A Cinema of Respite
Topophilia and Film
Though cinema is famously a pro-filmic medium, capable of drawing from the reality it sees with the recording device it uses, only occasionally does a film gives us a proper sense of place. To do so means perhaps not just relinquishing the demands of the story but also resisting the pressures of mise en scene: to see through the lens more than the frame that inevitably shapes the filmmaker's vision. In Monday Morning, In The City of Sylvia, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? and The Last Dive, the films generate a cinema of respite. If realism in film captured a sense of place predicated often on a feeling of bustle, as we find in numerous neo-realist works, then a cinema of respite insists on a similar relation to place but with different ends. It wants to absorb the sense of place into a sense of peace, to see in the properties of film the capacity to express the pantheistic.
"In general, pantheism is the view that rejects the transcendence of God. According to the pantheist, God is, in some way, identical with the world. There may be aspects of God that are ontologically or epistemologically distinct from the world, but for pantheism this must not imply that God is essentially separate from the world." For that great philosopher of patience and perspective, Baruch Spinoza, there "was nothing but Nature and its attributes and modes. And within Nature there can certainly be nothing that is supernatural. If Spinoza is seeking to eliminate anything, it is that which is above or beyond nature." This could counter the claim that Spinoza is a pantheist if pantheism is where God is everything and Everything is God." (Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy) But rather than involving ourselves in the intricacies of pantheism, better to say for the moment no more than that Spinoza might help just a little in understanding the type of cinema we are talking about as other philosophers cannot: Hume's scepticism, Hegel's dialectic, Plato's forms, Heidegger's being-ness and Sartre's anxieties over choice have little place here. What matters chiefly is how the characters inhabit a locale and in turn how the film registers their inhabitation. If Hegel can be wonderfully utilised for broad tensions between social organisations, Heidegger for understanding the alienation of a character from their world, and Hume for comprehending the difficulty of ascertaining narrative information with certainty, then Spinoza can allow filmmakers to adopt a philosophy as a form: to see that attention to all living things can give to the film a permeating sense of purpose in which the character's central actions can seem purposeless. As the characters in each film, in Monday Morning, In the City of Sylvia, in The Last Dive and What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? drift through respectively Venice, Strasbourg, Lisbon and Kutaisi, the viewer is aware of the density of the places they occupy partly in the levity of the characters' own motivations.
This needn't mean the films are without purpose: their achievement rests partly on generating the meaningful without insisting on the propulsive. They have stories to tell but not quite protagonists to drive them. In Monday Morning, Vincent (Jacques Bidou) leaves home and the factory where he works and ventures to Venice to see a friend of his father's, while In the City of Sylvia, the unnamed protagonist (Xavier Lafitte) is looking for the title character. In The Last Dive, both a young man and an older man are thinking of throwing themselves in the river but instead take a tour of Lisbon. Finally, in What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, two characters fall in love but are met with a curse. They are turned into different people and unable to recognise each other as they both wander around the city lovelorn. Yet it seems the stories exist so that a certain relation to form can be deployed, and within that form to find a view of the world and on the world that may bring to mind the work of Spinoza. When in The City of Sylvia, the central character sits in a cafe drawing, the sketch he makes seems irrelevant next to the world that he observes and absorbs, as though the purpose he puts into the drawing is the excuse he finds in manifold observation. Not that the film holds to his point of view, though numerous shots are seen from his perspective. It is more that he is the focal point by which director Jose Luis Guerin gets to centre the film, without feeling obliged to ignore its periphery. In this scene, we often cut back to the main character and also to the pad in which he is sketching, witnessing him at one moment aggressively scratching out a drawing he has begun. But what gives the film its tone is the focal flexibility, the way it ranges across faces and snatches of conversation. There are a couple whose body language is aloof, a man that within the frame is paired with a woman who is at the table behind him while their companions are out of shot. For a brief second this man and his companion kiss but it's the most fleeting of moments that we and the main character see, and often too the film form all but confuses us. We see a man in the foreground as if kissing a woman in the background because of the lens compression Guerin works with. David Bordwell goes as far as to say that in one scene "by making the background girl seem to kiss the foreground guy, Guerin, as Eisenstein would say, 'christens' his sequence. In effect, the image says: Watch out! Layered space will become important! When I saw this shot, I nearly jumped out of my seat." (Observations in Film Art)
