CITIES OF THE PLAIN
(notes for a movie)

 

THERE IS CONSTANT ATTENTION TO A REGIONAL PLAN:

What you SEE is the surface of the land itself, it's skin: seen from the air, this little section of the planet.

Then there are representations of different layers of this section, each going deeper like swift surgical interventions, revealing the archeology of integration:

-Above the land there are the configuration of commercial flight patterns of this region, interwoven with a web of invisible communication, of radar and radio signals, of television transmission.

-On the land itself are the old political and administrative boundaries, the current demographics. The abandoned textile factories are there. Red marks the distribution of electricity. There is the system of trains and roads and canals, of autoroutes cut through this forest of signs and aimed toward the next Metropole.

-Below is a silent layer of underground transportation. Scattered here and there are the buried remains of other towns and times.

-Woven around these tunnels and stories in the earth is a world of cables and conduits: gas, water, sewage, coaxial and fiber optic.

-And then there is the quality and character of this earth section itself, the mineral base, the used up veins of coal and the deep abandoned shafts and corridors of the mines that served them.

This representation of the world-as-it-is has required a variety of techniques, but they are all architects' and planners' tools of imaging, and we are in a Regional Planners Office where these studies are being made. And the people around these screens are certainly characters in this movie, and a part of their story is about their work of Planning itself: of trying to figure out the best way to move all these pipes and wires and roads and people and tracks around into different and more coherent configurations.

As representatives of the Metropole (this is an inevitable fact, these workers in the Regional Planning Office are representatives of that Metropolitan logic, it is implicit in the very conception of the work itself), they are trying to tackle the problems of the Matrix.

THE METROPOLE AND THE MATRIX:

For this movie, if only to define the space it takes place in, let's imagine a new geography. Perhaps it is a fictional geography, perhaps not, in the same way that a science fiction often posits a world that is the same as the one we know, but different because seen differently.

Once we thought about Rome and the barbarians beyond the borders, and much later about Europe and the Colonies. Later still, it was useful to speak of the industrialized nations and a Second and Third World. But globalization is reflected in many ways and has many different implications.

The Metropoles everywhere tend to resemble eachother, as do their inhabitants. In Singapore or New York, in Bombay or Paris or Mexico or Tel Aviv, there are the same priorities, the same agendas, the same techniques and technologies, and increasingly a shared language. The people for whom these Metropoles exist share an idea, a conceptual approach toward the world as a whole, and in fact, in a very real way, they know one another and are by necessity often in touch, either individually or through the medium of vast transnational structures of work and communication. Of course there are differences, but it is not the differences that are increasing.

On the other hand the non-Metropole as a category, the banlieux, the suburbs, the countryside and forests, steppes and tundra (where they remain), what surrounds these Metropoles and then extends as far as the influence of the next Metropole, also tend increasingly to resemble eachother.

They resemble eachother (at least in the dominant view) above all else by negation of the apparent qualities of the Metropole: less structure, less resources, less security, fewer opportunities and comforts, more health problems, more unemployment, more variety of national groups with a greater persistence of different languages, and with a general backwardness in relation to the conceptual world view represented by the daily habits of the Metropole.

These provinces are largely defined by their collective problems, and by their separation from the practices and culture of the Metropole, which after all constitutes the emerging codex of the New World Order. To a certain extent this situation is well represented by medieval paintings which show a Castle on the hill, representing the prerogatives and powers of the Metropole, and the benighted villages huddled on the fields below.

It is useful to think of this common territory in-between the Metropoles as the Matrix (perhaps I am influenced by Gibson's use of the term to describe the space in cyberspace), and it seems possible to think of this Matrix as running continuously without regard to national boundaries between one Metropole and another: from Madrid to Paris to Brussels; from Johannesburg to Harare to Kinshasa to Lagos, etc.; from Moscow to Ulan Bator to Delhi, Baghdad to Tehran, with other Metropoles of influence along the route, and with here and there the premature appearance of a megalopolis, a gigantic agglomeration on the order of the urban concentration between Boston and Washington, on the east coast of the United States, where the Matrix has largely been integrated into Metropole fabric, while still manifesting many typical Matrix qualities.

