Monday, November 24, 2014

Ruins of our present future

A friend of mine used to own a house in an abandoned village. It was a symbolic kind of ownership: he paid no rates nor taxes, because there were no services and the place had no value. He just had his name on the title, and a key, which is not something you necessarily needed to enter the old stone cottage.

I say that the village was abandoned, but in fact the last time I visited it had one half of resident: a retired gentleman known as ‘the Mayor’ who lived there for six months in the year. The nearest road was a 90-minute hike away, and ended in a town called Cicogna – a comparative metropolis with its population of 17. Visitors brought the Mayor wine and other supplies from the shop. Then, once a year, people came to commemorate the massacre of partisans who had repaired here during the civil war.

Image by Kapuzina
Valgrande is regarded as the largest wild area in Italy, yet ironically it was one of the first places in the country to get electricity, from across the Swiss border, as well as quite possibly the first one lose it. Staying a couple of nights in my friend’s old stone cottage, twenty years ago, gave me my first experience of the remoteness and ruin of an abandoned town: that unique sense not of pristine nature, but of civilisation on the retreat.

They said that wild horses had returned to the valley, although we didn’t see any.

I didn’t take any pictures on my visit to Valgrande, but now the internet is full of them, and I see that a couple of the cottages have been fixed up. One of them – it could even be my friend’s – has solar panels and a dish for digital television. Civilisation encroaches again on the ruins and their melancholy beauty. It’s almost a pity. It spoils the photo albums.

It has become its own genre, sometimes sardonically referred to as ruin porn. The ruins of Detroit. The death of Salton City. The death of Kosmograd. Vacant New York interiors at The Kingston Lounge. The ghost island of Hashima. Ghost stations of the Paris Metro. And the endless, ever-growing list of compilation albums, like Buzzfeed’s ‘33 most beautiful abandoned places in the world’, repackaging those photographic projects for quicker and more casual consumption, in perfect retronaut fashion. I'll play too.

This is the belltower of the old church of Curon, near Bolzano, in the Italian Alps. It was submerged in 1950 when the area was flooded to create a hydro lake. When the lake freezes, in Winter, you can walk to the belltower.

The old town of Craco, in southern Italy, which was abandoned after the Irpinia earthquake of 1980.

Image by Brendon P. Davis
The hall of the Mark Twain branch library in Detroit.

Image from The Kingston Lounge
The iron staircase at the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary, Staten island, New York.

The abandoned cosmodrome at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, seen from the sky.

A caravan in Salton City, like a frame from John Hillcoat’s film adaptation The Road.

And this astonishing interior in Kolmanskop, Namibia, straight out of Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

What these images have in common – even the one taken from the sky – is that they were framed by or for the human eye, which is another way to say that what they have in common is their beauty. And that we find some of these places beautiful is not unproblematic, since they came to be abandoned not by choice but as a result of neglect, or exploitation, or so that banks could be bailed out instead, and when people lived in them, or used them, they may have been less beautiful, but they sustained social or material needs. Besides, the death of a community is seldom without trauma.

But there’s something else I want to get at. The first image in Buzzfeed’s expertly assembled sampler is the Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso, near Camogli, a place I visited this year.

However, the statue was never ‘abandoned’: it was placed exactly there from the beginning, in 1954, 15 metres under the surface of the sea, for divers to admire and so it could protect them. Over time, as a result of what we might characterise as planned neglect, it has become encrusted with generations of molluscs, so that – barring periodic restorations – we can envisage that over time it will lose its recognisable human shape, as Greek statues lost theirs in the Mediterranean over a couple of millennia. But it is still human, for now, and still distinctly Christ-like, for those of us who are culturally attuned to that particular human form.

They won’t be forever. And a species on the brink, such as we are, would do well to reflect that these pleasing images of ruin and decay – which we admire and share even as whole island nations slip under the sea – promise to be multiplied in the years to come. And when they do, when even Buzzfeed struggles to digest them and keep up, we may cease to see their appeal, and start catching on to what is decidedly un-human about them: a world without us.

It doesn’t matter that they made an entire television series about it, and that it truly was apocalypse porn: that is the future that we cannot imagine. For there is no leap of the mind that allows you to unsee the shape of a village, or a house, or the Christ, if you happen to know what those things look like. Yet as soon as the planet has rid itself of people, cities will stop being cities, and become strange accretions of metals and stone and glass, as unlikely but also as meaningless and purposeless as an abandoned termitarium. Ultimately devoid of beauty, too, because beauty exists only for us.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Through the cracks

Sometimes it feels like it’s the only post I’ve ever written, over and over again. But remember that a blog has no beginning: it’s like a loose manuscript sitting on a desk to which new pages keep being added, and the one on top is always the first one you read. The rest, what came before, is like a past-future, or a thread you unravel backwards.

