Monday 10 February 2014

The Flâneur on Film: On films by Richard Linklater and others by Rob Stone

Links added on February 25, 2014
A short film that searches for Jesse and Celine in Vienna on Bloomsday, 16 June 2013. As their absence reveals the city, so this pilgrimage to places they have been becomes lost in time, and an homage to three films of flânerie: Before Sunrise, Sans soleil and En la ciudad de Sylvia.

It's been a rather slow start to the year here at Film Studies For Free, with lots of other (exciting) projects diverting attention from this little URL to date (more about those soon).

But FSFF is back with a wonderful (and generous) guest entry by Rob Stone, Professor of Film, Chair of European Film and Director of B-Film: The Birmingham Centre for Film Studies. Rob is the author of Spanish Cinema (Longman, 2001), The Wounded Throat: Flamenco in the Works of Federico García Lorca and Carlos Saura (Edwin Mellen, 2004), Julio Medem (Manchester University Press, 2007), Walk, Don't Run: The Cinema of Richard Linklater (Wallflower/ Columbia University Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Basque Cinema: A Cultural and Political History (IB Tauris, 2015). He also co-edited The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film (Wallflower, 2007), Screening Songs in Hispanic and Lusophone Cinema (Manchester University Press, 2012) and A Companion to Luis Buñuel (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

The entry begins (at the top) with Rob's fascinating video homage to Linklater's Before Sunrise (and Sans soleil/Sunless and En la ciudad de Sylvia), it continues, below, with his thoughtful and informative written text about cinematic wanderings (including his own), and it ends (at the foot of the post) with FSFF's characteristic list of links to related online items connected to the films of Richard Linklater and flânerie on film.

By Rob Stone

'Between Sunrise and Sunless' came out of my recently published book, The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don’t Run (Columbia University Press, 2013), which explores several key themes across that American director's films, including those associated with the figure of the flâneur: the sense of a single ongoing present moment, and the pursuit of elusive, meaningful connections, of closing the spaces in between people. It also came from an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project entitled Screening European Heritage, run in collaboration with Professor Paul Cooke of the University of Leeds, UK, in which the notions of film tourism and the cinematic pilgrimage became an emergent theme.
     Pilgrimage, which is targetted, might be expected to oppose the wanderings of flânerie, but this brief homage to the films directed by Linklater, which tend to feature a great deal of walking and talking, provides a combination of both. The flâneur was celebrated by the poet Charles Baudelaire in the nineteenth century as a pedestrian whose wanderings enabled novel understandings of the evolving metropolis. The daytime flâneur rejected quantitative measurements of functional space and sought instead to realise new meanings for the streets. In this the flâneur had much in common with the Surrealists led by André Breton, who had sought dreamlike encounters in the streets at night, as well as the activists of the Situationist International, whose philosophy of psychogeography made the dérive or drift into a symbolic trespassing on official spaces, a pointed trampling of any prohibitive demarcations and a freeform remapping of the city for revolutionary pursuits.

