Flaneuring the guts of London: Urban ‘Placelessness’ In Mike Leigh’s Naked

‘…you don’t even have a fuckin’ future. I don’t have a future. Nobody has a future. The party’s over. Take a look around you man, it’s all breaking up.’ – Johnny, Naked.

When I met Mike Leigh at a Q&A and reception in February 2018, I asked him if there was a reason why the locations for his film Naked (1993) were so vastly spread throughout inner London – from Hackney and Dalston to Soho, Mayfair, Southwark, back to Hackney – when in the film-world they were within a seemingly close walking distance of the wandering protagonist Johnny (played by David Thewlis). I also asked if there was an element of improvisation to his choices. Leigh reiterated a line from an earlier interview: ‘Forget the improvisation,’ he said, ‘I wanted to create a world that wasn’t a world; not a literal world, a poetic world.’[1]‘So while I take the improvisational approach with my actors,’ he added, ‘the locations are a whole different story. I picked them because they were poetic, not for any locational accuracy.’ This essay seeks to examine and complicate his statement, pointing to the connection between the peripatetic (and picaresque) film and the lack of an identified place, metropolis, or ‘placelessness’. I focus on Johnny as the disillusioned ‘anti-flâneur’– to hesitantly adapt a term coined by Charles Baudelaire’s poetry and theorised by Walter Benjamin – to critically unearth this connection, which I argue is deeply embedded into the architecture of Leigh’s film. My research develops Benjamin’s theory of flâneriein dialogue with conflicting urban spatial theories, involving Siegfried Kracauer, David Harvey and Lev Kuleshov’s ‘creative geography’ experiment. I propose the thesis that the ‘city’ of London as navigated by Johnny – this destructive shadow of the flâneur  – mirrors the transience of the bodies that pass through, creating a non-organic ‘body’ in its ‘placelessness’ that reflects the state of the current urban condition in the UK. As I move through my argument, I trace my literal movement through the filming locations in London, analysing not just the space of the film but the three-dimensional space around the filmed location. As Andrew Webber states, ‘for it is the in the character of urban dynamics to unsettle location, to merge one place with another.’[2]

 It is worth noting right now that I do not believe Johnny is a flâneur. Rather, he is a new definition of a city wanderer that for the purposes of theory I must call the antiflâneur. Baudelaire’s original flâneurof his 1863 essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, then, seems an odd choice to start with when looking at Naked. Later theorised by Walter Benjamin as the new type of urban dweller to ‘wander, watch, and browse in the public spaces of the emerging modern city,’[3]this wanderer of the city, from nineteenth-century French literary culture, has long been romanticised as the symbol of modernity. As Benjamin theorised in The Arcades Project, the flâneur abandons himself (the flâneur is always seen as a male figure) ‘to the phantasmagorias of the marketplace’.[4]It is undoubted that, as a figure of modernity, the city stroller as the passionate artist, observer, and writer is an attractive one, as Christopher Butler pointed out his goals of ‘l’éternel du transitoire’ (‘the eternal from the transitory’) and the ‘poétique dans l’historique’ (‘the poetic in the historic’).[5]But it is also for this reason I take the term into my argument to point out and criticise its limitations. While Johnny may be searching for something more than the transitory spaces he moves through, a place to sleep or a wall to crouch into, his drive comes from the failure to find either of these Romanticised ideals outlined by Butler. He is, instead, doomed to wander without discovering the eternal or poetic, finding nothing but his own hatred and frustration as he wanders down the middle of the road at the end of the film.Benjamin’s theory understandably uses the flâneur as a medium through which to explore the impact of modern city life on the self, writing not about the flâneur but asone himself. These wanderers ‘attempt a kind of partial transcendence – imitating the gods – that temporarily overcomes the shock experience of modernity’, as Peter Buse et al. state.[6]Johnny acts out this transcendence in believing and professing his superiority over those he rants at, a superiority that extends to the figure of the flâneur, which Martina Lauster argues is an exposed modernist myth.[7]Indeed, to theorise Johnny as Benjamin’s flâneurwould be narrow-minded, adhering to a formulaic framework that begins with a critique of commodity fetishism and ends with ‘partial transcendence’. The anti-flâneur, on the other hand, does not cease to wander the city but does so in a way that is destructive to himself and others, whose perpetually unredeemable, yet near-redeemable nature drives forward the ideas of ‘placelessness’ at the centre of my thesis.

