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Urban Cinematics: Understanding Urban Phenomena through the Moving Image Paperback – 15 Oct. 2011


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About the Author

François Penz is an architect and a teacher in the Faculty of Architecture and History of Art at the University of Cambridge. Andong Lu is a research associate at the University of Cambridge.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Urban Cinematics

Understanding Urban Phenomena through the Moving Image

By François Penz, Andong Lu

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-428-5

Contents

Introduction: What is Urban Cinematics? François Penz and Andong Lu,
PART I: City Symphonies: Montaged Urban Cinematic Landscapes,
Chapter 1: Ciné-City Strolls: Imagery, Form, Language and Meaning of the City Film Helmut Weihsmann,
Chapter 2 I Am Here, or, The Art of Getting Lost: Patrick Keiller and the New City Symphony Patrik Sjöberg,
Chapter 3: Get Out of the Car: A Commentary Thom Andersen,
PART II: Cinematic Urban Archaeology,
Chapter 4 Aids to Objectivity? Photography, Film and the New 'Science' of Urbanism Nicholas Bullock,
Chapter 5 Which Role for the Cinema in a Working-class City: The Case of Saint-Etienne Roger Odin,
Chapter 6 A Film of Two Cities: Sean Connery's Edinburgh Murray Grigor,
Chapter 7 Film as Re-imaging the Modern Space Mark Lewis,
PART III: Geographies of the Urban Cinematic Landscape,
Chapter 8 Mobility and Global Complexity in the Work of Van der Keuken Hing Tsang,
Chapter 9 From Maps of 'Progress' to Crime Maps (and back again?): The Plasticity of the Aerial Shot in Mexican Urban Film Celia Dunne,
Chapter 10 Night on Earth, Urban Wayfinding and Everyday Life Andrew Otway,
PART IV: The Cinematic in the Urban,
Chapter 11 Sleepwalking from New York to Miami Alison Butler,
Chapter 12 Film in our Midst: City as Cinematic Archive Janet Harbord and Rachel Moore,
Chapter 13 Parkour Vision Layla Curtis,
PART V: Cinematic Urban Design Practice,
Chapter 14 Urban Anagram: A Bio-political Reflection on Cinema and City Life Maria Hellström Reimer,
Chapter 15 Reconsidering Cinematic Mapping: Halfway Between Collected Subjectivity and Projective Mapping Marc Boumeester,
Chapter 16 Mapping Urban Space: Moving Image as a Research Tool Wowo Ding,
Chapter 17 The Moving Image of the City: Expressive Space/Inhabitation/Narrativity: Intensive studio workshop on 'Continuity of Action in space' Maureen Thomas,
Contributors,
Index,


CHAPTER 1

Ciné-City Strolls: Imagery, Form, Language and Meaning of the City Film

Helmut Weihsmann


Introduction – the visual impact and shock of the metropolis

Ever since the beginning of cinematography in the early 1900s, film-makers of all film genres – fiction or documentary – have been fascinated with the topography and image of the modern metropolis. This is especially the case for Berlin and Paris, two imperialist capitals of enormous political and economical power and diversity, which are also the symbols for industrial progress of an extreme laissez-faire capitalism and free trade. The rapid growth of their populations, the drive for splendour, wealth and greed, the grand architecture and the diversity of city life, and multiple aspects or visions of modernity in these centres changed the structure of society and the urban landscape of world cities since the beginning of the twentieth century. Film and photographic images emphasized and characterized the urban landscape for its technical and civilized progress, thus celebrating the vigour, complexity and new form of the future metropolis with its resulting technological innovations and evolutions. New urban features, systems and networks appeared in communication, transportation, mobility and urban design, which very soon became an important inspiration for avant-garde writers, poets, critics, painters, film-makers and media artists alike. This new perception of a visionary and hybrid technopolis – alongside all the social and psychological changes that occurred – interacted with the notion of a modern environment of speed, production and efficiency, which fascinated early cinematographers.

