It’s a bit cheeky, but in today’s post, I’m sharing with you the same video I posted on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog last week. The same, that is, but different.
I just got back some Super 8 footage I shot in Bendigo from the folks at nano lab, Australia’s small gauge film specialists. At the time I wanted to get the video above online, the reel of Kodak Tri-X was at their lab in Daylesford undergoing ‘magic’.
So I sneakily put some ‘placeholder’ shots into the intro and outro which I hoped I would be able to later replace with some Super 8 footage—if it was any good.
Tri-X, as Kodak’s signature black-and-white film stock is very difficult to wrangle. You can get some absolutely magical shots with Tri-X, but it doesn’t peer into the shadows very well, so you have to be either very good or very lucky—or both—to get consistently good results from it.
I’m not that good. In Bendigo, I was experimenting with the manual exposure settings on my trusty Minolta XL 401 Super 8 movie camera, so much of what was on the reel came back overexposed.
But when I dragged the gamma way down on the footage, I got some lovely shots of the Venus Pudica in Rosalind Park and the Alexandra Fountain—the more so, I think, for their being so grainy. Brief as they are, I think they add a nice bit of contrast to the digital footage in the video, and I’d love to hear your reactions.
People are always a bit nonplussed when they discover I’m so hipped on Super 8. As I was finishing up the shot of the Talking Tram trundling into Pall mall, a guy came up to me and asked me why I was shooting on film—as if I was breaking some bourgeois law of conformity.
‘Most people are using digital,’ Constable Plod of the Conformity Police complained as he signed my citation.
Shooting on Super 8 is indeed an expensive hobby, but there’s a qualitative æsthetic difference to Super 8 which sends me.
In my previous post, I stated that flânerie is an ‘altered state’: the invisible poetry which hovers behind objects in the urban environment is made visible through the flâneur’s ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens,’ as M. Rimbaud puts it.
And in my recent post on flânography, I argued that this artform I had coined was the ‘poetry of photography’. I declined in that post to set forth my thoughts on the relative merits of analogue and digital photography vis-à-vis flânography, but a discussion of Super 8 seems like a good place to examine that distinction.
For me, the medium of film—and particularly Super 8—goes much further than digital photography and videography can in manifesting that ‘invisible poetry of the visible’ I talked about in the earlier posts. The chemistry of film grain does something magical that pixels cannot do in making that elemental molecular and atomic substrate vibratingly visible.
You can see that most pointedly in the overexposed shots I inserted into the video, where raking down the gamma reveals the Venus Pudica and the statues of the Alexandra Fountain as hardly anything more than dense constellations of buzzing black and grey atoms on a white field.
For me at least, the ‘murkiness’ of film is more like how I actually see and experience the world—a kind of ‘darkness at noon’.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got 20/20 vision the same as you. But those of you who have read Dean Kyte’s books will know that they’re a bit of a ‘trip’: even the most banal and quotidian experience erupts for yours truly (c’est moi in the snappy chapeau) in recursive dimensions of abstract meaning, and much more than digital videography, Super 8 has the ‘look’ of my life—the flâneurial experience of groping mole-like through the dazzling, sun-bright darkness of the blindingly obvious.
There’s a high-resolution quality to the experience of flânerie which the low-resolution quality of Super 8 paradoxically matches in a Baudelairean correspondance.
If you compare the video footage to the Super 8, I don’t think we will be in too much disagreement when I say that the digital footage looks more ‘like’ the things depicted in Bendigo than the film footage, the same way a realist painting of a person, tree or building looks more ‘like’ the subject than an impressionist version of same.
But when I got my Super 8 footage back from nano lab, the black-and-white flâneurial footage looked more like how I remembered Bendigo to look from the distance of a week and a few hundred kilometres. There is not that dead, flat ‘factuality’ which raw digital footage has, but a reconstitutive ‘being’ in film footage—as though it’s happening all over again, but for the first time.
As a medium, Super 8 has a look more like our memories—fuzzy, fragile, juddery and inexpertly framed. And shot on Tri-X, even cars and people look different when rendered through the rheumy eyes of Super 8: a scene as modern for me as two weeks ago now looks like it took place in a distant past.
In the altered state of flânerie, you are aware of the density of things, but also of their porous transience, and somehow the fragility of Super 8 captures the ‘eternality of the ephemeral’. You can see the grand buildings of Bendigo’s Charing Cross passing behind the Talking Tram in the footage: these magnificent buildings have lasted for over a century, but they too will eventually fall into dust.
As Céline (Julie Delpy) says to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise (1995) as they regard a poster for a Seurat exhibition: ‘I love the way the people seem to be dissolving into the background. … It’s like the environments, you know, are stronger than the people. His human figures are always so – transitory.’
I feel the same way when I look at the shots I took of the Venus Pudica: the tenacious endurance of inertia in marble sculpture—and also its fragility—are equally manifest when you see the outlines of this goddess fading in and out with the buzzing, porous granularity of changing sunlight registered so subtly and yet so roughly and approximately on Super 8 film.
Last year I asked and answered the question, ‘Are there flâneur films?’, and my conclusion was that the flâneur in film is more a quality of certain films themselves—something in the way they are shot and edited—than a human character or presence within them—prototypical flâneur movies like Before Sunrise to the contrary.
Despite the expense of shooting on film, Super 8 seems to me to be the perfect medium to produce such a ‘flâneur cinema’ or ‘cinema of flânerie’ precisely because the medium itself is attuned to this more impressionistic way of seeing the world, and because the camera itself is lightweight, discreet and versatile—ideal for a dandy engaged in curious æsthetic espionage.
