The City in Fiction and Film, week 23: Zadie Smith’s NW (2011), part two (pp. 173–333)

13537891 week 22

Last week, we used the first half of the novel to explore the ways in which Smith constructs London as a matter-of-fact multicultural city. Deep in the fabric of the place – and of the novel – is difference, constantly shifting and reorganising, but never monadic or monolithic. This week we focused on the ways in which class is just as deeply embedded.

The first part of the novel is told in third-person from the viewpoint of second-generation Irish immigrant, Leah. The opening scene of the novel establishes that, living in a basement flat four doors down from the council estate where she was raised, she has not quite escaped her working class roots, despite the middle class accoutrements of her daily life. She was the first of her family to go to university – and she chose to study philosophy among the privileged children of the wealthy bourgeoisie at Edinburgh University. She recalls the mortification of being a working class autodidact who spoke in class about ‘a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone’ (33); later, her friend Keisha (who will change her name to Natalie), recalls she and her boyfriend similarly ‘sound[ing] the T and the S’ in Albert Camus (193). I suspect if you’ve not gone through this you don’t get how agonising and confidence-destroying it can be – as a working class kid you often feel you do not really belong at university, and moments like this reinforce that anxiety. It is a measure of how material wealth is connected to cultural capital, and of what it is like to grow up in a culturally impoverished environment (and it is why the current government’s war on libraries and on state education is so iniquitous – and with so many politicians coming from money, they just fundamentally do not get it).

The different treatment different classes receive is also flagged up when, in part two (which is told from the viewpoint of Felix, who will become the victim of knife crime), when Felix’s dad’s neighbour Phil notes:

‘They always say “youth” don’t they? …Never the boys from the posh bit up by the park, they’re just boys, but our lot are “youths”, our working class lads are youths, bloody terrible isn’t it?’ (112).

This is reiterated in the first chapter of the novel’s third part, told from the viewpoint of Natalie (formerly known as Keisha). Remembering how she and Leah met thanks to a near-drowning in the outdoor pool in the park:

‘They had a guard up on the hill, in Hampstead, for them. Nothing for us.’ (173)

And again, when Nat reflects on the different educational experience of wealthy fellow student and later husband Francesco De Angelis, who looks ‘like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’ (204):

Some schools you ‘attended’. Brayton [Leah and Nat’s school] you ‘went’ to. (206)

When Leah and Nat were growing up, neither of their mothers (Pauline and Marcia, respectively)

was in any sense a member of the bourgeoise but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either. (177)

This sense of not quite belonging, of being trapped between identities, marks the lives of both women and their daughters in multiple ways (Smith explores this in terms of being between classes rather than between races/ethnicities/cultures – which is is common in British Asian cinema). While Leah and Michel do reach the middle class, there is an element of precarity to their lives; in contrast, Nat and Frank are comfortably well off, thanks to his family’s wealth and her career as a barrister, even more so after she moves from legal aid work defending working class people to practicing corporate law. Leah is acutely aware of the growing class gulf between them, which is highlighted every time she and Michel are invited to a dinner party, ‘where she and Michel … provide something like local colour’ (85). And Natalie and Frank often take over telling Leah and Michel’s stories:

Natalie’s version of Leah and Michel’s anecdote is over. The conversational baton passes to others, who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of wider culture, debates in the newspapers. (86)

At one point, Frank jokingly asks Leah, ‘Why is it that everyone from your school is a criminal crackhead?’, to which she replies, ‘Why’s everyone from yours a Tory minister?’ (61).

Another comparison:

Leah passes the old estate every day on the walk to the corner shop. She can see it from her backyard. Nat lives just far enough away to avoid it. (63)

Or take this scene, which captures so many of the insecurities and anxieties of not having come from money and now having a little:

On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.
They are not good people. They do not even have the integrity to be the sort of people who don’t worry about being good people. They worry all the time. They are stuck in the middle again. They buy always Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay because these are the only words they know that relate to wine. They are attending a dinner party and for this you need to bring a bottle of wine. This much they have learnt. They do not purchase ethical things because they can’t afford them, Michel claims, and Leah says, no, it’s because you can’t be bothered. Privately she thinks: you want to be rich like them but you can’t be bother with their morals, whereas I am more interested in their morals than their money, and this thought, this opposition, makes her feel good. Marriage as the art of invidious comparison. (80)

Here, as elsewhere in the novel, an extra layer is added by the narrator’s voice (which is of course not to be confused with Smith herself), which implies an omniscient perspective but which also sounds like someone from a different class background – the final sentence does not sound a lot like Leah. The narrative voice, sometimes right up close to the character, sometimes quite distant, here is rather slippery: is Leah ironically observing her own foibles, or is the narrator passing judgment on her?

