sort, and I’m known to tout-Melbourne by my Fedoras, but my absolute favourite hat is a navy blue Homburg I acquired at an antique shop in Clunes about five years ago.
Like the Derby, I rarely wear this hat, but because, in the hierarchy of formality, the Homburg is a rung lower than the Derby, being a semi-formal hat, I wear it much more often. It’s a hat I will go months without wearing and then decide, on some random day, to wear for a ‘special occasion’—the special occasion being the occasion of wearing the hat itself.
The reason I love the Homburg so much is that it suits my features as well as the Fedora does, but adds several degrees of refinement to any outfit. I have one of the smallest heads it’s possible to hat, with a heart-shaped face and delicate, rather feminine features, so the soft yet masculine lines of the Fedora suits me well in the day-to-day. The Homburg, by contrast, has a tall but soft guttered crown and a stiff, exuberantly curved brim with a flamboyant ribbon trim, so the effect of the Fedora’s elegant lines is amplified.
The Homburg has acquired something of a reputation for stodginess, being the preferred hat of prime ministers and presidents from Eden to Eisenhower. Moreover, Tony Hancock, in his maudlin comic persona, made the lugubrious black Homburg and Astrakhan coat synonymous with postwar misery, misanthropy and miserliness in Britain.
The reputation for stuffiness is decidedly unfair, but it’s adhered so firmly to the Homburg that it’s a very uncommon chapeau to see abroad these days. Consequently, it’s a hat that requires a great deal of confidence to wear, and I would say that in our times it’s definitely the preserve of dandies like myself, because if you port a Homburg abroad, people will certainly look at you. It’s a hat that turns heads.
My Homburg is uncommonly dandistic, being a gorgeous shade of navy. The Homburg, traditionally, is either black or pearl grey, this latter being especially elegant. One often sees the grey hat paired with a black grosgrain ribbon, and it’s this variety that Michael Corleone ports in The Godfather (1972).
Though popular with gangsters in the thirties, the Homburg has less direct connection with those gents in the popular imaginary than the Fedora, and it signifies a man of affairs who is equally a man about town. It’s thus suitable for both street- and evening wear, and you can even get away with mixing a grey Homburg and black-tie if you have sufficient chutzpah to pull the combo off.
I would love to own another Homburg and am always on the lookout for one. I am a man of brims: though I have a small head and narrow features, the horizontal lines of a pencil-curled brim—not to mention the bounding arches of a Homburg’s crown—complete the bone structure of my face with an emphasis that even my customary Fedoras don’t achieve.
And here is the final tip I’ll offer about hats: When choosing a style, ask yourself to what extent the height of a crown or the width of a brim will ‘feature’ the shape of your head and your bone structure.
With a small head and delicate features, I’ve always been accused of a certain ‘prettiness’. When the lines are in proportion to my head, the exuberance and flamboyance of a brimmed hat make my head and face a site of interest.
I remember wearing my Homburg in Adelaide a few years ago and walking into a hat shop near the Central Markets. ‘The hat love you,’ the little Chinese lady behind the counter said to me. Whether she was referring to that particular hat or to the genus ‘hat’ generally, I don’t know, but certainly, having spent more than half my life wearing good hats, the confidence of a flamboyant, wide-brimmed hat says something, I think, about the strength of will, the character and cognitive capacity bounded by the crown.
I am, as I say, a ‘man of brims’. You may not be. Some men are well-served by a flat cap. The bad flat cap, however, is even more of a pestilence upon the land than the sweatshop Fedora. Be sure to get yourself a good tweed newsboy with a flexible crown attached to a short brim.
Out of curiosity, I picked up a newsboy of venerable quality from a church op-shop in Kings Cross in Sydney some years ago. You can see me sporting it in the photograph at the top of this post.
I got a lot of compliments about that cap. The flexibility of the crown was such that I could wear it with a considerable degree of beret-like jaunt, giving me the look of a Parisian apache as I wandered the streets of Melbourne with my Pentax. But despite the compliments I received, I eventually gave up the newsboy—with some lingering regret, I admit—because I had to come to terms with the fact that I am just not a ‘flat cap’ man:—I’m a man of exuberant brims, and if, as people say, there’s a touch of Gatsby about me, I’m the Gatsby of the white suit, not the newsboy cap.
The man of fashion is not complete without his hat. The dandy pur-sang is a celestial prince, like a prince of the Church. He carries the consciousness of his heavenly estate within him, and the hat is the prince’s crown. Go forth, therefore, in peace upon the earth and port thou thy hat!
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.
Jay snapped me sans overcoat but otherwise suited up for winter as I swanned around summery Coffs, an unofficial ambassador of Melbourne moda bringing a soupçon of Collins street chic to Harbour drive.
The only unfashionable touch by your Melbourne Flâneur’s über-æsthetic lights: the muzzle (or ‘chin-sling’, as I call it) in my south paw, a fad which no one will ever convince me is elegant—even the flower-bedizened variety I reluctantly port.
Even when forced to hide my mug behind a mask, dear readers, the dandy in me indomitably prevails, and I must bring a touch of the æsthetic even to this despised item of bourgeois uniformity.
But whether I am airing my dial or have my mug camouflaged behind a floral mask, it seems I am instantly recognized in these parts. Even at the bus stop, preparing to decamp from Coffs to Bellingen, I was recognized by someone I had never seen in my life.
‘You’re going to Bellingen, aren’t you?’ the guy asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied, somewhat surprised. Perhaps, I thought, the bowtie I was wearing gave me away as the type of person who would be waiting for the bus to Bello.
‘Yeah, I’ve seen you there,’ he said.
‘It must have been a long time ago,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been there in five years.’
He seemed doubtful about that claim, as if it were more likely that he had last seen me only five weeks ago.
The encounter puzzled me until I alighted in Bello. Hardly had I squared away my luggage at the Diggers Tavern and taken my first fashionable flânerie in æons up one side of Hyde street, the Champs-Élysées of Bellingen, and down the other before I was recognized by John Ross, owner of the Alternatives Bookshop, who greeted me with the words: ‘We were just talking about you.’
That is a phrase I have heard repeated continuously. Five years may have passed, but my ‘celebrity’ in Bellingen (as John called it, introducing me to two passers-by) as its most dandistic resident remained undimmed by half a decade’s absence. Indeed, on Sunday, as I lounged on the grassy bank of the Bellinger River, relishing the sun (a dominical ritual of confirmed Bellingenites), two friends sitting at some distance and recognizing a jaunty Fedora worn rakishly askew inquired of their companions if it could be me and, more to the point, if they had lived in Bellingen long enough ‘to know who Dean is.’
I’ve become a fabled creature here, which I didn’t expect. If you have lived in Bello in the years ‘A.D.’ (‘After Dean’), you have clearly missed a spectacle as dazzling and memorable (in the annals of fashion, at least) as the Transfiguration of Our Lord.
I used to have a lady friend here, a cute little sculptress who lived up the hill in Dorrigo and who would come down to Bello on a Sunday to work a shift at the former Lodge 241 café. It never ceased to amuse her how, on our dates or after-work flâneries, we were forced to stop every few metres in our progress along Hyde street to acknowledge the friendly salutations of the most diverse people.
To her, I seemed to know everyone in town, but to me, it felt more like everyone knew me—even the people I didn’t know.
Conspicuous as I was in my day, I thought that when I departed Bello for Melbourne five years ago, I would be promptly forgotten. But it was I who had forgotten the curious phenomenon of ‘Bello time’, whereby a man can go away for five years and be greeted warmly by half the town as if the last time he had been seen in these parts was last week.
But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I am certainly not the only literary man to have passed a season or two in this town, and certainly not the most internationally celebrated, Peter Carey having lived in Bellingen and having set the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) in this landscape.
Moreover, journalist George Negus and I occasionally shared co-working space at ‘my office’, the Hyde, and one of the last times I imbibed a long black there before checking out, on a day when the café was particularly bondé de gens, Mr. Negus and I were forced to sit coude-à-coude at the counter and cement the distant intimacy of our long nodding acquaintance with some polite pleasantries about the political nouvelles du jour, that mustachioed gent never suspecting the local literary celebrity he was rubbing his grizzled elbow against.
I kid, of course.