As Jeff Clarke, the CEO of Kodak, has rightly observed, we—human beings—are analogue too; we’re not digital.
Our bodies and the world we live in are not made up of pixels. We’re not reducible to passels of ‘data’. It’s meet that we should see the world with the same messy, organic frame as Super 8.
And it’s the handcrafted, artisanal experience of working with film, working with something as real and tangible and fragile as myself, that really sends me when it comes to shooting on Super 8.
I feel a sense of vital involvement, my total being is engaged when I work with film. It’s the rapport of one physical, analogue being working with another. And this vital engagement of energies between real, living things is one of the qualitative æsthetic differences of working with film.
If I could have said one thing to Constable Plod which explained why I was using film instead of digital to capture the shot of the Talking Tram, it would have been that. As a ‘film maker’, I felt like I was actually ‘making’ something which required art, craft and skill to accomplish.
There’s no particular ‘skill’ required in digital photography or videography, but using film demands the development of skill—particularly the skill of patience, which is hardly required in our HD, ADD world where you can carelessly click a pic with your phone.
I had to wait twenty minutes at the corner of Pall mall and Mitchell street to ultimately get the shot of the Talking Tram passing through Charing Cross. I had my camera set up on my dinky tripod, my settings checked, double-checked, and triple-checked. I had tested the tension of the pan lever several times and the position of the spirit level. I had all my senses on high-alert for the least spectre of a tram shimmering in the furthest distance of that broilingly hot day—all so I would have enough time to get set for it when it passed into frame.
And one of the upsides of working with film is that I think my videography has benefited enormously from the development of the skills demanded by film. I’m much more deliberative in my framing and composition when I set up digital camera, and much more attentive to the qualities of light.
It’s over to you, chers lecteurs. What do you think?
Do you agree with ‘us analogue purists’ that film is far superior to digital in every æsthetic respect, or would you rush to the fray to defend ‘the way of the future’ against the infidel Luddites?
Are you interested in getting into film? Were you once into film and ‘went digital’—and would you like to go back?
I look forward to having a lively discussion with you in the comments below.
And if you would like to look at all the raw footage I shot on Super 8 in Bendigo (including some alternate takes which didn’t make the cut in the video above), I’ve posted that below. Nothing fancy, no music or sound effects, just the facts, ma’am.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I take a flânerie around Bendigo, pausing only in my perambulations to breathe some poetic airs upon your ears in beautiful Rosalind Park.
The good burghers of Bendigo named their green space after the heroine of As You Like It, but as you can see in the video, there is something otherworldly about this ‘emerald isle’ in the midst of the city, such that it reminds one of the enchanted island of The Tempest.
It’s the perfect locale for a little poetry-declaiming, and with the rather Parisian skyline of Bendigo’s Pall Mall mansard-bristling at my back, I read you my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet “L’Idéal”, from my book Flowers Red and Black: Love Lyrics & Other Verses by Baudelaire.
There’s always an erotic edge to my writing, and like a pendulum, I oscillate between the sublimely romantic and the frankly pornographic, so it should come as little surprise that I am such an admirer of Baudelaire, or that I have translated so many of his love poems.
Though I had some slight acquaintance with M. Baudelaire beforehand, it was as a flâneur in Paris—the city of flânerie, the city of Baudelaire—that I really got to know the divine, diabolical M’sieu.
As I perfected the art of wandering the streets of Paris, the Latinate rap of Baudelaire’s high-flown rendering of low-brow subjects was a constant cicerone in my ear, directing me towards the tawdry tableaux which Paris flashes like her undergarments at the voyaging connoisseur of voyeurship.
‘Parisian life is abundant in poetic and marvellous subjects,’ Baudelaire observed. ‘The marvellous envelopes us and suckles us like air, but we cannot see it.’
Certainly I feel the same way when I set up my camera to capture those little vignettes of Bendigo, shots of rien de tout, which bracket the video above. Statues, street art, architectural details, empty vistas:—Bendigo (which bores the Bendigoans) is fecund in that surreal quality of the marvellous, the poetry which hovers behind the banality of things much-seen.
Baudelaire’s ambition was to make the Parisian see this invisible air in which he ambulated, to turn the exquisite flâneur experience of the ephemeral into a flâneur poem. In the same way, if there is any ‘poetry’ in the shots of nothing I insist on boring you with in my videos, it is the poetry of the ‘boring’ urban life which Baudelaire, lover of novelty and ennui, both wanted to escape from and escape more fully to.
Flânerie is an ‘altered state’ which reveals the invisible poetry of the visible city. Baudelaire, as the père of flâneur philosophy, was an inveterate chasseur after artificially-induced altered states which liberated the surreal poetry that is the resident spirit of the banal.
He praised the state of drunkenness as the essence of the poetic experience, and wrote a scholarly treatise on the poetic effects produced by hashish. And of course, Baudelaire was an amateur of that other intoxicating, protean substance which produces a poetic effect on men: la femme.
As a flâneur, he was a Daygamer avant la lettre, as may be witnessed by his ode to an anonymous passer-by. It’s one of Baudelaire’s most delicate and evanescent love poems, ineffably romantic and yet unmarred by any effeminate sentimentality whatsoever.
