Forgotten Cities

By Stephen Barber


Film can reactivate the memory of cities which have been destroyed

As we waited for the greatest intensity of darkness to occur, at 3am in the morning, in order to project the contents of the third of the ten rusted film-cans onto the cracked surface of the disused digital-image screen, the projectionist boy and I watched as a scattering of lost souls and inveterate travellers traversed that city of ruins, some on foot, others on mopeds. I could see that the film-projection zone enticed and tempted them. A few travellers wandered over and asked when the next film-show would begin. I explained that each act of projection could only be performed at a moment of extreme darkness, because of the digital-image screen’s resistance to accommodating film images – so, the screening would not take place until 3am, and even when it did take place, it would last for only one hundred seconds, and form only a fragment of an image, since the projector was ailing, and could tolerate nothing more; those lost souls nodded in grave agreement, as though binding themselves into a contract of vision. In turn, I asked those of the travellers who had been heading east if their destination-point was a city of immense stone faces, but they shook their heads in bewilderment, as though they had never heard of such a city. All they could speak about was an immense lake which they had seen on their eastward journey here, within which a long, spiral-shaped jetty had been constructed into the water, and a great city then built on the surface of that spiral, which extended from one of the lake’s sides; I realised that the boy and I must have passed that spiral-city on our own journey from the megalopolis, but that it had somehow remained invisible to us. Once those lost souls had stopped, they were in no hurry to re-enter the suspended animation of their directionless transits, and began to construct seats for themselves out of the debris of the urban terrain, clearly anticipating with elation the void hours to come, before the moment of the film-screening. The lost souls gradually grew in number as the evening went on. Then, at 3am, they all took their places, fifty feet or so in front of the digital-image screen, eager-eyed, as an audience. I realised that they were beginning to construct the foundations for a new city, based on film. As the boy started to crank the generator and projector into life, I abruptly remembered, from my speed-reading of a torn page of the history of cinema, that the first-ever film-screening for a paying audience had taken place on the night of 1 December 1895, in a magnificent ballroom, on an avenue in a city of Europe, at an event promoted by two young magicians, Emil and Max Skladanowsky, who had projected their own films of the cityscapes of Berlin. That seminal act, of meshing film with money, had irrevocably set the future course of cinema. Now, I found myself overseeing another first act of cinema for an audience, in a precarious new era of the human species that had begun at the moment of the megalopolises’ digital crash. But I decided that, as the accidental overseer of this epochal event, I could not make the same mistake as the Skladanowsky brothers; in any case, I had no choice, since money itself had now been utterly annulled in that filmic zone, along with the corporate power and technologies of the global megalopolises, and the eyes and memories of their inhabitants.

When the boy prised open the rusted film can, he discovered it was filled to capacity with three reels of celluloid; those reels spilled out onto the ground in their apparent eagerness to be projected, as though they had been ready to burst the can apart if the boy had not opened it at that exact second. I watched the boy kneel in front of the disgorged entrails of the film cans. He concentrated, and shut his eyes, as he reached out to select, by instinct, the fragment of one hundred seconds that would be projected to the audience of lost souls and travellers; it seemed as though, in that trance, he risked exposing himself to the omniscient higher authority of some seer or oracle of vision, who would determine that chosen fragment, in place of him. In any case, after ten minutes or so, he reached for one of the reels, unwound most of the celluloid, and used a razorblade to gouge out the fragment that he desired. Then he activated the projector, generator and sound-speaker, and abruptly fed that fragment into the projector’s upper orifice, initiating the film-screening; the decrepit sound-speaker exhaled an incessant white-noise hum. In the profound darkness, an image of a human head suddenly appeared on the cracked digital-image screen, and the audience collectively exhaled in astonishment, at that apparition; a few of them muttered to themselves in unease, as though they feared a malediction that lay within that image. After a second or two, I realised that I was now face-to-face with the film-image of an assassinated, shaven-headed urban philosopher.

Stephen Barber is one of the most imaginative cultural geographers currently working. He is published extensively by Berg, Creation and Reaktion books.