But like all jests, there’s a zesty grain of truth in the observation that if these two literary gentlemen have more conspicuous clout in the world of letters than your presumptuous little flâneur, in the public imaginary of Bellingen, at least, with the rigorous rectitude and correctness of my dress, I have always fitted the image of an homme de lettres more thoroughly than my more famous colleagues—for all my friends and acquaintances here know that the hygiene of my deportment reflects the intellectual hygiene of a man who makes the most exquisite discriminations with words.
But I find myself in an odd—even an embarrassing—position, overwhelmed by the well-wishing of people who have never forgotten me and never, it seems, ceased to think well of me in my absence.
All the time I lived here, people predicted an imminent removal to Melbourne for me, telling me that, with my sens inné de la mode, I was meant more for Collins street than for Church street, but I think I defied even the most prevoyant forecast about that imminent departure date by staying nearly two and a half years in Bello.
When I did, finally, satisfy the prophecy which had attended me from the first and vamoosed to Victoria, it was with the deeply regretted sense that this beloved landscape had, indeed, been eventually exhausted for me as a source of flâneuristic exploit—particularly as regards the flâneur’s addictive habitude of æsthetically investigating the women of the cities and towns he prowls through.
The dandy is always seeking to crystallize his image, to make his outward appearance thoroughly congruent and consubstantial with his inward self, and in Melbourne, it’s true, I seemed to find and set in perfect place the last pieces of the puzzle to my character which I had been searching for in landscapes as various as the Gold Coast, Paris, and even Bellingen.
I will always be, first and foremost, a Parisian, proud citoyen of the first city of modernity, and hence of modernity’s most decadent product, fashion. But if I have integrated the high polish of the dandistic Parisian flâneur with a life spent wandering the streets of this benighted antipodean isle’s provincial capital of fashion, such that I have become a Melbourne flâneur, it is fair to say that without a couple of years of my life spent squinting still more tightly, trying to disengage and draw forth, like a fabulous perfume, the flâneuristic romance of marvellous novelty from Bellingen’s streets through half-closed lids, I would not have been able to see, as a living reality, a fragrant atmosphere which thoroughly surrounds and suckles me, the poetic Parisian substrate to Melbourne’s pedestrian actuality.
In other words, in Bellingen too (which I have occasionally described to the uninitiated as being like the whole of Melbourne folded up into two short streets) I found the lost quality of Parisian romance, of marvellous novelty, and in some sense the narrow circuit I traced for more than two years up and down Hyde and Church streets prepared me, as no place since Paris had, for the assiduous literary oisiveté of wandering the streets of Melbourne, on the perennial trail for tails and tales.
In fine, I think that, unacknowledged as my literary genius may be by the wider world as compared with Bellingen’s more famous scrivenly denizens both past and present, if I hold a special affection nei cuori dei Bellingeni, it is perhaps because they sense that, fitting the bill of an homme de lettres more perfectly, as one who uses words with the precision of a camera, I have seen the secret essence in this town, in real scenes set in its streets, and have recorded that invisible, fragrant essence which makes this town such a special place.
My last book, Follow Me, My Lovely…, was set here, the history of a night and a morning when I navigated a gorgeous Norwegian tourist I picked up at the backpackers through a flurried flânerie of streets and scenes, and my next novel is also set in the same streets, where the ghost of the former girl—(and of others, bien entendu)—lingers over the marvellous novelty of my romance with another.
In my last post, datelined Wagga, I wrote that I was coming to the end of the second draft of that novel, and there was a moment, in my assiduous painting and repainting of the scene, set in the little park in front of the Bellingen library, where I and that other began a slow escalation of each other which would lead, inevitably, to a transcendent experience in the bedroom, when I felt again the palpability not merely of her body, but of the place and the hour.
On Sunday, not a block west of the library, I beheld her face—a face I had striven through five years to hold firm in my mind, and which I had believed I would never see again—and her neat little body, that body I had held tenderly in the park.
There she was, at some short distance from me, dear readers, at a tantalizing inconjunction of space and time which made it possible for us both to pretend that we had not seen each other, or that, seeing each other, we did not recognize each other. But I know she knew me at a glance, despite the obfuscating bowtie (a foppery I didn’t port in those days), just as I knew her at a glance, swaddled in the faux-fur collar of her velour jacket.
Oui, there she was, one of the feminine ‘Elect’, one of that modest corpus of dames who have undressed your Melbourne Flâneur, who have divested him of his fashionable armour and have laid him out in state, and who have had the dubious honour of beholding the holiest of holies behind that implacable front.
I’ve said that one of the few things which sustained me through our extended Melbourne lockdown was the ability, in concentrating on this novel, to escape the limited vision of the restricted present, and take flâneries through my memories of Bellingen, repainting with precision the Memorial Hall, the walk across Lavenders Bridge and up the path above the skate park, No. 5 Church Street, and Church street itself before the camphor laurels had been removed and replaced.
But when I saw my palpable paramour’s face once again, slightly longer and narrower than I remembered it, she who had led me, arm-in-arm, on months of painstaking promenade through my memories of the streets of Bellingen as perhaps the Eternal Feminine essence of the place, consubstantial with it—for it was her even more than here that I have been trying, through five years, to paint perfectly with words—I saw in her face the slight, painterly distortion, the fault of perspective I had made in my painting of the place.
That slight lengthening and narrowing of her actual visage (as compared to my lovingly beheld memory of it) was like all the slight displacements I have discovered in re-walking these streets I have loved and written lovingly about.
The streetlight in Short Street lane is white, not yellow as I remember it, and the strangler fig under which we exchanged our first kisses ‘feels’ further down the lane, towards Church street, than I have pictured it—even with assiduous referral to Google Maps to aid and orient me.
Most significantly, it was not until I sat on the bank of the river on Sunday afternoon, remembering all the women with whom I had passed a tender moment on that spot, that I realized, for all my concentration on precisely rendering the actuality of the place, how much the palpable, experienced memory of pleasure in Bellingen—how much I used to enjoy sitting on that riverbank, whether alone or in company—has lain buried, sleeping deeply in my unconscious for five years.
Through all my restless movement through places and scenes—not just in Melbourne, but in all the towns and cities my flâneries have taken me to—the memory of the place where I was, for the longest time in my life, most consistently happy has lain buried and is, perhaps, unpaintable, as closely as one might approximate the essence of it.
I recall a quote by M. Degas, who says:
‘C’est très bien de copier ce qu’on voit, c’est beaucoup mieux de dessiner ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire. C’est une transformation pendant laquelle l’ingéniosité collabore avec la mémoire. Vous ne reproduisez que ce qui vous a frappé, c’est-à-dire le nécessaire. … Voilà pourquoi les tableaux faits de cette façon, par un homme ayant une mémoire cultivée, connaissant les maîtres et son métier, sont presque toujours des œuvres remarquables.’
‘It’s all very well to copy what you can see, but it’s even better to draw what you can no longer see, except in memory. A transformation is worked upon the base material of actuality in which genius collaborates with recollection. You only reproduce what has struck you, which is to say, that which is essential to the image. … That is why paintings made in such a manner by a man with a cultivated memory, one who knows both the Old Masters and his trade, are almost always remarkable works.’
—Edgar Degas (my translation)
Follow Me, My Lovely…, written in this landscape, while I still had immediate visual access to every point in the parcours, while I could still see and measure the relative distances between every spot through which I had escalated the Norwegian in our nine-hour flânerie around Bellingen, has a very different quality and character to the one this next novel, Sentimental Journey, will have.
It’s a book I began writing almost immediately after I left Bello five years ago, and being reliant on my memories of the place, and of the woman, slight distortions and displacements—those qualities that M. Degas calls ‘remarkable’—have crept into my rendition of Bellingen, such that, between the essential traits of the image—and even within them—an imaginative collaboration of genius with memory has inadvertently occurred.
I suspect that, at the deepest level, the reason why the good burghers of Bello hold me in a regard I feel I have hardly earned is that they sense, despite my punishing exactitude, despite my dandistic subscription to absolute, rigorous perfection in everything—the sincerity of my dedication to my art which flows out from it through all my life—before reality I fail to get it ‘quite right’—and in that tiny failure, that loophole where the genius of imagination intersects with a rigorously cultivated memory of the place, the inestimable ‘essence of Bellingen’ emerges in my writing about my remembered experiences here.
