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This piece was written in response To:


Closer

by Dryden Goodwin


This film was screened on White Screen in full throughout July 2015. A clip of the work is available to view on the FILM AND VIDEO UMBRELLA website here.



Film courtesy the artist and Film and Video Umbrella

Across (Closer)

Closer yet I approach you,

()

Who knows but I am enjoying this?

Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

— Walt Whitman, ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ (1855)

 

 

You can make someone look at you if you stare at them long enough. So I learned many years ago riding the bus to summer camp, staring down the motorists on the Long Island Expressway. I’d press my nose to the plexiglass windows and bear down on them with my eyes. Invariably the man in the blue Toyota would turn his head quizzically to the left, and up to my level.

 

What is the power of the gaze, that it defies the laws of physics, pierces through our blind spots, emits a signal that registers on some extra-sensory frequency?

 

It’s an invitation. A request to its object to be transformed into a recipient, and therefore an agent. But not, necessarily, to be reciprocated.

 

Is it always a display of power? Is there always something dominating, or even sleazy, about looking? Is that why we look back, our brains hard-wired to repel the invasive stare? What do you want? What are your intentions? What are you looking at? the receiver of the gaze demands.

 

Does the gazer even know?

 

 

*

 

 

The social psychologist Ilan Shrira, in Psychology Today: ‘That ESP-like feeling you get when you’re being watched is your brain telling you, in a barely perceptible way, that something meaningful is happening.’

 

 

*

 

 

‘I imagine a Parisian building with its façade removed, so that from the ground floor to the attic, all the rooms in the front are instantly and simultaneously visible.’ This was Georges Perec’s idea for his Oulipian masterpiece Life a Users Manual (1978). Perec was inspired by a Saul Steinberg drawing, a cross-section of a New York lodging-house allowing the viewer to see into its twenty-three rooms. Onto this quintessential New York building Perec superimposed his Haussmannian immeuble, adding yet another layer all his own: a 10 x 10 chessboard onto which he plotted a series of moves following the knight’s path, in order to explore all the spaces in this building on the fictional rue Simon Crubellier, joining Zola’s Pot-Bouille in the (small) canon of great French novels about apartment buildings and executing the art of constraint on a previously unrealised scale.

I, on the other hand, imagine a building with the façade on. I imagine a glimpse of what happens inside.

 

Not a prurient peep. Not an unveiling like the naked man I once saw in his brightly lit, curtainless Hoxton flat in one of those modern glass buildings overlooking the canal with the huge floor-to-ceiling windows, a very expensive fishbowl. I was with a group of friends, walking home after dinner. We stopped and looked and some of us turned away and some of us kept looking, to see what would happen with the woman waiting for him in the next room.

 

More like a sudden drawing back of a curtain, or a world half-visible in the gap between its drape and the edge of the window. Like the sudden appearance of my neighbour across the street in my old apartment on the Left Bank, who would open the doors of his French window, move his desk up in between them, and set to work on his model aeroplanes. At least I think they were model airplanes; I could never see quite well enough to make out what he was gluing together.

 

Not long ago I saw a beautiful book called Vis-à-vis in the bookshop by my flat. It was a collection of photographs by an American artist, Gail Albert Halaban, of people inside Parisian buildings spied through their windows. Halaban shot from a safe distance. She doesn’t zoom in too far, just enough so that the faces come into view, no closer. She’s interested in the world, in the context, not in the interior life of an individual but the interior life of a home.

 

It’s a good title, vis-à-vis. It means face-to-face, though we use it in English to mean ‘in relation to.’ But in the context of French real estate, it means you can see into the apartment across the street, or next door. It is generally considered undesirable to take an apartment with a vis-à-vis. We might be caught off-guard, unprepared to be seen. The intimacy of the private sphere might be breached. Those of us in our vis-à-vis apartments, we hang curtains.

