Thursday, March 28, 2013

Cities and Film

This lecture explored the concept of the 'city' in Modernism and Post-modernism. It also investigated the idea of an urban sociology, the city as a public and private space, and the relation of the individual to the crowd in the city.

As this post is a write-up of notes rather than an actual essay, it lacks some 'flow' and detailed analysis.


An influential philosopher who wrote on the topic was George Simmel (1858-1918), one of the first generation of German sociologists. He influenced the critical theory of the Frankfurt School thinkers, such as Walter Benjamin, Kracauer, Adorno and Horkheimer.

His mist widely read essay Metropolis and Mental Life was written in 1903 in conjunction with the Dresden cities exhibition. He was asked to write about intellectual life in the city, but effectively reversed this and wrote about the effect of the city on the individual. This idea began to influence art, as can be seen in graphic designer Herbert Bayer's Lonely Metropoliton (1932), which expresses imagery of a fragmented subject surrounded by apartment-style windows.

Simmel was a precursor of urban sociology. He writes of "the resistance of the individual to being levelled and swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism" (1903).

The Sky-Boy, photograph by Lewis W. Hine, 1930–31

Lewis Hine's above photograph succesfully depicts the relationship of the human to the city. The man appears very vulnerble in relation to the vastness of his surroundings, and is risking his life as he contributes to the construction of the 'metropolis'.

The creator of the modern skyscraper was architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). He was a critic of the Chicago School and mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Along with Dankmar Adler, he designed the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York. Sullivan believed that 'form ever follows function', as is exemplified in the building's structure and design. 

Details on the building still show an influence from the Arts and Crafts movement, but the layout still expresses the idea of form following function by being split into four specific 'zones': the utility and mechanical area in the basement (where it would be hidden from the face of the building), the ground-floor public area for shops and lobbies, the third zone for office cubicles and the terminating zone for elevator equipment and other utilities. 

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, many buildings in Chicago were cleared. This made way for Sullivan's new aspirational buildings. The Carsion Pririe Scott store, built in 1904, is an example of how skyscrapers represent the ideal of the American Dream; the upwardly mobile city of business, where everything is an opportunity and where people can move to work. 

The 1921 short documentary film Manhatta was a collaboration between painter Charles Scheeler and photographer Paul Strand. Depicting New York, it consists of 65 shots sequenced in a loose non-narrative structure. Each frame provides a view of the city that has been carefully arranged into abstract compositions. The aim of the film was to explore the relationship between photography and film, and to express the filmmakers' love for the city. 

 Charles Scheeler (1883 - 1965) is considered one of the founders of American modernism. His photography epitomised the modernist aesthetic. In 1927, he spent six weeks documenting the Ford Motor Company's automobile plant at River Rouge, Detroit to promote the release of the Model A Ford. 

"Sheeler's thirty-two photographs of the Ford plant depict its acres of gleaming, massive machinery, rather than the human process of labor. They celebrate the company's—and, by association, America's—ideals of power and productivity, although there is also a strangely forbidding atmosphere to the unpopulated scenes."


The series romanticised Fordism, a term coined by Italian writer Antonio Gramsci in his essay Americanism and Fordism. "The eponymous manufacturing system designed to spew out standardized, low-cost goods and afford its workers decent enough wages to buy them," (De Grazia, 2006). Bodies essentially become 'part' of the machine. This method sought to gain maximum productivity with minimum effort through repetitive mechanical action; thus there is a cycle of mass production and mass consumption.

Chaplin plays with this in Modern Times (1936), which he wrote, directed and starred in. In this film, he is depicted as a factory worker, employed on an assembly line. The factory is thrown into chaos after he suffers a mental breakdown after being force-fed and forced to work at an ever-increasing pace. He is accused of being a communist and is arrested. Eventually he ends up working as a waiter, and performs an improvised pantomime which is well-received and saves the day for him and his love interest. 

In 1929 the Wall Street Crash caused many factories to close and a dramatic increase in unemployment. This led to 10-year Great Depression and many difficult social situations. This period saw the rise of photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who's work at the time offered an often controversial insight into industry. 

