On Teaching: The Cinematic City

Still from God's Horses (Nabil Anouch, 2012)
In this issue's On Teaching feature, Floris Paalman introduces a graduate seminar he taught on cinematic cities, and reflects on some of the lessons learned.
[Ed. note: In our On Teaching series, we invite professors who have taught courses that engage with issues related to cities and culture to contribute their syllabi to the site, and to share with our readers some reflections on how the course went. Click here to download a copy of Paalman’s syllabus, and to view other posts in the series, visit its archives.]

Multiple relations between the city and cinema trigger the imaginations of practitioners and students alike, while holding strong epistemological promise. As a reflexive medium, film may reveal a hidden layer and offer a heightened awareness of contemporary urban culture. It enables students to delve into the symbolic construction of our environment, hitting both cognitive strings and laying bare the conditions of our modern world. A course on the cinematic city may therefore be a popular elective, but an elective indeed. It will remain a topic among many when merely the representation of urban space is considered. The challenge is ontological.


After teaching various undergraduate courses on media and the city, I taught a research seminar on “The Cinematic City” in the international MA in Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam, in the fall of 2012 and again in 2013, to fourteen students in total. Such a two-month seminar is obligatory, but students can choose from a few topics. Initially, the backbone of the course, introduced by a general lecture, was Shiel and Fitzmaurice’s book Cinema and the City (2001).1Shiel, Mark and Tony Fitzmaurice, eds. Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Society in a Global Context. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. This edited volume provided an outline of contemporary issues and a horizon for further exploration. First of all, Shiel has proposed a quadrangular division of the relationship between cinema and the city: thematically (urban representations in films), formally (correspondences between medium and urban space), intellectually (understanding of modernity), and industrially (city for film industry). Beyond representation, this perspective provided a theoretical fundament to think about, as I would call it, the socio-spatial ontology of film, hence its position within society, embedded in spatial structures, in order to rethink the relationship between cinema and reality. Fitzmaurice, elaborating on this premise, has extended it to globalization, with cities being its motors, culturally propelled by cinema while reflecting upon it simultaneously. Besides essays about well-known cinematic cities, the book contains case studies of cities such as Lagos, Manila, and Port Elizabeth. Every week we discussed the book in class, with screenings of clips from films mentioned in it and additional ones (e.g. Honigmann’s Metal & Melancholy and Ayouch’ God’s Horses). It provided a framework for additional reading: students selected, reviewed and presented articles themselves. Critically reviewing articles prepared students to write an extensive review of a relevant book of their own choosing. (Hardly any student had read a full academic book before!) While doing so, they reflected upon the review as an academic genre, and its links with review essays and introductory chapters, which also provided an overview of references, issues, arguments, and discussions.

Metal and Melancholy (Heddy Honigmann,1993)
Metal and Melancholy (Heddy Honigmann,1993), Lima

Students were invited to relate the readings to their own observations. For another course I had done an experiment myself to show students that theoretical concepts and claims become concrete when applying them to one’s surroundings. For a lecture on genre I had taken a quote from Gill Branston: “Our cultural knowledge of media genres is woven into the very texture of our everyday lives….”2Branston, Gill. “Understanding Genre.” Analysing Media Texts. eds. Marie Gillespie, Jason Toynbee. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006: 44. I tested this claim by walking around the block where I live, just outside the center of Amsterdam, looking for references to media genres and related social signs. With a sample of more than fifteen references (e.g. window decoration, posters, stickers, public screens, even a car modeled after a television show), the claim seemed to have validity. However, I was actually surprised that so many media references appeared to exist within a tiny part of the city. I elaborated on this experiment with students, repeating the method, walking around the university, but now to see how Shiel’s quadrangular division might help to structure observations and put them in perspective. The result: the thematic category implied the recognition of spots from films – such as Rain (Joris Ivens, 1929), which we watched together – as well as phenomena and themes typical for representations of Amsterdam; the formal relationship included ways of perceiving the city, in terms of sounds, perspectives, windows (framing), rhythm, sequences, and assemblages; the third, dealing with intellectual traditions, was basically self-reflexive, regarding our own presence in the city; the industry, finally, was present through all kinds of media equipment, venues, and marketing features. Students were subsequently asked to set up their own experiments, taking a theoretical idea as starting point. In this way students did dérives, kept psychogeographical diaries, made film essays, attended location shoots, analyzed films by comparing sets or scenes to actual sites, or traced histories of theatres.3See Course Guide for details. For psychogeopgraphy and the method of the dérive: Debord, Guy. “Theory of the Dérive.” Originally published in French in: Les Lèvres Nues #9 (1956). Situationist International Online. Trans. Ken Knabb. 22 June 2016. < http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/theory.html> They analyzed their experiment, put it into perspective, and related it to the literature. Students received detailed feedback. If they thought I had overlooked aspects, I allowed them to object the grade and write a motivation. Some used this possibility (not formalized in the syllabus), which turned out to be a valuable reflective exercise.