 

Halaban’s photos are so beautiful they’re suspect; there’s something apartment porn-y about them that makes them attractive but diminishes their power. (The antithesis of Halaban’s photos? Kima’s window moment in The Wire. Good night hoppers. Good night hustlers.[1]) Those perfectly weathered Parisian buildings, distressed without having known too much distress, their biscuit-colored stucco topped with grey zinc rooftops, gabled to make room for maid’s room windows sous les toits. Some haughty, Haussmannian, with well-manicured inhabitants. Some short and stodgy with artists inside, judging from their clothes and their musical instruments. It’s not clear if the book is for Parisians to ogle each other or for the rest of the world to ogle Parisians. I don’t think it can be both.

 

I do a bit of looking around on the internet and find the shoots were all staged; everyone in the photos knew they were being photographed, had given their permission. That takes something away from them. We want to look in at people caught unprepared; if we open a book called Vis-à-vis it’s at least partly for the surprise of coming face-to-face. Or at least, to be faced with their face, without their having seen ours.

 

I found a video where Halaban explains what she was up to, anticipating allegations of voyeurism. ‘Some people think it’s creepy,’ she says. ‘But if you look at my photos of Paris you will realise I’m a friendly window watcher.’ In art, perhaps we want our window watchers to be less friendly; perhaps friendliness is the enemy of brilliance. Outside of art, we don’t want to be caught off-guard. We want to be the masters of our photographic profiles, curating our feed, beefing up the filters and retouching the flaws. We want to control the gaze when we are its object. But is there room in the cityscape for a watcher who’s not an artist, but not a voyeur, either?

 

Whether or not the people inside are performing their inside-ness, the photographs are striking visual vignettes with an aesthetics, and a politics, of surface. Whether art has to violate the surface is a matter for reflection.

 

 

*

 

 

I have a Gustave Caillebotte postcard I bought many years ago, before I moved to Paris, of zinc Parisian rooftops in the snow, and I kept it by my desk for years before I moved here, alongside another Caillebotte, the one of the workers stripping wooden parquet. (Caillebotte’s paintings are looked down on by the same people who dismiss things as too attractive. The discerning are suspicious when they feel aesthetically pleased.)

 

I kept them by my desk that way to make myself work harder, so one day I could have a view of the Parisian rooftops. Now that I’m here, I’m perennially hoping the next flat I live in will have that perfect view.

 

I want to see rooftops but don’t want to live in a tall building. I grew up in New York and have lived at many different heights in the city, once as high as the 26th floor. In New York, the higher the floor, the higher the price per square foot. In Paris it’s more complicated. You don’t want to live too close to the ground (a rez-de-chaussée will always be a difficult proposition on the market), but you don’t want the top floor either, sous les toits, under the aluminum rooftops, which are badly insulated, hard to heat in the winter, and will cook you in the summer. At what height it is acceptable to live is a question of experience and savoir faire. But I think the reason we don’t want to live up so high in Paris is because we’d be the only ones up there for miles, or meters, we’d lose our relation to other buildings – and why do we live in cities, if not to be in relation to others? In New York, up on the 26th floor, you have other aerie-neighbours.

 

I want to be high enough to see the rooftops but not New York high. I think what I’m looking for is an apartment on the top of a hill.

 

 

 

*

 

 

Where we live now overlooks where two roads come together to form a V, with our five-storey building on one arm, and another on the other, joined in the middle by a squat two-storey building in the shape of a triangle, like the Flatiron in New York, but less remarkable in a city built on the spokes of a wheel. We live on the fifth floor with an elevator but no balcony, because this is not a Haussmannian building. We are under the toits. It doesn’t matter too much because this is only temporary, a sublet until we can find a place to buy. As the dusk falls blue and the lights warm up yellow it’s like living in one of Halaban’s photographs, looking across our neighbour’s roof to the people filling the other building. At night the dark compresses, brings us closer together, while the light draws our attention, a lens-less zoom. From our height we can see into so many windows at once. A woman in a red sweater watching TV. A figure moving around behind a glazed window – a bathroom perhaps? There’s the trendy man and woman whose turquoise chair I once photographed because I liked the way it looked against their rustic wooden table. I hoped they wouldn’t spot me; how would they know I was not leering, but admiring?