While this shows formal innovation on Guerin's part and a sly sense of humour as he creates a poly-amorously perverse play on the possibilities in coupling up, what he also does is dilute the expectations of an audience that is trained in knowing when a couple is likely to be formed. In a typical romantic comedy, it is common enough to have cross-cutting sequences that lead us to assume the two people shown will soon enough meet. They are often stars, usually attractive and the editing knowingly tells us that they will become a couple. But In The City of Sylvia has no stars, eschews the cross-cutting and has such a proliferation of beauty that Bordwell says "either Strasbourg has an extraordinary gene pool, or this caf attracts only Ralph Lauren models." (Observations in Film Art) Instead of the romantic comedy's air of inevitability, Guerin seeks out instead a world of possibility, and we might say the same of all the films we are choosing to focus upon. It isn't so much that beauty is everywhere but that possibility is palpable. Yet as in the other films, this possibility isn't attached only to beauty and material comfort: all four show cities that are mixed. Running through In the City of Sylvia are scenes with people impoverished, destitute, inebriated. In one moment when the Dreamer follows a woman he sees in a cafe through the streets, we see her in the same shot with a large, older woman sitting on the curb, mired in filth, clearly drunk and with a few soiled items next to her. Both the young woman and the Dreamer (as Bordwell calls our hero) pass her obliviously but the camera holds on to her presence as she tosses an empty bottle across the street. Earlier Guerin shows us a man asking for money at the cafe, and near the end shows another man by a fountain, looking if not destitute at least despondent as he throws bread onto the ground though no pigeons pick it up. Whatever possibilities Guerin wishes to show contain not just optimistic options but the range of human experiences. The sly use of long lenses to propose that couples could be seen in new formulations through the nature of the shot choices Guerin adopts, are part of a bigger project that illustrates how a milieu is manifold. This is usually missing from romantic comedy, where the city reflects the romance rather than contains it. If Manhattan is such a wonderful romantic comedy it rests on Woody Allen proposing how the breadth of the environment generates crisis in the choices the characters are making. There seem always other emotional and sexual options and Allen whatever his limitations in showing working class and black lives in the film nevertheless conveys to us the city as a place within which the characters exist. It never quite becomes merely a backdrop.
Yet Guerin goes much further by insisting that the town he films in is constantly present so that it is as though any story the film wants to tell keeps getting absorbed into the locations he utilises. The title happens to be the city of Sylvia but the operative word is city and not Sylvia - Sylvia remains a mystery while the city is a constant presence. Sylvia is elusive but the city is allusive, a place that keeps generating characters who may or may not become vital to the story. For example, at the cafe, one of the young women (Tanja Czichy) who looks like she is kissing a man in the foreground, because of the flattening focal length, will be seen near the end of the film dancing with the man even though there is nothing to suggest they already know each other. We will see them in a bar, on the dance floor with others, and the Dreamer will watch them as they start dancing and kissing. But there will be no development to these characters, no arc that we can trace. This might be central to the respite, even if none of the other films is quite so dense with possibility as Guerin's work. Instead of an arc we have a grid, with the various characters occupying places in the city that could result in contact but might not. The purpose is that the milieu absorbs all narrative possibilities and reconfigures them on its own terms. Again, one can think of Romantic Comedy and the function characters serve in the narrative world they exist within. We will have the couple but also potentially the exes, the best friends and the families. How prominent the family will be, or the exes or the best friends, depends on the film's focus. If based on manipulation, the exes may be prominent, if the parents it could indicate pressure, if the best friends, the dilemmas and so on. It is partly out of this need for functional characterisation that a film develops, but also that its possibilities shrink. When we speak of manipulations, pressures and dilemmas we are always thinking of them through the main characters and we don't expect to spend too much time focusing on the other characters' problems except for the way they reflect on the leads. It is part of how to film a narrative arc.
A grid however keeps multiplying possibilities partly by refusing the functional. The desired object takes plural form and when The Dreamer follows Pilar Lpez de Ayala he may have chosen to follow someone else: she cannot quite fulfil the function as object of desire and so, though the sequence is indebted to Vertigo, it isn't restrained by Hitchcock's marvellous demands. The Dreamer isn't locked into his fascination but enthralled by the manifold, as though each woman suggests a proliferation of desire and an ambulatory mission. It isn't quite that The Dreamer could move from one square in the grid to another he does follow Ayala. But when Guerin says "cinema is in fundamental relationship with desire" (Bright Lights Film Journal) it is a desire that takes human form but isn't beholden to the form it takes. It remains a verb in constant search of a noun. Vertigo is more the other way round: that Hitchcock shows Scottie determined to hold onto the noun and pushes a second woman into replicating the woman before her.