Michel starts trading penny shares online,

dreaming of a windfall that will transport them to another urban suburb more to his taste, which means no more African, less Caribbean. (90)

This is part of the much larger logic of class mobility and of house prices in the city. When Nat and Rodney, her boyfriend from church whose mum was a dinner lady and dad a bus driver, are studying for their A-levels, the narrator tells us of their ambitions:

They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization. (202)

Around about that time, Nat recalls Leah’s mum’s enthusiasm about moving house:

‘It’s practically Maida Vale’ (197).

And when it comes to house prices:

The mistake was to think that the money precisely signified – or was equivalent to – a particular arrangement of bricks and mortar. The money was not for those pokey terraced houses with their short back gardens. The money was for the distance the house put between you and Caldwell [the estate they came from]. (252)

Leah’s moment of crisis is finally brought about after she and Michel allow Nat and Frank to persuade them not to attend the Notting Hill carnival, but to instead go to a party in a flat overlooking the carnival. They watch rather than participate; the mass of people to which they used to belong are reduced to a spectacle for the wealthy, to their entertainment value, and are kept as far away as possible.

In a similar vein, Nat is agonisingly aware of how she is changing into someone else. When Frank blames Nat’s mum, brother and sister for their own poverty – Jayden could get a job, Cheryl could stop having children by various fathers – she stands up for them:

‘They don’t refuse to help me, Frank – they can’t!’ cried Natalie Blake, and launched into a passionate defence of her family, despite the fact she was not speaking to any of them. (228)

She realises, too, that she has turned Rodney, ‘in many ways himself a miracle of self-invention’ like her, ‘into a comic anecdote to be told at dinner parties’ (194).

Later, in a supermarket queue behind a working class mother trying desperately to find the money she needs to pay for her groceries, and having to ask the cashier to take back this and that item, Nat realises that she

had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand. (276)

To wrap up our discussion of class in the novel we took a look at a passage from part two of the novel, chapters 125–8 (pp.242–5), in which Nat joins her first law firm and runs into her cousin Tonya, to think about class signification, difference and experience.

A key part of the novel’s consideration of multiculturalism and of class is its emphasis on the flux and constant becoming of urban identity – that it is not monolithic and fixed, but like the city itself fluid and always in transformation, constantly emerging as something new. Keisha – who in her teens has not yet changed her name to Natalie – first realises how unfixed identity is, how prone to change, when Leah starts hanging out in Camden and developing a taste for

Baudelaire or Bukowksi or Nick Drake or Sonic Youth or Joy Division or boys who looked like girls or vice versa or Anne Rice or William Burroughs or Kafka’s Metamorphosis or CND or Glastonbury or the Situationists or Breathless or Samuel Beckett or Andy Warhol or a million other Camden things, and when Keisha brought a wondrous Monie Love 7-inch to play on Leah’s hi-fi there was something awful in the way Leah blushed and conceded it was probably OK to dance to. They had only Prince left, and he was wearing thin. (185)

This sudden change, and the accompanying dislocation of their friendship, leaves Keisha

wondering whether she herself had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television. (185)

 Similarly, while transcribing a song she and her friend Layla are writing for their church group, Keisha looks in the mirror across the room:

Two admirable young sisters, their hair still plaited by their mothers, sat on the edge of a makeshift stage, one singing and the other transforming music into its shadow, musical notation. That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer. Look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know. (188–9)

As she and Leah drift further apart – as she loses the condition at school of ‘being Leah Hanwell’s friend’ and is ‘now relegated to the conceptual realm of “those church kids”’ (191) – Keisha plumbs the depths of adolescent angst:

She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world. (192)

At the end of a trip down from Edinburgh to visit Keisha – now called Nat – at Bristol university, Leah tells Nat ‘You’re the only person I can be all of myself with’, which makes her cry:

not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone. (208)

Soon, Nat breaks up with Rodney and becomes ‘crazy busy with self-invention’ (209). By the time she graduates and begins training to become a barrister, she has chased after experience, fashioned a self. But she never seems to realise that Leah – and everyone else – is caught up in self-creation, bound in various ways to their roots but also always headed into becoming. This is suggested when Frank, with whom Nat did not become involved at university, suddenly turns up, also training to be a barrister:

And there was indeed something intimate about the way they spoke to each other, heads close, looking out across the room. Natalie fell so easily into the role, she had to remind herself that this intimacy had not existed before tonight. It was being manufactured at this present moment, along with its history. (216)

Some years later, Nat is still not sure she is, and in rapid succession completely fails to recognise herself in three descriptions of her given by her brother Jayden (264), Leah (268) and Layla (277–8). This leads her to muse, in the single paragraph chapter 170 called In drag:

Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic. (278)

Identity, it seems, is a collection of roles she plays, all partly pre-scripted by the expectations of others (or her anticipation of others’ expectations) and the signifiers of costume, demeanour, language and so on deemed appropriate. Perhaps she has being reading Judith Butler. She certainly has a well-developed sense of the quotidian performativity required by the complex urban environments she inhabits and through which she moves. Maybe that early intuition about being an accumulation and reflection of the socio-cultural realm is not so far wrong; maybe all subjectivity is is the chaotic non-linear determinism of constant becoming.

