Babeldom 10.06.13

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Babeldom begins with clouds sweeping across the screen to a Carmina Burana-esque choral accompaniment. They soon part to reveal film-maker Paul Bush's first trick: the view is not aerial but side-on, and the clouds are billowing past the Tower of Babel in the painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Now that we know which way we're looking and what we're looking at, the camera pans across and down an animated version of the scene. The mood and style then change again as, suddenly, we are in Babeldom – not a relic from 1563, but a city of the future.

We tour the city, starting at the sewers, then along train tunnels and up spiral staircases into the upper levels. Bush calls his first feature-length film a "science-fiction documentary" and Babeldom is organised around two fantastical conceits: as the city rises, its foundations are sinking ever deeper and this sinking is also temporal – the upper city is moving into the future. Bush dramatises this concept through a pair of separated lovers. His female narrator is an archaeologist in the present day; the male voice an explorer of the upper city, a citizen of the future, who writes letters to her from Babeldom. The device recalls Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, but Bush's text is less elegant and more declamatory: "This city is so full of sorrow even the buildings cry tears," says the archaeologist at one point.

Babeldom is most interesting when it expresses its ideas not in words, but in rapid displays of visual ingenuity. Bush has said that after making longer films, he suddenly realised that "five minutes is a wonderful amount of time to make a film in". He has called the results "one-idea films" and some of the male narrator's dispatches to the archaeologist are indeed like a series of shorts in different styles. These range from a Tron-like, pseudo-mathematical explanation for the city's ceaseless expansion, to the creation of a universal language based on the major scale. (The language, in which the word for "cat" is "do fa re so", makes all other forms of music unbearable and fails.) Before our tour of the city begins, a contemporary London A-Z map is laid over several earlier versions. We peer through the gaps, slowly at first, before the layers start peeling off, to reveal the city's subterranean depths. Later, an account of Babeldom as a city of flows and computational crowd-modelling is like a lecture by Patrik Schumacher.

Descriptions of the city's governance and expansion throw up striking scenarios, but the details are left vague. The old and the poor still live in the lower city; only the parliament buildings are moved up "stone by stone". Society is becoming more authoritarian: "Soon in the city, everything will be forbidden or compulsory."

The filmed representation of the city is a montage of footage from 14 cities, including Berlin, Hiroshima, Shanghai and Zurich, as well as London. Bush isn't making the banal point that the financial districts of major cities resemble each other; he's more interested in making everywhere look like London. Nor is it clear that we're meant to dislike this composite city. The complete absence of people in the filmed footage makes Babeldom eerily beautiful, not dystopian. Perhaps it's not meant to be futuristic at all. As the male narrator says, "People travel into the future and don't even realise."

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Babeldom, directed by Paul Bush, 2013

 

Image

Paul Bush

 

Words

Fatema Ahmed

quotes story

Bush has said that after making longer films, he suddenly realised that "five minutes is a wonderful amount of time to make a film in"

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