Other, more celebrated men of letters may have written about this place, but I think i Bellingeni know that their presumptuous little flâneur has observed and absorbed the essence of the living reality of this place, and in his Parisian hallucination of it, will one day present a startling snapshot of the town in tableau at a moment of its most recent history.
I’ve observed elsewhere on The Melbourne Flâneur the intimate (though not obvious) relation between the writer and the dandy, between the man of letters who precisely crafts his persona through the stylish arrangement of words and the man of fashion who precisely crafts his image through the stylish arrangement of clothes.
While intimate, I say the relationship between these two artists is not obvious because, on the one hand, words and images are diametrically opposed, with a genius in the literary field rarely transferring to the visual (and vice versa), and because, on the other hand, there is simply nothing obvious about the dandy.
More amorphous, more contradictory, more paradoxical even than the woman, the dandy is a circle impossible to square, and no writer on the philosophy of fashion has yet or ever will define the full economy of his androgynous yet über-masculine soul.
The abiding difficulty in defining the dandy is that these men who so scrupulously define the rules of fashion for other men are always the exception to the rule. That is perhaps the only definite thing we can say about them.
And one of their chief paradoxes is that they strive with a supermanly effort to appear absolutely effortless. This is like the writer whose finished work does not reveal the sweat of labour, the enormous volume of words written and culled behind the final, perfect selection and arrangement.
Laziness (or at least its scrupulously maintained appearance) is both a charge leveled at the dandy and the ultimate æsthetic end that he aspires to. The same charge is often leveled at writers: our labour, despite being a manual handicraft, is almost purely mental, and we are often accused (not unfairly) of paresse by the brawny menials who do not imagine that a man can sweat in his study from the labour of lifting and laying the bricks of words, arranging them in vast cathedrals of thought.
‘L’arte che nasconde l’arte’—‘the art that conceals art’: this was the pre-eminent virtue of sprezzatura that il Signor Castiglione ascribed to his ideal courtier, and the dandy, as the democratic gentleman descended from the Renaissance nobleman of Castiglione’s time, shares with the writer both the desire and the necessity to hide his pains of effort off-stage. His performance is entirely a rehearsal. Only the finished capolavoro goes before him, trundling onto stage like the Trojan Horse, dead and done, but not empty of the animating spirit which will take the agape spectators by storm.
Thus, as diametrically as these two arts are opposed to one another, it is no surprise that the one labour (other than the narcissistic cultivation of himself) that is fit to cause the dandy to turn up his French cuffs and get down to it is the work of writing. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda write in Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989): ‘… [I]f the dandy is æsthetic and self-concerned, his natural affiliation with professions is only with the poet, the artist, or the writer.’
It’s a perfect profession for a man whose ultimate badge of virtue is to be accused of the social vice of dilettantisme: let’s face it, most jokers who call themselves writers are lazy dilettantes who never publish a word. The boulot takes place so deeply undercover that one may safely maintain one’s front before society as an unredeemable wastrel indefinitely.
M. Proust, a spy in the houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and, by his own unstinting self-recriminations, the laziest man to ever write a novel, got away with this deception for years before his cover as a social butterfly was blown.
So you see, dear readers, abstruse as my connection between the man of words and the man of (self-)images is, it is not sans raison. The abstruseness owes to the indefinable paradoxicality of the dandy who, despite being as defined and definite in his image as the greatest writers are in the words they ultimately choose to represent them, is haloed in an aura which takes nothing away from the high—the highest possible—resolution of his image.
Which leads me to the speculation as to whether there are dandies among film directors. If the dandy is so deeply allied with an artist who is his opposite number in discipline, wouldn’t it stand to better reason to seek him among other men of images?
The contemporary portmanteau of the ‘writer-director’ would lead us to suppose that a reconciliation between les hommes de lettres and les hommes du cinéma exists, but although it is fashionable to speak of the writer-director as the ‘auteur’ of his film, one who wields the ‘caméra-stylo’, we are not comparing apples to apples when we compare these two types of authorial control.
In my last post, I talked about Alain Robbe-Grillet, almost the only novelist to enjoy a second career as a film director. M. Robbe-Grillet expresses the basic temperamental distinction between a writer and a director, for although writers can be extroverted and directors introverted, I would argue (and I think M. Robbe-Grillet tacitly agrees) that the nature of writing is basically introverted, and the nature of film directing is basically extroverted.
This is because one is a solitudinous occupation where authorial control is exercised directly over material and form, and the other is inescapably a social occupation where control is exercised indirectly over people and objects, to whom the various aspects of material and form are delegated.
As M. Robbe-Grillet expresses it: ‘… If I have problems [as a novelist], I have them with myself. Shooting a film is a communal labour, and if I have any problems, I have them not only with myself, but with the actors, with the crew, with the sun, with… the real world.
‘So, in my first film, L’Immortelle , for example, I attempted to constrain all this in order to regain some of the solitude of the writer. I realized very quickly that this was absurd, and in the film I eventually made, I welcomed all these elements: whatever the actors wanted to do, whatever the crew wanted to do, whatever the sun wanted to do, I accepted it.’
This is perhaps the chief reason why the dandy, the man of (self-)images, is deeply allied to the writer but, to my mind at least, almost impossible to find among the ranks of other men of images whose work is pseudo-literary. A director, even if he writes his own film, is less a writer by constitution than a conductor: his art is co-ordinating others in the achievement of a coherent vision.
The dandy is the absolute outlier among men. No type of man is more extreme. Co-operation, co-ordination, collaboration are not among his skills or his interests. A small clique of men inevitably gather around the dandy as around the director, but he publicly tolerates them and privately despises them, for the dandy transcends the primitive hierarchies into which men, both alpha and beta, ridiculously organize themselves. He is not interested in setting trends as a leader of fashion, but fashion inevitably follows him because it—and people—are craven.
Even alpha males.
To wit, see George IV, first among followers of Mr. Brummell.
Like the writer who exercises direct control upon material and form, the dandy exerts direct and imperious control upon the form of himself and the materials he accoutres himself in. It would be as ridiculous for a writer to shape his vision by a committee of lesser peers as a dandy to shape his vision of himself. Both are rugged individualists.
The temperamental predisposition towards introversion, towards narcissistic self-regard and an art that one can directly control, rather than extroversion and an art that one ‘manages’ by social interaction, would explain why one finds dandies among writers but not, it seems, among directors. As interior designer Nicky Haslam puts it: ‘It seems clear that the dyed-in-the-wool dandy—as opposed to the merely dandified, the “nattily dressed”—is, au fond, an introvert.’
Three things would seem, to my mind, to define the dandy-as-director, and I can’t find an exemplar who satisfies my three criteria conclusively. A predisposition to introversion is the first. An iron will to total æsthetic control similar to that displayed by the most ruthless writer is the second. And third is what we know the dandy by: an obsessive love of men’s clothes.
Let’s take the last first, for it is the most difficult criterion to satisfy, and the one, I think, where all the possible contenders I will name appear to fall down.
Our authority on this rare man’s pathological love of fashion is Thomas Carlyle, who, in Sartor Resartus (1833-4), provides the best working definition of the dandy at the birth of the movement. The dandy, according to Mr. Carlyle, is ‘a man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes. Every faculty of his soul, spirit, purse, and person is heroically consecrated to the wearing of Clothes wisely and well: so that as others dress to live, he lives to dress.’
We see at once that this primary occupation does not interfere substantially with the less taxing pursuits of the leisured intellectual gent, such as penning the odd verse in idle minutes between social engagements which put this heroic peacock on the stage of life. Indeed, quite the contrary: for as every tradesman must have his uniform, the ensemble of jacket, trousers and waistcoat is as much the uniform of the man who manipulates his pen in elegant endeavours as the businessman who operates it in pragmatic and profitable ones.
Wearing the suit, the uniform of the dandy, therefore, does not interfere, as a primary vocation, with the avocation of the writer. It need not necessarily interfere with that of the film director, either, but I cannot find a man among men of film who consecrates his life above all to being elegant in every breath of his life, whether on location in the dark heart of Africa or on a Hollywood soundstage.
The uniform of the film director, stereotypically, is the one given us by Cecil B. DeMille in his conquering youth. It is the flat cap (perhaps worn backwards at times in a democratic gesture towards one’s cameraman, who has his eye forever pressed to the viewfinder on our behalf), tweeds, jodhpurs and riding boots—maybe even the extravagant detail of a riding crop.