In the closing pages of the novel, as Nat roams north-west London in the company of Nathan Bogle – he was at school with her and Leah, he had an actual try-out for professional football team, but has long since drifted into a life of petty crime – it eventually dawns on her that he was involved in the fatal stabbing of Felix (with which the first and second sections of the novel ended). Twice Nathan comments on some of the bad things he does to get by, adding ‘you know that ain’t the real me. You know me from back in the day’ (305) and ‘You remember me. You know who I am’ (316). He clings to the image of a whole self, a true self, that once existed and somewhere beneath the mess of his life still exists. He is stuck in that combination of false memory and denial.

Frustratingly, this encounter leads her to tell the depressed Leah, who is wondering why she has the life she has, why she was one of the ones who succeeded in getting away from her working class roots, that

we worked harder. … We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out. People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth. This is one of the things that you learn in the courtroom: people generally get what they deserve. (332)

It is a horrible, arrogant and self-deceiving speech, and it is hard to tell how much Nat believes it. It is certainly a change of tune. And by the novel’s own logic, this hardening of attitude (which echoes the opinions of some of the more privileged characters, with whom she has hitherto disagreed) is a deadly mistake. Just as Nathan was stuck in the past, so this speech’s performance of certainty seeks to draw a line under her past, to deny it, and thus to fix a monolithic identity in place.

Moments later Nat phones the police to inform on Nathan.

The final sentence of the novel – which might be addressed to the police, or to Leah about something else entirely – fortunately returns some uncertainty and ambiguity to her:

‘I got something to tell you,’ said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice. (333)

 

This was the final week of the module in terms of teaching – week 24, which I will not blog about, is devoted to final assignment preparation. All being well, I will next year blog about my new second-year module, Genre and the Fantastic, which I am starting to plan in the gaps between wrapping up this year’s teaching and marking.

Recommended critical reading
Banting, Keith, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka ‘Do Multiculturalism Policies Erode the Welfare State: An Empirical Analysis’. Multiculturalism and the Welfare State. Ed. Banting and Kymlicka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 49–91.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: 2014. 87-122.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 191–251.
James, David. “Wounded Realism.” Contemporary Literature 54.1 (2013): 204–14.
Knepper, Wendy. “Revisionary Modernism and Postmillenial Experimentation in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 111–126.
Malik, Sarita. “The Dark Side of Hybridity: Contemporary Black and Asian British Cinema.” in Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Sternberg, eds, European Cinema in Motion: Migrant Diasporic Film in Contemporaary Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010. 132–151.
Pope, Ged. Reading London’s Suburbs: From Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Especially 161–202.
Tew, Philip. The Contemporary British Novel. 2nd ed. London: Continuum, 2007.
–. Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Wells, Lynn. “The Right to a Secret: Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 97–110.

Recommended reading
For other contemporary British Afrodiasporic fiction, try Two Fingers and James T. Kirk’s Junglist (1995), Andrea Levy’s Never Far from Nowhere (1996), Courttia Newland’s The Scholar: A West-Side Story (1997), Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock (1999), Courttia Newland and Kedija Sesay’s IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2010) or Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician (2014).

Recommended viewing
Afrodiasporic British cinema includes Pressure (Ové 1976), Black Joy (Simmons 1977), Dread Beat an’ Blood (Rosso 1979), Babylon (Rosso 1981), Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995), Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shame (McQueen 2011) and My Brother the Devil (El Hosaini 2012).

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The City in Fiction and Film, week 8

CLEO DE 5 A 7 - French Poster 2

week 7

This week we watched Cléo de 5 à 7/Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda France/Italy 1962) as a way to begin thinking about human movement in, across and around the city. The plan was to consider the ideas of the flâneur/flâneuse and flânerie, the dérive (with a hint of le Parkour and le traceur) – but some ad hoc essay-writing support took up part of the class, which meant more detailed work on Guy Debord and the dérive had to be bumped to next week’s class.

