Monday, January 21, 2013

Bicycles, Walls and the Passage of Time

Over the holidays I received a DVD of a film diptych that I'd long wanted to watch: Cycling the Frame and The Invisible Frame, directed by Cynthia Beatt.

In 1988, Beatt made the short film Cycling the Frame. Described as a "cine-poem," this 30 minute documentary follows a young British actress (Tilda Swinton) as she cycles along the perimeter of the Berlin Wall in what was then West Berlin. It is a 100 mile journey along mostly abandoned roads and overgrown dirt paths crossing forests and fields. The ever-present wall, with its menacing guard towers, turns the landscape surreal: It severs railroad tracks, creates paths to nowhere, and separates waterfront properties from the bodies of water they front. As Swinton pedals, she vocalises her stream-of-conscience thoughts about the things she sees and how they make her feel. As she grows tired of cycling and overwhelmed with her surroundings, the film begins to resemble a dream sequence. Finally she arrives to her Brandenburg Gate start and concludes that "this place is mad."

More than two decades after the original journey, the director and actress set out again to film the follow up, The Invisible Frame. In 2009, they retrace their route along the now long-absent Berlin Wall. A visibly more mature, sharper dressed Tilda Swinton cycles the perimeter, this time weaving back and forth across the phantom border. There are signs of life now: The roads have bike lanes and motorised traffic. On some of the dirt paths we see joggers, dog walkers, children and other cyclists. But despite an apparent return to normality along these stretches, the majority of the landscape is no less eerie twenty years after the wall's removal. We see abandoned buildings, barren fields, dingy looking lakes, random bits of strangeness. It's as if scarred, dead space remains left where the separation used to be. Disconcerted, Swinton meditates on this as she pedals, concluding that "when one wall comes down others come up."

While these aren't cycling films exactly, the prominent role of the bicycle is impossible to ignore. From a practical standpoint, a bike was necessary to make the films happen. Much of the route along the real/ phantom Wall is not accessible to cars, and traveling 100 miles on foot would not have worked with the scope of the project. The speed of the bicycle matched the speed with which the narrative needed to flow, and even the camera crew traveled via a cargo recumbent. As each film progresses, the bicycle begins to seem increasingly important, merging with Swinton's visceral sense of self. She starts to mention it in her stream-of-conscience utterings, to talk about space in relation to not just her, but to her and the bike, to confuse herself with the bike. While this contributes to the mystical feel of the films, it will also be recognised by cyclists as a completely normal sensation to have during long rides.

It was interesting also that the bicycle seemed well-matched to Swinton's person in each of the films. In the original, the actress's flowing clothing looks worn and a little disheveled; her hair natural and slightly unkempt. The bike she rides is a rickety swoopy mixte with faded paint. In the newer film, Swinton is dressed in a stylized and sophisticated manner. She wears architectural-looking clothing and shoes. There are sharp angles to her haircut, her hair now a platinum blond. The bicycle she rides is angular and modern, its paint metallic. This transformation in personal style and bike echoes the rift I felt between the earlier and the latter films. Cycling the Frame came across as spontaneous and exploratory, whereas The Invisible Frame seemed stiffer and more choreographed. The actress/cyclist is no longer the same person and does not relate to this landscape in the same way. She talks about openness, but speaks in political and philosophical generalities and is seemingly less present in Berlin itself.

Can we ever recreate an experience, or re-visit a place? And can we ever really understand another country, as we tour it on a bike with a foreigner's benign detachment and predatory curiosity? These are the questions these films, with their collective 200 miles of cycling along a real/ unreal wall perimeter, ultimately seem to be asking.

If you are local and would like to borrow my copy, drop me a line. The Invisible Frame can be viewed on netflix, but the original Cycling the Frame was not available online last time I checked.

34 comments:

  1. after more than 30 years of absence I recently made a little trip to former east germany.
    both of us tried to detect the border or something in the landscape indicating where the west and east had been but weren't able to. it seemed hard to believe to me that in 20 years since the wall came down all traces of underdeveloped infrastructure and traffic could be erased.
    but then when viewing the area from a bird's eye perspective through online images the separation becomes very clear again. the landscape is drastically different in some places between east and west.

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    1. In 2007, I could easily tell by the feel of a neighborhood whether it was East or West, but could not sense where the border was.

      They are apparently "putting back" some of the wall now, to preserve the history and maintain tourist interest.

