The City in Fiction and Film, week 18

Boyz_n_the_hood_poster.jpgWeek 17

This week we turned to African-American cinematic representations of the city, from blaxploitation and the LA Rebellion group up to the New Jack Cinema and Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991). We were guided by Paula J Massood’s argument in Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film that:

In the 1960s and 1970s, the American terrifying other was a generalized inner-city ghetto; in the 1990s, it became the young black man. (166)

Last week, we ended with Taxi Driver’s vision of an infernal Manhattan populated by a profoundly fallen humanity (Scorsese is nothing if not a Catholic director). It is an overtly stylised world, often seen through the windscreen of the vehicle which lends Travis mobility while separating him from the world outside. Typically, blaxploitation has a rather different sense of the city and explores it through different aesthetic choices. These points came up in our discussion of the opening sequence of Shaft (Parks 1971):

  • daylight shooting
  • long shots (and some long takes) using zoom lenses on frequently uncontrolled locations
  • concealed – or apparently concealed – cameras so as to not draw the attention of passersby unaware that they are being filmed
  • the city is shabby, run-down, collapsing, but also lively – and there is an everyday rather than demonic quality to the hustling
  • Shaft (Richard Roundtree) moves through the crowded streets with a confidence that Travis Bickle lacked, untraumatised it seems by his experience of being in the world, mixing freely with others both black and white as if by his sheer presence he can command a world without racism
  • different kind of soundtrack, and different relationship between soundtrack and image

Manthia Diawara argues that

space is related to power and powerlessness … those who occupy the center of the screen are usually more powerful than those situated in the background or completely absent from the screen. (qtd in Massood 173)

The opening of Shaft also points to this key factor in blaxploitation – for the first time since the threadbare and now mostly lost race movies of the 1920s and 1930s, large numbers of African-Americans (not just Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, etc) got to occupy centre (and sometimes pretty much the entire) screen of a significant number of movies, as well as working in numbers behind the scenes. Richard Roundtree strutting easily through Manhattan to the sound of Isaac Hayes was and remains so utterly cool that we can perhaps still get some sense, 45 years later and an ocean away, of how important that moment must have been (even if we might be even more inclined now to question the gender politics and Shaft’s tendency to extract himself from the African-American community).

According to Thomas Doherty’s Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Cinema in the 1950s, the ‘exploitation’ in ‘exploitation films’ refers to
1) the way in which a film was advertised and marketed to entice an audience into the theatre
2) the way in which the film endeared itself to its audience – content
3) and finally as a particular kind of film

This kind of “exploitation” became a cohesive production strategy with three elements:
1) controversial/bizarre/timely subject matter amenable to promotion
2) a substandard budget
3) a teenage audience
i.e., triply exploitative – exploiting sensational events for story value, their public notoriety for publicity value, and a teenage audience for box office value

This is also pretty much the sense in which the ‘xploitation’ in ‘blaxploitation’ is intended.

In the early 1970s, African Americans constitute 25-40% of Hollywood’s US audience. Following the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (Davis 1970), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Shaft (Parks 1971), a low- and medium-budget production cycle helped to restore Hollywood profitability, but was then abandoned with the emergence of blockbuster cinema – Jaws (Spielberg 1975), Star Wars (Lucas 1977), etc – and of different modes of distribution and exhibition, a process aided by the closure and/or grindhousing and/or pornification of downtown cinemas and an increase in suburban cinemas.

Ed Guerrero argues in Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film that blaxploitation was part of a larger ‘black film boom’ that saw ‘ninety-one productions’ in 1971-73, ‘of which forty-seven can be considered models of the Blaxploitation formula’ (95) – a fomula that .

usually consisted of a pimp, gangster, or their baleful female counterparts, violently acting out a revenge or retribution motif against corrupt whites in the romanticized confines of the ghetto or inner city. These elements were fortified with liberal doses of gratuitous sex and drugs and the representation of whites as the very inscription of evil. And all this was rendered in the alluring visuals and aggrandized sartorial fashions of the black underworld and to the accompaniment of black musical scores that were usually of better quality than the films they energized. (94)

Blaxploitation had African American critics of this sort from the outset. The term was coined by Junius Griffin, the head of the NAACP’s Beverley Hills-Hollywood branch, when he was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter decrying such ‘black exploitation films’ as Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972). Within days, he resigned from his post and co-founded the Coalition against Blaxploitation (CAB), with the support of various of the more conservative civil rights organisations (e.g., CORE, SCLC). In ‘Black movie boom – good or bad?’ (The New York Times 17 December 1972), he argued that

If black movies do not contribute to building constructive, healthy images of black people and to fairly recording the black experience, we shall have lost our money and our souls [and] have contributed to our own cultural genocide by only offering our children the models of degradation, destruction and dope’ (D19)

Griffin was by no means representative of all African Americans. In the same The New York Times piece, Gordon Parks describes the audience’s response to a crowded 4am screening of his Shaft:

Everything was ‘right on!’ A new hero, black as coal, deadlier than Bogart and handsome as Gable, was doing the thing that everyone in that audience wanted to see done for so long. A black man was winning. (D3)

Parks says of the ‘so-called black intellectuals’ demanding an end to blaxploitation that:

it is curious that some black people, egged on by some whites, will use such destructive measures against black endeavors. … The most important thing to me is that young blacks can now … enter an industry that has been closed to them for so long. (D3).

In Isaac Julien’s documentary Baadasssss Cinema (2002), blaxploitation star and occasional director Fred Williamson criticises NAACP and CORE for coining the implicitly derogatory term, asking

Who was being exploited? All the black actors were getting paid. They had a job. They were going to work. The audience wasn’t being exploited. They were getting to see things on their screens they had longed for.

Blaxploitation star Gloria Hendry adds,

the organizations failed to understand that the community was really in need of their own heroes and black movies.

And The Black Panther newspaper devoted the entire 19 June 1971 issue to Huey P. Newton’s review of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which concludes ‘We need to see it often and learn from it’ (in To Die for the People (San Francisco: City Lights,
2009) 148).

Many blaxploitation films have an original music soundtrack, including Earth, Wind & Fire on Sweetback Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Millie Jackson on Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973), James Brown on Black Caesar (Cohen 1973) and Edwin Starr on Hell up in Harlem (Cohen 1973). Sound itself is also often used in interesting ways – partly post-classical stylistic innovation, partly symptomatic of the films’ extremely low budgets which relied on shooting without sound and dubbing later. For example, the opening ten minutes of Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972) contains extended sequences of a couple of would-be muggers walking through New York streets, Super Fly driving through the streets, and then chasing one of the muggers through the streets, much of it to Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack; there are several similar sequences later in the film, including on using split screen arrangements of still images. On one level, an economy-driven necessity, it becomes an aesthetics concerned with occupying the screen (and soundtrack) space, and key to an actualité-ish depiction of black urban life.

Blaxploitation was often immensely profitable across the budgetary scale, especially in terms of box-office to outlay ratios. MGM budgeted $1.2 million each for Cotton Comes to Harlem and Shaft; the former grossed over $8 million domestically, the latter over $10.8 million in its first year of distribution. Low-budget Cinerama Releasing Corporation spent $200,000 on The Mack (Campus 1973), which grossed over $3 million, and AIP spent $500,000 on Coffy (Hill 1973), which grossed $6 million. The independent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song cost an estimated $500,000 and took $4.1 million on its initial domestic release, dislodging Love Story (Hiller 1971) from number one at the US box office, and eventually grossed $10-15 million.

The soundtracks were also often successful. The soundtrack albums for Shaft and Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973) sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Super Fly, the first entirely black-financed film to be released by a Hollywood Studio, and the first to employ an almost entirely Black and Puerto Rican crew (mostly drawn from Third World Cinema Corporation, a Harlem-based collective co-founded by Ossie Davis in 1971), had an estimated budget of $100,000 but took $6.4 million during its initial run, eventually grossing over $12 million. Controlled and released by his own publishing company and independent record label, Curtis Mayfield’s singles ‘Super Fly’ and ‘Freddie’s Dead’ sold over 1 million copies each; the soundtrack album sold 12 million copies, earning him over $5 million. (See Eithne Quinn, ‘“Tryin’ to get over”: Super Fly, black politics, and post-civil rights film enterprise’. Cinema Journal 49.2 (2010): 86-105.)

Next, we moved from East Coast to West, to take a look at the sequence in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song after Sweetback beats the cops to death and goes on the run. Van Peebles’s stylisations are even more overt than those of Scorsese, layering images, saturating them in psychedlic hues, and cutting with the rhythm of the music, which itself often seems to be improvised in conjunction with the images. Los Angeles is a disjointed, ruptured wasteland, more or less devoid of humanity. It is low and close the ground in contrast to New York, and seems to stretch on forever. Others might escape by plane, but all Sweetback can do is run and run and run.