Our starting point was the opening of Michel de Certeau’s essay ‘Walking in the City’, which begins with an elaborated contrast of viewing New York from the top of the World Trade Center and living at street level. He describes the city, seen from on high, as ‘a texturology in which extremes collide’ – a visual field made up of, on the one hand, the new structures that constantly irrupt into the scene, reeking of ambition, blocking out the rest of the city and challenging the future, and on the other hand, ‘yesterday’s buildings’, degraded,  turned into trashcans, their accomplishments discarded. One intriguing phrase – ‘brutal oppositions of races and styles’ – fuses the architectural diversity of the city (buildings so different from each other that they might belong not just to different styles but to different races) with the racial segregation of the city created by generations of concentrated white wealth and privilege even when de jure segregation is illegal.

To bring this all a little closer to home, we looked at some recent photographs of London’s skyline – the new buildings that tower over St Paul’s cathedral (the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Lingam, the Carbuncle Award-winning Walkie Talkie), and in the distance Canary Wharf, and over the Thames the Shard. Precisely the kind of urban perspective that reveals ‘a city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs’.

de Certeau makes his first move from thinking of the city as a texturology to thinking of it as a text when he describes New York’s monumental buildings as ‘the tallest letters in the world compos[ing] a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production’.

Rising to the top of the WTC is ‘to be lifted out of the city’s grasp’, to be liberated from the encounters with others, with difference, with the peril and stress of the streets. It is to be separated out from the masses, the supposedly threatening mob. It is to become Icarus, soaring above the labyrinths constructed by Daedalus. (Given Icarus’s fate, this seems at first like a rather odd allusion, and one that is oddly proleptic – like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (US 1983) – of the fate of the WTC. Maybe I should have rewatched Der Himmel über Berlin/Wings of Desire (Wenders West Germany/France 1987) in preparation – or at least subjected the class to some Nicolas Cage from City of Angels (Silberling Germany/US 1998)).

The height of the building distances the viewer from the city and other people, and in a vaguely messianic mode transfigures him into a god-like being, liberated from the ‘bewitching world’ and all its fleshy entanglements. From the perspective of such a deity the city is now merely a text to be read. This consummation represents ‘the exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive’ to see and to know. Attaining such perfect knowledge (or, rather, the ‘fiction of [such] knowledge’)  is the consequence of a ‘lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more’. Here, lust is a wonderfully embodied term with which to describe the drive for a disembodied seeing and knowing – it reveals the contradiction underpinning it all: the material can never become immaterial, reason can never exist outside of the flesh that reasons.

(This prompted a further digression into our unexpected parallel module on the history of art, describing the development of perspectival art, with the aid of Tintoretto – not Dom from the F&F movies – and Cannaleto; and some gesturing towards the notion of Cartesian space.)

King Kong – especially the poster for the 1976 version, in which he bestrides the WTC with Manhattan spread out behind him as in some of the photos we looked at – brought us back to de Certeau, who asks ‘‘Must one finally fall back into the dark space where crowds move back and forth…?’ In brief, yes. It is why the tallest building always gets the giant ape, why the presence of this simian embodiment of white supremacist fears/stereotypes of black masculinity (clutching a white girl snatched from her bed) – and, some argue, though less persuasively, of bourgeois dread of the impoverished mob – is such a scandal. There are too many ways in which Kong and all the things he represents just do not belong there (which is also what makes him so cool). If, to achieve his perfect vision/knowledge/power, the ‘voyeur-god … must disentangle himself from the murky intertwining daily behaviors and make himself alien to them’, then damn right we want the big monkey dragging him back down. Gotta love us some primate insurrection. And ape it.

de Certeau contrasts the voyeur-god (associated with the city planner, and other modes of top-down power that seek to surveil, know and control urban space) with the ‘ordinary practitioners of the city … “down below”’ – that is, those of us do not rise above the streets but walk them. For de Certeau, our perambulations constitute an alternative city, an ‘urban text’ written by walking. And although, lacking a god’s-eye perspective, we cannot read this text, our paths make up ‘intertwining, unrecognized poems’:

The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other. … a migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city.

Which is all a little abstract, if rather beautiful, so we took a look at the first parkour sequence from Banlieue 13/District 13 (Morel 2004), in which we are introduced to David Belle’s dissident traversals of segregated urban space – a tactics of renegade mobility that counters strategies of urban control and nurtures existence in the the cracks of the world-machine.

Jump back 150 years to the Parisian arcades and to the actual and literary phenomenon of the flâneur (and flâneuse) – the stroller, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. Balzac described flânerie as ‘the gastronomy of the eye’. And Baudelaire, in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’,  describes the flâneur thus:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world … a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito … the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.