     In his essay on the redemption of physical reality, Siegfried Kracauer asserts that
the street in the extended sense of the word is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself. Again one will have to think mainly of the city street with its ever-moving crowds. The kaleidoscopic sights mingle with unidentified shapes and fragmentary visual complexes and cancel each other out, thereby preventing the onlooker from following up any of the innumerable suggestions they offer. What appeals to him are not so much sharp-contoured individuals engaged in this or that definable pursuit as loose throngs of sketchy, completely indeterminate figures. Each has a story, yet the story is not given. Instead, an incessant flow casts its spell over the flâneur  or even creates him. The flâneur is intoxicated with life in the street – life eternally dissolving the patterns which it is about to form. [1960: 72]
Kracauer clearly defers here to the Bergsonian notion of time as something that is a durational state of mind and this idea of a moment that is unique and eternal supports the commitment and fuels the ebullient intuition of the flâneur, for whom times and places are not static or immutable but ever-becoming, incomplete and evolving. This eternal renewal can be confusing. The pursuit of the wandering Madeleine (Kim Novak) by Scottie (James Stewart) around San Francisco in Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) results in him getting lost in time, memory and myth. Moreover, the idea that ‘the flâneur is a multilayered palimpsest’ (Jenks 1995: 148) is confirmed in En la ciudad de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia, José Luis Guerín, 2007), in which the Dreamer (Xavier Lafitte) pursues a young woman around Strasbourg in a vain quest to shore up the self-serving myth of an ideal woman whose perfection might reflect his own narcissism. Baudelaire describes the flâneur as ‘distilling the eternal from the transitory’ (1972) in his traversal of the city, but the contrast between the crumbling egos of Scottie and the Dreamer and their concrete environments is debilitating, with both films subverting the chauvinist notion of the figure as ‘a utopian representation of a carefree (male) individual in the midst of the urban maelstrom’ (Tester 1994: 67).
     The flâneur on film is rarely as carefree as his literary counterpart. Rather, films such as Vertigo and En la ciudad de Sylvia follow neurotic males in their attempts to relocate their psyches at the centre of an order of things that is so defiantly of their own making that their flânerie corresponds to a kind of ‘time-space psychosis’ (Tester, 1994: 77). The labyrinth of streets they traverse is also, of course, an apt metaphor for how the mind stores memories and retrieves them by the association of ideas, which is represented by the movement of the flâneur, for whom bridges, tunnels, alleyways and squares reveal new and unending synaptic connections. The flâneur should be Baudelaire’s ‘perfect idler [and] passionate observer’ (1972); however, the cinematic sense of time and place he or she creates can become so distorted that it provokes the disintegration of coherent experience. No-one is as confounded as Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) in La Notte (The Night, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961), the unloved wife who wanders Milan during the day ‘observing the harsh, uncoordinated fragments of life’ (Thomson, 1998: 529). Her aimlessness results from the erasure of her own identity in marriage, which is ultimately revealed as an open wound of searing pain rather than indifference. Moreau strains against the architectural rigidity of the film, in which characters freeze in doorways and dissolve in their reflections. Baudelaire supposes that the flâneur sets ‘up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite’ (1972), while Walter Benjamin declares that the flâneur ‘derives pleasure from his location within the crowd, but simultaneously regards it with contempt’ (1983: 35). Neither realise that to be without a crowd entirely leaves a flâneur like Lidia annulled.
     Despite or because of the dangers of losing oneself in place, time, morbid introspection and memory, flânerie goes global in Sans soleil (Sunless, Chris Marker, 1983), wherein the elusive auteur admits ‘to have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.’ This is a peripatetic quest for understanding that searches through time in old footage as much as it explores the world that turns around the itinerant filmmaker. In Japan, Paris, Guinea-Bissau, Iceland and San Francisco, where the filmmaker attempts a pilgrimage to the flânerie of Vertigo, Sans soleil presents itself as evidence that ‘new social relations demand a new space, and vice-versa’ (Lefebvre 1991: 59). Repeatedly reterritorialising urban spaces as arenas of new and even revolutionary thought, Marker pauses on his travels through time and space only briefly to express affinity with the drunken Korean flâneur who ‘takes his revenge on society by directing traffic at the crossroads.’
     Flânerie has informed many films about those who transcend the potential banality of their existence via the affinities they find in ephemeral associations. It can serve as an assertion of subjectivity, often opposing the hegemonic idea of a city with a view of it from the perspective of an Other. The female flâneur is a potent figure in Weimar culture, for example, while Frances (Greta Gerwig) dancing through Chinatown in Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013) offers a refreshing replacement for the myth of the Manhattanite hipster male. Flânerie can resemble a political stance too, when characters such as those encountered in the west Austin of Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991), for example, get to embody its interwoven enactment and philosophy, professing resistance to all kinds of social, political, generic and narrative imperatives by simply hanging out. Flânerie and psychogeography are similarly explored in The London Perambulator (John Rogers, 2009), London (Patrick Keiller, 1994)  and the Portsmouth of Flaneurs (Alex Sergeant, 2012). Flânerie is also behind the morally ambivalent and seemingly indifferent wanderers of the post-war West German state in Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten, Wim Wenders, 1974).
     The flâneur’s accumulation of experiences and influences often results in an indistinct outcast figure, one who walks to a different rhythm, defined and maintained by an absence of clear origins and a lack of explicit direction. Consequently, the flâneur can be disruptive where a sense of rootlessness and rejection of settlement renders the figure as threatening Other. This outsiderness can inspire empathy, which Walter Benjamin describes in his essay on Baudelaire as ‘the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd’ (2006: 85); but the flâneur mostly drifts in a kind of pilgrimage to aimlessness, which is parodied in the frustrated efforts of the faithful to reach their illusory, sacred yet profaned objective in La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, Luis Buñuel, 1969). The association of urban drift and psychogeography with idleness in Slacker and other films directed by Linklater has also been dismissed as laziness, yet the oppositional movement of the slackers who also feature in Dazed and Confused (1993), SubUrbia (1996), The Newton Boys (1998), Waking Life (2001), and The School of Rock (2003) is quietly revolutionary. Refusing to follow rules or lines in Republican America leads them to formulate a structural and dialogic strategy that favours intertextuality as much as criss-crossing cities and even oceans, ending up in Vienna, for example, in Before Sunrise (1995), Paris in Before Sunset (2004) and Messinia in Before Midnight (2013).
     The short film Between Sunrise and Sunless is an attempt to combine elements of flânerie with an interest in film tourism, even pilgrimage. It was shot in Vienna on 16 June 2013, which is James Joyce’s Bloomsday, the most ordinary day of the year, and exactly eighteen years on from the events of Before Sunrise. The book on Linklater had just been published and it was time to put some of its ideas into practice in the manner of several film scholars in the UK, such as Catherine Grant and William Brown, who are breaking ground by producing and integrating short and even full-length films, video essays and online media into their teaching and research. The original idea was to record a cinematic pilgrimage, to understand how a film affects a place and investigate how that place is affected by the film. This kind of film tourism is a world apart from the Universal Tour in Los Angeles or the Harry Potter Experience in London, where everything is practiced, limited and laid on. Neither is it the same as taking the official, organised and guided Vertigo Tour’ in San Francisco, The Godfather Tour’ in Sicily, The Da Vinci Code Tour’ from Edinburgh, The Sopranos Tour’ in New York or ‘The Lord of the Rings Tour’ in Wellington, although each hold significant pleasures. Instead, there is much to be said for the uniquely personal, certainly metaphysical and even occasionally transcendental experiences of chasing down replicants in Los Angeles a few shrinking years before Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1981) will actually take place or visiting the towers, canals and alcoves actually in Bruges of In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008). There was also an element of affective criticism that followed (and was perhaps validated by) Robin Wood, who wrote in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 1998) that he felt compelled to preface his analysis of Before Sunrise with the admission that ‘here was a film for which I felt not only interest or admiration but love’ (1998: 318). Was it possible to follow the example of Wood, who not only shared his passion but made it an essential component of his craft?
     Between Sunrise and Sunless was shot on a Canon Legria HF M52 and edited with Final Cut Pro on a MacBook Pro. The music is taken (following donation) from a website offering royalty-free music called Incompetech run by Kevin MacLeod, who composes all of it himself.  Simply mapping Vienna was a curious endeavour aided by websites containing information from other fans of the film on its locations. At times, the flânerie of Before Sunrise was revealed as a cheat: the cemetery of the nameless, for example, is a long way out of town, requiring a bus and taxi for which there was no time. In addition, the actual route taken by Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) through the city, if followed chronologically, is absurdly haphazard. So the filming trajectory was plotted for practical purposes, which resulted in a mostly circular route and one essential excursion across the river by metro to the fairground. Still, Vienna was filmed as found on a gloriously warm day in ten hours that concluded with a viewing of Before Midnight in the Votivkino cinema, which also appears in the short film.
     The accumulated footage and photographs were initially going to be used to simply juxtapose images of the city now with those of the film then; but memories of Sans soleil graciously presented themselves at the editing stage as the ideal model for the investigation of time and place elaborated in the voiceover, while threaded glimpses of a woman in white refer to the pursuit of the muse in En la ciudad de Sylvia. This short film’s quest is elusive, even deluded, but ultimately and eternally redirected by optimism. It looks for real places and ends up searching for unreal times. Nevertheless, it continues. Between Sunrise and Sunless also provided a lesson in how the Internet functions and how important and necessary can be websites and blogs like Film Studies for Free and Mediático. It was picked up by Colombia University Press for its blog and website, then praised by a CNN film critic who had presumably seen it there. It has since popped up on several websites and was recently recommended on the Twitter feed of Sight and Sound. However, by far the best and most surprising result has been the ensuing correspondence from many fans of Before Sunrise and its sequels, who saw it and got in touch, thereby suggesting that this whole idea of closing the spaces in between people was not impossible after all.