The first examples of this kind of fanatic urban enthusiasm and filmic documentation in the form of actualities and short newsreels in the historiography of cinema were the short travelogues by the French cinematographers, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière as well as the innovative American engineer Thomas Edison and, of course, the remarkable German brothers Skladanowski of Berlin, who invented the Bioscope for depicting urban crowds. Already by the 1920s several pioneering and existing film portraits or city films, so-called city symphonies as they are now labelled by film historians, were probably the first artistic benchmarks for this unique kind of interest in the rising metropolis. With the advent of a combination of total urbanization, modernization and mass transportation, the cities themselves started rapidly changing their form and features, creating what German sociologist Georg Simmel defined in his classic essay Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben/The Metropolis and Mental Life (Georg Simmel, 1903). Simmel wrote that modern urban life leads to the acceleration of one's nervous system (Steigerung des Nervenlebens), meaning that the experience of walking on the crowded streets in downtown Berlin at the turn of the century led to mental problems and even psychic illness, such as neurasthenia, nervousness and hysteria. Walter Benjamin, on the other hand, described this shock of the new as a revolutionary act against the establishment (Benjamin [1936]/1999). And the Viennese architect and polemist Adolf Loos once proclaimed in his writings that his buildings are for people with modern nerves (Loos 1908). Despite Simmel's cultural pessimism (or scepticism) towards the Modern City and Joseph Roth's horrific fear of an anonymous and cold city (Kälte der Grosstadt), a generally negative attitude towards the modern metropolis shifted to the other extreme. Among intellectuals and artists, a neutral and objective standpoint towards the big city prevailed. The Marxist writer Walter Benjamin and his contemporary Berlin columnists Siegfried Kraucauer, Bernard von Bretano or Bela Bálazs saw in the dispersion and diffuse perception of reality the chance of liberation and hope for revolution by destroying the aura of the bourgeois artwork and its hoax for authenticity. Examples of this paradigm shift can be quoted from the daily newspaper articles of the journalists Bretano, Bálazs and Kracauer in Berlin.


From verbal to visual

The vibrant and rhythmic pulse of the city had been the inspiration for countless artists, architects, poets, writers and film-makers since the beginning of Modernism at the turn of the century with the emergence of photography and cinematography. American writer John Dos Passos's claim to fame was that he apparently wrote the first modern novel influenced by the techniques and innovative perception of cinema and (parallel) montage in his legendary book The Manhattan Transfer (Dos Passos [1925]/1986). Dos Passos constructs a vivid and brilliant panorama of New York City as a great futuristic machine filled with motion, drama and human tragedies. Dos Passos was not very much interested in the individual lives of his characters, but rather in portraying them and their city Manhattan as a whole, a living organism. Jay McInerney states in his introduction to the novel that:

American individuals are processed by the economic machine of the city, like the new arrivals to New York described in the opening passage of the novel: men and women press through the manure smelling wooden tunnel of the ferry house at Battery Park, crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute into a press. (McInerney [1925]/1986: 7)


From the very first pages of The Manhattan Transfer, one receives vivid images of the metropolis:

There were Babylon and Nineveh; they were built of brick. Athens was gold marble columns. Rome was held up on board arches of rubble. In Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Golden Horn [...] Steel, glass, tile, concrete will be the materials of modern skyscrapers. Crammed on the narrow island the million windowed buildings will jut glittering, pyramid on pyramid like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm. (Dos Passos 1925: 23)


Dos Passos swirls his readers straight into the centre of things, as his first main character of the novel, arriving in the city by ferry from a farm on Staten Island, asks for directions from his fellow passengers: 'How do I get to Broadway? [...] I want to get to the centre of things'. And someone answers his question on the street: 'Walk east a block and turn down Broadway and you'll find the centre of things if you walk far enough [...] Thank you sir. I'll do just that'. (Dos Passos 1925: 23)

