CITY OF WOMEN (2009)
Single Screen Projection
10 mins 4 sec
Their Nocturnal Poioumenon: Notes on City of Women
by Maria Fusco
Evaluating the lithe proximity of narrative and remonstration Jaki Irvine’s short film City of Women was shot on one long night in Foley Street. A diverse range of women volunteered to meet and stay together in the darkness enacting twenty-nine gestures with intimate precision.
Clustered together like that in the sodium penumbra, it’s difficult to tell how well the women know each other: the camera moves carefully through their uneven groupings: half-watching, half-observed itself.
No one on the street could have anything for nothing. Even the most useless object. It happened everywhere, shoplifted books, furniture off the back of a truck,
the worn and the used, peoples’ lives on the ground, bargains on blankets.
Irvine extracted the twenty-nine gestures from William Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress - a series of six etchings produced for financial profit in 1732, concerned with exploring, as Hogarth writes in his Autobiographical Notes (circa 1764), “modern moral subjects”. The
opposite it would seem of our own contemporary interpretation of ‘progress’. The original etchings track the demise of Moll Hackabout, an archetypal eighteenth century ingénue who arrives in London only to be speedily corrupted by an older scheming woman. Moll’s physical attractiveness marks her fate and demise into common prostitution, with the inevitable finitude of death from a venereal disease, aged just twenty three. There are no redeemable characters in The Harlot’s Progress, no one may be trusted or respected, and even in the last etching Moll’s coffin is being used by her mourners simply as a place to put their booze on.
Irvine invited her participants to rethink Hogarth’s twenty-nine gestures obliquely, concentrating on making a selection of the small yet significant movements their own. This extraction of gesture has a redemptive function, transforming the hackneyed archetype of the misguided harlot and her depraved consorts into direct action, shot through with the considered repetition of the participants in City of Women.
The street looked like a woman who’d seen enough of life and wanted to sleep it off,
push the guy away from her, go home, except she couldn’t.
One persistently fiddles with the top button of her blouse - a little distressed perhaps, hard to tell - whilst another observes her with care and winks towards someone I can’t quite see. A single heeled black suede shoe droops dejectedly from the hand of its owner, not needed for the nonce. A polished silver pocket watch links a couple together briefly before resting from its chain. Two middle fingers touch slyly for a moment. An index finger breaks a circle, then pokes around a mouth. Too many hands touch too many
faces for me to remember each one; I do know that most are caresses and just a few are shields. Tired wrists are rubbed, squeezed or simply inspected. Some of the younger women sit on the edge of a kerb stone, gilding the gutter. The right knee eases its way out of the thick tights, already too late to mend. Many white tissues are consumed, some with tears, most not. What? What are they saying?
She was home. For the duration of the evening, these women’s inhabitation of the street and careful attendance to each other neutralizes the workaday functionality of Foley Street as minor thoroughfare smack bang in the middle of a large city, instead rending the street into a dialogical space that critiques contingent expressions of public access.
She laughed out loud. Here physical movements are presented as percept rather than as description: the women’s theurgic actions are not meant for me as viewer, their intimate arrangements vibrate to their own internal logic. And, through careful reiteration of the twenty-nine gestures, Irvine’s film encourages the women to cultivate, perhaps even to invoke within themselves, the acknowledgement of their right to their own place, and indeed their right to have just such a place in the inner city. But with composure. But with generosity. But with tact. But with authority. But.
Some will never be clean enough, some can’t clean, some don’t want to, some are doomed,
some want others to do it for them, some hate putting their hands in hot water.
Some love filth and shit and dirt, some roll in it. Not that many, but some.
Just as the discursive space in City of Women is constructed from the correlations of gesture rather than solely of speech, so too is the filmic space. Irvine paces this work with an editorial procedure that is essentially aporetic in nature. The film’s temporal span proceeds not to one specific conclusion - unlike the progress of Hogarth’s harlot who hurtles prematurely towards her syphilitic grave - instead we have been invited to proceed by watching curiously, to keep a close eye on things. The literal motion of the camera is, in its own subjective way, a dialectic gesture, for whilst showing us the constituent parts that come together to make the film, the camera also appears to be watching them. The slow fade after each defined moment of interaction between the clustered women allows our camera to sigh gently. What the camera’s pause for breath lets us know is that archetypes have no place here, for archetypes can exist only at the end of sentences, and not in the middle.
There will always be someone who will tell us that we don’t belong here.
The street was holding its collective breath.
We won’t breathe until the night says yes.
All quotes in italics are borrowed from No Lease on Life by Lynne Tillman,
London: Vintage Books (1998).