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  2. This is a fascinating post and such a thoughtful analysis. I now really want to watch this film. I'm teaching a Germany Today class this semester at my university and could see a really interesting point of discussion being: how would this film look like if it were filmed today, in 2013? How would the mood and scenary change once more to reflect the changes that have occured since the 1980s version.

    To address some of your questions, I don't think we can ever recreate an experience. Or perhaps we can and the whole point is that it won't ever be the same, which is what makes the 1980s version more authentic than if it had looked just like the first version. The second version, though seemingly more formal and posed, reflects the way that a 1980s director and actor identified with their surroundings and the medium of their art. I'd be fascinated to see the route retraced yet again today.

    Thanks for writing about this and bringing this to our attention!

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  3. I think it is difficult to recreate an experience and re-visit a place. Especially in East Germany, things have changed so rapidly after having been stagnant for so long, that the place really isn't the same.

    I am glad I cycled along the Baltic Coast of East Germany just months after reunification. When I returned years later, I did not recognize most of the places, and much of the charm had been lost.

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  4. "The Invisible Frame" is available on Netflix streaming...

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  5. Just watched The Invisible Frame via Netflix. Thanks for sharing. Now I must find Cycling The Frame!

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  6. “...a foreigner's benign detachment and predatory curiosity”

    Nice turn of phrase. Also “stream-of-conscience” is a Joycean variation on “stream-of-consciousness” that works well in this context.

    Best,

    Bob

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    1. “stream-of-conscience” is a Joycean variation on “stream-of-consciousness”

      hadn't realised

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    2. I'm not even sure that stream of conscience exists, I think it is only stream of consciousness as used by Joyce and Woolf. ( sorry to be a pedant, it's a great review)

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    3. "Stream of consciousness" was the phrase I meant to write. But it was too early in the morning, and this happened instead.

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    4. Damn you, autocorrect!!

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  7. Rob and Cameron - Yes, Invisible Frame is available online, but the original movie is not. If anyone has a source, please do post a link.

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  8. Invisible Frame is available for streaming on Netflix

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  9. The way you've described it it sounds like a substanceless 48 (et al) Up.

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    1. The followup, something like that. The 1988 film is the one worth watching.

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  10. "No man steps in the same river twice" is of course Heraclitus.

    Lovely review. Thanks

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    1. nah, that's Plato paraphrasing in the Cratylus. Heraclitus' original wouldn't be so prosaic. Plato even records one of Heraclitus' followers suggesting that you can't even step into the same river once.

      Authentic Heraclitus river fragment: "On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow." Where 'same' can apply to both the rivers and the people stepping in.

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  11. Wonderful post, perfect for your blog in every way!

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  12. Nice post, the original film, Cycling the Frame is available from Icarus Films on their website for $24.98.

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    1. fyi you can find the same dvd on amazon for $15.18

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    2. Another FYI - the title of the DVD is The Invisible Frame, but in fact it contains both films (and some commentary). And yes the one on Amazon is the same.

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  13. I should have included the link in my previous post: http://homevideo.icarusfilms.com/new2011/cycl.html

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  14. I've been wanting to see these as I love Tilda Swinton, Cycling the Frame especially. i love Twilda and happy to see her in anything and a bike involved? All the better. nostalgia trips can be disappointing as the global consumer corporations and monoculture are everywhere and it becomes hard to tell places apart. Even in the country, lovely countryside can vanish to housing developments, and precious memories buried with them.

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  15. I was born in West-Berlin 1968, but my parents had enough of being enclosed by a wall and the practical sadism of the east German control personal on the border (they all were members of the Stasi, the east German state security organisation), as well as of the predominant “frontier thinking” (many people in the western part of Berlin saw themselves as kind of heroes, simply because they continued to live in a city amidst the communist eastern block) and for this reason left the city in 1976 (by random coincidence this was the year in which the highest net loss of people living in Berlin occurred – 40.000 people left), taking me with them of course.
    In 1992 I returned to Berlin, but had to leave again in 2007 because of my job, so I think I took my share of leaving and re-visiting this town. Of course, I’ve been there often even in times when I could not live there, but I think my perspective on this town and its change processes over time is different from people who lived there continuously. And while it is true that Berlin has changed a lot since the wall came down, notably in the eastern part of the city, but my impression is that there are still many residues of former times, and many things did not change at all – below all these new surfaces in many places there are many very old ‘base lines’ that remained unchanged over the times and over the changes of political systems.
    “Can we ever recreate an experience, or re-visit a place?” – It may be difficult to recreate an authentic East German/East Berlin experience today, but it is very easy to recreate an authentic West Berlin experience and to have a unique time travelling experience, and does even not cost you a fortune – just take a ride on the regular city bus line 218, and with a bit of luck (or planning ahead) you will travel in an original bus from the 1960s or 1970s on a route that remained virtually unchanged over the decades: http://www.traditionsbus.de/linie_218.htm (website is in German only) – this works without any special preparations and just requires a normal Berlin public transport ticket that you can buy everywhere (but don’t expect the bus drivers to speak English readily or even fluently …). If you are in Berlin and have some time on your hands, this is an experience you should not miss, although you may very well come to the conclusion that things were not necessarily better in the past - but at least they looked better sometimes …