As much as several crucial authors of modern literature – James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Musil, Louis-Ferdinand Celiné, and others were influenced by the means of montage and non-linear storytelling as in experimental film language, there are very difficult problems for film-makers in translating books – drama as well as fiction – onto the medium of a photoplay or a narrative movie. Most writers were enchanted with the energy and dynamics of a modern metropolis, and film-makers shared a common interest in charting the experience of the city on one's psyche and senses. Bioscopic and cinematographic explorations of urban space date from the very beginnings of cinema in form of an aperçu of urban life and Modernity. Most of the early avant-garde film collage and montage attempts to portray the dynamics of modern urban life and the future shape of the forthcoming metropolis, that is, Walter Ruttmann's prototype of a 'city-symphony' Berlin, die Sinfonie der Großstadt/Berlin, Symphony of the City (Walter Ruttmann, 1927) or the less-known reportage film on Moskva/Moscow (Mikhail Kaufman & Ilja Kopalin, 1928) by Dziga Vertov's younger brother Mikhail Kaufman, were of experimental quality due to the strong fascination with the new and expressive medium of cinematography and the new techniques of unchained camera and montage principles of Kino Glaz (camera eye). One of the fundamental aesthetic features of film as a new and experimental medium for artists, film-makers and architects was, of course, its novelty in creating fantastic images and movements of the camera as well as its possibilities of using décor; depicting or constructing space, which created intrinsic spatial realism. Especially one of the major Soviet film-makers and theoreticians Dziga Vertov (né Denis Kaufman) set new and basic standards in film-making with his lengthy film essay celovek s Kinoapparatom/The Man With A Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), attempting to create a yet unseen, even visionary 'New Moscow' on the editing table as an imaginary filmic space and transforming it into a socialist utopian dream or metaphysical space. The poetic film poem Manhatta (Charles Sheeler & Paul Strand, 1921) or the futurist experiments Velocità (Pippo Oriani & Corrado D'Errico, 1930/1931) or Stramilano (Corrado D'Errico, 1929/1930) or some French cinéma pur examples, such as Jeux reflets et de la vitesse/Play With Reflexions and Speed (Henri Chomette, 1925) or the document La Tour (René Clair, 1928) on the Eiffel Tower are more lyrical, translucent, musical and impressionistic. Jean Vigo's film debut, his polemical film À Propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, 1930), sarcastically portrayed his hometown Nice in carefully selected shots and parallel montage sequences of dialectical quality. These few examples of film history should give just a general idea that the actual physical and/or aura-derived fictional spaces of cities and architecture have a very long and continuing tradition in cinematography and visual media. It is now my intention in this chapter to suggest that there is an aura-related feeling of metaphysical space in film, which can be achieved through specific filmic manipulation and uses of physical space and metaphorical space.

Therefore, this chapter will focus on two classic movies from 1931 until 1960, in which tales and stories are situated and contextualized within important centres of Modernity, to prove that aura and film can not only match each other, but indeed go together and achieve an interesting synergy. My first example, Berlin Alexanderplatz (Piel Jutzi, 1931), is set in post-war Berlin very close towards the end of the democratic Weimar Republic; my other example is the funny farce Zazie dans le Métro/Zazie in the Subway (Louis Malle, 1960) portraying a gay and swinging Paris during the French New Wave period pre-1968. My intention here will be threefold: first to link literature, modernity and urbanism to film aesthetics in some exemplary cases of past and present; second to suggest, or even better, to make the connection between literary history and architectural theory with film aesthetics and history, and third and last, also to suggest the 'reading' of architecture and history in perceptual and constitutive experience, as content, form, social activity, subject matter and cognitive perception by cinematic methods and styles in film history and in the genealogy of city films or urban 'space operas'. Perception in architecture as well as in the mise-enscéne of cinema is seeing and staging a narrative through the methods of gaze and space. A perceptual construction of cinema and/or a system of codes establishes a physical space relation or an a priori understanding between the viewer and the viewed, which can work as an architectural structural reading of one's environment and habitat. The strategy I propose, literary film narrative with the modern interpretation of city life, is also one that I use as a method, labelling it a cognitive model of 'urban mapping' and architectural 'reading'.