The obvious vitality of the Matrix is a function of the ambiguous relation to past and present that its very existence represents. Signs of this historical accumulation are the ethnic diversity, and a relative lack of structure, or of competing structures that tend to cancel eachother out. The vitality of the Matrix is also a function of the inevitably antagonistic relation with the Metropole's priorities, needs, and arrogance about its project. In the end, the vitality of the Matrix is a function of its state of being in-between: in-between past and present, in-between the influence of different Metropoles, in-between different systems of thought.

In fact, the Matrix is the repository of the living history of the race. This history is physically present, because not yet destroyed. This history is present in the bodies and minds of the people who have always lived there (frequently "indigenous people,") and in those of the people who came there because it is the only place they could go. The same history is present in the variety of population, and this very fact of massive migration and immigration is not only central to the whole story of Metropole/Matrix, but is the actual record of the creation of transnational culture (as opposed to its merchandising), and one of the key reasons why, in fact, different regions of the the Matrix, often separated by vast distances, resemble eachother so closely.

Seen from the point of view of the Metropole, the Matrix represents an amalgam of archaic practices. It is a blueprint of anomalies, historical peculiarities and poor planning. The very existence of the Matrix, the dogged persistence of its practices, pose remarkable problems that go to the very heart of the ideology of the New World Order. At one extreme, the practices of the Matrix have a certain folkloric value; at the other extreme they are counterproductive, unhealthy, and potentially very dangerous to the ultimate designs of the Metropole.

All of this can be seen as a conflict between what remains of the social reality on which humanist ideas were constructed, and a certain idea of citizenship and liberty (or just " relative freedom from a central authority"), and the demands of a new idea based essentially on the implications of all the new technologies and the paradigm shift that they collectively imply. It is not by chance that this image of the medieval castle with its town below comes to mind. Because the changes under way are on the order of the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, or millennia of agriculture to the reorganization embodied in the Industrial Revolution.

Schematically (and for the purposes of this movie), the Matrix represents the accumulations of the past, and in general their populations constitute a sort of underclass who are outside. The Metropole represents the future, and also the beneficiaries of that future. The present is the sum total of all the conflicts and confusions we live with, and all these various colors finally compose a gray zone, in which the borders between this and that are constantly changing, and where great questions and small are all jumbled together in an undifferentiated and virtually incomprehensible cocktail of techniques and information.

It seems inevitable that it's this way, given the order of the changes taking place.

At any rate, while dwarfed by its counterparts in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the States, Lille is a typical Metropole in the early stages of development, and places like Roubaix, even as they are increasingly integrated in the Metropolitan sprawl, are characteristic of the Matrix condition everywhere.

THERE IS AN OLD BLIND MAN THERE:

Today what you see is: an OLD MAN, blind, here in this old red brick place. He lives there in that foyer. He spends a lot of time at the local center for the blind. He goes out and about and sometimes he sits by the canal.

What you don't see is that he has inside him the infinite variety of a life. He has around him many cultures and languages, many scars and memories, the various wonders of our passage. His travels seem to have never stopped, nor the accumulation of passports and languages that mark the transit. Perhaps these memories are all familiar and known now. They are the stuff of television and newspapers and movies. They are ordinary pieces of Matrix life. But the OLD MAN knows them his way.

The movie is not all this, but just so we share the OLD MAN's story: he was born very far away: the 30's. For whatever reason and by these chances of a life he has always been spared. And yet he has been spared nothing, and so he thinks of himself as having been saved for some reason he can never know.

A young man, they sent him here: "the best way to help us is by saving yourself. Send money." Here he worked in the mines, he worked in the brickyards. And he sent back what he could.

What happened back there was terrible: it is described all the time and is therefore beyond description: chopped meat, but slowly, over time. If it wasn't one thing bad it was another. Most everybody was killed. Those that remained waited for him.

The first time he tried to go back the borders were closed. He crossed at night but was arrested in the mountains. Beaten half dead and without his papers, he woke up in a cattle car bound for Warsaw.

