Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 29, September 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michele Braun

 

Modern Dreams and Postmodern Realities:

The City as Spatial Archetype in _Screening the City_

 

 

_Screening the City_

Edited by Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice

London: Verso, 2003

ISBN 1-85984-476-6

312 pp.

 

In their Introduction to _Screening the City_ the editors describe the volume as addressing the reciprocal relationship between cinema and the city: the way cinema influenced the construction of the city, and the way the city is represented within cinema. In recent years film studies has found fruitful crosspollination with architecture, geography, sociology, and urban studies in its turn to questions of spatiality. The editors describe this Œspatial turnı as coinciding with Œan intensified recognition within film studies of the city (and the city-film) as the archetypal ground for examination of visual and sensory experience, form and style, perception, cognition, and the meaning of the filmic image and filmic textı (1). The book is divided into two sections, the first containing essays on what the editors describe as the modern cities of Central and Eastern Europe, and the second, the postmodern cities of North America.

 

_Screening the City_ is the second volume edited by Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice resulting from the _Cinema and the City_ conference held in March 1999. The fact that a second volume was published from the same conference is what first drew my attention. Why was a second book warranted? The first volume, titled after the conference, _Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context_, was published as part of the ŒStudies in Urban and Social Changeı series. The focus of the book reflects its inclusion in the series, as the essays focus primarily on what might be described as non-narrative interrelationships between cinema and the city. In one of the introductory chapters to the volume, Fitzmaurice describes the volume as Œemphasizing film as a fundamentally spatial rather than as a textual mediumı. [1] This spatiality is located within the cities that are represented in the book (Los Angeles, Tampa, Montreal, Paris, London, Johannesburg, Sydney, Dublin, Manila, Saigon) rather than the films discussed. The emphasis is on the relationship between cinema and city that takes place outside of the narratives within film.

 

The project of the first volume, to form a sociology of cinema that recognizes the practices of sociology and of film studies, focuses more on the practices of film studies, and its historical and theoretical development. In _Screening the City_, the emphasis more frequently is focused on the representation of the city within film, rather than the economic relationship between cinema and the city; as the editors indicate in the Introduction, the city is Œthe archetypal groundı for producing meaning in the Œfilmic image and filmic *text*ı (1). The difference between this volume and the previous is not a rigid one though, since essays that interpret the text of particular films are present in the first volume and essays that explore the economic and social relationships between cinema as a cultural production and the cities in which is it produced (and to some extent in which it is disseminated) are present in the second volume. The differences are rather best described as a tendency, which makes the first volume more interesting to sociologists, and the second to film studies scholars.

 

_Screening the City_ is a tightly focused volume: the first part describes Central and Eastern European cinema of the first half of the 20th century that responds to the political and social upheavals of that period, and the second half describes realist cinema in North America in its expression of postmodernity, a term the editors recognized as charged and evidence of a distinction (between modernity and postmodernity) that is at times inadequate in describing the social realities of the latter half of the century.

 

The volume begins with Carsten Strathausenıs ŒUncanny Spaces: The City in Ruttman and Vertovı, which discusses the uncanny in modernity using Walter Ruttmanıs _Berlin, the Symphony of a Great City_ (1927) and Dziga Vertovıs _Man with a Movie Camera_ (1929) as examples. Strathausen locates Œthe cinema and the city at the center of the schizophrenia that haunts modernity and finds its symptomatic expression in and through the uncannyı (16-17), which operates by bringing the dead back to life through cinema and through the uncanny in urban landscape and its architecture. However, Ruttmanıs and Vertovıs films fail to exorcise the uncanny because of their emphasis on aesthetics. The two films do not have distinct plots, and as non-narratives Strathausen accuses them of not being able to mount a critical analysis of the city or of city life -- the camera becomes an instrument for amusement only. Modernityıs desire to see everything, to exorcise the uncanny, to make everything transparent, fails in these films, in part because Œthe camera and the metropolis itselfı (29) are the protagonists of the film.

