Pluto - Pluto - Pluto

21 December 2013

One of two accounts of a walk undertaken in Zagreb on 7 December 2013, soon after attending Film Mutations 07.

During the winter, my favourite time of day is the brief window that follows sunset, when the natural light of the sky falls to an irrevocably deep blue above the manmade illuminations of the urban space below: headlights, street lamps, brightly lit shop fronts and the many sconces that help show off a city’s museums, cathedrals and other architectures of import.

Cities appear to be at their most populated in these hours, as people begin to return home—from work, from school, from shopping. Perhaps contradictorily, it is also when cities seem to be at their most ruthlessly unaccommodating, characterised by an en masse shift from a space of flux and mobility to the more private and enclosed space of the home. Shops close, shutters are pulled down; trams are too full to take any more passengers.

Consequently, there is also something romantic, perhaps even erotic, about such hours. The promise of imminent darkness, the possibility of huddling together, the inherent intimacy of a shared locale; these all facilitate a kind of mental wandering, allowing and perhaps even encouraging one’s mind to drift into the realm of dreams. They are also attributable to movie-going: darkness, intimacy, the erotic connotations of connection and the romance of a collective space are all found in the cinema.

Such conditions allow one to perspectivise, to be at one with oneself in a space inhabited also by others—other selves, to whom one is also an other. In these hours of the possible, one may relax into a particularly and peculiarly receptive state, open to all kinds of transitions and epiphanies—which, of course, might bring with them their own fits of acceptance, contentment and resignation. Winter evenings in urban space are at once transformative and comforting, conducive to a revolutionary spirit as well as to the most conservative lethargy.

It was during such hours that on Saturday, 7 December, I set out with my colleague and good friend Neil Young for an evening of wandering in and around Zagreb. It was our last night in the Croatian capital, having arrived a week earlier to attend the seventh edition of Film Mutations. We had begun the day with a certain grogginess, having spent the previous day in Varaždin, to the north, after which we had indulged in some beers to celebrate the news of my acceptance onto the Young Critics Trainee Project at the forthcoming International Film Festival Rotterdam. Neil wished to see two films, though upon being told that one was a four-screen installation and the other was unlikely to be subtitled, we began instead to meander the city centre.

Neil took me to see a statue he had arrived upon one afternoon earlier that week, of a dog named Pluto. Pluto is honoured on the Bogovićeva Ulica side of the Oktogon, an arcade that runs diagonally through what used to be a savings bank. The Oktogon links Ilica and Margaretska Ulica in downtown Zagreb. The savings bank was designed by the Hungarian-born architect Josip Vancaš. As the accompanying plaque explains, builders adopted and fed the stray dog during construction work in 1899. The dog safeguarded the site from thieves; it is reported that it was killed one night by a burglar.

Zagreb, in fact, has two Plutos. In addition to the commemorated canine, there is the planet, installed as part of Davor Preis’ Nine Views, a model of the Solar System that was implemented, with little publicity, in 2004. Nine Views was devised in response to The Grounded Sun, a golden 1971 spherical sculpture by Ivan Kožarić. Since 1994, The Grounded Sun has been situated on Bogovićeva Ulica; it is visible from Pluto the dog’s location. Each of Preis’ planets is proportionally distanced from and sized in comparison to Kožarić’s original globe.

Enjoying the fresh air, and figuring that a prolonged stint outside might do us some good, I suggested that we should extend our walk. Neil suggested we go find the other Pluto, which we had half-seriously promised to seek out prior to arriving in Zagreb, having briefly read about its whereabouts. Of the nine planets situated in Zagreb, Pluto is the only one without a specific address. All we had to go on was that it was locatable in an underpass on Aleja Bologne, a dual carriageway that extends westward to the edge of the city.

As the hours passed and we headed further and further out of the city, a casual stroll took the shape of some crazed military mission, of some ill-advised pilgrimage. Our meandering conversation would gradually become consumed by an obsession with the elusive orb. The journey began at around half-four in the evening. It ended at around half-ten.

Heading west on Ilica, the road that extends from Zagreb’s centre onto Aleja Bologne, Neil stopped to buy some fruit. From my vantage point outside the store, I could see a second hand shop across the street. Having to adjust the settings on my camera to pick out the details of the building opposite, I noted how dark it was already—how quickly the royal blue of early evening had been engulfed by a dirtier tinge of polluted indigo. Not yet anywhere near Aleja Bologne, we happened upon our first underpass. We stopped at another shop to purchase some fizzy water. I remarked that I might need the toilet some time soon.

