Chapter plan: Utopia / Dystopia
(excuse my handwriting)
Lisa Kinch: Explorations in Architecture and Urbanism
Readings, thoughts and ideas related to studies at the Manchester School of Architecture
Chapter plan: Utopia / Dystopia
(excuse my handwriting)
Interview with three MA students in Architecture and Urbanism (S1, S2 and S3 on the 1st of June 2012. All three were familiar with my thesis work from previous studio presentations and did therefore not need an extensive introduction to the topic. Their familiarity with my research may have compromised their objectivity, which I need to keep in mind when evaluating their comments.
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LK: You obviously know what I’m working with. So, what relationship do you think exists, just generally, between film and architecture?
S1: I think I always like to look at the role of the architect as a director in a way. You know, that outlines the boundaries of everyday life and, like, the backdrop for everyday life and its scenography. We’re born in a world that already exists and there are interesting questions that can come out of it, like what happens when you witness a change of scenography through disasters, when everything has to be regenerated and so on. I think there is a very strong connection between them, isn’t it?
S2: Film is all about space and that’s what architecture’s main priority is about; controlling the space of the user so film’s just, it has to use it as a backdrop for what it’s doing and it influences everything in the film. For most people it is a very conscious thing, as part of the film, but if it’s done wrong you know about it. When it’s done well you don’t.
S1: I think you’re right in saying that it’s manipulative in a way because the same way as a director, sort of, chooses the shots he wants to put together to convey a certain emotion, it’s the same thing with architecture. People aren’t really a part of what’s happening and the major decisions that are being made in the urban fabric so it’s a given.
S2: They’re both dealing with perception all the time and they’ve both got to successfully convey atmosphere, it’s all about legibility. […]
LK: So, how do you reckon they can influence each other? Do you reckon film can influence architecture directly or vice versa? [NK arrives] Sorry, we were just talking about architecture and film in general and how they can influence each other.
S2: I think it’s difficult for architecture to directly say it takes relationships from film. I think it’s a difference in the readings. I think architecture is an older sort of thing, so films come out in order to portray people living as part of architecture and it’s a much newer idea to use film as part in a building. It’s something that would only be from the last maximum 70 or 80 years. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, it’s not something that’s as common, but there’s things that they both deal with. Things are more cinematic these days we, were saying, with perspective and creating space.
S1: I think another thing they have in common is structure. It’s quite obvious, but if every film has a beginning and it sort of builds up to something…
S2: Sequential experiences
S1: Yes, exactly. Then it fades away and it makes an impression. So I think that’s both their role to create a sensation to a certain perception like you said before.
S2: Both things are a journey. I suppose both are trying to convey similar things about, I mean. Architecture is all through space. Film is drawing you through different environments and that is what good architecture does. Because if you’re in a good building you don’t have to worry about moving through it, it naturally draws you through and that’s what a good film should do as well. It draws you through the story and its environments as well.
S1: And I also think another connection is spatial temporal compression, which can happen, for example in the Trafford Centre where you’ve got a pastiche of thing, a mix match of elements. Film, well it depends on what type of film it is, but you’ve got montage that comes in here and determines the compression rate and everything is it is a long shot or a short shot and so on. That goes back to structure in a way, and the way that temporality is debated. But yes, I think that’s another point.
S2: I think actually the Trafford Centre is a good example, it goes back to your question how does film influence architecture, taking something like a shopping centre, like the Trafford Centre, is probably one of the most direct links to something like that. Because the way they directly try to draw you through and create this experience is probably more cinematic that anything else.
S1: It’s a promenade, almost.
S2: If you’re thinking of a typology, it’s probably a shopping mall more than a shopping centre. It’s probably the closest thing you’d get to it. Now, it’s probably closer to a blockbuster action film than anything else, but there’s definitely a relationship there.
S3: For me, I look at the two as to what are the main agendas or the main concentration and I find that both of them are film architecture are all visual things. They concentrate more about the appearance. And if you synergise the two, you find out that even in the modern approach to design of the buildings they consider on the how does it appeal to the human eye? I attended one of the lectures in Sandra Burslem theatre where the architect there said, you know, there are some perspectives you don’t want to take a photo of the building to appear on your website. So you need a special point where you can take a photo that can go on the website. So this one is just telling us architecture and film, they are all picturesque. They are concerned with the visual, they are all intertwined in one or the other.
LK: So, how do you reckon then, in order to move a bit closer to where my thesis is at the moment, that disaster films and the idea of the apocalypse, how those kind of films and the ideas of dystopia, how do you reckon that can influence architecture?
S3: I have a very good understanding on how film influences architecture. I will take the example of cartoons, you know the production of cartoons and moving pictures. Do you know that most of the software we are using now developed from the idea of cartoons? So it’s like when they started developing this as film, cartoons, they developed the cartoons, their settings and then the software developer said I think we can use this idea to create software for the 3D rendering. And now it’s like the film industry has developed the architecture industry whereby now you can see visually. You can actually generate a model in a film while you’re moving. The architecture of the 3D moving images is actually coming from the film industry.
LK: So what advantages do you think that brings to architecture? It might be an obvious question, but…
S3: The advantage is that, it influences the efficiency of the field. You see? It’s like, you copy from this field and then you influence the other field. When you produce a product, an architectural product, obviously of these days one of the movie makers will come to say ‘Can we shoot a film from this location?’. So it’s like in both ways and many dimensions these two are interrelated and they influence each other.
S1: Maybe the idea between films and these sort of futuristic Sci-Fi films comes from the fact that we… well there is that sense… there are other things happening and maybe that is just a way for us to subconsciously get ready for it and come out with that sort of trying to imagine, figure it out because it’s something that’s out of our control so maybe starting to define to have control over it by starting to define it by creating the city as we would imagine it in films and maybe that’s just a way to… to prepare for something.
S3: And the other thing is that most of the architects, if they want to copy a design. You’ll find the best design in film. It’s a channel of communication, a visual communication. The film producers are actually particular in the buildings they select to shoot their movie. See? So you’ll find out that just in the watching of the movie’ What is this building?’. You try to find out and with the making of so many movies it’s like, it’s widening the horizon of architects and how to approach designs that appeal to the human eye. So, there’s just a striking link.
S1: It’s a hyper-real world, almost, that’s created through film. It’s sort of an exaggeration of our fantasies…
LK: So do you reckon people are going to start designing buildings that are gonna go straight into film, target their design almost, in order to have their films displayed for free in the cinema?
S1: To have their designs displayed, used as a backdrop for certain films?