The only post I’ve ever written begins, as it always does, with this picture.

I saw it for the first time when we emptied my grandparents’ house, twenty years ago. Some time later I scanned it, then my mother misplaced it: she lost it in her apartment, like so many other things she tried to keep safe by putting them away and then forgot where. Thus for well over a decade the picture was accessible to us only as the digital file I created. It was in that form that I included it in my dissertation. The dissertation was submitted in printed form, and so a physical reproduction of the picture has since existed in the library of Victoria University, or more accurately in its offsite stacks, as well as on one of my bookshelves.

Last year we found the original again, this time when emptying Mum’s apartment, and in May of this year – the last time we saw each other – she gave it to me for safekeeping. The frame was valuable, and she was afraid someone might steal it. I took it with me back to New Zealand. So now they have been reunited: the original print, the digital copy, the printout in my dissertation.

 (The negative was never in our possession. It may survive somewhere but I doubt it.)

I scan the picture again at a higher resolution, create another layer of its existence. The first time I did, it wasn’t in order to preserve it: it was because someone had lent me a scanner, and I heard you could use the technology to restore old photographs. What I didn’t understand then is that the damage – those tiny cracks on the surface of the paper which formed over time as it was being handled – was integral to the picture.

This is the part where I tell you again that the old photograph is a portrait of my grandmother aged sixteen, taken shortly before she got married so that my grandfather could have something to remember her by when he was called into the army for his compulsory service. That is why the print is so worn. Each of those cracks means something, and the restored digital version I never bothered to create would have erased those meanings in order to produce a visually enhanced fake.

Culture and memory exist precisely there, through those cracks, in the space between the material and the symbolic. Over the years, this single picture has become for me a shorthand to that relationship. Although that’s not the point I used it to illustrate in my dissertation: what concerned me then were issues of technology, class and memorability. Around 1922, it was only very wealthy people who had their lives documented in the way that has become commonplace for nearly all of us. Of my grandmother, except for purposes of legal identification, no other photo was taken for several decades. The lives of the poor may be a subject for the census or ethnographers, but had no individual significance worthy of a personal archive.

Which may go some way towards explaining the pose. Nonna lost her mother when she was six years old. Her father, a farm labourer, was left to raise six children under the age of 12. She left school at the age of nine or ten. It’s fair to say that reading wouldn’t have been her primary activity or concern. Yet there she was, her right hand clasping the pages of a book as if she had been immersed in study – the preserve of women well above her station.

I would like to know what the book was, and did it belong to the photographer? There is no level of magnification, no scanning technique that will yield any more detail.

Either way, my grandfather took the picture with him all the way to Milan, where he served under the 68th infantry regiment. When his year was up, they issued him with his discharge papers, which looked like this:

until he was called up again, at the age of 39, to serve in World War II for one year, this time in Trent with the 231st infantry regiment. He saw no action, and the next, badly torn set of papers marked his final discharge:

These documents and many others are with me now, along with my share of the photographs I divvied up with my sister. They are with me because someone made the effort to keep them, then shift them from house to house. They include less innocent mementoes, like the citation for the Cross of Merit awarded to my mother by the Federal Command of the Fascist Regime in April of 1940. She was nine years old.

All these are points of departure for family stories that intersect with history, as the personal always does with the social and the collective. As in the case of my parents' lost wedding album, their existence as analogue material objects is what places them properly in time. It's the layer of metadata, the context absent which the text alone couldn't speak.

But that's not enough to explain, to justify the archive. What are these documents for, and why do they mean so much to me? I store them in old biscuit tins that used to hold postcards and buttons and sewing kits. To dip into them allows me to prove to myself that my past exists, that my family existed, at those occasional, brief times when living on the other side of the planet – a distance that would have been unfathomable to the young woman in the picture, and to every generation before hers – makes me uncertain.

Writing is another way for me to remember and to fix in time and space events that occurred before I was born, yet are a part of me. And so I’ll keep drafting this post for as long as I need to, or until I run out of time.

A little announcement: Jacinda Woodhead, incoming editor of Overland, will be in Wellington next week, and for the occasion Sport and Overland are hosting a reception and a discussion on literary magazine publishing.
This will take place at the Stout Research Centre, 12 Waiteata Road, Victoria University of Wellington, on Tuesday 25 November at 3.30pm. Places are limited, so if you’re interested in taking part please send me an email to let me know that you’re coming.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cleopatra's Needle

I read about Cleopatra’s Needle in the yellowed, foxed pages of the Illustrated London News of 26 January, 1878. A colour plate shows the obelisk in its proposed location at Westminster. It’s an artist’s impression, for Londoners at the time had to make do with a wooden replica erected so that people could get used to the sight.

