No Cities to Love: The Urban as Population, not People

Still from La Haine
[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In this post I explore how the city is mediated in cinema to construct it as a “lost space” for the operations of the polis, marked by decay, contagion, vice, and affective deadening. Such mediated representations of the city help explain why it was the case that in 2016 the city, though quantitatively a guarantor for greater popular support for Clinton, it could not figure in public imaginaries as a space for authentic populism. In the wake of the election, one primary narrative that gained purchase was of rural revanchism- the urban/rural divide. But this accounting precludes scrutiny of the larger economic and social processes that link the history of the city to that of the suburb, and the rural.

Such cinematic mediation of the city accords with a longstanding approach in urban studies and critical theory, largely shaped by sociologist Georg Simmel’s 1903 work, The Metropolis and Mental Life. He writes that the plural and intense sensorial textures of the city works on the individual psyche as a kind of battering ram that strikes the organism  in a rapid, uneven, and unceasing rhythm. This, Simmel marks, is absolutely different than the temporality of small town and rural life, which is marked by a “slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase” and so the organism must respond via desensitization: the blasé attitude.1Georg Simmel, “The metropolis and mental life.” (1903), p. 11-14 Viewing the city as populated by the psychic dead leaves little space to imagine the works and aspirations of a so-called people.

Yet, within four very different, historically distinct, films we see the thesis of the city as space or ruin problematized, instead pointing to possible connections, a shared challenge that faces the city, the suburb, and the small town. M, The Truman Show, The Last Picture Show, and La Haine all point to the different ways in which contagion or danger corrupts the city from the perspective of the modern city, the 20th century suburb, the 20th century dying rural town, and the 20th century global city. In each of the films the urban appears or is referenced, either implicitly or explicitly, as a space of malaise, danger, corruption, or intensity. However, the suburban and the rural are not free from such threats, and in fact, all are connected.

M: The Modern City

In Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M we see a child murderer (Peter Lorre) at work in a city and culture that are both pathological. Mothers fail at their duties. Crowds are drunk and lascivious. The city is a site of danger and risk in which children—the pure—are inherently at risk. Why is the city so dangerous? Perhaps because the urban has eroded the ties of kinship and town-folk linkages as gemeinschaft is replaced by gessellchaft. The deep, “natural,” and intimate are replaced by the surface, the commodity form, and by chance. As Becker, the child murderer, notes, he cannot predict his violent urges. Such compulsions are subject to the roll of the dice, or the unpredictability that generates the deadened urban psyche. This kind of fearful space can be seen as an antecedent to later imperatives, municipal and otherwise, to flee the city for the suburb.

The Truman Show: The Idyllic Suburb

In The Truman Show we are introduced to a supposedly ideal suburb. Truman, a child, has been adopted by a network in order to provide a 24 hour, seven-day-a-week, experience of watching “a life” emerge “authentically.” In the mystical place called “Seahaven” Truman is offered “safety”: freedom from fear of being hurt. The film stages the fantasies of suburban life that Setha Low charts as animating the construction of gated communities.2Setha M. Low, “The edge and the center: Gated communities and the discourse of urban fear.” American anthropologist 103, no. 1 (2001): 45-58.

The movie came out in 1998, so it was at the end of the housing boom that Delores Hayden charts as part of the production of the suburban in the American landscape. Hayden argues that suburbia is the product of private developer lobbying and federal incentives. The suburbia we are left with today, where sprawl, consumption, and privatization are animating characteristics, was the contingent outcome of pressure from figures like Joseph McCarthy, who saw the privately developed single family home as the antidote to communism. Suburban development is intimately related to race and class oppressions—most “proper” home-owners are white and male, and places like Levittown (when built) deliberate excluded non-Caucasian people.3Dolores Hayden. Building suburbia: Green fields and urban growth, 1820-2000 (Vintage, 2009). In the Truman show, the suburb is free from such contradictions, and within the space of the film we are shown “fan” practices that make it clear public investments in a nostalgic model of the suburb are alive and well

And yet, it is also pernicious. Truman’s wife is basically a walking infomercial. Her sunny, highly feminized, white character allows her to serve as avatar and proponent of suburban consumerism. Behind her “pep,” however, is a threat about the need, and indeed, the requirement to consume: they are shackled by debt for their car, their mortgage, and other unknown items, and she says, ominously, that they don’t want to be where they were “five years ago.”

So, we have the dual menace of economic failure and social danger (presumably from social heterogeneity and contingency: the specter of the city as a space of chance and pathology). Indeed, the vague references to “safety” that the show designer, Cristof (Ed Harris), references, and audience attachments to the happy go lucky space of Seaside are two sides of the same coin insofar as both are about an investment in forgetting how suburban sites are the product of deliberate capitalist and racist practices.