And then we moved from blaxploitation – a category in which Sweetback does not always seems to fit easily, despite its massive importance to the cycle – to the LA Rebellion group. This network of African-American filmmakers, who studied at UCLA from the late-1960s onwards, made films that set out to resist Hollywood – and blaxploitation – norms, embracing the influence of Italian neo-realism and other European art cinema, and of politicised and postcolonial Latin American and African filmmaking. They made experimental and documentary shorts, documentary features and, later, videos, but the easiest of their work to access is their fiction features, including: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978); Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977); Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991); Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979); Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1976) and Sankofa (1993); and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983).

We took a look at an early sequence from Killer of Sheep, in which African-American kids throw stones at each other and play in the wasteland between railroad tracks. While the landscape itself seems familiar from Sweetback, the grainy – but often beautiful – black-and-white photography (another intersection of budget and aesthetics) contrasts with Van Peebles’s restless (and desperate) innovations. It recalls, in different ways, a number of films we have already watched on the module (Bicycle Thieves, The Third Man, Passport to Pimlico, Cléo from 5 to 7, Ratcatcher).

The soundtrack is likewise naturalistic, just voices and sounds of the city, creating a rather different effect than blaxploitation’s commitment to cutting edge soul and funk (and to Bush Mama’s more experimental layering of fragmentary voices on its soundtrack).

The New Jack Cinema ran from roughly 1989-95. Its key filmmakers and films were
Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995), Girl 6 (1996), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998), Bamboozled (2000)
Bill Duke: A Rage in Harlem (1991)
Matty Rich: Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991)
John Singleton: Boyz N the Hood (1991), Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Rosewood (1997)
Mario Van Peebles: New Jack City (1991), Posse (1993), Panther (1995)
Leslie Harris: Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992)
Allen and Albert Hughes: Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), American Pimp (1999)
Ernest Dickerson: Juice (1992), Blind Faith (1998)

As with the more or less simultaneous New Queer Cinema, it had a strong focus on male experience, and made efforts to diversify representation without reiterating stereotypes or insisting on ‘positive’ images. Its primary focus on African American urban experience was influenced by blaxplotiation’s and the LA Rebellion’s use of actual locations, but was also intertwined with the emergence of hip-hop culture over the preceding decade and more. The New Jack Cinema often depicted gang life, violence, misogyny and drug use in negative terms, but frequently also succumbed to the spectacle such things offered. There were also strong elements of melodrama and liberal handwringing, and a championing of education and middle class lifestyle choices. Unlike Beverly Hills Cop (Brest 1984), New Jack movies tend not to take a single black protagonist out of his own community and relocate him in a white community – a strategy also deployed by many post-New Jack movies, such as Training Day (Fuqua 2001) – but instead builds a picture of an ethnically, culturally, linguistically and generationally diverse neighbourhood, with a history

It is important to bear in mind bell hooks’s comments on the historical, political, economic, cultural and social context of gangsta rap:

The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. (Outlaw Culture (London: Routledge, 1994): 116)

Like blaxploitation, the New Jack Cinema was often extremely profitable. She’s Gotta Have It was shot in 12 days for $175,000 and took over $7 million in the US alone. (It is relatively unusual in being woman-centred, but is problematically centred on a woman whose choice to have multiple sexual partners is repeatedly eroticised and spectacularised.) Do the Right Thing cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US, with two Oscar nominations (best screenplay, supporting actor). Newspapers worried its ambivalent conclusion would lead to riots. Just Another Girl on the IRT was shot in 17 days for $100,000, took $500,000 at US box office (again relatively unusual, not only in that it focuses on female experience, but on teen female experience and was made by a woman). Like Boyz N the Hood, it ends in blood, but not a drive-by or gang-killing. Instead, it culminates in a long scene of protagonist Chantel’s (Ariyan A Johnson) agonising premature childbirth – she is in denial about and has concealed her unwanted pregnancy, and thus is completely unprepared. Boyz N the Hood cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US alone; 23-year-old John Singleton was nominated for best director and best original screenplay Oscars.

We focused primarily on the kinds of spaces the film depicted and how they were shot. There is none of the excessive stylisation of Scorsese, no attempt to depict South Central as infernal. There is no attempt to depict the area as a crumbling ruin, as in the views of Manhattan in Shaft and Super Fly, or as an urban wasteland, as in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Killer of Sheep. In fact, the ‘natural’ daytime light and often pastels palette imbues the hood with the sense of a potentially idyllic suburb of evenly spaced houses in a variety of styles, each set in a neat little garden. Unlike Fahrenheit 451 and despite the ubiquity of television, people still sit on their porches, chatting and whiling away the time. This is countered, to some extent, by the high walls around the backyards and fence around some front yards; by the invisible but nonetheless affectively tangible walls around neighbourhoods and the city; by the role of mass unemployment and limited future prospects in all that porch-sitting; by the eruptions of gang violence and police violence; by the junkie mother who cannot look after her children (even if everyone else in the neighbourhood watches out for them); and by the almost constant nocturnal sound of police helicopters patrolling the skies above.

While Sweetback can at least run past LAX (and run), Boyz begins with a stop sign (while a jet climbs into the sky behind it). Such entrapment – such limited mobility in a city built for cars – is central to the film.

(As, rather more problematically, is its focus on the need for fathers to raise sons as real men so as to end ghetto immiseration and violence, since this involves constantly blaming mothers – reiterating a strong current in the period’s far from progressive political discourse. This goes so far as to undermine its own advocacy of such middle class values as education, responsibility and property ownership by finding fault with aspirational black women.)

Week 19

Core critical reading: Massood, Paula J. Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003. 145–74.

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 8, ‘An Alternative Modernity: Race, Ethnicity and the Urban Experience.”
Bausch, Katharine. “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism.” Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 257–76.
Dyson, Michael Eric. “Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood.” Cultural Critique 21 (1991): 121–41.
Farred, Grant. “No Way Out of the Menaced Society: Loyalty within the Boundedness of Race.” Camera Obscura 12.2 (1995): 6–23.
Gormley, Paul. “The Affective City: Urban Black Bodies and Milieu in Menace II Society and Pulp Fiction.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 180–199.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Kennedy, Liam. Race and Urban Space in Contemporary American Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Chapter 3, “Between Pathology and Redemption.”
Massood, Paula J. “City Space and City Times: Bakhtin’s Chronotope and Recent African-American Film.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 200–215.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 7, “Ghettos and Barrios.”
Mukherjee, Roopali. “The Ghetto Fabulous Aesthetic in Contemporary Black Culture: Class and Consumption in the Barbershop Films.” Cultural Studies 20.6 (2006): 599–629.
Tarr, Carrie. Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
Watkins, Craig S. Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999.

Recommended reading
African-American, Latino/a and Chicano/a ghetto fiction can be traced back at least as far as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s *The Sport of the Gods (1902), Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and more autobiographical work, such as Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967) and Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967).
It also draws on the pulp crime fiction of Chester Himes (e.g., A Rage in Harlem (1957)) and Donald Goines (e.g., Dopefiend (1971)), on blaxploitation cinema, New Jack cinema and hip-hop culture.
Contemporary examples include Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl (1993), Sapphire’s Push (1996), Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), Nina Revoyr’s Southland (2003) and Gary Phillips’s The Jook (2010), and such autobiographical works as Luis J Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (1993) and Sanyika Shakur’s Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1993).

Recommended viewing
Key blaxploitation films include Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971), Shaft (Parks 1971) and Superfly (Parks Jr 1972).
The LA Rebellion group’s more neo-realist depiction of black urban life can be seen in Killer of Sheep (Burnett 1978) and Bush Mama (Gerima 1979).
Key New Jack cinema films include Do the Right Thing (Lee 1989), Just Another Girl on the IRT (Harris 1992) and Menace II Society (Hughes brothers 1993).
Depictions of ghetto life have become a significant part of world cinema, including such films as La Haine (Kassovitz 1995), City of God (Meirelles and Lund 2002), Jerusalema: Gangster’s Paradise (Ziman 2008) and Attack the Block (Cornish 2011).

Advertisements

The City in Fiction and Film, week 17: Ballard’s High-Rise, chapters 10-19

70256Week 16

Last week, we spent some time discussing the layers of observation, performance and display going on in Le couple témoin, as the protagonists are monitored by psychosociological experimenters, watch by television audiences and reported on in current affairs shows. This built on the idea of media – and television in particular – being repeatedly connected to alienation in mid-twentieth-century culture. In All That Heaven Allows, the widow Cary is offered television as a replacement for social life and romance. In Fahrenheit 451, we noted was the role of television in alienating Montag not only from his wife (a microcosm of Bradbury’s broader point about the (anti)social role of television) but also from himself when he watches the coverage of the Mechanical Hound pursuing him:

He watched the scene, fascinated, not wanting to move. It seemed so remote and no part of him; it was a play apart and separate, wondrous to watch, not without its strange pleasure. … If he wished, he could linger here, in comfort, and follow the entire hunt on through its swift phases, down alleys across streets, over empty running avenues, crossing lots and playgrounds, with pauses here and there for the necessary commercials … and so on finally to this house with Faber and himself seated, drinking … Then, if he wished, Montag might rise, walk to the window, keep one eye on the TV screen, open the window, lean out, look back, and see himself dramatized described, made over, standing there, limned in the bright small television screen from outside, a drama to be watched objectively, knowing that in other parlours he was large as life, in full colour, dimensionally perfect! And if he kept his eyes peeled quickly he would see himself, an instant before oblivion, being punctured for the benefit of how many civilian parlour-sitters who had been wakened from sleep a few minutes ago by the frantic sirening of their living room walls to come watch the big game, the hunt, the one-man carnival.
Would he have time for a speech? As the Hound seized him, in view of ten or twenty or thirty million people, mightn’t he sum up his entire life in the last week in one single phrase or a word that would stay with them long after the Hound had turned, clenching him in the metal-plier jaws, and trotted off into darkness, while the camera remained stationary, watching the creature dwindle in the distance – a splendid fade-out!

