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Cityscapes: Introduction

From: Wide Angle
Volume 19, Number 4, October 1997
pp. 1-7 | 10.1353/wan.1997.0016

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Wide Angle 19.4 (1997) 1-7

This issue of Wide Angle explores the relationship between changing urban forms and the representation of the urban experience in film. Modernism was forged in the crucible of the city, as the dynamic forces of urban life stimulated new approaches to art. The construction of filmic meaning through montage offers a paradigmatic example of modernist expression, and film relies on technological processes (both chemical and mechanical) that exemplify new configurations of industrial production. Cinema first developed primarily within the city and has engaged an urban audience as a site of reception, from nickelodeons, to the first run movie palaces operated by the film studios, to the underground film scene of the ninteen-sixties that emerged in New York. The urban experience has been the focus of many film movements and genres, from Lumière travelogues and "Rube" films depicting the behavior of unsoph- isticates new to the metropolis in the earliest years of movies, the German "street" films of the Weimar period, gangster films of the nineteen-thirties, the international city symphony cycle, Italian neorealism, much of film noir, Godard's early output, many experimental and avant-garde works, and on to more recent urban crime thrillers and dystopic science fiction; a list that suggests the scope of thematic concerns, but by no means exhausts the relevant lines of cinematic engagement with the city.

Paralleling the development of cinema in the last one hundred years, urban form has undergone historical metamorphoses from the emergence of the dense and vertical modern metropolis of steel-frame skyscrapers built by adapting railroad technology, to the horizontal sprawl of cities along the Los Angeles model with the incorporation of the automobile and communication technologies. The transformations of urban topography bear repercussions for the subjectivity of inhabitants adapting to life within new types of space. Georg Simmel's oft-cited study "The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903) details how subjectivity adapts to new contingencies of urban spatiality. City life is marked by

...the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions. These are the psychological conditions which the metropolis creates. With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational, and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life.

As people interact with built space and each other according to new patterns of development, inevitable permutations of subjectivity can be expected. Cinema represents these changes in both terrain and psychology even as it develops alongside and contributes to them.

The contributors to this issue approach the filmic representation of the city from diverse theoretical perspectives and engage several distinct periods of cinema. Giuliana Bruno offers a useful overview of theoretical issues inherent in representing the city in her article "Site-Seeing: Architecture and the Moving Image," which stems from work for a forthcoming book on urban representation, travel, and the body, Atlas of the Flesh. Noting that film, especially early film, is primarily an urban institution, she argues that it offers a form of "modern cartography," a way of mapping urban locations through vicarious experience akin to an architectural itinerary or journey. Film and architecture both perform an embodiment of an observer through various views and angles towards an environment; a process that bears implications for the gendered body. Concentrating especially on a period marking the formation of cinema out of other cultural forms (such as the panorama that became for a time an early film "genre"), Bruno's discussion isolates and provocatively considers important theoretical strands revolving about the position of the spectator relative to cinematic imagery, and the role of filmed images in representing/constructing urban space.

In his richly suggestive essay "From the Kaleidoscope to the X-Ray: Urban Spectatorship, Poe, Benjamin, and Traffic in Souls (1913)," Tom Gunning historicizes the figure of the urban observer within changing social and topographic formations by way of conducting an archeology of the early film spectator. Cinema was born into the world of visual spectacle and commodity consumption that increasingly characterized the city at the...

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