Sensing Ecologies through 'Urban Observations - Los Angeles'

Drawing based on a shot from Venice Pier (Gary Beydler, 1976).

Los Angeles is a universe of cities and roads and land. How does one get to (make) sense (of) it? Baudrillard felt that the best way is the plane, but aerial vision stops on the top of the things. Banham proposed to get in the car and hit what he called autopia. Soja, perhaps more courageously, explored real-and-imagined spaces of downtown L.A. on foot. And so on, and so on. But, one of the privileged paths to L.A. is still the very stuff of which it was and is being made – celluloid.

As of late, I have been discussing cinematic incarnations of Los Angeles from the point of view of film noir. These visions are filtered through the perspectives of noir protagonists, necessarily fragmentary and patchy. This may as well be symptomatic of the entire experience of the city, and especially this city, almost a synonym for centrifugal sprawl. But, a carefully constructed collage of films may provide a good trajectory. Especially if these are, by their nature, non-fiction, and produced by a bunch of watchful experimental filmmakers.

The other day I was lucky enough to attend to the screening entitled Urban Observations – LosAngeles, organised by Sheffield Fringe. Six films were selected by Adam Hyman, 'documentary filmmaker and executive Director of Los Angeles Filmforum, the longest-running showcase for independent, experimental and progressive moving-image art in Southern California'. Films have been shot over the span of half a century, and they cover are much more than just 'urban observations'.

The screening opens straight from the urban core, a very downtown Grand Central Market (William Hale, 1963). There are no usual preliminaries, urban panoramas as seen from the steeping hills, views so beloved by the Hollywood (often being in fact views from Hollywood stars' roof terraces). Instead, Grand Central Market lies deep in the great plain, and the film captures the bowels of one of this fundamental node for the city's system of food provision. (Thus, the current topicality of edible geographies is not such a new thing. The film was financed by the US Information Agency fifty years ago.) In just 10 minutes of the film, complicated preparations for a market day unfurl, followed by an almost ritual opening of gates, which then let pass through streams of people, who apply themselves to the shopping of ingredients for their meals. The co-presence of races and genders is astounding, there are Asians, Whites, Afro-Americans, all together, equally in roles of vendors or buyers. Grand Central Market really 'brings it all together', constructing an image of globality rather precocious for the year 1963.

Another body dedicated to the food provision was in those years taking over the centenary institution of green markets – supermarket. It is the protagonist of the film that followed, Shoppers Market (John Vicario, 1963). Made in the very same year as the first one and essentially about the same subject, the picture appears to be different to such an extent that we may wonder if the people engage in the identical activity. The exchange of glances and bargaining between vendors and buyers is gone, leaving the scene to a different body language. An air of confusion envelopes the clients, women look slightly disoriented in front of the endless racks of canned food (for example, up to the point of musing endlessly about which of the same product to pick). The general feeling is that of uncanniness, as if the buyers still haven't learned the rules of this new choreography. Of course, this is partially a result of Vicario's razor-edge nervous editing, loops of frames, and the asynchronous usage of sound. In several sequences, the sound (registered live on spot, occasionally deepened or befuddled with classic musical intonations) and the image fold onto each other as a Moebius strip. The so-everyday business of buying food seems to assume pyschedelic nuances. And, yes, the stage of events is the container box of a 24/7 open space supermarket. Only the very last shot of the film shows its exterior – a neon sign glowing in twilight. But, Vicario is careful not to produce just an apocalyptic prelude thanks to masterful counterpoints: clumsy and quasi-comical gestures or grimaces of the buyers. That is where this film connects with the previous one, in the end, it is just quotidian buying-food thing. A solitary or family experience, just a dull routine or maybe an occasion for an encounter, between racks or market stands.

Darker tinges settle in after the twilight, in the film that follows, Vineland (Laura Kraning, 2009). Its main character is the open-air film screen of, as the press release states, 'the last drive-in movie theater in L.A.'. Even if in fact it were not the last one, it may as well be the one. The sunshine and even the cold bright of neon have given way to reflections of reflections and shadows, in this film theatre with a name invoking sun and vitality, but which looks more like a part of the noir world, nested among the warehouses of the City of Industry, a city almost devoid of inhabitants, an obsolete version of an 'edge city'. Hollywood's grand dreams (of glamour and catastrophe alike) are fractured, distorted, inversed in mirrors, through windshields, and absorbed in that other dream machine – an automobile. An explosion on screen coincides with the noisy passage of a train, which seems as about to crush the framework of the screen. Silver screen is not a blank surface, it is a morphological feature, a lieu of sedimentation of films, of a hundred years' long line of dramas and comedies. A layering of history much deeper than that of the surrounding built environment. Respectful to that other very Angeleno tradition of debunking the city with ever noirer notes, Vineland is a pure Ecology of Fear: [an]Imagination of Disaster, as Mike Davis put it poetically (and menacingly). Blinding lights seem to reflect in opaque shadows.