It took him a long time to get back here. There was still work then. He worked in the mills. His fingers can still do the knots he did all day, clumsy now but he was fast then.

At last he had a fruit and vegetable stand. He had a wife and children. He was respected. It seemed to him that he had abandoned his mother and what was left of a family. But these were also good times and his wife wouldn't hear of leaving. These were days when he said, "I have no family except what we can touch. I have no country and can live without a country. Perhaps I have a city. This city. I have friends. I'm OK." Later, he thought this pride had brought it all down on him.

When he learned his mother was dying he went back. She was dead and buried long before he got there. There was nothing. He couldn't find his sister. His country had been absorbed by another country, the administration spoke another language, no one could help.

When he got back here he discovered his wife had left him for another man. She took the kids. Without her, or without the reason that the family gave, he let go.

Odd jobs, drinking, mic-mac, the border (there was a border then) smuggling cigarettes, friends and cards and the café at night, time runs through the fingers of one hand, forget about it. The children came to see him less and less, they said he smelled, the factories closed, everything got farther away.

It was not an accident. He was around 40 then. Before they ran away, they took the time to gouge out his eyes. After they found him alone at night fishing by the canal, after he had almost beaten them away with the iron bar. They did that so he couldn't see them. They did that to make more fear, to say that it was their place, and he had no place in it. It happened to him because he came from somewhere else. But why did it happen to him? He thought it might be punishment for how much he had not done, or done wrong, or for his pride in his own strength and resourcefulness.

At other times he thought it was because of the canal. It seemed that much of his life had been lived beside this canal. He had come to think of it as his, and as somehow representing his life, and this act of appropriation, of possession, is always dangerous and tempting to the playful gods.

In the new and permanent darkness he had nothing: no family that acted like family, no country, no gods he respected, a past which is strewn with reefs like a dangerous passage. He was alone there with himself in that darkness, and apparently condemned to live there much longer.

He thought he would go crazy or kill himself. He was in a rage and the helplessness of banging into things and falling, and the loss of the world. He cried to be led by his daughter, like Oedipus, but the daughter never came.

But it was surprising. He learned the practice of blindness so quickly that it seemed he was gifted for it. He also discovered that he was patient, and that in this patience the sounds of the world came to him so intensely that it seemed he was relearning the world itself. Then the images began. At first they seemed to depend on his memory of things, but soon he had the impression that these images were taking him places he had never been to before. At last the voices began. He thought they were in his head. But then he knew he was speaking in languages that he had never known, and talking about things that he had never been aware of living.

With considerable cunning he kept this to himself, inside himself and in his room, because he suspected they would think he was crazy and lock him up. He knew he could see the future but he thought it would serve no one and no good.

Because he can't see himself he doesn't see what others see. An old man, worn and weathered and mainly ordinary, clean but crumpled clothes, one of those depots of years tap-tapping down the street, an old sack crammed with events no one has time to find out about. Not nice but crafty, and suspicious when someone gets too close, like he might strike out wildly with his cane and growl or claw the air, and the kids do keep their distance. A gentle and attentive elder at the center for the blind. Like a stone when he is being read to, or like a still pool that things disappear in.

It is not so surprising that no one ever asked him what he saw in his blindness. Why should they? He gave no signs. But if they had asked him, he probably would have told the truth. In fact it is probably the case that truth-seers have to tell the truth as they see it whenever you ask them properly. But then, all that belongs to other times and places. It is no longer the way it was when Oedipus called on Tiresias in Thebes, or when Odysseus asked for help at the gates of hell.

Among other things, what he knew was that the world that he had lived was ending, and that it would always be there. He also knew that this red brick city would vanish, but long after he was dead and before all was bright steel and light and speed. "All this will be destroyed but it will always remain." He had this sense of it.

It is not so normal, to be conscious and persistent. So where did he get this courage? I don't know. Is it there in many of us, although frequently neither recognized nor celebrated? Was it a gift, was it a sort of exchange for the blindness?

"I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives."