The ridiculous anachronism of attempting to look like an English country gentleman on a blazing Hollywood backlot is eminently dandistic, but it falls more in Mr. Haslam’s category of being ‘dandified’ and ‘nattily dressed’ than looking good at every instant for some slavish, private religious purpose.
But I don’t use the words ‘extravagant detail’ lightly in reference to the riding crop. Extravagant details whose practical purpose are obscure define the whole uniform outlined above. One no more knows who or what the director plans to whip with the anachronistic crop than what he plans to ride with his anachronistic jodhpurs and boots.
Extravagant details whose practical function as working uniform are novel, innovative, and even obscure define the dandy, and we see examples of these extravagant details in the working uniforms of directors who are certainly dandified if not actual dandies.
For example, the most dandified director in the world today has to be David Lynch. He has such a recognizable personal style that it appears even in his films—in the proxies who stand in for him, like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986). The eccentric detail of the collar button done up sans cravate which Mr. Lynch affects at times transcends the nerdish faux pas of fashion it would be for most other men because the eccentricity belies a practical purpose which is obscure to the rest of us.
According to Mr. Lynch, he hates the feel of wind on his collar bone, and hence he buttons his shirts up to choking point—a personal eccentricity he bequeaths to any character in his films who stands in for him.
But the mania for a warm chest goes even further than that. So high-strung is Mr. Lynch that in his youth he affected the doubly eccentric and dandyish detail of wearing not one but three neckties as a foulard to keep his sensitive collar bone warm.
The image of a man wearing triple neckties may be absurd so that we wonder if he is the victim or the bold setter of some obscure fashion which has bypassed us, but key to understanding the dandy’s sway over other men is the knowledge that all his novel and innovative sartorial choices stem from some practical consideration of comfort which is personal to him.
Just as Gianni Agnelli—a genuine dandy—affected the eccentric habitude of wearing his wristwatch over his sleeve—(a fashion faux pas so thunderingly obtuse that it boldly doubled as a brilliant time and motion innovation for the busy head of Fiat to affect)—the uniquely personal considerations of comfort that dandies make only become stale form when they are cravenly imitated by men, clueless about fashion, who take their personal eccentricities as general edicts.
As far as I know, the triple necktie as foulard has not caught on. That unique eccentricity in personal style as well as Mr. Lynch’s high-strung nature might qualify him as the closest contender for a dandy among living directors that I know of—for one cannot be a dandy without being as high-strung and neurotic as a thoroughbred.
But even though nowadays he affects the black suit, white shirt and black tie of Alfred Hitchcock as his unvarying uniform, I do not know that Mr. Lynch anymore than Mr. Hitchcock is slavishly devoted to the suit as high art.
In my post “A writer’s style”, I quoted approvingly the opinion of Messrs. Martin and Koda that a man’s dress signifies his ‘operational identity’: as men, we are our professional rôles, and one of our highest masculine virtues is to make who we are indistinguishable from what we do. A man is the uniform he wears in life.
Of all directors, Mr. Hitchcock is the one who best worked out an operational identity for himself early on, one which involved the democratic uniform of the professional man, the suit. The funereal combination of black suit, white shirt and black tie which Mr. Hitchcock typically affected not merely consolidated his operational identity as head man on-set, but the operational identity of his lugubrious public persona—which was as much a put-on as his suit.
This was an operational necessity for as neurotic an introvert as Mr. Hitchcock. For as much as he was a commanding Leo, one of that extravagant, limelight-loving breed fit to dominate a film set, one derives two abiding impressions from reading the early pages of John Russell Taylor’s Hitch (1978) and Patrick MacGilligan’s A Life in Darkness and Light (2004).
The first is that the shy, lonely young Hitchcock might not have gotten his chance to direct had he not put on the extroverted front of continually putting himself forward with feigned confidence for jobs he had no prior experience at. The second is that, in the early days of his English career, his association with a certain type of film we now associate with his name and image was more a product of chance than inward inclination towards darkness.
There’s almost nothing in Mr. Hitchcock’s background to suggest that he would become, as Jean-Luc Godard called him, the only poète maudit to achieve commercial success in his own lifetime. The early output of the future Master of Suspense is more varied than that princely title allows, and his career could have gone in any number of directions if he had not hit on a repeatably bankable formula early on.
And the formula, the poetry of bizarre, nail-biting images in fulgurant succession, is of course a rhyme for that distinctive silhouette which appears as a signature in the corner of each of his films, the portly, soberly-suited trickster. Mr. Hitchcock in his very appearance was the type of film he made. Life, he once complained, typecasts us: according to him, his inward suavity of spirit would have been better suited to the outward shell of Cary Grant.
He had the introverted dandy’s necessity of an extroverted operational identity, a uniform which was distinctive and inimitable, but one which equally commanded respect on the set. The funereal suit and tie ensemble gave Mr. Hitchcock an appearance somewhere between a bank manager and an undertaker, and the implications of sobriety and discretion in that uniform, of honest, well-balanced books, of loved ones precisely and delicately attended to, indicates my second criterion: almost no director exerts as ruthless and singular a control over every detail of his image—at least, as the images of his films are his image in the popular imaginary—than Alfred Hitchcock.
The suit suits him. This symbol of masculine rectitude and rationality, clothes precisely designed by rule and compass, is eminently suitable for a director who emerged from the ranks of production designers, and whose training and only job outside films was in engineering.
As British fashion critic Colin McDowell says in his book The Anatomy of Fashion (2013), ‘The true dandy … sees dress as an expression of highly masculine qualities, such as precision, consideration and respect. … Dandies depend on a rational approach to clothing, relegating all other considerations to making a powerful statement without falling prey to the cardinal sin of ostentation.’
Powerful visual statements, not ostentatious but certainly striking, emerge from the fabric of Mr. Hitchcock’s films, which were always made out of respect and consideration for his audiences. The precision of rational design in the well-cut suit might be seen as an analogy for the way Mr. Hitchcock designed and made his films for people ‘out of whole cloth’, controlling every element with absolute precision, measuring every detail, stitching every shot together to form an ensemble far greater in effect than the sum of its exquisite parts.
David Fincher has described this ruthless authorial control as ‘the iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s style, a sort of overarching échafaudage which protects what’s under it, as a good English suit, for instance, is a kind of armature for the body, repulsing the intemperate English elements. But the iron umbrella of Mr. Hitchcock’s style not only repulses what is external to his creative vision, it also suffocates any spontaneous input from others who are under it.
Even as late as his last film, Family Plot (1976), when he was working with the long-haired, bearded contemporaries of Spielberg and Lucas, young technicians going to work on Mr. Hitchcock’s set were discreetly advised at the commencement that a suit and tie, rather than T-shirt and jeans, would be the de rigueur uniform at all times.
The genteel uniform of the professional man was eminently suitable for Mr. Hitchcock’s ruthlessly regulated, standardized style of filmmaking, which some actors and technicians described as like ‘working in a bank’: Mr. Hitchcock’s phobia for the impromptu had caused him to prepare so well in advance that one could safely start at nine and leave the set each day at six.
But if he had the dandy’s introversion and iron-clad control of details, what lets Mr. Hitchcock out as a dandy, in my view, is that his passion appears to have been for women’s wardrobe rather than for men’s.
Legion are the examples of the exacting requirements he had for his leading ladies’ couture. As resoundingly silent is the record on what he specified for his men. To his eternal credit, Mr. Hitchcock does have what has been justly called ‘the greatest suit of all time’ in one of his films, the famous—and much-abused—grey Kilgour sported by Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959). About eleven copies of this suit were required to film the cropduster sequence alone. But it is believed that Mr. Hitchcock, who regarded Mr. Grant as a cut above the usual cattle he had to wrangle on-set and trusted his judgment in most matters implicitly, allowed him a free hand in commissioning the suit from his tailor, Kilgour French and Stanbury of Savile Row.
This is in contrast with the control he exerted over his leading ladies’ deportment. No expense was spared to repeatedly secure the services of Edith Head as ladies’ costume designer on his films. Miss Head reported that, like James Stewart in Vertigo (1958), the gentleman knew what he wanted: perhaps owing to his background in design, Mr. Hitchcock was uncommonly well-informed in matters of women’s fashion and demanded the famous grey suit for Kim Novak despite Miss Head’s protests that grey was not a blonde’s colour and would make her look washed out.