S3: For me, I look at it like in the film making, there’s already an exaggeration of architecture. Architecture’s coming behind. You find out that in the creation of those… I’ll still take the example of cartoons. Those people explore and think, come up with their extraordinary shapes. So when you look at the cartoons you think ‘But this can be possible, how can we create it structurally?’, you see? So the film is actually ahead of architecture, so it’s like we’re trailing behind.
S1: Yes, I think it’s great because film doesn’t think about all these functional aspects necessarily; it just lets imagination flow and go to extremes, really extreme places like Jules Vernes for example. He wrote a book about the air balloon and then it actually got realised, everybody thought he was crazy at the time or the travelling in outer space and so on. There are people that foresee this sort of progress. I think in a way that this becomes embedded in the subconscious and people start going towards that direction in a way. It’s just putting things out there and I think that’s what film does.
S2: […] When people are watching film, it’s giving them a visual impression of what things are and what things should be like. Because architecture generally as an education doesn’t come in until later on in people’s lives, their ideas of how things are built and constructed are more and more over the last few decades being based on things in film. And things in film, although until more recently have been real constructs, film has the ability to shape them in its own way, to give them their own feeling and visualisation. Especially, on the side of things the way cities feel. So even, I’ll say like a sequential way, when they’re in a city, we know for a fact that they won’t be going street by street by street doing it. They’ll cut from one area to a completely different area of the city. But it’ll be one shot and the next shot between those and that’s creating a feeling of an urban environment that doesn’t exist. But it’s using real examples to create that contrast and it has the ability to do that, and that’s probably one of the strongest links that’s going to come as people bring their own ideas to the table. Everything is based on experience, so it’s going to be based on viewing things like that.
LK: So, bringing it back again, I’m obviously forcing it a bit but to the idea of things going wrong. Recently we’ve had more and more films, starting in the ’70s with a big disaster film hype and that was based on nuclear fears. Now we’ve had a big hype again with environmental disasters, diseases and all of these things. Do you reckon these things could somehow influence the way we plan our cities? The fact that we can now imagine things on screen, present it via mass-media to a really wide audience; spread this information - these ideas - really quickly, people starting to talk and think about it. How should that feed back into the way we plan our cities?
S3: I think that you can look at the horror films; if they give out pictures. […]
S1: I just think about sin-city, when you say “do you know a really dark environment?” and these topics, societies.
S2: I think it’s difficult to, say, directly learn from film as a medium. Because although it deals with many of the same themes as doing things for different reasons, there are things when you consider the sign of things going wrong in disaster films. Architecture is usually one of the first things, the things that our country covers, that start to go wrong. So, in an action film it’ll be destruction of the building, so even some things like Die Hard it’s all set in a tower block. If you go even further back, you’ve got a tower in Inferno which was probably one of the first ones. Architecture is very important to those films even though it’s at the forefront of it, even though it’s not explicitly talked about. As then you come more forward, as the disasters get bigger it’s more about things on the urban scale. There’s always things like traffic blocking up and things like that. So quite possibly if you’re going with learn[ing] things it’s… creating contingencies from that I think is almost a bit of an extreme idea, but it’s going “Ok, well, what are people’s greatest fears out of these things?”. Not being able to escape a city environment, not having safe areas in the city environment.. I mean there must be lots more to think through there. And it’s maybe looking at those in the urban design aspect and thinking “How could you, in a realistic aspect, alleviate people’s fears if there was a disaster?” So, I guess, in this age we’d be looking slightly different. I mean, everything in films goes on a slightly more science-fiction scale but in a real-life one terror’s a big important thing. If there’s a large-scale attack, how are people able to evacuate safely and create safe communities and, I suppose, rebuild is probably the last important thing from it - how are people able to come back into their environment?
S1: But I don’t think it’s just about the actual event and how people cope with it. I think what urbanism should do is also deal with their paranoias. So if the event is happening, these build up in people’s conscience. I think that’s quite important. Regarding what you said earlier, I was just thinking when they show in film when architecture crumbles it’s the ultimate destruction stage, so that when that falls you realise that that’s so fragile - everything is sort of lost, everybody freaks out when that’s gone. So, it’s holding life together and you feel that as long as that’s there and is intact we’re fine, in a way, we’ve still got a chance to save ourselves.
LK: So coming on from that do you think that architecture and urbanism can help to prevent and mitigate these kind of disasters. As long as we’re being clever with it, or just in general, or could we improve on it?
S2: I think it’s difficult to go along the path of preventing disasters. If anything, what films should stress is disasters are created in themselves and there’s nothing that’s exactly the same for.. but exactly what you say, it’s mainly only even people’s paranoia so they can live their lives; disasters are going to happen and because they’re so varied it’s difficult to prevent them. But at least we should at least be able to make people comfortable in an area even though something can happen and I suppose given.. it’s more likely as I said the opportunity to get out or rebuild is…
S3: …it’s like the film industry exposes our limited, our support for architecture is. Say for example the disaster film you would have a tall building that would collapse in a way. As an architect you would think ‘What kind of material can I use to design. Say if I move.. a building that can move away’, like the twin towers were hit by a plane. How can we create it that when a plane was coming the building moved away and the plane didn’t hit the building? So, there are no materials to construct what the films portray. There’s that gap on the paper and what is a reality, in the ground.
S1: Another funny thing which I just remember which was regarding how we, people, become so inspired by the architecture in film. It’s so hyperbolic and crazy that they want a piece of it. Hence the guy that built his own Hobbit hut from Lord of the Rings. […] and especially now with all the special effects it’s so well, these worlds, these parallel worlds, these fantasy words. It’s an escape for people, basically, from their daily lives. So they want a piece of that escape in their back yard or wherever it is. I think that’s another way to look at it - film is escape. That’s why it’s so popular in Cuba or in places where the political regimes are extremely powerful and censorship is very high and so on. So going to film was basically escaping, it was a rapture from the daily life, going somewhere else and travelling with your mind and with your eyes.
S2: I would say every entertainment is an escapism of some sort, and that’s what people want to do because it’s something other than their daily grind and lives. I suppose what film can sort of show in relation to architecture is that there’s no reason why architecture can’t be any different from that. Why can’t architecture be an escape for somebody? Their perception of space can be an escape from the way that they have to live their life.
S1: I think that film should stay as an escape. It shouldn’t become educational, it should preserve its status as something like that. I don’t know how to put it.
LK: Is it only escape though? At the moment, when you’re looking at pure fantasy film, is it necessarily only an escape or is it an expression of something that you can’t talk about in straight terms?
