The City in Fiction and Film, week three

tumblr_l30hu35gF41qz6k9qo1_1280Week 2

One of the issues in designing a coherent new programme is working out at which level, in which module and when in that module (in relation to the other modules) to deliver certain kinds of material. When we designed the BA Film Studies twelve years ago, we decided to concentrate a lot of the film theory and critical theory in a compulsory level two (i.e., second year) module, whimsically entitled Currents in Film Theory. On the new BA Literature and Film Studies, in which students will encounter literary theory as well as film theory and critical theory, such a module seemed inappropriate, so part of our design process involved deciding what of this kind of material students needed to encounter and how best to divide it up between modules and levels.

All of which is a long way round to saying that today’s class involved an introduction to semiotics, ably supported by the first chapter of Jonathan Bignell’s Media Semiotics: An Introduction, still by far the best book of its kind – and I’m not just saying that because he used to teach me. (There will some structuralism, Marxism and feminism soon.)

By the end of the lecture, we had covered these terms/ideas from Saussure and Peirce:

diachronic vs. synchronic
langue and parole
the sign is arbitrary and conventional
sign = signifier + signified
the referent
syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic
symbol, icon and index
denotation and connotation

There was, as always, much exemplification through the medium of cats. (Back in the day, it was always trees, but over the last couple of decades this arboreal hegemony has fallen to a relentless feline insurgency – probably something to do with the internet and the ‘mind-control’ parasite Toxoplasma gondii.)

We’ll nail down these terms with a test at the start of class next week. A revision aid can be found here.

We looked at three texts this week – John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon (1941), Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1940) and Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1927).

The vagaries of timetabling mean that each week the screening comes before the lecture, which is normally not a problem, but the challenge today was to come up with screening questions that are basically asking questions about semiotics without using semiotic terminology. Such as:

What kind of man is Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart)? How do we know these things about him? How does he differ from Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan)?
How do we know Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is gay?
How do we know Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) cannot be trusted? Is he also gay? Is Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr) his lover?
How many roles does Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) play? How does she imply these differences?
How does Brigid differ from Iva Archer (Gladys George)? How do they both differ from Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick)?
How do we tell Lt. Detective Dundy (Barton McLane) and Detective Polhaus (Ward Bond) apart? In what ways does Polhaus resemble Sam Spade? In what ways does he resemble Dundy?

Although we did not get to work through all these questions in detail, it became very clear very quickly how much information is conveyed by costume and manner. We were obviously in the realm of signs – of signifiers and signifieds, of denotations and connotations.

When Miles walks into the office and finds Spade interviewing Brigid, the contrasts between the two men are clear and shape our understanding of each of them in relation to the other. Spade is in a tailored suit with subtle stripes, buttoned up with a precisely knotted tie; his manner thus far has been similarly professional, slightly patronising. Miles, a taller and slightly gangly figure, wears a baggier suit, unbuttoned, his shirt and tie not as neat; he makes no effort to conceal his sexual interest in Brigid, seating himself on the edge of Spade’s desk. Archer’s desk faces the window, Spade’s the door. He lacks Spade’s composure, his air of competence; Archer’s death, then, comes as little surprise.

Joel Cairo’s card smells of gardenias. He is small and feminised, his costume dapper, his hair neatly oiled curls. He wears gloves to keep his hands soft; he fiddles nervously with his cane, constantly positioning it near his mouth, suggesting some kind of oral fixation. His accent is exotic, as are the overseas places he has visited – and his surname. It is difficult to tell how much of his ‘deviant’ persona from M, which had been a hit in the US, is carried over, but it is clear that The Maltese Falcon – like many American crime films – uses queerness to connote wrongness and villainy. Some of this is evident in the corpulent Gutman, too, with Wilmer just the latest in what appears to be a succession of young men he picks up to work as his henchmen (and catamites?). However, there is an intriguing countercurrent at work. Perhaps it is the appeal of the exotic, perhaps just the brilliant performances of Lorre and Greenstreet, but neither character is particularly loathsome – and both in various ways are quite likeable.

We also noted the importance of transience and anonymity again in the representation of the city: Brigid goes by three names and at least that many personas; no-one knows their neighbours or lives in a discernible community; the closest thing to a friendship we see is between Spade and Effie (boss and employee).

Walter Benjamin says that Poe’s ‘A Man of the Crowd’

is something like an X-ray of a detective story. It does away with all the drapery that a crime represents. Only the armature remains: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who manages to walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd.