Arriving at a railway line, I took some pictures of a passing freight train. I remarked that one can never really do photographic justice to the vast range of colours visible to the naked eye. The freight train reminded both of us of James Benning, whose RR (2007) I saw for the first time earlier this year. Edition Filmmuseum’s DVD release of that film, which includes casting a glance from the same year, boasts a high-definition transfer so exquisite and sharp that I’ve thought in some way of the film ever since, unable to remove it from my memory. We wondered what Benning might make of our present hike, through this appreciably urban space in search of something modelled after the cosmic.

At the easternmost cusp of Aleja Bologne, we noted a marked increase in the size of the houses we were passing. At the top of a hill to our right, I saw a home whose Christmas decorations reminded me of the neon sparkle seen on a skyscraper in my favourite shot in Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs. In the scene in question, as protagonist Lee Kang-sheng trudges home carrying the placard he holds during his work hours, we see the neon firstly through its reflection in a puddle and then directly by the camera itself, following an upward tilt.

I have seen Stray Dogs three times this year. Fearing I might have to wait for the chance to see it in a cinema, I first streamed it on Festival Scope days after it took the second prize at Venice. My second and third viewings were at the Viennale, in Vienna’s Gartenbaukino, and at Seville European Film Festival not long after. The film had been one of two conspicuous absentees in the otherwise strong line-up of this year’s London Film Festival.

The other notable absentee at LFF was Claire Denis’ Bastards, which again I eventually caught in Seville before introducing it, as well as Trouble Every Day (2001), at Film Mutations. Film Mutations paid tribute this year to Denis as well as to Guy Debord, whose advocacy of psychogeography would have presumably chimed with our current undertakings: though our journey had too specific an aim for it to be genuine flânerie, there seemed to be something spontaneous about the trek, whereby even the otherwise mundane sight of a petrol station took on an exotic quality, something revelatory, a strange otherness that exists somewhere between cosiness and hostility. At any rate, we seemed miles away from Pluto—be it the planetary or the canine sort—and though we didn’t then realise it, the mileage was actual as well as imagined.

Film Mutations bills itself as The Festival of Invisible Cinema. By apt coincidence, seeing a film—or at least seeing one snag-free—had at first proved somewhat difficult: the ceaseless whistle emanating from an unseen air conditioning system in festival venue Kino Tuškanac distracted us throughout Debord’s palindromic mouthful In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978)—whose subtitles, furthermore, were barely readable. Other hiccups, to do with subtitling issues and projection quality—neither of which was the festival’s fault—resulted in our early exits. With some embarrassment, we had begun to joke that we might go the whole week without actually seeing a full feature.

Things picked up. Without our realising it, a viewing tally was accrued. Like the best small festivals, Film Mutations boasts a strong communal spirit. Introducing two films at the festival was a privilege. Catching Denis’ No Fear, No Die (1990), which cannot be shown in the UK due to its cockfighting sequences, was a delight. Viewing Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), with live benshi narration from Ichiro Kataoka, was unique and unforgettable. Festival director Tanja Vrvilo is a canny curator, blessed with an impressively inexhaustible enthusiasm for the social experience of watching films; her commitment to showing 35mm is commendable. Zagreb, in its visually unremitting greyness, is to me a beautiful place.

Walking along the seemingly endless stretch of Aleja Bologne, parallel to a railway track to the south, we came to one underpass after another. One of these led us into an eerily quiet neighbourhood, home to the Villa Mali Raj, a bed and breakfast and restaurant with an adjoining grocery store, behind which stands a church that we had spotted from afar. We jokingly wondered if the neighbourhood’s entire population had gathered inside the restaurant. Neil bought some fruit in the grocery store.

Though this neighbourhood appeared strangely depopulated, its more civilised pattern of narrower streets and stationary cars seemed to shock us into the first signs of a self-doubting perspective: having re-entered, almost involuntarily, something resembling a town, we came to our senses and admitted that the outermost point of Davor Preis’ Nine Views might be further than we had first presumed. We left the neighbourhood to resume the westward trail along Aleja Bologne—to the somehow comforting sounds of ceaseless motorway traffic—with something of a spring in our step. Pluto seemed to be near.