S1: It could be. It can be so many things
S2: Well, I suppose there are things that are metaphor in film but it’s difficult because we live in a very free society so it’s difficult to say that anything in film is dealing with subjects that we can’t deal with in.. well, you’re dealing on a personal scale or a societal scale, because usually films are all dealt with on a societal scale in some ways. Or, I suppose it is an inability to deal with some things where some things aren’t dealable with on a personal scale, but in other cultures film’s an important thing because some subjects are illegal, or—
S1: Film can be a voice, the voice of things that aren’t really said or are..
LK: So do you reckon all the reasons climate change and all of the disasters that have been going on, do you reckon they have influenced the contents of film lately?
S2: The film industry is an interesting thing in itself. I wouldn’t say greatly over the last ten - fifteen years. I think there’s been pretty much a status in the film industry for the past 25-30 years for film types, typologies and the way they’re done. I would say that disasters before then, yes. But up until now, there’s very few original ideas coming through in film, it’s mainly the re-imagining of other ideas of other films that have come through. It takes quite a lot for some film to be an original, new idea. […]
S1: I think that apocalypse has haunted humanity since [the beginning of time]. If it’s not aliens coming, it’s going to be the rise of the machine, like we just saw in Metropolis. People always had this fear and lived with this fear that we’re not going to be here, we’re not eternal, we’re not going to live forever. An end is coming, so as you said these are ways for us to sort of imagine it in different ways and get ready for different scenarios.
LK: So why do you think there is such a fascination with it? Whether it’s dystopia or the apocalypse or disasters?
S2: Doesn’t it come back to the human condition, the fascination with death? We know that we don’t last forever.
S1: It’s about the fact that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. I think that’s what it all comes down to. A book has beginning, a middle… everything had a conclusion. This idea of eternity, I don’t know what to say. I mean… Maybe it’s… People… Maybe it’s been built with religion and… Religion might have had an important part in it, in a way. Because it tells people that there is going to be a day when everything will, you know, whether it’s going to be the great judgement or whatever you want to call it. I know this is a bit off topic, but I think that’s when people started thinking about that sort of stuff.
S2: I would say there is a comfort in the idea of that to… to a lot of extents. Because you can go ‘No matter how bad we think things are getting, it all can then… It all can [get worse]’
S1: Yes, I think that’s very true. You know that there’s going to be a release at the end or something.
LK: So why do reckon it’s so popular at the moment? Because the number of disaster films are going up, there’s the spin off thing, the theatre productions put up, the images produced, we had the James Chadderton exhibition with Manchester being completely destroyed. It’s a really important part of popular culture at the moment.
S3: Yes, but even if you look in the statistics of the real events of natural disasters, you would find out that the sheer scale of them are actually increasing and they are more frequent than previous[ly] If you look at the seismic issues, the earthquakes, you will find out that the magnitudes they are reaching now are actually hair-raising. So, to some extents when these things are happening and the exaggeration that the films give, it’s actually blows the whole picture out of proportion. To some extent, the films can actually mould the behaviour […] If the films are always showing us the dystopic scenes and what we are watching on every channel are dystopic scenes; war, crimes, you find out that even the architecture responds to that. How does it respond? More defensive planning, so on and so forth. And yesterday I was watching something on River Themes, and there’s a water barrier that controls the level of water. They say if they see the ice melt in the poles, those barriers are under distress. Something like that. So to design that, it informs them on what should be done to the new building. Should we go even higher? As the water rises, we should actually be in the top cities.
S1: At the same time, once they start addressing something like this, you know an end that’s coming, it becomes real. You know what I mean? The more it’s aesteticised and the more its shown as part of a structure, and of an urban… You know, you sort of make it real for everybody. I don’t know how to explain it… Because now it’s sort of a subject that floats in the air and people do movies about it and so on, but… I don’t know how to explain it, sorry.
S2: My take on it is, it’s probably got links to things like… There are reasons there are more natural disasters, but I think those things… the Earth’s cyclical, in a way. That works. I think it’s probably more based on society, societal. That’s how I feel it works. Things are difficult at the moment, economically across the world things are difficult. And films come to reflect that, because films are, if anything, meant for the time that they’re made. So, at the minute because things are difficult for us, we will do even more disaster films, because we’re going ‘Oh, look how bad it could be’. Whereas if you’re living in a time where things are easy, the films won’t reflect that as much because people don’t need to see when they’re living in an easy, nice life it going wrong. But people think that things are going wring they want to see that it could be a lot worse. So I would believe there’s a relationship between recessions and the amount of disaster films being made. Something like that.
S1: So as to put in a better light what you’re living, your daily life. That’s a good point.
LK: So… I’m trying to figure out which question to move on to, to make it as smooth as possible, but it’s not gonna work. So, do you reckon with all the recent climate change and disasters going on, have they had an impact on the way we look at architecture and urbanism?
S1: Yes, the issue of sustainability, is that what you mean? That it’s becoming increasingly high and that people are addressing it more and more. Is that what you mean?
LK: Do you reckon that’s connected to more frequent disastrous events? Are people taking it more seriously because they can see things going on?
S1: Yes, it’s about all the graphs and statistics that are fed every single day. That things are going to go incredibly wrong unless we change something. So yes, I think that’s connected.
S3: And again, with the disaster if you notice that the… Disaster areas, you know, the hitting and the magnitude and the type of disasters are actually different. And if you look at the responses to specific disasters you find out that each and every time there is an increased creativity in how the disaster is handles. For example, when the disaster hit Haiti, you find out that if you go to the re-planning, or even the tsunami, you know it like washed away the field of agricultural land, how is the new planning going to be to replace tat huge, massive loss? And again, you’ll find out that now it boils down to what kind of buildings are we going to build? If we have these disasters? Which materials are we going to invest in the structure. So, we’re now reinventing the whole way how we look at the design. What particular design should we put in what particular area. And what impact will it have when a disaster hits that thing?
S1: I think that’s about natural disasters, but you’ve got places that are completely damaged socially. The first thing that comes to mind is City of God, that film. So that sort of extreme violence and so on. And again I think that’s closely connected to the architecture and the urban corners that provides them places to make those things happen. That’s another way to look at disaster when it comes from these sort of cities.
LK: So by imagining all of these things, whether it’s films or whether it’s architects talking about it or any other professionals or people, do you reckon we can learn to prevent or mitigate them? By creating these imaginary scenarios and say ‘If this was to happen, if we do this and this and this, can we stop it?’
