The folly of men

Pump, an absurdist take on the classic road movie, is a film of many questions and few answers. What can it tell us about our relationship with the built environment? At the Open City Documentary Festival on 9th September 2017.

Billy Sawyers
19 September 2017

Still from Pump, used under Fair Use. Some rights reserved.Modern infrastructure rouses a peculiar romanticism in its human creators. From a dream through to rubble, from idea to abandoned husk, the built environment remains mysterious, fuelling imaginations with its promise of binding human life ever closer together. Perhaps it is a symptom of ‘capitalist realism’ that the most physical symbols of commerce and efficiency – bridges, motorways, skyscrapers – command such widespread fascination. Or maybe this sentiment extends naturally from the masculine ambition that pervades the world of architecture and engineering, those boyish desires to build higher, tunnel deeper and dream bigger than ever before.

Time gives infrastructure another layer of intrigue. Once abandoned, buildings and structures can be repurposed and reclaimed, gaining all kinds of new meanings and functions. A power plant can become a nightclub, a railroad a public park, a chapel can become a synagogue before ending up as a mosque. The built environment endures even as it is renewed and reimagined. Its roads, tracks and waterways can lead us to multiple temporalities – to both snapshots of the past and visions of the future.

This interplay of space, time and building forms the context for Pump, a new documentary centred on 11 miles of monorail test track near Orléans in northern France. Atop eight-metre concrete pillars, the disused track plays host to the wanderings of director Joseph David and his companion Andrew Kötting, whose purpose in visiting the viaduct is at the outset unclear.

Bertin’s project epitomised the utopian ideals that held sway in architecture and engineering during postwar reconstruction.

The monorail forms a curious subject for an adventure film that smudges reality with fiction, history with the future. A relic of Europe’s postwar infrastructure boom, it was built in the late 1960s to test Aérotrain, a mass transit hovertrain designed by engineer Jean Bertin and funded by the French government. An advocate of hovercraft technology, Bertin envisioned a future in which all of France could travel at high speeds across his proposed network, in sleek aluminium carriages that skimmed a cushion of air above tracks of reinforced concrete. His Aérotrain prototypes, propelled by turboshaft engines, were successfully tested on the Orléans monorail at a revolutionary 267 miles per hour.

Bertin’s project epitomised the utopian ideals that held sway in architecture and engineering during the postwar reconstruction period, when public infrastructure was revitalised by innovative design and high levels of state investment. He had lofty ambitions, seeking to maximise public utility through efficient, low-cost construction and transit speeds unmatched on land.

But to his great sadness, Bertin’s future was abruptly abandoned in 1975. After a decade of test tracks and hovertrain prototypes, each one beating the speed of the last, Aérotrain ran out of funds and was swiftly replaced by Train à Grande Vitesse, the high speed railway which to this day runs past the Bertin’s test track, as if to be endlessly taunting it for its irrelevance. Nonetheless, the viaduct stands as a striking monument to his vision; Bertin, who died in 1975 just months after his dream did, is today celebrated as a visionary.

In what feels like a playful mockery of the Aérotrain project and its dizzying ambitions, Pump’s two filmmaker-protagonists take to Bertin’s monorail with a folly of their own. It is a mission of inverse proportions – in a bespoke pump-car named Albertine, they hope to navigate the lifeless tracks at a fraction of Aérotrain’s intended speed. Fitted with a tarpaulin roof and several camera rigs, Albertine is both living space and performance stage for Joseph and Andrew, who appear perfectly content with her average speed of two miles per hour.

Like the handcar driven by the Blind Seer in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Albertine’s modesty somehow lends a sense of adventure to this perplexing quest. Constrained to the monorail, her direction of travel is unwavering, demanding ceaseless labour from her riders as the environment unfolds slowly around them like a leaf in springtime.

North-central France isn’t typically stunning, but its restrained charm is expertly captured by Pump’s patient cinematography. Reminiscent of Hans Aarsman’s Renesse 1988 – which shows the hay bales of a pragmatic farmer being stored on an abandoned dual carriageway – the aesthetic of Pump keenly follows in the footsteps of New Topographics, a genre of photography that reframes human-altered landscapes by focusing on the banal and the transient. Just like the New Topographers of the 1970s, Pump achieves a sense of continuity by homing in on empty landscapes and everyday objects. Governed by the endless flat plane of the test tracks, the film’s palette is sparse and geometric, featuring contourless farmlands, placid skies and, if you’re lucky, a dusty road or murmuring factory. This is the archetypal nowhere-in-particular of the developed world, where wilderness meets the built environment, where time decelerates and where all encounters are by chance.

Excruciatingly slow, man-powered travel sets a rhythmic monotony, with all the colour and intrigue flowing from specific motifs.

Though it is Joseph David’s film, it’s clear that much of the creative impetus for Pump came from the boisterous Kötting, whose own career as a filmmaker has seen him embark on a number of similar pilgrimages. Swap the Orleans countryside for the waterways of southeast England, exchange Albertine for an even more absurd swan-shaped pedalo and you have 2012’s Swandown, in which Kötting travels from Hastings to London’s Olympic Park with author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair. Both films are playfully abstract takes on the road movie. Excruciatingly slow, man-powered travel sets a rhythmic monotony, with all the colour and intrigue flowing from specific motifs: chance meetings with friends and strangers, the obstacles of weather and nature, but also subtle use of archive footage.

Donning what appear to be the same clothes he wore for four weeks straight in Swandown, Kötting injects a great deal of fun and bravado into Pump, in counterpoint to the more pensive figure cut by David. Between impassioned renditions of ‘You Are My Sunshine’, Kötting pumps vigorously on Albertine, attacking with a handsaw any tree branches that obstruct her path. At night, as the pair smoke and drink mugs of wine, Kötting cooks on a portable stove, serving up the ‘small warzone’ of an English breakfast or ‘motorway pile-up’ of a ratatouille. As with all good adventure films, it’s satisfying simply to watch the protagonists indulge and relax after a day’s hard work.

That Pump feels like a true adventure in such a monotonous environment is surely its most impressive aspect. Piercing through its layers of emptiness and grey infrastructure are the feelings of endeavour, companionship and mystery that make the best cinematic quests so compelling. Pumping away on the feminised Albertine (a "beautiful" and "refined" machine), David and Kötting exude boyish delight as they settle into a life of concrete and country air, perched eight metres above ground. For this short time, the 11 miles of abandoned monorail is theirs to own. They are seduced by its lost futures; Aérotrain quickly infects their dreams, as signified by the cuts of archive footage that separate night from day in Pump.

Pump is indeed a highly masculinised adventure, echoing the distinctly male world that Aérotrain was born into – the same ruthless world that saw it fade away in the face of something bigger, faster and more cost-effective. But this doesn’t narrow its appeal. Both absurd and mysterious, it is a memorable film that surprises with its subtle charm and imagination.

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