Where? (1979) and Visible
Cities (1991) were made specifically
to help me live at least temporarily in an alien landscape, one
where I found myself because of a job and where I knew I had to
find a way to inhabit even if only for a few months.
The first film There? Where? was made
quickly in two months. I just had that much time to look, learn
how to drive and figure out how you could function in a landscape
that was so different from the well-traveled streets and avenues
of the cities I knew like New York or Paris. At first the impossibility
of walking to conquer the distance between things was what was so
astonishing. You discovered a land whose topology suddenly made
you face the impossible, like finding passage over a canyon and
you see that it can’t be crossed in a straight line and needed
to be contoured. Learning to drive was the only way you could move
in this terrain where rules were all different from the nineteenth
century concept of the city with public thoroughfares that I knew.
A segregation of usage was practiced; you found one space for work,
another one for residence and a lot of empty spaces in between.
That nothing ever mixed was a fact of life in the Southern California
terrain that was so different from what I had known before. And
you saw that once-used, space could be discarded and you could move
elsewhere rather than maintain, rebuild, rehab as there were doing
in the East and the middle West of the US in the late seventies.
All around you, there was still so much of undisturbed “chaparral”
name given to the native habitat full of jackrabbit and wild life
that it was easier to open up new areas for building than fix the
old. What you were confronting was patches of unused spaces or barely
lived-in condominiums far away from each other’s and large
deserted freeways to connect them all. Looking at it, being immersed
in it, you could without effort internalize the island syndrome.
The rest of the world isn’t there. You are in your own bubble.
Reading and listening to people confirmed what I saw.
I was then preparing another investigation of the landscape of
the American West from the perspective of the immigrant, the one
who just arrives, discovers wilderness and has trouble understanding
the concept of it and doesn’t know1. I needed to
test how to use voice-over against images of landscape and There?
Where? was made to investigate how fragments of dialog
would work when they are heard as if floating in space, ungrounded
and disconnected from the image.
Coming back ten years later, but this time to stay, my second look
at the Southern California landscape confirmed the extreme rapidity
and fluctuation of what was happening. The next film Visible
Cities would take two years to shoot and edit. I needed
the time to see how things were built. I wanted to trace an ongoing
mutation rather than only get a snapshot of what was there. Having
already my own history with the terrain helped me see that time
passing was needed2.
I knew that what I was witnessing was visually interesting although
only editing of succeeding stages could help reveal it. You had
to circle around the construction sites bringing to the fore the
classic problematic of where to live and how. A story that is everyone’s
story but here you plan to buy before it is built. You have to imagine
the future. The concept of home is also skewed toward the private
as the essential luxury, negating how privacy at all cost is linked
to an absence of community that can be debilitating.
I decided that I was going to shot the colonization of the land
by shooting over two winters when the light is clearer and the pollution
doesn’t show. That should give me enough time to see things
built and meanwhile I did a lot of reading about Southern California’s
history in particular Mike Davis’s book City of Quartz.
I wanted to show how one usage replaces another one, in my case
in Del Mar north of San Diego in a wealthy area close to the beach,
how greenhouses were displaced to make way for a rapid buildup of
instant cities. How to define those cities was my task. One question
imposed itself. Are cities and homes the same thing?
I had always admired Italo Calvino’s books and at some point
I was reminded of his book Invisible Cities that I had
read many years before. What better than a dialog between opposite
concepts of cities, as imagined by Calvino? His dialog was between
the nomadic ruler from Asia Kublai Khan and from the merchant city
of Venice in its splendor as the gateway to the Orient, the great
traveler Marco Polo. Khan and Polo imagine multiple kinds of cities
and it was the multiplicities of the various possible that fascinated
me. In my case I decided on two average women, not wealthy and instead
of being rulers and powerful they would feel threatened. As in Calvino’s
book, my two women would engage with the philosophical underpinning
of what they saw or imagine could be. I needed something to justify
my circling around the terrain and found the key to my structural
problem by inventing two women looking at it. That decision of grounding
my protagonists in their imaginary helped transform what could have
been just a documentary look at the land into a reflection about
what is home.
Still today, I feel that concretely imagining living somewhere
and doing it are intertwined. We continue reinventing what we do.
Babette Mangolte, Copyright © June 2004
1The film The Sky on Location
was made the following year. In addition to pictorialism and wilderness
the film explores how looking at empty spaces free the mind from preconceived
ideas as the changing light acts as a source of endless stimulation
and demonstrates to the spectator the concept of transience.
2It is almost astonishing to think that both films There?
Where? (1979) and Visible Cities
(1991) were shot in many of the same places although it is invisible
to today’s viewers unless they themselves were there and lived
through those transformations as what was before has been erased.
That history could be erased was what I found so appalling and wrong
and it informed the dialog in Visible Cities.