We began with the moment in which the narrator first spots this mysterious man – whose appearance is a parole (speech-act) which the narrator struggles to filter through the available langue (sign system):

As I endeavoured, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental powers, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense–of supreme despair.

And then we took a step back to the start of the story, in which the narrator describes looking out at the crowd on a London street, abstracting himself from it, presenting himself as some kind of disembodied neutral observer, who fantasises about his ability to see without being seen. For two pages, he divides the crowd into distinct groups, and distinguishes between them by their costume, demeanour and behaviour, producing a catalogue of types, descending from the respectable professional classes down through clerks and swells, gamblers and pickpockets, prostitutes and drunks. The narrator reads the character of these people from their appearance; and the author persuades us of its accuracy and truthfulness through his careful selection of signs (words) for their denotative and, perhaps more importantly, connotative powers. No wonder, then, that ‘the man of the crowd’ comes as a shock, an epistemological limit that might undermine the certainty with which the narrator has described everyone else.

We also had a think about the following:

How does the story express the anonymity of life in the city?
How does it contrast day/night, different districts, different social or economic classes?
Who is the man the narrator follows?
What does the ending mean?

Virginia Woolf’s essay does some similar things. We thought about the connotations of the place names she includes:

the area between Holborn and the Strand
Oxford Street
Waterloo Bridge

Some of them retain similar connotations; others, such as ‘Brixton’, which then evoked a middle class suburb with green spaces, connotes something very different now. (Next semester we will look at some Windrush era and post-Windrush representations of London.)

Woolf begins by talking about the very personal connotations of items in one’s own room, where

we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.

But there is an important slippage between this investment of personal meanings in a bowl or a stain on the carpet, and the connotations for readers. For the narrator, the bowl recalls the holiday in Mantua where is was purchased. For the reader, the buyer’s fond memory of the woman who sold it reeks of English class condescension, and the bowl connotes wealth, because who but the well-off could afford to spend a summer in Italy?

There is a curious passage also when the narrator visits a shoe store. A female dwarf, accompanied by two regular-sized women, reveals her perfect, full-sized, ‘arched and aristocratic’ foot. Its revelation alters her demeanour, and thus that of the people in the store. At the same time, the narrator is infected by the fantastical imagery of dwarves and giants (the regular-sized companions), and this spills over into her phantasmagorical description of the often-foreign working class denizens of the area around Seven Dials and Covent Garden. It is as if she cannot bring herself to directly describe this area and the people there. And, like Poe’s narrator, Woolf’s narrator is suddenly shocked by the appearance of a stereotypical Jew, with all the long and terrible anti-semitic baggage that evokes.

Woolf also fantasises about seeing without being seen – she describes herself as stripping away the shell of her home and becoming like the pearl in the oyster, which promptly transmutes into a giant eye, capable of observing the surfaces of things, the plane of signification. As a consequence of which, I now imagine Virginia Woolf looks like this:



I also had the opening of chapter 25, ‘A Tie With a Windsor Knot’, from Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love (1957) to hand, but time as always was our enemy – will probably kick off next week’s class with it. (My colleague teaching the Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption module will be doing some work on James Bond in the coming weeks, so it will make a nice crossover; she has been working on Sherlock Holmes this week, so I will be building on that next week.)

Recommended critical reading
Bignell, Jonathan. Media Semiotics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2002.
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. See chapter 3, “The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax.”
Stam, Robert, ed. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1992. See part II, “Cine-Semiology,” on how semiotics was developed in relation to film.
Turner, Graeme. Film as Social Practice. 4th ed. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 3, “Film Languages.”

Recommended reading
The opening and closing pages of Nikolai Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect” (1835) capture the bustle and variety of a modern city street.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) repeatedly leaps from the mind of one character to another as they walk across London.
John Huston’s film is based on Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime novel, The Maltese Falcon (1929).

Recommended viewing
Women take on the role of detectives and attempt to make sense of the city, solve crimes or discover their own identities in Phantom Lady (Siodmak 1944), Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman 1985) and In the Cut (Campion 2003).

Week four



The City in Fiction and Film, week two



Week one

This week we took on Fritz Lang’s M (1931).