S2: I think it’s very difficult to plan contingencies against things that have no happened at all before. Because, if you’re in an earthquake zone, like in Los Angeles, they… I can’t remember when the last one was, but it was quite a long time ago singe the last major one they had. And they’ve spent all that time preparing their architecture and they way the city is planned. It’s all built around is there is another massive earthquake that they have there. But … for the argument that they should start developing for, say, a massive health disaster. It’s difficult to make contingencies for something that may never happen. It’s all the likelihood of things. And that’s the problem with films. Films generally like to take the viewpoint, they tend to throw something in that has never happened to see how people cope with it. Now, the only extent I could see that on the architecture and city scale is to create, to not take specific sorts of disasters but take the points of what people need to do in a disaster. Take those and create plans around those. So, people need clean water, people need access to health care, shelter, things like that so in a disaster people are able to access that, create contingencies around that rather than the specifics. The biggest thing I can see is that film can teach us what our biggest fears are. […] We can learn from those fears and then create contingencies around those in the city.
S1: I agree, I think you’re right. You have to deal with it first in order to be able to prepare for it again.
S3: And again, there are some films that are actually coming from real studies. For example, archaeological studies whereby the excavation, the review, that maybe there was a huge volcano that swept the whole town.
S3: Yes, like in great magnitude. So in that scenario, it’s actually… How can architecture prepare, or even engineering prepare for that… It’s almost impossible.
S2: I guess on things like that, if it’s a disaster on a scale that can’t be combated itself, it’s enabling people to relocate with the least amount of hassle. That’s the other thing films play on a lot is the.. if people do need to leave somewhere quickly, is the lack of people’s ability to do that and people getting trapped in bad situations due to numbers of people trying to leave. And that happens..
S1: But at the same time, if you increase the connectivity between points, when you have, in the case of Contagion, something you don’t want to happen. I think it’s very delicate in a way.
S1: I don’t know, I’m just trying to think of all disaster films I’ve seen.
LK: Well, then talking about Contagion, because that’s a film, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, made part funded by NGOs in the aftermath of the swine flu and the bird flu. Do you reckon we can use film as a tool to almost passively educate people? So whilst they’re watching this film and kind of enjoying it, Contagion is not very enjoyable as a film, but you still learn a lot from it. You learn to wash your hands, you know where to go and if this should happen, here’s who you should talk with. Do you reckon it’s realistic to actually try to use those kind of strategies on a larger scale?
S2: I don’t see why not but it’s more like the language of the film, how that changes. So if it’s just a normal thing to warn people through film then that becomes part of the societal thing around them. I’ve not seen Contagion but I know about it. On things like sort of that scale, it’s difficult for the idea of, because these days the world is a link, it’s all about linking itself to other things. Some cities are completely dependent on linkages to other sources […] I think films on those scales teach on a different level, so things we shouldn’t be doing in the first place. So government shouldn’t be developing smallpox, resistant strains of smallpox. Why are you doing it? Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.
S1: Don’t go to into the forest when Jack the Ripper is there!
S2: Exactly, yeah.. But I don’t know what the place is in architecture for that sort of thing. I couldn’t say.
LK: Do you reckon film could create a sense of familiarity with things? So that when we face them, we can say ‘Hmm.. I saw this in a film once…’ Well, maybe not that explicitly, but ‘Hang on, I can deal with this, I kind of know what’s gonna happen even though I’ve never been in this situation before’.
S1: They certainly prepare you in w way.
S2: Yeah, I think.. if you’re in a situation where you’ve not got much food and water, everybody knows through film these days you ration your water. You ration your food. It’s the first you try to do. Most things you don’t pick that up from… It’s not like people are reading survival guides, generally. It’s more.. what the successful survivor does in a film. Well you don’t go upstairs if you’re in a dark house and you think somebody might be up there with a big knife…
S1: You don’t waste liquids…
S3: Once, I watched a film where there was an earthquake and people ran under the tables. So when we had an earth tremble at the university at home, and I just… I just rushed under the table. Maybe when the floors collapse… with the legs of the table you can have some space for the excavators to find you. So you can easily learn just like that in films.
S2: I’ve got things like that too. The archway of a door, it’s one of the safest places to be. It’s very strong, the archway of a door. So it’s a good place to be.
LK: That’s all the questions I wanted to ask you, so unless you’ve got something else you want to talk about…
My thesis research started with looking at Richard Norton’s idea of ‘feral cities’, but has over time developed and is now looking at the relationships between dystopian film and architecture and urbanism. I believe we can use film to enhance a critical dialogue about visions of both past and future architecture. I also believe film can be used as a filter through which we can observe the world more objectively, as suggested by Dr David Butler in his book ‘Fantasy Cinema: impossible worlds on screen’.
Research so far has included extensive readings on utopia and dystopia, mainly in relation to science fiction films. Utopia is a highly subjective, political issue and depends on a number of factors including geographical location, history and personal experience. One man’s idea utopia can be another man’s idea of hell. Films can, as Terri Meyer Boake explains, engage the moral discussion of future eventualities in light of presumed outcomes of current political, social and environmental stated. Film can be a useful tool to ask “what if?” and provides a test lab for urban experiments. I have wondered whether we by imagining dystopian futures can prevent them from happening (the very foundations of disaster planning).
The trend of literary dystopia developed in times of deep change and still thrives in turbulent moments. In the 1970’s, disaster films played on contemporary fears of nuclear power. In the 1990’s and 2000’s nuclear fear was substituted by environmental disasters, terrorism and rapidly spreading diseases. Raffaella Baccolini discusses the relatively recent idea of critical dystopia in her article ‘The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction’. It implies a sense of utopian horizon, a hope that not everything is lost as in traditional dystopian imagination. Similarly to any science fiction or traditional utopia, the critical utopia can be used to explore our contemporary society. Baccolini suggests that today’s society, based on consumption, has become anti-utopian. Since utopia has become considered equivalent to materialist satisfaction it has consequently been commodified and devalued.
Michael Davis writes in ‘Ecology of Fear’ that disasters in films are used as allegory for contemporary urban character and sense of despair. Disintegration in the community is portrayed by crumbling buildings. Nerijus Milerius, Associate Professor at Vilnius University, has proposed that disaster films are trying to convey the idea that “nothing is happening” is a positive condition of the everyday.
Hollywood has contributed greatly to the globalisation of culture, and American cities such as Los Angeles and New York have come to be regarded as symbols of the Western World as a whole. Physical destruction of urban landscapes and important landmarks is more prominent in American film culture than any other. Stephanie Hemelryk argues that this has three reasons; the pleasure and curiosity caused by illusions of catastrophe (also prominent in the concept of dark tourism), advanced skills and technological infrastructure is more readily available in America and finally, there is a strong tradition of slapstick in American film comedy. She concludes her chapter ‘Out on a Limb: Urban Traumas on the West Pacific Rim’ with the following quote: “In American disaster films, the worst is confirmed, the loss of America, on the grounds that the best must still be possible, the continuation of America.” (p.140) The victim-self is the saviour, interpreter as well as the creator of the event; a kind of self-inflicted dystopia.
