Art of the Real: City Ways
While taking stock of four films at the 2015 edition of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real series, I kept returning to the last line of Ellison’s Invisible Man: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” The narrator of Ellison’s novel—nameless, friendless, and voluntarily committed to his hole in Harlem—isn’t like anyone we’ve ever met, and yet his strangeness makes him instantly relatable to everyone who’s felt alone in a crowd or a subway car. Part of the genius of his final, rhetorical question is that it’s his realization as much as ours that counts—we already knew we had a friend in him, but it takes him the entire book to realize that he has a friend in us and all the other lonely people.
While none of these films’ subjects achieve anything quite like the Invisible Man’s epiphany, they’re all looking, in one way or another, for the same sense of belonging, in an environment that callously, even deliberately, refuses to provide them with it. But, like Ellison’s title character, a major part of their struggle involves wrestling with the possibility that they prefer being alone. All four films are deeply concerned with the state of a particular city, but the city may be real or fictional, inviting or unsettling, unsettling because it’s constantly evolving or because it’ll look the same in a hundred years. To the extent that their inhabitants are hiding, they do it in different, even contradictory ways—hiding behind closed doors, or wandering through the streets, hiding in plain sight. It’s startling to think that all of these multifaceted looks at life have a claim to being, as the series they’re part of ambitiously suggests, “real.”
The people pulling the strings in São Paulo—the setting of Gustavo Vinagre’s part documentary, part surrealist head-scratcher, part screwball comedy Nova Dubai—seem intent upon embracing the shiny new “reality” of pop culture and cutting-edge technology. Their city is the third-fastest-growing in the world, and they want it known—the skyline is always getting higher, and glossy ads, like something out of LIFE magazine in the Fifties, advertise new high-rise apartments for happy young families. It’s all a little menacing, like a smile held for a second too long; Vinagre expresses this menace through a masked figure—half Greek chorus, half interloper—who chants “They’re coming” again and again. Yet the chant is at least partly comic, since the “They” refers not only to the forces of industrialization and globalization, but also to the sex-crazed gay youths at the center of Nova Dubai, whose “coming” is more biological than economic.
Much of the sexual behavior we see in the first half of Vinagre’s film takes place in dark rooms, behind closed doors. Bruno, a fairly unexceptional, homosexual twenty-something, spends hours on his laptop navigating his way between porn and Miley Cyrus. (Look out for a cringe-worthy yet ominous rendition of “Wrecking Ball,” with “break me” distorted to sound like “rape me.”) In his laziness and casual hedonism, he functions as a kind of contemporary Everyman: the gay marginalization he represents (out of the closet but still in the house), all the more dangerous because it’s self-imposed, is only one flavor of 21st-century human marginalization, whereby we’re all supposed to keep playing on our phones while They build skyscrapers. A conversation with Bruno’s father, who remembers coming to the country to cope with the trauma of being gang-raped, gives us a sense of the tradeoff of life in São Paulo—safe but emotionless—and implies that its characters (and, possibly, the rest of us) are fooling around on their laptops at least partly out of fear, not freedom.
How to rebel against the city you live in? Vinagre shows Bruno and his friends having sex in public near a construction site (one friend insists, “I can’t come between four walls”), but he’s too clever to suggest that sex is the answer. Hooking up with a muscular construction worker might raise a middle finger to the heteronormativity of the apartment he’s building (“I’m building families,” he says), but the man might not be gay, per the subtleties of Brazilian sexual binarism, and when he’s through, he puts his hardhat back on and get back to work. As Nova Dubai’s chilling final shot makes clear, sometimes the rebellion against Them must end in unconditional surrender, or worse. By all means, have sex outdoors—just be advised that persecution has a way of coming in (forgive me) like a wrecking ball.
