The Watching Community #1

This is a transcript from Sunday 27 April of John Bloomfield and Alex Symons Sutcliffe’s introduction to the first event in their ‘The Watching Community’ series at Cinema6. They screened Dimitri Kirsanoff’s ‘Ménilmontant’ with a new score from Circuit Breaker and Alexander Mackendrick’s ‘Sweet Smell of Success’.

John: I’m going to start with some suicides. So we’ve got the younger sister in ‘Ménilmontant’. She’s just given birth and we infer that she’s about to throw her baby, and possibly herself in the river.


(Still from ‘Ménilmontant’) 

George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is about to jump off a bridge. itsawonderful

(Still from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’)

Anna from ‘Die Goldene Stadt’, a Nazi era melodrama, is about to jump off the King Charles bridge in Prague,

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(Still from ‘Die Goldene Stadt’)

and finally Susan, in the film you’re about to watch, is thinking about –I’m not going to say one way or another– jumping out of her balcony.

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(Still from ‘Sweet Smells of Success’)

Alex: The motif of the suicidal man or woman links these otherwise quite different films. The trauma these characters experience are the mundane traumas of Modern life: debt or pregnancy, for examples, rather than war. We’re not given the impression that any of them are mentally ill or have any other kind of illness – alcoholism, drug addiction etc. Rather, they are all victims of circumstance.

John: Each of these films show their characters in the midst of a rapidly changing world. Perhaps that’s not exceptional: in fiction everything is always either in flux or stasis. It’s made up after all. It’s either a background that doesn’t move except when it’s changed for a new one, or it’s a plane of action that moves according to conventions of plot. Still, each of their presents – different moments in the 20th century– were at once, more different than the present, or presents, of, say, characters from the 18th century, and perceptively different, thanks to the arrival of a new medium with an unequalled power to record everyday life. We want to try to trace that a bit.

The two sisters in ‘Ménilmontant’ are forced out of their small village by a violent act. Close framing; quick editing; a shot of an axe; bodies fragmented by the cut.

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(Still from the murder scene in ‘Ménilmontant’)

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 17.00.23 (Sisters walking down the road and first impressions of Paris)

Alex: A different kind of violence greets them in Paris: close framing; a swaying camera; a shot of a clock at 5 minutes to the hour; bodies, vehicles and a city fragmented by the cut. In the film they’re driven out by a grisly murder, but they would have left anyway. The population of Paris swelled by two thirds between the time of the Commune in 1871 and the early teens. The city’s population hit its all time peak in 1921.

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(Still from F.W. Munrau’s Sunrise)

John: The same everywhere else: industrialisation and migration to the city. In Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’, released a year later, ‘the city’ is not even named. A man is seduced by an urban vamp into attempting to murder his wife…she survives and runs away to the city. In this scene he follows her and they both have their first experience of the city. Again, the violence of the plot device  is unnecessary, as is the sex: what’s more violent than the decline of agrarianism? What plot device could possibly be sexier than emerging metropolitan labour markets?

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(Crossing the street, ‘Sunrise’)

Alex: As with ‘Ménilmontant’, the new migrants’ first impressions are of disorientation. In his 1903 text ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ Georg Simmel discussed new psychological states that life in the metropolis created. The modern city was made up of proliferating stimuli from crowds, traffic, billboards, street signs, window displays and advertisements. Simmel proposed one reaction as a blasé attitude or ‘incapacity to react to new sensations with appropriate energy’. Later, theorists like Anthony Vidler would link this barrage of stimuli to metropolitan illnesses like claustrophobia or agoraphobia, when the ‘heimlich’ or ‘homely’ becomes unheimlich or uncanny– the panning camera, the close framing. But this kind of spatial estrangement is more than a brief and unpleasant sensation: the rent payer and the commuter are just two types who are spatially estranged.

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(map of Paris)

John: ‘Ménilmontant’ is an area about 4 and a half kilometres outside of the centre of the city where the sisters work. Formerly a hamlet, the area expanded enormously as a result both of the migration we see in the film and of Baron Haussman’s displacement of the working class from the centre to the peripheries during the second republic (1850-1870). The 21 transitions in the film between shots of the busy centre and shots of the deserted working class quarter are cruel reminders of this expulsion. The sisters in ‘Ménilmontant’ are not just estranged as new city dwellers, but as part of a relatively new generation of workers forced to live outside of the city they work in.

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(Stills depicting the sisters’ commute in Ménilmontant’)

The commute home: Clocks, watches, wheels, legs, train tracks and, when we’re back in Ménilmontant, just so we know we’re not near the Seine, a piddling stream of drainage. This twice-daily experience is treated the same as their once-in-a-lifetime arrival in the city: close framing, quick editing; claustrophobia and disorientation. There’s is a limited experience of the city, one without agency and one regimented by the working day: they are not flaneurs enjoying the sights of the new boulevards, or bourgeois picnickers enjoying a Sunday in the bois de boulogne, but people forced out into the city’s peripheries at 6pm each day.

