The Cinematic City in a Digital Age

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[Ed. note: this post is part of a Q&A session on a new edited volume, Global Cinematic Cities. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here. All contributor responses in this series have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Click on the contributors’ names for more information about their work.]

We asked the contributors to our edited volume, Global Cinematic Cities, five questions about their own chapters in the book in the larger context of their thoughts about the cinematic city, its role in scholarship, its impact on urban living, and its future. Our fourth and fifth questions were: “Have changes associated with digital technology and media convergence necessitated new ways of conceiving the relations between the city and the moving image?” and “How has your work in this area developed since you completed your chapter?” Our contributors’ responses are below.

Question 4

Joanna Page: The transformation of the home into a media centre has been seen by many as significant in increasing isolation within the city. While the rise of new media technologies is certainly transforming subjectivity and spectatorship, I believe it also creates new forms of sociability and shared affect that transcend the physical boundaries of place. I like Scott McQuire’s observation that media technology has brought about a profound “deterritorialization” of the home, meaning that what we perceive and experience within its walls is no longer contained by them. I think some of these recent changes demonstrate the need for new ways of approaching cinema and visual art within a media-saturated society, and specifically in the context of a city in which advertising is often a hyper-visible element of the built environment. In Argentina and Chile, the two countries I primarily focus on in my research, exhibition spaces are dominated by Hollywood imports with powerful marketing campaigns. Most national films rely heavily on state support and cannot hope to recoup their costs; directors therefore have the freedom and the incentive to find alternative distribution routes. A technology that might seem to have everything to do with the triumph of the private over the public, the global over the local, and with the constant incursion of advertising into audiovisual entertainment, can also become a powerful tool for the expression of a national culture, and the creation of a non-commercial space for film outside the gross inequities of global cinema distribution networks.

Christian Long: Clearly, cinema is less and less the key medium for encountering what cities look like and how they behave. I think a few apps will get at one of the changes I see. I’ll start topical, with Pokémon Go. The Brisbane River cuts Brisbane into the “north” and “south” suburbs, and the limited number of bridges makes it kind of a hassle to just pop across the river. Recently our neighbourhood foot traffic has increased, and I’m guessing that it has something to do with the Pokemon gym at the end of the street. Second, when I was in Dublin, I stayed with a friend in Bray but had obligations in the city. I used the Dublin Bus app to get around. On the one hand, it was great, I didn’t get lost. On the other hand, I didn’t get lost. What I see these apps doing is reconceiving the city in a way that opens parts of it up while simultaneously shuttering other parts. I guess Mediapolis audience wouldn’t mind if I said that apps like Pokémon Go and Dublin Busmake a dérive/drift through the city less likely because there’s something instrumental about what the apps seek to do. In terms of how this changes possible engagements with cities on film, it’s another example of how beginning-middle-end and/or serial narrative becomes the way in which to experience the city.

Igor Krstić: The digital revolution has spurred, among other things, a renewed interest in adaptation studies, in archives, memory and heritage studies, as well as in intermediality and transmedia phenomena. I have addressed such a transmedia project in my Global Cinematic Cities chapter, which particularly raises questions in regard to the new role of (social) “documentary” in the digital age. I am also interested in the enormous rise of subjective or “autobiographical documentaries” (or audiovisual self-portraits), which are also a result of the digital revolution. My postdoctoral research project asks how “accented” (exilic, diasporic, postcolonial) filmmakers depict their or their families’ migrant experiences. Historically, the work of the Lithuanian-American avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas is an extraordinary example, but today, in “the age of migration,” there is an unprecedented rise of migrant diary films, homecoming travelogues, filmed family reunions and so on. There also is a rise of what Iván Villarmea Álvarez called “urban self-portraits,” which invest in a kind of ‘autobiographical’ or ‘psychogeographical landscaping’ of citiyscapes – something that has already been done by Mekas with regard to New York. This autobiographical or “affective turn” in documentary film practice is perhaps a rather surprising result of the digital revolution, but it represents a good example of why the digital necessitates new ways of conceiving the relations between the city and the moving image.

Malini Guha: As a film studies scholar, changes in digital technology and media convergence have encouraged someone like me to view the moving image as something more than “cinema.” My future work on this subject has to engage with a much broader conceptualization of the moving image in relationship to the city.  At the same time, cities themselves are changing rapidly as a result of digital technologies, evidenced through smart city initiatives unfolding across the globe. Film and media scholars bring a much needed Humanities perspective to the work on smart cities conducted across other disciplines through their research on the digitalization of urban life. This research not only pertains to various forms of representation but also to numerous forms of sensory interaction with the urban environment facilitated through digital interfaces. As others have remarked, the “newnes”’ here has to do with a kind of intensification of the relationship of homology between city and cinema that constitutes the founding narrative of “the cinematic city,” so that the city and certain forms of screen based media are intertwined more than ever before.

Pei-Sze Chow: The distribution and exhibition opportunities fostered by new technologies and convergence has opened up a lot of questions about how the city is being (re)mediated, to whom, and by whom. What’s interesting to me is the way new content creators are emerging from all segments of society — the line between audience and author is increasingly being blurred. Here I’m thinking of artefacts like online fan fiction, shared hashtags that allow viewers of Nordic noir series to tweet along to each episode, or open platforms like hitRECord that invite people to co-create crossmedia content, personal documentaries on video sharing sites, assorted ephemera on social networking sites, just to name a few. In each case, real and imagined stories of the city can be told by so many different voices and broadcast on (relatively) open and global networks. Once again, however, I do have concerns about the segments of society who don’t have access to these new technological forms and who aren’t able to participate in these conversations. What happens to their voices? What happens to their stories of the city? Nevertheless, I think new modes of production and distribution offer new spaces and the potential for radical and formerly suppressed discourses to be seen and heard.