Lily, the main character of Matt Porterfield’s meditative short Take What You Can Carry, isn’t an outsider in any demographic sense (she’s white, English-speaking, attractive, and evidently well-off), but as played by Hannah Gross, she projects a deep sense of being out of place nonetheless. Sparse dialogue and a short runtime (half an hour) mean that we don’t get much explicit information about her, but this doesn’t mean she’s a complete mystery. Porterfield suggests his character’s state of mind expressionistically, as she progresses from claustrophobic rooms lit by the dawn to the gorgeous public parks of summertime Berlin in the afternoon. The two occasions of extended speech in the film aren’t dialogue but monologue, as Lily reads aloud from a letter she’s received, and later voices her reply. The point of these scenes isn’t simply to communicate the letters’ contents to the audience; much more profoundly, we see Lily talking to herself, as if she’s trying to remind herself that she’s still here.
Take What You Can Carry
When discussing his new film, Porterfield has identified the novelist and filmmaker Georges Perec’s 1974 essay “Species of Spaces” as an important inspiration, and it’s not hard to see how Lily’s peculiar mixture of loneliness and gregariousness found its source in the Frenchman’s whimsical celebrations of his own idiosyncratic desires. “Like everyone else, I presume,” he writes, “I feel an attraction for zero points, for axes and points of references from which the positions and distances of any object in the universe can be determined—the Equator, the Greenwich Meridian, sea-level.” But of course, no point in space, zeroed or not, can last forever: “Space melts like sand running through one’s fingers. Time bears it away and leaves me only shapeless shreds.” Like Perec, Lily craves the peace and security of motionlessness—in a sense, the security of space itself—but can’t deny the chaotic pleasures of time. Like Bruno barricaded in his room, she enjoys hiding in her little apartment, because it distracts her from the inevitability of moving—moving to somewhere else, and moving on with her life.
She wants to be peaceful and restless at the same time – and so she goes to a studio and dances. Although Lily has carefully choreographed her own performance, DP Jenny Lou Ziegel uses it as an opportunity to capture all the quirks and beauties of the human body. The six-minute scene (the centerpiece of the film) works almost as a kind of therapy in the way it allows Lily to work through her anxieties and take comfort in her own restlessness: where Bruno has sex, she performs. The next and final scene, set in Berlin’s Viktoria Park, feels like a breath of fresh air—you’d think Lily has finally found her zero space. In fact, she’s stumbled on the importance of memory, the force that, both in Perec and in her own life, allows for motionless motion; wistful calmness in the face of the unexpected. As she recalls, thinking of a trip she took once, she “sat in a train … constantly moving even though we were perfectly still.” It’s an important, even epiphanic statement—a metaphor for the way memory works, and a model for the way life might be lived free of alienation. Take What You Can Carry is nowhere near as politically minded as Nova Dubai (time, not globalization or pop culture, is the “They”), but it’s more awestruck by humanity’s unique qualities—memory, nostalgia, loneliness—and more willing to forgive and even celebrate its contradictions.
Birds of September, Sarah Francis’s documentary and feature-length debut, is more explicitly “about” a city, Beirut, than Take What You Can Carry, but much as in Nova Dubai, its fascination defeats itself, pushing us up against the glass walls of modern life, but no further. Francis and her crew (who are heard but never seen) drive slowly through town in a truck with glass walls, picking up passersby along the way. Once their guests take their seats, the filmmakers begin asking for information: age, place of residence, profession, and, when the mood is right, fears, insecurities, desires, ambitions. Eventually, the questions subside and the people’s discrete answers coalesce into a steady stream of talk: a middle-aged divorced woman notes, a little sadly, that she’s “leading the battle alone”; a gaggle of tattooed youths muse on the importance of family. Although Beirut looms over these people’s shoulders at all times, Birds of September represents an unexpected technical variation on the “city symphony.” The jump cuts and split screens in the quintessential city film, Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, much like the time-lapse footage of Shanghai and Hong Kong in Ron Fricke’s Samsara (a recent confirmation of the genre’s longevity), literalize the accelerating pulse of the modern metropolis. By opting instead for slow, steady pans (motivated by a car traveling at human walking speed), Francis emphasizes her interviewees’ nostalgia, not the dynamism of the city they live in.
