Film and the city: the nexus of urbanism and cinema

Pročitaj sve
June 6th, 2020
Jelena Pašić

New column by Jelena Pašić

The modern(ist) (megalo)polis and the film medium are semantically inextricably linked, therefore, it is not accidental that the development of both has occurred not only in parallel, but in continual symbiosis. At the onset of the 20th century, the urban milieu, as a spatial framework for the materialization of the principal values of modernism, such as the development of technology, mobility and fast-paced life, mass audience and commercial culture, enthusiastically embraced the emergence of film and cinema as a novel system of representation and entertainment. Assuming a prominent position within the urban imaginarium, the cinema thus became one of the quintessential symbols of the city, while the interconnection between urbanity and cinema paved the way for narrative film, which forwards plot and which reached it halcyon days with the productions of post-war classical Hollywood.  

The city was undoubtedly the object of cinematic interest since the very beginning of the medium: from the train station in a town on the French Riviera in L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat by the Lumière brothers (whereas the railroad is yet another symbol of the modern city, but also a metaphor of the very process of watching film – the scenes in continuous motion unfolding before our eyes, removed from us by the flat(ness) of the screen), to Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin and Dziga Vertov’s sovietic metropolises, as iterations of the idea that the film camera is able to capture the different facets of the structure of urbanity, all the way to the postmodern city in Blade Runner or the melancholic homage to cinematic modernism and Hong Kong of the 1960s in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love. “Where is the cinema? It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvelous continuous performance of films and scenarios,” wrote Jean Baudrillard in his volume America. Though, in this case, the object of his deliberations is the American city, as the ecstatic paradigm of the cinematic mode of perception, real-life cities – regardless of their geographic and cultural position – have been formed and “produced” via cinematic forms for over a hundred years. Now that, after several months’ pause, urban life is once again in full bloom, let us take a stroll through a selection of cinematic landscapes from our database in order to conjure some of the possible nexuses of urbanity and cinema. 

The city: a challenge in getting lost and finding one’s way

Walter Benjamin, probably the last great flâneur among the modernists, in 1932 wrote: “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in forest – this calls for quite a different schooling.” Nowadays, as the frenzied rhythm of urban daily life has taken hold of our lives, filling up our calendars and schedules by the imperative of eternal (work, social and mental) productivity, and, since all we have to do to determine the GPS coordinates of our location is to look at our cellphone, it is harder than ever to get lost. A step in that direction might lie in getting off the beaten paths, in the disruption of the rhythms and the habits imposed on us, springing from the comforting, yet illusory promise of gaining control over our daily life. This is the thematic range of movement of the protagonist of Manjaca (2014), directed by Tin Žanić, who, standing on the unsteady territory of the breakdown of his life, attempts to rid himself of his former habits. In the film, the fixed and laid bare architecture of urban and residential space, filled with all the markings of a rigidly structured system (fences, walls and even painted road lines), continuously interchanges with scenes featuring forest vegetation as a clear incitement to “get lost,” a metaphor of sorts for mental space. Thus, Žanić’s (anti)hero, carrying the difficult task of searching for his lost self on his bony back, is left with no alternative but to deviate from the pavement into the lush greenery and, in the newly discovered ambiance, by losing himself, to attempt to cross the boundaries of the known. This escapist gesture of accepting uncertainty is perhaps where he will find what he had deemed irretrievably lost.    

The street: the (im)possible trajectories of the city 

The ground in On Shaky Ground (2014), directed by Sonja Tarokić, is both slippery and shaky. The film’s narrative framework revolves around a single day in the life of an ordinary family living in Split, whose average problems, such as resolving the issue of property rights and falling into financial difficulty, consequently disrupt the father figure’s position of authority and inter-family relations. Shot around Split neighborhoods of Gripe and Split 3, the scenes depicting crammed, dark apartment interiors are in sharp juxtaposition to the blindingly bright, sunlit urban exteriors, yet, in this case, the stable urbanist setup that has become synonymous with the postwar working class may be interpreted as a sign of its scattering and fragmentation. The well-known architectural contours of residential solitaires are shot in a way that heighten the impression of flatness and immobility, while the positioning of the camera from above leaves the protagonists completely disoriented, helplessly floating around the scenography of the city.    

The neighborhood: the social organism of the city  

Super Andrija, a modernist, Le Corbusier-like Zagreb mega-apartment building, the building of the Croatian innovations institute, Brodarski, a soccer stadium, shopping mall and church are the locations taken as paradigmatic urban coordinates of a New Zagreb neighborhood of Siget in The Smartest Neighbourhood in the State (2009). In the manner of a mockumentary report, directors Marko Škobalj and Ivan Ramljak use them to construct a story about a neighborhood and its inhabitants that have come to exhibit an unusual, exclusive trait: everyone’s IQ has suddenly increased. Satirically depicting several key aspects of social structure of a post-transitional metropolis, such as consumerism, social stratification and blind dogmatism, the directing duo equally reminds us of the fact that urban landscape is a space of dynamic interactions and exchange, delineated by the architecture of the totality of spatial, social and symbolic ties and relationships.