FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 39, September 1999

 


 

Deborah L. Parsons

Urban Montage

 


 

 

 

_The Cinematic City_

Edited by David B. Clarke

London: Routledge, 1997

ISBN 0-415-12746-7 (pbk)

252 pp.

 

There is little sign of any abatement to the flood of studies on urban culture that front publishers' catalogues each year, and yet there always seems to be room for more. Collecting together eleven essays by literary, film, cultural studies, geography, and urban planning scholars, David Clarke's _The Cinematic City_ moves beyond standard studies of the representation of the city in film to consider the relationship between urban space and 'cinematic' form. Although I am slightly dubious about Clarke's claim that this is a previously overlooked issue -- excellent studies by Anne Friedberg (1993) and one of Clarke's own contributors, Giuliana Bruno (1993), as well as Leo Charney's edited collection _Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life_ (1995), offering stimulating accounts of the status of the cinema as part of the experience of modernity -- his volume certainly contributes to the field, extending discussion to the postmodern and contemporary city. Publishers are probably right to be wary of collected essays, but when designed and edited well they make excellent introductory and stimulatory texts, and Routledge did well to back this one. From early meta-texts of the city in film, such as Fritz Lang's _Metropolis_ (1926) and Walter Ruttmann's _Berlin, Symphony of a City_ (1927), to more recent films such as Ridley Scott's _Blade Runner_ (1982) and Joel Schumacher's _Falling Down_ (1992), considered through the context of cultural and spatial theory, _The Cinematic City_ provides an excellent introduction to key texts for the study of film and the city, and to current theoretical issues within film and urban studies.

 

The underlying thesis of the volume is that 'the city has undeniable been shaped by the cinematic form, just as cinema owes much of its nature to the historical development of the city' (2), an argument that, as Clarke recognises in his introduction, was already a fundamental aspect of the work of Walter Benjamin over half a century ago (and also his Frankfurt School colleague, Siegfried Kracauer). Indeed much of Clarke's commentary draws on Benjamin's much discussed and much debated metaphor for urban modernity, the flaneur, whose wandering scopophilia emerges with the conditions and landscape of the metropolis and predicts the perceptive mode and apparatus of the film camera. For cinema not only represented the changes of modern urban life, it also provided a new perceptual framework through which it could be articulated. Analysis of Benjamin alongside the insights of film theory highlights the correspondence between the perception of urban space by the cinema-goer and the 'experiences offered by the flickering, virtual presence of the city' (10).

 

This aspect of Clarke's argument is stimulating and rewarding, yet I am less satisfied by the rather vague discussion of postmodernity and the cinema, which seems to blur with that of modernity without satisfactorily developing a contextualised understanding of either differences or progression between the two. The references to spatiality in the work of Baudrillard, Derrida, and Lefebvre offer interesting directions for further reading and reflection, but it is never made fully clear if they are meant to imply a newly postmodern 'cinematic'. Do the conditions of postmodern urbanism result in a new mode of perception for example, represented in and influenced by new forms of cinema presentation and reception? Moreover, are there spatial phenomena characteristic of some cities more than others (even within the Western world, might U.S. and European cities be distinct in their postmodern development) that will influence different systems of viewing? I also feel that, given Clarke's focus on the flaneur, it is somewhat surprising that he neglects to mention Michel De Certau's elegant correlation of pedestrian and linguistic form into a spatial poetry of the city (De Certau, 1984). For although the single essay only affords limited space, De Certau's analysis of the everyday social experience of space as one defined by a mobile perspective is surely invaluable for Clarke's discussion of 'previewing' the city.

 

Apart from these quibbles of omission, the essays themselves do cover an impressive range of issues. Amongst the highlights of the collection is Giuliana Bruno's study on the filmic portrayal of Naples and the screening of the films by prominent Neapolitan film-maker Elvira Notari in New York in the 1920s. Stating that 'Notari's films substituted motion pictures for memory' (53), Bruno argues that the screening of these female melodramas, set against a panoramic backdrop of the southern Italian city, provided a space of public community for their Italian immigrant audiences, and an imaginative link with the geographical space of their homeland. John Gold and Stephen Ward's essay on the urban documentary between 1939 and 1952 also takes an interesting and original focus, analysing the positive representation of slum clearance programmes and the promotion of the garden city in government-funded films in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as highlighting the use of the cinema medium to interest the population in, and promote, policies for town planning.