 

In ŒRuttmanıs Berlin: Filming in a 'Hollow Spaceı?ı, Martin Gaughan seconds the failure of Ruttmanıs film to accomplish a critique of the city, instead it represents a fascination with modernity that is evidenced by a series of images that simply reflect, rather than comment upon, the city. Ruttmanıs emphasis in promoting his film was on the formal innovation of its rapid montage, designed to capture the speed of life in the city, was criticized by Siegfried Kracauer when it was first released for failing to look below the surface of the city and distinguish between technological development in the city and its representation. Berlin is again the topic in Peter Jelavichıs ŒThe City Vanishes: Piel Jutziıs _Berlin Alexanderplatz_ı, which follows on Gaughanıs historical account of the critical response to Ruttmanıs film with a historical account of the mode of production and response to Jutziıs adaptation of Alfred Doblinıs popular novel of the same name. Jelavitch notes that Doblinıs novel was described as Œcinematicı, a feature that should have made it amenable to adaptation, but cites censorship, preconceptions of audience taste, the conventions of realism, and casting choices, all elements unique to the time and place of the filmıs production, as reasons why the film failed to excite its audience in the way the novel had.

 

Addressing the problems of adaptation is continued in Tyrus Millerıs ŒŒCut out from Last Yearıs Moldering Newspapersı: Bruno Schulz and the Brothers Quay on _The Street of Crocodiles_ı, though for Miller, the Brothersı animated puppets succeed in adapting Bruno Schulzıs story of his Œprovincial dreamworldı (81) by subjecting it to Œthe transformative force of timeı (80). While Schultzıs story was published in 1933, the American Brothers Quayıs film was not produced until 1986, a displacement across time that reflects the division of the book into European Œmodernistı and American Œpostmodernistı sections, and which Miller in part credits for the success of the adaptation.

 

The placement of the next essay, David Sorfaıs ŒArchitorture: Jan Svankmajer and Surrealist Filmı, seems to offer up the Surrealist movement in Prague that began in the 1920s and 30s as a potential solution for the difficulty experienced by filmmakers such as Ruttman, Vertov, and Jutzi in capturing the essence of the city in the Europe of their time. The Surrealist fascination with the ruined and threatening spaces of the city, its approach to urban life as Œcivilization and simultaneously as destroyer of the civilizedı (101), is found in many of Svankmajerıs films; it is a destruction that Sorfa describes as Œarchitortureı, a Œtheatrical representation of painı, to borrow Foucaultıs description from _Discipline and Punish_. In Svankmajerıs _Flora_, a short film produced for MTV in 1989, the goddess, whose body is composed of fruit and vegetables, disintegrates in close-ups of hands, feet, and torso, a Œsnuff movie with vegetablesı (108). The city is implicated in this wordless death through a soundtrack of traffic noise overlying the sound of the rotting vegetables. Sorfa reads the rotting figure as the death of nature and the impossibility of belonging in the city, something that reveals the relationship between the construction of the self and the structure of the city. It is Œthis absolute and necessary relationship between self and architecture that, in denying any prior or privileged existence to the subject, underlies the sense of loss and lostness in Surrealist filmı (109).

 

The sense of loss produced by the cityıs architecture in Svankmajerıs films is not unique to Surrealism but is also present in Krzysztof Kieslowskiıs series of feature films depicting contemporary Polish life, _Dekalog_ (1989). The Polish housing-project that is the site for the ten stories, loosely based on the Ten Commandments, was repeatedly described as Œdrabı by reviewers (117). For Jessie Labov in ŒKieslowskiıs _Dekalog_, Everyday Life, and the Art of Solidarityı, this attention to the physical texture of the city connects the series to the politics of Solidarity in Poland. The architecture of the city is more than simply a backdrop to the action of the characters; it supercedes the generic characters and becomes the central agent of political comment within the film.

 