 

Halaban cites Baudelaire’s poem ‘Windows’ as justification for her project. ‘What we can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what we can conceive taking place behind a pane of window glass.’

 

But sometimes what we want to see is nothing more than the pane of glass. Or more precisely, the composition within its frame. We don’t only want to look beyond it, we want to look at it. Who knows what we are seeing when we catch sight of our neighbours? Who are we to look past their surface?

 

 

 

*

 

 

It’s Halaban’s justification I find interesting. It’s human to want to connect, she says.

 

But it’s also human to want to elude this connection. We don’t want people to get too close; the word eavesdropping comes from people who would stand so close to someone else’s house that the gutters would leak on them. (So I learned from Matthew Beaumont in his recent book on night-walking, another suspect occupation.)

 

 

 

*

 

 

We are privy to so many constraints, not least in the way we look, and the way we look. The way we live, and the way we must be seen to live. In this way we are all, to some extent, Oulipians. Whenever I hear someone talk about the toits and how you don’t want to live under them I think of the song ‘Sous les toits de Paris’ (which I always confuse with the Edith Piaf song ‘Sous le ciel de Paris’) from the 1930 René Clair film of the same name. The film begins in the sky, with shot after shot of the chimney pots, slowly shifting to show more and more of the city in the frame, until finally the camera begins to move, taking in this upper place in one long gasp, moving through smoke, while the sound of a group of people singing wafts up from below. The camera emerges from the smoke to get a better look at the street, slowly traveling past its houses leaning every which way, their stucco façades still awaiting the sandblasting they will receive seventy years down the line. I know it’s a soundstage in Epinay but it looks like the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine. In one window someone is cleaning a wall. The camera moves past her, towards the street below, where a group of people has gathered to listen to and sing along with Albert, the hero of the piece. Someone in the crowd has a very fine baritone. A woman in a fetching cloche hat leans in a doorway below a sign that reads WINE WOOD COAL, a throwback to those days when you could buy these things in the same shop, usually run by people from the Auvergne region of south-central France. Sure enough the next close-up reveals a sign hanging outside that reads ‘L’Auvergnat de Paris’; watching it now conjures up a lost world, or one that only ever existed on a soundstage. The coal shop: a subtle reminder of the source of the chimney smoke we’ve just come through, responsible for the gentle grime on the buildings, a weathering agent, like time, on their façades.

 

Clair’s film was one of the first talkies, it lays it out right there in the trailer: here are some scenes from the sonorous, speaking film SOUS LES TOITS DE PARIS. With the talkies, for the first time outside the theatre, audiences could listen in on what other people talked about when they were alone. Watching movies is a kind of eavesdropping.

 

 

*

 

 

Halaban’s photographs have as their antecedent Edward Hopper’s paintings of New York windows, especially his 1928 painting ‘Night Windows’, in which we glimpse from somewhere outside – scholars suggest the Third Avenue Elevated train – a woman inside her apartment, getting ready for bed. The contrast between inside and outside is striking, the building full of shadows, unknowable somehow; the apartment is filled with bright electric light, the furniture and carpeting flat against the yellow field of the wall. What we glimpse in the frame of the window must have been Hitchcock’s inspiration for Rear Window.

MoMA says, in its catalogue notes, that ‘the painting exposes the voyeuristic opportunities of the modern American city, and the contradiction it offers between access to the intimate lives of strangers and urban loneliness and isolation.’ This strikes me as the most obvious possible reading. What access do we really have to their intimate lives? Why fixate on loneliness and isolation? Why not conjugate the painting as an exercise in mutual solitude? Is it voyeurism because she’s in her skivvies? Because the slow curve of the building echoes her round bottom? Because of that curtain, blowing out of the apartment into the night, diaphanous, like her slip? A wish on the part of the painter, for the slip to be shed, to be reduced to a piece of flimsy fabric? For inside and outside to connect, for what’s inside to slip out the window?

 

Can’t there be something banal in looking, rather than eventful? Can’t it be one of the solaces of everyday urban life? What if looking isn’t an invasion, or a violation?

