Overegged but not a pudding

Atlas of Emotion
July 4, 2003

It is probably fair to say that Giuliana Bruno's first book has one of the most evocative, if mysterious titles of any in the field of film studies: Streetwalking on a Ruined Map (1993). What those seduced by its promise made of an elaborate 400-page structure erected over three surviving films by an obscure Neapolitan film-maker in the early years of the century can only be guessed at. For some, at least, it became a cult: recklessly suggestive, metaphorical, digressive. Who cared about the family firm of Dora Films and its largely lost output if the journey to and around Naples was so exhilarating?

Now, ten years later, Bruno returns with another unclassifiable and equally engrossing book that extends the texture and many of the themes of the first, this time with the help of superb illustrations throughout.

However, a warning is needed. This is emphatically not a book for those who like things cut and dried, purposeful or analytical. It is for those who cherish all kinds of non-practical maps, from the allegorical epidemic that followed Madeleine de Scudery to modern virtuosi such as the Situationists, Daniel Spoerri ( An Anecdoted Topography of Chance ), Italo Calvino and Peter Greenaway. Its method is little short of promiscuous in linking diverse artists, works and media; and readers of a tidy disposition may feel panic as Bruno presses ever-more parallels and connections. It is also personal to a degree that some may find offensive and others risible, with a catalogue of self-advertising acknowledgements and frequent passages of self-consciously "fine writing".

Even so, I believe it is a valuable book, and Bruno's wearing of her heart on her sleeve - indeed taking us beneath her skin - is an important part of her strategy. She tells us that the book's long gestation was interrupted by illness as her womb was invaded by tumours and she was forced to confront the collapse of metaphorical and pictorial anatomy lessons into a very literal "road-mapping" of her own body. Some may find this play of concepts obscene, she acknowledges, but is it not the experience of any writer that their book has a physical as well as a psychic relation to the author's body? So we either accept Bruno as our embarrassing but endlessly informative and provocative guide or we decline the journey.

If the book has many interrelated themes, its six chapters offer at least the appearance of a rallying point. "Architecture" surveys the familiar images of the modern city circulated by such now-classic films as Rene Clair's Paris Qui Dort, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Walther Ruttmann's Berlin, Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera and Jean Vigo's A Propos de Nice.

Hardly original, but it becomes more so in the ingenious context of a discussion of the new cinema architecture that was contemporary with these films, ranging from Bauhaus geometric to trompe l'oeil Moorish. In the second part of this chapter, Bruno makes striking use of Sergei Eisenstein's theories about the relationship between montage and architecture, informed by examples from contemporary practice, to pursue the idea that we experience architectural space cinematically - or rather, the cinema is the latest in a long history of apparatus that help us understand our being and moving in the world.

Much of the following three chapters, "Travel", "Geography" and "Art of mapping", is devoted to a re-reading of the forms and technologies that used to be lumped together as "pre-cinema". Thanks to work such as Ralph Hyde's on the panorama and Jonathan Crary's on the stereoscope, vastly more is now known about the spectacular and optical media that preceded cinema's faltering debut; and Bruno brings to this rich field a "gendering" it has often lacked, drawing on the work of Gillian Rose and Doreen Massey.

Tracing the career of the pioneer traveller and lecturer Esther Lyons brings to light a mass of assumptions and transgressions about gender and geography, which are then further explored in relation to the histories of the picturesque, of garden design and of "emotional maps" as female emblems.

To some extent, "M is for mapping" is the most conventional chapter, consisting of a detailed cross-referencing of Greenaway's work on screen and in situ, with his remarkable series of installations in locations such as Geneva and Venice. But it also represents an unusually rich and idiomatic discussion of Greenaway's talents, which have too often been underestimated in his native country because they fail to conform to notions of gallery or cinema propriety. This, of course, is what makes him an ideal subject for Bruno.

The book spirals back to Bruno's native Italy, here revisited through the allegory of Roberto Rossellini's Passage to Italy, in which Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders rekindle the ashes of their love through contact with the past, at Pompeii, and the primitive, in the religious festival that engulfs them. Bruno cannot resist adding that she revisited Naples after the death of her father, where she found a box covered in pictures with which he used to entertain the children. It is, like the rest of this rich compendium, "overdetermined", or as we used to say, overegged. But it is also wonderful; and for those not allergic to Bruno's excess, it captures some of the excitement of fitting discovery to theory in a way sadly missing from much fossilised academic "film theory".

Ian Christie is professor of film and media history, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film

Author - Giuliana Bruno
ISBN - 1 85984 802 8
Publisher - Verso
Price - £35.00
Pages - 484

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