An intriguing figure, the flâneur obviously recalls Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ and Woolf’s narrator in ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (which we studied in week three) but also perhaps Hans Becker, the serial killer in Lang’s (which we studied in week two). He also combines the two identities that de Certeau separates out – he is in the crowd but not of the crowd, he keeps himself sovereign and separate, an observer more than a participant. Because of this detached attitude, he is never overwhelmed by the urban spectacle he observes, and he is able to invest imaginative power in the most banal of sights. And his very existence is threatened by the speed of urban circulation, the exhausting intellectual activity it requires to defeat the boredom of the city, the intoxication of commodities, and the imposition of rationality and order on the city.

Which brought us to Cléo de 5 à 7. 

The film famously opens with colour footage of a tarot reading, shot from directly above the table on which the cards are spread out, before cutting to conventional black-and-white close-ups for inserts of Cléo during the reading; the rest of the film, much of which is spent prowling Paris streets, is also in black-and-white. This resonates strongly with de Certeau, especially as the god’s-eye view of the table is of a tarot reading that gives us a broad outline of the film’s story. Authoritative and transcendent – colour! – it knows everything; but is in such broad strokes that we need to get down onto the level of the streets and the people who walk them to know the story. We need to be immersed in the grasp of the city.

Later, this metatextual commentary is developed in the film-within-the film – in which Jean-Luc Godard, playing a Harold Lloyd figure, chooses between black and white versions of his lover. Inevitably he chooses blonde Anna Karina, after the black one has died. (And Cléo will not die of cancer but find love, or at least a lover.) The association of blackness with death has already been established when Cléo, looking out of a cab, twice starts at seeing African masks displayed in shop windows. This obviously problematic connection fits into the broader opposition between circulation and stasis that structures the film, and is also played out in the oppositions between image and reality.

This is a film full of mirrors and reflections (and great technical virtuosity in terms of how infrequently you can glimpse any sign in the reflecting surface of the film crew). A lot of this is organised around Cléo’s vanity or insecurity or sense of mortality, whatever it is that prompts her to look at her own reflection quite so often (as she becomes less self-obsessed and more open to the world around her, so reflections disappear from the film). It is picked up on in the allusions to fairy-tales (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White), the protagonists of which both spend time in a deathlike condition. And it is there when Cléo’s friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck), an artist’s model, explains why she has no problem posing nude: the sculptors do not see her, they see an idea.  And it is there in the film-in-the-film, when women are explicitly compared to dolls or puppets.

In contrast to this material about image/stasis/death, we have long sequences of Cléo, alone and in company, walking or being driven around Paris – part of the intertwining, unrecognized poem of the city. Does this make her a flâneuse?

In some ways, yes. For most of the film she is in the crowd but not of it, holding herself at a distance – perhaps best captured in the sequence in the second half of the film which intercuts between her point-of-view shots (including memories) and those of the pedestrians walking towards her. She also clearly wants to be noticed, to have her distinctiveness acknowledged by others, as in the café sequence when she puts one of her own records on the jukebox and wanders around, hoping that someone will at least recognise her.

But in some ways no. Perhaps most especially in the delirious hat shop sequence, in which she utterly succumbs to the commodity spectacle (and demonstrates her amazing superpower – to make any hat, no matter how ridiculous it looks when on display, appear fabulous the moment she puts it on.)

week 9

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 1 “Industrial Modernity: the Flaneur and the Tramp in the Early Twentieth Century City.”
Mazlish, Bruce. “The Flâneur: From Spectator to Representation.” The Flâneur. Ed. in Keith Tester. London: Routledge, 1994. 43–60.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 3, “The City of Love: Paris.”
Pratt, Geraldine and Rose Marie San Juan. Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2104. On Cléo, see 77–89.
Scalway, Helen. “The Contemporary Flâneuse.” The Invisible Flâneuse: Gender, Public Space, and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Ed. Aruna D’Souza and Tom McDonough. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. 164–71.
Weihsmann, Helmut. “Ciné-City Strolls: Imagery, Form, Language and Meaning of the City Film.” Urban Cinematics: Understanding Urban Phenomena Through the Moving Image. Ed. François Penz and Andong Lu. Bristol: Intellect, 2011. 23–41.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “The Invisible Flâneur.” New Left Review 191 (1992): 90–110.
Wolff, Janet. “The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity.” Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 1990. 34–50.
–. “Gender and the Haunting of Cities (or, the retirement of the flâneurThe Invisible Flâneuse: Gender, Public Space, and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Ed. Aruna D’Souza and Tom McDonough. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. 18–31.