In a handful of lines, Baudelaire perfectly conveys that ephemeral experience which all men of the city know:—the lightning-flash moment when you see a woman you desperately want to approach surge forward from out of the crowd; the single second in which you clearly see a whole parallel existence with her; and the second afterwards when, jostled on by the crowd, you decline to embrace the destiny with her which you so clearly previsioned:
A bright light… then the night! Fugitive beauty
In whose glance I have been suddenly reborn,
Will I never see you again in all eternity?
Elsewhere, very far from here! too late! perhaps even never!
For I know not where you fly, and you know not where I go,
O you who I might have loved, O you who knew it!
Translating Baudelaire is not easy. As Alan Ginsberg remarked, if you can’t read him in the original, you have to take the aggregate of all the translations in English to get a sense of what he is saying.
It’s not that Baudelaire’s French is particularly difficult, although he does some vexing things with tense that English is not supple enough to elegantly convey. It’s rather that the images he manages to paint by combining a lofty, distant tone with the startling incorporation of things deemed ‘unpoetic’ produces a remarkably lucid effect with remarkable compression.
As with Shakespeare, there’s quite an unusual ‘range’ in Baudelaire’s language. He’s equally at ease with the most recherché classical allusions as he is with the slangy argot of the Parisian gutter, and he demands not only a requisite range from his English translator but a sense of how to convey in modern English the quality of ‘shock’—and even of ‘offence’—produced by this admixture of tone.
Few translators who have ‘tried their hand’ at Baudelaire have a good sense of him, methinks, for with the grotesquerie of his subject matter, it is too easy to make a schlocky parody of Baudelaire in English.
One requires an exquisite sensibility for the sublime horror (or horrific sublimity) of everyday life to approach Baudelaire on his own terms of unquiet desperation with normal, bourgeois existence. In fine, one requires an ample dose of that quality which he himself defined (finding no better word for it in French) as good old-fashioned English ‘spleen’.
In Flowers Red and Black, the poem which most conveys this choking, stifling sense of sublime horror (or horrific sublimity) is “The Jewels”, my translation of “Les Bijoux”.
It’s the most sensual, erotic poem in the collection, and the one I am always asked to read at poetry gatherings because it’s almost like a short story: in the space of a few minutes, people feel as though they have been completely transported into the small, stuffy chamber, lit only by firelight, in which Baudelaire and his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, are engaged in foreplay.
The heady incense of the smoke, the play of weird lights rising from the fire, the music of Jeanne’s ‘chiming jewels’, and the way she undergoes a metamorphosis before the bard’s eyes, changing into a tiger, swan, slutty angel and classical catamite by turns, always gives people the hallucinatory sense, sans drugs, of the ‘altered state’ which Baudelaire experienced in sexual love.
And yet, because the banality of this everyday scene takes on a heightened potency and is attenuated to such an exquisite degree, there is a stifling, almost suffocating sense of sublimity into which an erotic horror enters, like the almost painful pleasure of the ‘petite mort’.
As romantic as his love poems are, there is nothing wilting and effeminate about Baudelaire, which is perhaps why women like this book. His voice is forceful and potent, and it seems to combine well with my own style as a writer, such that we make some ‘beautiful music’ together.
I’m thinking of publishing a second edition of Flowers Red and Black, revised and expanded, even including some of Baudelaire’s prose poems. But that project is some way in the future.
In the meantime, I have a very limited stock of the first edition on hand—about a vingtaine. It makes an original St. Valentine’s Day cadeau, and the dames do grok it. As I say in the video, I’ve been reliably informed (regrettably post facto) that ladies have regaled one another with my verses in bed.
I’ve also had a friend rip off my translation of “Les Bijoux” and try to pass it off as his own poem to placate a squeeze who wasn’t in the mood to be squeezed. (She saw through his play at once, which only served to further inspire her ire.)
You can purchase a copy through the Dean Kyte Bookstore, but if you want to buy a copy from me directly, you can do so either by clicking this link, or by registering your interest with me via the Contact form.
This allows me to get in touch with you to arrange payment and delivery details. It also enables me to get some particulars from you so that I can write a thoughtful, personalised message on your behalf to the lucky person you want to give the book to.
Plus, I will flourish the magic wand of my Montblanc Noblesse over the flyleaf and affix my personal seal in wax to it, so your first edition will be doubly exclusive.
They say that every person has a book in her—a painful state of affairs which, if you happen to be a writer, often feels like nursing a mental gallstone.
I’m working on my sixth book, and believe me, the process of writing and self-publishing your own books does not getting any easier after the first one. It doesn’t get any easier after the fifth, even.
But, as I say in today’s video, what sustains you through the years is the knowledge that, if you persevere, a day will come when you can literally hold your thoughts in your hands.
There’s a certain magic—which I can only equate with holding your newborn child—in the sensation of being able to weigh your words in your hands when you at last see your thoughts, the lightest and most ethereal of things, crystallized in a beautifully bound book.
I’m dreaming of that day with my next book, my sixth mental child, but maybe you are dreaming of experiencing the soul-deep satisfaction of giving birth to your first one.
You’re nursing the book within yourself and you would like to get it out. Maybe you even write in secret, but you dare not knight yourself with the holy title of ‘writer’. For you, writing is a hobby, and you feel shy about even sharing the fact that you are ‘writing a book’ with family and friends:—for everyone knows how hard it is to write a book, and you know that, behind their polite smiles of encouragement, your nearest and dearest are doubtful of your staying power.
As I say in the video above, writing and publishing a book is like ‘climbing a mental Everest’, and most of the time that you are climbing it, you still feel as though you are pottering around base camp.