The Last Picture Show: The Fading Small Town

A 2007 Texas Observer article noted that the town where The Last Picture Show was shot in 1971, Archer, Texas, is now becoming the ghost town that the film envisioned decades before. This reading seems to echo academic treatments of the film, which figure it as an elegy for the “loss of the iconic Westerner as well as the passage of his home place, the Old West.”4Grayson Holmes, Leo Zonn, and Altha J. Cravey, “Placing man in the New West: Masculinities of the Last Picutre Show,” Geojournal 59(2004): 277. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), who dies but also prefigures his own death by narrating his loss of land, of vitality, of youth, points to the loss of a central figure for Western masculinity. More than a loss of a certain Western ideal, it also mirrors some of the decay at work in M: the blasé attitude, vulnerable youth, and attenuated agency all erode the ties of intimacy and proximity that would seem to constitute the town.

In the film, two of the main characters, co-captains of the football team Sonny Crawford and Duane Johnson, do not provide the Friday Night Lights escape of Texas football—they constantly lose and are berated by almost all adult men for their failure to “Even tackle.” Sonny is hard to read: the blasé attitude has migrated from the city to the town. Sonny and Duane build their social life around the pool hall, the restaurant, and the movie theater (and the pickup truck, to some extent). However, these spaces are limited, constraining, and against heroic figures of western masculinity as avatars for untrammeled mobility they seem stuck, unable to go more than a few miles (or feet) outside the limits. Children, perhaps figured by Sam’s son Billy, are also doomed. Subject to sexual violation and struck and killed by a long distance truck, he figures a lack of space for innocents in a barren and violent wasteland.

The film is a story about aspiration, limits, scarcity, and stuckness. We see a car that says “Class of 1952 or Bust” but the answer is already given: bust. The city is not present as an entity except in the vague reference to “Dallas…there must be a lot to do there.”

La Haine: The Contemporary Global City

La Haine, released in 1995, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, reflects on a period of marked instability in France, during which there were a rash of shootings and bombings, possibly related to the Algerian war; riots in the early 1990s; and massive strikes resulting from Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s austerity policies. The film represents la banlieue (the suburb, or projects) to a mainstream French audience. Jean-Marie Le Pen called for Kassovitz to be sent to jail as a result of the film. La Haine was filmed in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, affordable housing that is a work of 1960s modernist brutalism like many of the Habitation à Loyer Modéré (HLM).

In the film we are presented with three youths; an Arab, an African, and a Jew, who both spend their days inventing (making do) in inhospitable modernist architecture; hustling; and trying, in different ways, to deal with the rage and fear they experience from being socially and spatially excluded, ghettoized. The police are the primary object of hate, evident in the opening footage of riots against the cops, and then the opening to the film-proper where Saïd writes: “fuck the police.”

The space of the HLM is one of complexity. Rooftops are turned into social clubs complete with couches and a hot-dog vendor, but still never completely belong to the youth: though the local police/landlord are chased away, they later return and murder Vinz (and likely, Hubert). One’s right to space is precarious. We are also given to understand that there are complex intergenerational networks in play. Residents hawk products, sew clothes, spin records, and paint walls. So, though, in the spatial imagination of Paris the HLM is a non-place, or, like many minority neighborhoods for those in affluent white suburbs in the U.S., “a million miles away,”5Eugene J. McCann, “Race, protest, and public space: Contextualizing Lefebvre in the US city.” Antipode 31, no. 2 (1999): 163-184. it is presented in the film as stubbornly present: a lived space where many collaborate to survive.

City Cinema and Social Imaginaries

Given over a hundred years of urban theory and decades of cinema that read the city as the epicenter of a crisis of modernity, it is not surprising that it was difficult for the left to figure the urban as a space for popular sovereignty. In the films outlined above the urban is not where “the people” live, it is where fragmented individuals scramble for subsistence and negotiate different kinds of danger, and where mobs and crowds satisfy appetitive drives. In these four films the city is represented as a space of social decay; unseen but dangerous threat; a kind of parasite that absorbs and makes obsolete the town; and place of social division, anomie, segmentation, and powerlessness. Such representations of the urban are typical, and represent ongoing ambivalence about or even refusal of the potential of the city to be a place for social fecundity, agency, and collaborative world making.

Though many factors contributed to the 2016 election results, I think what bears considering is that, more than a simple urban-rural divide, the social production of the city, the suburb, and the rural are interrelated such that some of the problems dogging the modern city also inform the construction and makeup of the suburb, and the frequent neglect or colonization of the rural. Our response to the election going forward must be multiple, including organizing, educating, and insisting on policy changes that are about collective well-being instead of privileging individualistic frameworks for subjectivity and corporate interests. Cinema can also provide a heuristic through which we can track the way in which the urban has been constructed as a site of impossibility. By analyzing such practices, we can reconstruct stories about the interdependence between the urban, rural and suburban, and imagine new frameworks for collective action and justice.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Georg Simmel, “The metropolis and mental life.” (1903), p. 11-14
2. Setha M. Low, “The edge and the center: Gated communities and the discourse of urban fear.” American anthropologist 103, no. 1 (2001): 45-58.
3. Dolores Hayden. Building suburbia: Green fields and urban growth, 1820-2000 (Vintage, 2009).
4. Grayson Holmes, Leo Zonn, and Altha J. Cravey, “Placing man in the New West: Masculinities of the Last Picutre Show,” Geojournal 59(2004): 277.
5. Eugene J. McCann, “Race, protest, and public space: Contextualizing Lefebvre in the US city.” Antipode 31, no. 2 (1999): 163-184.


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