Play channels the anonymity of an urban population into cinematic stock characters.
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Midday Manhattan. Asphalt and stone, men in suits, black sedans, shadows, and stark winter light that cantilevers between tall buildings. This is the setting for Martine Stig’s second film Play, a ten-minute sequence shot in New York’s financial district. Like her earlier film Suto-ri, a dreamlike montage of passerby in Tokyo, Play consists of candid shots taken in public space and composed to suggest a skeleton narrative. A man lingers on a sidewalk; a woman in heels stalks down a deserted street; a car with tinted windows draws alongside a work entrance; a call is made, hands gesticulate. The gestures caught by Stig’s camera evoke storylines of intrigue mapped over the conventions of film noir (high contrasts and sharp tailoring) and the traditions of iconic New York imagery (from Edward Hopper’s crisp urban palette to the precise geometries of American photographers like Sherrill Schell or Berenice Abbott). They are allusive, suggestive, anonymous, thin. Which is to say that Stig’s montage constructs its skeleton narrative, not through the rich associative resources upon which Sergei Eisenstein based his montage theory, but through its typicality or familiarity. Play channels the anonymity of an urban population into cinematic stock characters, whose lack of precision finds its aesthetic counterpart in the scrupulousness of Stig’s shots: the black shadows cleaving the figures, the distinct edges of the architecture, the clean lines of the tailoring—all precise and nameless.
The ideal city seems, in fact, predicated on anonymity: the anonymous, universal subject of “the city” itself, which administrates the comings and goings of the people within it. In the celebrated chapter “Walking in the City” in his 1980 book The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes of the totalizing scenario imposed by urban planning, and the individual pedestrians who, rebelliously, articulate new and disorderly uses of public space. He writes, “They are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it […]. The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces…” In light of this, Stig’s Play plumbs greater depths than simply mnemonics of cinematic clichés. For the “play” Stig constructs appears to record precisely such a story, which seems scripted by the rigid architecture of the city and its image, and yet takes place everyday with no author, no spectator.
Even Stig’s presence, as the author of the film of the play, is all but undetectable. So absorbed in suggestive actions are her expertly composed shots that the voyeuristic, even slightly illicit activity of Stig herself—who, like a private eye, uses a telescoping lens or powerful zoom to get a close shot—can go unnoticed. Only in the final shot does a man finally catch note of Stig’s watchful eye, staring it down as if in a stand-off. It is a subtle, tense moment that summons the dramatic volte-face in the Hollywood classic The Conversation, in which an alienated surveillance professional, obsessed with unraveling the obscure narrative surrounding a commission, reads the story wrong—and ends up on the wrong side of the surveillance bug. This might be the real narrative in Play, the one under the hum of the city and its stock stories. And where better to portray the scenario of this most insidious power-play than Wallstreet?