Cinema & Metropolis

Fabio La Rocca

La Rocca, F. “Cinema & Metropolis”, (James Horrox, trans.) [in press]

The cinematic universe contributes to our collective imagination of the metropolis, helping us to formulate a vision of the complexity and topography of urban existence. The movie image provides an aperture on the physiognomy and ambiances of the city, enabling us to ‘feel’ its atmospheres, to ‘touch’ the emotions that emerge from urban spaces onto the movie screen. The power of the image lies in its capacity to transport us, allowing us to traverse the landscapes of the metropolis by way of the camera, triggering a convergence of history, culture and visual memory in our perceptive space. If the particularity of cinematic language helps us to structure our collective imagination of the city through its multiform penetration of the real, the real, conversely, is shaped by the diversity of images presented to us through film which contribute to our understanding of everyday life. Cinema makes visible the city, which on this view exists in and through the images projected onto the screen.

That the birth of cinema coincided with the dawn of the modern metropolis implies a visual journey parallel with the development trajectory of the urban landscape. This landscape forms a fabric of images which captivates and structures the gaze of the viewer, allowing us to form an interpretation of the urban panorama using a visual approach as a form of social science inquiry [1]. Following the theoretical perspective of Gilles Deleuze [2], cinematographic perception lies in the very essence of cinema, namely its production of images irreducible to the model of subjective perception. The visible helps us form an interpretation of the world, a configuration of the Weltbild: the world we understand as image. A Weltanschauung is at work in the cinematic panorama as an ontology through which to capture and develop a form of understanding of the real.

In this analysis, the cinematic image is therefore understood as an image of thought and a reflex of daily life. For Deleuze, inspired by Henri Bergson, the philosophical question of cinema is a mechanism of thought operating with the signs of the image-movement charged with dynamic tension. The relation between image and thought becomes a phenomenology which helps us to ‘decrypt’ the world and its urban dimension. Cinema can thus be viewed as way of understanding the urban landscape, a form of knowledge, as for Siegfried Kracauer [3] an expressive documentary recording a given culture’s social world, or, following Simmel [4], a methodology through which to explore the sensory experience of urban social existence.

Images of the real in the urban dimension

Taking up the theoretical position of Christian Metz [5], the language of cinema must be interpreted in terms of a need to draw an ensemble of organisations, with a particular emphasis on our perception, our collective imagination, and our relation to the image. We thus arrive at the sociological and ontological intuition that in the depths of the cinematic image we may perceive the social depths. Drawing on the theoretical sensibility of Michel Maffesoli’s “contemplation of the world” [6], the passage from an aesthetic of representation to one of presentation and perception, we can find in cinema the capacity to develop a different way to see the social world operating.

This aesthetic enhances an ‘affectivity’ of the image: that of a ‘reliance’ of imagery operationalised in the obsessive, even erotic, relation between the eyes of viewer and the depths of the screen. In this way we can consider the cinema, from the perspective of the collective imaginary as described by Edgar Morin [7], as the soul of the crowd, a crowd of reverie and affectivity, a fermentation of humanity intimately linked to the real. Thus the medium of cinema establishes an organic relation with this ‘real’, a sort of ontology, or “ontological realism”, as proposed by André Bazin [8]. Drawing on Bazin’s analysis we can note how the recording of ‘reality’ is a way for cinema to reveal this intimate truth of the ‘real’. And it is this ‘real’ which takes precedence over reality where we find the capacity of the cinematic image to show us its effects. The urban landscape emerges as the essential characteristic in respect of the perception of the real, or more accurately, the photography of the real. We can find inspiration in this regard in the construction of a ‘trajectory’ of the imaginary through the theory of the imaginary proposed by Gilbert Durand [9].

The cinema constitutes an apparatus that leads us to the visual interpretation of the social and urban world: a hot medium, in Marshall McLuhan’s terms [10], wherein we find the possibility of discovering some essential character that acquires a theoretical and emotional sense, and which, moreover, contributes to the structure of our imaginary. If we understand cinema as a sensorial extension, or, following Alberto Abruzzese [11], an evocative force in the foundation of the postmodern imaginary, then the cinematic image may help us to perceive and give expression to something ‘extra-’. This is something we encounter through our immersion in movies in which the metropolis becomes a cinematic character in itself, where this ‘extra-’ consolidates and clarifies the expression of the urban world in its various aspects – its places and territories, everyday life, individual expression and the aesthetic of its architectural forms – through an emotional communicational model.

