Last week, I dragged my wife to see the film Babeldom. This was the first feature movie by the award-winning animator Paul Bush.
The picture is a profound meditation on the urban condition, employing stunning imagery, as well as superb computer animations.
The film is visually overwhelming. But it is not for the faint-hearted (my wife fell asleep a short way into the movie).
That’s the problem with art-house movies. Like “Babeldom”, they are often not very gripping as entertainment. They demand hard work of the viewer.
There is no clear linear narrative. Instead it revolves around compelling images accompanied by a quiet reflective commentary.
Through this montage of scenes, a fictional city is depicted, a city which is a stand-in for the city-as-such, the metaphysical city.
Fundamental to Bush’s vision is the identification of space and time within the spatiality of urban experience.
Early in the film, one narrator makes the simple observation that the city’s past continues to exist; under our feet lying the archaeological remains of ancient buildings.
But, it is then imagined that the people of these past timelines are also still alive, continuing simultaneous existences to our own.
And in a mental leap, the idea is extended, to conceive that just as the past continues to exist, so the future city also already exists.
Past, present and future cities therefore co-exist, below and above each other. The past persists but lower down, in a vertical structure, where the future occupies the upper reaches of the city.
Spatiality reflects temporality. As buildings grow, they extend upwards, towering above the present-day, in huge concrete-and-steel structures, illustrated by film of today’s urban mega-structures.
Within these urban chasms, daylight seldom penetrates, and roofed-over areas of the lower city form virtual tunnels where the disenfranchised live and move and have their being.
The film progresses through a conversation between two characters, both searching within the city for its meaning.
What becomes clear, however, is that whereas one is an archaeologist, working in our present, the other, also exploring the past, hails from sometime in our future.
The flux of urban living is unsettling when one arrives in the metropolis. But the temptation to withdraw and hide anonymously actually prevents one from adapting.
The only solution to the chaos of urban life, its speed and busyness, is to throw oneself headlong into the stream, plunging into the maelstrom.
The survival strategy? Not escaping but celebrating the city’s abundance, entering the mystery, and surrendering to its flow.