In our previous article, we took a closer look at some of the basic facts about homelessness in Amsterdam and attempted to answer the following question: “Despite a sharp increase in homelessness, why is homelessness invisible?” Our tentative response to this question was that policy makers want to render invisible the underbelly of this affluent but unequal city. However, why is it the visibility of the homeless that disturbs those in power and not the very fact of homelessness in the midst of all this wealth? Why does Amsterdam respond to homelessness with tough loitering and vagrancy laws (recall article 2.20 of Amsterdam City Regulations) rather than dealing with structural problems that push people into the street?
In order to further explore the possible answers, we will stay on the topic of invisibility by looking at the depiction of the homeless in a specific visual art form, namely, film. Why film? It is perhaps all too obvious that film is the medium of visibility. What a film chooses to make visible, or more metaphorically, what it intimates and what it suppresses, however, might not always be so plain. A film cannot show everything; the decision to make certain things visible is also a decision to make certain other things invisible. Hence our question about the depiction of homelessness in movies: “Does what the film shows bring to light what is at the invisible margins of society or does it merely confirm existing social patterns of selective visibility?”
As society tends to fail to perceive what and how homelessness is, a film that merely confirms this tendency will not bring homelessness to light. A film that challenges our stereotypes, by contrast, will refuse to conform to what we want to see; it will resist us and make us feel uncomfortable in our typecasting. If our tendency is to make homelessness invisible, a film of this kind will confront us with that tendency.
Lovers on the Bridge
Let us take the depiction of homelessness in Lovers on the Bridge (France 1991, directed by Leos Carax). A rather beautiful scene comes to mind: a man and a woman in tattered rags dance feverishly across a bridge against the backdrop of fireworks. The scene associates a sense of pure existence with homelessness, a total and wild freedom. This romantic perspective of life on the streets informs Lovers on the Bridge throughout, but it also hides a troubling attitude towards homelessness.
As the story unfolds, we understand that the man and the woman hold very different positions in society. The man, Alex (Denis Lavant), is without history. He is “just” a brute, somehow irredeemable. The woman, Michèle (Juliette Binoche), has a story. She is an artist who is going blind and lives in the streets because she feels deeply defeated by life (later on in the movie we also learn that she is the daughter of a high-ranking military officer). Here we have two extremes: the brute and the artist, or the beast and the beauty. Alex is not important by himself; he has no agency; in fact, he is merely pushed around, stumbling through the streets, high and incoherent. Then Michèle enters the film; that is when Alex’s story begins. In the terms that we have established in our previous article, we can say that Michèle lifts Alex into visibility. Their relationship goes through several permutations. But one feature of it remains constant throughout the movie: her homelessness is accidental and his is essential, a fact that becomes clear when a fellow homeless person, Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber), tells Alex that he must abandon Michèle because he belongs in the streets and she does not.
Why does the movie choose this arrangement? We propose that Michèle acts as mediator between Alex, the homeless brute, and the audience. He is made intelligible to us through her. And she is intelligible to us because she is a respectable person of status. We cannot understand Alex or his world, but we can, the movie insinuates, understand the fall from grace of a heartbroken, upper class person.
This is the visible world that we respect, the visible world towards which we can show compassion, for we inhabit, either literally, or in our dreams, that world and not the chaotic and obscure domain of Alex. How does the movie end? Alex recovers from drug addiction and, as a scene showing him hard at work in prison suggests, enters the circuit of production, a sure sign of good health; Michèle’s sight is restored; the third character, Hans, inscrutable and incurably homeless, drowns himself. Thanks to Michèle and to prison, Alex enters the world of the visible; Hans, who is too damaged, is made absolutely invisible – he disappears into the river Seine.
Neither Shelter Nor Law
Let’s compare Alex’s ascent to visibility with the story of Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), the homeless young woman who is the main character of Vagabond (France 1985, directed by Agnès Varda). Contrary to the character of Alex in Lovers on the Bridge, Mona’s character is made visible, without mediation, and on her own terms. There is no rich lover, no fabulous past. One telling scene shows Mona finding shelter with a family that has swapped the urban bourgeois life of an academic couple for an alternative rural lifestyle. In a film interested in restoring the homeless character to some kind of sheltered life, this would be an opportunity for Mona to find her place.
The couple that take to sheep farming and refuse to conform to the bourgeois lifestyle could teach the drifter that there are alternatives to life in the streets. Instead, Mona exposes how thin the line is that separates this alternative lifestyle from that of the bourgeoisie. Both ways of life share the motto “you get what you pay for”, and when Mona refuses to wake up early to do chores, she is asked to leave the farm. It is this unflinching and unrelenting look at Mona, which through various snapshots of her life, and from a variety of standpoints, reveals her situation and personality. Scenes suggest she has been raped, she’s pushed around, stared at, humiliated for the reason that she dares to appear, to make herself visible, and refuses the circuit of productivity. It brings to mind lines from Sophocles’ Antigone:
When the laws are kept, how proudly his city stands!
When the laws are broken, what of his city then?