The relationship between cinema and metropolis carries through a symbolic intersection prefiguring an urban cinema and a cinematic metropolis; an existential relation where, from a historical and cultural perspective, the cinematographic shifts towards the street, becoming a testament to urban revolution. We can thus interpret the projection of the Lumière brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895) in symbolic and metaphorical terms as a penetration into urban space. This also implies the advent of cinema and its entry into the industrial production of culture as a bona fide revolution of perception, of the imaginary and the senses that inhabit the mental space of the spectator.

Cinema thus sparks an interest in the urban panorama, the spaces of the urban structure, the streets, the boroughs, becoming lines of cinematic expression. We can speak of the presence of the metropolis of the cinema in terms of historical succession: the birth of the modern city, aspects of its social behaviour, its architectural evolution, the post-urban universe, futuristic anticipation, eccentric utopias… All of these things help us to understand and observe the urban landscape in all its myriad aspects as a fundament of thought, the imaginary, and the perception of urban complexity. We can also build up mental maps, as in Kevin Lynch’s theory [12], enabling a kind of ‘voyage’ through cityscapes.

With the history of cinema thus linked to the history of urbanisation, the history of the city and its territories is realised as a visual script or cinematic narration. The cinema opens itself to the metropolis, penetrates it, and at the same time enables the metropolis to penetrate the screen through its symbolic representation. Consequently, the complexity of the urban character is “monstrate” [13] in the visual dimension as a continuum of the development of landscape panoramas. From the tradition of the Kino-Pravda movement of Dziga Vertov to Ruttmann’s “symphony” in Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, from Jean Vigo to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, from Italian Neorealism to the French Nouvelle Vague, from Scorsese to Wim Wenders, from Batman’s Gotham City to the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, cinema becomes a sociohistorical culture which unveils the urban landscape and social evolution through the perspective provided by the aesthetic of images. With different forms of cinematic narration, the metropolis is assembled and reassembled as an imaginary puzzle.

The presence of the urban character in the cinematographic tradition is amplified by the symbolic and physical recognition embedded in our memory. We can thus think of the cinematic metropolis as having multiple faces; there is a transmission of the memory of places, architecture and urban ambiances, which operate in combination with memories, imagination, emotions and sensations. This invokes the idea of the cinema as a magic lantern allowing us to explore the world, where the image projected on the screen corresponds to the viewer’s perception of the experience of life, the instantaneity of the memory of a landscape that we are able to touch, in a hermeneutic register, through the effect of the image.

All of this builds an imaginary voyage through urban life, enabling us to inhabit the word, to feel a landscape and live in a city through the cinematic production [14], a production that generates a universe of symbolic construction with the force of the imaginary, where the image of the metropolis becomes as a skin in which we live. This is an appropriation of space by the real/imaginary of cinematic sequences, an aesthetic and sensorial conquest where we have occasion to flâner through this media circuit. This imaginary mosaic may also be seen to function as a marker signifying the urban landscape, through and by which images enhance the symbolic order of memory with the possibility of tracing our existence and experience on a plane of cinematic immanence which allows us to experience emotions through a sensorimotor schema [15].

The flânerie in which we engage in our absorption of cinematic images provides a visual and emotional situation where the metropolis, as character, becomes a symbolic residue which sediments the conscious. The capture of the symbolic in this visual schematic helps us to develop an emotional memory and an ‘ordinary knowledge’. We are thus in a dynamic where the image as a visual form of the unconscious – an ‘optical unconscious’, as Walter Benjamin [16] put it – allows us to perceive physical space in a new way. For Benjamin, what speaks to the camera is not the same as what speaks to the eyes: there is a space where the unconscious reigns. Through the lens of Benjamin’s theory, cinema opens us up to a field of action where space is expanded and enriched. In our optic this visual expansion produces a new dimension of thought on the metropolis and the space-time of the urban landscape.

Actualisation is in an oneiric vision, a force – inspired here by Benjamin – of the cinematographic image where space assumes a particular organic form. If classic thought encourages us to think about representation, we can say that cinema belongs to representation, or better still, if we refer to Jean Epstein [17], to unconscious thought. Alternatively, following Max Weber [18], to understand the real though understanding the unreal we could suggest that the urban real can be comprehended from the forms played out in the cinematic unreal. There is a ‘condition of possibility’ here which allows us to form a knowledge of the spatial world, a visual methodology used to illustrate, and so put into image, the complexity of urban forms. Taking up Alfred Schütz’s [19] view of the possibility inherent in everyday ideal-typical knowledge, the cinematic narrative in its production of ‘iconic possibility’ perpetuates such a knowledge of the metropolis, its spaces and its landscapes. A ‘constellation of images’ is in play in the cinematic form to shape our comprehension with images. It is in this kind of cinematic structure of the imagination that the metropolis reveals itself in all its diversity. Thus we can assert that there is ‘no metropolis without cinema and no cinema without metropolis’. This affirms the significance of this symbolic exchange, this rich, perpetual dialogue that structures our consciousness.