Alex: There’s a lot that might have made Paris so alienating, so unhomely: the circumstances of their migration, precarious employment and renting, real and imagined threats of urban crime (of which the 19th century press was obsessed) or a regimented working life (all the clocks), but we want to focus on just one for now.

Of all the urban stimuli mentioned earlier, the key one for us is the crowd. A rapid succession of faces we don’t recognise and may never see again. What is a crowd but a group of strangers? A synecdoche of the city in general. In Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’, the narrator sits at a London coffee house watching the street as people stream home from work. After spending a few moments looking at the crowd as a mass, he begins to notice details.

They seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried on. Others, still a numerous class, were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around.

The quote opening the story hammers the point home: “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir eyre seul.” This great sadness, to never be alone.

John: Gustav Le Bon, for one, saw the crowd as a step backwards: “the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct…An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.”

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(Stills from King Vidor’s 1928 film ‘The Crowd’)

Engels, in ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ said:

A city like London, where one can roam about for hours without reaching the beginning of an end, without seeing the slightest indication that open country is nearby, is really something very special. This colossal centralization, this agglomeration of three and a half million people…But the price that has been paid is not discovered until later. Only when one has tramped the pavements of the main streets for a few days does one notice that these Londoners have had to sacrifice what is best in human nature in order to create all the wonders of civilisation with which their city teems…there is something distasteful about the very bustle of the streets, something that is abhorrent to human nature itself. Hundreds of thousands of people of all classes and ranks of society jostle past one another; are they not all human beings with the same characteristics and potentialities, equally interested in the pursuit of happiness? And yet they rush past one another as if they had nothing in common…

Alex: The German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies opposed these new kinds of urban social relations – living, working, shopping, commuting and walking amongst strangers – with what had come before: face-to-face interactions in a common locality among people who have generally had common experiences. For Tonnies, Gemeinschaft had given way to Gesselschaft; The community of village or small town life was replaced by the society of urban life. A paradise had been lost. How attempts have been made to regain this paradise, is one of the main questions of this season of films.

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(Still from ‘Ménilmontant’)

John: The younger sister in ‘Ménilmontant’ is abandoned by her lover, loses her job and falls out with her sister. Life in the city is precarious and without the support networks of Gemeinschaften or village life.

An ellipsis. She gives birth. Shots back and forth between her, the seine and her baby as she considers the unthinkable. Then shots of Paris and its people. Wild panning, quick cutting. She is superimposed over the shots of the crowd; the film pushes its formal capabilities to their limits to try to insert her into city life through these double exposures, but she remains distant from Paris and its anonymous bodies. She is apart from the crowd, never mind community.

With daily experiences of the sort recounted by Engels and Poe or that we’ve seen in ‘Ménilmontant’, a spatial definition of community no longer seemed to make sense. Regardless of whether or not a golden age of community had actually ever existed before being swept away by modernity, the idea of community remains a powerful one. Whether, it’s a question of recovering it or achieving it for the first time–regaining paradise or just finding it–, its pull is the common theme for each of the films in this season. It can be both nostalgic and forward looking: a utopian cultural imaginary that exists as an ideal state.

Alex: Over the century following ‘Ménilmontant’, ‘community’ would be invoked and redefined periodically: community as nationhood, communities around political causes, globalisation, communes and kibutzen, virtual communities, diasporic communities and so on. Part of what this season will do is map some of these reconfigurations.

The notion of community is a mobile category and has been invoked by conflicting ideologues of socialism, nazism and neoliberalism, to give but a few examples.  Yet, the ambiguity of the term allows one to remain invested in it. Even when the coalition government’s policy is to outsource its responsibility to “local councils, communities and neighbourhoods“, and when community-run projects appear at risk of capitulating to the big society, there is still the potential and need for new and radical versions of community. An interrogation of the meaning, history and future of the term, is the first step towards this.

John: Cinema as the dominant medium of the twentieth century, captures this history, marks these changes and records each dissonant voice. It is one instrument that can be used in our inquiry, but it also has its own history, codes, ideologies and bad habits.

The dominant mode of cinema –classical Hollywood – which is the model for most narrative film, participates in its own re-imagining of community. That’s what I want to think about for the rest of this. If we’re about to use cinema as our guide to these reconfigurations of community, we need to understand its own compromised positions and investment in showing community’s dissolution or endurance.

Other films from around the time of ‘Ménilmontant’  are much more ambivalent about the same social changes.

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(Still from ‘Berlin: Symphony of a Great City’.)

