Film of the Month – May 2012 – Flânerie Seen Through a Lens: Light, Movement and Film

Something different this month; rather than reviewing a specific film we are looking at how the creative process of film-making links with the practice of the flâneur, feminism and early modernist fiction. 

The modern(ist) metropolis and the institution of cinema came into being at about the same time.  Their juxtaposition provides more clues as to the pragmatic aesthetic through which we experience the city not only as visual culture, but above all as a psychic space.[1]

The development of the art of film in the early twentieth-century gave artists easy access to a means to portray multiple perspectives, accelerated rhythms and multi-layered temporality; in a way, much like Virginia Woolf had been experimenting with in her novels.  These influences worked both ways; Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage can be seen as quite literally a ‘motion picture’, with its constant movement and switches of viewpoint, its variations of time and tense.  Many feminist cultural critics (Friedberg, Gleber, Buck-Morss) have linked the scopophilia[2] of the flâneur with visual artistic forms such as cinema, painting and photography, thus linking flânerie, the gaze and visual art.

 

Alla Nazimova in Salomé, 1923

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Referring to film, Walter Benjamin talks about the remorseless visual stimuli of the metropolis and its similarity to the experience of cinema.  Film makers soon discovered that the technique of montage could be not just a response to the profusion of sensory inputs experienced in the city but a utilisation of it.   Cinema gave them the capacity to manipulate time and space, essential features of cinematic and televisual techniques, thereby producing an increasingly detemporalized subject. At the same time, these simulated experiences produced by film fostered an increasingly derealized sense of presence and identity.  Commenting on the effect of the rise of cinema, Anne Friedberg asserts:

To describe the role of the cinema in postmodernity adequately, one must detail the cultural effects of two forms of proliferation: spatial (mass distribution and its flip side, mass reception) and temporal (repetition-the metonymic aspect of mechanical reproduction). The cinematic apparatus-Benjamin’s liberating dynamite-has produced cumulative and severe changes in our experience of both space and time.[3]

Cinema was unique among the arts in its wholehearted response to modernism and both Richardson and Woolf expressed an interest in the possibilities of film, as well as that of still photography.  Indeed, throughout the 1920s Dorothy Richardson was a regular contributor to the film magazine Close Up.  Richardson championed cinema as a potentially feminist art form:

Throughout her twenty-three film essays in Close Up, Dorothy Richardson shares her sister modernists’ concern with an autobiographical, feminine standpoint.  Her themes are visibly ‘feminine’:  refusing to discount women’s need to identify with stars; refusing to separate life from art; frequently addressing an everyday woman spectator; and thinking through what a feminine language of film might involve.[4]

Throughout Pilgrimage, Richardson presents us with an almost cinematic sensibility to describe the way her protagonist, Miriam Henderson, experiences the sensory inputs of the city.  In Honeycomb, Miriam walks the streets of London, her gaze sweeping and settling like the lens of a camera:

Shops passed by, bright endless caverns screened with glass . . . the bright teeth of a grand piano running along the edge of its darkness, a cataract of light pouring down its raised lid.[5]

Dorothy Richardson’s writings on film, primarily in Close Up, were concerned with the notion of a ‘continuous performance’ that went on behind and beyond any particular focus of attention on the screen; and we see this notion of continuous performance, with no end or beginning, acted out in her own writing in Pilgrimage.  Although Richardson rejected the term ‘stream of consciousness’, which May Sinclair applied to her work, Pilgrimage clearly immerses itself in her protagonist’s consciousness as she moves, in a very filmic way, through the episodic encounters of her life.

Richardson was apparently always fascinated by optical devices; in Interim, Miriam refers to her love of kaleidoscopes:

The kaleidoscope, do you remember looking at the kaleidoscope?  I used to cry about it sometimes at night; thinking of the patterns I had not seen.[6]

Later, in Deadlock, Richardson uses the kaleidoscope as a metaphor to represent one’s ever-changing experience of the city:

(Miriam) wandered about between Wimpole Street and St Pancras, holding in her imagination wordless converse with a stranger whose whole experience had melted and vanished, like her own, into the flow of light down the streets; into the unending joy of the way the angles of the buildings cut themselves out against the sky, glorious if she paused to survey them; and almost unendurably wonderful, keeping her hurrying on, pressing through insufficient silent outcries, towards something, anything, even instant death, if only they could be expressed when they moved with her movement, a maze of shapes, flowing, tilting into each other, in endless patterns, sharp against the light; sharing her joy in the changing same same song of the London traffic; the bliss of post offices and railway stations, cabs going on and on towards unknown space; omnibuses rumbling securely from point to point, always within the magic circle of London.[7]

In a review of Richardson’s film writing, Laura Marcus refers to Pilgrimage as ‘a celebration of light’ and links this to the reason why Richardson was so ready to embrace the new art of cinema.[8]  Indeed, by Volume 4, one can see a linking of light and temporality; a weaving together of light and memory:

The memories accumulated since she landed were like a transparent film through which clearly she saw all she had left behind; and felt the spirit of it waiting within her to project itself upon things just ahead, things waiting in this room, as she came up the stairs.[9]

In a Close Up article entitled ‘A Tear for Lycidas’, Richardson posits the almost magical idea of the film-goer as a flâneur:

Wandering at large, we found ourselves unawares, not by chance, we refuse to say by chance, in a dim and dusty by-street: one of those elderly, dignified streets that now await, a little wistfully, the inevitable re-building.  Giving shelter meanwhile to the dismal eddyings and scuttlings of wind-blown refuse: grey dust, olden straw, scraps of trodden paper.  Almost no traffic.  Survival in a neglected central backwater, of something of London’s former quietude.  Having, a moment before, shot breathlessly across the rapids of a main thoroughfare, we found, took breath, looked about us and saw the incredible.  A legend, no upon one of those small, dubious facades still holding their own against the fashion, but upon that of the converted Scala Theatre: Silent Films.  Continuous Performance. Two Days.  The Gold Rush.[10]

              

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf’s interest in photography was perhaps even stronger than her feel for film.   She had a vast collection of her own photographs compiled over many years.  These albums displayed a narrative seriality in her arrangement of the pictures, which Maggie Humm links to Woolf’s developing style of writing:

Woolf’s precocious understanding of photographic processes quickly registers an interest in album-like visual narratives.[11]

If a picture tells a story, then Woolf discovered that a series of pictures, arranged in a carefully considered way, could help her present a fully-fledged narrative.  Photography and film also offered the possibility of removing the omniscient author; a device that modernist writers like Woolf were trying to overcome.  Richardson, in particular, also thought that the cinema allows women to be more than passive spectators; the cinematic experience involves making a direct response to what is projected on the screen, often a vocal response.  Which was why she opposed the introduction of the talkies.  In her Close Up article ‘The Film Gone Male’, Richardson argued that the coming of the talkies forced women into silence, thus re-establishing male hegemony in the new art of cinema.

Woolf and Richardson were clearly both interested in the possibilities of film and still photography.  Summarising the relationship of female modernists to film and photography, Humm comments:

Women modernists were fascinated by the relationships between aesthetic developments and the way in which the new technologies could offer new depictions of themselves and their visible worlds.[12]

The tendency of the flâneur towards detached but culturally aware observation has clear links to photography, particularly the type of urban street photography that became widespread during the early twentieth-century. The street photographer can be seen as a modern extension of Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century urban observer.  Susan Sontag, in her work On Photography, describes how, with the development of hand-held cameras in the early twentieth-century, the camera has become the tool of the flâneur:

In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire.  The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque’.[13]

Sontag goes on to equate the flâneur’s perceptive eye with the camera: in On Photography she investigates the relationship between the two and detects an overlap between the Baudelairean practice of the flâneur and the art of photography.  Sontag later refers to a tradition of photographers such as Eugène Atget, Brassaï and Bill Brandt, who, like Baudelaire, gravitated towards the city’s ‘dark seamy corners, its neglected populations . . . an unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life’.[14]

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin examines the gaze of the flâneur (der blick des flâneurs).  He sees the flâneur as a prowling animal whose gaze, like that of the camera, grabs, registers and processes images without any further interaction between observer and subject.  Photography presents itself as the ideal technology for enhancing the flâneur’s gaze.  The insatiability of the camera’s lens works in tandem with the insatiability of the flâneur’s eye.  The avidity of the photographic eye can also be seen in the infinite range of subjects at which the camera can be aimed.  As Sontag puts it:

From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. … The subsequent industrialization of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.[15]

One can identify a continuing strand of interest in the use of flâneuristic techniques right through to contemporary cinema.  French film-maker, Agnès Varda, reinterpreted the streets of Paris with a flâneuristic eye in the early 1960s in her film, Cléo from 5 to 7.  Whilst British writer and director, Patrick Keiller, has made three films over the past two decades featuring his flâneur protagonist, Robinson, and his journeys with an unnamed walking companion.  With a narrative voiced initially by Paul Schofield and, in the most recent film, by Vanessa Redgrave, Keiller decries the absence of public space and civic society.  His contention is that, unlike continental Europe, in particular France, the industrial bourgeoisie of England left the ancient regime in place when capitalism replaced feudalism.  His films London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins seek to illustrate this argument.

It is clear that photography and cinema are both bound up with flânerie. Up until the birth of modernism, the literary perception and depiction of the city was male-dominated.  Alongside writers such as Richardson and Woolf, the development of the photographic and cinematic modes of seeing in the twentieth century produced a change; it made possible a female way of seeing the city, by means of a female form of flânerie.  This change was driven not just by the effect socio-economic shifts on gender relationships, but specifically by new forms of expression arising from modernism.

 

References

[1] James Donald, The City, the Cinema: Modern Spaces, in Chris Jenks (ed), Visual Culture (London and New York, Routledge, 1995) p. 84

[2] From the Greek skopein: to look/scrutinize, and philia: the love for

[3] Anne Friedberg, ‘Les Flâneurs du Mal(l): Cinema and the Postmodern Condition’, PMLA, Vol. 106, No. 3 (May, 1991) p. 419

[4] Maggie Humm, Modernist Women and Visual Cultures: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2003) p. 177

[5] Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage: 1 (London, Virago, 1992) p. 127

[6] Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage: 2 (London, Virago, 1979) pp. 298-9

[7] Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage: 3 (London, Virago, 1979) p. 85-6

 [8] James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (ed), Close Up 1927 – 1933: Cinema and Modernism (London, Cassell, 1998) p. 154

[9] Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage: 4 (London, Virago, 1979) p. 141

[10] (quoted in) James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (ed), Close Up 1927 – 1933: Cinema and Modernism (London, Cassell, 1998) pp. 200-1

[11] Maggie Humm, Modernist Women and Visual Cultures: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2003) p. 28

[12] ibid p. 217

[13] Susan Sontag, On Photography (London, Penguin, 1979) p. 55

[14] ibid. pp. 55 – 56

[15] ibid. p. 7

  •  Alla Nazimova picture courtesy of Loudest Voice
  • Close Up cover courtesy of Amazon

About Bobby Seal

Freelance writer, poet and psychogeographer

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