 

And how can we ever know, anyway?

 

 

*

 

 

When we look across to our neighbours at night, even from the safety of our own homes, swaddled inside our interiors, what is it we think we see? What could we possibly comprehend that would allow us to cross the distance? I think of another Long Islander, riding the Brooklyn Ferry in the middle of the nineteenth century. ‘What is it then between us?’ he wonders, contemplating the commuters who ride alongside him, the people who have ridden, who will ride, we who read his leaves of grass however many hundred years downriver. ‘Whatever it is, it avails not – distance avails not, and place avails not.’ Whatever it may mean for me to look at them, or for them to look at me – it avails not. What matters is the contemplation. Looking across, I catch my neighbours in the act of living. I don’t venture into thinking about their lives, who they are, what they do, not really, not often. It’s enough to know they’re there, and I hope it’s enough for them knowing I’m here, on their level, a friendly window watcher.

 

 

*

 

 

Some things we can’t get closer to; some things are more interesting at a speculative distance. In Dryden Goodwin’s film Closer a man in a restaurant is seen through the window, from across the street. Impenetrable. Now his roaming camera finds a woman in a cafe; we don’t see who she’s sitting with, and talking to, she’s half the screen and the building she sits in the other half. Has she even noticed anything about it? Thought about its texture, its Evening Standard sticker stuck on sideways? Goodwin, blurring the line between curiosity and creepiness, caresses the shoulders of strangers with his laser. His camera notices her ear, her mouth chewing, quickly (has the film been sped up?), her shoulder peeking out of her sleeveless top, the grain of her skin so smooth compared to the building. The lights of the city rest on the window, drawing a blue line across her face, and red letters above her head.

 

Other people in the world keep their distance and we keep it for them.

 

 

*

 

 

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) is a work near-contemporary to Hopper’s painting, though they represent such different worlds I can hardly believe that only three years divide them. I often think of the scene in which Clarissa Dalloway watches the old woman across the way as she is getting ready for bed. At first she thinks the woman is staring straight at her. ‘Oh, but how surprising!’ she thinks. ‘Could she see her? It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed alone.’ This is the scene that I talk about with my students year in, year out, the one I tell them helped resolve all sorts of existential anxieties for me when I was their age. They always seize on different aspects of the scene. One class talks about how alone she feels, but companioned in sight of this woman; another thinks she doesn’t feel lonely at all, that the old woman does; another talks about the cyclical nature of life, the woman going to bed, just as we all do, only to wake up the next morning and do it all again, with the inevitable promise of an interruption to that cycle, and its continuation for those we leave behind. All agree there is nothing voyeuristic in it; they think Mrs Dalloway wonders if the old woman has seen her not out of concern at having been caught looking, but more out of Clarissa’s need to be seen, to register on the surface of the world. Mrs Dalloway is, somehow, out of sync with the party behind her, but she reaches a moment of connection with the old woman across the way. ‘All novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite,’ Woolf wrote in her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.’ All creativity, indeed, must begin with observing another human not so far off from oneself. It is not the measure of genius how far beneath their surface we can plunge; brilliance is essentially a characteristic of surface.

 

Art is voyeuristic, art catches a glimpse. It looks in at the same time it looks out.

 

 

 

[1] As night falls, Kima sits in the window of her Baltimore apartment with her little boy, naming all the things they can see, in a ghetto riff on ‘Goodnight Moon’: ‘Goodnight moon, Goodnight stars, Goodnight po-pos, Goodnight fiends, Goodnight hoppers, Goodnight hustlers, Goodnight scammers, Goodnight to everybody, Goodnight to one and all…’


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is writing a book about women walking in cities, called Flâneuse (Chatto & Windus, 2016). Her first novel, Une Année à Venise (Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson) was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs at the Rue des Livres literary festival. She is also the co-author, with Scott Esposito, of The End of Oulipo? (Zer0 Books). A frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and The Daily Beast, as well as a contributing editor to The White Review, she lives in Paris.