When 9/11 happened, many people referred to films when trying to describe their emotions. Many were emotionally numb and could not grasp the reality of the situation, because they had already seen it happen on the screen so many times before. This led me to ask whether film can be used to create a sense of familiarity and prepare people, practically and emotionally, for potential disasters. John Urry writes in ‘The Tourist Gaze’ about how man’s relationship to nature changed with the advent of the train. Through familiarising oneself with the passing landscape through the window, and through numerous expeditions, man came to regard nature as ‘alluring, picturesque scenery’ rather than ‘a frightening beast’. Can a similar approach be applied to help people understand and cope with our urban futures? Since film is our most important form of culture (as described by Alan Marcus in the introduction to ‘Visualising the City’) can it be our new train window providing a glimpse of the unknown?
If film can provide this link, what are the relations between the real and the imagined? How can we use film to explore our urban futures? Fredric Jameson makes reference to Homer’s chimera and claims that our imagination cannot stretch further than combining already known facts, similar to a kit of parts. “…our imaginations are hostages to our own mode of production (and perhaps to whatever remnants of past ones it has preserved). It suggests that at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment […] and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively.” (p.xii) If this is how we imagine other communities – or even utopia – can we ever reach a valid idea or conclusion? If everything we imagine will always be heavily influenced by our own, private experiences as well as time/culture/world/society we live in, can we ever be sufficiently objective? Can fictions be used to reveal the unseen workings of architecture?
Is there a symbiotic relationship between dystopian film and architecture / urbanism / urban futures?
You tie your shoes, put on your headphones, take your first steps outside. You’ve barely covered 100 yards when you hear them. They must be close. You can hear every guttural breath, every rattling groan - they’re everywhere. Zombies. There’s only one thing you can do:
Zombies, Run! is an ultra-immersive running game for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android. We deliver the story straight to your headphones through orders and voice recordings - and back home, you can build and grow your base with the items you’ve collected.
Is the concept of dystopia is simply a fashion trend at the moment with a range of money-making products being created alongside Hollywood films? If this is the case, why is it happening now?
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On the subject of zombies, it is worth looking at the BBC News 2009 article ‘Science ponders ‘zombie attack’’ by Pallab Ghosh, available online.
The Tourist Gaze
Globalizing the Gaze
As a result of technological developments, people have now been brought closer to each other than ever before. A kind of time-space compression has occurred through the use of mobile phones, television and the Internet, creating an ‘omnivorous production and consumption’ of space through remote images and sounds. Virtual travel is easier than ever before. Our imagination is easily assister (or restrained?) by images wired from the other side of the planet accompanied by unfamiliar voices and strange sounds. This virtual travel also stimulates physical, corporeal, mobility. We want to see and experience things directly. We want to see, though, smell taste the actual thing ourselves.
John Urry discusses this virtual/physical distinction, as well as the implications of virtual/physical tourism in his book ‘The Tourist Gaze’. Chapter 8 in this book, entitled ‘Globalizing the Gaze’, explores how tourism has become a globalised phenomenon and how cultures become commercialised, created and re-created in producing the convincing image of the ‘Other’.
There exists a dominant ideology of sight in contemporary Western culture. Western ideals have developed through a culture of image, including film, photography and other media. There is a sense of ‘what you see is what you get’, although looks can, of course, be deceiving. The significance of vision, hence also the gaze, has originated from the scientific method. A priori knowledge (reasoning) has gradually become considered inferior to posteriori knowledge (observation).
Constance Classen writes the following on the subject of sight in Western culture in her 1998 book ‘The Colour of Angels’:
“Modern Western culture is a culture of the eye. We are constantly bombarded, seduced, and shaped by visual models and representations, from maps and graphs to pictures and texts. This rule of sight carries with it a powerful aura of rationality and objectivity, even though many of its contemporary manifestations, such as advertising. seem designed to manipulate the emotions more than to exercise reason. The photographic nature of much of twentieth-century representation helps maintain this aura of objectivity by appearing to provide the viewer with direct access to reality, rather than only mediating reality.” (p.1)
Being part of a culture often necessitates corporeal travel. In order to see sacred sites, read sacred texts, gaze upon sacred objects or take part in sacred rituals rather than looking at their representations in photographs or videos, bodies have to physically move through space.
Corporeal travel, the physical movement of bodies in space, has become a core component of modern life. Whether it is the daily commute to work or holidays in South East Asia, we often assume mobility to be one of our rights. Urry identifies a ‘nomadic quality’ of contemporary social life, embodied for example in the Sony Walkman - a device designed for listening to music whilst on the move. This device was, of course, soon followed by advanced mobile phones, mp3 players, laptops, iPads, Kindles etc. Most everyday facilities are today designed to be carried around on the body. Expectations are to eventually carry them within our bodies.
The modern corporeal travel has produced a number of bi-products. Architecturally significant are the so-called ‘non-places’; train stations, air ports, ferry terminals and the like. These spaces are not seen as destinations, but represent the ‘pause’ before the tourist moves on. Of course, these locations are more than non-places to certain people. For example, employees at these hubs experience close relationships to them.
Further bi-products include the vast production of images, icons and the mediatising and circulation of them. As Urry explains, tourist experiences are primarily visual. Our gaze orders and regulates what is presented to us. It defines and identifies the ‘Other’. Sight sacralisation, the way an object is turned into a ‘sacred site of tourism’ occurs through a series of stages. Mechanical reproduction of souvenirs and images is one of the most important. Repeatedly seeing images of the Eiffel Tower makes the icon seem more important and it turns into a destination.
Urry does acknowledge the importance of other senses in ‘The Tourist Gaze’, but maintains that vision is the most important one. Visual consumption has become an everyday commodity in the society of spectacle where we travel to and pay to enter through the gates at sites of visual stimulus. The creation of the ‘hyper-real’ is the physical manifestation of vision’s triumph over the remaining senses. In these simulated places with exaggerated visible features, fake objects appear more real than the original.
The interconnectedness between tourism and culture is strong in today’s mobile world. Not only tourists (or worshippers) travel, but so do objects, cultures and images. Tourists travel to cultural sites to witness the ‘Other’ culture and reinforce their own identity. The culture of film can necessitate corporeal travel in order to experience sites through the ‘mediatised gaze’. This gaze occurs at sites where scenes or aspects of a mediated event can be relived, ‘seen with one’s own eyes’. Such sites include Hollywood, Disneyland and the Bradbury Building.