Never may the anarchic man find rest at my hearth,
Never be it said that my thoughts are his thoughts.
Indeed, Mona does not find warmth and shelter. Varda’s movie starts with Mona lying dead in a ditch, frozen and smelling of wine, and the movie itself is a retrospective of her recent life as a drifter. The sheep farmer prophetically tells her that she is too daring and her loneliness as a vagabond will kill her. But it is not her psychological loneliness that results in her demise; it is the social fate, as the farmer intimates and as the famous lines from Antigone drive home, of anyone who out of necessity or out of volition, refuses the conventions of our “free” cities. Their penalty is life without shelter, which often means either a figurative or a literal death.
Alex in Lovers on the Bridge is made visible through mediator Michèle; Hans is made invisible at the end of the film (which is jarring in relation to Alex and Michèle who are able to continue because they are redeemed by society at large); Mona’s visibility in Vagabond is unmediated. In fact, what is made visible is what is often to us invisible. If a newspaper reports that a drifter was found on the side of the road, smelling of alcohol (in the way that Alex is found after having been hit by a car), we might assume this is the tragic individual decision of the person, the drifter, to drink themselves to death. But in presenting Mona’s story, Varda shows us that what kills the drifter is their extreme vulnerability to what society can do to them, even just in passing, unintentionally, out of neglect. Mona looks for shelter in a village that seems oddly abandoned; suddenly, two men in grotesque carnival costumes appear, chase the terrified Mona down and douse her in wine. This arcane prank kills her. She dies outside the village of hypothermia because she is drenched through and through.
Vulnerability and Visibility
Vulnerability is tied to visibility in several ways, some direct and literal and some indirect and non-literal. In the case of homelessness, if you are literally visible, whether to the authorities or to callous passersby, you are open to their attack, which can come in different forms. The police officer can arrest you, the passersby can mock or harass you, or even worse. If you are invisible, again literally speaking, you are simply neglected, you don’t count as a member of the community with equal entitlements to others. In both cases, you are unprotected. In the first case, your vulnerability is met with force or callousness; in the second case, your vulnerability is not even recognized. In a non-literal or ethical sense, to be visible is to count. You may say to someone who discounts you: “it is as if I am invisible to you.” You may say “you are blind to my pain.” From this non-literal perspective, the homeless person in our society is always invisible. Not being seen is being removed from the ethical circuit. To bring this back to vulnerability more clearly, the homeless are vulnerable whether they are literally visible or invisible, because in both cases they are invisible to us from a figurative and ethical standpoint.
This point is central to the film Cathy Come Home (UK 1966, directed by Ken Loach). The film tells the story of a young working class family that slips into homelessness. When they are evicted from their apartment, they find themselves in a bureaucratic maze. Having access to shelter is tied to increasingly opaque and unfulfillable conditions set by the state. The system knows everything about the family and their circumstances, and yet it systematically strips them of every entitlement until it withdraws its support entirely. Cathy (Carol White) is told that she has outstayed her time at the shelter with the consequence that she will be evicted and her children put into care. She escapes with her children, but social workers catch up with her and take them away.
The movie shows that even though Cathy is literally visible to the welfare authorities, she is ethically invisible, as evidenced by the brutal disregard of the authorities for her needs and the needs of her family. The magistrate that announces to her that she cannot stay at the shelter, which has the consequence that her children will be taken into care, tells her: “We’re not interested in you; now it’s just your children we’re interested in”, and adds: “you had your chance”. This sinister statement is premised on her homelessness. What would be the entitlement of a person of status – to be taken into account and to have her vulnerabilities respected – becomes a favor done by the system, a favor moreover that can be revoked at any time – as soon as the system sees her as irredeemable, she becomes invisible to the system as a person, that is, from an ethical point of view.
Our first article in this series about homelessness (AA Issue #19) discussed the facts of homelessness in the Netherlands. We found remarkable that, even though the numbers of people suffering homelessness is skyrocketing, homeless people are less and less visible. In making this observation, we understood visibility in a literal sense — as the act of actually seeing. What we discover through the medium of film is the intimate bond between actually seeing and seeing metaphorically, what we have termed here as a kind of ethical seeing. Things that stand out to us, whether in our visual field or in reflection, are often the things that matter to us.
In the case of homeless people, the literally visible and the ethically visible seem to part ways. This is a phenomenon that is common to many kinds of objectification, which involve precisely this disjunction between literal seeing and ethical seeing. This rupture between seeing visually or literally and ethical seeing means that the homeless are neutralized from our ethical horizon. To recall the lines from Antigone, the homeless person, the person who is lawless, the vagabond, falls outside the ethical purview of our cities, and is therefore always vulnerable, whether they are literally seen or not.
The passageways in Gare du Nord are for walking; they are not for resting or sleeping. Central Amsterdam is for tourists or for the rich to shop; and those benches divided with arm rests are deceptive: those rests are for the elbows of those who can afford it, not for the tired head of a homeless person. What we now begin to see is that the city plays a role in what is visible. The very architecture, the layout of the streets and passageways, determines who is ethically visible and who a mere obstacle to be stepped over.