The writing life is more than simply putting words on a page—and what if the words you do manage to put down are no good?
Probably the better part of writing is not writing at all but dealing with rejection—the rejection we make of our own bad writing; the slighting sneers with which our grand ambitions to write a book are greeted by family and friends; the politely deprecating rejection slips which dismiss our entire efforts.
Paradoxically, writing is a rather introverted activity, and yet it is one of the most self-exposing activities an introvert can perform—and therefore one of the most fraught with potential rejection.
But despite its introverted nature, there’s a certain ‘performative’ aspect to writing. Indeed, being a published ‘author’ is the performative side of a writer’s life.
Your book is the stage upon which you enact all the parts, so it’s perfectly reasonable that you should feel a little ‘stage fright’ when you turn up to the blank page. If you’re feeling ‘writer’s block’, it’s simply the writer’s stage fright, the dread of giving a bad performance.
Fortunately, self-publishing allows you the greatest latitude to control your stage and your performance. In the video I state my earnest belief, which has attended me since my earliest days as a writer, to wit:—that the book (to borrow Richard Wagner’s term) should be the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’—‘the total work of art’ of its author.
To continue the Wagner analogy, self-publishing allows you the scope to make your book your Bayreuth—not just a stage, but a whole theatre devoted to you, one in which you can control every aspect of the production.
But the problem with having such scope for total control is that most writers don’t have the requisite skills to handle it well. Despite its venerability, the printed book is still the most technically complex analogue knowledge technology humanity has ever produced. As any writer who sets sail on the hazardous seas of self-publishing for the first time will attest, the number of things you have to consider, the number of choices you have to make when publishing your own book is intimidating.
There’s the editing and revising and proofreading, the layout and formatting of the text and illustrations, graphic design and typesetting. Dealing with the vexing issue of the cover alone will take you almost as long as writing the book—and is just as important as the words behind it.
Indeed, the two categories of problem which the virgin authorpreneur typically faces may be filed under two heads: ‘words’ and ‘images’.
As an Associate Member of the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd), I can handle the words, bien entendu. But what makes the Artisanal Desktop Publishing service I provide to my clients original is the instinct I have for the visual, for the ‘readability’—(as important as the legibility of the words on the page)—associated with good graphic design.
It would seem in life that one is either more orientated towards words or towards images, but rarely are the two combined. Yet the ability to think about a book visually, in terms of its graphic and material design, is key to the successful communication of its ostensible content—your writing—to the reader.
As I explain in this video, I’ve been making books since I was a little boy. It’s what I always wanted to do, so it’s perhaps natural that I should be able to think in both dimensions. And certainly sharing your work in a supportive environment with an editor who is not just a fellow writer, but is someone who understands the total process of self-publishing your book thanks to long experience of his own, gives you confidence that all aspects of your performance will ultimately do you justice.
I’ve been to the summit of that mental Everest five times now, and I’m slogging my way up the slope for a sixth pass. As a genuine introvert and someone with a reputation for being a ‘perfectionist’ when it comes to grinding out diamond-cut words, what I find the most ‘performative’ aspect of being a writer is releasing my inner Flaubert momentarily, swallowing my stage fright and allowing you to see inside my Artisanal Desktop Publishing process in some of my videos.
In Brisbane and at Docklands I shared with you a couple of excerpts from my current work in progress, words which are less than perfect by comparison to future versions of same I may share with you in revised drafts. But I think it’s interesting as a document, particularly in the video format, to see how those impalpable and ethereal things, words, evolve into a plastic object you can hold and weigh in your hand. I plan to bring you a third instalment shortly, exposing yet another sin-tillating aspect of the erotic (mis)adventure I’ve been tantalizing you with.
What do you think? Do you find it hard to share what you are working on? Do you feel as though you will never get to the summit? Or are you looking forward expectantly to the day when you can finally hold your thoughts in your hand?
I look forward to hearing how you’re going with your own writing in the comments below.
As I explain in today’s video, the metaphor I use to describe my approach to providing document preparation services is that of the bespoke tailor.
On first view, you might ask what making a suit of clothes could possibly have in common with writing, editing, proofreading, and designing documentation for clients as diverse as small businesspeople, academics, and my fellow writers.
But I beg your indulgence, for the bow I draw is not long: like all good metaphors, with un po’ di immaginazione, one skips lightly over the dissimilarities between tailoring and writing to see how one clothes a person’s body, the other his spirit.
The basis of the bespoke tradition in English and Italian tailoring is that article which is thoroughly handmade by craftsmen—cutters, tailors and finishers—each of whom is a master at his respective handicraft.
And when you master a handicraft which requires uncommon skill and manual dexterity, and which demands uncommonly fine cognitive judgments in the field of specialty, you bring to the industrial craft the kind of originality in thinking and execution which elevates artisanry to artistry.
There’s a reason why we call fine writers ‘wordsmiths’, for there’s a sense in that term (as in other manual handicrafts which share the ‘-smith’ suffix) of the writer as crafting, forging or setting a substance as hard, durable and delicate as gold. Each word is an interlocking link in the delicate chain of a sentence, stanza or strophe, which nevertheless endures as a petrified thought.
As I say in the video, writing is a ‘whole-brain activity’. It is not localized to a particular region of the brain. As Robert M. Kaplan explains in The Exceptional Brain and How It Changed the World (2011), the frontal lobes deal with the organization and redaction of ideas, while the temporal lobes manage the comprehension of words and their meanings. The emotional limbic system, one of the oldest parts of the brain, is the source of inspiration, while the cerebral cortex drives the motor response of our hands as we write.