Recommended reading
James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) are the great modernist novels of walking in the city. Other poetry. fiction and non-fiction about flânerie and about traversing the city by tactical means include Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (1869), Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926), Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (1930–43), Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938), Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959), Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro (1959), Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (1997), Edmund White’s The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris (2001) and Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (2014).

Recommended viewing
Films about wandering around the city or traversing the city by tactical means include Zazie dans le metro (Malle 1960), Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki 1966), After Hours (Scorsese 1985), London (Keiller 1994), District 13 (Morel 2004), Adrift in Tokyo (Miki 2007), Enter the Void (Noé 2009) and Holy Motors (Carax 2012).

The City in Fiction and Film, week seven

man-with-a-movie-camera1week 6

There are three main parts to this week’s class: viewing and discussing Chelovek s kino-apparatom/Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov 1929); reading and discussing Tom Gunning’s ‘Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’; and essay preparation for next week’s deadline.

In my experience, first year students often struggle with Man with a Movie Camera – very few ever seem to grasp it, let alone like it; and then by the time they are third years, and more used to engaging with a wide variety of films, a number of those who were initially quite negative about it come to appreciate it, even like it. So I did a bit more than I usually would to frame the film – especially as the day before on Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption, they had gone from looking at versions of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond to reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy and watching Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais 1961).

Drawing on some work on film forms from an earlier week on colleague’s Film Style and Meaning module, I framed Man with a Movie Camera as both

  • a documentary, but one that does not use language tell you what its subject matter is or guide you through it
  • an experimental film that requires you to think about the connections between images (one of my favourite gags in the movie depends entirely upon our learned assumptions about narrative and continuity editing: from the right of the screen a football is lobbed into the air; cut to a shot of a man throwing a javelin from the left of the screen – will he puncture the ball in mid-flight?’; cut to a shot of a goalkeeper on the right of the screen – will the javelin impale him?)
  • a self-reflexive film about producing and exhibiting film – all about seeing and being seen, projecting images, filmmaking as an industrial craft among other industrial crafts, film as an industrial product, film as a leisure activity, film as a constructor and conveyor of illusion

and in relation to

  • city symphony films, such as Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931) – one of the students later noted formal similarities to films such as Baraka (Fricke 1992)
  • film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953) – the latter of which they saw a few weeks ago on Film Style and Meaning

We also had some questions to think about while watching the film:

  • How are shots connected to each other? For what reasons does one follow another?
  • Are there graphic and/or textural matches/contrasts between successive shots?
  • Are there traces of narrative?
  • What thematic connections are elaborated across the film?
  • Think about binary oppositions: male/female, public/private, work/leisure, humans/machines, cameraman/people, capturing the city/intervening in the city

I had to stay for the start of the screening to check something in the first few minutes of the film – and ended up watching the whole thing again for the second time in less than 48 hours. I love this movie more every time I see it.

The lecture began with some more framing of the film (next year, I need to try to get the lecture scheduled before the film, if possible).

Viva Paci describes the emergence of cinema as ‘part of the euphoria of modernity’. Like ‘other fetish phenomena typical of modernity, such as billboards, posters, expositions and store shelves’, cinema is ‘merchandise that makes itself visible, turning its presence into spectacle’ (126).Last week we saw, in Modern Times, the centrality of the department store to modern urban experience, and Man with a Movie Camera directly addresses some of these other phenomena. For example, in the early sequence of a sleeping woman slowly waking, there are  cut-aways to a detail from a poster, which later is revealed as the poster for a film called The Awakening (of a woman).

I outlined some of the ways in which many early actualité films shared the same drive as expositions and world’s fairs to expose mass audiences to new technologies and views/simulations of distant and exotic lands (and as this week is also thinking a little bit more about urban alienation and disorientation, it is not insignificant that the first known US serial killer, HH Holmes, stalked in and around the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair).

Paci also relates cinema to

exoticism (as found in the era’s expositions and in the Paris arcades celebrated by Baudelaire and Benjamin), train journeys (and the new visions of the landscape in movement and the proliferation of perspectives they offered), advances in the faculty of sight (from the air, for example, or with microscopes) and the improvements to fantastic images [that] had already fed the collective imaginative identity extended [and] new aesthetic habits. (125)

Annoyingly, I could not find my copy of The World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johnson 1984) to show off some 1939 New York World’s Fair footage, so instead we focused on the connections to trains and new technologies of vision. An 1861 quote form Benjamin Gastineau best captures train travel as proleptic of watching a programme of short films such as the Lumière brothers first charged an audience to see at Le Salon Indien du Grand Café on 28 December 1895:

Devouring distance at the rate of fifteen leagues an hour, the steam engine, that powerful stage manager, throws the switches, changes the décor, and shifts the point of view every moment; in quick succession it presents the astonished traveller with happy scenes, sad scenes, burlesque interludes, brilliant fireworks, all visions that disappear as soon as they are seen. (Schivelbusch 63)