I can't tell you how his story ends. To a certain extent it has to do with the development of the Plan. You see, the OLD MAN could feel the Metropole advancing. It is not just that the Plan foresees the elimination of the kind of make-do foyer in which the old man lives: this is only an incident, one hardly significant sign among many. He felt the Metropole embracing the old red brick place the way others before him felt the frontier advancing on their wilderness. The OLD MAN felt it on his skin. The cars told him.

Whether or not he got up one day and put a few things into his old bag, locked the door to his room, left the keys in the door, and walked out into the street and set off, that I can't say. But I know that he often thought about moving farther into the Matrix, the way others before him planned to go much deeper into the forest once the time came.

THE OTHERS ARE PEOPLE LIKE YOU AND ME:

In the reflection of the glass of the vast windows that give out onto the Metropole from the Planning Office, LOU can see herself laid over the old-new city below: a handsome woman, touching herself as if to make sure her body is there, wires running from the headphones to the computer, the large screen reflected on her face, the brilliant angles of chrome of the architecture, the gleaming surface of work tables and other computer terminals, and the other bodies arranged in isolated poses of concentration, as if frozen in that endless moment by the icy white light and hum of the computer fans and the air-cooling system.

But inside her head a clock is ticking. And there's an empty space where a song she once heard by Peggy Lee plays over and over again, "Is That All There Is?" Peggy Lee's lucid voice, innocent and knowing, dangerous.

What is peculiar to this machine of production (which is like any other one, just because it is architecture or urbanism only revealing these characteristics more clearly) is that once you are inside it, it is hard to get outside it. Deadlines, pressures, endless meetings of the work groups, really there is no time to think about anything else. And there is a terrible beauty in this logic of application and immersion. The beauty is the same as any obsession. The internal logic of the plan, any plan, designs its own world. If you draw a blank when you try to think about architecture or city planning, you can think instead about the production of a movie: you open that box of necessities, restraints, justifications and personalities, and all the same demons fly out. That's how it is, and since you're a big boy or girl now, you just ride the whirlwind of that new world that is growing up around you.

This story (of the planners) is not a story about bad intentions. Few people have consciously bad intentions. It goes without saying that mostly we are trying to do good. But what is that good? Intentions are integrated in a complex micro-system of thought and feeling, a conscious and unconscious arrangement of priorities, and that profile of "the greatest good for the greatest number," "or act in a way that you would have everyone act," differs in time and place and with each individual, and rather than representing a reliable "rule" or a "law," is just the battlefield of all politics, social engineering, and of the very small economy of how each one of us wants to live their lives.Intentions, sure: but whose intentions and why those? It is no different for the DIRECTOR than for the others, although the remarkable pressures to which he is subjected make his performance even more unpredictable.

 

JUST A LITTLE MORE SPECIFIC:

The idea is to graft the story of the OLD MAN, and the story of these others from another world, the PLANNERS who are making the Regional Plan, onto the details of the life that surrounds me here. That is, in the case of the PLANNERS, my invention of "Lille Metropole." And in the case of the OLD MAN, this place, my myth of "Roubaix,"even as that city projects its own passionate myth in the minds of those who live it.

I'll place the blindman and all the others in the real situations that belong to them. The idea is to use citizens, local people, to find the old man here, to use young architects and artists from Le Fresnoy, to put the Office of the regional planners where it belongs, in or around EurAlille.

Perhaps I can describe the elements out of which the movie is made, the different blocks of material that are woven together, in this way:

(1) IN THE BLACK HOLE:

The BLIND ONE is an old man in a black hole, and like a black hole that place has a massive density, and is lit only by harsh streams of white light. This black hole is: "inside him in the rich darkness inside."

People "visit" him in this dark place. Voices, forms: the throng of years. Suggestions of bodies, mainly the sound of many languages. Shouted orders. In this place the things appear: the offering of dark blood in a huge flat silver plate, this ritual he has learned from Odysseus; a blooded sword, instruments from his own battle, like the terrible blinding. As he speaks these things he can see them. And they attack him, like birds coming to pluck out his eyes again.