The overall effect of the first section of the book is to use the social, economic, and political environments of Europe in the first half of the 20th century to read the sign of the city in the film of that period (though some of the readings venture into the latter half of the century, crossing the temporal boundary initially laid out in the Introduction without explanation). At the beginning of the second half, Alan Siegelıs ŒAfter the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Spaceı recognizes the reverse of that relationship between city and film as well. He begins with a definition: ŒThe processes of cinema specify representations of the city, refract memory, and shape perspectives of history that engender the formulation and reading of social space -- re-generating processes of spectatorship -- and thereby changing a societyıs cultural vocabularyı (137). The essay ranges across themes as Siegel describes how the economic and historical changes in cinematic production and distribution since the 1960s caused a shift in the reception of film. Urban space came to be seen as mutable, subject to innovation and sometimes a contested space that was viewed differently by different, often marginalized groups. Siegel relies upon Foucaultıs description of discourses as Œpractices that systematically form the objects of which they speakı (143) to describe not only the experience of the cinematic city in the 20th century, but to also explain how societal changes caused a genre like film noir, so closely linked to the city, to change as well. The moral order of Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade is replaced in response to the pressures of the increasingly chaotic city with the morally ambiguous actions of characters like Clint Eastwoodıs in _Dirty Harry_ (1971). A parallel to this generic transformation is hinted at in the final paragraphs as Siegel turns his attention to digital media and the internet, though how these Œalternative social spacesı will Œcounterbalance the corporate homogenization of urban realityı (156) is not made clear.

 

Siegelıs far ranging essay is followed by Mark Shielıs tightly constructed ŒA Nostalgia for Modernity: New York, Los Angeles, and American Cinema in the 1970sı, which focuses on Woody Allenıs _Annie Hall_ (1977) and Sidney Lumetıs _Network_ (1976). Following David Harvey and Frederic Jameson, Shiel describes a geographic shift that traces a line from European cities, to the cities of the Northeast coast of the United States, and finally to its West coast, as capitalism moves from its early imperialist stages, through modernism, and finally to postmodernism, or late capitalism. The archetypal city thus changes as capitalism changes -- New York is the paradigm of modernity, and although human relationships may be difficult in Allenıs _Annie Hall_, in New York they are still meaningful, unlike his depiction of L.A. as shallow and inauthentic. In _Network_ the morally shallow efforts of the television executives, as they respond to the pressures of global capitalism, are read as emblematic of the postmodern condition. _Annie Hall_ and _Network_ each express a nostalgia for modernity that is intimately connected with the cities in which the narratives take place.

 

The next three essays of the section move away from historical or sociological descriptions of the city in cinema to provide theoretical interpretations of the films they discuss. Paul Gormleyıs ŒThe Affective City: Urban Black Bodies and Milieu in _Menace II Society_ and _Pulp Fiction_ı describes the relationship between the body and urban space in these films through an immediacy of sense experience of the cinematic body. This Œaffectı begins with an othering of the images of the black body, such as that identified by Judith Butler and Fritz Fanon, but moves beyond it to mimic the Œspatial and temporal relations between the body and urban spaceı characteristic of New Black Realism (182). This othering embodies white fears of the black body, and in particular the black urban male body as a dangerous a violent body. The emotional and physiological response of the audience to the image in the screen is used to explain the Œvisceral response in the white cultural imaginationı (189) in response to the perceived underlying violence of the hood film.

 

While for Gormley, Tarantinoıs _Pulp Fiction_ deconstructs this dangerous black body of the hood film through its invitation to view the black body as more than fetish through the affective shock of the rape scene, in Masoodıs ŒCity Spaces and City Times: Bakhtinıs Chronotrope and Recent African-American Filmı the space of the urban neighborhood is the center of meaning-making, not the body. In particular, it is the Black neighborhoods of New York and Los Angeles that accrete the most meaning. Bakhtinıs Œchronotropeı, a place that embodies a time, is a way of understanding New Black Realism that acknowledges the history of black cinema while at the same time recognizing the immediacy of the city neighborhood as a powerful site of representation in films of the genre. The specificity of the chronotrope Œoffers a more complex understanding of the relationship between the spatio-temporal discourses that generate genres and the world outside the textı (207), which introduces an extradiegetic dialectic with the political and social conditions of that world that lies outside the text. In other words, the chronotrope of the hood in New Black Realism provides the means to theorize difference, not just within the film, but within the larger cultural context in which the film is produced and disseminated.

 

In ŒAgainst the Los Angeles Symbolic: Unpacking the Racialized Discourse of the Automobile in 1980s and 1990s Cinemaı, Los Angeles again is Œthe symbolic overdetermination of the cityı (217). Jude Davies uses Jean Baudrillardıs identification of the automobile as the paradigmatic representation of the American city (Los Angeles in particular) to interrogate the sexism and racism inherent in the automobile as status symbol in three films: _Colors_ (1988), _Falling Down_ (1993), and _Devil in a Blue Dress_ (1995). He reads the films as Œphilosophical and cinematic representation of Los Angeles [that] configure race, gender, and class through the automobile as a symbolic objectı (234), films that complicate the oversimplification of Los Angeles as a homogeneous and unified symbolic city.