"On October 24, 1929, the night of the stock market crash, Bourke-White found herself photographing the vault at the First National Bank of Boston. The image was a long exposure, and she continually had to recap the lens to prevent the images of bankers hurrying across the shot from appearing on the negative (Bourke-White 1985, 72). With the context of the crash, the image is particularly haunting." (


The 1929 experimental film Man with a Movie Camera, by Russian director Dziga Vertov. is a silent documentary film with no story and no actor. The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov invents or develops, such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups and many others.

Vertov strove to create a futuristic city that would serve as a commentary on existing ideals in the Soviet world. This imagined city's purpose was to awaken the Soviet citizen through truth and to ultimately bring about understanding and action. The film celebrates industrialisation, mechanisation and transport communication. The camera has access to intimate moments as well as public life. The film raises questions of whether or not we have in fact reached this ideal modernist society.


The term 'flâneur' comes from the French masculine noun flâneur, which has the basic meaning of 'stroller', 'lounger', 'saunterer', 'loafter', which itself comes from the verb flâner, 'to stroll'. The flâneur could be seen as the alternative to being part of the machine; they have the freedom to scroll and observe their surroundings. It is associated with a bourgeois, dilletante lifestyle.

The nineteenth century French poet Charles Baudelaire proposes a version of the flâneur - that of a person who walks the city in order to experience it. He believed arts should capture this; they are simultaneously apart and a part of the crowd. This is epitomised in Edgar Allan Poe's Man of the Crowd, which follows a nameless narrator carefully observing those around him in crowded London. 

German philosopher Walter Benjamin adopts the concept of the urban observer as an analytical tool and as a lifestyle as seen in his writings. The Arcades Project (1927-40), Benjamin's final, incomplete book about Parisian city life in the 19th century, describes how Parisian shopping arcades provided one of the habitats of the flâneur, somewhere where they could stroll and experience without being effected by elements such as weather. 

Example of a shopping arcade

The figure of the flâneur becomes important in contemporary architecture and urban planning, which seeks to harmonise the environment with the human experience of the city. 

A photographer is a type of a flâneur, as they are looking for beautiful moments in urban life. Susan Sontag described the photographer as "an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world 'picturesque'." (1977)

The flâneur's tendency toward detached but aesthetically attuned observation has brought the term into the literature of photography, particularly street photography. The street photographer is seen as one modern extension of the urban observer.

There is also the term 'flâneuse' to express the experience of women in the city. The nineteenth-century flâneur was almost exclusively depicted as a male in fiction, as it was considered unacceptable for women to stroll alone.

The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity, an article by Janet Wolff appearing in Theory, Culture & Society November 1985 vol. 2 no. 3, 37-46, talks about this: 

"The literature of modernity, describing the fleeting, anonymous, ephemeral encounters of life in the metropolis, mainly accounts for the experiences of men. It ignores the concomitant separation of public and private spheres from the mid-nineteenth century, and the increasing segregation of the sexes around that separation. The influential writings of Baudelaire, Simmel, Benjamin and, more recently, Richard Sennett and Marshall Berman, by equating the modern with the public, thus fail to describe women's experience of modernity. The central figure of the flâneur in the literature of modernity can only be male. What is required, therefore, is a feminist sociology of modernity to supplement these texts."

Susan Buck-Morss suggests in The Dialects of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project that on the street, the only figure a woman can be is either a prostitute or a 'bag lady'. Similarly in many films with an urban setting women frequently fall into these roles. 

We can compare how women are presented in the works of photographer Diane Arbus and Edward Hopper:

Automat (1927)
Woman at a Counter Smoking, N.Y.C. (1962)

In these particular examples the women are depicted as isolated and dwarved by their environment. There is a sense of an in-between moment, like a film still.

Sophie Calle also explored the idea of a person's relationship with the city in her piece Suite Venitienne (1979) when we followed a man she met at a party through the streets of Venice, reflecting on his behaviour in a fashion that could be considered on the verge of stalking behaviour.

