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Film, travel writing and the flaneuse.

What is the connection between travel writing, film and the flâneuse? I’ve been looking at some examples of women’s travel writing from the nineteenth century as well as more recent examples. Two of these I have included in a link below and I have also put together some examination type questions which will be good for GCSE English Language paper 2 practice. See here.

You can stop here if that’s all you want! Otherwise, you can read my musings on this and in particular my thoughts on how these two texts differ in their depiction of the worlds they describe.

The Female Traveller and Flâneuse

In the summer, I came across Rebecca Lowe’s compelling account of her bicycle ride across Europe and the Middle East, and this lead me to try and find a similar resource from 19th century travel writing to act as a companion/comparison piece. There is a great deal of nineteenth century travel writing by women. Of course, the female traveller was, on the whole, a privileged individual who could afford the time and resources to embark on journeys across the continents. Tim Cresswell (1999) suggests that this arose as a combination of new technologies of mobility combined with increased freedoms afforded women from the middle to upper classes. These ‘polite lady travellers’ were often accompanied by an entourage that helped them transport their belongings and thus carried their ‘home’ and the trappings of domesticity with them. For women of the 19th century, travel was a ‘domestic conquest’. It is interesting that Bruno suggests that female travel writers of the 19th century employed architectural language linking travel to domestic spaces. In this way, they collapsed the binary opposition between women=home/men=travel and offered a new language of unfamiliar landscapes.

However, it could also be said that the female traveller also takes on the characteristics of the flâneuse, a position denied her at home. This is because the flâneur is seen to be a male figure whose ability to negotiate the urban landscape is allowed precisely because he is male: his territories are the city streets and his attitude is ‘disengaged, disinterested, dispassionate’ (Parkhurst Ferguson, 1994: 26), but he is also a figure who looks, observes and reads the city – traits that we might assign to the travel writer him/herself. So the rise of the female traveller might also be linked to the appearance of the flâneur: both middle class, both with time and money, but the flâneuse has no place in the streets of the modern city, and so she relocates to other parts of the world in order to engage in her pursuit of flânerie. And so, travel writing, for Giuliana Bruno, emerges from this social context as “a language of visual description, moved by an intense female curiosity” (2002: 83)..

The Grammar of Film and Travel Writing

In Atlas of Emotion, Professor Bruno argues persuasively for film as a metaphor for both travel and for site-seeing/sight-seeing). In fact early film was obsessed with sites and sights – the arrival of a train at a station (the Lumiere Brothers) or cine-documents of great cities, both real and fictional (Walter Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphony of the Big City for the former, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for the latter). These cinema of attractions (a phrase coined by Tom Gunning) placed the emphasis on spectacle for its own sake, inviting the spectator on a journey through the landscapes of modernity through this new and exciting medium of film and it wasn’t until a little later, first when the cine-image was tied to narrative and then with the advent of sound, did film as architectural and spatial spectacle come to be, if not replaced then overwhelmed, by the demands of story and the visual spectacle of special effects. The experience of watching a film, especially for early audiences, was therefore similar to the experience of travel itself, and Bruno compellingly argues for the connection between early cinema and the experience of the flâneuse for whom the cinema screen offered a space for her mobile desires. Denied the freedom of the city spaces (after all, could she be a street-walker?) the flaneuse experiences the dark erotics of the cinema, observing and exploring the moving image in lieu of the arcade, the mall, the city’s streets. As Bruno observes in Streetwalking on a Ruined Map, “cinematic pleasure belongs to the range of erotic pleasures of the nomadic gaze first known to the traveller and the flâneur”. Film is ‘the lust of the eye’, opening itself up to our voyeuristic pleasure and providing us with a means to control the subject of our gaze. However, this is not to say that film’s relationship to geographical space has altered that much over its one hundred plus year history: far from it for Bruno sees film as ‘an art form of the street’, citing Rene Clair who declared that “the art that is closest to cinema is architecture” (Bruno, 2002: 27), something Wim Wenders also affirms when he says that ‘landscape has everything to do with cinema’ (Bruno, 2002: 34).