Cinematic flânerie

Cinematic flânerie leads us in a kind of “traversal of the visible” [20] where the forms of the cityscape appear through a process of symbolic recognition, transporting us from a Paris rooftop to the vertigo of New York, from the ambiances of Berlin to the bright lights of Tokyo, from the melody of Naples to the symphony of Lisbon, from the sounds of Manchester to the rhythms of Detroit, from the spatiality of Los Angeles to the suburban of the Latin American megalopolis. We are immersed here in a space-time enveloped by cinematic images that enables a conjunction between the memory of the metropolis and that of the cinema. These are two processes embodied in a singular membrane: that of the screen projecting the shadows and lights of the urban panorama personified therein. Cinema activates in us an understanding of urban wanderings, placing us into an almost magical relationship with the metropolis and offering us the opportunity to observe its diversity. Fascination with cinematic imagery thus forms animated portraits of landscape which we traverse through an oscillation between real and imaginary, oneiric and sentimental fascination.

The construction of an imaginary schema of the urban landscape through cinema gives a new sense to the metropolis, and a soul that revitalises our feelings and emotions [21]. This affectivity is one of the foundations of the ecstatic synergy that emerges from the cinematic vision, where the panorama of the metropolis in its process of imaginary recognition reveals itself in the communion of the senses. The alliance between cinema and the urban panorama is a cultural union, both cause and effect of a symbolic exchange. This exchange makes it possible for both elements to exist by means of this body of images forming a transcendent experience. Thus we confront an existential aesthetic produced in the different urban settings operated by the movement of the camera.

The path from the Old West of American cinema – a classic geography of borders and a myth that has exerted a lasting influence in Western culture – can be considered a veritable atlas of the imaginary. Western movies are, in essence, geographical: the landscape becomes the archetypal character, the driving force of the exploration of knowledge. We might think of the aesthetic of John Ford’s movies by way of example. In the evolution of history and media this archetypal character constantly reinvents itself across different phases of ‘climatological’ actualisation. Western movies perceive landscapes as evolving from paintings to reveal themselves in and through the screen, transforming perception and attraction on a visual and symbolic plane.

Through cinema we enter into landscape, as exemplified by Italian Neorealism where, for example, the director goes down into the street while filming, suggesting a profound presentation of urban space lived as a mental space. This is a “moving look”, as Jacques Aumont [22] put it, made possible by cinema in this relationship with the fragments of the metropolis. In Neorealist films, first with De Sica and Rossellini and later with Fellini and Antonioni, we see these fragments in all their ‘bluntness’.

This exposition of the urban character, this way of perceiving things as they appear in our vision, is the method whereby we can subjectively interpret the exploration of a landscape as an existential journey guided by the cinematic eye of the director. We can consider these directors seekers of an urban social knowledge, operating through an immersion in the field like a detective with a camera, a “sociological eye” [23] that observes, examines and gives form to the diversity of urban experience and everyday life. The eye of the director is thus a form of visual affirmation of the real, an anthropological excursion showing a way to understand and to express.

On this view, Michelangelo Antonioni represents one of the leading examples of a director who contributes to an exploration of the metropolis. At once sociologist, architect, landscapist and photographer, through such films as The Adventure (1960), Eclipse (1962) and Blow up (1966) Antonioni invites us into the complexity of human and urban existence by penetrating so deeply with the camera as to enable insight into the very poetics of space. From a phenomenological perspective, in its presentation of images through Antonioni’s eyes this can be related to the poetic realism of Michel de Certeau [24] or better still, Pierre Sansot [25]. This demonstrates the heuristic potential of the cinematic image as an instrument to expose the sensitive, through which we see the director capturing the metropolis to present to us, as Sansot does in his Poétique de la ville, its multiple manifestations and secrets.

In this panoply of cinematic examples we find the emotional geography of the metropolis to which Sansot gave form in his wanderings through the urban night, the promenades, the urban rhythms, the city outskirts and the symbolism of the streets – all things that the cinema returns to us emblematically by way of a visual poetic.

Such a poetic is found in the work of German director Wim Wenders, and in his emptiness aesthetic in particular. In Wenders’ vision, the metropolis and its landscapes become characters in themselves: industrial wastelands, waste grounds, wild spaces, urban interstices and ‘invisible’ places. Wenders’ cinema constitutes a metropolitan language, an urban art, and in his movies this typology of particular places, often depicted negatively, carries out a poetic and a poetry. We might refer to the images of Paris, Texas (1984), with the landscape of the highway interchange, its pervasive emptiness and its polymorphic urban universe, or Wings of Desire (1987) where the viewer flies through the ruins of historical Berlin, or The American Friend (1977), with its desolate places and fusion of the perception of the different atmospheres and transitory spaces of the metropolis.

