July 2018, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour: Cinematic Strolls, Flaneurs in Film

LA PETITE VENDEUSE DE SOLEIL, 1999

Edgar Allen Poe describes the flaneur as a man amid the masses, absorbed by the city around him. Charles Baudelaire celebrates the flaneur's ability to retain his anonymity in urban space and stay an individualist. For his part, Walter Benjamin liberates the flaneur from the widely-cited tortoise metaphor, a being linked only to posing and attitude, characterizing him instead as the “central figure of the modern era”, a highly sensitive soul capable of deciphering the city, wandering the streets, and viewing the urban surroundings with the same mixture of attraction and repellence with which he himself is also seen. An archetype key to the literature of the last two centuries, the flaneur has also echoed through film history since the 1920s in a variety of different forms. In July, the Magical History Tour presents the first generation of city wanderers and those that followed them both before the camera and behind it, expanding the concept to encompass its female equivalent and bringing together ambling documentary and essayistic works – meandering strolls through urban spaces, decelerated observations and conquests of urban structures, explorations of the streets and the crowds that populate them, and reflections on the conditions of modern existence.

LA NOTTE (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/France 1961, 1. & 7.7.) An elevator glides down the facade of a building, opaque windows on one side, a modern cityscape replete with building sites opening out on the other, a vista into which the film descends centimeter by centimeter from the very beginning. Antonioni creates a precise topography of the space between barrenness and insane construction that is framed in clear, razor-sharp black and white images in which the marriage of Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) seems to be dissolving. As she wanders through run-down courtyards and dusty abandoned lots, Lidia traverses not just a city entirely hollow behind its shining facades but also the various dark recesses of her own life.

SHIVREI TMUNOT JERUSHALAIM (Fragments*Jerusalem, Ron Havilio, Israel 1986–1997, 1.7.: Part 1; 8.7.: Part 2) Private footage and historical photos, recollections of family members and official archive material, city planning, social historical, religious, and ethnic considerations come together to form an artistic mosaic of a city, an era, a life, and a family. Havilio’s magnum opus is six hours long, divided into seven chapters, and took 11 years of work to be completed - Havilio thus moves beyond the concept of the flaneur to become a wanderer through space and time.

MNJE DWADZAT LJET (I Am Twenty, Marlen Khutsiev, USSR 1962/65, 2. & 6.7.) A milestone in Soviet film, a key work of Thaw-Era cinema, and, last, but not least, a unique historical document of the city of Moscow and its young inhabitants. At the heart of the film are Sergei, Nikolai und Slava (each 20 years old and friends since childhood), all of whom are looking for meaning and self-determination as well as to grapple with the generation of their parents. Khutsiev creates a vision of Moscow seldom seen, alternating between the poetic, the romantic, the dynamic and the immediate, showing a young generation who only by wandering the city can take possession of both it and their own lives.

BERLIN. DIE SINFONIE DER GROSSSTADT (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, Walther Ruttmann, Germany 1927, 3.7., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins & 23.7., with the original music by Edmund Meisel) In this classic of the city symphony genre, Ruttmann illuminates the flaneur’s living environment in emblematic fashion: the shimmering metropolis of Berlin in the mid-20s. As the tempo shifts back and forth between frenzy and calm, the footage of city life, street canyons, trains, streets, crowds, machines, illuminated advertising billboards, and evening entertainments merge together into a visual rhythm, a pulsating flow of images.

BILDNIS EINER TRINKERIN (Ulrike Ottinger, West Germany 1979, 3. & 15.7.) Following a urgent impulse to forget the past, "She" (Tabea Blumenschein) – a mixture of Medea, Madonna, Beatrice, Iphigenia, and Aspasia – buys a one-way ticket to Berlin in order to drink herself to death on a grotesque foray through the pubs, hotels, casinos, and bars of West Berlin. Alienated and unapproachable, she becomes immersed in a stylized late-70s version of the city, meeting protagonists from the island underground during her nocturnal wanderings: drinkers, rock singers (including a spectacular Nina Hagen), writers, artists, taxi drivers. A melodrama.

BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, USA 2004, 4. & 9.7.) Ten years after their first brief meeting in Vienna, Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) cross paths again, as Jesse, now a writer, has come to Paris on a book tour. Once again, their few shared hours are used for long walks through the city and lengthy conversations about the big themes in life. Following Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1994), Paris lends this sequel an air of melancholy and an awareness of how all happiness is fleeting.

MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG (Robert Siodmak, Rochus Gliese, Edgar G. Ulmer, Germany 1930, 5. & 15.7., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) A precise description – a type of "reality film" inspired by the New Objectivity – one weekend in the life of five young Berliners – four bustling wanderers of Berlin and Wannsee and one homebody. This light, playful collage begins with documentary footage and improvised leisure, missed chances and random meetings, before the second part of the film shifts to the summer retreat of Wannsee. The highly agile, almost "flaneur-like" camerawork (Eugen Schüfftan) oscillates between the near and the far, sympathy and irony, details and crowds.

CLÉO DE 5 À 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda, France/Italy 1962, 16. & 29.7.) 90 minutes of Paris in real time, 90 minutes in which the titular Cléo (a chanteuse, charmeuse, and flaneuse in one: Corinne Marchand) restlessly wanders the French capital, sitting in cafés, looking for a hat shop, meeting her lover, attending a rehearsal with her band, going to the cinema, and meeting a potential new love. All this to pass the time until she receives the result of her cancer screening. 90 minutes not characterized by drama or trying to overcome one's fate, but which simply communicate the sense of being in the city, the experience of time and one’s own person.

ALICE IN DEN STÄDTEN (Alice in the Cities, Wim Wenders, West Germany 1974, 22. & 25.7.) A set of movements through the US and the Ruhr region, research and search in one: German journalist Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) has been commissioned to make a travel report about the American (city) landscape and is both failing at the task and beginning to lose himself in the process, until his travels suddenly morph into a search for clues in the German provinces for the grandmother of nine-year-old Alice, who is entrusted to his care in New York. The former setting is all great expanses devoid of people, services areas, urban canyons and neon sights, all symbols of alienation and absence, while the latter is a cross-section of West Germany, sometimes uniform, sometimes labyrinthine, sometimes narrow-minded and bourgeois, sometimes full of summer freedom. The poetic story of the return of two uprooted, initially indifferent wanderers is at the same time a meditation about looking and perceiving, a small lesson in being a flaneur.

NEWS FROM HOME (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France/West Germany 1976, 23. & 28.7.) The lines along which streets extend and scenes filmed on them by night and day, subway stations and rides, pans across facades or skylines: In long, meticulously framed shots of 70s New York and a soundtrack made up of city noise and Akerman’s voice reading out her mother’s letters, who is still at home in Belgium, the director measures out the city which she lived in for several years in the 70s. A distanced, restless look at a foreign city merges with the mother’s concerned, even distressed tone into a meditation about sound and image, urban alienation and family structures.

CENTRAL PARK (Frederick Wiseman, USA 1989, 24. & 26.7.) Summer in New York: In a comparatively light, cheerful tone, Wiseman creates a portrait of Central Park as an inviting location of urban vitality. With seeming casualness, he describes the broad spectrum of big city park users, shows people looking for recuperation, Sunday painters, dance groups, hobby ornithologists and dinosaur imitators, musicians and dancers, as well as gardeners and the park’s administrative staff. An homage to the green heart of the city, simultaneously a center of attraction for classic flaneurs as well as the starting point for another flaneur of the cinematic variety.

LE FRANC (Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal 1994, 27. & 31.7.) & LA PETITE VENDEUSE DE SOLEIL (Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal 1999, 27. & 31.7.) The films of Djibril Diop Mambéty are irrevocably linked to Dakar, the Senegalese capital, through which the protagonists of his films move like restless wanderers. Mambéty's camera is usually close on their heels, occasionally stepping to the side to show scenes from everyday life in the city and the peculiarities of urban space. In LA PETITE VENDEUSE..., Sili attempts to ignore her reservations and hold her own as a newspaper salesperson. In LE FRANC, Marigo has won the lottery, but can only pick up his prize if he carries the door to his house through half of Dakar, as the lottery ticket is stuck to it. Sili and Marigo’s roamings through Dakar are embedded in a complex web of small vignettes, scenes, and secondary plots threads that don't just leave their mark on the rhythm of the film, but also allow the viewer to grasp Dakar. (mg)