Narrative reading of the city

To begin with there is an objection: comparing a novel with its filmic adaptation is not necessarily legitimate, since they are completely different media. Literature and film are still considered to be basically incompatible. Cinema can parallel other art forms, but it need not stem from them, as Ralph Block puts it succinctly in his early article Not Theater, Not Literature, Not Painting (Block 1927). Again, some of the Russian formalists, French purists and German avant-gardists go so far as to argue against the inclusion of any literary values at all in the cinema. In 1929 German experimental film-maker Hans Richter noted in his pamphlet Filmgegner von heute, Filmfreunde von morgen: 'Film has inherently nothing in common with either novels or drama. These are based on the power of words, while film relies on the succession of optical impressions' (Richter [1929]/1968, my translation). Rhetoric, drama and psychology were considered by leading film artists and avant-garde film-makers to be the poison in cinematography, and for the Russian constructivist filmmaker and theoretician Dziga Vertov, even contra-productive and contrary to the purpose of a true 'film art' form and, of course, alien to the aesthetics of film-making. Vertov strives in his film documentaries to achieve the utmost purism in style, perceptual realism and absolute 'truth' in cinema, stripped of any narrative or psychological elements. The problem in silent film is, of course, the absence of words, which have been substituted and translated by images, montage and music. Film, therefore, demands a unique kind of imagination, which differs from literature.

The syntagmatic logic of reading and understanding film language is different from any form of literature, since cinema is a visual language, forcing the film-makers to think and perceive reality in a fundamentally different way than a writer. Cinema, much like literature and architecture, provides, by its imaginary and reconstructive technology, a unique means of preserving or memorializing the historic past, by creating an image, or a memory or perhaps a historical/cultural identity in one's cultural heritage, even as it provides for the transformation of that past and for becoming fiction and collective memory. Through the illusionistic and technical ability of the cinematographic apparatus through the objective perspective of a camera's eye, its montage principles, its trick possibilities and so forth, a synthetic environment is created on screen for the viewer. The virtual space, the plasticity and realistic impression of the objects created by film images change not only the perception and view of one's environment, but sharpen the audience's ability to perceive only things that can be seen on screen. Thus, cinema forces the film-makers to express their themes and ideas visually and not verbally.

Coming from a non-literary disposition, 'reading' or experiencing architecture in one's own (built) environment is equally physical, tactile, psychological and so forth and calls attention to its codes, symbols and meanings. For example, cities – their shape, forms and characteristics – can be read like an open book or 'by their walk', as Robert Musil wrote in his two-part novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (Musil [1930]/2002). The recent collapse of greater economic, political and intellectual systems has led, besides many disorientations among societies, to a fundamental structural, cognitive and linguistic change in the contemporary perception of the metropolis in particular, and its sense of urbanity, or of a social urban micro-climate in general. No longer can the norm of the so-called megacity be seen as a unified, coherent whole, but rather in its fragmented and dislocated parts ('non places'). What seems to have gone to waste and fallen into decay through the rapid change in global culture, brings again something new and fresh, for better or worse. The image and history of a modern city have transformed from its positive, perhaps often naive notion as a generator of diversity and the various facets of human culture into a diabolic Moloch, destroying much of the quality of life of its inhabitants. Today's popular, though vaguely formulated, misconception of the city is evident. One of the paradigms, which Jane Jacobs claimed in her famous study The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jacobs 1961), was the notion of diversity in a grand city. In her pioneering analysis, the urban sociologist and urban planning advisor, Jacobs mentions that the 'Classified telephone directories tell us the greatest single fact about cities: the immense numbers of parts that make up a city, and the immense diversity of those parts', thus concluding that 'diversity is natural to big cities' (Jacobs 1961: 143). Jacobs's affirmative statement of an 'organized complexity of a modern metropolis' (Jacobs 1961: 143) seems to have disintegrated or disappeared without establishing a new form of identity of urbanism and 'being' (Seinsform) of postmodern, globalized urban life.


(Continues...)Excerpted from Urban Cinematics by François Penz, Andong Lu. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Intellect Books (15 Oct. 2011)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 328 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1841504289
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1841504285
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 17.78 x 1.78 x 22.86 cm

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