Berlin Symphony of a great city, made the same year, shows the endless visual possibility of the new modern city. A parade of unknown people and things is a parade of unknown people and things to be looked at and enjoyed.

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(Stills from ‘People on Sunday’)

In ‘People on Sunday’, which we watched as part of the Lessons in Heterosexuality programme at Arcadia last year, strangers are just people you haven’t picked up yet.

Alex: In crime films, huge populations mean narrative possibility.

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(Still from ‘The Naked City’)

At its close the 1948 film ‘The Naked City’ claims ‘there are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them’. 8 million anonymous people not tied by communal bonds calls for a detection narrative to tie them together: x is linked to y because of a motive, a chance sighting or a grisly incident. Film enjoys the possibilities that a dissolution of community presents, but there are times when strangers and anonymity get in the way. When it suits, everyone knows everyone.

John: As an English speaking expat, Gene Kelly’s character in ‘An American in Paris’ should be even more estranged than the sisters in Menilmontant. He seems to be doing fine however. He knows everyone on the street and they all know him.

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(Still from ‘An American In Paris’)

London. 1950. A Population of 8 million, and a chaotic and fluid post-war population of migrants and survivors. In the Jules Dassin Film night and the city Harry Fabian is some kind of soho hustler. He steps out of Shaftesbury avenue into Soho, where he knows everybody.

szalaieva (Still from ‘Night and the City’)

50s Paris. 3 million people. At the beginning of Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, US sailors are still hanging around; we see a lone young girl newly arrived in the city: a 50s version of the sister from ‘Ménilmontant’. It’s dawn and the protagonist, Bob, has been up all night losing at cards. Even at this early hour he can barely walk home without being recognised by everyone.

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(Still from ‘Bob Le Flambeur’)

Alex: In these films Soho and Montmartre are urban villages and the heroes – Harry and Bob – are charismatic men about town. Their importance –socially and narratively– gives them a hold on the city that allows them to enjoy Gemeinschaft communal relations. A similar thing is at work in ‘Sweet Smell of Success’, but there’s also the thematisation of community on a national level.

Burt Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker, an all powerful columnist and broadcaster. Mediated by the syndicated press and radio, his word unites a nation in opinion.

James Stewart’s George Bailey in ‘It’s a wonderful life’  is a more benign presence holding a town together.

The angel Clemence shows a suicidal George Bailey what Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

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(Stills from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’)

Now named Pottersville, the town we see is a noir-like strip of neon, booze and immorality. Without George, the town is a Gesellschaft hell with no communal bonds and with everyone in bondage to the banker Potter.

John: Pointing out that films aren’t lifelike… It’s not even a particularly enjoyable form of pedantry. What’s important in all of this, is recognising a compromised position of progressiveness and conservatism. Change fits the capitalist logic of mainstream cinema –new urban populations, new audiences, new urban spectacles, new forms of relations: 8 million stories in the naked city–, but too much change is chaos that can’t be shaped into 90 minutes. The modern city doesn’t have a beginning middle and end. You can’t  actually have a cast of 8 million.

Alex: As an idea of what’s potentially at stake in grafting community onto a place and time that has left it behind, let’s look at ‘Die Goldene Stadt’. Made in Nazi Germany in 1941, the film is set in exactly the kind of paradise said to have been lost as man fell to industrialisation and urbanisation. Anna, a Sudentan German dreams of going to Prague, the golden city of the title. Once there, she is seduced and abandoned by a Czech man. She eventually goes home to kill herself, but first considers it here on the Charles bridge.

veg (Still from ‘Die Goldene Stadt’)

In a much more banal way, this shot is the same as the sister in ‘Ménilmontant’  looking into the Seine with her baby. Both oppose the anonymity of the modern city with the help offered by the communal bonds of village or small town life.

John: Goebbels’s propaganda ministry had a hand in the making of the film, insisting that the daughter commit suicide rather than the father (as it is in the book). In the context of the War and National Socialism, the familiar town vs. city/ old vs. new/ Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft binaries are more than a twee mourning for an old way of living, but an argument for a doctrine of Volkgemeinschaft and ‘blood and soil’, where the old sense of community – such as in village life– is extended and reimagined on a national scale. The German Volk was imagined as transcending class, while its racialization paradoxically allowed it to seem inclusive from a certain perspective, welcoming ethnic Germans from across national barriers, such as in Czechoslovakia for instance. This idea that Hitler could reinstate a sense of community, was a crucial part of their appeal from the beginning.

This isn’t a million miles away from ‘It’s a wonderful life’: on bigger scale than Bedford Falls and a different kind of charisma to Jimmy Stewart. But Hitler in his bunker and George Bailey on his bridge, like the other suicides, have all been let down by a belief in community.

Let’s play Sweet Smell of Success.