Hale's_Tours_of_the_WorldWe spoke about Hale’s Tours (launched, of course, at an exposition – the 1904 St Louis Exhibition) and train films and, of course, Edison’s Railroad Smashup (1904), for which the film company bought two decommissioned trains and crashed them into each other. If we had way more time, I would also have shown the remarkable train crashes from Orlacs hände (Wiene 1924) and Spione (Lang 1928), the sequence shot from the front of the train in Bulldog Jack (Forde 1935) and the opening of La bête humaine (Renoir 1938) to show how this fascination continued on into narrative cinema, and is in some ways the visual precursor of the jump to lightspeed/hyperspace, etc.

imagesFor new technologies of vision, we recalled some work from Film Style and Meaning on Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies and Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography – examples of pre-cinema which also lead to Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ of the workplace, suggested in both Modern Times and Man with a Movie Camera – and the similarities that can be found in such contemporaneous art as Marcel nude2Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, no.2 (1912). And, of course, we watched Cheese Mites (Duncan 1903) and Percy Smith’s The Birth of a Flower (1910) and his juggling fly films to see how microscopes and time-lapse photography could show human eyes things our eyes could otherwise not see. We looked at some views of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris qui dort (Clair 1925) – aerial views of a kind previously only accessible to people in aircraft and construction workers – and also at Onésime horloger (Durand 1908), in which the protagonist, frustrated that he cannot get his inheritance until he is older, speeds up the Paris city clock: a series of gags are played out, made funny by the accelerated pace of the action; and undercranked footage played back at regular speed sees pedestrians dash through the city, even more harried than usual by the regulation of life by clocks (which, of course, connects back to railroads, factories and other disciplinary institutions). .

We then turned to Soviet montage, and again I was able to connect back to some work on editing and montage from Film Style and Meaning. I began by introducing the key figures and their most important films:

  • Sergei Eisenstein – Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927), The General Line (1929), Alexander Nevsky (1939), Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2 (1944, 1945)
  • Lev Kuleshov – The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924)
  • Vsevolod Pudovkin – Mother (1926), The End of St Petersburg (1927), Storm over Asia (1928)
  • Esfir Shub – The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), creator of the compilation film – who also fleetingly appears in Man with a Movie Camera
  • Dziga Vertov – Kino-Pravda (1925-28), A Sixth of the World (1926), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Three Songs of Lenin (1934), Lullaby (1937)
  • Yelizaveta Svilova, who plays the editor in Man with a Movie Camera as well as editing it and others of her husband’s films before becoming a director herself in the 1940s (her brother-in-law, Mikhail Kaufman. also shot several of his brother’s films, including Man with a Movie Camera, in which he also plays the cameraman)

A quick description of the Kuleshov effect gave me the excuse I’ve been looking for to show off the actorly range of lardy racist Steven Seagal, before 715661586edd971305e05f19b5f311b1reminding students of Eisenstein’s theoretical discussion of montage and the analysis they had done of the clash of images in the sequence from Strike in which the assault on the workers is intercut with the slaughter of the bull in the abattoir. Plus, some lions.

We then finally discussed Man with a Movie Camera in some detail, picking out moments such as:

  • the intercutting of the woman rubbing her eyes, the shutters of her window-blinds opening and closing, the camera shutter – associative editing, detecting similarities and differences between phenomena, sketching out relations between organic and mechanical actions
  • the superimposition of the eye on the camera lens – a kind of cyborg melding of mechanical means and human consciousness, emphasising differences in kinds of vision
  • the splitscreens in which the cameraman towers over the city – part of the depiction of the cameraman as an heroic figure that runs throughout the film, and of the celebration of the camera’s ability to see anywhere, but also with a hint of surveillance (there is one shot in the film in which the camera is positioned high above the street and seems to move autonomously, like a CCTV camera)
  • the stop-motion animation of the camera, giving it life – animating it, as the camera/projector does with each still image it captures/projects
  • the shots which show something hurtling towards or passing over the camera, and the following shots which reveal how it is done
  • Svilova editing the film, and the later placement of the frames in the film, animated and given a context
  • industrial footage, especially of rotating devices and interlocking gears that recall the mechanism of the camera/projector – and nice to see a sewing machine included, since the camera/projector borrowed from sewing machine technology the intermittence device that allows individual frames to be held momentarily in place to capture/project each individual image
  • the skill of manual labour, such as the woman making cigarette packages, but also how machine-like it is in its endless speed, precision and repetition
  • the obsession with trains and trams, constantly on the verge of catastrophic collision
  • the shop-window mannequins that wake up and come to life along with the humans, awoken by the presence of the sun (or the camera)
  • the world being captured unawares vs. people’s reactions when they know they are being filmed – and that film is present in the world not just as labour and recorder but also as projection, cinema, leisure activity
  • the use of freezeframes and slow motion, recalling the material basis of film (the photogram), the role of editing, and those early motion studies of Muybridge and Marey