We began with a quotation from Anton Kaes’s BFI classic, which describes the film as embodying:

‘the tension between the forces of modernity, with their emphasis on time, discipline, rationality, seriality, law and order and those recalcitrant counterforces – trauma, passion, illness, loss and, finally, death – that defy reason and resist integration’ (76)

Our discussion of these various concepts in relation to the film was supported by a number of clues and questions presented before the screening:

Look out for clocks, files, records, book-keeping, accounts and other evidence of bureaucracy in action.
Look out for communications networks and mass media.
Look out for shop windows and other displays of commodities.
Look out for mirror images/reflections and doublings.
What is going on with the narrative structure? To what extent is this a film about the contest between a protagonist and an antagonist? To what extent is classical narrative structure subordinated to a series of images of the city connected by sound? How are those images arranged? How do they relate to each other?
Pay attention to the ways the film uses sound (offscreen sound, sound from the following shot/scene present in the current scene, unusual sources of sound, silences).
At the end of the film, is there any conclusive evidence of Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre) guilt?

Clocks abound in this film (and other Lang films – see the Paternoster Machine in Metropolis for example) – from the child’s game that opens the film with clock-like movement to the pickpocket who calls the talking clock and then corrects all the stolen watches he is carrying; from the cuckoo clock in Frau Beckman’s apartment that signals the time as she waits for little Elsie to return home to the clocktower bells that drown it out. They signify the imposition of clock time on our experience of the world – imposed so the trains could run on time, to organize commerce, to discipline and control labour – and the ways in which this ordering of subjectivity also disorders us.

Building on this, the police investigation evokes the instrumentalisation, rationalisation and bureaucratisation of everyday life – files kept on people, fingerprinting, forensic procedures. The police amass information and process it in an orderly manner, an image graphically captured by the concentric circles drawn on a map to indicate the expanding radii of the investigation around a crime scene. The state panopticon’s vast archives of signifiers are bureaucratic abstractions of actual people – this is, as Foucault would argue, evidence of the growing management of populations by statistics. (Though we didn’t get on to Foucault or the panopticon or biopolitics in class!)

Likewise, the gang of criminals come up with their own systematic means of finding the killer (because he is bad for business) – surveillance conducted by the army of beggars in the street; and then, when Beckert is trapped in the factory/office building, despatching teams of men to work through it in an orderly manner.

This parallel between the police/administration and the criminals/beggars has already been indicated by the sequence which repeatedly cuts between them, in their respective smoke-filled rooms, as they plan their respective campaigns. (And boy, are those rooms smoke-filled – like the studio is on fire or something.)

We also thought about seriality – the children’s game, the serial fiction delivered to Frau Beckman as she waits for Elsie, the ordering of cigarettes and cigars and other objects in the beggars’ hideout, where food prices are listed in chalk as if share prices at a stock exchange. And of course serial killers, that modern and largely urban phenomenon, the US variety of which is typically said to start with HH Holmes in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair (the subject of one of Edison’s early phonographs). The early twentieth century saw several notorious examples in Germany (Kürten, Grossmann, Denke, Haarmann), and they crop up in other German films of this period, such as Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and The Lodger (1927), made under the influence of expressionism by Hitchcock shortly after his return from Germany to England (and remade in 1932 with sound by Maurice Elvey).

The idea of the serial killer returned us to the anonymity offered by cities – and the film’s recurring idea that anyone could be the killer. An idea that flips immediately into unreason – we three times see groups of people mistake someone for the killer, unleashing irrational violence, twice by mobs. (This is why it is important, I think, that we see no real evidence that Beckert is guilty. All the police know is that they have traced the man who wrote a letter to the newspapers confessing to the crimes – as many others have done. All the criminals know is that a blind man recognised a tune that was being whistled by someone to whom he sold a balloon for a little girl on the day Elsie went missing. Beckert’s own not entirely convincing confession is clearly that of a deranged man. And yet we, too, generally assume that he is guilty, leaping to conclusions.)

Violence lurks everywhere in this film. The streets are populated with men injured in the war: limbs are missing, and the one set of fingerprints we see are those of a man with only four fingers; there are blind people and deaf people, people who fake being blind and a blind man who sometimes wishes he was deaf so as to cut out the constant noise of the city. There are also psychological traumas: the anxiety of parents (shared to an extent by the viewer who joins them in being worried about their children) and the bereavements they suffer. Lang at one point considered including a flashback to explain the origins of Beckert’s derangement in the horrors of World War One; but that would psychologise him, and like Brecht, Lang is more interested here in moving from ‘psychology to sociology, from empathy to critical distance, from organic development to montage, from suggestion to argument’.