With an effort, Montag reminded himself again that this was no fictional episode to be watched on his run to the river; it was in actuality his own chess-game he was witnessing, move by move. (172-4, 177)

This dissociation continues even when Montag has escaped: the hunt continues; the Hound tracks down someone else in Montag’s place, cameras carefully shooting it all so as to maintain the deception of the rogue fireman’s capture. It is as if a second Montag has detached from the first. He witnesses his fate as if he has been given access to an alternate world in which he did not make the river crossing.

Television and associated media play a role in High-Rise, too.

Like Montag, Laing experiences moments of dissociation. When the jeweller from the 40th floor takes his fatal plunge (suicide? murder? accident?), Laing is among those who crowd onto the balcony of a neighbouring apartment:

Pushed along the railing, Laing saw his own empty balcony fifteen feet away. In an absurd moment of panic, he wondered if he himself was the victim. (41)

In the first half of the novel we learn about Wilder’s plan to make a documentary about the building and the breakdown of society within it – which his wife, Helen, who seems fully aware of Ballard’s own imagery, shrugs off as just another prison documentary, like the one he has been film in his day job. By the mid-point of the novel, everyone it seems is filming their own acts of violence – ‘Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras are shooting away’ (90) – and showing their rushes to each other in the building’s move theatre.

Paul Crosland, the head of Laing’s clan, is also a television news anchor, and he continues to go into the studios to read the news, cataloguing disasters in calm and reassuring tones, never mentioning the similar catastrophe ripping through the building where he lives (96) – a departure from the teleprompter for which Laing continues to hope even as the novel draws to a close (151). When Crosland returns home, it is to stoke confrontations with other clans, emitting a blind and furious anger even though he ‘often … had no idea what he was arguing about’ (97). In those moments, unprotected by his makeup, Crosland’s outrage appears to Laing like that of ‘an announcer tricked for the first time into reading an item of bad news about himself’ (97). Such a dissolution of the distinction between public and private selves, between civilised and brutish behaviour, is linked to and articulated in relation to the electronic media that surround us in the city (just as the inhabitants of Alphaville in some way seem to live inside the Alpha 60 computer, which seems to be so thoroughly extended and distributed through the city as to be coterminous with it).

Even more mediatised is the drunken Eleanor Powell: ‘After a few cocktails she was hyper-animated, and flicked on and off like a confused TV monitor revealing glimpses of extraordinary programmes which Laing could only understand when he was drunk himself’ (96).

Soon, Laing can only watch the television with the sound turned down,

not out of boredom with these documentaries and situation comedies, but because they were meaningless. Even the commercial, with their concern for the realities of everyday life, were transmissions from another planet. Squatting among the plastic garbage-sacks, his furniture piled up behind him, Laing studied these lavish reconstructions of housewives cleaning their immaculate kitchens, deodorants spraying well-groomed armpits. Together they formed the elements of a mysterious domestic universe. (106-7)

When Wilder once more begins his ascent of the building, taking his cine-camera everywhere with him like some kind of protective fetish, he invites those he meets to take part in the television documentary he is making (or deluding himself he is making). On the lower-levels, people are eager to participate, voicing their many complaints, but the higher up he gets the more reluctant his potential interviewees become. Many of them are the kind of middle-class technocrats for whom being on television is nothing new, having previously appeared ‘as professional experts on various current-affairs programmes’ (115). Furthermore, ‘“Television is for watching, Wilder,” one of the women told him firmly, “not for appearing on.”’ (115). It is a curious kind of restraint amid all the chaos of the building, yet some proprieties, it seems, must be maintained. Soon, Wilder’s resolve to make the documentary begins to fade. Perhaps it is because, in some way, he has seen it all before – on television:

The decline of the apartment building reminded him of a slow-motion newsreel of a town in the Andes being carried down the mountain slopes to its death, the inhabitants still hanging out their washing in the disintegrating gardens, cooking in their kitchens as the walls were pulverized around them. (120)

On the top floor, Royal and his entourage dress formally for dinner at a pristine dining table, but even there the ‘theatricality of this contrived setting’ is obvious, ‘like a badly rehearsed and under-financed television commercial for a high-life product’ (132).

It is not just television, though.

The true light of the high-rise was the metallic flash of the polaroid camera, that intermittent radiation which recorded a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure. What depraved species of electric flora would spring to life form the garbage-strewn carpets of the corridors in response to this new source of light? The floors were littered with the blackened negative strips, flakes falling from this internal sun. … Laing’s feet crackled among the polaroid negatives scattered about the corridor floor, each recording a long-forgotten act of violence. (109, 150)

The flash of the Polaroid cameras is picked up on by the flickering lights, recalling the flicker of the movie projector and of analogue televisions:

the lights began to flicker continuously like a fibrillating heart. … a broken mirror lay on the bed, the pieces flickering like the fragments of another world trying unsuccessfully to reconstitute itself. … [Steele] beckoned Laing forward into the stuttering light. … The lights continued to flicker with the harsh over-reality of an atrocity newsreel. … the lights flickered from the doorways of ransacked apartments, form overturned lamps lying on the floor and television screens brought back to a last intermittent life. … In an empty bedroom a cine-projector screened the last feet of a pornographic film on to the wall facing the bed. (110-11)

Wilder projects footage of himself ‘upon the walls and ceiling’ of the elevator lobby, watching the images ‘as if about to leap on to the backs of his own shadows and ride them like a troupe of beasts up the flues of the building’, while in Talbot’s apartment the ‘lurid caricatures’ of homophobic graffiti sprayed ‘on the walls glimmered in the torch-light like the priapic figures drawn by cave-dwellers’ (108). Some floors above, the ‘even light’ in Royal’s penthouse is ‘as dead as a time exposure in a police photography recording a crime’ (138).

The building is media-saturated. In the darkness, nothing remains hidden. Artificial light exposes it all. (Just as the audiotapes made by Pangbourne (83, 140), the gynecologist who never touches his patients, and by Wilder (129-30), unleash things otherwise hidden.)

The novel self-reflexively – but not unambiguously – attributes the breakdown of society in the building to the post-Freudian subjectivities produced by a culture of affluence, commodities and consumerism. Talbot notes that they are not witnessing a return to some ‘happy primitivism’ or ‘the noble savage’; rather, the residents, ‘outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection’, seem to ‘resent never having had a chance to become perverse’ (109).

There is certainly plentiful evidence of regression to infantile psychosexual behaviour in the novel.

Laing takes his older sister – who reminds him of his mother and used to look after him as a child – as a lover; although she has inherited something of their mother’s ‘shrewish manner’, which he dislikes, he nonetheless finds this echo reassuring (98-9). This breaking of the incest taboo has two purposes.

First, it recalls anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s argument that the cultural ban on incest is intended to promote social stability by favouring exogamy (sex/ marriage outside the group) over endogamy (sex/marriage within the group) and thus expanding the network of mutually dependent interrelationships. Ballard perhaps suggests, then, that with the alienation, isolation and disconnectedness of contemporary urban life, exogamy – engaging with others – might seem to become the greater threat; certainly exogamy is ill-suited to the inward-looking inhabitants of the building.

Second, the incest taboo returns us to the Freudianism that the novel denies but also has in spades. In the Oedipal complex, incestuous desire (the male infant for the mother, the female infant for the father) is the norm, and it must be defeated. The novel repeatedly plays on this. When Royal experiments with touching the passive Helen Wilder ‘she reacted, not by pushing his hand away, but by moving it to her waist and lightly holding it there as she would the straying hands of her children’ (135).