That was precisely the ghostly effect he wanted.
He personally escorted Eva Marie Saint to Bergdorf Goodman in New York and selected her wardrobe for North by Northwest. He also had Christian Dior design Marlene Dietrich’s costumes for Stage Fright (1950). Mr. Hitchcock was fond of quoting the playwright Sardou’s maxim that in drama one should always ‘torture the women’. M. Dior, who was as fastidious about details as Mr. Hitchcock and tended to erect an iron umbrella of his own about the feminine silhouette, would doubtless have concurred with this eternally sage advice.
But while I think there are dandistic elements to Mr. Hitchcock personally, and while his films comport themselves with an idiosyncratic visual style which is dandistic, such that he is often imitated by other directors but never equalled, his predilection for female fashion, which is at irreconcilable odds with masculine style, seems ultimately to disqualify him as a dandy.
His great equal as a visual storyteller, Orson Welles, is even further from the mark than Mr. Hitchcock, though Mr. Welles too has elements of the dandy about him. His affectation of exuberantly-brimmed sombreros and capes—(capes are eminently dandistic)—ought to qualify him on prima facie inspection, but on deeper consideration these are the very things which let him out.
Mr. Welles always reminds me of Oscar Wilde, who is often mistaken for a dandy—and who mistook himself for one. Both are hommes du théâtre, and I think the native extravagance and peacockery of theatre people always counts against them. They evince the kind of ostentation that the true dandy abhors.
There are few cases in cinema of men so pathologically addicted to an art-form that Mr. Welles called ‘the biggest electric train set a boy ever had’ than Orson Welles himself. But despite his addiction, despite the fact that he had cinema in the blood, Mr. Welles was always, first and foremost, a man of the theatre, like Mr. Wilde, with all the vulgar flamboyance, the extroverted ‘larger-than-life-ness’ that no man of the theatre can ever quite get rid of.
It’s always in a stage man’s manner, and you won’t find a single interview with Orson Welles where he is not entertaining, performing for a public audience. It’s charming, but it’s also a straight-up disqualification, for despite his extraordinary vividness, there is no peacockery at all in the genuine dandy: the common mistake that people uninformed on this subject make is to think that because he publicly shines with a special lustre, the dandy, like the man of the stage, is somehow a whore for the spotlight.
Pas du tout.
The dandy’s seductive éclat comes entirely from within. As Philip Mann writes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), ‘… [J]ust as the dandy’s suit is glamorous and his melancholy sombre, so his suit is sombre and his melancholy glamorous.’ The dandy thus burns with a dark, self-consuming light, like a white dwarf.
Mr. Welles’ egotistical extroversion under a veneer of false modesty lets him out. For the same reason, Charles Chaplin is not really a dandy—although his childhood in Dickensian poverty is a crucial psychological plank in the nascent pathology of dandyism. Chaplin, in his later life, is said to have developed a mania for shoes—an obsession which all true dandies will recognize as central to the complex, but which is perhaps more acute in someone who went barefoot through the freezing streets of London in childhood.
The Little Tramp is perhaps what we might call an ‘inverted dandy’—particularly the wing-collar specimen of the genus that Mr. Chaplin portrays in City Lights (1931). While the Little Tramp as archetype is always waging a dandistic war of specious respectability against the grinding reality of his poverty, the Tramp of City Lights goes through the most horrendous crucible of attrition in all of Mr. Chaplin’s œuvre, starting off with wing-collar, boutonnière and a rather snappy bow-tie, and ending up collarless, his bowler mortally wounded, his trousers out-at-arse, and altogether looking the most tragic we will ever see him.
But it’s really the post-Tramp Charlot of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), and A King in New York (1957) who reveals Charlie’s soul-deep pretensions towards aristocracy, not merely as a man of the theatre, but as a waif of the working-class. Dandies always emanate from the lower orders, but rarely from as low as the future Sir Charles did.
This is tacit in the example set by the bourgeois social mountaineer Mr. Brummell, who, as Titan of the Regency, could not have shaken the fashionable firmament of his betters if the English class system was not showing, to his canny eye, the first hairline fissures of encroaching democracy. As M. Baudelaire sagely observed, the phenomenon of dandyism is most pronounced in those transitional periods ‘when democracy is not yet all-powerful and aristocracy is tottering and only partially debased.’
Hence, not so many years after Mr. Brummell died in English disgrace and French exile, a nineteenth-century slum-child and music hall entertainer could become one of our monarch’s knights in the twentieth century. And when I look at the foreign royalty which Mr. Chaplin, with his gorgeous snowy hair and dulcet voice, makes himself over as in A King in New York, I am struck by how much he resembles our present monarch’s despised uncle in old age, the pre-eminent dandy of the twentieth century, the erstwhile Prince of Wales, the erstwhile King Edward VIII, the man who ended his career as the husband of Mrs. Simpson, the Duke of Windsor.
Of all the immortal Charlot’s creations, Henri Verdoux, the æsthete serial killer who makes a genteel art of dispatching wives and defrauding them of their cash, is the most dandistic. If the Little Tramp was a romanticized version of how Mr. Chaplin perceived himself and the grindingly modest Londonian origins from which he sprang, I think that M. Verdoux represents the romanticized version of Mr. Chaplin’s aspirations for himself as a democratic American gentleman with European pretensions.
He’s the creation, I sense, for whom Mr. Chaplin had the most affection, for M. Verdoux is, as the final shot attests, the Little Tramp’s satanic side. As a man whose dark side also encompasses Machiavellian aspirations towards cash, artistic crimes, and the conquest of women—(all in great quantities, for ‘numbers sanctify’)—I also love M. Verdoux for his consummate dandyism, and I must confess an obsession with Charlie’s outfit in that film. The grey chalk-stripe suit, double-breasted waistcoat with shawl lapel, fulsome, billowing cravat, divine pearl Homburg, gloves and walking stick which Charlot affects in his flâneries comprises the perfect uniform for picking up game grisettes as one treads the streets of Paris.
I intimated above that it’s the striking detail, the incongruous element in the otherwise correct wardrobe, a gesture towards personal comfort, that marks out the dandy. We’d be hard-pressed to award Federico Fellini the dandy laurel, for although often suited on-set, the bullish-looking Maestro never quite wore his suits with sprezzatura—certainly not the sprezzatura that Guido, his perennially harassed and hen-pecked film director proxy, played by the gorgeous and elegant Marcello Mastroianni, wears them with in 8½ (1963).
To the peerless Italian tailoring of tight black suit, white shirt and black tie are bequeathed two characteristically Felliniesque touches—the omnipresent scarf and the cowboy hat. Whether on il Signor Fellini himself or on Guido, that cowboy hat is the crowning touch of oddness that breaks the strict correctness of the classic Italian suit.
Il Fellini’s black cowboy hat was particularly odd, with a low crown and a short, though acutely shaped, brim. One might, at a pinch, have expected his compatriot, Sergio Leone, the gran regista of spaghetti westerns, to sport such a hat, though that gent often went around bareheaded, or with a tweed newsboy’s cap at best. But il Signor Fellini was not a maker of westerns—not even of westerns as far-removed in style from those classic models bearing the Ford insignia as Cinecittà is from Monument Valley—and his cowboy hat, which is almost a more savagely stylized and deformed Fedora, reflects his weird visions of the ordinary.
Indeed, with its connotations of the Rio Grande displaced, as in a dream, to the banks of the Tiber, il Signor Fellini’s incongruous cowboy hat lent that beautiful dreamer the appropriately quixotic touch, on-set, of a high plains drifter tilting, as Guido tilts, at the windmills of his mind.
In The Dandy at Dusk, Philip Mann makes a case for Jean-Pierre Melville, another Euro-fan of the cowboy hat combined with the suit, as a dandy, and though I’m not entirely convinced of the argument, I am prepared to assert that of all the filmmakers I can think of, M. Melville comes probably the closest to my criteria of a dandy director.
He was an écrivain manqué, I think, a writer who, by an immense détournement, found his native literary instinct luckily diverted into the visual. When M. Melville says that editing a film is equal in his passions to writing one, but that he absolutely hates shooting films, you get an intimation of that ruggedly individualistic, utterly ruthless attitude of the writer who loves total control and hates the ‘communal labour’ of filmmaking.