Question 5

Page: I have written two essays on neoliberalism and the State in Chilean film, to be published in companions to Latin American cinema. One of these picks up on ideas of the “creative city” and explores how we can read Play (Alicia Scherson, Chile, 2005) as a self-reflexive meditation on cinema as a form of immaterial labour in a mediatized city. However, I have mainly been working on a book (co-written with Edward King) on technology and the posthuman in the Latin American graphic novel. My research for that has developed in close dialogue with some of the theoretical approaches I explore in the chapter for Global Cinematic Cities, particularly picking up on the embodied nature of our interactions with media and their embeddedness in the material world.

Long: I’m still interested in geography and space, especially the relationships between fairly distant spaces. One project looks at how spy movies link distant corners of the globe through the figure of a spy operating in the shadows to maintain global order represent one of the most popularly-embraced narratives of the role of networks in maintaining economic, political, and military power. I’ve also started mapping the connections between diplomatic stations that the Wikileaks cables reveal, in conversation with the narratives of Hollywood spy movies like the Bourne series (2002-2016) – which I write about in The Global Cinematic City – and the Mission: Impossible series (1996-2015). I’m particularly interested in how post-911 Hollywood films, your Bournes and Mission: Impossibles, and also television shows like Homeland, make the dispersion of power legible to mass audiences: Where does the CIA focus its attention? What is the network behind the resources, people, and events worth monitoring at that location, both in fiction and in the real world?

Krstić: I thought a lot about methodologies lately, trying to bring together my undergraduate study of literary theory with my current interests in film and media. When it comes to the “cinematic city,” notions like allegory, text or palimpsest are still very useful. To give one example, there is a wonderful passage in Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which I read as an undergrad and has served me ever since as a “methodological” text. In it, the first-person narrator (the diary’s author) describes the facades of a rundown Parisian building in all its detail. He strips off layer after layer from the building’s facade to uncover its past lives, its long forgotten inhabitants, smells, colours, shapes, architecture and so on. These observations are filtered through the subjectivity of the diary’s author – his (middle-class) disgust and fascination with poverty, paired with some of his memories, some traumatic, others comic. The passage, in this way, simultaneously exposes the “present pasts” of modern Paris as well the enunciator’s (ideological, emotional, gendered) perspective. For Rilke, urban landscapes are as much subjective (or psychogeographic) as they are architectural and layered (or palimpsestic). This is something which, I believe, many contemporary filmmakers are equally aware of.

Guha: My chapter for this book constitutes a portion of the scholarship that I have been working on for the last few years. At the moment, I am thinking more carefully about the role and significance of location shooting across this corpus of work.  More precisely, I am interested in how location shot images of Kolkata are altered in particular ways amongst some of these films in their projection of a city that doesn’t exist as such in the contemporary moment. These images of the city disavow Kolkata’s popular identity as ‘city of the crowd’ in their often empty, streamlined presentation of urban spaces. As such, I am currently exploring the way in which location shot imagery functions as the basis for depictions of Kolkata that moves beyond document or testimony towards representations that signify with respect to the aspirations, desires and anxieties shaping contemporary debates about the future of the city.

Haynes: This historical moment is unpredictable and dramatic and I feel compelled to keep following the story as it unfolds. I’ve just finished another book chapter about it, this one working with the formal/informal economy binary. And I’ve organized a panel for the next African Studies Association meeting, bringing together some favorite colleagues working on various dimensions of this big multifaceted story, which has a lot of players of various kinds. My topic for that occasion and for some time afterwards will be iROKOtv, the edgiest intervener in the Nigerian media economy. I read business news a lot more than I used to. At some point I’ll shift my emphasis from industrial themes to interpreting films. As always, it’s hard to find the time to watch enough of Nollywood’s enormous output to be able to recognize trends with any certainty.

Chow: I am developing an empirically based postdoctoral project on mapping the screen-industrial ecosystem of Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, where new media forms and initiatives are emerging in dialogue with the landscape and geography of the peripheral region. A project like this can be daunting, especially as I am dealing with not only film and media texts, but also the territory’s regional politics, location studies, tourism, and production studies. In addition: Bron/Broen (2011-) is like the gift that never stops giving. I am in the midst of an essay about a comprehensive Bron/Broen exhibition in Malmö Museum’s Science and Maritime House, particularly the place of the fictional text in the city’s cultural heritage. I’m interested in how the city has claimed the TV series as a bona fide artefact of Malmö’s cultural identity, and how the urban landscape — simultaneously real and non-existent — functions as a canvas upon which narratives about the city’s past, present, and future are etched. I’m also involved in a multidisciplinary project with urban planners, architects, and media scholars from University College London and Malmö University looking at the production of symbolic spaces and charismatic places in the city. My interest in this is the ways that screens (film, television, advertising, mobile phones) mediate the encounters between the city’s inhabitants and the built environment. We hope to produce an edited collection of essays in the first half of 2017.

[Global Cinematic Cities is available in the UK on Sept. 7 and in the US on Sept. 13]

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