Wilder’s entire trajectory ends up being one of infantile regression. He feels the need to break free from his wife because by doing so ‘he would break away from the whole system of juvenile restraints he had been trying to shake off since his adolescence’ (118). She watches him like a mother ‘as he hunted in her purse for money … amused by her husband’s dependence on the fictions of this elaborate toy [the phallic camera] he takes everywhere with him’ (119). He likes the dark because in it he can ‘deliberately play on all [his] repressed instincts’ (120). He welcomes the building’s ‘forced conscription of the deviant strains of his character’ and the fact that ‘this free and degenerate behaviour became easier the higher he moved up the building’ (120). Mrs Hillman, in whose apartment Wilder stays, spends ‘all her time worrying about him, like an over-anxious mother fretting about a wayward child’ (124), but ‘No more ill-suited couple, Wilder decided, could have been cast to play mock-mother and mock-son’ (125). This mock-relationship leaves room for the possibility of a sexual relationship of the kind the incest taboo is intended to prevent: over the course of the evening spends with the Hillmans, Wilder ‘became more and more oafish …, deliberately coarsening himself like a delinquent youth fooling about with a besotted headmistress’ (126). (He also concocts a lie about Talbot ‘molesting a child in a swimming-pool changing room’, and the fact that everyone knows the accusation to be untrue somehow reinforces it (127) – so some taboos remain to be manipulated by the bullying Wilder.)

Having left the Hillmans behind him, Wilder is soon dominating another woman, who is anxious to avoid the exogamy this encounter involves:

She welcomed him as she would any marauding hunter. First she would try to kill him, but failing this give him food and her body, breast-feed him back to a state of childishness and even, perhaps, feel affection for him. Then, the moment he was asleep, cut his throat. (160)

Although this is described as ‘the synopsis of the ideal marriage’ (160), it is so only inasmuch as it recapitulates the complex feelings of interdependence and aggression as the mother-infant dyad is ruptured and the Oedipal struggle commences.

Ultimately, breaking the building’s taboo on using guns, Wilder kills Royal, the building’s patriarch, and finds himself on the roof surrounded by other – actual – children and the women who care for them. He immediately becomes completely infantile. Hoping to join the children, he wanders out towards the women:

In their bloodied hands they carried knives with narrow blades. Shy but happy now, Wilder tottered across the roof to meet his new mothers. (168)

Laing’s fate is not so clear-cut. The novel ends with him holed up in his apartment with Alice, his sister-lover-mother, and Eleanor Powell, who seems to be merging with her. He addresses them in the childish voice he used as a trainee doctor when talking to ‘the duller of his child patients’ (171), and believing himself to be in control he forages food and waits on them. He indulges them when they treat ‘him like two governesses in a rich man’s ménage, teasing a wayward and introspective child’ (172) – presumably he is both the rich man and the child – and sometimes he acts as if they really are in charge  (this is so convincing that once a raiding party of women left him alone, assuming he was the prisoner of the two women). Laing likes the arrangements – even if he deludes himself as to its actual nature – because it represents ‘an intimate family circle, the first he had know since childhood’ (172).

We also looked at three passages to chart Laing’s progress (regress) – when he attempts to leave the building but turns back (101-4), the start of chapter seven when the building seems to become timeless and motionless (145-7), and when he find Eleanor feeding her cat with her own blood (151-3) – and asked basically the same questions of each: what imagery and ideas does Ballard use to describe the building and its residents? how does the world inside differ from the world outside? why does Laing find it impossible to leave and why in each subsequent passage does he seem happier despite (because of?) the further deterioration of his environment?

This notion of deterioration is important. Ballard’s novel is very specifically about that moment in the early 1970s, when decrying post-war Corbusier-spawned high-rise developments went from being merely a fashionable posture to received wisdom. Typically, what was conveniently forgotten – often for ideological reasons – was that for many people moving from slums to the new developments was headily utopian. Many people finally had enough bedrooms that they did not need to share, indoor plumbing, etc. While Aneurin Bevan’s brick-built housing was intended to last, many of the the prefabricated developments only had intended lives of a few decades, and soon began to deteriorate, not least because councils often failed properly to fund maintenance to post-war housing projects. That this was the fault of government did not get in the way of the residents themselves being being blamed for the disrepair into which the untended buildings inevitably fell. High-Rise was written when working class residents were being demonised as intoxicated, glue-sniffing, violent, criminal – as creatures incapable of not fouling their own nests. It was written when the extent of the corruption behind many housing schemes was being uncovered (as in the John Poulson case, which reached all the way up to Home Secretary Reginald Maudling – Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (1996) dramatises a version of these events). Whether or not Ballard bought into this potent myth, nothing could have seemed more natural than to retell it but with a cast of middle class professionals, with yuppies avant la lettre.

In closing, we had a brief discussion about Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976), focusing particularly on the ways in which it pretty much reduces New York to a demonised and perilous Times Square, bathed in a red light to make it infernal. This, too, fits in with a broader discourse, one that would lead to the purging of such urban spaces, ridding them of the diverse ethnic and sexual working class cultures that inhabited them in favour of redevelopment. The value of land and property on Manhattan was too high, and full of potential to become even higher, to be left to such people. There was money, and lots of it, to be made by criminalising them, driving them out, displacing them, and by thus reversing white-flight, by gentrification, by tourist-friendly Disneyfication.

We will pick up on this next week when we look at some blaxploitation and some LA Rebellion films as part of the background for thinking about Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991).

Week 18

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 7 “The Modernity of the Sophisticate and the Misfit: The City through Different Eyes.”
Baxter, Jeanette. J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.
Colombino, Laura. “The House as SKIN: J. G. Ballard, Existentialism and Archigram’s Mini-Environments.” European Journal of English Studies 16.1 (2012): 21–31.
Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth: Northcote, 1998.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 52–86
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Grindrod, John. Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain. London: Old Street, 2013.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 67–93
Hansley, Lynsley. Estates: An Intimate History. London: Granta, 2008.
Matthews, Graham. “Consumerism’s Endgame: Violence and Community in J.G. Ballard’s Late Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 36.2 (2013): 122–39.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 8. “The City as Queer Playground.”
Siegel, Allen. “After the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Space.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 137–159.
Shiel, Mark. “A Nostalgia for Modernity: New York, Los Angeles, and American Cinema in the 1970s.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 160 – 179.

Recommended reading
High-Rise is part of a thematic trilogy, including Ballard’s most challenging novel, Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974). Ballard’s ‘late fiction’ returns to similar material but relocated to gated suburban communities in Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).
1970s British novels of urban decay include Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Zoe Fairbairns’s Benefits (1979).

Recommended viewing
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (2015) adapts Ballard’s novel.
Modern city living deranges or makes miserable in Repulsion (Polanski 1965), Shivers (Cronenberg 1975), Crash (Cronenberg 1996) and Happiness (Solondz 1998).
Films about the decay of urban centres include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet 1975).

 

The City in Fiction and Film, week 11: the city and modernity – ruins and rebuilding

the-bicycle-thief-movie-poster-1949-1020503611

week 10

This week’s class was centred on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica 1948). We have already encountered postwar ruins and a version of the Trümmerfilm (‘rubble film’) in The Third Man (Reed 1949), and will watch Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949) next week – a bit more festive than most Trümmerfilm and one that segues into the period of postwar (re)construction that will begin next semester.

It is difficult to talk about Bicycle Thieves without also talking about Italian neo-realism, and so the lecture this week also overlaps with some issues being discussed on Film Style and Meaning. James Chapman’s Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present (2003) usefully describes Italian neorealism as possessing

a distinctive formal and aesthetic character of its own (location shooting, naturalistic lighting, long takes, true-to-life stories, unscripted dialogue and the use of non-professional performers). (232)

It would however be problematic to reduce the movement merely to a matter of aesthetics (Chapman doesn’t – I’ll come back to him in a bit), especially when the terms one finds in such lists are this broad and could be applied to so many realist film movements. So before getting into more detail about neorealism, we focused on the specificities of Italy in the closing years of World War II and the immediate postwar period.

Very broadly, then:

Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party, became the Prime Minister of Italy in 1922. In 1925, he abandoned democracy and set up a legal dictatorship. He was ousted in 1943 and replaced by Pietro Badoglio, who set about dissolving the Fascist party and surrendering to the advancing allied forces. In response, Germany invaded Italy and German special forces broke Mussolini out of prison. Italy declared war on Germany; Mussolini became head of the northern Italian Social Republic – a Nazi puppet government. He was captured and executed by partisans in April 1945.

In 1944, the returning exiled leader of the Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, promised to pursue parliamentary rather than revolutionary politics, and joined a broadly anti-fascist ‘national unity’ government, which wrote a new constitution, gave women the vote, abolished the monarchy and began to (half-heartedly) purge fascists from office. The Communist Party, had been the mainstay of the anti-fascist partisans and anti-Nazi resistance, and thus it had a certain moral high ground (as well as a million members in 1945). Under the new constitution, the first parliamentary elections since 1922 were held on 18 April 1948 (while Bicycle Thieves was in pre-production).

There were massive housing shortages and unemployment was somewhere between 9% and 20% – and if the Communist Party won, US Marshall Plan aid would have been delayed. The Christian Democrats, backed by the Vatican and covertly by the CIA, won. The Communist Party was established as the second largest party.  On 14 July 1948 there was an attempt to assassinate Togliatti. He was shot three times and put in a coma, but recovered. In response, there were massive protests, a general strike, and violent police repression (including by the Nucleo Celere, who we glimpse out of the police station window in Bicycle Thieves, heading out in jeeps to break up a demonstration).