Urry also touches on the development of so called ‘dark tourism’ (thanatourism), the travelling to former war zones, concentration camps and areas hit by natural disasters or nuclear fallout, or as the Institute of Dark Tourism Research (iDTR) at the University of Central Lancashire puts it: ‘Dark tourism is travel to sites of death, disaster, or the seemingly macabre’. Urry refers to a couple of books on the topic, including ‘Dark Tourism’ by John Lennon and Malcom Foley (London: Continuum, 2000).
Dark tourism is an aspect of Urry’s book that ties in closely with my thesis work. Although gaining in popularity, it is not strictly a modern phenomenon. Professor Tony Seaton cites a number of attractions including graves, prisons, and public executions and, in particular, the battlefield of Waterloo to which tourists flocked from 1816 onwards in his 1996 article ‘Guided by the Dark: from thanatopsis to thanatourism’.
Why are we attracted to scenes of death and disaster? Is it way for us to come to terms with our own end? Is it because we only truly appreciate beauty once it has been destroyed? Is it a morbid kind of satisfaction, ‘better them than me’? Does it all originate from jealousy? Or are we simply adrenaline junkies looking for another high?
Urry indirectly offers one explanation of what disaster films (and dark tourism) attempts to do. He explains how public perception of nature gradually changed over an extended period of time. As a familiarity with nature developed through expeditions and adventure trips, descriptions of nature changed from ‘a wild, frightening beast’ to ‘alluring, picturesque scenery’. Is this what disaster films try to achieve? By allowing the audience to visit dark, frightening places (in the comfort of our own home and the pause button within reach) can we familiarise ourselves with these places and make them appear less frightening?
Maybe it is just another way of identifying the ‘Other’ in order to reinforce our own identity. We have not been hit by an alien invasion/hyper resistant virus/environmental disaster. Yet.
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Classen, C. (1998) The Colour of Angels. London: Routledge
Seaton, A.V. (1996) ‘Guided by the Dark: from thanatopsis to thanatourism.’ Journal of Heritage Studies. Vol 2(4) pp. 234-244.
Urry, J. (2002) The Tourist Gaze. 2 ed., London: Sage
Published a little later on, but backdated, here is the thesis presentation I did before the Easter holidays. Many things have changed since - and more changes are still to come - but I am publishing this to keep a consistent record of my work.
Please note that the thesis research question is not finalised and will change.
Is there a symbiotic relationship between urban design and dystopian science fiction film, and if so, how can we make use of it?
I haven’t quite managed to finalise the formulation of my research question, but as the diagram shows, I am interested in how film can influence the design of our urban futures and how new ideas of urban design can influence films - especially with regards to urban disasters and dystopian films.
I am also wondering if film can be used to educate or prepare people for future challenges and aid urban disaster planning?
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I have gone through quite an extensive reading list so far. These books are only a small selection and all deal with science fiction, film, urban design and predictions about the future in different ways.
Laura Spinney’s article Return to Paradise presents the research carried out by a number of scientists about what would happen if London suddenly was abandoned. The article analyses time periods of five, ten, fifty and hundreds of years in the future with people only being reintroduced after 300 years - and then as eco tourists.
Cinema and the City is a compilation of essays about the role of the city as a protagonist in films and about increased cultural globalisation.
Worst Cases look at disaster planning and worst case scenarios. Lee Clark argues against probabilistic thinking since disasters are exceptional events and encourages instead a constructive what-if-approach to prepare better for the future.
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As part of my research process, I’ve had the pleasure to watch a large number of films, ranging from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis and the classic Blade Runner to the more recent Inception.
In terms of narrative, I have discovered that most dystopian films follow a similar pattern: order - disorder - order restored. Science fiction films are, however, famous for breaking the standard rules of narration in order to create extra tension and surprise - which makes it nearly impossible to draw a general conclusion.
I have also learnt that even though most science fiction films are set in the future, their main purpose is to comment on contemporary issues. These can be political, social, environmental or a combination of all. The films do not necessarily try to predict the appearance of future, but focus more on what might happen if we don’t react to problems we have in the world in today.
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So, a few weeks ago I made this diagram to try to get to the essence of my project. I broke the main concept up and reassembled its basic parts to create six categories.
Future urban disaster films was split up into: Urban Futures, Urban Films, Urban Disasters, Disaster Films, Future Disasters and Future Films. I then arranged all my readings according to these categories. I concluded that the first four were more important than the last two, which back feed into them.
In the top corner is a diagram explaining the idea of a symbiotic relationship between urban futures and dystopian films, where a film might prompt new ideas in the architectural community, which in turn generates new ideas for film makers.
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Then I made this diagram, which explores the missing links of the previous one. Using the same priorities as the previous diagram, especially with emphasis on film and cities, I narrowed down my focus to Urban Future Films and Urban Disaster Films. This seems fairly obvious, but the important thing is what I eliminated. The main achievement here was to narrow my focus further to make my research more efficient.
The next step then, is to apply all my readings to a couple of case studies and explore how the relationship between dystopian films and the urban environment actually work.
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My first case study is the classic 1927 film Metropolis. Fritz Lang, the director, had travelled to New York and was very inspired by the skyscrapers there when working on the film set. Photos he took, especially of Broadway, placed a central role in the form finding process.
The city appearance was inspired by the art deco movement and the success of Metropolis actually helped promote the style in America and Europe. The level of architectural detail in the film is remarkable - Lang even admitted to being more interested in the visual imagery than the social content of the film!
Metropolis is a vertical city, built up in layers following a strict hierarchy. Wealthy people live near the top, machines are in the middle and the workers live in the depths below the city. Even further down are the catacombs where the workers conspire against their leaders. Natural light, is a luxury only accessible to people near the top of the city.
Vertical circulation is a central theme of the film. You could probably write a thesis just on the symbolism of the different lifts, steps, stairs and ladders used in the film.
So, Metropolis is an example of where a city, New York, has inspired the visual language of a film - which in turn had a big influence on the appearance of the built environment and changed the way we think about the future.
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My second case study is the Bradbury Building, which has been called the most famous building in science fiction. It has been featured in films such as Blade Runner, Chinatown and The Artist. It is located in Los Angeles and was designed by a draftsman called George Wyman. He was inspired by buildings in the utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward, set in the then future 2000.
