Cinema and the City
Edited by Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice
Cinema and the City in History and Theory, Mark Shiel pp. 1-18
In his introduction to the book, Shiel announces cinema to be the most important cultural form of the 20th (and, so far, the 21st century) alongside the city as the most important form of social organisation. Hence the title of the book; Cinema and the City. He argues for improved connection between cultural and social studies (film studies and sociology/urban studies) and how both sides can be enriched by interdisciplinary contact. Shiel also talks about cinema as a global industry and talks at length about the globalisation of film (culture) and society (architecture).
Like Stephanie Hemelryk Donald mentioned in her essay ‘Out on a Limb?’ in ‘Visualising the City’, Shiel questions the legitimacy of using L.A (or another American city) as a symbol for the entire Western world. He goes on to question what kind of cities there are and divides them according to the classifications of a number of authors; Saskia Sassen’s Global, Transnational and Subnational Cities and Mike Savage/Alan Warde’s Global Cities, Third World Cities, Older Industrial Cities and New Industrial Districts.
Shiel makes an interesting comment about how there is a network of semi-autonomous cities and megacities that relate more to other cities in this network than to the national or even regional space they occupy. These cities could be perceived as symptoms of globalisation and ‘smoothing out’ of world cultures. The dominance of Hollywood cinema can easily be regarded a threat to regional and national identities and cultures as Western ideas of free market enterprise and individualism are introduced to (imposed on!) other cultures.
Is Hollywood cinema simply an apprenticeship to Western capitalism?
Bunker Hill: Hollywood’s Dark Shadow, Mike Davis, pp. 33-45
Bunker Hill was a hilltop slum overlooking Los Angeles. It was a popular setting for the film noirs of the 1940’s, seen as a broodingly urban and mysterious place very different to L.A. Davis describes how the area, despite poor social statistics had a favela-like sense of community. The community was eventually flattened, its residents moved to the neighbouring Crown Hill only to be replaced by a new, wealthy, upmarket community of museums, bank(er)s and yuppies.
In relation to Bunker Hill, Davies mentions Dickens’ recollection of Five Points - describing the generic Victorian slum as present in his ‘American Notes’.
“This is the place [Five Points], these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?”
Davis describes how early film industry used an urban landscape already portrayed/defined by writers, photographers and artists. Los Angeles, however, had no compelling image in literature, giving the film industry an immense sense of freedom. He writes that ‘LA was a (stage) set, which is to say, it was U-topia: literally, no-place (or thus any place)’ (p.35). Films redesigned LA in their own image. Zorro was neighbouring Robin Hood through the Spanish Colonial houses built next to the English Tudor style ones. (Eventually accompanied by the Egyptian inspired villas and pyramid shopping malls). Is this a reason Hollywood so easily found a home?
Cities: Real and Imagined, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, pp. 99-108
‘…not depending on the outside world also meant not learning from it.’ (p.100)
When film sets replaced the real world, filmmaking no longer benefitted from encountering reality. Concept became everything. Of course, there were major advantages of filming in a studio, including weather independency, no unwanted background noise as well as easier application of special effects. What happened, however, was that the city as protagonist disappeared. (Which, unlike humans, is not a fictional character!)
Naked: Social Realism and the Urban Wasteland, Mike Mason, pp.244-253
Naked is a 1993 film set in a London of sparse anonymity, blurred boundaries between public and private, deserted streets, alleyways and office blocks. I found the following quote from this chapter very relevant:
“Naked promotes a selective construction of the city to further a particular discourse on the fragmentation of personal and communal identities and the coherent social relations that are assumed to follow from these. Through the selective use of locational and temporal zones in the film, emphasis is placed on the isolation and alienation of characters central to the narrative and, through this, typical themes concerning community and economics that may form a generic base for social realist narratives are given a particularly postmodern inflection.” (p.245)
Fitzmautice, T. and Shiel, M. (eds.)(2001) Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. Oxford: Blackwells