It was against this complex, tense, conflicted and invigorating background that Italian neorealism emerged, and which to an extent accounts for its distinctiveness among varieties of realist cinema – not least because many of the key personnel were communists, or at least antifascists well to the left of the Christian Democrats.

Chapman also outlines some important other factors in the development of the neorealist style. The massive state studio Cinecittà, opened by Mussolini in 1937, had been bombed during the Allied invasion and was closed down, not reopening until 1948 (it was used as a displaced persons camp from 1945-47). At the same time, distribution networks – which had been starved of overseas films – were badly disrupted. Film production and circulation had become extremely localised, and in the absence of studio facilities, location shooting was at the very least a practical decision as much as it might have been an aesthetic one (presumably, professional actors had also been widely dispersed during the war, so there might also have been expedient casting of non-professional actors).

To the aesthetic characteristics listed by Chapman, we might also add a general preference for medium and long shots, which has the effect of embedding characters in social settings and relationships – the American mistranslators of the title, who called the film The Bicycle Thief, rather missed this point, as well as implying the title referred to Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). Additionally, neorealism also tended towards a digressive narrative form (especially in comparison to the Hollywood three-act structure) which arguably had the effect of bringing films closer to the unstructured shape of actual people’s actual lives – a point, as we will see, that André Bazin emphasised in his enthusiastic championing of De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952).

There is of course no consensus on how extensive the canon of Italian neorealist films is – the shortest lists I have seen list usually about eight films, others go up to about sixty.

Either the first neorealist film or the major precursor of neorealism, depending on who you ask, is Ossessione/Obsession (Luchino Visconti 1943), the first adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) – which the PCA had forbidden Hollywood to film.

So the other first neorealist film is RomaCittà aperta/Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945), the story of a partisan and a priest killed during the liberation of Rome. It is generally interpreted as a call for communists and christians to unite in fighting fascism and building a new Italy. It was shot on the streets of Rome, using scavenged equipment and the ends of film reels, which gave it an urgent, grainy look . According to Dilys Powell, the influential Sunday Times film critic from 1939-79,

its impact was partly accidental, the result, not of the director’s art and imagination alone, but also of the accident of poor physical material which gave the story the air of fact.

For Rossellini, however, aesthetics and politics are inseparable, and neorealism was part of a movement to express a

need that is proper to modern man, to tell things as they are, to understand reality, I would say, in a pitiless concrete way, conforming to that typical contemporary interest, for statistical and scientific results.

In 1946, Rossellini’s Paisà/Paisan, charted – in six episodes – the relationship between Italians and US troops, from the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 to end of 1944. Again, it is a film that could not have been made by Hollywood – the US troops are often drunk, the third episodes features a woman who works as a prostitute, and the second episode of is centred on an African American soldier.

In the same year, De Sica’s Sciuscià/Shoeshine began to shift the focus of neorealist film’s away from the war and onto the problems of postwar reconstruction. This is also the focus of Bicycle Thieves, as well as Visconti’s La Terra Trema/The Earth Trembles (1948) and Giuseppe De Santis’s Riso Amaro/Bitter Rice (1949), which are both concerned with rural settings, with fishermen and rice farmers.

Bazin praised Bicycle Thieves in these terms:

The story is from the lower classes, almost populist: an incident in the daily life of a worker. But the film shows no extraordinary events such as those that befall the fated workers in Gabin films. There are no crimes of passion, none of those grandiose coincidences common in detective stories … Truly an insignificant, even a banal incident … Plainly there is not enough material here for even a news item: the whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray-dog column. … the event contains no proper dramatic valence. It takes on meaning only because of the social (and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim. ( “Bicycle Thief” 49-50)

He also described it as a communist film, but one that avoided being mere propaganda

Its social message is not detached, it remains immanent in the event, but it is so clear that nobody can overlook it, still less take exception to it, since it is never made explicitly a message. The thesis implied is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive. … events and people are never introduced in support of a social thesis – but the thesis emerges fully armed and irrefutable because it is presented to us as something thrown in into the bargain. (“Bicycle Thief” 51, 53-3)

Arguments about the canon often start with Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) and De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (1951) – they are clearly building on neorealism and breaking new ground, but is that new ground somewhere outside of neorealism’s ambit?

No such uncertainty exists about De Sica’s Umberto D., though. It is a deeply digressive story, or non-story, about an old man living a meagre existence. He has a dog, Flike. He contemplates suicide, but first tries to find a new home for Flike. It is a film which Bazin praised for its refusal of ellipsis – for the way it leaves in all the bits classical Hollywood filmmaking would cut out (as in this four-and-a-half-minute scene of the maid making coffee). Nothing at all of significance happens. Apart from the details of her routine, glimpses of her character and a reminder of her dilemma – and so of course it is full of actions and significance.

Bazin saw this as the pinnacle of Italian neorealism – as close as any film got to eliminating the actor (through the casting of non-professionals), miss-en-scène (through abandoning the artifice of the soundstage for the ‘reality’ of location shooting – to be honest, he is not always very good at spotting when things are shot in the studio) and story (eschewing the tightly-plotted classical narrative in favour of the disclosure of the everyday). While conceding that it would never be as widely appreciated or as well liked as Bicycle Thieves, he argued that

It took Umberto D to make us understand what it was in the realism of Ladri di Biciclette that was still a concession to classical dramaturgy. Consequently what is so unsettling about Umberto D is primarily the way it rejects any relationship to traditional film spectacle. (Bazin “Umberto D” 80)

Italian neorealism is normally said to end with Umberto D or perhaps Rome 11.00 (Giuseppe De Santis 1952) – a film I have never managed to see, but which sounds (and from film stills 280px-Romaore11_fotoscenalooks) awesome, although its influence is still at work in films as late as Federico Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria (1957) – a film which I ended up misdescribing as being about ‘a prostitute who looks for love in a van’. Of course, I meant ‘in vain’.  And ‘a woman who works as a prostitute’.

Neorealist films were not great hits with Italian audiences, whose cinemas were being flooded with Hollywood product. They were attacked by the Catholic Church as unsavoury (rather than because they were anticlerical, or at least did not hold a high opinion of the church), and they were attacked by politicians because of the negative image of Italy they promoted internationally (not because they were, on the whole, left-wing films critical of the failures of Italian politics). But some of them were also major international successes, winning many festival awards as well as Oscars, and played a key role in the development of arthouse cinemas and circuits, especially in the US.

Before screening the film, I asked the students about Bazin’s claim that the message of the film is that ‘in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive’. Is this what the film says? If so, how? If not, what does it say instead? Can a film be reduced like this to a mere ‘meaning’?

I also asked students to return to the ideas we have been considering (since Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’) around the individual and the crowd – are these the only options? What about families? The neighbourhood? The church? The community party? What role do they play in mediating between – and in creating – the individual and the crowd?

Thinking back to Man with a Movie Camera, how does Bicycle Thieves depict leisure and labour?

And think about the film’s depiction of Rome. This is not the tourist Rome of, say, Roman Holiday (William Wyler), full of images of classical ruins and Renaissance art and architecture (though it is often shot with yards of such locations). Why does it eschew such sights? And why do other films focus so strongly upon them?

In the end, a lot of our discussion focused on the significance of Antonio’s bike – a muscle-powered forms of transport, halfway between the rural world of hand- and animal-drawn vehicles, and the coming modernising decade of Vespas and Lambrettas and Fiats. One of the sharpest contrasts is between Antonio, who needs a bike so he can work and provide for his family, and the racing cyclists who are wealthy enough to own bikes for leisure purposes. (This is part of the film’s argument about the flawed nature of capitalist social organisation.)

There is also the moment early on when Antonio is told he must have a bike and:
a) he lies, saying it is broken rather than that it has been pawned, even though when we see the pawn shop it is obvious everyone else is living on meagre credit, too;
b) none of the other unemployed men, who are not eligible for this particular job, who clearly state that they have bikes, offer to lend theirs to him.

This lack of communal solidarity stands in stark contrast to the way in which the family and neighbours of the guy who stole Antonio’s bike leap to his defence. This incident ties to the film’s argument through architecture. The Val Melaina, where Antonio and his family live is a borgate built for working class people who were forcibly displaced from the centre of Rome when Mussolini destroyed working class neighbourhoods in order to construct the avenues around the Coliseum, St Peter’s, etc. (This also had the advantage of removing antifascist and  potentially antifascist workers to a distant periphery – a move echoing the Haussmanisation of Paris.) These apartment blocks – which we see have no inside water supply – were ‘completed’ in 1933. They were five miles from the centre of Rome, separated from the city by non-urban space, and surrounded by open land. They had few services and poor connections with the city. Under such circumstances, the communal ties of the densely packed urban neighbourhood, with its multigenerational extended and intertwined kinship networks, and compounded by the dislocations and losses of war, came under increasing strain. Community gives way to the individual and the nuclear family; and that is not necessarily a good thing – as we will see in the first half of next semester as we encounter narratives of suburban conformism (from Douglas Sirk, Don Siegel, Ray Bradbury) and urban alienation (from Jean-Luc Godard, JG Ballard, William Klein, Martin Scorsese).