This is why the film narrative is decentred into montages of city scenes, without real protagonist or antagonist. It is about the social circumstances which enable serial killers (and other modern urban figures) to emerge, to thrive, to become a media spectacle. This is why we are not permitted – until the final scene – to develop any real sense of Beckert as a person with whom we might sympathise in some way.

We also situated the film in relation to
— expressionist art (Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Nollendorfplatz and Self-Portrait as Soldier, Wassilly Kandinsky’s progression from The Rider to Composition 6 to On White II, James N. Rosenberg’s Oct 29 Dies Irae)
— German expressionist film (Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr CaligariGenuineRaskolnikov, Hands of Orlac, Martin’s From Morn to Midnight, Robison’s Warning Shadows) – though we only had time for clips from Caligari and the opening of Joe May’s Asphalt, which moves from actuality footage to expressionist images of the city, cuts to a calm domestic space, and then returns to expressionist images of the city (you can see it here.) Unlike Caligari, which films expressionist spaces and performances, Asphalt in places uses the camera and editing in an expressionist manner.
Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Matter-of-factness, New Sobriety or New Dispassion), a post-impressionist movement that tried to get away from subjective expression to a more political art intended to provoke collective action (examples included Otto Dix’s verist Salon, War Cripples and The Trench, and Alexander Kanoldt’s classicist Still Life II and Der rote Gürtel). We also took  quick look at some footage from the great New Objectivity film People on Sunday (see it here).

Lang, after all, called a documentary!

The conclusion that I did not have time to get to included the sneaky reference to Foucault mentioned above, and one to the Adorno and Horkheimer – their argument that in capitalist modernity economics and politics become increasingly intertwined: business interests intervene in the running of the state for their own ends; the state intervenes in the economy to maintain conditions favourable to business. This leads to centralised instrumentalist bureaucracies and administration. As instrumental reason dominates, social life becomes increasingly rationalised.

Which kind of captures a large chunk of what M is up to. As in others of Lang’s German and US films, the city is the site of modernity, and this is what modernity looks (and sounds) like.

Additional information from the module handbook
Recommended critical reading
– Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Visions and    Modernity. London: BFI, 2000. See 163–199 on M.
– Kaes, Anton. M. London: BFI, 2000.
– Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 1, “Modernity and the City Film: Berlin.”
– Roberts, Ian. German Expressionism. London: Wallflower, 2008.
Recommended reading
The key German expressionist novel is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A more accessible vision of Germany in the Weimar period can be found in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often bound together as The Berlin Stories or The Berlin Novels and adapted for film as I Am A Camera (Cornelius 1955) and Cabaret (Fosse 1972). Other serial killer fiction of interest includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Dorothy B Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), David Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter (1953), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Susanna Moore’s In the Cut (1995). Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of HH Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City (2003), is also of interest.
One of the innovations of American hardboiled crime fiction was the introduction of the detective who could go anywhere in the city, crossing physical space as well as class barriers – such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, introduced in The Big Sleep (1939) – which enables a similar overview of society as that offered in M.
Recommended viewing
Other German expressionist films about the city include The Last Laugh (Murnau 1924), Metropolis (Lang 1927), The Blue Angel (von Sternberg 1930) and – made in the US – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau 1927).
German expressionism visually influenced American film noir, including adaptations of Chandler novels, such as Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944) and The Big Sleep (Hawks 1946). Its impact can also be seen in such British films as Odd Man Out (Reed 1947) and The Third Man (Reed 1949).
Point Blank (Boorman 1967), Se7en (Fincher 1995), The Underneath (Soderbergh 1995), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Fight Club (Fincher 1999) and The Deep End (McGehee and Siegel 2001) find ways to create expressionist effects in colour.
Although it has expressionist elements, at the time of its release in Germany M was considered and example of New Objectivism, like People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) and GW Pabst’s films of this period – Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Pandora’s Box (1929), Westfront 1918 (1930) and The Threepenny Opera (19321 .
The Wire (HBO 2002–08) maps the urban complexity behind crime, from street-level drug-dealing to corporate and political corruption. Spiral (Canal+ 2005–), The Killing (DR/ZDF 2007–12) and Peaky Blinders (BBC 2013 – ) do some similar things, although they are less astute about economics.