‘For months I followed strangers in the street. For the pleasure of following them, not because they particularly interested me. I photographed them without their knowledge, took note of their movements, then finally lost sight of them and forgot them.
At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice.’ - Frieze magazine

In this way, Venice could be seen as a labyrinth of streets and alleyways in which you can get lost, but at the same time end up back where you begin. This is explored in the film Don't Look Now by Nicholas Roeg: The film tells the story of a couple that go to Venice to recover after the loss of a child. The woman is haunted by a figure in a red cape that darts through the city. The film explores themes of memory, grief, trauma, time and mixed indentities. The architecture of the city invites a certain relationship; a maze that allows you to get lost but is defined and fixed. 

In Calle's piece The Detective (1980), she hired a detective to follow and photograph her on one particular day, as a means of providing photographic evidence of her existence. The photos and notes about her are displayed next to photos and notes about him. 

"Detective (1980), consisted of Calle being followed for a day by a private detective, who had been hired (at Calle's request) by her mother. Calle proceeded to lead the unwitting detective around parts of Paris that were particularly important for her, thereby reversing the expected position of the observed subject. Such projects, with their suggestions of intimacy, also questioned the role of the spectator, with viewers often feeling a sense of unease as they became the unwitting collaborators in these violations of privacy. Moreover, the deliberately constructed and thus in one sense artificial nature of the documentary ‘evidence' used in Calle's work questioned the nature of all truths." -


Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) depicts a woman is lost, threatened by the street. She again appears dwarved and trapped her surroundings.

These 'snapshot' style images of an isolated figure in an urban environment reference past stylings, such as film noir. Sherman wanted her surroundings to look like 'anywhere', so that the viewer identifies with the anonymity. For example her photographs shot at the base of the World Trade Center:

The shots aren't immediately recognisable as the World Trade Center unless you knew the towers well and could recognise the windows in the background. Sherman wasn't trying to create photographs of Manhattan; she wanted the pictures to be mysterious and to look like unidentifiable locations.


The video game L.A.Noire was the first game to be shown at Tribecca film festival for its visuals. The game incorporates 'MotionScan' technology; actors were recorded by 32 surrounding cameras to capture facial expressions from every angle. The technology is central to the game's interrogation mechanic, as players must use the suspects' reactions to question and judge whether or not they are lying.

The player takes control of an LAPD detective, and has to solve a range of cases that are relevant to it's 1940s and 50s setting. The game has a distinctive visual style that is reminiscient of film noir (as the title suggests), and there is the option to play in black and white mode for a more 'authentic' film noir experience.

The setting of Los Angeles is a crucial asset to the game:
"Team Bondi recreated 1940s Los Angeles by using aerial photographs taken by Robert Spence.[42] In a career spanning over 50 years, Spence took over 110,000 aerial photographs of Los Angeles.[43] The developers used Spence's photographs to create traffic patterns and public transport routes as well as the location and condition of buildings.[42] While striving to recreate an accurate model of 1947 Los Angeles, the developers also took some artistic licence, such as including the appearance of the film set for D. W. Griffith'sIntolerance; the set had actually been dismantled in 1919.[44][45]" (


Past imaginings of the future city can be seen in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1929), which depicts a futuristic dystopian city. This sci-fi imagining might not be so far removed from the scale of cities nowadays.

Blade Runner (1982) also is set in a future city, only it is less typically futuristic. It combines past and future elements in a typically post-modern fashion for a fresh, iconic look.

Cities tend to have their own personalities when presented cinematically. Ranging from these sci-fi classics to films such as Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979).

Filmmakers can use the psychology of space to great effect in order to give character to their environments, and use it to evoke a certain emotion or psychological effect. Notable examples include Hitchcock's Psycho, and the sinister house on the hill where Norman Bates resides; also in Kubrick's Shining, where the film is almost exclusively set inside a claustrophobic, oppressive hotel. Kubrick uses cinematographic techniques to make the most of this setting and make it as unsettling as possible; the settings are as important and as integral as the characters themselves.

Hitchcock's motel and Kubrick's hotel ought to be idyllic, but the space itself takes control.

It is interesting to consider how the environment becomes a character in itself. I will write another post relating this to the world of games and animation. 

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