Core critical reading: Gordon, Robert S.C. Bicycle Thieves. London: BFI, 2008. 82–98.

Recommended critical reading
Bazin, André. “Bicycle Thief”, What is Cinema? Volume II, ed. and trans Hugh Gray, Hugh. Berkeley: University of California Press 1972. 47-60.
–. “Umberto D: A Great Work”, What is Cinema? Volume II. Ed. and trans Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress 1972. 79-82.
Cardullo, Bert. “Actor-Become-Auteur: The Neorealist Films of Vittoria De Sica.” The Massachusetts Review 41.2 (2000): 173–92.
Celli, Carlo. “Ladri di biciclette/The Bicycle Thieves.” The Cinema of Italy. Ed. Giorgio Bertellina. London: Wallflower, 2004. 43–52.
Cook, Christopher. Ed. The Dilys Powell Film Reader. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neo-Realism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gold, John R. and Stephen V. Ward. “Of Plans and Planners: Documentary Film and the Challenge of the Urban Future, 1935–52.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 59–82.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapters 5 and 8, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut” and “The City as Queer Playground.”
Shiel, Mark. Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower, 2006.
Tomasulo, Frank P. “Bicycle Thieves: A Re-Reading.” Cinema Journal 21.2 (1982): 1–13.

Recommended reading
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) offers an estranged vision of post-war London combining slums, bombsites and towering new architecture.
Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963) depicts the young working class women living in the post-war slums of Battersea and Clapham Junction; Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is also of interest.
Two useful accounts of social housing and postwar reconstruction are Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2012) and John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2014).

Recommended viewing
Short documentaries about slum living, new housing and other urban developments include Housing Problems (Anstey and Elton 1935), The City (Elton 1939), The City (Steiner and Van Dyke 1939) and Land of Promise (Rotha 1946).
Utopia London (Cordell 2010) outlines the vision of a group of modernist architects to rebuild London as a more pleasant and equal city, while Riff-Raff (Loach 1991) and Estate, A Reverie (Zimmerman 2015) chart the destruction of such developments.
Post-war London bombsites play a key role in films such as Hue and Cry (Crichton 1947), Obsession aka The Hidden Room (Dmytryk 1949) and The Yellow Balloon (Thompson 1953). These are Trümmerfilm (‘rubble films’), that is, movies made and set in the ruins of postwar cities. Others include The Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946), the Italian neo-realist Germany Year Zero (Rosselini 1948), Odd Man Out (Reed 1947), The Third Man (Reed 1949) and Ten Seconds to Hell (Aldrich 1959).
Up the Junction was filmed for television by Ken Loach in 1965 (and rather less interestingly for cinema by Peter Collinson in 1968). Also of interest are Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), adapted from Dunn’s 1967 novel of the same name, and his influential television drama Cathy Come Home (1969). Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (BBC 1996) begins – in part – as a drama about the post-war replacement of slum housing with tower blocks and concludes with the problematic privatisation of public housing.

The City in Fiction and Film, week 8

CLEO DE 5 A 7 - French Poster 2

week 7

This week we watched Cléo de 5 à 7/Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda France/Italy 1962) as a way to begin thinking about human movement in, across and around the city. The plan was to consider the ideas of the flâneur/flâneuse and flânerie, the dérive (with a hint of le Parkour and le traceur) – but some ad hoc essay-writing support took up part of the class, which meant more detailed work on Guy Debord and the dérive had to be bumped to next week’s class.

Our starting point was the opening of Michel de Certeau’s essay ‘Walking in the City’, which begins with an elaborated contrast of viewing New York from the top of the World Trade Center and living at street level. He describes the city, seen from on high, as ‘a texturology in which extremes collide’ – a visual field made up of, on the one hand, the new structures that constantly irrupt into the scene, reeking of ambition, blocking out the rest of the city and challenging the future, and on the other hand, ‘yesterday’s buildings’, degraded,  turned into trashcans, their accomplishments discarded. One intriguing phrase – ‘brutal oppositions of races and styles’ – fuses the architectural diversity of the city (buildings so different from each other that they might belong not just to different styles but to different races) with the racial segregation of the city created by generations of concentrated white wealth and privilege even when de jure segregation is illegal.

To bring this all a little closer to home, we looked at some recent photographs of London’s skyline – the new buildings that tower over St Paul’s cathedral (the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Lingam, the Carbuncle Award-winning Walkie Talkie), and in the distance Canary Wharf, and over the Thames the Shard. Precisely the kind of urban perspective that reveals ‘a city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs’.

de Certeau makes his first move from thinking of the city as a texturology to thinking of it as a text when he describes New York’s monumental buildings as ‘the tallest letters in the world compos[ing] a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production’.

Rising to the top of the WTC is ‘to be lifted out of the city’s grasp’, to be liberated from the encounters with others, with difference, with the peril and stress of the streets. It is to be separated out from the masses, the supposedly threatening mob. It is to become Icarus, soaring above the labyrinths constructed by Daedalus. (Given Icarus’s fate, this seems at first like a rather odd allusion, and one that is oddly proleptic – like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (US 1983) – of the fate of the WTC. Maybe I should have rewatched Der Himmel über Berlin/Wings of Desire (Wenders West Germany/France 1987) in preparation – or at least subjected the class to some Nicolas Cage from City of Angels (Silberling Germany/US 1998)).

The height of the building distances the viewer from the city and other people, and in a vaguely messianic mode transfigures him into a god-like being, liberated from the ‘bewitching world’ and all its fleshy entanglements. From the perspective of such a deity the city is now merely a text to be read. This consummation represents ‘the exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive’ to see and to know. Attaining such perfect knowledge (or, rather, the ‘fiction of [such] knowledge’)  is the consequence of a ‘lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more’. Here, lust is a wonderfully embodied term with which to describe the drive for a disembodied seeing and knowing – it reveals the contradiction underpinning it all: the material can never become immaterial, reason can never exist outside of the flesh that reasons.

(This prompted a further digression into our unexpected parallel module on the history of art, describing the development of perspectival art, with the aid of Tintoretto – not Dom from the F&F movies – and Cannaleto; and some gesturing towards the notion of Cartesian space.)

King Kong – especially the poster for the 1976 version, in which he bestrides the WTC with Manhattan spread out behind him as in some of the photos we looked at – brought us back to de Certeau, who asks ‘‘Must one finally fall back into the dark space where crowds move back and forth…?’ In brief, yes. It is why the tallest building always gets the giant ape, why the presence of this simian embodiment of white supremacist fears/stereotypes of black masculinity (clutching a white girl snatched from her bed) – and, some argue, though less persuasively, of bourgeois dread of the impoverished mob – is such a scandal. There are too many ways in which Kong and all the things he represents just do not belong there (which is also what makes him so cool). If, to achieve his perfect vision/knowledge/power, the ‘voyeur-god … must disentangle himself from the murky intertwining daily behaviors and make himself alien to them’, then damn right we want the big monkey dragging him back down. Gotta love us some primate insurrection. And ape it.

de Certeau contrasts the voyeur-god (associated with the city planner, and other modes of top-down power that seek to surveil, know and control urban space) with the ‘ordinary practitioners of the city … “down below”’ – that is, those of us do not rise above the streets but walk them. For de Certeau, our perambulations constitute an alternative city, an ‘urban text’ written by walking. And although, lacking a god’s-eye perspective, we cannot read this text, our paths make up ‘intertwining, unrecognized poems’:

The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other. … a migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city.

Which is all a little abstract, if rather beautiful, so we took a look at the first parkour sequence from Banlieue 13/District 13 (Morel 2004), in which we are introduced to David Belle’s dissident traversals of segregated urban space – a tactics of renegade mobility that counters strategies of urban control and nurtures existence in the the cracks of the world-machine.

Jump back 150 years to the Parisian arcades and to the actual and literary phenomenon of the flâneur (and flâneuse) – the stroller, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. Balzac described flânerie as ‘the gastronomy of the eye’. And Baudelaire, in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’,  describes the flâneur thus:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world … a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito … the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.

An intriguing figure, the flâneur obviously recalls Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ and Woolf’s narrator in ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (which we studied in week three) but also perhaps Hans Becker, the serial killer in Lang’s (which we studied in week two). He also combines the two identities that de Certeau separates out – he is in the crowd but not of the crowd, he keeps himself sovereign and separate, an observer more than a participant. Because of this detached attitude, he is never overwhelmed by the urban spectacle he observes, and he is able to invest imaginative power in the most banal of sights. And his very existence is threatened by the speed of urban circulation, the exhausting intellectual activity it requires to defeat the boredom of the city, the intoxication of commodities, and the imposition of rationality and order on the city.