Just as Johnny is not a typical flâneur, the ‘placelessness’ I discuss does not entirely adhere to the theory of the likes of Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’.[8]While Augé rightly theorises the transience of the places between urban locations – the roads, airports, commute buildings – I believe his fixed categorisation is over-used and does not fully illuminate my intentions for the argument. I will, however, take his idea of transitional spaces in cities, his pointing out that these spaces do not have history, but I counter that in Naked with the architectural history in the background of the film in my definition of placelessness. Augé explains that these transient spaces are where ‘neither identity, nor relations, nor history really make any sense’.[9]While this can be theorised for Naked, where Johnny’s identity during his night-wandering becomes ‘nobody’, the places visited are not transitory and identifiable as they are definable. These include, as Johnny mentions, ‘the guts of London’, the places of shadows and concrete whose only transience is in the despair of those people passing through. I argue instead that my theories align more closely with Lev Kuleshov’s creative geography experiment, which tested out the ‘arbitrary combination of various scenes of action into a single composition’[10]. In light of this, the city of London retains its overall identity but takes the form of a kind of underworld, where places feel recognisable but are ultimately placeless, layers of materials stacked upon dirt. Because of this, we cannot be fully certain of where we are, or where in London we are in the film with a few exceptions (specifically, the most noticeable of which is Twyford Street near Kings Cross towards the end of the film). Webber reported in his research that the exterior spatial organisation of the city, or ‘metropolis’ is complicated by the ‘agglomeration of interiors’ that tend to be ‘effaced from the city’.[11]  This is crucial to understanding the link between Johnny’s wandering body and the stagnancy of placelessness, where the movement from outside to inside signifies a bridge between two cinematic realms that extend out of placelessness: the ‘identified’ placeless – the knowledge of being inside or in an identifiable exterior – and the ‘unidentified’ – outside, somewhere, on a street. Translating these feelings gives rise to critical analysis, allowing the spectator to question the reality of what is seen, known, and unseen, or unknown, as I will now elaborate.

Ray Carney and Leonard Quart indicate that the camera in Naked focuses on Johnny’s ‘expressive face’ while the London cityscape ‘remains unexplored’ in the background.[12]It is true that Johnny’s reactions (or lack thereof) are a focus of the film, but I argue instead that it is the marginal – the unidentifiable places Johnny passes through – that form a greater focus, at least during the scenes of night wandering where Johnny is a figure rather than a face. These areas, in the real world, are disconnected from each other, sprawled around North, South and East London. As I visited each filming location – the house in Dalston, Lina Stores Ltd. in Soho, Ariel House in Charlotte Street, the turning of Twyford Street onto Caledonian Road near Kings Cross – I thought about the walking distance from place to place, triggering the question I later asked Leigh. Rather than a cityscape as referred to by Carney and Quart, it is perhaps more useful to refer to these images as streetscapes. To follow each location would take in total about six hours if Johnny were to follow exactly, that is, without stopping. In Figure 2. I have traced the order of locations as they appear in the film, where ‘A’ is the house of Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Louise (played by Leslie Sharp) and ‘G’ is where Johnny is beaten up for the first time on Twyford Street. These form the identifiedplaceless, where locations are not specifically stated but are not difficult to track down. The other locations – the alleyway where Johnny is beaten up again, the scene where Johnny talks about ‘the guts of London’ (in retrospect, Leigh mentions that this was a disused train station near Brick Lane and has since been demolished) – signify an unidentifiableplacelessness, an image captured by the camera and living almost exclusively on the screen. Point B – Lina Stores Ltd, a family-run deli – and point C – around Brick Lane – mark areas of the same sequence yet trace the distance between Mayfair and Whitechapel, and the scenes appear different, and this is evident when analysing the architecture of the scene as I will now.

Figure 1. Louise's house (A)
Figure 2. Lina Stores Ltd. (B)
Figure 3. Ariel House (C)
Figure 4. Johnny's literal route through London, from A to G