Joao Cesar Monteiro is a filmic Pessoa, a director who often shows us Lisbon as a city of paradoxical possibilities and lazy adventures. The Last Dive is properly a film of two halves, the first an almost documentative account where a couple of characters hang out in clubs and bars, and the second a more mythical and formal presentation drawing on the stories of Salome and Hyperion including a couple of ten minute takes showing Salome's dance; the first with one woman and with sound; the second with another woman and without. But what interests us is the first half and the dense immersion an urban environment offers and that creates what might seem a contrary condition: a feeling of solitude in a place of mass habitation. Lisbon isn't a massive city and of course Strasbourg is quite a small one: their populations 500,000 and 277,000 respectively. But they are big enough to allow for this apparent contradiction as a village would not. If someone arrives in a village their presence is felt and there is a good chance they won't be ignored: how many films play up the appearance of a stranger who impacts on the community, from Witness to Japon? The smaller the community the more present the figure. But a city of modest size allows people to be absorbed into the milieu without becoming a source of observation; they can mingle without becoming monitored; be in public view without an invasion of their privacy. That is very much The Dreamer's place in In the City of Sylvia, but in The Last Dive, the young man Samuel (Dinis Gomes) is perhaps more a passenger, while still very much reflecting a city's capacity for allowing one to pass through the public eye without the eyes of the public upon one. He is someone whose half-hearted suicide attempt is interrupted by a man, Eloi (Canto e Castro) who wants to show him a bit of Lisbon before either of them takes their life. One scene shows them climbing a steep street in the city as they arrive at a bar halfway up and take a drink. Monteiro gives little sense of characters in search of a destination; more, people moving with the flow of the place. The next morning, the two men go to a city market, and again during their walk there, and at the market itself, other people in the shots don't seem like extras to the main drama but part of the texture of a place the two characters also occupy. As Monteiro tilts down the building they have been staying in before they exit it, we see a mixture of tourists, looking at a map, and locals milling around. The viewer needn't expect any of them to become part of the drama but equally, they have a place within the film that needn't reduce them to extras whose purpose is only to give a semi-verisimilitude to the drama. When in the ostensibly realistic Looking for Mr Goodbar, as Diane Keaton goes into a club after she walks along the street, she passes two people exiting a building and going up to a car, another couple passing with their arms around each other, and two people outside the bar who look like they are beginning to make out. They feel like extras rather than documentative subjects director Richard Brooks caught on the streets: they all serve to illustrate the previous few shots he has shown us of neon-lit big city life and thus they serve a clear function however small. No such function seems to exist for the equivalent people we see in The Last Dive and it is this play between a documentative subject caught on camera, an extra, and a character that Guerin so intriguingly plays with. But for Monteiro in this first half he wants to show us the city as a place his camera captures, devoid of dramatic determination. The city remains a city and never quite becomes a set, as opposed to the second section where in the two dance scenes the park environment is so obviously controlled.
It might seem both an idle question and a journalistic, anecdotal one to muse over how people who aren't central to a film are presented within it. It can seem idle because generally film unfolds as a drama and yet, because of the nature of film as a recording device, it is expected to fill out details a stage production or especially a novel needn't bother with at all. A narrator of a novel who tells us two characters exited a building needn't tell us that there were three tourists to the right of the entrance, speaking with a local, two youths leaning against a wall on the left, someone waiting for a bus and another, perhaps also waiting, reading a newspaper. The writer may tell us all of this but we wouldn't expect them to do so, while in film that expectation is much more pronounced. If the character came out of the building and nobody was there they would be walking along an empty street: the novelist who foregoes the details needn't concern themselves with how busy or how quiet the street happens to be a priori. The filmmaker does. It can appear an idle question because film needs to attend to the peripheral to arrive at the plausible. The journalistic, anecdotal one would be to enquire into the nature of the production, to interview various members of cast and crew and find out if those three tourists were tourists at all and just given hats and a map to look like visitors to the city. To this eye, it looks unequivocal they are tourists and then we might wonder if they were people Monteiro met and wished to film or were mulling around and he saw no reason to move them, including those who look in various scenes directly at the lens: as if, and perhaps were, caught on camera rather than performing for it.
Let us not pretend film isn't a complicated, logistical business even at the best of times but that such questions seem much more pertinent to ask here than in Looking for Mr Goodbar, suggesting that even if a journalistic piece revealed the nature of Monteiro's filming of the sequence, and how manipulated it was, it seems to have a different final purpose than in Brooks' film. Monteiro gives us the flavour of the city while Brooks give us a taste of a big city's nightlife. The images Brooks shows want to impress upon us the very sexualised world the central character is venturing into, while in The Last Dive, Monteiro offers a city that is far greater than the characters' purpose within it. This is really the difference between expression and absorption: whether the film wants to register the characters' narrative world or to show a place that makes them but a component part within it. When Samuel and Eloi arrive at the morning market, various people bustle past in front of the camera before we get a clear view of the pair of them. There must be some twenty-plus people in this shot and we can see from the beginning of it the pair in the background as they start to become central to the frame. They buy nothing from the market and the film cuts to the pair in a barber's shop, with Eloi getting a shave. There is no point at all to the shots in the market, no function they are serving to push the story along or convey the feelings of the characters, but Monteiro might ask why should they. If the characters are absorbed into a place rather than expressing their feelings about the world, or pushing their purpose in the world, then the more the periphery can be utilised, the more arbitrary elements that can be incorporated, the better the milieu can exist on its own terms and not the story's or the character's.
