Cinema and the City

Posted: January 28, 2017 in Movies, Philosophy
Tags: , ,

This is a video essay examining the relationship between cinema and the city. In particular, it draws on David B. Clarke’s 1997 book The Cinematic City, and the presence of the city-stroller and the stranger in urban films.


In The Cinematic City (1997), geographer David B. Clarke considers the relationship between urban spaces, urban representations and the cinematic form. He argues that the modern individual has come to conceptualise the cityscape as a screenscape—as an engulfing combination of movement and visual stimulation—and that one’s understanding of particular cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Paris, or London, as well as the very idea of the city, has been fundamentally shaped by motion pictures (3). While the compendium contains essays from a variety of cultural critics, this evaluation will focus primarily on Clarke’s introductory essay, in which he outlines his theories, and makes a case for the intersection of urban and film studies which frames the cinematic city paradigm.

Clarke argues that the “spectacle of cinema” sustains and draws upon the “increased pace of modern city life” (4), thus implicating cinematic form within the historical and social transitions of modernity. While he claims that the close relationship between cinema and the city (being modernity’s most important cultural form, and its most important social organisation, respectively) is a previously overlooked cultural inquiry, modern media historian Anne Friedberg identified cinema as “part of the experience of modernity” in her 1993 book Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (27). Leo Charney also contributed to the field two years prior, with Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, which discussed postmodernism in the contemporary city. Indeed, Clarke himself admits that his key contention—“the city has undeniably been shaped by the cinematic form, just as cinema owes much of its nature to the historical development of the city” (2)—draws comprehensively from the theories of early-century critiques of modernism, such as Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (1939) and Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903). In particular, he concurs that the prioritisation of sight (often referred to as the master sense of the twentieth century) is proof of cinema’s importance, as well as the act of looking being fundamental to the citydwellers ability to process the fragmentation and stimulation of their rapidly changing environments.

Clarke focuses a large portion of his theory on the flâneur, or citystroller, a figure of modernity characterised by their detached observations of urban life, being simultaneously of the city, and yet distanced from it by their spectatorial gaze. Rejecting the modern ordering and fragmenting of space, the flâneur instead embraces the “uneasy, fleeting lifeworld of the modern city, enthralled by the pleasures and potentialites of a world removed from the presence, stricture and restraint of tradition” (5). Clarke uses the flâneur as a metaphor for the perception and mobility of the film camera, which, he claims, possesses the unique ability to defragment the chaotic energy and maelstrom of the urban landscape. The camera gave visual fluidity to the disorientating labyrinth of (seemingly random) urban experiences, while the editor structured those experiences into a cohesive narrative. The flâneur and the film camera—being both products of modernism, as well as new perceptive frameworks for its articulation—changed the social meaning of presence, and wove all of the sensory and cognitive splinters of the modern city into an overarching conceptual entity. The theory suggests that cinematic representation helped found the city in people’s minds, and tie certain cities to specific aesthetic meanings, such as the Hollywood sign (in Los Angeles) being connected with show business and celebrity culture, while Wall Street (in New York City) is connected to capitalist power and ruthlessness. Its unique tools, modes and prominence within city spaces helped cinema take charge of urban discourse in a fashion that eclipsed traditional literary and artistic expressions.

The other figure of urbanity Clarke focuses on is the “stranger” – one of the sad ironies of urbanisation is that, in its desire to eliminate “all traces of the ambivalence that characterized earlier modes of life” (Clarke 5), modern living gave form to a new (distinctly urban) figure of ambivalence. Drawing on Simmel, Clarke outlines how the city’s densely populated environments fragmented the community of pre-modern society, and began to impart a sense of anonymity onto its inhabitants. It was in this anonymous milieu, where “the virtual presence of the cinema” found its place (6). In particular, the genre of film noir has incorporated the stranger, and the theme of urban estrangement, into its bleak narratives. Directors like Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep 1946), Jules Dassin (Night and the City 1950), Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train 1951), and Fritz Lang (The Big Heat 1953) interpreted the cityscape as a “world experienced by the stranger, and the experience of a world populated by strangers” (Clarke 7). Film noir explored the darker side of the streets: the poverty and homelessness produced by high-density populations; the ambivalence and apathy of the crowds; the commodification of sexuality through prostitution; the economy and misery of drug and substance addiction; escalating racial tensions; an increasingly corrupt police force; and the dangers of technology, which threatened to mechanise and eventually overtake human beings (though this last fear is more present in science-fiction films) (Prakash 5). The protagonists of film noir (usually alcoholic private detectives) were entrenched within this dystopic setting, and reflected its bleak dysfunction with mocking cynicism. While they might occasionally rise above the deluge of hostility and sleaze, or help end the reign of a particularly nasty criminal, they could never truly “fix” things, suggesting that the city was not burdened by these problems, but in fact caused them, and sustained them as part of its functions. From the perspective of film noir, the city is innately dystopic.

Clarke exemplifies the power of cinema to shape discourse through his contrast of urban and rural representations. During the first half of the twentieth century, films tended to valorise small towns at the expense of the big city, because the former was regarded as stable in its meaning and values, while the latter more fluid, more susceptible to the corruptions of modernity. Charlie Chaplin films explored the confusion and anxieties that developed from city living, while Frank Capra depicted the city as a place of low moral worth, a modern-day Sodom, which threatened to consume his naively honest protagonists visiting from the country. For example, in Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington (1935) a small town man strikes it rich, and moves to the big city, where he is promptly manipulated by slick-city-lawyer types. Mr. Deeds values honesty, modesty, nature and personal relationships, while the city he enters is depicted as valuing ruthlessness, excess, individuality, and business relationships. However, after the conservative 1950s, the image of the small town began to shift from goodness and decency, to “bigotry, small-mindedness and explosive violence” (McArthur 24), as evidenced in films like Easy Rider (1969) and Blue Velvet (1986). With cities continuing to grow and thrive, and audiences becoming increasingly urban, small towns were reconfigured by cinema as stagnant, backwards and abandoned shells from which modern society once crept. Deliverance (Boorman 1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper 1974) even suggest the fear and paranoia the citydweller has at (re-)entering the wilderness of rural towns (where law, order and sanity seem less fixed) (25). It demonstrates how cinema was fundamental in shaping the meanings of the city, to reflect and capitalise on these shifts in demographics.

Clarke’s theory seems to presume that cinematic representations of a city are unfiltered and wholly faithful to their cultural subject; but while there are certainly many artists involved in the production of a film (directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, composers) films are essentially business ventures, highly controlled, regulated, and expected to return the investment of their backers. Unlike paintings or novels, the creation of film incorporates many voices of authorship, and has historically focused on white, male, heterosexual subjectivities, with women, other ethnicities and sexual orientations continually othered or objectified by the male gaze. Clarke’s delivers an exciting and thoughtful exploration of the cinematic city, but for future research, it will be important to take into account the multiplicity of urban voices and viewpoints that film both depicts and ignores.

Works Cited

Clarke, David B. “Introduction: Previewing the Cinematic City.” The Cinematic City. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 1997. 1-17. Print.

McArthur, Colin. “Chinese Boxes and Russian Dolls: Tracking the Elusive Cinematic City.” The Cinematic City. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 1997. 19-46. Print.

Prakash, Gyan. “Imaging the Modern City, Darkly.” Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. 1-14. Print.


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