The scene in Brewer Street, Soho, keeps the screen focused on Johnny and Archie interacting under Lina Stores Ltd. The rest of the street can only be viewed in fragments, neon lights in the reflections of windows. ‘Lovelace’ is reflected in the window in red neon, and in blue one can make out ‘Vide-’, presumably ‘video’. The partial covering of other street signs, the word ‘Lina’ of Lina Stores and in the background a dimly lit sign that says ‘VIDEOS, MAGS, PUBLICATIONS’, with silhouetted figures standing in the background, mark out that this is indeed a capitalist marketplace, marking commodities to be watched and observed by Johnny if only in his periphery. I will return to these glaring shop signs in the window reflections later. As the sequence moves on, however, reflections in the window and the general light of the street gives way to this pseudo-subterranean landscape, filled with crouched figures, a fire, roaming dogs, and it is clear that this is some other area, this time unknown, has been entered. This is the abandoned station Leigh referred to that has been demolished, and it seems only relevant that Johnny speaks of ‘a whole other world underneath all this’. We cut to a narrow bridge and as they descend the stairs at the end of the bridge into darkness it appears as if they are descending into this placelessness, into ‘the guts of London’. There is a dreamlike uncertainty, with the sudden darkness, the crevices and intensity of the brickwork, that deliberately confuses the onlooker. None of these locations feature the ‘iconic’ tourist locations that seem to make London identifiable. Ariel House, for example, where Johnny meets the lonely security guard Brian (see Figure 1), is ironically close to the BT Tower, opened in 1965 (see Figure 2) yet the inside is empty, with no known future (visiting today there is a sign that mentions they are offices to let, and the interior has been renovated). Although small, these are details left to the spectator to observe, and creates the same feeling as what Kuleshov refers to, of differing spaces culminating the illusion of a centralised sense of place. 

Figure 5. View of the BT Tower from the doorway of Ariel House

As Carney and Quart also comment on the types of pressure Leigh creates within the frame, it is necessary to point out that these unidentifiable locations also have the potential to help us understand the nature of the city space under corporate capitalism. David Harvey notes in Social Justice and the City that thinking on the urban processes under capitalism is integral to understanding the nature of the city space, how space is inhabited by buildings and companies.[13]Indeed, Harvey’s suggestion is touched on in Naked. In the same scene in Brewer Street, Soho, as both Johnny and Archie are walking down the street, one particularly noticeable glaring shop sign is that of McDonalds, reflecting on two panes. While a small detail, it seems typical that in a film so occupied with the unidentifiable place somehow manages to retain the overarching dominance of McDonalds as a corporate empire. This reminds me of a scene in Patrick Keiller’s London(1994), released the year after Naked, revealing an extended shot of a McDonald’s drive-thru, surrounded by building work and traffic cones. The scene itself is towered over by a giant, inflatable, grinning Ronald McDonald, and multiple placements of the trademark red colours and the letter ‘M’. Keiller’s scene is seemingly specific if not to London than to the UK with the placement of the British flag in the centre-left of the frame. The narration speaks of Baudelaire, touching on this idea of the flâneurin the Romantic notion of seeing oneself from outside looking in. As Siegfried Kracauer states, cinematic ‘devices draw on shots of physical reality to evolve pictures which deviate from the conventional image of that reality’.[14]This is, of course, a nod to Kuleshov’s creative geography, but it cannot be deemed right in this situation because the physical reality of McDonalds remains the same despite the fact it is reflected in a window. At the same time, Leigh’s statement that ‘it could be any city’ correlates with the placement of McDonalds; the chain could, indeed, be anywhere in the world, the antithesis of personal labour. This is, perhaps, similar in a way to Benjamin’s description of the flâneur as one who identifies commodity fetishism in a Marxist-Hegelian dialogue with urban development. The ‘mystical’ character of the commodity referred to in Marx’s Fetishism of Commoditiesis completely stripped to the trivial, in that the site of the mode of production for labour from McDonalds drifts past the scene in but a second.[15]Yet it remains crucial to understanding the city space as able to be ‘placeless’ while still adhering to the capitalist influences governing spaces of the city. If anything, this increases the city’s ‘placelessness’ because it highlights, unlike later, that it exists in the modern world. In the context of Naked and its bleak, distracted alienation, it highlights that characters are trapped in an economic hierarchy, constantly low on money, that influences the tone of the film.

Figure 6. McDonalds reflected in the shop window.

Johnny’s lost wandering through these contrasts of glaring corporate capitalism and the unidentifiable gutter within the same city leads him to become a kind of urban chameleon in visiting these locations, ‘blending in with the surroundings’, as he says. Kracauer notes that ‘a street serving as background to some quarrel or love affair may rush to the fore and produce an intoxicating effect.’[16]Specifically, Kracauer is talking of shooting on location in the street, of the street as, as Geraldine Pratt and Rose Marie San Juan note, a site through which to consider ‘the random and alienating aspects of modern life’.[17]It can suddenly become ‘a fragmentary moment of visible reality, surrounded, as it were, by a fringe of indeterminate visible meaning.’[18]One particularly evident recurring visible reality is Johnny, either lost, collapsed or beaten, on the asphalt of the road. This does not, however, produce an intoxicating effect as Kracauer may suggest, but one of corporeal despair, of the frustration of having one’s body reduced to a silhouette amid a transient, visible, indeterminate metropolis. In one scene he breaks down after having been beaten up for the first time in the film, shouting ‘does anyone mind if I scream here?’ and collapses in the middle of the road. In this moment he becomes nothing more than a silhouette framed against the bruised colours of the streetscape. This also happens in the next scene, when he is beaten up for the second time by a group of figures down an alleyway. His crumpled body stays silhouetted in the middle of the frame. In these moments, we are also drawn to the background, to the geometric lines intersecting and crossing over Johnny’s figure, drawing attention to the streetscape, only the irony is that he has collapsed.

