The Diachronic Flâneur

Fig. 3. Mobilising the gaze through superimposition: 'The Empty Centre' (Hito Steyerl, 1998). Screenshot.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “The Essay Film and The City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I will set off from the first of the two questions that Igor asks at the end of his historical/aesthetic discussion of the encounter between the city and the essay film. It is certainly true to say that the critical wandering gaze is one of the key modalities that has emerged from that encounter, as Igor has shown by referring to a series of important film texts. But is the critical gaze on the city always a wandering gaze? In my recent work, I have become particularly interested in questions of usage and in how the essay film thinks through its practices. When reading Igor’s introduction to this roundtable, accordingly, I was prompted to ask how a flâneurial gaze or a static gaze may respectively, and diversely, think the filmic city.

In Igor’s discussion of key texts he draws a startling conclusion; namely, that the city essay film is the product of an “outsider’s perspective from the margins (of academia, urban life or mainstream culture).” His observation is startling because it conflates spatial margins and ideological fringes, thus giving an account not only of the contrarian, minoritarian attitude of all essayists, whether writers or filmmakers, but also of the spatial positioning of the film-essayist’s gaze. In film, indeed, the perspective is always also a situated point of view, a place from which the gaze is directed towards an object. The essay is minoritarian by definition. There can be no such thing as a majoritarian essay, and the minoritarian vocation locates the essayist outside, in the outskirts. We may then begin to understand why the city features so prominently in the history of the essay film. Since the modern era, the city has been the prime location of human activity, the hub of power and governance, as well as of labour; as such, it is key to any analysis and critique of the ideological conditions that shape modern life. The city is the centre. But in order to observe the centre one must position herself in the outskirts. Metaphorically, and often literally, this means directing one’s gaze from an edge—for instance, from the periphery (Paris in Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, 1949); from the ring road that surrounds the metropolis (London in Christopher Petit and Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, 2002); from the sea (Genoa in Pietro Marcello’s The Mouth of the Wolf, 2009); or from behind an apartment’s window (Tel Aviv in Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas, 2006). It seems to me that the position from which the essay looks at the city, then, is perhaps more important than its gaze’s mobility or stasis.

Fig. 1. Looking from the outskirts: ‘Pasolini e la forma della città’ (‘Pasolini and the Form of the City,’
Pier Paolo Pasolini and Paolo Brunatto, 1974). Screenshot.

We may then say that the essay locates itself in an emptiness/shapelessness (the margin) from which it looks at a fullness/form (the centre), at the purpose of deconstructing it. It is indeed emptiness that best reveals the “form of the city,” to use an expression of Pier Paolo Pasolini in a short film first screened on Italian TV in 1974 (Pasolini e la forma della città/Pasolini and the Form of the City, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Paolo Brunatto, 1974). Standing with his camera in the environs of the town of Orte, Italy, in this ingenious essay on the loss of premodern culture Pasolini first shows a view from afar of the ideal shape of the ancient town, and then, by widening the shot, and so embracing later buildings erected outside its original perimeter, demonstrates its defacement and corruption by capitalist exploitation, rampant overdevelopment and the homogenisation of modernity (Fig. 1). The essay’s gaze on the city, directed from a periphery, is fixed here—though Pasolini does travel to other cities in the film, both physically (to Sabaudia, Italy) and, through verbal references and clips from other films of his, to Yazd, Iran, to Al Mukalla and Sana’a, Yemen and to Kathmandu, Nepal. But what is, then, the role of mobility in the city essay film?

Fig. 2. The wandering gaze: Cynthia Beatt’s ‘The Invisible Frame’ (2009). Screenshot.

Fig. 3. Mobilising the gaze through superimposition: ‘The Empty Centre’ (Hito Steyerl, 1998). Screenshot.

Let us go back to the origins of the essay—let us go back to Berlin, a city that has had a long association with the essay form and the figure of the flâneur, as Igor’s references to Benjamin’s One-Way Street and Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis remind us. Berlin is the epitome of the Old World megalopolis, an archetypical centre of modernity, as well as the quintessential city palimpsest, with its stratification of historical, ideological and architectural meanings. In other words, Berlin could not be a “fuller” place. Yet, this fullness is predicated on vertiginous gaps; if it is a centre, indeed, Berlin is “the center of a discontinuous, ruptured history, site of the collapse of four successive German states, command center of the Holocaust, capital of German communism in the Cold War, flashpoint of the East-West confrontation in the nuclear age,” as Andreas Huyssen has written. Berlin, thus, reminds us that the fullness of the city—of all cities—is made up of holes, which are not always visible from a fixed point. The historical and ideological discontinuity which carves gaps in the city fabric demands a mobilisation of the essay’s gaze. This mobilisation, however, is not so much spatial as it is temporal. Consider the following essay films on the fall of Berlin Wall and on Berlin after the German reunification: Cynthia Beatt’s diptych Cycling the Frame (1988) and The Invisible Frame (2009), which follow the actor Tilda Swinton while she reflectively cycles the route along the Berlin Wall, before and after its fall, respectively; and Hito Steyerl’s The Empty Centre (1998), which looks at Potsdamer Platz as it becomes rebuilt by transnational companies, while also uncovering the city’s past and current histories of marginalisation of minorities and immigrants. Both films are located in margins: in Beatt’s diptych Swinton, like Pasolini in La forma della città, is positioned mostly outside the city boundaries, and from there directs her critical gaze on the city; Steyerl’s camera is in the heart of the city, Potsdamer Platz, which however is an empty space or, indeed, an empty centre. Beatt’s diptych adopts a wandering gaze, mobilised by Swinton’s bike, which may be said to materialise the idiosyncrasy and even fragility of the flâneur, and of the essayist’s contrarian journey through space and history (Fig. 2). Steyerl’s film is much more stationary, though the gaze here is mobilised via cross-fades that, through slow superimpositions, reveal the structural (and at once ideological) changes to the urban fabric in time (Fig. 3). While adopting different strategies, both Beatt and Steyerl achieve a mobility that is, ultimately, more about time than about space: the gaze travels along a diachronic axis, so revealing the city as the “center of a discontinuous, ruptured history.”

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