A Man of the Crowd: The Flaneur and the Modern Artist

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Man of the Crowd: The Flâneur and the Modern Artist

In The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire suggests the artist immerse him or herself into the flux of the present in order to best represent the qualities of the modern age. Baudelaire writes: “The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested, but also to its essential quality of being present” (Baudelaire 793). For Baudelaire, the essential quality of being present is best seen in the activities of the flâneur, an idle walker and passionate observer of the complexities of the modern age. It is the flâneur, a person completely immersed in the crowd, who can best represent the intricacies of the age. Although written nearly a century and a half ago, Baudelaire’s theory of the flâneur and the modern artist is still relevant today, and can be seen most notably in urban photography and film. Below I will discuss Baudelaire’s theory of the artist and the flâneur in his discussion of Edgar Allen Poe and Constantin Guys—who Baudelaire refers to as Monsieur G.—as well as how it applies to the urban narrative film, as best seen in the work of Martin Scorsese.

I. Charles Baudelaire, Monsieur G., and Edgar Allen Poe

In discussing the role of the modern artist, Baudelaire champions the sketches of Constantin Guys, an artist whose immersion into Paris street life produced an important artistic rendering of his present. Baudelaire describes Guys as a “man of the world” and a “passionate lover of crowds,” and it is Guy’s immersion into the mass culture of his society’s “present” that makes him important in the eyes of Baudelaire (794). Guys represents the flâneur artist whose curiosity and artistic gifts create an art that best represents the era. It is in Baudelaire’s discussion of Guys that Baudelaire theorizes the idea of the flâneur artist. In discussing Guys, Baudelaire describes the attributes of the flâneur as being the same attributes of the modern artist. Baudelaire writes:

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, and to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—such are few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can clumsily define” (795).

In order for the flâneur—an acute observer and participant in the crowd—to become the great modern artist, he or she must distill the activities of the crowd and turn his or her enthusiasm into art. Not only must the flâneur love and feel at home in the crowd, but the gifted flâneur, the artist, must be keenly aware of the sensations, the colors, and the general ambience of the mass. In discussing Guys, Baudelaire also uses the short story “The Man of the Crowd” by Edgar Allen Poe—which Baudelaire refers to as a picture—to describe the mindset of the ideal flâneur artist. In “The Man of the Crowd,” a convalescent man observes the street life of London through the window of a coffee house. Recovering from a close encounter with death, the man’s senses are heightened with his returning strength. As the sun sets, and with the streetlights lit, giving an unusual mood about the city, the man decides to walk into the crowded nightlife. The narrator describes: “At this particular period of the evening I had never before been in a similar situation, and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, therefore, with a delicious novelty of emotion. I gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in the contemplation of the scene without” (Poe 475). As the narrator walks into the crowded streets, he describes the minutiae of the city with great fervor, and with the curiosity of a man who has broken the shackles of familiarity, seeing everything anew. Once in the streets, the narrator becomes fascinated by a man—a flâneur—in whose activities he becomes obsessed. The narrator follows his curiosity without conclusion. The unknown man is just another man of the crowd. It is this curiosity, along with the heightened sense of convalescence, that becomes important for Baudelaire’s theory of the great flâneur artist. Baudelaire writes: “Now convalescence is a return towards childhood. The convalescent, like the child, is possessed in the highest degree of the faculty of keenly interesting himself in things, be they apparently of the most trivial” (Baudelaire 795). The flâneur walks among the city solely for the experience, observing what most people never notice in their rush to their ultimate destination. But with senses acting like those of a child, the gifted flâneur sees everything in the street as a new phenomenon. It is in the mind of the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd” that this heightened perception of sense and curiosity is recreated. In Cites, Words, and Images, in discussing the story in relation to the poetry of Baudelaire, Patrizia Lombardo refers to this unknown man as being homeless. Lombardo writes: “To the narrator’s surprise, there is not rationale in the old man’s circuits. Disquieting allegory of the city, the man of the crowd inhabits the streets, condemned to be eternally outside, without a home, without a name” (Lombardo 62). While this is an interesting interpretation of the unknown man’s plight, it is a negative outlook, which Baudelaire would probably contest. [In discussing the poems of Baudelaire, Lombardo further writes: “Like Poe, Baudelaire characterized the big city as the place of the homeless” (62).] While Lombardo makes a good case, I disagree with her assertion. Although the unknown man is never seen in what would be regarded as a traditional home, the unknown man’s home is on the streets, immersed with the crowds. He is, as Baudelaire describes the flâneur (quoted above), “away from home” and “everywhere at home” (Baudelaire 795). It is in this omnipresent condition that the modern artist distills the present to create great modern works. This idea can be seen in Baudelaire’s own writings. In discussing the flâneur aspect of Baudelaire’s literary output, Marc Eli Blanchard describes the best manner for depicting the city—emblematic of the modern age—as being through flânerie. He writes:

“Cities are made for and live in the present. The best description of the city would be one which would integrate separate views of the city taken by a moving observer in the midst of a moving city. Such is the theatre of the flâneur. Mobile locus of the observer/observed, it synthesizes the city each time by making each of the scenes it features the equal, the symbol of the whole city” (Blanchard 82).

This observation echoes Baudelaire’s own theory of the flâneur’s activities as best representing the modern world. According to Blanchard, the city, representative of the present, is best discerned by the walking observer, whose observations integrates the continuous, seemingly random, activities of city life. The flâneur artist sees everything—the rich, the poor, the beggars, the clerks, etc.—and represents all without prejudice, each part becoming equally important to that of the whole. Blanchard furthers the idea of the flâneur artist with discussions of Baudelaire’s prose poems (click here for a few translated in English). Blanchard writes:

“Out of the crowd appear individual figures: ‘The Evil Glazier,’ ‘The Widows,’ ‘The Old Mountebank.’ The city has become a stage, a spectacle, and while the timing of the appearance is unpredictable, the subject can attune himself to these happenings by preparing himself for everything. He is the flâneur. Walking desultorily through the city and paying attention to the way the city begins and ends before his very eyes, he is able to seize the time, the moment, of the appearance, and he is shocked, at times even transported, by the revelation procured through the encounter…” (77).

Again, the flâneur artist sees all and interprets all for the spectator, in this case the reader. Blanchard’s reference to the eyes of the flâneur is important in that images play an important role in flanerie art. Baudelaire suggests this when he describes Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” as “a picture (it really is a picture!), painted—or rather written—by the most powerful pen of our age…” (Baudelaire 794). For the flâneur artist, images are of extreme importance. Blanchard describes this visual aspect in his discussion of Baudelaire’s creative writings depicting city life. Blanchard writes: “The city is never real. It is more like a series of pictures, of vignettes, made to be read by everyone in his own way…” (Blanchard 74). In contemporary times, the image has gained further importance artistically, and the flâneur artist’s distillation of city life is still of importance. This can be seen in one of the most recent, and perhaps most modern, art mediums existing today: Cinema.

II. Monsieur S.: Baudelaire’s Theory of the Flâneur and Its Relation to the Film Artist

Monsieur S.

“In a similar way to the painter Constantin Guys in ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ Scorsese likes to get immersed in the reality of the city, what can be called its carnal presence. Then he selects and creates images that carry the fullness of his impressions” (Lombardo 203).

In the above quotation, Patrizia Lombardo compares Constantin Guys, Baudelaire’s darling modern artist, with Martin Scorsese, the darling of contemporary American film. Like Guys, Scorsese observes the intricacies of urban, crowded streets—this case being New York City—through a heightened perception and creates, with his talented eye, the great art of our present era. Like Baudelaire’s description of Guys, a description of Scorsese easily lends itself to the theory of the flâneur artist. This can be seen in the relationship of flânerie theory with the theory of film, and with a description of two of Scorsese’s finest New York City films: Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) and Bringing Out The Dead (Scorsese, 1999).

