cinema
and
urbanism

 

While this conjunction suggests a multiplicity of dialogues, three points of concentration may be outlined as follows. The first concerns the representation and reproduction of a city within early modernist films, the second an internalization and production of a form of urbanism within cinema itself following the second world war, and finally, the contemporary reconfiguration of the urban in terms of the cinematic imaginary through the agents of television, advertising and tourism.

While these concerns mark periods of time within the 20th century development of both cinema and urbanism, the attempt is less to provide a causal history of the interplay between the two than to articulate a theatre of operations within which the unfobox is conceived and situated. Central to each point is the manner in which movement (of thought, of the body, of the development of a city) encodes an expectation in terms of a relation between the image and the actual.

 

urb

 

Coincident with the arrival of the modern industrial city was the birth of cinema. As new modes of inhabiting cities developed, so did a new apparatus for representing the conditions of the modern metropolis. Amidst the burgeoning capitalist industrialization of Berlin, we find Baudelaire's flaneur (as revisited through Benjamin) on the verge of a conundrum. Moving through the city, our pedestrian protagonist finds himself confronted with the following dilemma: how to reconcile the course of his literary gaze (and the sanctity of the interior it affirms) with the accelerating perceptual mobilizations the new metropolis provokes?

Georg Simmel, writing in Berlin in 1903, writes:

The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli... To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions - with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life - it creates the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence.

Georg Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life

At a point of crisis in the psychological conditions of the modern metropolis, cinema emerges. The early "City Symphonies" - Dziga Vertov's "The Man With the Movie Camera" (Moscow, 1929), Strand and Sheeler's "Manhatta" (New York, 1922), Walther Ruttman's "Berlin: Die Symphonie Der Grosstadt (Berlin, 1927)" - each evidence the initial fascination of cinema with the modern city. Central to these early cinematic expositions is the reflection and reproduction of forms of movement within the emerging industrial city through the dynamic potential of filmic montage. Within Ruttman's film on Berlin, the city is represented as a vortex of motion unfolding across a day in the life of the city. The rhythms and pulses of the industrial-capitalist machine are reproduced in the technique of montage linking these disjointed narrative events into a comprehensible whole. To a certain extent, the film internalizes the "swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli" of the modern city through its montage, domesticating these movements for an audience immobilized before the screen.

With the montage of the early cinematic-image, seemingly incommensurate spaces are linked through forms of movement which bridge what modern mathematics terms a "rational" division. This interval dividing any two spatial sections serves simultaneously as the end of the first and the beginning of the second. These movements, identified with actions (of the actor, the camera, the filmic narrative), assure a particular kind of continuity - an unfolding - between adjacent spaces. Time here is rendered subordinate to movement, measured dynamically, as a process of action and reaction, rebounding across contiguous spaces through the technique of montage. From the shot, to the sequence, to the whole of the film, perception is extended through sensory-motor actions and reactions into an organic whole, an 'inhabitable environment' whereby image, world, and spectator are united through a grand image of cinematic truth. In this manner, the cinematic image offered a means to make sense of the new forms of movement the city was producing, through the logic of the montage deployed.

 

anim

 

Amidst the fallout of the Second World War, a new form of montage appears. Most recognizable in the films of the Italian neo-realists - Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica in particular - this montage is marked by an emphasis less on a 'rational interval' between two events in favor of an 'irrational interval' capable of linking any singular event with any other. Take for example Rossellini's "Germania, Anno Zero", shot in 1947 in a Berlin still ravaged by war. The child protagonist travels to Berlin and eventually dies from what he sees. Here, the city becomes emblematic for situations we no longer know how to react to, for spaces we no longer know how to describe. This is perhaps a cinema more of the 'seer' than that of the 'actor'. No longer do we find a series of discrete spaces linked through action and movement across rationally divided intervals of time. Rather, we are confronted with the breakdown of a sensory-motor linkage between image, world and spectator which prevents the extension of perception into action. The real is no longer represented, but 'aimed at': rather than a representation or reproduction of an already deciphered real, one is presented with an always ambiguous, to be deciphered real. In place of that grand image of Truth - an image of the whole as extensive space, an ever expanding organic totality - we find a continuous unfolding of pure optical and sound situations, set into internal relations which in turn place the spectator in a direct relation to thought, as a thinking through, as a direct image of time.

