Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Cinema and the City - Part 1

Both photography and film, as media for representing the city, provide an opportunity for creating an urban image which is reflexively aware.(1) The gaze of the viewer is consciously directed by the photographer or filmmaker, bringing attention to specific phenomena and eliciting a response or interpretation from the viewer. This idea is increased exponentially by the moving film which allows the filmmaker to direct the gaze to a specific phenomena immediately followed by another, drawing attention to a connection or a juxtaposition; potentially contriving connections which have never before occurred to the viewer. Film, therefore, has great potential for an exercise in qualitative and reflexive mapping.(2)

Early Cinema
Fig.1 (top) Lumiere brothers’ ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat’
Fig.2 (middle) Méliés’ technical marvel, ‘The Mermaid’
Fig.3 (bottom) Iconic landing scene from Méliés’ 
‘A Trip to the Moon’
Early experiments in cinema, such as those of the Lumiere brothers, were often single-shot, single-concept films revelling in the novelty of a new and unfathomable medium (see fig.1). They brought images of distant and unimaginable places to previously parochial audiences(3) and purposefully played with recognisable phenomena in order to provoke visceral reflexive reactions in their audience.(4) These ‘primitive’cinematic concepts were developed further by Georges Méliès, who began experimenting with jump-cuts and double exposed film to create the first cinematic ‘special-effects.’ 

Early experiments like ‘The Mermaid’ (see fig.2)(6) dealt specifically with the spectacle of the new medium and began to experiment with it’s possibilities. Méliès was one of the first film directors to implement these techniques to construct a narrative. The iconic ‘A Trip to the Moon’(7) seamlessly integrated the jump cuts and double exposure of previous experiments in combination with multiple shots and locations, innovative use of graphics and elaborate sets to recount a Jules Verne inspired space fantasy. The dazzling imagery still resonates with contemporary audiences, particularly the humorously grotesque image of the bullet-like space capsule embedded in the anthropomorphised face of the moon, an image which has become an iconic meme representing early cinema (see fig.3).

City Symphonies
Fig.4 (top) Opening shot of ‘Man with a Movie Camera’
Fig.5 (middle) Vertov’s monumental film-maker
Fig.6 (bottom) Taking risks for the perfect shot
The idea of the ‘City Symphony’ emerged as a concept in 1928 with Walter Ruttman’s ‘Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.’(8) While no doubt inspired by the Lumiere’s early single-shot experiments, ‘Berlin…’ collages and layers urban images while also using the technique of mounting the camera on train carriages and motor vehicles. While devoid of a conventional storyline, there is a definite narrative thread beginning with a train ride from the city’s rural outskirts, through industrial suburbs and into the inner city. We are then presented with the waxing and waning of daily activities, starting at dawn and ending at sunset. The film slows down and speeds up in relation to the time of day and it’s associated activities, and occasionally reaches a crescendo using a variety of effects including Ruttman’s ‘painting with light’ technique displayed so vividly in his more abstract ‘Lichtspiel: Opus’ series.(9) The comparison of the direction of the film and the conducting of a musical score as suggested by the film’s title is compelling, and the occasional wry observations and juxtaposition of imagery(10) is evidence of a certain self consciousness developing in the medium.

Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film ‘Man With A Movie Camera’(11) displayed even more self awareness. The framing device for the film is itself a cinema; beginning with a crowd entering, taking their seats and waiting in anticipation. The orchestra, poised with their instruments, burst into life as the projectionist sets the first reel in motion. The eponymous ‘man with a movie camera’ is the subject of the story, following him documenting elements of city life and, in doing so, occupying urban space in unique and inventive ways. There is an array of startling imagery, beginning with the fantastically double-exposed opening shot of the movie camera being mounted on top of a giant camera (see fig.4) and a similar but equally evocative shot of a monumentally sized filmmaker towering over the city as he sets up his camera (see fig.5). We see our ‘man…’ on the back of speeding trucks, lying across the tracks as a locomotive approaches (see fig.6), climbing the ironwork supports of suspension bridges, riding motorcycles one-handed; all while cranking the handle of his cumbersome movie camera.

A particularly poignant sequence shows still images becoming animated as the film negative is examined in the cutting-room; each sequence is cut from the negative and stuck together as the pace of the film slowly builds. This idea reaches it’s delightfully absurdist zenith as the camera itself becomes animate, pulling itself out of it’s storage-box, fixing itself to the tripod and walking out of frame in a dazzling stop-motion sequence. ‘Man with…’ displays an unprecedented amount of self-consciousness and reflexive awareness for such an early stage in the medium of film.