Week three

The City in Fiction and Film, week one

This year we launched the new single honours BA Literature and Film Studies. The single honours bit is important. In a joint honours with a name like this, generally students could expect to take a couple of modules in the English department and a couple in the Film Studies department each year, with the relationships between literature and film largely unexplored (beyond, perhaps, a module on adaptation). So we set out to do something rather different – to continue to recognise medium-specificities and disciplinary knowledges/practices/skills, but also to bring them together. Various practicalities (staff specialisms and availability, institutional structures, etc) shaped the form this has taken. Basically, each year, students on the degree take one literary studies module, one film studies module, and two modules organised around a particular set of ideas that study both film and literature together; and none of these are shared with other programmes.

In the first year, one of the ‘combined’ modules looks at issues of cultural value and the other one – my one – is about representations of the city in fiction and film. Each week we have a two-hour screening slot, and a three-hour session which combines lecture and seminar activities in various mixes.

I will try to find time each week to blog about what we have been up to.

The first week of a module with new students always has particular tensions between:

1) all the institutional and organisational information that at least needs to be said aloud;
2) icebreaking;
3) encouraging students to start talking to each other and with the whole group;
and 4) actually studying something together

Fortunately, we were able to keep the first intake onto the degree quite small, and the students have already had induction sessions and a class together, so 2) could at least be folded into 3) and 4). Bureaucracies, however, tend to proliferate the items for 1) and drop them in the programme leader’s lap – in this instance, mine. Fortunately, I have great colleagues and we were able to share that load out a bit across the modules. Otherwise we might never have got to 4).

And at least everyone now knows what to do in case of fires or medical emergencies…

There is a further tension between introducing the module as a whole and meaningfully studying something quite specific that week.

In preparation for class, we read China Miéville’s London’s Overthrow and watched The Long Good Friday (Mackenzie 1981).

We began with some general questions:

  • How are cities defined?
  • How do cities differ from towns?
  • What are the relationships between the city and the country? Between the city and the conurbation or megalopolis? Between ‘the city’ and actual cities?
  • Is the city merely a physical, architectural phenomenon?
  • How are cities experienced and imagined?

Which inevitably lead to our first run-in with that student-frustrating formula: there is no definitive answer.

Louis Wirth in the 1930s defined cities in terms of permanence, large population, high population density and social heterogeneity. The UN seems to be moving away from thinking in terms of cities to mapping space in terms of intensive urban agglomerations and extensive metropolition regions. In the UK, unless you happen to have an Anglican diocesan cathedral, city status is awarded by the monarch – usually after some kind of competition tied to a celebration of the monarchy, such as a jubilee or royal wedding.

Probably the most useful definition in terms of the coming weeks is Richard Sennett’s self-consciously ‘simple’ attempt from 1977: ‘a city is a human settlement where strangers are likely to meet’. Which we unpicked for a while.

The Long Good Friday
Crime movies are often good for social and political commentary. The urban crime movie, particularly as it builds on hardboiled fiction, makes use of physical mobility across the city to explore social, political and economic relationships; and by moving across class and race barriers, it is able to depict crime as mirroring and/or paralleling ‘legitimate’culture. Hollywood’s ‘ethnic’ gangster movie protagonist (Scarface, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar in the 1930s through to, say, Dead Presidents in the 1990s) pursued individual wealth and personal success but because of race/ethnic/class exclusion had to rely on ‘illegitimate’ means. In the 1940s, with High Sierra and Force of Evil there is a shift to depicting organised crime as not really any different from capitalist corporations – a tendency which reaches a high point in especially the second Godfather film, and which results in bankers becoming indistinguishable from criminals in The International. Against that genre history, The Long Good Friday takes on a British neoliberal – or Thatcherite – specificity in the way it maps out relations between between crime, politics, policing, urban redevelopment and international finance. Gangland boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) captures something of the Conservative’s ideological contradiction between

  • a there-is-no-such-thing-as-society neoliberalism of competitive economic self-interest and ‘freedom’
  • a social conservatism (family, nation, social order, white privilege, etc)

The depiction of the Irish and especially the IRA is informative in this regard. The film came out as the Conservative government and their media lackeys were changing the treatment and representation of the IRA from political dissidents to nothing more than a violent criminal gang. This process began much earlier but had a particular resonance at the time – the film was released on 2 February 1981, less than a month before Bobby Sands and others began the second hunger strike in the Maze Prison. The film also sees politics and political commitment treated as an utterly inexplicable black box, and self-serving economic competition as natural, normal common-sense everyone understands and agrees with – a straight-up Thatcher move (that also involves pretending neoliberalism is not a political project, and accelerating the transition, that Adorno and Horkheimer wrote about years earlier, from government to governance).