The final section of class was about Tom Gunning’s discussion of the cinema of attractions. Early film history used to be told in terms of a tension or conflict between two approaches to cinema that ultimately and somehow inevitably resulted in the dominance of narrative cinema. These tensions were rooted in a distinction between:

Auguste and Louis Lumière’s ‘realist’ actualité films (i.e., views of the real world or actuality footage), that mostly eschewed anything but the most minimal of narrative form; see Baby’s Breakfast (1895) or Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) or the non-Lumière Black Diamond Express and Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

and

Georges Méliès fantastical féerie films (i.e., ‘trick films’ organised around special effects) that, because of the nature of many of his gags and routines, contain some more obvious narrative structuration; see The India Rubber Head (1901) or A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Tom Gunning and others have, over the last thirty years, argued against this view, finding that despite superficial differences both approaches to filmmaking shared something profoundly fundamental in common: a basic exhibitionist impulse to present an audience with ‘a series of views’ that are ‘fascinating because of their illusory power’. Reality/fantasy, actuality/staged, non-narrative/narrative are pretty much red herrings in the first decade of cinema.

We then spend some time working on this long passage to get a better sense of what Gunning means by cinema of attractions:

To summarize, the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself. The attraction to be displayed may also be of a cinematic nature, such as the early close-ups just described, or trick films in which a cinematic manipulation (slow motion, reverse motion, substitution, multiple exposure) provides the film’s novelty. Fictional situations tend to be restricted to gags, vaudeville numbers or recreations of shocking or curious incidents (executions, current events). It is the direct address of the audience, in which an attraction is offered to the spectator by a cinema showman, that defines this approach to filmmaking. Theatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe. The cinema of attractions expends little energy creating characters with psychological motivations or individual personality. Making use of both fictional and non-fictional attractions, its energy moves outward towards an acknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situations essential to classical narrative. … An attraction aggressively subjected the spectator to ‘sensual or psychological impact’. … a montage of such attractions, creat[es] a relation to the spectator entirely different from his absorption in ‘illusory depictions’.

And then it was time to discuss the essay due next week.

Incidentally, 20% of the class really enjoyed Man with a Movie Camera, 20% liked specific parts of it, and 60% declined to comment

week 8

Recommended critical reading
Berman, Berman. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Penguin, 1998.
–. On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. London: Verso, 2009
Feldman, Seth. “‘Peace Between Man and Machine”: Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera.” Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. 40–54.
Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator.” Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 736–750.
Keiller, Patrick. “Urban Space and Early Film.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 29–39.
Paci, Viva. “The Attraction of the Intelligent Eye: Obsessions with the Vision Machine in Early Film Theories.”, The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006. 121–137.
Roberts, Graham. The Man with the Movie Camera. London: IB Tauris, 2000.
Strathausen, Carsten. “Uncanny Spaces: The City in Ruttmann and Vertov.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 15–40.
Strauven, Wanda. ed. The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
Webber, Andrew. “Symphony of a City: Motion Pictures and Still Lives in Weimar Berlin.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 56–71.

Recommended reading
Cities are often depicted as so alienating and disorienting that their denizens are driven to madness of various sorts, as in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double (1926), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City (2003).

Cities can also offer possibilities for freedom, as in Muriel Sparks’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952), and for metamorphosis, as in chapters 6–7 of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932) and chapter 11 of Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), in which trips to London transform rural girls into a glamorous ladies.

Recommended viewing
Other city ‘symphony’ films include Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931). Some film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953), are clearly related, as are such contemporary films as London Orbital (Petit and Sinclair 2002), Finisterre (Evans and Kelly 2003) and What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (Evans 2005).
People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) combines a city symphony with a narrative about a group of young people played by non-professional actors.
Films of urban transformation include Theodora Goes Wild (Boleslawski 1936), Vertigo (Hitchcock 1958), The Apartment (Wilder 1960) and Better than Chocolate (Wheeler 1999).
Films of urban derangement include The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Lang 1933), Repulsion (Polanksi 1965), Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976) and American Psycho (Harron 2000).
Urban transformation and derangement come together in disturbing ways in Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto 1989), Tokyo Fist (Tsukamoto 1995), Mulholland Drive (Lynch 2001) and A Snake of June (Tsukamoto 2002).