Self-Conscious Manipulation
Fig.7 (top) Leni Riefenstahl on location in Nuremberg
while filming ‘Triumph of the Will’ 
Fig.8 (middle, bottom) ’The Great Dictator’dances with
the world
Where ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ declared openly it’s self-consciousness, less than a decade later this developed into more insidious manipulation, using the beguiling ability of film to direct the viewer’s gaze and lead them to a particular articulation of the phenomena in question; an interpretation that would not necessarily have been arrived at without that particular collaging of image and sound. Film was now viewed as a powerful tool for propaganda, that is the unbalanced dissemination of a fixed phenomenal interpretation, which, as opposed to pamphlets and posters, would be received passively by it’s audience in a way that would be harder to critique.(12)

Perhaps the best known ‘propaganda film’ was Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’(13) documenting the Nazi party’s 1934 Nuremberg rally (see fig.7). The film begins with sweeping aerial shots of rolling clouds and the verdant German countryside. We see the shadow of the plane gliding over the picturesque town before it lands at an airfield where amassed crowds await to cheer Adolf Hitler as he emerges from the aircraft.
The imagery of the ‘great leader’ literally descending from the heavens to save Germany appears to be crassly obvious manipulation to contemporary audiences; to a desperate German citizen who had suffered immensely since the end of the war this imagery would have been magnificently potent, stirring and hopeful.  Simple cuts from shots of Hitler saluting the crowds to images of smiling children; from a monumental stone eagle draped in the swastika to the furiously gesticulating Hitler shot from a heroically low angle; a united and happy crowd to a pyre of burning books - carefully juxtaposed images subtly connecting previously disparate phenomena in the minds of the audience.

The German National Socialists, while certainly the most notoriously and arguably successful, were not the only regime using film in this way. Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’
(14) while it positioned itself as a comedic and farcical satire of the Nazi regime, was an anti-Nazi propaganda film and (perhaps arguably) a piece of American propaganda. The closing scene in which Chaplin addresses a crowd at a rally borrows much of the imagery from Riefenstahl’s film and is every bit as emotionally manipulative as the Nazi leaders’ speeches in ‘Triumph,’(15) albeit directed at a different set of phenomena. Some of the suggestive imagery of ‘Dictator’ feels more subtle and ultimately more evocative than that of ‘Triumph’; particularly the globe scene (see fig.8), in which the maniacal dictator dances with an inflatable globe announcing ‘Emperor of the World!’ before the balloon bursts in his hands.

The medium evolved exponentially in it’s first forty years; from simple tool of novelty and wonder to a complex device of dissemination and manipulation. Films are now considered an industry, but what exactly can this industry be said to produce? Is it’s produce the films themselves; is it ideas, concepts, political arguments; is it movie stars or merchandising opportunities? The simple answer is probably that it produces commodities, means of generating capital in all it’s forms.

In the next part we will be examining five contemporary ‘City Symphonies,’ looking at how the idea has evolved and warped in what could now be described as the remnants of the post-modern era.


(1) This idea refers to subliminal, instinctive reactions depending on reflexes. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and research theorist Mats Alvesson suggest that, rather than challenging and suppressing these reflexes, the should be examined by sociology in order to expose elements of the human condition, particularly our often ignored subjective relationships.
(2) The word ‘Mapping’ here is used in a broad fashion. Where conventional maps could only be said to represent space, it is hoped to develop a map that represents place. Place, essentially, is space understood. Film, it is suggested, could therefore become a medium to explore how space becomes understood. Reflexive mapping attempts to access the underpinning motivations and unconscious reactions to a particular articulation of spatial phenomena.
(3) The Lumières toured the world, recording for the first time on film the cities of Paris, Madrid, New York, Liverpool, Rome; they even made a visit to Belfast in 1897.
Lumière, Auguste, and Louis Lumière. 1897. Belfast, Castle Place. Short.
Lumière, Auguste, and Louis Lumière. 1897. Belfast, Queen’s Bridge. Short.
(4)  Lumière, Auguste, and Louis Lumière. 1896. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Documentary, Short.
There is a popular cinematic myth that the famous ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat’ caused terror in it’s initial audience that they ran to the back of the room in order to get out of the way of the train as it approached, see fig.1
(5)  This term is used hesitantly as a reference to the Bfi’s excellent DVD collection of pre-1910 cinema. I by no means wish to suggest that these cinematic experiments were anything less than astonishing, but as I build the argument throughout this chapter you will hopefully see how their phenomenological effects are basic by comparison.
Porter, Edwin S., George Mèliés, and G. A. Smith. 2005. Early Cinema - Primitives and Pioneers. DVD. Bfi.
(6) Méliès, Georges. 1904. The Mermaid. Short, Fantasy.
(7) Méliès, Georges. 1902. A Trip to the Moon. Short, Adventure, Fantasy.
(8) Ruttmann, Walter. 1928. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Documentary.
(9) Ruttmann, Walter. 1921. Opus I. Animation, Short.
(10) For example, we see an immense crowd working class men entering the gates of a factory, followed by the image of a herd of cattle being directed through the gates of a slaughterhouse.
(11) Vertov, Dziga. 1929. Man with a Movie Camera. Documentary.
(12) An idea explored by Walter Benjamin as a direct reaction to ‘Trimuph of the Will.’
Benjamin, Walter. 2008. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. London: Penguin.
(13) Riefenstahl, Leni. 1935. Triumph of the Will. Documentary, War.
(14) Chaplin, Charles. 1941. The Great Dictator. Comedy, Drama, War.
(15) Perhaps because ‘Triumph of the Will’ has been more vigorously dissected in the public consciousness than ‘The Great Dictator’ due to the actions of the Nazi regime during the war, actions which now appear inevitable given the rhetoric expressed in ‘Triumph’ but which the producers of ‘Dictator’ were not aware of at the time. Indeed, Chaplin stated that he would not have made the film had he been aware of the concentration camps.

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