Which brought us to Cléo de 5 à 7. 

The film famously opens with colour footage of a tarot reading, shot from directly above the table on which the cards are spread out, before cutting to conventional black-and-white close-ups for inserts of Cléo during the reading; the rest of the film, much of which is spent prowling Paris streets, is also in black-and-white. This resonates strongly with de Certeau, especially as the god’s-eye view of the table is of a tarot reading that gives us a broad outline of the film’s story. Authoritative and transcendent – colour! – it knows everything; but is in such broad strokes that we need to get down onto the level of the streets and the people who walk them to know the story. We need to be immersed in the grasp of the city.

Later, this metatextual commentary is developed in the film-within-the film – in which Jean-Luc Godard, playing a Harold Lloyd figure, chooses between black and white versions of his lover. Inevitably he chooses blonde Anna Karina, after the black one has died. (And Cléo will not die of cancer but find love, or at least a lover.) The association of blackness with death has already been established when Cléo, looking out of a cab, twice starts at seeing African masks displayed in shop windows. This obviously problematic connection fits into the broader opposition between circulation and stasis that structures the film, and is also played out in the oppositions between image and reality.

This is a film full of mirrors and reflections (and great technical virtuosity in terms of how infrequently you can glimpse any sign in the reflecting surface of the film crew). A lot of this is organised around Cléo’s vanity or insecurity or sense of mortality, whatever it is that prompts her to look at her own reflection quite so often (as she becomes less self-obsessed and more open to the world around her, so reflections disappear from the film). It is picked up on in the allusions to fairy-tales (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White), the protagonists of which both spend time in a deathlike condition. And it is there when Cléo’s friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck), an artist’s model, explains why she has no problem posing nude: the sculptors do not see her, they see an idea.  And it is there in the film-in-the-film, when women are explicitly compared to dolls or puppets.

In contrast to this material about image/stasis/death, we have long sequences of Cléo, alone and in company, walking or being driven around Paris – part of the intertwining, unrecognized poem of the city. Does this make her a flâneuse?

In some ways, yes. For most of the film she is in the crowd but not of it, holding herself at a distance – perhaps best captured in the sequence in the second half of the film which intercuts between her point-of-view shots (including memories) and those of the pedestrians walking towards her. She also clearly wants to be noticed, to have her distinctiveness acknowledged by others, as in the café sequence when she puts one of her own records on the jukebox and wanders around, hoping that someone will at least recognise her.

But in some ways no. Perhaps most especially in the delirious hat shop sequence, in which she utterly succumbs to the commodity spectacle (and demonstrates her amazing superpower – to make any hat, no matter how ridiculous it looks when on display, appear fabulous the moment she puts it on.)

week 9

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 1 “Industrial Modernity: the Flaneur and the Tramp in the Early Twentieth Century City.”
Mazlish, Bruce. “The Flâneur: From Spectator to Representation.” The Flâneur. Ed. in Keith Tester. London: Routledge, 1994. 43–60.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 3, “The City of Love: Paris.”
Pratt, Geraldine and Rose Marie San Juan. Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2104. On Cléo, see 77–89.
Scalway, Helen. “The Contemporary Flâneuse.” The Invisible Flâneuse: Gender, Public Space, and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Ed. Aruna D’Souza and Tom McDonough. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. 164–71.
Weihsmann, Helmut. “Ciné-City Strolls: Imagery, Form, Language and Meaning of the City Film.” Urban Cinematics: Understanding Urban Phenomena Through the Moving Image. Ed. François Penz and Andong Lu. Bristol: Intellect, 2011. 23–41.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “The Invisible Flâneur.” New Left Review 191 (1992): 90–110.
Wolff, Janet. “The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity.” Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 1990. 34–50.
–. “Gender and the Haunting of Cities (or, the retirement of the flâneurThe Invisible Flâneuse: Gender, Public Space, and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Ed. Aruna D’Souza and Tom McDonough. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. 18–31.

Recommended reading
James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) are the great modernist novels of walking in the city. Other poetry. fiction and non-fiction about flânerie and about traversing the city by tactical means include Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (1869), Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926), Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (1930–43), Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938), Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959), Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro (1959), Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (1997), Edmund White’s The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris (2001) and Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (2014).

Recommended viewing
Films about wandering around the city or traversing the city by tactical means include Zazie dans le metro (Malle 1960), Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki 1966), After Hours (Scorsese 1985), London (Keiller 1994), District 13 (Morel 2004), Adrift in Tokyo (Miki 2007), Enter the Void (Noé 2009) and Holy Motors (Carax 2012).

The City in Fiction and Film, week seven

man-with-a-movie-camera1week 6

There are three main parts to this week’s class: viewing and discussing Chelovek s kino-apparatom/Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov 1929); reading and discussing Tom Gunning’s ‘Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’; and essay preparation for next week’s deadline.

In my experience, first year students often struggle with Man with a Movie Camera – very few ever seem to grasp it, let alone like it; and then by the time they are third years, and more used to engaging with a wide variety of films, a number of those who were initially quite negative about it come to appreciate it, even like it. So I did a bit more than I usually would to frame the film – especially as the day before on Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption, they had gone from looking at versions of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond to reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy and watching Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais 1961).

Drawing on some work on film forms from an earlier week on colleague’s Film Style and Meaning module, I framed Man with a Movie Camera as both

  • a documentary, but one that does not use language tell you what its subject matter is or guide you through it
  • an experimental film that requires you to think about the connections between images (one of my favourite gags in the movie depends entirely upon our learned assumptions about narrative and continuity editing: from the right of the screen a football is lobbed into the air; cut to a shot of a man throwing a javelin from the left of the screen – will he puncture the ball in mid-flight?’; cut to a shot of a goalkeeper on the right of the screen – will the javelin impale him?)
  • a self-reflexive film about producing and exhibiting film – all about seeing and being seen, projecting images, filmmaking as an industrial craft among other industrial crafts, film as an industrial product, film as a leisure activity, film as a constructor and conveyor of illusion

and in relation to

  • city symphony films, such as Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931) – one of the students later noted formal similarities to films such as Baraka (Fricke 1992)
  • film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953) – the latter of which they saw a few weeks ago on Film Style and Meaning

We also had some questions to think about while watching the film:

  • How are shots connected to each other? For what reasons does one follow another?
  • Are there graphic and/or textural matches/contrasts between successive shots?
  • Are there traces of narrative?
  • What thematic connections are elaborated across the film?
  • Think about binary oppositions: male/female, public/private, work/leisure, humans/machines, cameraman/people, capturing the city/intervening in the city

I had to stay for the start of the screening to check something in the first few minutes of the film – and ended up watching the whole thing again for the second time in less than 48 hours. I love this movie more every time I see it.

The lecture began with some more framing of the film (next year, I need to try to get the lecture scheduled before the film, if possible).

Viva Paci describes the emergence of cinema as ‘part of the euphoria of modernity’. Like ‘other fetish phenomena typical of modernity, such as billboards, posters, expositions and store shelves’, cinema is ‘merchandise that makes itself visible, turning its presence into spectacle’ (126).Last week we saw, in Modern Times, the centrality of the department store to modern urban experience, and Man with a Movie Camera directly addresses some of these other phenomena. For example, in the early sequence of a sleeping woman slowly waking, there are  cut-aways to a detail from a poster, which later is revealed as the poster for a film called The Awakening (of a woman).

I outlined some of the ways in which many early actualité films shared the same drive as expositions and world’s fairs to expose mass audiences to new technologies and views/simulations of distant and exotic lands (and as this week is also thinking a little bit more about urban alienation and disorientation, it is not insignificant that the first known US serial killer, HH Holmes, stalked in and around the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair).