Birds of September
There’s an inherent problem of selection bias in this project: Francis doesn’t let just anyone off the streets and into her car (her subjects are mostly middle-aged, and almost without exception well-dressed, articulate, and financially secure), meaning that her portrait of Beirut looks safer and tidier than the real thing. But even if her strategy is hugely counterproductive as a means of looking clearly and directly at the city, it’s effective as a study of a specific class of people who have built up their own relationship with the place where they live. At times, the interviewees give the impression that achieving financial success and reaching middle age is mostly a matter of cutting oneself off from the rest of the world. When the divorced woman insists, “Loneliness doesn’t scare me at all,” there’s bravery in her words, but also surrender. As she loses her staring contest with the camera, she begins to shake, and her body language becomes more obviously defensive. She should try dancing.
Francis leaves us with the Perec-esque observation that some people, despite being forced to live in the same spaces, are stuck in different points in time—some are trapped in the morning, some in the evening, some in midnight. As the film’s title suggests, the world is always changing. While it may be human nature to change, it may also be human to resist change—to be secure, unafraid, lonely. There’s a definite limit to the amount that can be learned from this insight, stoic loneliness being basically unknowable to anyone but the lonely person herself, but if nothing else, the recognition of common alienation is the first step toward building some community. As one of the glass car’s riders notes, the heart is the first part of the baby to form in its mother’s womb. While that may sound a little too much like Deepak Chopra, it’s actually a tacit proposal that, just as in Take What You Can Carry and Nova Dubai, the new communities of the alienated reclaim what modernity trivializes—the human body.
The Spanish director Ion de Sosa’s second film, the dystopian fantasy Androids Dream, extrapolates human irrelevance to its logical, depressing conclusion. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Sixties Philip K. Dick science fiction novel on which it’s based, and Blade Runner, by far the most famous adaptation of this text, the androids are the persecuted party. Here, in the year 2052, they seem to have gained the upper hand, as if the emotionless, soulless things mankind built have outlasted their makers. The beginning of Androids Dream consists entirely of static shots of abandoned buildings—models, one thinks initially, but in fact real apartment complexes and skyscrapers in the coastal city of Benidorm, Spain. The first real action of the film is over as soon as it begins: a man sprints through a doorway, only to be shot down by his buzz-cut-headed, impeccably dressed pursuer. More killings follow: in a kitchen, the aisle of a grocery store, and a frame store, next to endless prints of the same vapid couple. De Sosa may have in mind a bitter metaphor for the sudden violence of deportation Spanish immigrants face—a metaphor that’s not too far removed from reality.
Since there’s little dialogue, almost none of it expository, it can be difficult to tell which of the figures in Androids Dream—a group of old folks limply dancing; a hushed church congregation; a too-cheerful housewife—are androids and which are human. Rather than keeping a clear tally of robots and humans, de Sosa concerns himself with the robotic and the human. It’s robotic to turn a blind eye to the deaths in the street, or to stare back at the camera without the slightest sign of emotion; it’s human, on the other hand, to feel fear, or to run through empty rooms like the dead man in the first scene. The human is the source of the film’s plot; the robotic dictates its setting. In the finale, the same suited killer from the first scene returns to chase a woman and her baby into the hills outside Benidorm. Like the ending of Blade Runner, the woman’s death evokes themes of Christian sacrifice, made crystal clear by the huge, electric crucifix next to which she collapses. That crucifix, more symbolically complex than it initially seems, brings the film back to where it started: the larger-than-life structures humans build themselves. In religion, as in architecture, we’ve always admired stoic immobility—I think of those people in Birds of September, aspiring to be as cold and emotionless as the buildings they pass by. In de Sosa’s rendition of the future, mankind has finally found a way to realize its ambitions: die a human and be resurrected an android. The housewife staring at (more like through) the camera has surrendered all fear and feeling—one gets the sense that she’ll still be staring in the next millennium.
Yet the fleeing mother and child are still part of a Christian tableau, and that means they die to give someone else a second chance at salvation—maybe it’s all of us in the audience, watching from the relative security of the present. The most startling aspect of Androids Dream and the three other films isn’t just their keen awareness of places, both macro and micro, or even their attention to the people who get swallowed up within these places. Rather, it’s the eagerness with which they propose big, borderline messianic solutions (memory, martyrdom, eros, the heart) to the deep problems of modernity that they pose. More often than not, these solutions are only presented as hypotheses, but even for their filmmakers to suggest them shows a rare investment in real problems, real places, and real people.