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Side/Walk/Shuttle (1992)

An experimental short in which San Francisco is viewed from an elevator moving up and down 24 floors.

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An experimental short in which San Francisco is viewed from an elevator moving up and down 24 floors.

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5 October 1992 (USA)  »

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Totemic aesthetic movie
4 December 2011 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Side/Walk/Shuttle is fairly simple in concept, a bunch of vertical tracking shots of San Francisco, moving up high into the sky or down to the sidewalk. The sound in the movie is Babel-drone that isn't contiguous with the images, and sometimes the film is just silent.

There's no complete way of seeing let alone understanding the immensity of life in a city. Harun Farocki, in "Inextinguishable Fire", famously attempted to communicate the horror of napalm by asking the audience member to imagine a cigarette burn and then multiply the effect by a thousand. In Side/Walk/Shuttle a shot starts from the sidewalk, all the little details, flags fluttering, pedestrians, people and cars go by, then you go up from the small reality, then you've got the whole block, pretty soon you're high over the city, and finally you can see a grid of these realities, with Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower in the distance, the whole city comes alive by multiplication. This particular shot carried me away with some, admittedly very subjective, religious feelings, as if I was looking at a Caspar David Friederich landscape (Friedrich was a nineteenth century German Romantic painter). I suppose it's quite unique San Francisco in having a skyline of grids and then this one unique art deco structure that bit higher up. It reminds me of the Friedrich painting Morning in the Riesengebirge (Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin), where a pinnacle with a crucifix sits in front of waves of misty peaks.

I kind of liked how I could see different times of day, on the ground there were buses plunging into deep shadow, higher up there's still naked sun. It reminded me of being up the Eiffel Tower as a teenager and seeing the sunset, with the streets below already in evening. The colours in the movie are interesting, shades of turquoise, with most other colours struggling to show. Turquoise light coruscations on building faces as cloud shadows pass, red cars (red struggling out of brown). Buildings become chocolate-coloured coffered slabs, sideways up, when the shot is at 90 degrees, it looks like a horizontal track. So more and more in the movie Gehr decontextualises the image, and the city looks more and more like something it's not.

The shot goes upside down, and the city hangs from the earth. I remembered a childhood dream where gravity reversed. and if you weren't careful, you fell into space. Later another shot has me thinking of science fiction, of a future city that hangs from beneath a giant superstructure, like barnacles on a hull. Skyscrapers on their side can look like new and quite exciting buildings, like eastern European behemoths such as Ceaucescu's Palace of the Parliament, imagining they are as wide as they are long.

Out of the Babel-sound comes beauty, I think two of the most pleasurable sounds I know of are in the movie, early-afternoon faintly heard classical music practice and budgerigar chirping - sounds of civilised domesticity.

There's a sort of ineffable peace to the whole movie, heightened by the sound though just as much there when the sounds goes. Sometimes the sound carries British accents, and sounds like Camden Market in London, other times it's a restaurant. An accordion playing brought to mind the old world, and San Francisco's origins as a city of immigrants.

Gehr wants to play little games as well, in what's often a film of subtleties, he reverses time, so you can see all the cars move slowly backwards. Basically I think the movie is a masterpiece of aesthetics.


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