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?