Paci also relates cinema to

exoticism (as found in the era’s expositions and in the Paris arcades celebrated by Baudelaire and Benjamin), train journeys (and the new visions of the landscape in movement and the proliferation of perspectives they offered), advances in the faculty of sight (from the air, for example, or with microscopes) and the improvements to fantastic images [that] had already fed the collective imaginative identity extended [and] new aesthetic habits. (125)

Annoyingly, I could not find my copy of The World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johnson 1984) to show off some 1939 New York World’s Fair footage, so instead we focused on the connections to trains and new technologies of vision. An 1861 quote form Benjamin Gastineau best captures train travel as proleptic of watching a programme of short films such as the Lumière brothers first charged an audience to see at Le Salon Indien du Grand Café on 28 December 1895:

Devouring distance at the rate of fifteen leagues an hour, the steam engine, that powerful stage manager, throws the switches, changes the décor, and shifts the point of view every moment; in quick succession it presents the astonished traveller with happy scenes, sad scenes, burlesque interludes, brilliant fireworks, all visions that disappear as soon as they are seen. (Schivelbusch 63)

Hale's_Tours_of_the_WorldWe spoke about Hale’s Tours (launched, of course, at an exposition – the 1904 St Louis Exhibition) and train films and, of course, Edison’s Railroad Smashup (1904), for which the film company bought two decommissioned trains and crashed them into each other. If we had way more time, I would also have shown the remarkable train crashes from Orlacs hände (Wiene 1924) and Spione (Lang 1928), the sequence shot from the front of the train in Bulldog Jack (Forde 1935) and the opening of La bête humaine (Renoir 1938) to show how this fascination continued on into narrative cinema, and is in some ways the visual precursor of the jump to lightspeed/hyperspace, etc.

imagesFor new technologies of vision, we recalled some work from Film Style and Meaning on Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies and Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography – examples of pre-cinema which also lead to Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ of the workplace, suggested in both Modern Times and Man with a Movie Camera – and the similarities that can be found in such contemporaneous art as Marcel nude2Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, no.2 (1912). And, of course, we watched Cheese Mites (Duncan 1903) and Percy Smith’s The Birth of a Flower (1910) and his juggling fly films to see how microscopes and time-lapse photography could show human eyes things our eyes could otherwise not see. We looked at some views of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris qui dort (Clair 1925) – aerial views of a kind previously only accessible to people in aircraft and construction workers – and also at Onésime horloger (Durand 1908), in which the protagonist, frustrated that he cannot get his inheritance until he is older, speeds up the Paris city clock: a series of gags are played out, made funny by the accelerated pace of the action; and undercranked footage played back at regular speed sees pedestrians dash through the city, even more harried than usual by the regulation of life by clocks (which, of course, connects back to railroads, factories and other disciplinary institutions). .

We then turned to Soviet montage, and again I was able to connect back to some work on editing and montage from Film Style and Meaning. I began by introducing the key figures and their most important films:

  • Sergei Eisenstein – Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927), The General Line (1929), Alexander Nevsky (1939), Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2 (1944, 1945)
  • Lev Kuleshov – The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924)
  • Vsevolod Pudovkin – Mother (1926), The End of St Petersburg (1927), Storm over Asia (1928)
  • Esfir Shub – The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), creator of the compilation film – who also fleetingly appears in Man with a Movie Camera
  • Dziga Vertov – Kino-Pravda (1925-28), A Sixth of the World (1926), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Three Songs of Lenin (1934), Lullaby (1937)
  • Yelizaveta Svilova, who plays the editor in Man with a Movie Camera as well as editing it and others of her husband’s films before becoming a director herself in the 1940s (her brother-in-law, Mikhail Kaufman. also shot several of his brother’s films, including Man with a Movie Camera, in which he also plays the cameraman)

A quick description of the Kuleshov effect gave me the excuse I’ve been looking for to show off the actorly range of lardy racist Steven Seagal, before 715661586edd971305e05f19b5f311b1reminding students of Eisenstein’s theoretical discussion of montage and the analysis they had done of the clash of images in the sequence from Strike in which the assault on the workers is intercut with the slaughter of the bull in the abattoir. Plus, some lions.

We then finally discussed Man with a Movie Camera in some detail, picking out moments such as:

  • the intercutting of the woman rubbing her eyes, the shutters of her window-blinds opening and closing, the camera shutter – associative editing, detecting similarities and differences between phenomena, sketching out relations between organic and mechanical actions
  • the superimposition of the eye on the camera lens – a kind of cyborg melding of mechanical means and human consciousness, emphasising differences in kinds of vision
  • the splitscreens in which the cameraman towers over the city – part of the depiction of the cameraman as an heroic figure that runs throughout the film, and of the celebration of the camera’s ability to see anywhere, but also with a hint of surveillance (there is one shot in the film in which the camera is positioned high above the street and seems to move autonomously, like a CCTV camera)
  • the stop-motion animation of the camera, giving it life – animating it, as the camera/projector does with each still image it captures/projects
  • the shots which show something hurtling towards or passing over the camera, and the following shots which reveal how it is done
  • Svilova editing the film, and the later placement of the frames in the film, animated and given a context
  • industrial footage, especially of rotating devices and interlocking gears that recall the mechanism of the camera/projector – and nice to see a sewing machine included, since the camera/projector borrowed from sewing machine technology the intermittence device that allows individual frames to be held momentarily in place to capture/project each individual image
  • the skill of manual labour, such as the woman making cigarette packages, but also how machine-like it is in its endless speed, precision and repetition
  • the obsession with trains and trams, constantly on the verge of catastrophic collision
  • the shop-window mannequins that wake up and come to life along with the humans, awoken by the presence of the sun (or the camera)
  • the world being captured unawares vs. people’s reactions when they know they are being filmed – and that film is present in the world not just as labour and recorder but also as projection, cinema, leisure activity
  • the use of freezeframes and slow motion, recalling the material basis of film (the photogram), the role of editing, and those early motion studies of Muybridge and Marey

The final section of class was about Tom Gunning’s discussion of the cinema of attractions. Early film history used to be told in terms of a tension or conflict between two approaches to cinema that ultimately and somehow inevitably resulted in the dominance of narrative cinema. These tensions were rooted in a distinction between:

Auguste and Louis Lumière’s ‘realist’ actualité films (i.e., views of the real world or actuality footage), that mostly eschewed anything but the most minimal of narrative form; see Baby’s Breakfast (1895) or Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) or the non-Lumière Black Diamond Express and Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

and

Georges Méliès fantastical féerie films (i.e., ‘trick films’ organised around special effects) that, because of the nature of many of his gags and routines, contain some more obvious narrative structuration; see The India Rubber Head (1901) or A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Tom Gunning and others have, over the last thirty years, argued against this view, finding that despite superficial differences both approaches to filmmaking shared something profoundly fundamental in common: a basic exhibitionist impulse to present an audience with ‘a series of views’ that are ‘fascinating because of their illusory power’. Reality/fantasy, actuality/staged, non-narrative/narrative are pretty much red herrings in the first decade of cinema.

We then spend some time working on this long passage to get a better sense of what Gunning means by cinema of attractions:

To summarize, the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself. The attraction to be displayed may also be of a cinematic nature, such as the early close-ups just described, or trick films in which a cinematic manipulation (slow motion, reverse motion, substitution, multiple exposure) provides the film’s novelty. Fictional situations tend to be restricted to gags, vaudeville numbers or recreations of shocking or curious incidents (executions, current events). It is the direct address of the audience, in which an attraction is offered to the spectator by a cinema showman, that defines this approach to filmmaking. Theatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe. The cinema of attractions expends little energy creating characters with psychological motivations or individual personality. Making use of both fictional and non-fictional attractions, its energy moves outward towards an acknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situations essential to classical narrative. … An attraction aggressively subjected the spectator to ‘sensual or psychological impact’. … a montage of such attractions, creat[es] a relation to the spectator entirely different from his absorption in ‘illusory depictions’.

And then it was time to discuss the essay due next week.

Incidentally, 20% of the class really enjoyed Man with a Movie Camera, 20% liked specific parts of it, and 60% declined to comment

week 8

Recommended critical reading
Berman, Berman. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Penguin, 1998.
–. On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. London: Verso, 2009
Feldman, Seth. “‘Peace Between Man and Machine”: Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera.” Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. 40–54.
Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator.” Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 736–750.
Keiller, Patrick. “Urban Space and Early Film.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 29–39.
Paci, Viva. “The Attraction of the Intelligent Eye: Obsessions with the Vision Machine in Early Film Theories.”, The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006. 121–137.
Roberts, Graham. The Man with the Movie Camera. London: IB Tauris, 2000.
Strathausen, Carsten. “Uncanny Spaces: The City in Ruttmann and Vertov.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 15–40.
Strauven, Wanda. ed. The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
Webber, Andrew. “Symphony of a City: Motion Pictures and Still Lives in Weimar Berlin.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 56–71.

Recommended reading
Cities are often depicted as so alienating and disorienting that their denizens are driven to madness of various sorts, as in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double (1926), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City (2003).

Cities can also offer possibilities for freedom, as in Muriel Sparks’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952), and for metamorphosis, as in chapters 6–7 of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932) and chapter 11 of Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), in which trips to London transform rural girls into a glamorous ladies.

Recommended viewing
Other city ‘symphony’ films include Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931). Some film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953), are clearly related, as are such contemporary films as London Orbital (Petit and Sinclair 2002), Finisterre (Evans and Kelly 2003) and What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (Evans 2005).
People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) combines a city symphony with a narrative about a group of young people played by non-professional actors.
Films of urban transformation include Theodora Goes Wild (Boleslawski 1936), Vertigo (Hitchcock 1958), The Apartment (Wilder 1960) and Better than Chocolate (Wheeler 1999).
Films of urban derangement include The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Lang 1933), Repulsion (Polanksi 1965), Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976) and American Psycho (Harron 2000).
Urban transformation and derangement come together in disturbing ways in Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto 1989), Tokyo Fist (Tsukamoto 1995), Mulholland Drive (Lynch 2001) and A Snake of June (Tsukamoto 2002).