The links between travel writing and cinema are reinforced by the grammar of film which bears comparison with the grammar of travel writing. Such writing, says Bruno, follows a sort of ‘mapping’ which often begins with an overview of the places it describes before plunging into its depths, its interiors and its details. Take the opening to Isabella Bird’s description of her travels through Baghdad (not reprinted in the extract – the full text of Bird’s journey through Persia is available here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/38827/38827-h/38827-h.htm#i082)

Under the blue sunny sky the river view is very fine. The river itself is imposing from its breadth and volume, and in the gorgeous sunsets, with a sky of crimson flame, and the fronds of the dark date palms mirrored in its reddened waters, it looks really beautiful. The city is stately enough as far as the general coup-d’œil of the river front goes, and its river façade agreeably surprises me. The Tigris, besides being what may be called the main street, divides Baghdad into two unequal parts, and though the city on the left bank has almost a monopoly of picturesque and somewhat stately irregularity in the houses of fair height, whose lattices and oriel windows overhang the stream from an environment of orange gardens, the dark date groves dignify the meaner buildings of the right bank. The rush of a great river is in itself attractive, and from the roof of this house the view is fascinating …

There is a high degree of wider topographical detail, like looking at the surface of a globe or the pages of an atlas: she talks about the ‘breadth and volume’ of the river and the division of the main streets or the irregularity of the houses in ways which present a wider picture of the city. Yes, she describes the beautiful sunsets but even here it is as if she is painting a wider landscape to establish place, space and time. We could be looking at a landscape by Constable perhaps. Just as interesting is the final sentence in which she positions herself (and by extension her reader) in the role of observer. The view she gives us is an optic one, distanced perhaps from the haptic, sensory life of the city.

Now let’s think of film. Film often begins with an establishing shot, locating narratives in time and space before plunging us into its depths, its streets and canals, domestic spaces, kitchens and bedrooms or on to bodies themselves.

Take these opening shots from Blade Runner and Psycho

There is something controlling about this initial gaze in that we act as consumers of a spectacle in front of us, a God-like omniscient gaze for whom the landscape lays itself out for our delectation. In Blade Runner, the cut to the observing, all consuming eye (the flames of the city are reflected in its surface as if it is a lens projecting itself) also places the spectator in the role of voyeur. This voyeuristic tendency is replicated even more so in Psycho in which we are taken from a wider shot into a bedroom window to spy on an illicit affair: we are intruding, but the camera has given us license to intrude, making us voyeurs, or surveillance operatives who have the power to intrude on the most private of acts.

In both these film sequences, the optic look of distance thus gives way to a haptic look, one that asks us to consider touch and a sensory engagement with the spaces of the narrative itself. In Blade Runner, we are delivered in to a scene in which a rogue replicants is questioned by a detective (a Blade Runner). Here, eyes are important in revealing the soul (or lack of one) beneath the skin. Holden (the detective/Blade Runner) explores Leon’s ability to sense the world (what would happen if you found a turtle, Leon?). In Psycho, the scene is even more sensory: Sam and Marian are post-coital: she lies prostrate looking up at her lover who is getting dressed. There is the sensation of clothes against skin, of bodies against bedclothes. There are the remnants of a simple meal whilst a fan whizzes round to stimulate a sensory response to the heat and humidity in the room (and it’s not just from the Phoenix climate). In both these films we move from the general to the particular. Of course, this is not the pattern of all films, but it is a narrative structure that we all recognise.

Far to near: focus shifts in travel writing

Now let’s look at an extract from the next section of Bird’s narrative (this part is in the extract I have chosen for exam practice).