M. Melville is perhaps unique among all directors in that he seemed to realize the dream of solitary, literary filmmaking enunciated by M. Robbe-Grillet: as an independent producer/director, he built his own studio as an adjunct to his home and could work alone in the midnight hours, setting up lights and arranging the set before the arrival of his actors and crew.
He was an introvert, and the Melvillian man of his melancholy, violent dreams is introverted to an hermetic extent—like ‘un tigre dans la jungle… peut-être,’ as M. Melville himself writes at the beginning of Le Samouraï (1967). And being as much a ‘men’s director’ as filmmakers like Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Woody Allen—or even the woman-torturing Alfred Hitchcock—are ‘women’s directors’, filmmakers whose first sympathies lie with their suffering heroines, M. Melville, in his deep love and sympathy for the condition of men in all our melancholy and violence, seems equally to have loved the savagely restricted uniform of the suit with which we elegantly repress and civilize ourselves.
He is perhaps the only director, if Herr Mann’s argument is to be credited, who had the superordinate passion for menswear which is my third condition of dandyism in directors: days after seeing Gone with the Wind in London in 1940, he met Clark Gable at a shirtmaker’s shop in Jermyn street—which star-crossed encounter M. Melville took to be prophetic of his destiny in film. Herr Mann also alleges he once abandoned a film mid-tournage after getting into an argument with an actor about how wide his hat-brim should be.
Given the dandy’s mania for the details of correct masculine deportment, that sounds about the appropriate level of obsession—and expensive, individualistic recklessness—to qualify M. Melville, prima facie, as a dandy director.
Watch any interview with him and you will be struck by a man who is ruthlessly correct in his courtly deportment and demeanour: M. Melville conducts himself en parfait gentleman. The only extravagant touches added to the dark, sober suit which reflects his saturnine nature are the exuberant cream Stetson and the mirrored aviator sunglasses—fetishistic touches of the Americana which decorated M. Melville’s films as much as his person.
There’s a photo in Herr Mann’s book of M. Melville, circa 1960, in a boxy dark grey suit and tie, his ensemble topped with shining Stetson and les trous noirs of his aviator sunglasses, and carrying an elegantly thin briefcase—but no raincoat—through the rainy streets of Paris. Even more than a gangster on his way to a rendez-vous (an eminently appropriate look for an independent producer/director with shady contacts), this incongruous figure briskly whipping along looks like a Texas oilman—a premonition of J. R. Ewing, no less—plopped down in the rue de la Paix.
This américainophilie is de rigueur for a man who, in a supremely dandistic gesture, adopted the surname of the author of Moby Dick as his codename in the French Resistance and never renounced it upon the laying down of arms. As a man who constructs an operative identity which he is ruthlessly prepared to both live and die by, the only profession other than literature for which the dandy is eminently suited is espionage, and M. Melville, the chronicler of gangsters, corrupt cops, con artists and members of the Armée des Ombres, comported himself as an undercover résistant all his life—résistant à tout.
As an operative identity, the codename ‘Melville’ is as much a charmed imperméable in the grey ville de merveilles of Paris as the raincoat he accoutres Alain Delon with in Le Samouraï. It’s perhaps an ironic coincidence that the French Mafia is colloquially known as ‘le Milieu’—literally, ‘the Place’, ‘the Scene’, for M. Melville, like his idealized assassin, seemed to strive to live up to Mr. Brummell’s dictum that the perfect dandy is a man who is never out of place, but blends into his environment, never drawing attention to himself with a mistake of deportment or comportment.
He is so correct as to be invisible.
As Mr. Hitchcock took the dressing of his leading ladies to be a personal duty not to be delegated, M. Melville similarly undertook to be valet to his leading men. ‘I’m very prone to clothes fetishism,’ he once said—surely an understatement for a director who named one of his films—Le Doulos (1962)—after the gangster argot-word for ‘hat-wearer’. ‘[T]he clothing of men plays a decisive rôle in my films, while women’s clothing alas concerns me less. When an actress has to be dressed, an assistant usually takes care of it.’
This candid admission seems to clinch it, but I take Philip Mann’s offering of Jean-Pierre Melville as a dandy director under advisement. It’s a matter I will have to think about more before I offer M. Melville a membership in the club. Doubtless, like Groucho Marx, he wouldn’t take it anyway if it was offered—and if so, that would be the concluding proof of M. Melville’s dandysme;—for we dandies are such rugged individualists that (like the only Marx whose dicta are worth repeating) we would refuse to belong to any club that would have us as a member.
If you can think of any other hommes du cinéma you think might live up to the high bar of being a dandy, dear readers, I would be interested to hear the names of other contenders bandied in the comments below.
Being a Daygamer myself (albeit one who considers himself ‘retired’ from the Game), your Melbourne Flâneur is a very tough cookie to crack: knowing every trick and technique for stopping a stranger in the street, you can’t arrest the flow of my flânerie if I don’t want to stop for you.
But photographer Alfonso Perez de Velasco (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram), ‘loitering with intent’ near the corner of Lonsdale street, caught me on a good day as I sailed confidently down Elizabeth street, and I couldn’t turn down his sincere and complimentary request to snap a portrait of me, the photo you see above.
It’s perhaps too much of a cliché to say that this talented Madrileño now living and working in Melbourne has painted me in a typically Spanish light, with shades of Ribera about me, but I think he’s captured something essential about your sombre, sombrero’d scribe, that blend of light and dark inside a single look which is eminently Goyesque.
With my humour and melancholy, my Machiavellianism and my empathy, I am nothing if not contradictory, and I think Alfonso captures that ambiguity nicely.
I was wearing a black shirt with a grey-and-white floral pattern, dark silver tie, black display kerchief with grey Martini glasses on it (courtesy of Fine And Dandy and Brisbane Hatters), and a dark grey vintage Stetson Whippet to cap the ensemble. The slightly clashing touch of chocolate-coloured scarf and gloves was my only concession to the tardy onset of the Melbourne winter. I had my Dunn & Co. trenchcoat slung casually over my Czechoslovakian officer’s map-case, which serves as a stylish satchel for porting my tablet.
I was everything the well-dressed writer-about-town ought to be.
I wasn’t, as Raymond Chandler says, ‘calling on four million dollars’—(tant pis)—but I was just about to call on Elite Office Machines Co. in Carlton to pick up my freshly serviced Silver Reed typewriter.
So I was feeling O.K. that day.
During lockdown, I had a chance to catch up on some reading, and one of the books that came my way was Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989), by Richard Martin and Harold Koda. It was written at the tail end of the ‘Greed is Good’ eighties, so there’s a touch of quaintness about the authors’ commentary: though acknowledging that standards have slipped since the 1960s, Messrs. Martin and Koda have no clue as to how far they will descend in the thirty years up to the present day.
Their thesis is simple yet compelling: ‘We believe that men are knowing in making choices among style options, and that they dress to create or recreate social roles. Both men and women seek to realize roles and identities, but since men’s options in dress would appear to be the more acutely restricted, perhaps selecting a role has assumed more importance for them than it has for women. A man’s role is his operative identity; style choices follow therefrom.’
I like the phrase ‘operative identity’, for it points to the fundamental ‘uniformity’ of men’s style, the basis of almost every garment in the masculine wardrobe in an historical military analogue.
Indeed, Martin and Koda identify twelve such ‘operative identities’ that we men tend to take on as the social rôles by which we choose to be known, and their book is arranged in an ascending hierarchy of these ‘types’, from the ‘Jocks’ and ‘Nerds’ of the title, through the ‘Military Man’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘Sportsman’, up to the ‘Businessman’, ‘Man about Town’ and ‘Dandy’.
The argument seems true that, due to the mobility of action that is the masculine prerogative, at a certain point early in a man’s life, he chooses the rôle that he is going to play, the branch of ‘the Services’ he is going to go into.
Is he going to be a soldier? a blue-collar worker? a white-collar worker? a professor? There’s a ‘uniform’ for every métier that men undertake, and even the most récherché uniform, that of a literary dandy like yours truly, is thoroughly—albeit subtly—based in a military antecedent.
Martin and Koda go on to say: ‘Conventional wisdom has it that men dress to be conventional, but those with insight into male dress might hold that men dress to realize dreams, to be themselves through being someone other than themselves. If, as Shakespeare would have it, “apparel oft proclaims the man,” perhaps it is true that it both claims and proclaims him.’