So you can see that writing is not a simple or easy activity, and to do it at the wordsmith level requires a long apprenticeship in co-ordinating brain, eye and hand such as the one which the cutters, tailors and finishers who make a suit by hand undergo.
And indeed, as you can see in the video, I write by hand. I draw my Montblanc fountain pen across the page as though I were stitching the basting thread through my first essay at my client’s document. Then too, I touch-type, a cognitive activity of pianistic skill, playing the keyboard of my old manual typewriter fortissimo as I pound out the second draft.
‘Why not write on a computer?’ you ask. That would be like a bespoke tailor sneaking his client’s garment through a sewing machine.
One only gets to be a ‘wordsmith’ by learning one’s craft and doing the work ‘by hand’. Just as a tailor learns to sculpt fabric into an ensemble which will complement his client through the long apprenticeship of co-ordinating eye, hand and brain, so the writer hones that crucial ‘feeling for language’, the arrangement of words and how they ‘hang together’ in a client’s document, by actually writing, co-ordinating all the parts of the brain in the physical act of placing words artfully on the page.
Moreover, my clients (like the bespoke tailor’s) appreciate the precision and attention to detail which is the natural consequence of the ‘handcrafted approach’ I take to preparing their documents.
When you ‘go bespoke’, what you’re paying for is ultimately an experience, one that has been precisely tailored to you, your needs and preferences. And when an experience has been so intimately fitted to you, what you actually experience is a sense of satisfaction that you would not otherwise get from a generic offering.
Whether I’m collaborating with a small businessperson on a strategic document, editing a doctoral thesis, or collaborating with another writer on a creative project, when I rent out my brain to a client, it seems to give the client a ‘thrill’ to work with an artist rather than a corporate writer, someone who brings a bit of brio and temperament to their concerns, flourishing a pen over a page rather than drearily tapping onto a screen a bottom-of-the-drawer idea they drafted for someone else.
Whatever the project, no matter how utilitarian, the client always seems to feel as though he or she is getting a ‘masterpiece’ in exchange for his or her patronage.
It’s very gratifying for a client to actually feel as though he or she has been ‘heard’ by someone who understands words so well that he can even hear what the client hasn’t the words to say.
And it’s just as gratifying for the client to physically see his or her idea, that impalpable substance which is just as malleable, and yet can be just as hard and enduring as gold when transmuted into words, ‘taking shape’ on a page.
The tailor too takes a flat fabric and sculpts his client’s shape out of it, giving unique body to two-dimensional material. Tailors feel a sense of humble pride to see their masterpieces ‘walk out the door’, given life by the client, the last and most essential element in their art.
For in some fundamental sense, bespoke is a duet. It is in the intimate collaboration between a classically-trained virtuoso guiding a savant who cannot read a line of music, but one who can make some very interesting sounds, that the peculiar nature of the art resides. But if the client is in some sense the tailor’s ‘instrument’, the tailor is equally the client’s: each expresses himself through the other.
When I tailor a document for a client, the thing which is always expressed to me at each successive fitting is the ‘pleasure’ and ‘enjoyment’ the client experiences at the process, seeing his or her ideas being progressively expressed through me, becoming clearer every time we meet to take up and let out the document.
The client’s ‘art’, as muse and patron, is to be ringside at the consummate performance of the professional, watching me wield my pen—for then I become the client’s pen, a ‘living’ pen, the fusion of the tool that writes, the hand that forms the words calligraphically, the eye that sees and judges, and the brain that makes poetry of ideas.
This is Bespoke Document Tailoring, the art of writing and editing documentation the human way. If you are a small businessperson, academic or creative writer and would like to learn how I can help you specifically to craft a mail of words which clothes your thought as closely as a bespoke suit, I have a number of free brochures on my Personal Services page which you are most welcome to download.
What are your thoughts? Do you think there is still a place in this world of technology for the human touch—in manual production as well as service rôles? Is it still necessary for human beings to cultivate a sense of ‘craft’, particularly with respect to intellectual technologies like writing long-hand?
I look forward to reading your comments and responding to you below.
One of the icons that Melbourne is known for is “The Skipping Girl”, Australia’s first animated neon sign, which formerly advertised the Skipping Girl Vinegar brand.
From the Art Deco rooftop of a converted factory in Victoria street, Abbotsford, she jumps rope over 16,000 times per night, and one of the most romantic things to do in Melbourne at night is to take the route 12 or 109 trams to Victoria Gardens and watch this 84-year-old icon repeat her nightly performance.
An icon is an image, a symbol which substitutes for an absent other whose spirit is supposed to reside in the icon, animating it, and receiving the adoration which would otherwise go directly to the sacred personage, if they were present.
It’s interesting, therefore, to reflect that the Skipping Girl, who was once the icon associated with a brand of vinegar which is no longer manufactured, has become the genius loci of Melbourne. But when I took the ‘flânograph’ above with my vintage Pentax K1000, she did not represent for me so much a symbol of ‘old Melbourne’ which had disappeared, but someone who had disappeared, an absent other I will always associate with the Skipping Girl.
As I explain in the video below, the first time I encountered the Skipping Girl, I was stepping off the 109 tram with a Dutch girl I had picked up eight hours earlier. We were about to go upstairs to her apartment, across the road in Richmond, and make love.
When I saw that neon icon beating time against the night, it was like seeing an X on a treasure map: this icon of Melbourne would always be, for me, a perpetual monument to a personal conquest, marking the spot of my greatest victory in Daygame.