At any hour of daylight at this season, progress through the bazaars is slow. They are crowded, and almost entirely with men. It is only the poorer women who market for themselves, and in twos and threes, at certain hours of the day. In a whole afternoon, among thousands of men, I saw only five women, tall, shapeless, badly-made-up bundles, carried mysteriously along, rather by high, loose, canary-yellow leather boots than by feet. The face is covered with a thick black gauze mask, or cloth, and the head and remainder of the form with a dark blue or black sheet, which is clutched by the hand below the nose. The walk is one of tottering decrepitude. All the business transacted in the bazaars is a matter of bargaining, and as Arabs shout at the top of their voices, and buyers and sellers are equally keen, the roar is tremendous.

Bird plunges us into the world of Baghdad. Like an X-wing fighter diving deep into the metallic valleys of the Death Star, we delve deep into the depths of the city. We can sense the closeness of the scene but more importantly we get a sense of touch, a haptic engagement with bodies and space. The loose boots, the cloth which covers faces and bodies, the ‘roar’ of voices. Yet still, Bird’s perspective might be seen as distanced – she observes and reports, often judgementally (‘tottering decrepitude’): hers is the voice of the middle class Englishwoman, the Imperialist traveller. Later on in the narrative, she uses images of confinement which reveal tensions in her own perspective:

The Arab women go about the streets unveiled, and with the aba covering their very poor clothing, but it is not clutched closely enough to conceal the extraordinary tattooing which the Bedouin women everywhere regard as ornamental. There are artists in Baghdad who make their living by this mode of decorating the person, and vie with each other in the elaboration of their patterns. I saw several women tattooed with two wreaths of blue flowers on their bosoms linked by a blue chain, palm fronds on the throat, stars on the brow and chin, and bands round the wrists and ankles. These disfigurements, and large gold or silver filigree buttons placed outside one nostril by means of a wire passed through it, worn by married women, are much admired. When these women sell country produce in the markets, they cover their heads with the ordinary chadar.

Although the women are unveiled, Bird repeatedly uses images of confinement in her description: the female body as art is emphasised through the description of the tattoos, but even here the images imply entrapment – the wreaths of flowers ‘lined by a blue chain’ and the ‘bands’ around wrists and ankles. It is interesting that Bird refers to these tattoos as ‘disfigurements’. Perhaps Bird sees in these Arabian flâneuses a figure of excess which Benjamin applies to the male flâneur. The women act as a mirror to Bird’s own situation – a woman outside of her own culture

Contemporary Travel Writing

Do these rules of grammar apply to the modern extract? This is from Rebecca Lowe’s blog. The comparisons with Bird’s travels through Persia are obvious and the dangers and discomfort both travellers face, although over a century apart, are tangible and, in Lowe’s case, potentially fatal. However, rather than begin with a wide angle, Lowe only hints at the city as a wider entity:

Tripoli at dusk is a dispiriting place. As I cycle from the boat into the city centre, around me loom a series of sombre, grey tower blocks, rising like skeletal sentinels among a wasteland of debris. Several are sprinkled with bullet holes, I note with mild alarm, and I nudge Maud (my bike) along a little faster. I’m fairly sure the local mercenaries have downed tools for the time being, but I’m already far too far behind schedule to risk being shot on my first day (though it would admittedly do wonders for my social media profile).

She refers to the city as a ‘dispiriting place’ and mentions the ‘sombre grey tower blocks’ but unlike Bird we are immediately plunged into its depths. The experience is personal, alarming, and tactile (‘sprinkled with bullet-holes’, ‘I nudge Maud’). What are the reasons for this difference? Lowe’s is a blog and therefore her experiences are more immediate (Bird’s account was re-drafted and published some time after her journey’s end). Is it that, in a narrative sense, we have moved away from the need to establish time and place in a painterly way? We live in a world of pre-credit sequences which immerse us into a narrative without the need for detailed exegesis. We want action, and we want it now: look at the active verbs that Lowe uses to convey the immediacy of her experience. Details emerge from the telling, from Lowe’s description of the actors in her scene. [1]

