Urban Palimpsests and the City Essay Film

Layered childhood memories behind San Sebastián’s historical theatre and casino, opened in 1921, the ‘Gran Kursaal’, in Victor Erice’s La Morte Rouge (2006).
[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 first wish to thank all contributors for their excellent first-round responses, which have all been very inspiring. While reflecting about how to respond to all of them appropriately, I thought about posing a more general question to which some of you already alluded and to which all of you might be able to respond, in one way or another. For that purpose, I’d like to shift your attention in this round from the concrete to the abstract, so to speak – that is, from your examples to a theoretical question (to which you can also respond via specific examples of course).

When it comes to the encounter between cinema and urban space, whether we call it the ‘cinematic city’ or something else, literary notions like allegory, text or palimpsest seem to me still very useful to apply to various examples, whether fiction or non-fiction. In particular, the notion of the palimpsest has been used frequently in this regard – even in popular form where it has already become some sort of cliché. Think of the final sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), for example, in which New York digitally transforms in seconds from 19th century slum to modern skyline, hinting at the notion that New York is literally ‘built’ from layers of ‘overwritten’ buildings that contain thousands of mostly forgotten lives, struggles and stories.

The notion of the palimpsest has also been used by Andreas Huyssen in regard to urban culture. He describes a shift from the modernists’ (Bauhaus, Le Corbusier etc.) focus on utopian futures (what Huyssen calls ‘present futures’) to what one might call a ‘postmodernist’ focus on ‘present pasts’, particularly when it comes to memorial sites, but also, more generally, in regard to architectural, cultural and even political conceptions of the city. Huyssen’s thesis is that this shift – from ‘present futures’ to ‘present pasts’ – occurred in the 1980s. Let me quote the opening passage of Huyssen’s Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (2003):

Historical memory today is not what it used to be. It used to mark the relation of a community or a nation to its past, but the boundary between past and present used to be stronger and more stable than it appears to be today. Untold recent and not so recent pasts impinge upon the present through modern media of reproduction like photography, film, recorded music, and the internet, as well as through the explosion of historical scholarship and an ever more voracious museal culture. The past has become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries. As a result, temporal boundaries have weakened just as the experiential dimension of space has shrunk as a result of modern means of transportation and communication. (1)

My more general question related to Huyssen’s observation is, in a way, a Marxist one: how do superstructure and base interact in regard to city essay films? Do these changes in the ‘politics of memory’ (since the 1980s, as Huyssen suggests) trigger new ways of essayistic practices in regard to cities too? Or have film essayists tended to regard the city as a palimpsest per se, because the essay as a form demands such a layered (or historically inquisitive) perspective? In their first round responses, Iván (who deals with this topic more extensively in his book Documenting Cityscapes) and Laura have already touched on these issues, but let me elaborate on this a bit further and give a few examples.

‘Sonneninsel’ (Thomas Elsaesser, 2017)

In my opinion, ‘modernist’ city essay films predating the 1980s were either energized by future visions of city life, say in Man with a Movie Camera or Chronique d’un été (which I gladly include, thanks to Roberto, in my list of important historical city essay films), or by a sense of place or (not-)belonging in the here and now, like in News from Home or Lost, Lost, Lost. There was consequently also a focus on the camera’s/filmmaker’s flânuerial gaze, which invests in detailed observation and (critical) reflection. Not all (and I would perhaps exclude Brenda’s example, Taste of Cement, here), but many contemporary city essay films rather seem to focus on palimpsestic treatments of the city, unwrapping a city’s ‘present pasts’, so to speak, such as in My Winnipeg (2007), Helsinki Forever (2008) or in Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) as well as in some of the already discussed first-round examples: Hito Steyerl’s The Empty Centre (1998), Cynthia Beatt’s diptych Cycling the Frame (1988) and The Invisible Frame (2009) or Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City (2008).

Along with this goes an interest in (subjective or prosthetic, that is mediated) memory and trauma. Many film essayists are autodidactic historians – just think of Alexander Kluge, who is not only well-read in all aspects of human and non-human history (from evolutionary biology to palaeontology), but also made his historical inquiries the main part of a long-term multimedia project (dctp.tv). Victor Erice’s La Morte Rouge (2006) and Thomas Elsaesser’s Sonneninsel are also good examples for this tendency, as well as Patrick Keiller’s London. Whereas both Erice and Elsaesser unwrap childhood memories and tangled family histories behind a city’s historical building (Frankfurt’s Großmarkthalle and San Sebastián’s Gran Kursaal), Keiller deploys the classical flânuerial gaze only to recount endless anecdotes and stories that have occurred in this or that London building, corner or street, years, decades, or even centuries ago.

In her response, Laura has called this and similar strategies “the diachronic flânuerial gaze” of the film essayist, but after thinking about this I would suggest that we might also need to define this gaze (in regard to city essay films) in terms of shifting historical relations between concepts, notions and visions of city life on the one hand and essayistic film practices on the other, or even in terms of a dialectics between base (urban change) and superstructure (cinema). Another question derives from this: can we still think of the essay film as a genre that is by definition (in an Adornian sense) ‘heretical’? Or is the essay filmmaker today rather a ‘creative worker’ (still admittedly more or less on the sidelines of mainstream culture) who, with his or her artistry and sensibility is no doubt often ingenious in detecting certain (in this case, urban) transformations but merely forms and shapes them into essayistic forms and nothing much else? This might contradict my initial definition that attests a ‘critical gaze’ from a marginal perspective, but I would nevertheless like to ask you in this second round whether filmic essayism today affirms rather than criticizes current ideologies (postmodernity) or paradigms of representation (that is, palimpsestic treatments of urban space).

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