In his essay “The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape” (1982), documentary filmmaker Patrick Keiller describes the flâneur as a literary motif signifying two types of experience. Following Schiller’s distinction between the naïve and sentimental poet, I think we can summarize Keiller’s two types of flâneur as likewise being ‘naïve’ and ‘sentimental’.
The ‘naïve flâneur’ is more like the classical, nineteenth-century dandy conceived by Baudelaire. As Keiller says, he ‘takes the city as his salon’. He’s a romantic adventurer—a Daygamer, in essence—whose ‘chance encounters are largely with people’ rather than with those architectural citizens of a city, buildings and monuments. Whatever dreamlike quality there is in the encounter between this flâneur and the city derives from ‘his surrender to the randomness of urban life.’
The ‘sentimental flâneur’, en revanche, is a solitary dériveur who drifts through the city as though it were a petrified dream, experiencing the ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ which renders the banal street marvellous. As Keiller says, this flâneur ‘may meet others, he may fall passionately in love, but this is not his motive, it merely enhances his experience by enabling it to be shared.’
As a Melbourne flâneur, I have always felt like a synthesis of these two figures, but tending more towards the latter. I can ‘do’ Daygame, I can take adventitious advantage of the randomness of urban life to seize a romantic encounter; but, being a genuine introvert, I am more constitutionally inclined towards solitary drifting through the externalized ‘Forms’ of my thought which streets, parks, statues, monuments and buildings seem to symbolize for me.
Keiller cites Surrealist poet Louis Aragon, who, in Le paysan de Paris (1926), describes this paradoxical sensation of seeming to experience the platonic forms of things embodied in the constitutive elements of the city.
‘The way I saw it,’ Aragon writes, ‘an object became transfigured: it took on neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol, it did not so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea. Thus it extended deeply into the world’s mass…’
For Aragon, this sensation was a presentiment of ‘a feeling for nature’, but it would be more specific to say that it was a feeling for the ambiguity of urban nature.
‘I acquired the habit of constantly referring the whole matter to the judgement of a kind of frisson which guaranteed the soundness of this tricky operation,’ Aragon writes.
This ‘frisson’, as Keiller observes, is not dissimilar from that feeling of ‘rightness’ a photographer intuitively senses immediately before he presses the shutter release button. This sensation is the moment when a swatch of street cuts itself out of the banal tableau of urban nature and quadrates itself in the abstract frame of a mental viewfinder as an ‘image’, as something marvellously photogenic.
The sentimental flâneur, Keiller contends, carries a camera to record these marvellous transfigurations. But, sentimental soul that I am, when I went back to photograph the Skipping Girl, nearly a year after my conquest of the Dutch girl, I was not photographing the Skipping Girl and her miraculous transformation of the night.
I was attempting to photograph the absence of the Dutch girl, for whom she was an icon.
In his book with Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography (1982), John Berger writes that ‘[b]etween the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss.’ It is an abyss of absence, of ambiguity, which carries with it ‘a shock of discontinuity’.
‘The ambiguity of a photograph does not reside within the instant of the event photographed,’ Berger writes. ‘The ambiguity arises out of that discontinuity which gives rise to … [t]he abyss between the moment recorded and the moment of looking.’
In my ‘flânograph’ of the Skipping Girl, that abyss was doubled:—for there would be an abyss between the moment of looking at the developed photograph and the moment I was now recording, just as there was, for me, an abyss between the moment I was recording and the moment the photograph was intended to record, some ten months earlier.
As a writer, I have long played with the idle idea (impossible to realize) of writing a book completely without words. The flânograph of the Skipping Girl was one of a series of photographs I took with my battered Pentax for a ‘picture book’ I intended to compose for my little niece, a wordless collection of black and white images of things and places I had encountered in my flâneries, and which, in their silent ambiguity, might give a child an ineffable, inenarrable sense of the life of an uncle she had never met.
Was there an enduring, impalpable resonance of the unseen, unknown and unknowable event sensible, apprehensible by the viewer of the photograph of the Skipping Girl, démeublé of its ostensible subject, the Dutch girl? Could the feeling—menacing; enigmatic; melancholy—of this particular square of urban nature—what we might call ‘the Spleen of Melbourne’—‘speak for itself’, eloquently and without words?
These were the questions I wanted answers to. And like Eugène Atget, of whom Walter Benjamin said that he photographed the empty streets of Paris as though they were ‘scenes of crime’, I went back and photographed the scenes of my Melburnian conquests—the Skipping Girl, a sodden Windsor place, a certain tree in the Carlton Gardens—now eerily empty of myself and the lovers of a moment who had left mortal wounds in my heart.
This feeling for the menacing, enigmatic, melancholy ambiguity of urban nature which precedes the click of the shutter; this ineffable, inenarrable frisson is what I call ‘flânography’, and it’s something other than photography—something more than merely ‘writing with light’.
It’s a sensitivity to the absent, the invisible, the unspeakable. It’s the poetic cry of the silent image which establishes historical evidence of the ‘baffling crime’ which is the personal ‘situation of our time’, and which the asphalt jungle gives colour and cover to.
If there is a ‘noirishness’ in the flânograph of the Skipping Girl, it is because, when I look back on my brief encounter with the Dutch girl over that abyss of ambiguity which it records, I feel (as I do after all my amours) like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’ at the hands of a femme fatale.