We passed through a tunnel. Soon after, we came to a Lukoil petrol station. Lukoil is the second largest oil company in Russia. We realised a remix of Corona’s 1993 dance song “Rhythm of the Night” was playing inside the station shop. Corona’s original is featured in Beau Travail (1999), which we had watched again on 35mm earlier that week. Beau Travail remains for me Denis’ finest film, sustaining an intriguing and finally compelling balance between narrative enigma and concrete imagery, driven along by Denis Lavant’s physical performance and an idiosyncratic soundtrack that includes music from Turkish pop star Tarkan and compositions by the more famous namesake of my present travelling companion. Neil asked the petrol station employee if the road we were on was still Aleja Bologne. It was.

But for an image of some graffiti that vaguely resembled another film critic, I didn’t take any more photos between this point and our belated discovery of Pluto. It seems that at this point a silence began to creep in, as we came to the slow realisation not that we were lost, but that we might never fulfil our simple, self-assigned brief, might never find the one thing we had set out to find.

It seems in retrospect, from the lack of photos taken hereafter, that we had begun to walk with our heads down, had become less interested in the routine-cum-revelatory sights that had hitherto punctuated the journey—the supermarkets, the billboards, those nondescript non-places located either side of a motorway and at some remove from a city’s hustle and bustle. We cut two figures, so I joked at the time, not dissimilar to the eponymous characters in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2001), trudging doggedly and aimlessly through a repetitive landscape that haunted us like some continually mocking reminder of our own vulnerability.

It is easy to overstate such shifts in mood. Nevertheless, what had begun earlier that evening as a casual, barely defined goal—to walk off our jadedness—had suddenly turned into a very serious quest. As the elusiveness of our target became more apparent, so too did our determination to find it. We became superstitious. Having had no luck sticking to the north side of the road, we passed through one subway to take up the trail on the south side. I decided to text selected friends back home, who I thought might be able to dedicate some of their Saturday evening to research the exact whereabouts of Pluto. The problem was that we were unsure whether the planet we sought was in a subway or a road tunnel. We realised that the south side of the road was in fact taking us on a divergent route; we were no longer even following Aleja Bologne.

At the next subway—again planetless—we crossed back onto Aleja Bologne, and saw that it curved sharply northward ahead. We instinctively realised that our mission had failed. Later, we learned that this was the end of Zagreb itself and the beginning of Zagreb County, which surrounds but no longer incorporates the city. We learned—again later—that we had arrived in the district of Podsused. Upon seeing the first bar we came to, we headed in. It was quarter-to-nine.

Green Pub is perhaps the closest we came in Croatia to being in an English-style bar, which was divided into two rooms. On a television in the back room, Bayer Leverkusen were a goal up in their Bundesliga match away to Borussia Dortmund. On a television in the front room was a Steven Segal film. We propped ourselves up against the bar and ordered two coffees. I headed to the toilet. Upon returning, I remarked to Neil how grateful I was for the Croatian custom of serving coffee with a glass of water. The coffee was served in a cup without a handle; I voiced my preference for functional rather than fashionable crockery.

As I was fumbling through some loose change, Neil noted the presence of a computer behind the bar. He asked the barman if he spoke English. The barman replied that he spoke a little. Neil asked if he knew of the whereabouts of Pluto. The barman didn’t. Neil asked if the barman could check on the computer. The barman said Neil could check for himself. I left Neil to it. Neil came upon a basic webpage that marked the locations of Preis’ planets. A photo revealed that the Pluto we were looking for was in fact attached to a small silver plaque. Upon closer inspection, we reasoned that the cement-coloured pillar to which the plaque was fixed could only be in a tunnel through which we had earlier walked, just before arriving at the Lukoil petrol station. I had in fact taken a photo in the tunnel.

I think we felt at this point a strange combination of embarrassment, relief, dismay and joy. The barman, having taken an increasing interest in our quest, remarked that the tunnel was too far to walk and that we would need a car to get there. Neil told him we had walked this far already from Zagreb centre. The barman said we were not normal.