 

The next essay in the volume, Matthew Gandyıs ŒAllergy and Allegory in Todd Haynesı _[Safe]_ı, moves away from the city itself to examine the relationship between city and country in Haynesıs 1995 dystopic environmental story. In its depiction of the alienation of the protagonist Carol White (not only from her environment, which makes her sick, but from others surrounding her) Gandy describes how the antimony of city and country are exploited in the film to reveal the anti-urban sentiment in much of the New Age back-to-nature thought. The irrationality that surrounds discussions of chemical sensitivity becomes another expression of the city as a metaphor for disease and contagion.

 

Finally, in Darrell Vargaıs ŒThe Deleuzean Experience of Cronenbergıs _Crash_ and Wendersı _The End of Violence_ı, we return to the body as the site of representation. This time, Varga draws upon Deleuze and Guattariıs concept of the Œbody-without-organsı as a Œdesiring machineı that only comes into its own as it is sexualized on the highways and in the car crashes of Cronenbergıs _Crash_ (1996), and through its use in the stuntwomanıs damaged body as a contributor to illusion of violence and the real but invisible violence of the assassin who kills the renegade computer scientist in Wim Wendersıs _The End of Violence_ (1996). In contrast to Gormleyıs description of the Black urban male body that so clearly marks a geographically-conscribed site of violence, limited to the clearly identified neighborhoods it inhabits, in both _Crash_ and _The End of Violence_ there is no clear connection between location and violence. The violence of the car crash and the threat of silent surveillance are non-specific -- they could occur in any city, in any population. The threat these films embody becomes generic.

 

In the final coda of the volume, ŒThe City Reborn: Cinema at the Turn of the Centuryı, John Orr describes the cinematic city as an imitation of the city itself. Just as a city is planned out, so the cinematic city is designed and constructed, and thus spatial disconnection becomes a key feature of the cinematic city. Because of the constructed nature of both the cinematic and the actual city, with a reciprocal representation of the city in cinema and the cinematic city in the actual one, the city itself can be read through its cinematic representation.

 

The editors describe the dividing line between the two sections of the book as the potential differences between modernism and postmodernism as reflected through the cinema of each era, and while they recognize the geographic division between the sections, this division is de-emphasized. This de-emphasis seems unnecessary, and perhaps even a bit obscuring, since European avant-garde cinema described as modernist is (with the exception of Svankmajerıs _Flora_) intimately connected with the cities it imagines, whereas the role of the city in the postmodern American films discussed in the second half is frequently subsumed to other visual demands. The Œhoodı films of the New Black Realism only explore the spatial representation of a small part of the city, while the automobile, environmental poisons, and ubiquitous surveillance that are discussed in the final essays of the volume are generic -- they could represent the experience of the viewer in many cities of the new global cinema. The whole of any individual city, whether it is European or American, is primarily envisioned in the films of the early or mid-century, the ones that straddle the modern and the postmodern.

 

The sometimes arbitrary nature of the division of the volume aside, the essays in _Screening the City_ provide a broad and varied approach to the spatial representation of the city in cinema. As a whole, with its theoretical, historical, psychological, and sociological interpretations of films, the volume represents an interesting engagement with the cinema of the city. Unlike its predecessor, this second volume tends toward film studies rather than sociology, more frequently reading the narrative of the film text in conjunction with the conditions of its production than the previous volume, making it a more tightly focused volume in many ways. It also makes the book more valuable to film studies scholars in its close readings of the films it surveys. Its value lies in this very focus, even while it ranges across genres, times, and geographic spaces to theorize the influence of modernist and postmodernist thinking on the production of cinematic representations of the city.

 

Northeastern University,

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

 

 

Note

 

1. Shiel and Fitzmaurice, eds, _Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context_ (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 19.

 

 

Copyright İ Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Michele Braun, ŒModern Dreams and Postmodern Realities: The City as Spatial Archetype in _Screening the City_ı, _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 29, September 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n29braun>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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