To argue that Johnny is unique in his status as anti-flâneur, and that ‘the entire city is placeless’ would perhaps be too extreme, though the aimless, repetitious drifting through unspecified environment in the peripatetic and picaresque format, at night never revisiting a setting already seen, mirrors the progression of the city stroller. In light of this, the film breaks down into sequences: Louise’s house, Archie and Maggie, Brian, the Woman in the Window and the Poster Man. There are, of course, more scenes than this, but the point is to envision a formulaic structure to portray aimless, existential wandering– scenes where Johnny is in the process of wandering – paired with frustrated dialogue. In a cafe scene with Brian, the security guard shows Johnny a picture of the cottage he wishes to move to, an object of his longing. “Fuckin shithole innit,” Johnny replies, to which Brian warns him: “don’t waste your life” and leaves, never to be seen in the film again. Because of Johnny’s status as someone who isn’t unique, or rather the point is that of his insignificance, attention can be turned to background characters, the nameless faces, the homeless, the night workers, the strange silhouettes of other people. They are never really focused on but are undeniably present. In realising this, it is necessary to pause and consider how Johnny is in many ways an addition to the cityscape, or streetscape, and how this leads our attention to the background characters, the nameless silhouettes crouching in the darkness, the real homeless people, or those who wander around at night. These background wanderers are what I turn to next, as those who populate the ‘placeless’.

Figure 7. Johnny collapsed

Technology, for Benjamin, offers the possibility of not only engaging with but putting forth the unknown.[19]  It is here where the film begins to take a form beyond its filmic medium and comment on the society in which it was made, and in doing so, comment on the society in which the spectator resides in. The cultural, political, economic climate of the present. From the real ‘London’, however poetic or fictional in the film, of the early 1990s. Leigh states that the film is not about homelessness, for example, but served as a significant influence for making the film, that he was ‘originally going to make a film about homelessness’.[20]On 25 January 2018, The Guardian reported that the numbers of rough sleepers in England has risen for the seventh year running, as reported by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.[21]The figures show that London ‘remains the centre of rough sleeping, accounting for nearly a quarter of all rough sleepers’, up 169% since 2010 and centred in Westminster.[22]It is clear that this is a social epidemic rooted in the Conservative government’s cuts to benefits payments and a social housing crisis. Travelling into London, the sight of a homeless person is common, at least at the time of writing this essay. This knowledge, I argue, changes the way one could watch Leigh’s film, concerning the placeless wandering around London, the current centre of the crisis. In the background of scenes, sometimes in the foreground, we are introduced to shrouded, silent figures. Some are crouching against walls, some standing around a fire, some sitting quietly in the background of the action of the scene. Maggie mentions to Johnny that herself and Archie would sleep on a park bench (it is helpful to note that Scottish travellers in London were common at this time, however). Even Johnny’s framing, as the silhouette on the ground, conjures thoughts of the current crisis. In the scene where Maggie and Archie meet again, the scene is towered over by old brickwork and mist, yet against this wall is a man, a shrouded figure, sitting and silently watching the event unfold. When Johnny and Maggie descend the stairs across the bridge, a scene I have already looked at, there is a woman slowly making her way up some stairs, called ‘Bag Lady’ in the credits. There is no mention aside from the comment from Maggie: ‘Have you ever seen a dead body?’ to which Johnny replies with ‘Only my own’. The ‘Bag Lady’ simply moves silently, we do not and will not know anything about her, but her placement in this ‘placeless’ location raises questions of how she came to be where she is. Whether all these characters are wandering throughout London and are lost, unable to find what they want to be doing, is a question that reoccurs throughout the film. Harvey rightly argues that there are differences between the temporary, transient solution and the permanent, inner change, emphasising that his ‘spatial fix’ describes ‘capitalism’s insatiable drive to resolve its inner crisis tendencies by geographical expansion and geographical restructuring’.[23]I propose the idea that the city follows the same ambiguities of the bodies passing through them. The cistern, the subterranean guts beneath the surface, the grime and dirt. It is difficult to really try and understand why. Rather, I believe the images should speak for themselves, and be completed with the spectator’s own thoughts in the moment of viewing.

