and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Lucy (2014) is the way in which Luc ‘the death of cinema’ Besson takes everything French cinema has ever learned from the Cinéma du look to Gaspar Noé, even down to borrowing the latter’s borrowings from Kubrick, and in a profoundly contemporary innovation uses it all to produce the most luridly hyperreal kinetic and yet astonishingly dull – not to mention hilariously literalist and just plain silly – powerpoint presentation imaginable, and yet thanks to the existence of Her (Jonze 2013) still fails to make the worst sf movie starring Scarlett Johansson…
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 M (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.)
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.
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).
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).