Is this a call to indifference; how much of the arbitrary and the peripheral can a film offer without appearing of no consequence at all? When it takes a moment for Samuel and Eloi to appear in the frame in the first shot, this isn't so unusual as many a film will offer a shot to establish the general space, a milieu or atmosphere before making clear who we are supposed to focus on. It is partly what gave many American seventies films a feel for localelife missing from classic Hollywood. If the films were going to film on location then better they come away with a sense of locale. At the beginning of The Seven-Ups, the film offers a high-angle telephoto shot as it sweeps across a New York street, but then quickly makes clear who we should be paying attention to as it cuts to Roy Scheider. In the Walter Matthau starring The Taking of Pelham 123, the film, gives us a strong sense of the New York underground where it was filmed but even as it shows us various people getting on to the train at the beginning, we are at the same time seeing those who will be taking the metro car hostage. The story is always so much stronger than the milieu and the films never come close to generating viewer indifference.
Monteiro more than risks it and wishes perhaps to create in the viewer not indifference but ambivalence, as one wonders what the status of the image happens to be. If such shots as the scene where they go to the market were in a documentary about Lisbon we wouldn't have any problem with them. One would assume that the people were just going about their lives. But Monteiro's film is not a documentary, so when he shows us the initial shot in the market the viewer waits to find Samuel and Eilo in the frame, or at least more generally in the scene. Monteiro provides it but more slowly than most, and then gives us a scene that serves no clear purpose; if it were excised nobody would notice. Yet such a claim has problems: it assumes that the form of the film is the telling of its story and shots are expected to be orchestrated based on such an assumption. But that would also be to express the story rather than allow the milieu to absorb it. When in Looking for Mr Goodbar, Keaton walks along the street, Brooks too could have excised the shots but few watching the film can deny they are expressing more broadly what the film is about: a gentle and shy school teacher who embarks on various sexual encounters. But they don't give us much of a sense of the city; they are there to reveal a sense of a character willing to take risks. The city is secondary to the development of the story. Central to the cinema of respite is that it isn't, as if the story is put on hold and the milieu allows the characters to bob along the surface of the world rather than trying to dictate and control it. Samuel passes through the first half of The Last Dive like a man who doesn't know where he is going but knows who he is following: Eloi who knows Lisbon much better than he does.
In Monday Morning, Venice is vital to the film yet takes up less than half the film's screen time and in some ways is the reverse of The Last Dive as it initially focuses on small-town French life before showing central character Vincent taking off to Italy. The notion of a central character in director Otar Iosseliani's work is a moot point, and here he offers a double retreat from centrality. First, Vincent comes and goes throughout the French scenes as the director drifts away from his character to focus on other people in the village, even leaves Vincent behind altogether as we might wonder where he has disappeared to, and when in Venice allows him to be but part of the flux of the life in which he finds himself. Like Samuel, Vincent is shown around the place by a hedonist who wants to introduce him to the pleasures of the city and whether it is passing through a graveyard with a priest and a few others carrying picnic things, taking a picnic by the sea, or viewing Venice from a high-perched spot, Vincent becomes at one with the place a term commonly enough used but how often in films does it happen to become apparent? Clearly not when Nathan passes through Prague in Mission Impossible, Bond through Siena in A Quantum of Solace or Jason Bourne as he ventures through Paris in The Bourne Identity. But even in films like Summer Madness, Roman Holiday and Paris When it Sizzles, the characters don't become at one with the city; it is more the other way round: the city becomes at one with them. It reflects their desires and their needs and doesn't remain indifferent to our heroines. In Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck isn't just showing Audrey Hepburn around the city, he introduces her to it as she is a princess trying to hide her anonymity and constantly getting into situations where her presence is met with the opposite of indifference. At one moment she gets arrested.
It is this indifference which we find important to the respite and it doesn't just reside in the actions of the characters and the way they are viewed without consequence by others; it is also in how the camera and sound design gives us the feeling of peripheralisation. Iosseliani usually avoids non-diegetic music and allows sound to permeate a scene rather than focalise it. Whether it is the factory Vincent works in, the village he resides in or the Venice he visits, sound can only come out of the environment and in a way that opens up the space and doesn't close it down. Clearly, often non-diegetic music's purpose is to concentrate the screen space: to give us a clear sense of narrative priorities over spatial possibilities. When even so careful filmmakers of horror like Roman Polanski and William Friedkin occasionally allow non-diegetic music to guide the viewer in, respectively, Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, we know that cinema has a desire to focus our attention, and know too that this is part of their general skill as master manipulators.