I agree, for not only do we know a man by the uniform he wears, but the key point is that, unlike for the dames, our trade, boulot or profession is our operative identity: a man is the job he does, and in subscribing to the uniform, he subscribes equally to the professional etiquette of the rôle.
We have certain expectations of the cowboy, just as we have certain others of the lawyer, and the man who inhabits the uniform of either trade will seek earnestly to inhabit the professional expectations we have of him.
Indeed, for most men, it is a point of honour that their behaviour and comportment is congruent with the deportment of their life’s rôle.
But is there, you may ask, really a ‘uniform’ for a writer?
Well, Martin and Koda are instructive on this point, for not only is their book liberally seasoned with pictures of men of letters, but it opens with a spread lifted from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar Uomo in which a contemporary spin is placed on the ‘looks’ of such literary giants as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry Miller, among others, demonstrating that men who spend their lives ‘off the stage of life’, cloistered in their studies, may be equally ‘leaders of fashion’ to other men.
‘Would a businessman care to walk in the shoes of James Joyce?’ Martin and Koda ask. ‘In the intimacy of a clothing decision, he might, signalling an affinity with the writer. … [T]he male chooses a family tree, a heritage, a sense of identity or likeness that is most compelling because it is not enunciated but simply visually implied.’
And indeed, surveying this spread and the other portraits of writers in this book, one sees a subtle uniform ‘visually implied’: the rakish chapeau, the tie—whether straight or bow—which is more alluring than the usual garotted neckwear, the suit of emphatic cut, or of bold stripes or mysterious patterns, the raincoat which is ported quixotically in all weathers.
I have observed elsewhere on this vlog the unusual number of writers who tend to be dandies. Why should we men of letters, cloistered away from celebrity-hungry eyes in our airy towers of intellect, be so passionate about such an ephemeral subject as fashion?
Well, as I said in my post on ‘What is a flâneur?’, there is no better prima facie indication of an orderly mind than the attention to detail that a man pays to his deportment. If a man cannot order the outer world of his person—(or, worse still, declines to do so, for this betrays a manque of strategy in his thinking)—it is doubtful whether he possesses the energies to order his abstract inner world through words.
In his book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore (2017), fashion journalist Terry Newman made a close reading of thirty authors and their sartorial style, arguing that the distinction between the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ man of letters is not really as invidious as one might think at first glance, with an analogue of the writer’s unique literary style manifesting in the arena of his personal style.
Reversing the lens, is there anything that could be divined about my style as a writer from how I dress?
Well, judging from Alfonso’s pictures, I probably look like the man who runs the Melbourne underworld. More than once have others compared my sartorial style—the love of loud pinstripes and clashing contrasts of dark shirts and light-coloured ties—with that of Al Capone.
As Philip Mann observes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), the gangster, like the dandy, masters the sober uniform of the Businessman and pushes it to a récherché extreme, beyond the conventions of conservative rectitude, to the point of parody. The gangster, like the dandy, is the rebellious ‘inversion’ of the rôle of the Businessman. But whereas the dandy in some sense ‘satirizes’ the hypocrisy of the bourgeois Establishment, the gangster savagely exposes the blood on the Businessman’s hands, making no bones about the fact that the easy wealth of his ill-gotten gains comes from ‘making a killing’.
Certainly, the rather Italianate character of my prose, full of mannerist touches, might have an analogue in my Medicean love of outrageous intrigue.
It’s interesting to note that the Businessman eschews black in his wardrobe, whereas the gangster and the dandy both revel in it. As Martin and Koda say, ‘The rebel wears black. … Black serves as a sign of social militancy and provocation for men in a way that it does not for women. … [M]en in this century have worn gray or a limited palette of colors in deliberate avoidance of black. When black enters the wardrobe, it arrives with arresting authority and with a social goad.’
It’s the colour not merely of the transgressive Businessman personified by the gangster, but the colour of artists and poets, according to Martin and Koda. Citing Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion (1988), they describe the ‘triumph of black’ habitually ported by Charles Baudelaire as a ‘bohemian black’ which synthesizes the poet’s aspirations towards the Establishment of the French Academy with his inescapable outcast nature as an unreconstructable renegade.
And in its rebellious association with men who are intellectual threats to the established order of their societies, there is not merely something ‘clerical’ in the nature of black, according to Martin and Koda, but something perversely ‘spiritual’ about this most abjured colour: there is an almost satanic ‘purity’ and ‘cleanliness’ about black, and the man who takes on the rebellious rôle of artist or poet takes on the uniform of an heretical priesthood, dedicating himself to ‘l’art pour l’art’.
I don’t know that I’m so habitually ensconced in black as I am in Alfonso’s photos, but certainly the Velázquean voluptuousness and elegance of black, its noirish, tenebrist radiance—with all the ambiguity and contradictions it suggests—makes it a staple of my wardrobe, a colour that synæsthetically resonates with my nature.
It’s a colour which symbolically connotes a man—whether he be gangster, spy, priest or poet—engaged in some shadowy enterprise, and as I said above, a writer’s work takes place ‘off-stage’, in the ‘backstage’ of life.
Nevertheless, there is a subdued ‘flamboyance’ about the writer: taking the stage only retroactively in the imagination of his readers, the deeply introverted, dandified man of letters perhaps sublimates his repressed performativity in the dark radiance of his uniform.
The trenchcoat, that outrageously démodé relic of the First World War has, ‘[i]n an almost inexplicable combination of meanings and implications,’ according to Martin and Koda, become inextricably associated with men who make their living by the pen and the typewriter, whether they are reporters or writers.
It has transformed itself, they say, from its weatherable functionality as a dependable part of an officer’s uniform, to the ‘sign of the individualist’ in civilian life.
‘It has since come to be identified with good taste,’ Martin and Koda write, ‘but with romantic overtones associated with writers, artists, and individualists…. Defying the convention of the wool overcoat, some men have insisted on wearing the trench coat as standard outer wear, not waiting for rain to justify the versatile and quixotic coat of the visionary….’
On the day Alfonso snapped me, I had just conveyed my freshly relined woollen overcoat to the dry-cleaner in anticipation of the Melbourne winter, so I just had my trenchcoat with me as a potential topcoat.
I would have had it anyway, for in Melbourne, one needs to be prepared for any eventuality—even at the risk of appearing ‘quixotic’—and I rarely step out the door without my trusty Dunn & Co. raincoat, which can equally serve as sufficient insulation against an autumnal Melbourne breeze.
I think the ‘visionary’ nature of this article of apparel probably stems from the ‘quixotic’ tendency of certain careful men (as any man of letters should be) to port it in all weathers, as a dependable, respectable, all-weather topcoat.
Winston Churchill, visionary individualist as a statesman, though quixotic to his contemporaries, was the writer not only prescient enough to foresee ‘the gathering storm’ of the Second World War from a long way off, but was the historian capable of compassing its complexity in retrospect, and he stubbornly ported his Aquascutum in fair weather as in foul.
With certain American writers—Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs among them—the trenchcoat has attained to the status of a signature element in their wardrobes, its patrician associations with officer’s garb and its democratic appropriation after the First World War suggesting a reversal of these writers’ pulpy American origins and their take-up by sophisticated Parisian publishers.
The trenchcoat’s style, like their literary styles, suggests the ‘down-at-heels’ elegance of a declassed gentleman.
For myself, being fundamentally a Parisian at heart, the trenchcoat is an ‘incontournable’ part of my uniform as a flâneur. It’s both strange and a testament to its hardiness and adaptability that this fundamentally British article should undergo so many transatlantic crossings, becoming indissociably associated in the public imaginary first with America, as the garment-of-trade of the intrepid reporter and gumshoe, and then with the French capital, as the grey flag of world-weary existentialists like Camus and Sartre, the tails of their raincoats flapping against the grey Parisian sky.
More than London, the trenchcoat, as article of choice of both Philip Marlowe and Jef Costello, seems as much the symbol of rainless L.A. as of perennially grey Paris, and Melbourne, sharing something of the atmospheric effects of the latter, is also a city in which the incognito camouflage of its mysterious greyness is appropriate for the writer-flâneur, a man whose profession is to be an ‘undercover reporter’ of life.
The thing about a trenchcoat is that, like a hat or a good pair of shoes, it requires the patina of age to look elegant. As Messrs. Miller and Burroughs demonstrate, a trenchcoat needs to look fashionably rumpled—like those gents themselves.