Like a consummate con artist who gets his pocket picked, I gamed her and ended up getting gamed by her.
When writing with light starts to become ‘poetic’ instead of merely prosaic; when the weak intentionality that a photographer possesses to express himself through a box is leveraged to the maximum, such that the urban landscape is transfigured and transformed into an image that is personally expressionistic, then photography starts to become ‘flânography’.
If you are a photographer and would like to explore how I can provide you with bespoke assistance in sensitively curating your work into an artisanal-quality book through provision of my Artisanal Desktop Publishing service, I invite you to download this brochure, or to contact me directly.
Vitus Bacchausen wishes that somebody would make a movie about the flâneur, but admits, for prescient reasons, that such a film would be impossible to make within the constraints of commercial cinema.
Why, Bacchausen wonders, have there been no ‘flâneur movies’?
There are two answers to this question. Firstly, one may adduce a not insubstantial list of characters in film who might be described as flâneurs.
The first, and most obvious, candidate is Scottie Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), who, when quizzed, gives his profession as ‘wandering’. But you can also reel off putative examples like the wandering protagonists of Antonioni’s films, such as Lidia in La Notte (1961), Vittoria in L’Eclisse (1962), and the photographer of Blowup (1966).
You could point to Jesse and Céline in Before Sunrise (1995), or the eponymous heroine of Amélie (2001). Petra Nolan of the University of Melbourne even makes a plausible case, in her PhD thesis, for Walter Neff, the vagabond insurance salesman of Double Indemnity (1944), as ‘the cinematic flâneur’ par excellence.
The key word is ‘plausible’.
All the examples adduced above are plausible, and a convincing prima facie case could be made for any of them as cinematic flâneurs, one which would appear to refute Bacchausen’s contention that the figure of the flâneur has not really found his place in cinema.
But my second answer to Bacchausen’s question refutes the one I’ve just given.
I would say that if you look more carefully at any of the films cited above, you must come to the conclusion that they feature characters who partake in flânerie, but that these characters are not themselves flâneurs pur-sang.
In an earlier post, I gave a fairly strict definition of what is a flâneur. I offered three traits which I regard as non-negotiable characteristics in any definition.
Firstly, the flâneur is a pedestrian. He walks, not occasionally, but as his primary and preferred mode of transport.
Secondly, he is an acute observer of the world that files past him as he walks, and as Bacchausen notices, there is, in the sport of observation, a distinctly æsthetic end to the chase. The flâneur is a hunter who chases after beauty.
Thirdly, there is a pronounced element of the dandy in the character of the flâneur. Charity begins at home: unless he firstly recognizes himself to be a worthy æsthetic object of attention, it is highly unlikely that a man who is not assiduously attentive to the details of his own deportment is going to exhibit the level of unusual acuity of attention toward the æsthetic details of the external world which I ascribe to the flâneur.
A man may walk shabbily abroad looking longingly after beauty, but that man is not a flâneur. He is the Average Frustrated Chump you see shambling down Swanston street.
Given the definition above, it’s hard to see how the characters adduced in the first answer are flâneurs, though it can certainly be conceded that they partake in the activity of flânerie in a more or less dilettantish way.
Jep Gambardella, the Roman giornalista of La grande bellezza (2013), is the only character in film I can think of who satisfies my three-point definition as a ‘cinematic flâneur pur-sang’.
So the question remains: Are there flâneur films?
The answer is yes, but it is the character of the films themselves, rather than any characters they contain, which may be regarded as ‘flâneuristic’.
At the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, Slavoj Žižek made some intriguing remarks vis-à-vis. Hitchcock; to wit—how Hitchcock’s films have an uncanny quality, at certain moments, of appearing to ‘think for themselves’.
In Psycho (1960), for instance, there are two extraordinary moments, one immediately after the shower scene and the other immediately before the second murder. In both cases, the camera detaches itself from the point of view of the character it has locked onto and acts ‘queerly’, as though it had an intelligence and agency of its own, moving through space and looking at things quite pointedly, as though it were mutely trying to tell us something, the way our unconscious appeals to us through images.
Žižek calls this ‘thinking through film’, and it’s a highly rarefied cognitive process which seems to emerge from the apparatus of cinema itself—something like Baudelaire’s sensation that the image of sky and sea, and a little yacht trembling on the horizon, seemed to be thinking through him—‘musicalement et pittoresquement, sans arguties, sans syllogismes, sans déductions’ (‘musically and pictorially, without quibbles, without syllogisms, without deductions’).
Meditating on Žižek’s remarks, I began to ask myself what a cinema of flânerie might look like.
In fact, flâneur films are the oldest kind. They have their roots in the actualité, the single, locked-off shot, without pan or cut, of the miracle which a moment of everyday life becomes when you train a camera at it for so long that it transcends its boring banality—like the shot of a sunset unfolding behind the Melbourne CBD which I’ve included at the head of today’s post.
The camera’s ability to gaze fixedly at a detached detail is like, and yet unlike, the flâneur’s acuity of observation, for our eyes do not ‘frame’ things. When a shot is composed and unblinkingly held for minutes on end, and when, as in the video above, it is implied that this perspective is closely aligned but not identical with the point of view of an observer we cannot see, there is the uncanny sense that the camera itself has ‘intelligence’.
A film becomes ‘flâneurial’ when a moment of documentary actuality enters into it and is sustained well beyond what the average viewer would regard as a reasonable length of time.