When we had arrived at the Green Pub, we had worked up a sweat. Upon exiting, the cold air was appreciable. By nine-fifteen we located the plaque, from which, we noted with some embarrassment, Pluto itself had been removed. I wondered if it had been taken away by officials eager to mark the actual Pluto’s declassification as a planet. We agreed it was more likely the work of vandals—or else some other unfortunate fate. At any rate, its absence, amusing in itself, seemed to matter little. I think had we known how underwhelming an adornment this plaque is, we wouldn’t have bothered to go find it. But perhaps we would have.

Equipped with only a vague knowledge of the orb’s whereabouts and appearance, we were able to make a night of it—the kind of unwittingly arduous pilgrimage by which any true friendship is strengthened. A small sense of achievement came over us. Anticlimactic feelings were palpable and, perhaps, inevitable. We noted some roadside flowers, at the eastern end of the tunnel, marking a death. I wondered if in some terrible twist of fate the bouquet was commemorating a victim who had fallen in search of the same planet we had now found.

Footsore and weary, we began the trek back—our spirits lifted, our energies renewed. We began to speak with freeness again, unburdened by the self-imposed pressures of a grandiose aim. Heading east along Aleja Bologne, passing sights that were now welcome reminders of some hitherto unacknowledged progress—geographical progress, but also in some way emotional progress—we indulged in now-permitted trivialisations of our trek.

On the first leg heading out of Zagreb, some time before a tangible seriousness began to reign, Neil had joked that our task resembled events in Philip K. Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint, whereby the endless road along which we trudged might be some kind of constructed reality. On the return journey, in response to my morbidly amusing image of him being mowed down by an automobile at the precise point at which he first set eyes on Pluto, Neil referenced Stanisław Lem’s 1986 novel Fiasco, whose final lines hilariously and frustratingly combine feelings of satisfaction for the protagonist and a lack of closure for the reader. We had in some way moved into the realms of the literary, and of the interplanetary.

Pluto was declassified as a planet on 24 August 2006. On the same date, I watched Fire Walk With Me (1992) and The Gold Rush (1925); the Dakota-Minnesota tornado outbreaks occurred; Arsenal defeated Dinamo Zagreb 2-1 in the UEFA Champions League.

I am not familiar with either of the novels Neil mentioned. I remarked—as I have done many times this year, in fact—that I miss reading prose. It seems that a decline in my own attention to detail, my own retention of basic information, and my own imagination and creativity, has coincided with a prolonged neglect of literature. I think a resumption of reading—setting time aside for a book as one might to watch a film—would help me up my own output as a writer. This, for someone hoping to advance into even more regular paid opinionship in the coming months, seems to be an essential aim. I suppose it’s what others might call discipline.

To write, to conceptualise the world through the written word. To reveal the truth in things, to highlight the ugliness. To accept contradictions not as anomalous but as necessarily symptomatic of deeper schisms. To indefatigably draw attention to the redeemable, the contestable; to contest and redeem. To tune our sensitivities, anchor them to the everyday while hurtling forward to the imperceptibly violent horizon of geological time. To shift gears completely and turn the whole thing on its head. We passed a tree, decorated for Christmas; the church, standing abandoned in the eerily quiet neighbourhood to which we had hours before made a short detour.

Eastward, eastward on Aleja Bologne. Progress, onward, two figures forging ahead through space. Braving the urban, embracing the cosmic. Those large homes that marked the turn onto Ilica. Ilica, that insufferably long road, that deceptively extended stretch of urban sprawl, built to expand outward, and now here we were navigating it inward, back to the centre, the core, the indivisible root of things. Back into the Zagreb we knew, and the Zagreb we didn’t, the Zagreb to which we wish next year to return: with its hardened faces, its inimitably warm smiles, its frosty nights, its histories, its wars, the post-traumatic trembles that quiver through its streets.

Its trams, its churches, its cathedral; its museums and trains and hotels; its supermarkets and grocery stores; the choking fog of smoke that lingers eternally like a dying dog in its bars. The incredible contrast between the natural darkening of its winter sky and the more immediate appearance of its artificial lights. We passed the Chinese restaurant where evenings earlier I had ordered two starters because I was so hungry, where evenings prior to that we had first met Neil’s pal Ivan. We were walking to meet Ivan now. Circles, straits, cycles and orbits; tos and fros between stars and planets and back again.

We arrived at the Oktogon and saw Pluto.

Neil Young's own account of this voyage can be read here.