In his introduction to the second part of this roundtable, Igor asked how the relationship between the city and the essay film may be said to have changed in this age of vastly weakened temporal (and spatial) boundaries. While we already find ourselves in what some call post-postmodernity, the continued relevance of David Harvey’s time-space compression paradigm or Fredric Jameson’s schizophrenic experience of “pure and unrelated presents in time” (27) help explain the cultural currency of the metaphor of the palimpsest, in which past strata are thinly layered under the surface of the present image, all available to us in a quasi-instantaneous way. Against the backdrop of earlier examples of films that were, as Igor writes, “energized by future visions of city life,” or by a sense of place and presentness to it, contemporary essayistic films seem to be mostly focused on excavations of the city palimpsest, with filmmakers acting as amateur historians.
The essay form, however, because of its commitment to self-reflexivity, is decidedly metahistorical. The questions it raises are not just about history; they amount to philosophical considerations of historiography’s implication in power relations that continue to affect the present time, and considerations of how text and medium alike participate in historiographical discourse.
The city, as a hub of power, labour, and culture, and as major catalyst for events, is a strong historical subject. In the city, history is visibly spatialised through architectural form, urban planning, the regulation of flows and, of course, monuments and commemorative sites. However, architectural form is more than an illustration of history and power. For Kim Dovey, “Architecture and urban design ‘frames’ space, both literally and discursively. In the literal sense everyday life ‘takes place’ within the clusters of rooms, buildings, streets and cities that we inhabit. […] As a form of discourse, built form constructs and frames meanings” (1). This framing amounts to an intervention in a historical and social context: “Because architecture and urban design involve transformations in the ways we frame life, because design is the imagination and production of the future, the field cannot claim autonomy from the politics of social change” (Dovey 1). Similar to Dovey, Bernard Cache draws on Gilles Deleuze to suggest that architecture may be defined as the “manipulation of […] the frame” (1). Cache also overtly recognises framing as a compelling point of convergence of architecture and film (as well as painting).
In its metahistorical function, while framing the built environment through its apparatus, the essay film simultaneously reflects on the frame’s production of meaning and social change. Essay films on the city, then, not only frame but reframe. Judith Lancioni has remarked that “reframing visually advances the argument that history is not a product, an absolute truth enshrined in libraries and archives, but rather an on-going critical encounter between the past and the present. That encounter, moreover, is not passive or accidental; it is rhetorical” (398). Reframing, in brief, is a rhetorical strategy that directs attention to the epistemology of seeing, and thus also to the historicity of images. So, the metahistoricity of the essay film is metadiscursive – it is a critique of the cinema as framing device that participates in the construction of meaning.
A telling example of “palimpsestic” urban and architectural reframing is the short film Borgate (2008) by media artist and architect Lotte Schreiber. Devoid of voiceover, it critiques the outcome of modernist urban developments of the post-war era exclusively through strategies of optical and sound reframing. Borgate focuses on the Don Bosco housing project on the eastern edge of the city of Rome – an area near the film studios of Cinecittà (literally, “city of cinema”). Developed after World War II, the quarter was planned while Benito Mussolini was still in power, as disclosed by the Littorio style of some of its public buildings, inspired by ancient Roman architecture. Borgate alternates fixed and panning shots that emphasise not only the buildings’ original forms, but also their contemporary state of utter decay within a periphery-scape positioned at the very edge of the city. And yet the film does not demonstrate the historicity of the present in any clichéd way. It reverses the relationship between past and present, representing the latter as embedded in the former. The film’s black-and-white 35mm images, indeed, are suggestive of prior epochs of both the city and of the cinema. Snippets of shaky, colour video inserts accompanied by piercing noise – and suggestive of the contemporary city – periodically rupture the image, depicting the present as an outcome that is implicit in the forms of the past.
The urban palimpsest in Borgate is profoundly filmic. The film’s reframing of the Don Bosco housing complex (which itself framed the vigorous post-WWII urban and social development via a fascist/modernist architectural ideology) is produced through a set of references to previous films famous for putting forward radical critiques of post-war Italian urban development. Dialogue excerpts from Mamma Roma (1962) and La dolce vita (1960) evoke Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini’s contemporaneous, sophisticated critique of Italian modernity. A further filmic reference emerges through a manner of framing the built environment strongly reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (Eclipse, 1962) – itself set in the EUR, another development conceived of during the Mussolini-era and completed in 1960s Rome. The last shots in Borgate, in fact, are an overt remake of the enigmatic nonending of Antonioni’s film. And Bernhard Lang’s symphonic composition that accompanies much of Borgate hints at Giovanni Fusco’s soundtrack for the last sequence of Eclipse.
Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, in particular, denounced the containment of the proletariat’s aspiration to social progression in the post-war era, as well as its ghettoisation in housing developments that, under the facade of the introduction of progressive living standards, trapped the working classes and the subproletariat in what is now a fully dystopian periphery. Pasolini’s critique extended to the collusion of the proletariat itself, reproaching it for falling into the trap of the capitalist promise of social progression and for its complicity in its own disconnection from the peasant roots and forms of dwelling that, for Pasolini, were at once culturally, socially and aesthetically superior. The references to Fellini’s La dolce vita, then, which was partly shot in this quarter (although standing in for the EUR), reframe Borgate within discourses of modernist angst, which were also central to Eclipse. In Eclipse, Antonioni filmed the EUR as the quintessential modernist development, highlighting its effects on the disconnection of the human being from a living, historically-anchored social tissue.
Visual and sound mises en cadre are used throughout Borgate to reframe the images of the present city, inviting us to pause on the metahistorical vocation of essayistic cinema. Borgate’s critique of the city rests on its depiction as a cinecittà – a city of cinema. The auteur cinema of the 1960s that Mamma Roma, La dolce vita and Eclipse epitomise becomes all at once historicised, for it is inserted into historical development; recognised for retrospectively pinpointing the roots of the contemporary social and environmental urban dereliction; and even indicted, for its failure to prevent the outcomes of the present day. As such, the essay film’s reframing sheds light on history (of the city, of the cinema) as – to use Lancioni’s words – an “on-going critical encounter between the past and the present.”
Laura Rascaroli is Professor of Film and Screen Media at University College Cork, Ireland. She is the author and editor of a number of volumes including The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film (2009), Crossing New Europe: Postmodern Travel and the European Road Movie (2006), co-written with Ewa Mazierska, and Antonioni: Centenary Essays (2011), co-edited with John David Rhodes. Her latest book, How the Essay Film Thinks, was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. She is general editor of Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media.