Colour plates were a rarity for the beautifully illustrated magazine, and would have been a treat for its readers. I struggle to imagine colour pictures being a scarce and wonderful commodity. I cast my mind back to my own childhood, and the cheap reprints of comics in which every second page was in black and white, to save money. Or being stuck with a black and white television well into my teens. (I never knew some old films to be in colour until decades later.) But what impresses nowadays about the News are the engravings. The ‘Needle’ issue features a series from the funeral of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy, and a view of the Pantheon in Rome – my favourite building in the whole world.

Let’s remind ourselves of the obvious: that photography had barely been invented, and the cinema not yet. That there was no television. These images of dead kings lying in state, of overseas palaces and exotic locations which may or may not have belonged to the empire, were all that most people had to rely on to form an impression of the world beyond the likely very small bounds of their direct lived experience. Even London itself would have been exotic for most Britons. Now they were going to erect an ancient obelisk there, and add to the wonder.

In a break with tradition, Cleopatra’s Needle wasn’t stolen: it was donated to Britain by Muhammad Ali Pasha in recognition for the victories against Napoleon in the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandria, at the turn of the century. However, the Crown wouldn’t pay to transfer it out of Egypt, so there it stayed for another seven decades, until a wealthy surgeon by the name of Erasmus Wilson (‘to whom some token of Royal Favour, or some other public testimonial should presently be offered,’ says the News), came up with the money himself.

This is how they planned to do it. An engineer designed an iron cylinder in which to encase the obelisk. He called it Cleopatra. It had a ‘vertical stem and stern, a rudder, two bilge keels, a mast for balancing sails, and a deck house’. The Cleopatra was going to be towed to Britain by a ship called the Anglia, but it began rolling during a storm in the Bay of Biscay and a boat sent to rescue it capsized. The six men on board all died. A second ship, the Olga, was sent to right the Cleopatra and hopefully tow it to London, and with it went an artist from the News listed as J. Wells. And so the remainder of the journey, along with the meticulous and dull reproduction of captain David Glue’s log, was chronicled in pictorial form for the readers of the magazine.

It was a feat of engineering and capital achieved six years before the establishment of the first British protectorate in Egypt, almost as a prologue to the next expansion of the empire’s reach. In the end they erected the obelisk not near Westminster, but a mile or so down the Embankment, and there I photographed it earlier this year.

The plaques that surround it tell the story of its acquisition and transfer to London. Everything, except what the inscriptions on it mean. And yes, by the way, they still call it Cleopatra’s Needle, in spite of the fact that it was built in 1500 BC, nearly fifteen centuries before Cleopatra was born.

My copy of the News keeps reminds me that it, too, is an object of its time, and the product of contemporary information technologies and their limitations. Those who may wish to purchase copies on thin paper to save on overseas postage are told for instance that ‘their use is not recommended, the appearance of the Engravings being greatly injured by the print at the back showing through’; whereas in the roundup of ‘foreign and colonial news' we are constantly told whether the events have reached the editors via telegram or other means (readers would know how to date them accordingly). Another note reveals the great attention and social significance paid to the mechanics of the transmission of information:
The Queen’s Message to Parliament contained 800 words, and the time occupied in transmission from London to the provinces by Wheatstone instruments varied from four minutes and a half to eight minutes, and by the Morse printer or sounder from seventeen to thirty minutes. The demand for the Speech was greater than on any previous occasion. It was telegraphed to more than 300 newspapers and to nearly 200 clubs and newsrooms.

Unable to play around with graphic elements or font size, advertising relied on repetition and patterned speech for impact.

Whereas chess, comfortingly, looked just the same.

White moves and wins in four moves. See if you can work it out.

I take pleasure in reading these old texts, including the reviews of book I’ll never get to read (Justin McCarthy’s Miss Misanthrope, Chatto and Windus) or plays I’ll never get to see (H.J. Byron’s A Fool and His Money at the Globe), like imaginary works reviewed by Borges. In the periodicals section, I learn that
the January number of the Quarterly Review has two polemical discussions of what Conservative orthodoxy must regard as pernicious tendencies in the fashionable habits of thought upon general topics of intellectual speculation.
And I pretend I knew what it means, or that this was still the way people wrote. For today this cheap, yellowed copy of the Illustrated London News of 26 January, 1878 is my time machine.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Alain Resnais and the cinema of memory

Originally published at Overland.

‘You saw nothing in Hiroshima.’
‘I saw everything. Everything.’