The five-storey building features a large glazed atrium and is mostly top lit. This feature seems to have made it such a popular film location, together with the intricate metalwork. The facades facing the atrium are designed as street facing facades, contrary to the actual external elevations which are quite plain.
The balconies and stairways emphasise the shift in light levels from very, very bright at the top to quite gloomy at the ground floor level. The vertical circulation is heavily emphasised with flights of stairs and lift shafts providing the main focus points in the atrium. Long, slender columns further emphasise this verticality.
Films made in the Bradbury approach its architecture very differently. Blade Runner presents a gloomy, wet, decayed building with rays of light penetrating the atrium. In 500 Days of Summer, the building acts as a very fancy-looking architectural practice.
This building, then, acts as a protagonist in many films and its varying appearance inspire and develop new filming strategies.
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There are many similarities between Metropolis and the Bradbury. Blade Runner, as most science fiction films, was heavily influenced by the visual language in Metropolis and although its future Manhattan is very different from Lang’s Metropolis the same ideas of verticality, layering, circulation and light gradients are portrayed.
Making a direct comparison between the two sections, you can see how the top is reserved for a small number of privileged people, the next for functions with more general access, the next open to the general public - the worker’s city in case of Metropolis and the reception and entrance level in the Bradbury. The lowest level, the catacombs and the basement are secret, out of view and rarely used.
The stills from Metropolis show this shift in light levels from top to bottom.
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These similarities are a common theme in other dystopian films. Films such as I Am Legend, District B13 and 12 Monkeys all emphasise the vertical, the circulation patterns and the shift from light to dark and its implications. The architecture in most films are modern but show signs of decay, often covered in graffiti and with few intact windows.
So, returning to my research question: is there any symbiotic relationship between urban design and dystopian science fiction film, and if so, how can we use it?
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I have a few different ideas about how to proceed:
The first would be to set up a speculative disaster scenario for Manchester based on information in the Urban Futures texts and design a response to it. Whether this is flooding, food shortage, a flu epidemic or drought I’m not sure - I would have to research the most likely disaster.
The second option would be to further study the experiential qualities of dystopian films and possibly design a film set - maybe in the Northern Quarter because of its history as a film set and its similarities with the Bradbury Building. It could be interesting to use a building as narrative and draw parallels between the two.
I would also like to explore the idea that film as popular media could be used to educate and prepare people for potential urban disasters. For example, in the case of 9/11, a number of people mentioned Hollywood blockbusters as their only point of reference to what was happening.
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Architecture and Film: Experiential Realities and Dystopic Futures
Terri Meyer Boake
Terri Meyer Boake teaches at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. One of her courses, entitled ‘Architecture and Film’ deals, unsurprisingly, with architecture and film and the relation between the two. Her essay ‘Architecture and Film: Experiential Realities and Dystopic Futures’ predates the 2006 fall theme of Dystopia and Fear in this lecture series. She does make a few very relevant points about how we can use film to enhance a critical dialogue about visions of past and future architecture.
Film can convincingly portray both architecturally and environmentally dystopian futures and prompt the very poignant “What if?” question Lee Clark discusses in his book ‘Worst Cases’, previously mentioned in the blog. Special effects allow increasingly realistic representations of the effects of disaster in urban/architectural settings. Boake argues that films such as Godzilla (1998), Armageddon (1998) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) are so convincingly realistic that the imagination of catastrophic disaster is readily available to the public.
When 9/11 occurred, a number of people compared the events to films and expressed difficulty in emotionally connect to the disaster. Destruction is so prevalent in contemporary films that people seem to get emotionally numbed and accustomed to witnessing these kinds of events – even though they are all imagined. So when they happen in reality, do we simply apply our previous experiences of disaster (at least the Hollywood cinema version of it) to understand what has happened? If so, can film be used to inform people about potential urban dangers, prepare populations for real life disasters and assist emergency planning?
The most provocative uses of architecture and urban space arise in film dystopias. As Boake writes, dystopian ‘films engage the moral discussion of future eventualities in light of the presumed outcomes of current social, political and environmental states.’ (p. 5) Urban environments in these films can then be used to fuel the ‘What if?’ discussion – based on facts and trends.
Boake concludes that ‘film studies can be used to increase knowledge and critical discussion about architectural and urban environments of the past, present and the future.’ (p. 8) Hopefully, my thesis work can now start to connect the dots laid out by a number of readings on cities, dystopia, films and science fiction in order to add to this critical discussion.
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A Scanner Darkly (2006)
A Scanner Darkly is a science fiction thriller by Richard Linklater. It is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, originally published in 1977. It is said to be a semi-autobiographical story, set in a dystopian future (1994 - the future at the time the book was written) Orange County. Substance D, a highly addictive drug has become widely available and a separate government organisation sends out undercover cops to infiltrate the drug society. The protagonist, Bob Arctor, struggles through addiction, rehab and conspiracy in an attempt to do his job.
The film was filmed digitally and then re-rendered frame by frame to create a cartoon style appearance. This method allows for effects such as the scramble suits to be portrayed in a convincing way.
The Machine Stops
E.M. Forster (Pubished 1909)
Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk - that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh - a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
An electric bell rang.
The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.
‘I suppose I must see who it is’, she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately. ‘Who is it?’ she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously. But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into
smiles, and she said:
‘Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes - for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I must deliver my lecture on “Music during the Australian Period”.’
A short story worth a read - available for free download at Feedbooks
Chapter 17 - Dead Cities: A Natural History
Dead Cities is yet another book by Mike Davis relevant to my thesis work. In this chapter, he considers what would happen if people were to disappear from cities and concludes that we currently know more about the ecology of the rainforest than of the city.
As show in studies made in urban disaster zones, war often serves as a catalyst for the expansion of previously rare species of flora. Fire accelerates the transition to this ‘new nature’ - sometimes referred to as Nature II. An example of this type of flora is the ‘fire flowers’ of London which appeared after the Great Fire in 1666. The London Rocket, Sisymbrium irio, was very rare before the disaster. Bomber ecology, as this type of study is sometimes referred to, has been developed relatively far in Berlin after WW2 due to the abundance of urban dead zones.
London Rocket (Sisymbrium irio)
Not only flowers respond to war and disasters. There have been reports of birds responding to bombs and gunfire as if they were simply particularly rigorous rivals. Imagine how strange that must be, hearing a nightingale singing at the top of his lungs as a war is raging around him!
This chapter is prompted by the works of Jefferies and Stewart, both writing about urban life after human civilisation. I have previously written about the 1996 New Scientist article on the issue, written by Laura Spinney. (also prompted by the aforementioned writers!)