In Monday Morning, Vincent passes through a square where various painters are working on easels, taps on a couple of people's shoulders to get their attention, who seem surprised by the gesture and little interested in his presence, then goes to sit on a step by the canal, and starts painting too. In reality's terms they act as one might expect people to when a stranger taps them on the shoulder but in filmic terms it can seem like a type of rudeness that they are ignoring a person we are focusing upon. But, in a way, the film is constantly ignoring Vincent as well. When he turns up at work earlier in France and then decides not to go in, instead of following his movements immediately, the film after watching him take a seat up on a hill behind the factory, cuts back to events in the village, and doesn't return to Vincent until the evening, over twenty minutes of screen time later. How can we expect a random stranger to give him any attention when the film has ignored him for a sixth of its screen time? Also, we have noticed even those who know him well half-ignore him. When near the beginning of the film he returns from work, he passes through the house less the honourable bread-winner than the intrusive pariah. One son tells Vincent to leave him alone while he is fixing his bike; the other says "Don't touch" when Vincent stands behind him while he is working.
But what matters more is how the film ignores him which isn't quite the same as saying it treats him with disrespect. To ignore a person is quite distinct from the peripheralisation the director insists upon. Iosseliani shows a proliferation of characters who occupy a central role in their own world and leads inevitably to the seconding of others. Cinema usually ignores this aspect of our lives for the purposes of dramatic hierarchy: leading characters, supporting players and extras. Nobody more than Robert Altman in American cinema tried to break up this hierarchy but even Altman films can look tight next to Iosseliani's lazy curiosity. If Altman frequently seeks out what can seem random, the Georgian emigre director reflects drift: his camera a quizzical rather than curious presence as it follows actions rather than seeks to nosy its way into situations. There has often been in Altman's camera a voyeurism almost completely absent from Iosseliani's, and a common feature of Iosseliani's work is following one person's life and then changing direction and following someone else's. In Favourites of the Moon, for example, we see a character (played by the director himself) propositioning a prostitute before venturing up the stairs, where they say hello to another character who leaves the building, crosses the street and goes inside as the film then spends a moment focusing on another prostitute who is then propositioned too. It is a common feature in other Iosseliani features like Gardens in Autumn but allows for its most relaxed form in Monday Morning. When a farmer bangs on the outhouse telling the person inside this isn't a library, the person comes out still reading his book and carries on to the field to continue work. We start with one character and end the scene with another. When in Venice, picnicking at the beach, most of the people are sitting in a circle but Vincent isn't there. The camera pans left to pick him up when the priest present goes over to chat, and then leaves him again when the priest goes presumably to relieve himself in the bushes. Vincent joins the group, and the camera drifts again when a child starts shouting and one of the adults (perhaps his grandfather) goes and smacks him lightly, before what looks like his mother intervenes, aware the boy isn't being easy. All this is part of the same shot and it continues when the priest comes out of the bushes and walks towards the sea, where Vincent is sitting on a small rock. It is a surprise: we haven't seen Vincent move from his spot within the group and here the cameras is picking him up again elsewhere. Vincent then comments on the fact that in France people don't hit children just as earlier in the sequence he notes that in France people don't sing anymore as he listens to someone in the group playing guitar and everyone singing. Clearly, Vincent has observed the boy's punishment carefully but he hasn't been the focal point of the scene.
We might note in the two sequences that the farmer is being pushy and showing irritation, that in the latter the boy is maltreated. But that isn't quite what the viewer is likely to take away from the two scenes. It is more the flux of life where no evil is done but irritation is expressed and the boy looks like he isn't scared but as annoyed as the man who manhandles him. When Vincent says that people don't hit children in his country we no doubt see this as honourable while at the same time wondering if it is okay for a child to tell his father, after Vincent comes home from work in that early scene and shows interest in what the boy is doing, to scram. The relaxed form meets a curious perspective, as though Iosseliani doesn't know how we should live, what values we must abide by, but that he has an obligation to film the contradictions in a style that incorporates the question without too quickly finding an answer. "There is an erroneous Soviet notion that art can be used to shape people or set them on some track. Nonsense. It's just that there's a circle of people who think the same way we do, and when I read a book and find that I like it, why, I like it because these are my feelings, only what a great, what a fantastic way the author has found to phrase them." (Nostalghia)
It is not Iosseliani's place to tell us whether it is wrong to hit children though there is nothing to suggest he approves of it either. It is more that life is complicated and what matters is filming its complexity to see in the life he shows us values people possess that can change from place to place, from person to person. We might wish that Vincent's children treated their father with more respect and that adults shouldn't hit children but that doesn't mean that if adults aren't given due respect this gives them reason enough to offer a slap. It is more that it might give Vincent a moment of reflection on his own relationship with his family: a family he has temporarily deserted perhaps because he wasn't receiving much credence from them. When Iosseliani speaks of a "system of values" (Nostalgia) we might wonder what that can mean in filmic terms, and how it manifests itself in Iosseliani's work. The value wouldn't be that one mustn't hit children; that would be a moral. Vital to Iosseliani's work is that he isn't a moralist even if he is interested in the fable: "Each person can attach his experience to a fable." (Nostalgia) But the director's style resists the moral as it keeps drifting from one experience to another even if values can be found in the drift.