 

A number of contributions concentrate on dystopic visions of the city in film, for example Frank Krutnik's discussion of the Hollywood noir thriller as a means of articulating a crisis of spatial and psychological indeterminacy and sense of disorder in urban America of the 1940s and 1950s, which itself provides a useful introductory background for Marcus A. Doel and David B. Clarke's re-reading of the neo-noir or tech-noir archetype, _Blade Runner_. Rejecting the mythologising of _Blade Runner_ as a paradigm of the postmodern epoch, Doel and Clarke argue convincingly that the film is predicated in conventional modernist assumptions of race, gender, class and biological difference, and offers an ultimately reactionary extrapolative account of only 'a trying rather than a malicious world' (151). With the questioning of a postmodern 'cinematic' by Doel and Clarke, at least with regard to _Blade Runner_, the possibility of such a concept becomes a focal point of the closing essays of the volume. Elisabeth Mahoney's critique of the gendering of space within the city, for example, calls for a new subjectivity and new imaginary specific to the experience of postmodernity, but argues that its emergence is dependent on the breakdown of the conventional framing of space in terms of a system of social binary oppositions, and the rejection of the modernist metanarrative of ways of looking, both of which, she states, remain powerfully persistent.

 

Somewhat disappointingly, however, in view of the promises of Clarke's introduction, the volume does not entirely fulfil its aim to engage with the relationship of the city and the 'cinematic', the latter term rarely extending beyond reference to what is actually 'cinema'. As the commentary above reveals, the essays deal principally with examples of films and film production, rather than with what 'cinematic' actually implies -- that which is cinema-like, or has the qualities of the cinema. Studies of early film, for example (Elsaesser and Barker, 1990; Hansen, 1991; and recently Rossell, 1998), have highlighted the importance of optical entertainments such as the magic lantern, stereoscope, and Phenakistoscope as precursors of the film medium, but also influential in the development of a 'cinematic' consciousness and aesthetic across genres. It is not until James Hay's excellent penultimate essay, 'What Remains of the Cinematic City', that an attempt to address the concept of the 'cinematic' is offered. In a reflective account on the position and practice of cinema studies a century after the showing of the first moving pictures, Hay suggests that study of the 'cinematic' should involve 'considering the place(s) of film practices within an environment and their relation to other ways of organizing this environment', and an inter-disciplinary approach to an 'understanding of cinema or the field of social relations wherein cinema could be said to have had effects' (211-212). His lucid account stems from a discerning belief in the need to understand cinema in terms of practice rather than as a historical and self-contained object, and the criticism that cinema studies has still not yet focused on 'the relationship between the cinematic and an environment as mutually determining and constitutive' (223) with a similar degree of analysis to that applied by cultural geography, architecture, and urban studies. I am not entirely convinced that _The Cinematic City_ as a whole achieves Hay's goal, but, this said, it certainly has the right intentions and will act as a stimulating example for future studies.

 

Overall I recommend _The Cinematic City_ as a highly accessible book, and a requisite for any reading list in film, cultural, and urban studies. The individual essays are both informative and innovative, and accompanied by a generous number of illustrative stills (crucial for a text of this kind), along with a usefully comprehensive bibliography for further reading at the end of Clarke's introductory essay. Clear and informative, with theoretical issues combined with case study commentary, it will undoubtedly prove a popular reference text for undergraduates, teachers, and researchers alike.

 

University of Birmingham, England

 

 

Bibliography

 

Bruno, Giuliana, _Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari_ (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).

 

Charney, Leo and Vanessa R. Schwartz, _Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life_ (London: University of California Press, 1995).

--- _Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift_ (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

 

De Certau, Michel, _The Practice of Everyday Life_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

 

Elsaesser, Thomas and Adam Barker, _Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative_ (London: British Film Institute, 1990).

 

Friedberg, Anne, _Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

 

Hansen, Miriam, _Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film_ (Cambridge, Mass.: University of Harvard Press, 1991).

 

Orr, John, _Cinema and Modernity_ (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993).

 

Rossell, Deac, _Living Pictures: The Origins of the Movies_ (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).

 

Selby, Spencer, _Dark City: the Film Noir_ (London: St James, 1984).

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Deborah L. Parsons, 'Urban Montage',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 39, September 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n39parsons>.

 

  

 

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