Davis discussed four pieces of work relevant to my thesis in this chapter. They are:
- George. R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949) novel
- Richard Jefferies, After London (1886) novel
- Camilo Vergara, The New American Ghetto (1995) photographs
- Deborah and Rodric Wallace, various writings, especially their ‘cascading supernova model of urban collapse’, which Davis claims resembles Jefferies’ nightmare of a metropolis killing itself with its own toxins.
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Davies, M. (2002) Dead Cities. New York: The New Press. pp. 361-399
Beginning Film Studies
Following a meeting with Dr David Butler, I have been reading chapter 4, Film and Narrative, in Andrew Dix’s book Beginning Film Studies. The hope was to figure out how a film is built up, how you move from one ‘stage’ to another and what important characters, events etc. there are.
I am hoping to learn what stages a dystopian film is split up in and apply these stages to my urban studies. Finding this out will, however, require a little bit of work.
David’s first suggestion was to draw a graph similar to the one below. By studying the situation of a character and mapping it on a graph (positive/negative on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal) it is relatively easy to see how the film is built up. Many characters can be plotted on the same graph to allow comparison.
His second suggestion was to look at works such as the Cinema Redux Project by Brendan Dawes (the film Vertigo shown below). Using this method, one can easily analyse the use of colour (and mood?) in the film. Will dystopian films be black/brown and dirty?
Another way of mapping the narrative could be (I don’t know if it’s even possible!) to draw the narrative lines as roads on a map; follow the twists and turns, detours and dead ends to create a ‘city plan’ of the film.
Dix writes in his book about Vladimir Propp, a Russian formalist who wrote about film and narrative. He developed his own theory relating to Russian fairytales and condensed all stories to contain seven spheres of action (characters) and 31 functions (major events/storylines). The spheres of action include:
- the Villain
- the Dispatcher
- the Helper
- the Princess (and her father!)
- the Donor
- the Hero
- the False Hero
It may be interesting to see if these characters still apply to dystopian films and what impact these constrictions may have.
The ‘standard’ narrative is said to be equilibrium – disequilibrium – equilibrium restored. This may not necessarily be true for dystopian films.
Dix also mentions, interestingly, that a film played backwards can produce an almost utopian experience where people are resurrected, wounds heal and the minerals used to create the bombs are returned safely to the ground.
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Dix, A. (2008) Beginning Film Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Return to Paradise - If the people flee, what will happen to the seemingly indestructible
Laura Spinney, New Scientist 20 July 1996, issue 2039, pp. 26-31
Prompted by the writings of Mary Shelley and Richard Jefferies, the New Scientist magazine commissioned in 1991 an update on what would happen to London if it was to be suddenly abandoned by its citizens. Five years later, Return to Paradise was published.
The article is split up into time periods five, ten, 60 and 560 years in the future. Each section analyses and highlights the most important elements of change during that period. People are only re-introduced 200-300 years after the collapse of the city, but only as tourists on eco-cruses along the Themes and the odd adventurous hiker. The main attraction, the Great Leaning Tower of Canary Wharf, finally comes tumbling down on a stormy night some five hundred years after the abandonment.
Spinney provides very striking images of what a future London may (or may not!) come to look like in the future. I can’t help but hope that I one day will get to see it…
Out on a Limb? Urban Traumas on the West Pacific Rim
Stephanie Hemelryk Donald
Chapter 7 in Visualising the City pp. 127-142
Edited by Alan Marcus and Dietrich Neumann
The 9/11 attacks made a bold statement on the cinematic hierarchy of world cities. The attack on the New York skyline was as taken from one of numerous American disaster films. The Western world reacted strongly, as if home had been hit. Has the sheer number of prominent American disaster films conditioned us to think of New York (or Los Angeles, or any other large American city) as a symbol for the entire Western world?
If it can happen in America, can it happen in Europe too?
The main question Donald asks is why American film involves so much destruction of suburban architecture and of city landmarks. She presents three immediate reasons:
- The pleasure afforded and curiosity caused by illusions of
destruction and catastrophe (the same reason we slow down to
look at road accidents)
- The advanced skills and technological infrastructure available more
readily available to filmmakers in America
- The traditions of slapstick in American film comedy
Donald’s essay makes many references to Mike Davis’ books Ecology of Fear (1999) and Dead Cities (2002) and in turn discuss, analyse and critique parts of his work.
(I keep noticing a pattern of cross referencing between a number of authors and cannot help but wonder how legitimate their writings are if they all keep referring to each other’s work in a closed circle of ‘friends’.)
Davis offers another reason to the question about destruction in American cinema. He speculates that disasters can be read as an allegory of contemporary urban character and despair, that film makers express disintegration and despair in urban communities through visions of destruction (and hope for a new beginning?).
Donald recommends the last chapter of Davis’ Dead Cities. I will try to find it at a later date - hopefully it will be useful.
Returning to the main question, Donald writes that “disaster is not necessarily crucial to the grammar of national cinemas, other than American” (p.130, emphasis added). So, in relation to Davis’ comments about destruction being an indicator of despair, are there any other ways in which cities on film can deal with fear and loathing? Often, the city represents or at least acknowledges the chaos and indeterminacy (both in real life and on film!) through the darkness lurking in the backstreets of the modern idyll where its inhabitants may nor may not consider capitalism as a necessary evil.
If the city itself represents this uneasy atmosphere, when does it stop? The city does not close or rest, and as Donald point ou, the end of the film is often considered a respite and not a final ‘coming to rest’. The city order is itself based on doubt and uncertainty. Does it ever stop?
The final part of Donald’s essay I want to mention is when she draws reference to Freud’s story about a boy who loves playing a game of disappearance and return. (i.e. throwing his toys away into a messy corner of his room and taking great delight in searching for and eventually finding it) She compares this story to American film cinema, with the victim-self is the saviour, interpreter as well as creator of the event. A kind of self-inflicted critical dystopia.
“In American disaster films, the worst is confirmed, the loss of America, on the grounds that the best must still be possible, the continuation of America.” (p.140)
On a slightly different note, Donald writes about how we learn/write most about American films, much because American cinema has established itself as the international standard for commercial genre films. European cities, when they are mentioned or studied, usually include London, Paris and Berlin (and sometimes Rome). If focusing on an European film for my thesis case study, Upside Down may prove a good contender. Based on the trailer (the film is not yet released) there seem to be a number of parallels to Berlin and East/West Germany. Existing case studies on Berlin cinema would, indeed, be useful.
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Marcus, A. and Neumann, D. (2007) Visualising the City. Abingdon: Routledge.