(2) HIS CAPACITIES TAKE HIM OUT INTO THE WORLD:

The OLD MAN travels out into the world. He travels out into everything, into other people and places and states. "Traveling": an unspecified act of will, imagination, memory and power, gives him the possibility of inhabiting anything and everything. In this form he is younger, he is all the different moments of his life: he walks along the stepping stones of his story, but he is man or woman, he is his mother and his wife and his daughters, he is his father and his father's father.

The Matrix rises up through him, it speaks through him, all these voices of all these years flood out through him.

The nameless same streets. Work in the old brickyards. The factories where his hands learned the knots. The vegetable stand. The place on the canal by the bridge where his eyes were gouged out. The canal: always back to this mirror of his life. The medium of his traveling, "the path," is the old canal that runs by the Fresnoy: a specific landscape: with a past of peniches and present of gentrification. Movement is a boat at dawn and dusk, the creation of a watery labyrinth, a waterway that is like the circulatory system of a body.

(3) THE BLIND MAN IS THIS (SPECIFIC) OLD MAN IN THIS (REAL) WORLD:

The OLD MAN lives there: in that foyer des jeunes chomeur. By his choice: to be there in that scene, which is also a cafeteria and a café where the young people hang, and just another half-way house and institution for the dust of the Matrix. He is like that, an old man with a cane, who spends some time with the children who are blind, who goes from cave to café to cave on the long Ramadan nights. He observes all the feasts and fasts and rituals of all the peoples, all those languages are in his ears, and he is also that man who buys his bread, and who talks to the Planners who come to ask about "what do local residents want in terms of the re-development of their neigborhood?"

(4) FROM THE METROPOLE IT LOOKS DIFFERENT:

The PLANNERS do speak with the OLD MAN on one or another occasion, and I suppose that he passes people on the street who are doing site surveys, and of course a good deal of this part of the Matrix is under construction permanently, and the metro is arriving, there is land speculation, the foyer is going to be closed, etc.

But the main presence of the PLANNERS and the Metropole is other. In fact, they represent the world that is mostly represented everywhere. They (and we) are the television, are the movies, are the publicity and the shape of the new products, are these attitudes and beliefs and desires, even in their most contradictory form. We are largely inseparable from the dominant point of view (even if we are constantly trying to elaborate alternatives). So the Metropole does not have "a story" (the way the OLD MAN has the story of his life). The Metropole is the force and logic of all these elements (pipes and tunnels, new airports, special transfer points for containers from canal barge to truck, the choice of an autoroute running southeast or northwest, the "virtuality of a population of 30 million inhabitants," the disappearance of old political boundaries, etc.).

How do I tell this, and weaving around the solid, compact precision of the OLD MAN's experience, this minor Homer of the Matrix? I can't tell you in detail (although many details have already been mentioned), although I am sure that to the extent we know and recognize some of the Planners, like LOU and perhaps her boyfriend SAM, they are still not going to be individuals through whom I try to "represent what the Metropole means," etc. The Metropole is much too big for that. It has to represent itself in the end, play itself, through all these pieces and parts of its presence everywhere inside us, and outside us. I have to find the right way to do that.

YOU SHOOT MOVIES:

And this one I want to shoot in film and in digital video. Everything that happens in the inner world of the OLD MAN is to be shot in film, and in the studio. You can say, it is this inner life that merits the most sensual and seductive image. "The world," the world outside, the OLD MAN outside and the PLANNERS, all these places and people, and the red brick city: that's for video, either DV or Beta. But digital video with much care and attention (you can see what this looks like in GHOSTS OF ELECTRICITY or LE MANTEAU), because it is clearly the goal (and this has to be included in the initial budget) to assure a 35mm blow-up. Because this movie is a 90minute feature, regardless of the fact that it will be made with a very small crew (2?3?), with the lightest style of production that is feasible.

 

 

   

Robert Kramer
16/11/98
Le Fresnoy
Tourcoing, France

 

an approximate continuity

opening page | snap shots | biography | filmography | letters of rejection | description of a movie | hideyuki
miyoka
| quests | timeline | ways of seeing | letter of life |
creating doc | cities of the plain | lust for life