We can think here of the scene early on in Venice when a couple of thieves steal Vincent's wallet. Later, one of the team tries it again and Vincent turns and shows the thief his empty pockets, saying he has nothing left, half-shaking the man's hand. Vincent doesn't call the police or wrestle with the pickpocket; he shows the man has met his match by trying to steal from the stolen, and that Vincent is rather worse off than the thief. It is as if Vincent is saying that it should be more the other way round; that Vincent probably should steal from the pickpocket but this wouldn't do much for a broader value system. To report the thief would be morally right, and to steal from him would be justified, but neither quite enhances the value system as Iosseliani sees it. It would be part of the disquiet rather than the respite. Iosseliani offers a sort of peripheralist ethics that wonders if one man steals from another, or one man reports on another, no purposeful value is generated; only a roundelay of criminality and retribution.
Vital to the respite in cinema is the absence or suspension of cause and effect and of course, to play on language, the absence of the spiteful. There is no cruelty to the films even if there is a potential harshness on the outskirts of them that gives the films their edge. It might be the ill wife in The Last Dive who curses Eloi as she lies sick in bed. She is in constant pain and while Eloi nurses her she insults him, understandably perhaps finding a way to vent her frustration over an illness that won't go away and where Eloi is the only one generally in attendance. Samuel and Eloi eat in the kitchen as she rails against him from her bed in the room next door. It is potentially both terrible and nasty yet Monteiro films it as though with a resigned acceptance of dying and that it would be understandable Eloi would wish for them to eat in a hurry and get out. In the City of Sylvia has a moment when a man asking for money passes by the Dreamer's table and our central character shakes his head and the man offers an insult. In Monday Morning, there is the scene where Vincent after visiting an old friend of his father's, a rich and retired pianist, gets into a shouting match with his wife. Yet such scenes don't impact on the tone of the films; they remain tranquil works, seeking an equilibrium that the difficult cannot disturb. But what about What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? Here, two young people fall in love after meeting twice on the same day, only for a curse to be placed upon them. They will become physically different and lose their specific ability: Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze/Ani Karseladze ) is a medical student, Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze/Giorgi Bochorishvili), a footballer. After a second meeting at a crossroads, Lisa is warned by no less than the wind, a drainpipe, a security camera and a seedling that she has been cursed by the evil eye. Lisa and Giorgi have arranged to meet at a cafe the next evening but how are they to recognise each other now they have become physically different people? The answer is they can't as the film allows over its lengthy two-and-a-half-hour running time to create obstructions that the romantic comedy makes pragmatic. This is obviously the fairy tale element to the film and as with fairy tales the cruelty is usually contained by a far greater innocence, and this is what director Alexandre Koboridze concentrates upon. Though innocence isn't quite the word as all the films of respite contain within their mise-en-scene the visual acknowledgement of hardship. It might be the destitute alcoholic on the street in In the City of Sylvia, the pollution in Monday Morning, the prostitution in The Last Drop, and the aside halfway through What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, when the narrator tells us that these are brutal times and announces that in forest fires alone 1,250,000,000 creatures have lost their lives. This is the terrible period in which the film is taking place, the narrator says, before the film returns to its tranquil story.
The film might not be guilty but it feels the need to acknowledge any innocence it might itself be practising takes place against a backdrop of awful global events. To be oblivious of such facts wouldn't be a sign of innocence but of naivety, even gullibility, and central to a cinema of respite is an awareness of the awful without succumbing to it. The films are affirmative works, humming with a Spinoza-ist sense of wisdom evident in a comment the philosopher makes in his Ethics. "For pleasure is called love towards Peter, and pain hatred towards him merely on this account, that he is regarded as the cause of this or that effect. When this is either wholly or partly removed the emotion towards Peter is wholly or partly removed." The point and purpose of much cinema isn't to reduce the object of love or hatred; it is to exacerbate it and thus why we have so many romance and revenge films. Whether you get the woman or get your man the purpose is intensification not mitigation. While What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is premised on a love affair, it is attendant instead to the texture of Kutaisi as the lovers only meet at the beginning and the end of the film. The rest of the time they are occupying other bodies and the film preoccupied with other things. It may offer both a voice-over and non-diegetic music but it is no less than the other works interested in the specifics of place. Lisa, unable to pursue her studies as the material becomes impossible to decipher, takes a job in the cafe in which she was meant to meet Giorgi. Giorgi, having lost his footballing skills, works too for the same boss, getting people to pay to see if they can hold themselves up on a bar for two minutes. it is almost impossible and a good way for the owner to make a bit of extra cash while his cafe is struggling.