Against the grain

I recently bought Angela Carter’s Nothing Sacred which contains some incisive travel writing and I looked to see whether she begins with a wide angle. Her ‘Tokyo Pastoral’ (written in 1970) begins thus:

 This is clearly one of those districts where it always seems to be Sunday afternoon. Somebody in a house by the corner shop is effortlessly practising Chopin on the piano. A dusty cat rolls in the ruts of the unpaved streetlet, yawning in the sunshine. Somebody’s aged granny trots off to the supermarket for a litre of two of honourable saki. Her iron-grey hair is scraped so tight in a knot on the nape no single hair could ever stray untidily out …

Carter begins with an appeal to the senses, not just the sound of the piano but also the sensation of touch and being touched, the ‘dusty cat’, the heat from the sun all place us directly into the scene. She begins with people and with the minutiae of life. Carter doesn’t paint the wider spaces of a landscape in order to control our gaze. In fact, apart from the references to saki and, later, a kimono, we could be anywhere in the world. Carter, as we would expect, emphasises the senses, a haptic engagement with spaces; as a counter-flâneuse whose fascination begins with the senses, Carter appeals to a tactile appreciation of space and not a controlling, optic gaze which dominates the, shall I say, masculinised forms?

Conclusion

Film takes us on a journey, making us all voyagers through the cine-city. We all engage in a little flânerie when it comes to watching film, negotiating the spatial grammar of a place or a narrative, orienting ourselves in time and in space in order to make sense of what we see. Bruno again: ‘as an heir to travel culture, the motion picture is a spatial language which, like travel writing, interests these modes of discourse’ (2002: 117). Reading travel writing by women of the 19th century. Bruno observes that for women especially film extended the ‘possibility of (self-) exploration across class and ethnic boundaries’ (2002: 82) and ‘opened the doors of power and knowledge’ (2002: 82). This was the same for travel which opened up possibilities for women that might not have been available at home. Women’s travel writing of the nineteenth century must be seen through the lens of history. Much 19th century women’s travel writing was produced by a privileged white middle class who could afford to travel. Their writing is coloured by this context as well as a white, imperialist viewpoint which subordinated the ‘Other’, seeing it as uncivilised or inferior.

Of course, attitudes to women travellers have shifted seismically, but when reading say Elizabeth Wilson’s The Sphinx in the City we realise the glacier-like progress in shifts in attitudes to women in urban space. See here also for an interesting article on the prejudices and misconceptions women face when travelling alone – https://matadornetwork.com/bnt/7-uncomfortable-truths-about-traveling-solo-as-a-woman/ However, Lowe’s Bicycle Diaries not only is a great counterpoint to Bird’s as far as attitudes and perspectives, but also suggests a shift in the grammar of travel writing to reflect the immediacy and the sensory overload of the world in which we now live.

1 Of course, contemporary mainstream cinema still adheres to the grammar of establishing shot followed by a more intimate mise-en-scène. Two extracts I have worked with in class (from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) and Stranger Things (2016)) both utilise this sort of sequencing. In the first, we begin with a high angle of a village at night before zooming in to an old caretaker’s house and even more minutely the striking of a match to light a stove. The second sequence begins with a title card indicating that we are in Hawkins National Laboratory before shifting to an internal setting where the camera continues to zoom in (taking us on a journey through the corridors) before revealing the panicked figure of a man running towards the camera. Less leisurely, but the grammar is the same. Far to near.

 

References

  • Bruno, G. (2002) Atlas of Emotion (Verso. London)
  • Carter, A. (1982) Nothing Sacred (Virago, London)
  • Cresswell, T. (1999) Embodiment, Power and the Politics of Mobility: The Case of Female Tramps and Hobos (in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 2)
  • Parkhurst Ferguson, P. (1994) The Flaneur on and off the Streets (in Tester, K.(ed)  The Flaneur, Routledge, London.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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