We also thought about the film’s treatment of urban gay culture – on the one hand, a little bit seedy and secretive; on the other, everyone knows but no one much cares that Colin (Paul Freeman), Shand’s right-hand man, is gay; on the third hand, if you are gay in this movie you do die violently.

The representation of Brixton is also marked by contradictions: multi-ethnic streets (including a baby Dexter Fletcher!), but Shand implies that it is a black neighbourhood and that is why it has gone downhill; he also expresses disbelief at people being forced to live in such conditions, but it is not entirely clear whether this is empathy or a wannabe property developer seeing an opportunity – not an opportunity to build regular folks better homes, but an opportunity to get rich from property speculation.

London’s Overthrow
The Long Good Friday‘s unredeveloped docklands setting and the anticipation of a 1988 London Olympics make it increasingly timely – and a good match for Miéville’s essay. London’s Overthrow was written partly as a response to the propaganda surrounding the London Olympics development, and in the long shadow cast by the police killing of Mark Duggan and the popular protests (or ‘riots’) that swept British cities 6-11 August 2011.

Sadly, all the Olympics promos I could find online contained some airbrushed images of London but focused much more on athletes doing athletics – understandable, if unhelpful in this context. So we took a look at this short London tourism video from 2014 – all iconic architecture, tradition and (financial) modernity, almost entirely North of the Thames, bustling but never crowded, multi-ethnic but quite astonishingly white-looking, prettified. (Frankly, this video is more fun, especially the way it cons you into outrage at seeming to miss the entire point of The Clash, but I am still not sure what to make of this one.)

We didn’t have enough time to do more than some headline points about Miéville’s essay:

  • the publicity image of London contrasted with apocalyptic imagery;
  • the publicity image of London contrasted with imagery of a more diverse and stratified London;
  • the city transformed by technologies: the phone camera, advertising and other screens;
  • the city transformed by ownership: public space, privatised spaces, ASBOs (PSPOs);
  • planned London and unplanned London;
  • and, because there is something delightfully wrong about mentioning Jacques Derrida in the first week of an undergraduate degree, controlling the future (l’futur) and leaving potentials open (l’avenir)

If there were world enough and time, it would have been good to contrast some of the youtube footage of the 1985 Broadwater Farm uprising with Wretch 32’s ‘Unorthodox’ video that Miéville discusses. But as it was, there was barely time even to conclude with this image:


From the too-much-information section of the module handbook:
Recommended reading
China Miéville’s novels are usually set in an alternative London (King Rat (1998), Un Lun Dun (2007), Kraken (2010)), or in one of the cities in the fantasy world of Bas Lag (Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), Iron Council (2004)). The City & the City (2009) is a murder-mystery set in two different cities that occupy the same physical space.
Elizabeth Bowen’s “Mysterious Kôr” (1944) contrasts an imaginary city with wartime London as an unmarried couple try to find somewhere they can sleep together.
This concern with the relationships between real and unreal cities is also central to Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895), Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981), Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons (1985), Iain Banks’s The Bridge (1986), Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), G. Willow Wilson’s Cairo (2007) and David Eggers’s A Hologram for the King (2012).

Recommended viewing
Other movies about the murky connections between crime, business and politics include The Bad Sleep Well (Kurosawa 1960), Get Carter (Hodges 1971), The Godfather (Coppola 1972), Chinatown (Polanski 1974), The Godfather: Part II (Coppola 1974), City of Hope (Sayles 1991), Face (Bird 1997), The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Edel 2008), Mesrine (Richet 2008) and The International (Tykwer 2009).
Julien Temple’s documentary London: The Modern Babylon (2012) offers a history of the city through found footage – taken from films, newsreels, television, etc – that is useful for thinking about the ways in which moving images shape our understanding, expectations and memories of cities. Thom Andersen’s documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) uses movie footage to explore the ways in which Los Angeles is represented (and represents other cities) in Hollywood films – and to contrast this virtual or imaginary ‘Los Angeles’ with his own experience of living in the ‘real’ Los Angeles. Guy Maddin’s pseudo-documentary My Winnipeg (2007) concocts a fictional history of his hometown.

Week two