I’ve had my dun-coloured Dunn & Co. almost all my adult life—and it’s probably older than I am, since I acquired it in an op-shop on the Gold Coast when I was a mere gamin of twenty, by which time the venerable British brand had gone the way of all fashion.
It has traipsed with me through the jardin du Luxembourg, as my sole insulation against miserable days in Paris, just as it has served as an improvised blanket under which to do some fooling around with demoiselles Daygamed in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens.
The Fedora and the trenchcoat, as the crown and the gown of your Melbourne Flâneur, this ‘prince qui jouit partout de son incognito’, as M. Baudelaire says, are probably the key symbols of my style, both personal and literary.
I’m most grateful to Alfonso Perez de Velasco for his handsome portraits of me, and I recommend that you check out his Instagram or visit his website to see more of his photographs, including Melbourne street scenes, other denizens of our fair city, and interesting travel pictures from around Asia.
Here’s a newsflash for those of you who have not been keeping up to date with the hourly drama that is the weather in Melbourne: it’s been a bit funny lately.
Melbourne is perhaps the only city in the world where the question, ‘What will I wear today?’ is an existential dilemma.
We’ve been having the ‘worst of both worlds’ these past couple of weeks: it’s been both muggy and cold, which means that if you dress for the humidity, you freeze, and if you dress for the rain, you sweat.
That was the uncomfortable dilemma I was living with when Melbourne photographer Tommy Backus (@writes_with_light on Instagram) caught me on the steps of the Nicholas Building in Flinders lane last week.
I first met Tommy in Frankston, where he took some handsome portraits of me, which you can check out here. It was a pleasure to run into him again, and a greater pleasure still to receive a compliment from him on my fashion. I had just come from a business meeting, and before that I had been cursing the ‘bloody Melbourne weather’: cold and rainy as it was, it was too damn muggy to be wearing a three-piece wool suit.
Such is the price of being a dandy, or ornate dresser, in Melbourne: your Melbourne Flâneur, dear readers, suffers on the crucifix of fashion.
You will doubtless recall that when I set forth my thoughts on what is a flâneur, I said that, in addition to being a pedestrian and the keenest possible observer of the æsthetic qualities latent in the urban environment, the flâneur must necessarily be a dandy.
This was the most controversial premise in my argument, but the logic was straightforward and sound: Charity, I said, begins at home, and a man who does not regard himself first and foremost as a worthy æsthetic object of investigation is highly unlikely to bring to bear that acute perspicacity to æsthetic detail in the external world which I attribute to the flâneur if he does not first of all attend to the details of his own person.
But let us not be in confusion about the dandy philosophy. As M. Baudelaire cautions us: ‘Dandyism is not, as many people who have hardly reflected on the subject appear to believe, an immoderate taste for clothes and material elegance. These things, for the perfect dandy, are merely symbols of the aristocratic superiority of his spirit.’
As Philip Mann discerned in his book The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), at heart, æsthetically-minded men who are accursed with the ‘pathology’ of dandyism seek to square the circle of life and art, of form and content, to unify self with the meaning that self creates. The dandy, says Mann, seeks ‘to become identical with himself’—that is, to become identical with his ideal of personality by applying the rigorous æsthetic of a work of art to his own life.
Thus, it is not difficult to see (as per Baudelaire) that the dandy’s outer person may be the canvas of his mind, and that the object of the ‘art’ of dandyism is to integrate the wood of character with the veneer, the outer being a platonic reflection of the inner.
But again, let us not fall precipitately into the error which would appear (superficially at least) to be the next logical steppingstone in our analysis of the dandy life: the dandy is not a ‘fop’.
Though he is androgynous by his very nature, arrogating to himself the feminine privilege of display, there is nothing ‘effeminate’ about the dandy.
As Beau Brummell—the first dandy, and an implacable foe of the kind of ‘peacockery’ in men’s fashion which he set himself to reform in the early nineteenth century—presciently divined, the essence of masculine beauty is of a ‘moral’ (that is, a spiritual) variety, in contradistinction to the physical quality of feminine beauty, and lies in masculine virtues, to wit:—simplicity, rectitude, honesty, discrimination, rigour and sobriety.
Along these classic lines, Brummell designed for himself the first modern ‘suit’—the perfection of masculine costume which, although it has been endlessly tinkered with, modified and refined since his day, will never be superseded by any masculine costume anywhere in the world, precisely because it gives the perfect outward form to the inner, spiritual qualities we associate with that being we call a ‘man’.
The dandy, in seeking to ‘become identical with himself’, identical with his ideal of personality, is not the epitome of masculine beauty because his clothes give him some special ‘aura’ he would otherwise lack, the way that dress, lingerie, makeup and jewellery heighten a woman’s allure and dissimulate her flaws; it is rather because he is at his ‘most transparent’—his most naked, even—when he is fully and perfectly dressed.
Any woman will tell you (by her behaviour, if not by her words) that the thing all women find most attractive in men is not their confidence, but their congruence—the transparent alignment of thoughts, words, and actions.
‘Honesty’ is a closely related quality in the constellation of masculine virtues which comprise congruence, and likewise, any woman will tell you (probably by her words, and certainly by her behaviour) that the thing she finds least attractive in a man is any whiff of ‘dishonesty’, any lack of transparent congruency in his thoughts, words and actions.
And it certainly does not go without saying that in adhering with especial scrupulousness to the rigorous and merciless rules of correct masculine attire which Mr. Brummell was the first to articulate, that a man cannot depart from the masculine virtues of simplicity, rectitude, discrimination and sobriety and still consider himself to be a dandy.
In other words, in contradistinction to what ‘many people who have hardly reflected on the subject appear to believe’, there is no place for the garish or the gaudy in the dandy’s wardrobe. Display for its own ebullient sake (that is, to ‘draw attention to oneself’) is exclusively a quality of the feminine.
The dandy does not ‘seek attention’. Rather, attention naturally finds him;—for we are always attracted to someone who shines with the aura of self-knowledge—including the knowledge of the ‘beauty’ of his own being, which he wears proudly, honestly, transparently for all the world to see, with modest confidence.
We are, in fine, attracted to anyone who gives evidence of being congruent with himself, for such a man, we know, is not easily found, and if he gives evidence of this, it is likely that he is in possession of other masculine virtues, such as honesty, reliability, dependability.
What distinguishes the dandy, however, from even the man who is very well-, very correctly, dressed with respect to ‘the details’ of his deportment, is that the dandy transcends the rules.
When anybody asks me, I tell them that if I were to define my personal style, it would be to say that I am ‘outrageouslyconservative’ in my approach to fashion.
That is, while I follow the rules scrupulously, as in the photograph above, some hint of my Aquarian nature always escapes the repressive, saturnine influence of Capricorn in me, whether that’s in the fine rainbow pinstripe of the otherwise sober black suit; the almost perfectly complimenting blue floral shirt and tie; or the bottle-green snapbrim Fedora, the Akubra I wore as a flâneur in Paris, with its jaunty red feather.
While perhaps outrageous in themselves, taken as an ensemble, they contribute to an effect of conservatism so extreme that they transcend sobriety in a rather unique way, one which conveys (if I am correctly interpreting the compliments I tend to get from people) the intense creativity and originality I bring to my work as a writer, which is always tempered by my equally intense adherence to precision, correctness, tradition, and ‘bonne forme’.
That is the vital æsthetic difference, the piquant je-ne-sais-quoi of exotic quality I bring to the bespoke writing, editorial and publishing concerns of my clients: like a tailor labouring in a noble and venerable tradition, they know that I will not only follow ‘the rules of good form’ scrupulously, but that, as an irrepressible artist, I will innovate to an unexpected degree within the very narrow latitude of creativity those rules allow to create a document unique to them.
What thinketh you, dear readers? Is the world ripe for a resurgence of dandyism—of ‘beautiful men’ who say and think and do in alignment with the highest versions of themselves? And do you agree that attention to the æsthetic essence of oneself is a cornerstone to being a flâneur?
I’m interested, as always, to contend, defend and generally converse with you in the comments below.
And I recommend you also check out Tommy Backus’s photographs on Instagram. As I said to him last week, it was nice to be able to put names to some of the kooky characters I’ve clocked around town.
‘… [T]he 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.’ — Philip Mann, The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century.