I first saw Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour in my late teens, in an art-house theatre of my home town. I don’t remember which one, but I do remember that it was a very bad copy, so much so that you couldn’t tell which cuts were deliberate and which accidental (I later learned to recognise this as Resnais’ unique editing style). The film still made quite an impression on me. Thanks to an older sister who had a passion for cinema and the more than decent range of films available on Italian television, I was a literate viewer whose taste and knowledge weren’t confined to the latest releases, yet it was one of those occasions – we all experience a few of them, but not many – in which I thought, ‘Cinema can be different. Cinema can be this.’

Yet, I didn’t get to see Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel until much later. Night and Fog later still, in my thirties. Resnais’s work just wasn’t fashionable or popular when I was a young man, and I can only speculate on the reasons, based on the standard criticisms that have resurfaced this week in the obituaries: that he wasn’t political enough, for he focussed solely on middle-class characters and concerns; that his films lacked emotional depth; that (some of) his films were deliberately difficult, if not incomprehensible.

I find all of these charges absurd. There is no lack of feeling in Hiroshima. The oft-derided Marienbad has a plot you could summarise in twenty words (‘At a luxury hotel, a man tries to persuade a married woman that they had an affair the year before’), and is as ferocious in its portrayal of the French upper class as Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. And the layered meditations on memory that are the hallmark of Resnais’ entire body of work, especially of his early masterpieces, are nothing if not political.

I came to Resnais late and in a patchy way, for I had to wait for films to become available to me. Some remained elusive for years. Nowadays, I can go on YouTube and watch one of his very first pieces of work, Les statues meurent aussi (‘Statues also die’, 1953), a documentary on traditional African sculpture which he made on commission with Chris Marker and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet. Immediately the connection between memory and politics is laid bare, as the documentary veers from the lyrical description of the artworks into a critique of colonialism, which resulted in it being censored by the French authorities for over a decade.

The censored frame showing a gendarme outside the internment camp of Pithiviers
That pattern of setting the past critically against the present would be repeated in his subsequent documentary work, particularly in the important and celebrated Night and Fog (1955), a devastatingly clinical documentary on the Holocaust, framed by contemporary footage shot by Resnais at some of the camps. These – not yet memorialised or turned into museums – lay in a state of desolate abandon, surrounded by mud and unkempt grass. The effect of the frame is to drag the historical event into a present tense of omission, forgetting and elision, casting the shadows evoked by the film’s title onto society’s capacity to process its own collusion and guilt. In a grimly ironic twist, the state censors intervened on Night and Fog as well, forcing Resnais to conceal the details that identified one of the camps as being run by French gendarmes during the Vichy government.

Hiroshima, too, was initially going to be a documentary, but the script turned in by novelist Marguerite Duras was for a feature, albeit one that opens with a long, harrowing visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum. From then on, the affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect becomes a palimpsest against which to dramatise the displacement of memory; he, doubting her capacity to see or remember anything about Hiroshima; she, recalling and projecting onto him her first love, a German soldier in occupied Nevers.

Emanuelle Riva in Hiroshima, Mon Amour
If we discount the documentaries, Resnais’ trilogy of memory – Hiroshima, Marienbad and the 1963 family drama Muriel – can be read as a single continuous and coherent work, in spite of having been scripted by three distinct and very dissimilar writers: Marguerite Duras, nouveau romancier Alain Robbe-Grillet and poet Jean Cayrol (who had already written the narration for Night and Fog). Central to all three films is the problem of how to remember, but also of what we are expected or instructed to forget. Hiroshima and Muriel are about Vichy collaboration and the Algerian War in spite, or possibly because of, the prohibition on those subjects – hence the displacement. Marienbad is about the meticulous, forceful construction of a likely false past. Punctuating these themes was not only Resnais’ exhilarating editing style, but also the visual depiction of the films’ key locations: reconstructed Hiroshima, with its uncertain, maze-like topography; Helene’s apartment in Muriel, with its jumble of antique furnishings and artefacts; and, above all, the hotel of Marienbad, a true architecture of forgetting.

Giorgio Albertazzi in Last Year at Marienbad
The drawer full of identical pictures of Delphine Seyrig in Marienbad

Memory for Resnais is a puzzle in which all the pieces look the same. Or a game in which the other player always wins. Memory for Resnais is a malaise, a fixation, a destructive obsession. But also a necessity, a sustenance and the grounding condition for the social.

Alain Resnais, who died this year, put in another two or three regular careers’ worth of filmmaking after Muriel, including a prize for film innovation for his final work, conferred to him at this year’s Berlinale. But it’s the daring, radical body of work of that first decade – from Night and Fog to Muriel – that qualifies him as an exponent of the cinema of memory equal to his friend and Rive Gauche colleague Chris Marker. And that is something to be remembered by.