The film is easily the most ostensibly manipulative of the four under discussion. It doesn't only use voice-over and non-diegetic music, it also has moments in slow motion and offers a dramatic irony worthy of Lubitsch. Like A Shop Around the Corner, it offers two people who are in love but don't know it even though the audience does. But the plot is the flimsiest of conceits for the firmest of locational explorations. Like Lisbon, Strasbourg and Venice (pop: 261,905), Kutaisi is a small city (the smallest of the lot with 147,000 inhabitants). At the end of the film, the voice-over announces that there is a great deal to be doubtful over the story it has told, that the transformation of two people is really strange and wasn't it odd that Lisa thought she could have transformed the curse with cards and coffee? The narrator keeps apologising for the improbability of the tale and all the while the film keeps giving us new images of the small city. It shows us a young girl playing with a flower, a woman sitting against a fence, some boys running up steep steps, a black dog and some kids seated on the pavement. What it shows us is Kutaisi life and yet that is what the film has been doing for its two and half-hour running time, as though any plot it has offered was a conceit it wished to reveal: that while the story concludes on Lisa and Giorgi returning to their original selves, the film's purpose is to conclude on acknowledging that this wasn't much of a story on which to hang a film upon.
However, if a film is always (unless animated or CGI) a documentary of its own making in the pro-filmic fact of its recording, then there is in a narrative film potentially tension between the dramatic expectation and the locational demand. Many a film understandably and pragmatically sees the latter as a background to the former and, of course, back projection is a typical and classical example of how the background was quite literally separated from the foreground. The foreground was a sound stage big enough and detailed enough to seem a lot more authentic a space than a theatre space, and the location was a projected scene while characters moved through studio space giving the impression they were moving in an actual town or location. Dominique Paini called this an aggregation of spaces and Laura Mulvey, who references Paini, notes that "...most Hollywood directors despised rear projection and film critics and historians have, by and large, followed their lead." She sees too that what was often odd about rear projection was how "the location footage sometimes seemed incompatibly 'realistic', as though documentary footage had intruded into wholly staged narrative dramas." (Afterimages) In The Last Drop, In The City of Sylvia, Monday Morning and What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? the documentative doesn't intrude on the drama in a clumsy pragmatic classic Hollywood conjunction, the films allow the drama to float on the surface of the documentative, trying to find in the profilmic the space for characters to exist rather than a narrative temporality in which they can progress. If classic Hollywood's back projection insisted that it was the drama that mattered, the films under discussion insist it is the space that counts. The films need to immerse the characters, and subsequently the audience, in locales that can transform the works into a kind of topophilia that defies the narrative demands of the anthropocentric. Thus whether it is the Dreamer In The City of Sylvia allowing his attention to drift from one woman to another while constantly immersed in the unnamed Strasbourg, the suicidal Samuel absorbed into Lisbon in the film's first half, Vincent's venturings in Venice, or Lisa and Giorgi's hapless inability to see that their true love is in front of their eyes while we get to see their immersion in Kutaisi, the films insist that any love affair must at least partially be with the city in which they find themselves.
Topopholia was a term the poet John Betjeman used, describing it as special love for peculiar places, and it turns up in Bachelard's Poetics of Space, and became theorised by Yi-Fu Tuan. Within the context of the respite, we might rephrase Betjeman and see it as the love for small cities, and this might be why though Paris is a large city in many ways it is very small one topographically, and thus filmically ideal. It is less than half the size of Edinburgh, and about 1/18th the size of London, and though we haven't offered any Parisian-based films of respite it wouldn't be hard to offer a handful of them: Four Nights of a Dreamer, The Aviator's Wife, Les Pont de Arts, Before Sunset, Cleo from 5-7, Lift to the Scaffold and so on. It lends itself to topophilia as London and New York do not, and though there are large cities that are romantic (Rome and St Petersburg) they might not be quite topophilic, as if any city that you struggle to get around by foot is a hard city to love. One feels in the four films that the characters can get about them with the minimum of transport even if the trams of Strasbourg and Lisbon, the boats of Venice, aren't ignored. Yet of the four films What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is perhaps the least ambulatory, with the director seeking a tranquillity based as much on stillness as movement: drawing in his own way on Georgian filmmakers Paradjanov and Shengalaya rather than Iosseliani: directors more inclined to the fixed frame. Numerous shots function like still lifes: a moment where we see bread being made and the film holds for a few moments on the table cloth after the bread has been removed; on a ball in the grass before hands come into the shot and pick it up; a dog and a man's shadow. Often the director offers a variation of this in zoom shots that settle on an object or building. In one shot the camera zooms out on glasses on a table; in another, it zooms in on a compote; in others, it zooms in on trees outside buildings.