To my mind, Ozu is the master of this kind of flâneurial cinema. His ‘pillow shots’ are moments of ventilation in a film where architectural features and irrelevant details are held for longer than they would ordinarily be. Ozu’s stubborn refusal to pan or dolly, to allow his camera to ‘look away’, imbues it with a sense of wilful, alien intelligence.
The other attribute of flâneurial cinema is the offshoot of the actualité, the ‘phantom ride’. This is when the camera is placed on a train, tram or car, and, without moving itself, appears to float or glide like a ghost, registering the succession of actual events which pass it by.
The classic phantom ride, the masterpiece of the form, is the famous “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906). Strapped to the front of a cable car, the camera floats towards the Ferry Building for 13 minutes, registering the life of the street with that alien fixity of attention we see in Ozu, never turning its ‘head’ to gaze about itself as a real flâneur would.
The capacity of the camera to move in this gliding, floating fashion, simulating human ambulation but very different from it, is a quality that Antonioni makes good use of in his passeggiate.
In La Notte, the camera, raised at some elevation behind Lidia, appears almost to stalk her as it stealthily tracks her tacking between bollards. In Blowup, in the key scenes set in Maryon Park, the camera is subtly detached from the point of view of the photographer. It pans to sweep the scene in a movement more eerie than a human head-turn because of its mechanical smoothness. Or, in a moment of startling volition, it gazes up at the branches of a tree in what we realize only afterwards was its own ‘point of view shot’.
This uncanny sense of the film possessing its own intelligence and agency, principally through the camera, but also through cutting and the rest of the constitutive apparatus which compose a film, is, I think, what Žižek means when he talks about ‘thinking through film’.
‘To understand the film,’ he says, ‘you should include into its content the message delivered by the autonomy of form. It’s at that level that true thinking in cinema happens.’
When a film has the volition to move—or not move—through the world as it wishes, and to study with its own fixity of attention those details of actuality which arrest it in its passage, the character of the film itself becomes ‘flâneurial’.
What do you think?
Are there characters in movies you would actually define as flâneurs, or, like Bachhausen and myself, are you at a loss to think of any who really meet the measure?
Is it possible for films to ‘think for themselves’, as I’m suggesting?
I’m interested to hear your comments below.
At the beginning of North by Northwest (1959), Mad Man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) famously reminds his secretary that ‘in the world of advertising there’s no such thing as a lie, there’s only the expedient exaggeration….’
The most common confusion I find myself addressing when I meet prospective clients looking to engage my personal services is defining the difference between copywriting and writing what I call ‘strategic documentation’ for small businesses and individual entrepreneurs.
It’s essentially the difference between telling a truth that your readers can hear and telling them an ‘expedient exaggeration’.
Language is a tool designed to represent reality via a common abstract symbology—a code, if you will. When we communicate in business, it’s important that the message we transmit is the same message that our clients, investors and other stakeholders receive, for a misinterpretation of the code can be costly.
The problem with marketing is that it’s a corruption of the fundamental function of human language. Whether you call it an outright ‘lie’ or an ‘exaggeration’ which expediently facilitates your short-term financial goals, the effect is the same: in seeking to manipulate language to create an impression of your product or service which is not strictly and accurately tied to the referent, marketing does a violence to human language which breaks trust.
If we want to continue doing business with people in the long term, we need to continually affirm our truthfulness, honesty, and trustworthiness—in short, our reliability—in our written communications with them.
But we have all had the experience of writing a memo to a difficult colleague who is hell-bent on pursuing an idée fixe, or a proposal to an investor we desperately want to impress. We seek to express and explain our truth to the reader as honestly as possible, and yet we can’t derail the difficult colleague from his costly plan or persuade the investor we are sure would be the perfect partner for our enterprise.
Our words meet resistance. It’s as though the other party cannot ‘hear’ the truth.
This is what I mean when I say that my Bespoke Document Tailoring service involves writing, editing and proofreading ‘strategic documentation’ for small businesspeople and individual entrepreneurs; for it involves telling the truth in a way that your audience can ‘hear’.
The strategy is empathy. Mirror neurons facilitate our written communications by giving us access to the common code of human language and allowing us to empathically ‘picture’ in our minds what a writer is trying to say in these abstract symbols scratched on a page.
But the problem, as Professor Steven Pinker observes, is that most people—even experts in their own professions—find it tedious and difficult to logically organize their ideas on the page from the point of view of the person who will ultimately read their words.
To put it bluntly, they’re lacking in the strategy of empathy.
Empathy for your reader is the fundamental difference between manipulating language so as to create an expedient impression of your product or service in his or her mind, and manipulating language so that the person you are seeking to persuade can hear the truth of your proposition and agree that the solution you are offering is a good one.
If you want to get your needs met in business, you better be prepared to offer value truthfully in a way that meets the needs of the people you are seeking to convince. Finding the beautiful synthesis between your concerns and theirs and stating it eloquently, reverse-engineering your argument so that it falls out logically from the point of view of your reader, is core to the strategy of empathy.
As you can see, the preparation of ‘strategic documentation’ goes far deeper than copywriting—and, indeed, is diametrically opposed to it.
When you tell the truth about your product or service in a way that your audience can hear, the old alchemy of marketing, trying to massage ‘features’ into ‘benefits’ by some linguistic sleight of hand, is revealed for what it is—an ‘expedient exaggeration’.
If you are in Melbourne and surrounds and you’re not sure how to frame your message in a way that your reader can hear and agree with, I invite you to contact me for a private measure, or download a free brochure to find out more about how I can assist your small business with my Bespoke Document Tailoring service.