This direct image of time, or time-image to use Deleuze's term, organizes a space that is more deciphered or read than perceived. The absence of rational connections - between images as well as between image and sound - transforms the orientation of reading into an act that is both virtual and actual. Perception no longer authenticates an identity between image (visual or acoustic) and referent. The recorded world disappears into the past, becoming an outside, a world unreachable by the present image. The edges of the frame are no longer extendible into a habitable world outside; rather, they divide the image into a series - a visible frame as an 'any-space-whatever' and an acoustic frame as pure 'speech-act', each incommensurable with the other. Relations are no longer given by the images. The spectator is no longer included in an expanded totality constructed by the narration, and thus must provide the relation himself or herself. Whatever is withdrawn into the interval the spectator must make up for in an effort of memory and imagination. By the same token, once causation is disrupted by the irrational interval an infinite variety of relations becomes possible. The discontinuous succession of images and sounds is indeterminate. No longer included in the narration, the relation between film and spectator is indeterminate as well. In principle, there are as many readings as there are spectators willing to read.

When the cinematic image is released from a causal relation to the actual, when it is dislodged from its role as a conduit between spectator and world, it opens onto a series of internal relations and dynamics which constitute a form of urbanism of the image. Both within the film itself as well as within a history of films, economies of exchange develop between images which supplant the movements of the actual world as referent. The intertextuality of post-war French cinema is one example. The commodification and distribution of the Hollywood icon in American culture is another. In both cases the circulation and exchange between different forms of the cinematic image produces a syntactical substrate upon which the interplay between the real and the imaginary constantly revolves. It is as if the real and the imaginary were running after each other, as if each was being reflected in the other, around a point of indescernability. We no longer know what is imaginary or real, physical or mental, in the situation presented to us, not because they are confused, but because we do not have to know. There is no longer even a place from which to ask. It is in the development of this syntactical substrate that cinema can be credited with laying the foundation for the fields of television, advertising, and tourism, each of which in turn are in the process of reconfiguring the urban along ever more virtual lines.

 

age

 

Up through the 1960s television collaborated with the automobile in sustaining the dominant machinery of capitalist representation: in the virtual annexation of all spaces and the liquidation of any unified signs that had occupied them. The TV screen and car windshield reconciled visual experience with the velocities and discontinuities of the marketplace. As windows they seemed to open onto a visual pyramid of extensive space in which autonomous movement might be possible: instead, both were apertures that framed the subject's transit through streams of disjunct objects and affects, across disintegrating and hyperabundant surfaces.

Jonathan Crary, The Eclipse of the Spectacle

Today, as we confront the incorporation of the electronic image and of publicity (in the sense of advertising) into all forms of social space, from the intimacy of the home to the street, the city square, and their various extensions (arcades, malls, atriums, subway systems), we find we are more frequently encountering the urbanization of the image within the physical space of the city. At certain thresholds of urban density and image saturation, we encounter the convergence of cinema and urbanism in the form of spaces which play upon the conjunction of the two. Whether in the serial repetition of advertisements displayed along an underground subway corridor or singularly encountered within the captive space of the bus shelter, or in the highly elaborate commercial environments of Niketown New York or Disney's 'new' 42nd Street, the extension and permeation of the image throughout the fabric of the city renders the experience of the city itself as a montage of attractions through which the routines of everyday life transpire. In many respects, we create daily our own urban montage, constantly navigating between the image and the actual.

While the relative incalculability of our pace and trajectory though the city resists prescriptive and totallizing scenarios for the narration of the urban experience by private advertising, the privatization of broad sectors of urban space to the profit of large corporations does support the enactment of ever larger urban scripts by private concerns. And it's not a question of how these urban mega-developments situate themselves within existing contexts. The fact is, they invent their contexts. Today we 'derive'5 in the shopping mall. Further, as cities learn to compete in the global market for the expansion of their tax bases, the 'urban image' - that carefully negotiated image of the city, of its 'public' - gains increasing currency as a promotional pitch and marketable commodity. To 'get in the picture' becomes an increasingly important tactic in negotiating social integration. In some cases it becomes an economic imperative. Within the developing 'urb anim age', this 'imagification' of the urban increasingly plays a role in establishing the perceptual and cognitive conditions underlying how we inhabit the city, and in turn, how it inhabits us.

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