Rewatching Nakedafter different experiences, whether it is the act of visiting the locations themselves or with the knowledge of the current socio-economic climate of the UK, the film suddenly becomes more than an image, but a mode of thinking about space, the construction of space and the movement of the bodies within that space. Giuliana Bruno offered a line of argument that saw the spectator, or film viewer, becoming the flaneur – that film viewing inhabits the moving culture of modernity – today’s flaneur – travels through time in architectural montage’.[24]Only we are not necessarily or solely travelling through time. We are travelling into the poetic world, into the strange and bizarre, which are present but not compiled in such a way as film does so. This is, as Pratt and San Juan note, a reiteration of Kracauer’s argument that the camera is ‘the perfect street observer’, the flâneur. The city has no particular place. It is ‘a’ London. But this in the same way reflects the disillusion of the bodies moving through this space.

Mike Leigh’s peripatetic and picaresque film, as an indicative instance of the cinematic city inhabiting an unidentifiable sense of place, invites a reconsideration of the bodies that pass through these spaces and how that relates to the current socio-economic climate of the UK twenty-five years later. In analysing this, I pointed out how the treatment of space onscreen and off-screen interacts with the spectator and character. The spectator, in this sense, is not dissimilar to the characters being spectated, or another mutation of the flaneur, as Bruno states. Characters drift through scenes, but the spectators are watching this drifting, and drifting perhaps with them. Having met Mike Leigh and followed the filming locations themselves, I can watch the film with a fresh perspective, while perhaps discrediting Leigh’s desire to keep the film poetic. Yet in studying the space of literal film locations, poetic or no, marks the deeper understanding of creating the city space through which to pass through. To notice the smaller areas, the alleyways, the geometric shapes of buildings and the windows reflecting neon signs, and to overall build a more perceptive eye. As a result, the language speaks without words despite the amount of words in dialogue, and is unique to the viewer insomuch as portraying a movement from space to space, a parallel to the literal moving from place to place using this as a starting point. And I am not just ratifying the value of film experience, but pointing out that this particular mode of spectatorship has always been present in cinema, in different forms. In doing this, Leigh’s preference for the poetic – which binds together historical references, unidentifiable locations and an in-continuity of London – serves as a theoretical anchor: it breaks open the sense of the subterranean landscape, of the gutters and alleyways often ignored or avoided, allowing access to their inner workings while the grime and dirt stays visible.

[1]Mike Leigh, interview by Amy Raphael in Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 237

[2]Andrew Webber, ‘Introduction: Moving Images of Cities,’ in Imagining Cities: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis, ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson (London: Wallflower Press, 2008), 3

[3]Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: a Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalismtrans. H. Zohn (London: New Left, 1973), 27

[4]Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 14

[5]Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe 1900-1916, (Wotten-under-Edge: Clarendon Press, 1994), 33

[6]Peter Buse, Ken Hirschkop, Scott McCracken and Bernard Taithe, Benjamin’s Arcades: An Unguided Tour(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 155

[7]Martina Lauster, “Walter Benjamin’s myth of the Flaneur” The Modern Language Review102(1) (2007), 139-156

[8]Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Michigan: University of Michigan, 2008), 57


[10]M. Yampolsky, “Kuleshov’s Experiments and the New Anthropology of the Actor”, in Inside the Film Factoryed. R. Taylor and I. Christie (London: Routledge, 1994), 31-50

[11]Webber, Introduction, 5

[12]Ray Carney and Leonard Quart, The Films of Mike Leigh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 236

[13]David Harvey, Social Justice and the City (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 113

[14]Siegfried Kracauer, The Theory of Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 48

[15]Karl Marx, ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and The Secret Thereof’ in Capital Volume I (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 47

[16]Kracauer, Theory of Film, 303

[17]Pratt and San Juan, Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 23

[18]Ibid, 23

[19]Benjamin, Arcades, 14

[20]Leigh, On Leigh, 228

[21]Patrick Butler, “Rough sleeper numbers in England rise for the seventh year running,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/25/rough-sleeper-numbers-in-england-rise-for-seventh-year-running (accessed March 18, 2018)

[22]Butler, “Rough sleeper numbers…”

[23]Harvey, Social Justice, 114

[24]Giuliana Bruno, ‘Motion and Emotion: Film and the Urban Fabric’ in Imagining Cities, 14