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Site-seeing: Architecture and the Moving Image

From: Wide Angle
Volume 19, Number 4, October 1997
pp. 8-24 | 10.1353/wan.1997.0017

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Wide Angle 19.4 (1997) 8-24


Film's undoubted ancestor...is -- architecture.

Sergei M. Eisenstein

Space... exists in a social sense only for activity -- for (and by virtue of) walking... or traveling.

Henri Lefebvre

Geography includes inhabitants and vessels.

Gertrude Stein

Writing on the architectonics of the traveling eye/I, my opening title got misspelled. By mistake, "sightseeing" became "siteseeing." As per its Latin root, an error implies a departure from a defined path. Error incorporates erring -- the act of traveling and wandering about. By way of such error, I make a theoretical move. Siteseeing signals a shift in film theory away from its focus on sight towards constructing a theory of site -- a cartography, that is, of film's position in the terrain of spatial arts and practices. My erring is ultimately a movement from optic to haptic.

The English language makes the transition from sight to site aurally seamless. Siteseeing is a "passage," out of the theory of the gaze. Many aspects of the moving image -- for example, the acts of inhabiting and traversing space -- could not be explained within the framework of theories of the eye. Locked within a fixed gaze, the film spectator was turned into a voyeur. Speaking of siteseeing implies that, because of film's spatio-corporeal kinetics, the spectator is a voyageur rather than a voyeur. Through this shift to voy(ag)eur, my aim is to reclaim female mobility, arguing, from the position of a (film) voyageuse, that film is modern cartography. It is a mobile map.

Genealogical Panoramas

The first step in a passage to "site-seeing" involves redrawing film's cultural map within the field of spatio-visuality. Film emerges out a shifting perceptual arena and the architectural configurations of modern life. Cinema -- the "motion" picture -- inhabits modernity's moving urban culture.

On the eve of the invention of cinema, a network of architectural forms produced a new spatio-visuality. Arcades, railways, department stores, and exhibition halls, among others, incarnated the new geography of modernity. They were all sites of transit. Mobility -- a form of cinematics -- was the essence of these new architectures. By changing the relation between spatial perception and bodily motion, the architectures of transit prepared the ground for the invention of the moving image -- an outcome of the age of travel culture and the very epitome of modernity.

Film has much in common with this traveling geography, especially with regard to its constant reinvention of space. Film viewing is an imaginary form of flânerie, a "modern" gaze that wanders through space, fully open to women. A relative of the railway passenger and the urban stroller, the female spectator -- a "flâneuse"--travels along architectural sites.

Modern Horizons: The Celluloid City

It is by way of architecture that film turns into cinema, for, in order to exist, the cinematic apparatus needs a home -- a movie "house." And, housed in the city, "since the beginning of the twentieth century... the screen... became the city square." Film was a product of the era of the metropolis, expressing an urban viewpoint from the very origin of its history. The city is present as "mise en abîme." Addressed primarily to urban audiences, early film fed on the metropolitan consciousness and unconscious.

In particular, an international genre of panorama films made traveling through sites an extensive practice in the very early days of film. The travel genre was instrumental in the development of the language of fiction films. In a mirroring effect, the life of the street, views of the city, and vistas of foreign lands were offered for viewing to urban audiences.

In the nineteen-twenties, the city becomes the subject of a number of landmark films that narrated urban space, including Manhatta (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921), Paris qui dort (René Clair, 1923), Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walter Ruttmann, 1927), The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928), Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927), The Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), and A Propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, 1930). The city space becomes a genre in the German street dramas and in the Italian cinema of the street, both of which opened...

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