In the Wenders cinematic poetic we are often confronted with wandering, nomadism: actions that guide us in a voyage in the interior of landscape diversity and urban interstices to lay bare the labyrinth of the urban matrix in all its complexity. The cinematic view holds a potentiality of imagination which influences our way of understanding, becoming a source of inspiration for architects, town planners and landscapists. The anthropological traversal of the urban world in cinema offers a territory to explore, in which we can verify the codes of visual reproduction towards a symphony, a fluidity of space-time, the symbolic and everyday life.

Cinematic images set us into an exploration of the urban universe of the everyday through a dérive of the places evoked – in the films of Martin Scorsese for example, such as Mean Streets (1973) and After Hours (1985), or in the Brooklyn landscapes we find in Spike Lee films like She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the right thing (1989) or Clokers (1995). The landscape myth of Brooklyn is found also in the Wayne Wang film Smoke, written by Paul Auster, which competes with the symbolic centrality of the magic of Manhattan in the aesthetic of Woody Allen’s creations which find an emotional geography in the Upper West Side. These examples speak of a lived space, a space of representation, a ‘tribalisation’ of urban existence, in which New York becomes the epiphenomena of the spatial cinematic imagination. We find a similar sentimental geography with our immersion in the brightly lit streets of Tokyo through the visual aesthetic of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, or the universe of the French Nouvelle Vague as A bout de souffle (1960) by Jean-Luc Godard, or Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962).

Opening: a cinematic paradigm

Historically speaking, the cinematic accompanies the natural path of change in the urban universe. The trajectory of urban evolution runs in parallel with that of cinema as an aesthetic journey bringing us from modernity into postmodernity, and so into the post-urban landscape. In this sense we can reflect on cinema’s capacity to create a metropolis, by way of the influence of comic books and video games, from the empty, the dream, and convey them in visual presentation on screen. The screen is a medium of symbolic exchange between image and spectator; equally, the cinema can be understood as a medium of the metropolis, a presentation of space as the symbolic construction of the past, present and future of the metropolitan way of life.

If we think back to the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, we find a vision of the imaginary megalopolis of the twenty-first century: a monster city, the Moloch, a vast mechanical system with its architectural verticality symbolising the antagonistic relation between social groups and structures of power. In Metropolis we find suggestions of future themes in urban sociology. Its architectural model similarly finds parallels with the real in some archetypal postmodern architecture. This is an implicit reference to the real of the cinematic imaginary, aesthetic sensations of which we also find suggestions in Gotham City: a world-city founded on diversity and assemblage, in a Dadaist sense, which seems to link to the paradigm of the postmodern city. We find such a paradigm also in Blade Runner, another example of a cinematic anticipation of sociological themes. This latter film, depicted by David Harvey [26] as a piece of Pop Art, is an illustration of influences typical of the spatial geography of post-industrial decadence, the chaos of symbols, the technological world, urban labyrinths, baroque fragmentation and imposing architecture dominated by the structure of the Tyrell Corporation.

All these cities of the ‘future’, born of a science-fiction perspective, constitute a kind of anticipation of a theme of our contemporary urban climatology. Cities of the future as cities of the present: this seems to be a projection into the real by the imagery of these films which have permeated the space of our imaginations. In this way, cinematic communication creates and conveys the urban aesthetic where the rhythms of metropolitan life resemble more and more those of a film.

Consideration of the metropolis as a cinematic character invites us to reflect upon our own relationship with space, charting an ‘intimate geography’ of the urban landscape from our experience of the cinematic vision. A kind of empirical empiricism: this is the conception we can assign to the aesthetic of the metropolis in film, a dialogical relation helping us to contemplate and to become aware of the force of the medium of the imaginary, where the plurality of the characteristics of the metropolis takes effect. Images of the urban landscape in cinema appear as “symbolic transitions” [27] of the figure of the metropolis; a structuration of the gaze via a “phenomenology of perception” [28] that helps us to realise a structure of knowledge formed by the excursion, the meander, and the flânerie in visu. Thus, following the theory of Walter Benjamin [29], this interchange between dreams, the imaginary and the real operating in the filmic universe allows us visual access to the essence of the metropolis.

Drawing on different cinematographic examples, the exploration of urban landscapes should, in our view, be considered a phenomenological endeavour in which images play a key role. In this way, the cinematographic universe can stimulate reflection on the representation of the city and urban spaces as a focus of urban studies and the sociology of the imaginary. If seeing is a way of knowing, then urban disciplines need visual theory and the phenomenological method of images to enrich the representation of the metropolis and its constellations of elements.

Translated from the French by James Horrox


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