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  16. My impressions are that in the center of the city, development by opportunity and design has wiped out a lot of the obvious signs of the old division. And the new realities of the city's gentrification and influx of foreign and domestic residents has shifted the obviousness of various neighborhoods' history. But once you get out to the edge of the city, the old line is still much more obvious.

    I think the city's divided history still operates as an important marker for those of us old enough to remember the cold war. This too is fading into history however as all things do.

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  17. I'll bet it was the time wasted on those Narnia films that did in Tilda's spontaneity.

    At least the first sounds rather interesting.

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  18. I am in the middle of reading Dervla Murphy's book _Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle_. In 1963, she rides alone through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan on the way to India - with a .25 automatic in her front pocket(!). It is an amazing story and full of place names that are so familiar to us now from the war. I have been thinking the whole time about the impossibility of re-doing the trip. (I highly recommend - and there are several copies in the local Minuteman Library Network to checkout.)

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    1. I keep getting suggestions to read this book. It's on the list.

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  19. Last week the Times ran a somewhat amusing article about Swabian transplants in Berlin reacting to local resentment toward their driving up housing prices by defacing public property with spaetze noodles.

    While the Times played up the obvious parallel to trust fund kids gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods, I could not help but think perhaps that this deep into reunification perhaps the economic and cultural differences between the wealthy conservative southwestern germans and the northeast that played such an important role in prewar German politics are resurfacing.

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    1. Perhaps. But equally (if not more) likely is the scenario where the people protesting Swabian gentrification are themselves transplants from western Germany, worried at the prospect of their cozy Berlin lifestyles being shaken up...

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  20. Just a note that 2 parties are in line for the film now. Assuming I will get it back, I'll be happy to keep lending it out.

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  21. For anyone interested, Berlin has done a good job over the last few years of transforming the entire stretch of the Berlin wall into a well-signed bike trail. Not just the segment separating West and East Berlin, but also the much lengthier segments separating West Berlin from East Germany -- roughly 160 km in all -- are functioning as bike trails. Here's a link to the city's site with maps etc (at least some portions should also be available in English): http://www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/verkehr/mobil/fahrrad/radrouten/de/mauerweg_1/index.shtml

    In central Berlin where the tourist attractions are, the distinctions between East and West Berlin are harder to detect. But as one pedals away from central Berlin either northwards or southwards, it's very easy to tell the differences between the two halves of the erstwhile divided city, either through differences in the built form or simply because huge stretches along the former wall still look a little like no-man's land.

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  22. For some odd reason I'll watch just about anything with a bicycle moving along. Just the simple change of scene takes the place of a plot. I quite liked 'The Invisible Frame'. Very peaceful. That's why I like my bicycle riding so much.

    I think old movies really do capture as much of the past as can be done. I especially like all the odd little details that weren't even intended to have any meaning. I'm fascinated by details like the way that curbs and lamp posts were constructed in the 1920's in Charlie Chaplin's movies shot on location, the general peaceful sense of emptiness that most old movies have. There's scarcely a car on the roads - it all seems so peaceful and quiet compared to now.

    Vintage foreign movies also seem to really capture the times. Some of my favorites are 'The Knack and How to Get It' which captures so much of 1960's London... and Les Bonnes Femmes that has so many details of a forgotten Paris.

    Pictures are worth 1,000 words generally I think.

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  23. Both films are on one DVD with extras from www.filmgalerie451.de
    There is also the website with photographs, bike tour and reviews/interview/sounds, etc.
    www.invisible-frame.de

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