Of the four films, Koberidze insists on the most love being present in the form, if we see a notion of affection resting on the freedom in which the director gets to film the places he shows us. Usually in The Last Drop, In The City of Sylvia and Monday Morning the director is motivated by the action, such as it is. When in Monday Morning the camera pans over the Venice skyline it is after Vincent's newfound friend describes that skyline; In The City of Sylvia will offer us an empty shot of a Strasbourg street but soon enough the Dreamer will enter it. When we see the shot of a beer mat saying Les aviateurs and a hotel room key this is clearly central to the story: it is the key to the room he is staying in and we later find out the beer mat belongs to the place where he met the Sylvia he is looking for and where he meets the woman he will sleep with. Many moments in Guerin's film will remain inexplicable or tangential, from the disfigured women waiting for the tram to the alcoholic on the street, but they don't quite become assertively directorial, as though the Catalan director always felt, like his central character, a visitor, while Koberidze feels entitled to show Kutaisi to the audience and not only document it. Yet whether respecting the milieu or insisting on the form can seem negligible differences in a type of cinema where the topos is the thing, where a sense of place becomes paramount and the story told within the topographic feels like it is there to reveal the specificity of places that people intrude upon.
But it is as though all four directors have mused over the question of the empty shot as the potentially empty city, as a place that humans and animals occupy but that can be imagined without their presence. This doesn't lead to a misanthropic need to eschew the company of others but it does suggest that company should in some way be a surprise. In all four films, our leading characters come across people; having brief or prolonged interactions with others that relies more on chance than design. Even if the Dreamer goes to Strasbourg to find Sylvia, what he finds instead is a series of women he cannot stop himself from looking at and musing over. When he moves to another table it is to look more clearly at a woman he becomes briefly fascinated by, before seeing behind her, and inside the cafe, the one he will follow. Even when following who he assumes to be Sylvia, when she pops into a shop and the Dreamer no longer knows where she is, he finds himself looking up several times at a woman by an open window. His restless curiosity is all the more ironic as we can see that as he gazes up at the woman, we see in the background of the shot 'Sylvia' in the shop behind him. In Monday Morning, on the train to Venice, Venice sits opposite an attractive woman and helps her with her bags when they get off but it is a friendship that develops with the man who also helps her rather than with this person with whom we might have assumed he would have become acquainted. It is as though the directors are saying that we shouldn't get too lost in the characters' relationship with others but observe their relationship with spaces that will have characters within them who will come and go but that the space will remain.
The cinema of respite might be best understood "where every image is surrounded by an atmosphere of world" (Cinema 2: The Time Image), as Deleuze says, quoting Sartre, while in Proust and Signs Deleuze notes that "...the work of art always constitutes and reconstitutes the beginning of the world, but also forms a specific world absolutely different from the others, and envelops a landscape or immaterial site quite distinct from the site where we grasped it." As Deleuze says "...the viewpoint remains superior to the person who assumes it." Thus the films don't have so much individuals who impose themselves on the cities but cities that impose themselves on the individual, obliterating any purpose and generating instead an atmosphere of world far greater than their ability to act. It doesn't matter that the Dreamer doesn't find Sylvia, that Vincent returns to the village as though he has never left, nor that the Giorgi and Lisa will be united and discover each other again not through any great effort on their part. (When cast in a film, the couple recognise their real selves on screen.) Just after this rediscovery, the voice-over says "here we lose their trace. It mixes up with the countless, no less exciting adventures that happen every day around us." It sounds like a variation of the famous tagline for the TV show The Naked City, There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them" but the point in the show is that one of them has been very much central while the films here have always retained an insistent peripheralisation, a sense that other stories could have been told just as well, and to varying degrees are being told. The films work with a point of view superior to the person who assumes it and thus isn't individual but on the contrary a principle of individuation in Deleuzean terms. The filmmakers of the respite don't tell a story contained by the city in which they take place but film a place that contains within them stories that aren't so much told as held. The films' unusual ambient rhythms seem to spring directly from the location. What Do We See When We Look up at the Sky? has been described by Jessica Kiang as "Rooted so deeply in the town of Kutaisi, Georgia (one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world) that it feels like it grew through the cracks in the pavement." (Film Comment) Koberidze himself says, "For me, to make a film is to film the things that interest menot necessarily just a story. I really like to go out sometimes and make pictures and watch what's going on. I think there are enough fairy tales and secrets in the things which you can see everywhere, that's what interests me." (Film Comment) Guerin reckons "When the figure disappears the surroundings appear." (Senses of Cinema) Antonioni famously concluded The Eclipse with the figure indeed disappearing as neither Monica Vitti nor Alain Delon turn up for a rendezvous, with the director offering a series of ostensibly empty shots of places without the people we expect to find there. The directors here in some way suggest the place isn't empty. It is that the atmospheres of world precede them and will continue in their absence. Therein may lie the feeling of respite.
© Tony McKibbin