In The Art of Taking a Walk, Anke Gleber discusses the similarities of flanerie and early filmmaking—concentrating mostly on the work of film theoretician Siegfried Kracauer, and the early films of the Lumiere brothers. Gleber writes:

“The flâneur’s territory is the street—the very scene also inhabited by early film. His fascination focuses on images in their colors, forms, and light—also the very emphasis of any cinematic picture. Ultimately, his primary impulse moves along with the dynamics of flanerie as a form of perception-in-movement, in this way incorporating the very principle of the new kinetic art of cinematography” (Gleber 139-140).

Unlike the fantastic themed work of George Méliès, or the literary adaptations of other early film work, the Lumiere brothers turned their camera to the events of the street—a crowd of people leaving work, or a train arriving at a station, for example. According to Gleber, the gaze of the camera—and ultimately that of the director—acts in similar manner to the mental activity of the flâneur. Gleber writes: “The work of reading the street, therefore, translates exteriority into a text: a flaneuristic text—itself a kind of film—that occurs via the apparatus and the lens of the mind” (148). It is in the visual aspect of the flâneur’s mind that a simulation of the film apparatus takes place. The processes of the medium of film, as theorized by Kracauer, therefore existed in the minds of flâneurs prior to the invention of filmmaking. Gleber further states: “Despite the differences from the technical aspects of film-making, the flâneur moves through the streets according to the very similar impulses and structures, separated from the filmic process only by the absence of the technological apparatus” (156). The flâneur artist, therefore, can be seen as a precursor to the film director in that the filmmaking apparatus acts as the tool for the realization of a director’s vision. Recalling Baudelaire’s reference to Poe as a painter, the film artist is able to convey the theory of the flâneur artist in its ideal combination of visual and narrative means. Prior to the invention of cinema, the flâneur writer often wrote like a camera, capturing images with a pen instead of a camera. Gleber writes: “In his effort to redeem exterior reality, the flâneur defines himself as a medium that registers the appearance of objects and transports them, through writing, into a text that is attentive to both visual detail and optical specificity” (152). In this sense, the flâneur author and the film author break down the barriers between the medium of writing and the medium of film. Therefore, the flâneur writer can be seen as a bridge between the arts. Gleber suggests this in his description of the flâneur writer as acting like the urban film director. Gleber writes: “Even as he edits his writing, the flâneur shows himself to be a reserved and deliberately restrained director, one who refrains from making cuts and intrusions, one whose eyes are guided by the incessant flow and life of reality, a director whose principle is to facilitate the attention he extends to objects” (154). In this description, the flâneur author is described as a director in the vein of the Lumiere brothers, who were the precursors to documentary film. In this sense, the flâneur author, as theorized by Gleber, directs cinema verité rather than mainstream narrative. However, like Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd,” the urban narrative film—especially those aspiring to realism—portrays a strong sense of flanerie. Aspects of the flâneur artist can be seen in the work of Martin Scorsese, a director of great repute and skill, whose work in urban films best represents the flâneur artist of contemporary times.

“I grew up with the homeless and the alcoholic and all the derelicts really. And I was sort of split between a decent family and the bottom of the barrel, so to speak. The dregs, they become non-persons. They just wait to die. And you see them in the street everyday.” –Martin Scorsese, 2000 (from interview on Bringing Out the Dead DVD).

