This week I was down in London to see a rare screening of two documentary 16mm films, Mur Murs (dir. Agnes Varda 1981) and Get Out The Car (dir. Thom Andersen 2010). Both films explore and employ direct artistic engagement within the urban environment, they document the city of Los Angeles – specifically the Mexican/Chicano barrios at the unfashionable edges of the city. Hand-held camera (a particular forte of 16mm film) slow sweeps across architectural decoration, walls, murals, buildings, painted shop fronts and empty spaces. The films both come across as quite psycho-geographical in intent.
Mur Murs embraces the “immersive dreamscape” of the city’s murals. Giving sequences of street art shots: from the spontaneous folk art of graffiti, pietas of Guadalupe galore, hand-painted retablos and adverts, through to therapeutic public art and rehabilitative art projects, this subject is close to my heart, see my essay Criminal Damage? Nah mate! I’m a muralist in the Social Realism style. Focussing on a handful of recognised muralists from Chicano and other traditions, Varda intersperses interviews, reconstructions and interactions with their works and the people who live in the streets around the murals. Philosophies, histories, communities, cultures and milieux emerge. Although many murals have been demolished, obscured, built-over, overpainted or rotted forgotten, many are seen preserved in tact in the warm, dry Californian climate. The film was made in 1981 and I wondered how many remain 30 years later. Is street art necessarily transient?
Thom Anderson’s Get Out The Car seems to say that it’s not just transient, it’s virtually extinct. The title of the film is an injunction to stop the car and start looking about. Made in 2010 on old obsolete 16mm film stock, the documentary has a patina of the twentieth century about it. All the more apposite since the film concerns the loss of shared local cultural heritage. A montage of disused billboards, archaic neon, derelict buildings, emptied shops and historic clip joints reduced to parking lots. Laid out in long lingering shots with a collaged soundtrack cut to the image, as primitive as it is scratchy. As the film progresses I was shown decommissioned advertising hoardings where scraps of image curl and coalesce with previous peeling adverts, shadow faces bleached of colour flutter away from the memory of the other faded faces underneath, the poster layer below. There were faces, ghost faces and jumbled cut-up words hidden in the raggle-taggle remnants of an advertising medium from the last century.
It struck me later that roadside hoardings are a defunct format nowadays, pretty much universally superseded by the internet. Why shout to them from the side of the road when they’re pissed off stuck nose to tail at a junction, when you can sidle up to them while they’re happily distracted downloading pornography at home. The disappearance of street art in Cambridge in the form of billboards was brought home to me a few years ago whilst on a ‘bollocks sticker’ seeking psycho-geographical quest, which is documented in Walking in circles for fun.
Prior to going to the cinema, I had been down Sun Street to visit the Bank of Ideas. An outpost of the occupylsx movement camped outside St. Paul’s…(to be continued…)