Rob Stone

With thanks to Catherine Grant [who provided the hyperlinks above], Paul Cooke, James Clifford Kent and Jeff Stollenwerck


Baudelaire, Charles (1972) ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, in Selected Writings on Art and
Literature, trans. P.E. Charvet, London: Viking, 395–422.
Online: [accessed 10 October 2010].

Benjamin, Walter  (1983) Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism,
trans. Harry Zohn, London: Verso.

Benjamin, Walter (2006) The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Harvard University Press.

Jenks, Chris (1995) ‘Watching your Step: The History and Practice of the Flâneur’, in
Visual Culture, New York: Routledge, 142–60.

Kracauer, Siegfried (1960) Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Lefebvre, Henri (1991) The Production of Space, London: Blackwell.

Stone, R. (2012) ‘En la ciudad de Sylvia and the durée of a derivé’ in Delgado, M. and R. Fiddian (eds), Spanish Cinema 1973-2010: Auteurism, Politics, Landscape and Memory, Manchester: Manchester University Press. In press.

Stone, Rob (2013) Walk, Don’t Run: The Cinema of Richard Linklater, New York: Columbia University Press.

Stone, R. and P. Cooke (2013) ‘Transatlantic Drift: Hobos, Slackers, Flâneurs, Idiots and Edukators’ in Nagib, L. and A. Jersley (eds), Impure Cinema: Intermedial and Intercultural Approaches to Film, London/New York: I.B. Tauris.

Tester, Keith (1994), The Flâneur, New York: Routledge.

Thomson, David (1998) A Biographical Dictionary of Film, London: André Deutsch. 
Linklater Links:
Flânerie Forwardings:

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