Martin Scorsese began his directing career filming on the streets of New York City—or, more particularly, Elizabeth Street in Little Italy, where he grew up. Inspired by the Italian Neorealists—directors who filmed cheaply on the streets of Italy, often with non-actors, shortly after the end of World War II—Scorsese’s subject matter consisted of what he knew best: the crowds of New York City. Therefore, in keeping with Baudelaire’s theory of the flâneur artist, Scorsese’s chosen subjects are ideal with flaneuristic art. Patrizia Lombardo writes: “According to Baudelaire, the painter of modern life should choose his subjects from everyday existence in the city: traffic, crowds, theatres and night-life. The painter of modern life must immerse himself in urban life. Scorsese belongs to the line of great artists who express the complexities of urban reality, and consider that the imagination composes by freely combining and putting together elements of the world” (Lombardo 201). In discussing Scorsese’s work in relation to the flâneur artist, the best examples of flanerie can be seen in two Scorsese films: Taxi Driver and Bringing Out The Dead. In both films, the protagonist—Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) in Taxi Driver, and Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) in Binging Out the Dead—acts as an allegorical figure for the flâneur artist. Both films are primarily concerned with the subjective representation of character, and both films open with a visual montage of the city at night, recalling the description of the London in Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” In keeping with the theme of the egalitarian observer of the city, the protagonist is exposed to all aspects of city life, creating the same mindset of the flâneur. (Gleber’s assertion of the flâneur as acting like the film apparatus begs for a reflexive study of both films, with the added themes of voyeurism and scopophilia.) In both films, the narrative structucre is representative of the flâneur artist’s immersion into the crowd. Lombardo writes:

“In the metropolis there is no clear-cut beginning or end, since anything can take place anytime and anywhere…As in Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd,’ the life of the big city has no beginning, middle or end; it can start at any point in time and space and continue like an infinite narrative; it implies repetitions, going back and forth. A linear sequence of time and events is totally inadequate to represent time in the metropolitan space” (190-91).

In Bringing Out the Dead, the film’s narrative occurs over three days—a simple snapshot of a time and place. There is no real plot in the Hollywood sense (which might explain its neglect by movie goers). The only events portrayed in the film deal with Pierce’s wandering the streets, assisting people in need. The narrative of Taxi Driver is a bit more complex, but still conforms to the the narrative style of flaneuristic representation. The narrative of the film—which involves Bickle’s mad desire to make a difference, albeit through horrific means—is placed within the daily activities of urban life. Lombardo writes: “…all the rides in the cab through the streets, at the beginning and at the end of the film, place the time of the story in the continuous traffic of New York: ‘any time, anywhere,’ according to Travis’s words” (193). The events, much like the events of Italian Neorealism, are placed in the normality of the city. The chief actions in Taxi Driver occur when Bickle becomes obsessed with a face in the crowd. Like the narrator’s obsession with the unknown man in “The Man of the Crowd,” Bickle follows Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker, and later Iris (Jodi Foster), a young prostitute with whom he had brief contact on the street. However, unlike the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd,” Bickle succeeds in learning about the lives of the two women, culminating in the orgiastic violence he uses to “free” Iris from her plight. In Bringing Out the Dead, Pierce, like the narrator “the Man of the Crowd,” never learns about the life of his obsession. Throughout the film Pierce is haunted by the image—which he calls a ghost—of a transient asthmatic named Rose, whose death he witnessed as the result of his failed attempt at resuscitation. Pierce sees Rose’s image everywhere; in the face of drug dealers, prostitutes, and generally anyone he comes into contact with. Unlike the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd,” Pierce cannot overcome his obsession by simply abandoning a chase. He can only overcome it by forgiving himself the blame of the woman’s death.

Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. from “The Painter of Modern Life.” Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 789-802

Blanchard, Marc Eli. In Search of the City: Engels, Baudelaire, Rimbaud. Stanford UP, 1985.

Bringing Out the Dead. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Nicholas Cage, Patricia Arquette, Ving Rhames, John Goodman, and Tom Sizemore. Paramount and Touchstone, 1999.

Gleber, Anke. The Art of Taking a Walk. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Lombardo, Patrizia. Cities, Words, And Images: From Poe to Scorsese. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Man of the Crowd.” The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. New York: Vintage, 1975. 475-481.

Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Robert DeNiro, Jodi Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, and Harvey Keitel. Columbia, 1976.