In plain daylight, Piensa En Mi (Alexandra Costa, 2009) drifts across this ocean of (sub)urbanity. In greater part shot aboard a public bus, Costa captures the slow gliding of this means of transport, through the so common yet uncertain city views. Commuters, as in every other metropolis around the world, seem abstracted, pensive, not there. But, they are romantic figures, too, looking this strange urban beast in the eye. They are aware that bus is the least efficient means of travelling this cityscape, but for some reason they need or just feel like crossing it and that is what they do. On the other hand, machines of freedom – cars – do not seem that much able to confront the scale of the landscape either. They are captured on film through a barbed fence, as they roll hypnotically in streams down a superhighway, coming from anywhere going anywhere. What strikes is the essential solemnity of the rhythms of these movements of machines and men. As Banham already perfectly grasped, there is no such thing as infrastructure in Los Angeles. Its surreally intricate road system is an actor unto itself, as much as any other, and every Angeleno probably feels the gravity of this system, be him or her a car driver or a public bus commuter. From this recognition a strange calm abounds, paralleled with an awkward nonchalance, not dissimilar to those of the regular customers of Shoppers Market.

Yet grander rhythms, the geological ones, are at play in Devil'sGate (Laura Kraning, 2011). Not so faraway from the hum of the L.A.'s superhighways, the earth emanates silence, criss-crossed with the arrhythmic gurgling of water. That most precious and rare element of every landscape, and especially of Californian dry as dust valleys, is given a gold treatment, being channelled into beds of cement of Devil's Gate Dam. But this is not the story of a difficult (and speculative) enterprise to conquest the water and make California a fertile Eden. Kraning's landscape shots, ranging from close-ups of desertic moss to larger morphologies of crackled earth, unveil other powers in act over that same territory. These ones are disjoining and enjoining almost unimaginable times and spaces. Inspired and deterred by them, the man [sic] aimed to tame a more malleable substance – air, by the use of another all but intangible element – fire. The landscape shots are cross-cut with a narrative line about scientist/mystic John Whiteside Parsons, a rocket propulsion engineer and a follower of Aleister Crowley's. Parsons was one of the mid-20th century classical Californian figures, endeavouring to mix odd cocktails of heavens and hell. His experiments in occult magick, recounted filmically in form of diary entries, in white letters on black screen, inscribe themselves over the landscape, nervously as creeks or fault lines do, but leaving no trace behind. Man is absent, no footprints in the dust. Solidified in the mute lines of the dam. Yet the water bubbles, and the vegetation survives the desert (and maybe turns it into a green valley).

The interplay between dry and wet, solid and fluid, continues, with another balance of forces, in Venice Pier (Gary Beydler, 1976). Again, the man [sic], bravely dreams up and engineers a bridge into the void, spiking straight into the ocean. The pier is solid, mould in pure concrete, so starkly in contrast with the lightness of the surrounding water, a discord gleaming man's uncertainty in front of to him foreign physicality of water. But the pier is not a challenge to the ocean, as Devil's Gate Dam is, or rockets are. The pier is made to contemplate and to joy in something bigger (the sense of reuniting which drives that other Californian favourite – surfing). A tiny cylinder-and-cone-shaped building at the head of the pier is not there to fire itself into the ocean and colonise it, but to affirm that humans are a part of it as well. Men, women and children are filmed as they walk up and down the pier, walking across the ocean and back ashore.

Beautifully attuned to what it aims to present, the film is a huge yet patient undertaking in itself. It was shot 'over the course of a year'. The time can be seen and sensed, humans' and the earth's time in embrace. The pier is intermittently bathed by sun, washed by rain, swept by wind, covered by clouds. In shots taken in dusk or in pitch dark, nothing more than nine lampposts, small glow worms betray the human's presence, enmeshing him with the folds of the sky, the ocean, and the earth. The overall time-lapse nature of the film, punctuated by continuous, at time almost imperceptible, shifts of the camera's position along the pier, makes tangible an ancient saying panta rhei. Evoking the quote of Timothy Morton's, from The Ecological Thought (2010: 45):

A time-lapse film of a flower growing and dying shows not only its fragility and unique beauty but also its linkage with everything else.”

These words filter through the entire collage of the films. Los Angeles is an intermingling of urban and sub-urban ecologies with other, larger and tinier, ecologies, and the medium of the film is a powerful means of 'connecting the points' of this wondrous mesh. What is impressed on films are not false promises of a green utopia with orange groves sprouting from drips of water, but translucent ecologies of shadows and lights, of myriads of human and nonhuman forces, to be touched and sounded with fear and curiosity.

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