God's Horses (Nabil Ayouch, 2012)
God’s Horses (Nabil Ayouch, 2012)
established discourse

While students appreciated the course as it was in 2012 – especially the review assignments and the experiment, which I wanted to keep the next time – I also had the impression that knowledge about the field remained fragmented. To provide more of an overview for the seminar in 2013, I turned to the historical development of the relationship between cinema and the city and the scholarly engagement with it, including its polemics. Such an overview also required extra viewings. I supposed that students were familiar with films such as Berlin, Man with the Movie Camera, and Metropolis, and I also left it to them to watch e.g. Rome, Open City, Kiss Me Deadly, Playtime, Bladerunner, or films featuring Gotham or Galactic City. More importantly, rather than reaffirming a canon, I preferred to show alternative cinematic expressions concerning the city, including (locally made and unknown) non-fiction films. While keeping Shiel and Fitzmaurice’s introductory chapters, I looked for literature that reflected the development of the discourse, while providing access to different films.

Charlotte Brunsdon’s article “The Attractions of the Cinematic City” (2012) was helpful.4Brunsdon, Charlotte. “The Attractions of the Cinematic City.” Screen 53.3 (2012). 209-227. It offers an historiographical review of the literature – or, more precisely, books published between 1990 and 2010 – which gives students the desired overview. At the same time, however, it is a meta-analysis, answering the question why the cinematic city has become increasingly attractive to scholars from different disciplines. Brunsdon notices a dominant discourse reiterating literary figures (e.g. flâneur, stranger) and ideas about modernity, with references to Benjamin and Baudrillard and thinking in binary terms, such as utopia and dystopia, while relying upon canonical films and genres such as the city symphony and science fiction. This discourse, according to Brunsdon, lacks specificity, regarding both films and cities, and neglects other genres, such as the musical. This situation, she argues, is inherent to the cross-disciplinary character of the discourse. The reason that different disciplines have become interested is that the cultural importance and status of film have risen; within the competitive neo-liberal academic climate various curricula therefore offer film courses, and the cinematic city is especially suitable for that. In order to regain specificity and observe complexity, Brunsdon calls for other kinds of films, and promotes film analysis, drawing upon the achievements of film studies. While Brunsdon provides an overview, her take is also difficult for students who still have to get acquainted with the academic tropes, before they can reject them.

Rather than retreating to disciplinary confines and bypassing the existing discourse altogether, I took it as a challenge to trace a longer historical development of the scholarly engagement with the cinematic city.5Paalman, Floris. “The Theoretical Appearance of the City Symphony.” Eselsohren: Journal of the History of Art, Architecture and Urbanism 2.1-2 (2014): 13-27. Moreover, I found irony in the fact that Brunsdon had only reviewed books, potentially leaving out her own article from historiography, and for the fact that scholars are urged, by the same neo-liberal logic, to publish ever more articles. Of course, widening the scope makes it an ambitious endeavor, and selection is necessary.

Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)

Rethinking the syllabus for 2013, I started with a reflection upon the notion of the “cinematic city,” coined by David Clarke as the title of his seminal book from 1997 (which is at the core of the discourse criticized by Brunsdon).6Clarke, David B., ed. The Cinematic City. London: Routledge, 1997. I included the introduction of this book in the syllabus, and the discussion it had sparked through reviews, first of all that of Deborah Parsons.7Parsons, Deborah. “Urban Montage” [review of The Cinematic City]. Film-Philosophy 3.39 (1999). Online (22 June 2016) <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n39parsons>. She remarks that the notion of  the “cinematic city” is not well-defined. Elaborating on Parsons, I’d say it may refer to a city in film, or one that exists just in film (an imaginary city); it might be a city to be understood through the logic of cinema, sharing features with media; it even may just refer to a dynamic city, or a city with many cinemas or screens, or a place for media production. All of them together may actually account for the attractiveness of the notion, but as Shiel’s division shows, it implies different registers. Rather than presenting a clear cut definition to students, we discussed this problem. I suggested a genealogical approach: the first time the notion was mentioned was in “The Cinematic City of the Future,” a Fortune review of the film Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930), which features an imaginary New York.8Fortune. “The Cinematic City of the Future.” Fortune #2, October 1930: 129. None of my students had ever heard of the film. It is not part of the cinematic city canon, although it belongs to the science fiction genre, but also to that of, indeed, the musical.

For the revised seminar, now with a historiographical backbone, I selected texts representing different periods and research strands. I will briefly mention them here; for the overall design I refer to the syllabus. Just Imagine served as the first step to rethink the discourse’s foundational philosophy. Next came one of the first scholarly essays focused on cinema and the city: Flora Schreiber’s “New York: A Cinema Capital” (1953), describing the production of non-theatrical and non-fiction films, to understand how they are embedded in a particular environment. Schreiber mentions various films made in New York, including some about New York, which I took for viewing in class, e.g. Edison’s Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), Steiner and Van Dyke’s The City (1939), Thompson’s phantasmagoric New York, New York (1957; in progress in 1953), and for comparison, the sponsored film And a Voice Shall Be Heard (1951, Jack Glenn), showing a geographically related but different city, Syracuse.9Schreiber, Flora Rheta. “New York: A Cinema Capital.” The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television 7.3 (1953): 264-273. Glenn’s film was made for General Electric to show the importance of communication, made available through the Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady, NY. 22 June 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYpz0Zu4GpY>

A different strand emerged with the publication of Howard Weiner’s article “The Cinema and the City” in 1970. He starts with the words: “The motion picture appeared on the scene as the Western World groped toward a new urban consciousness. Cinematic images have thus become one of the great historic records of that effort. At the same time, the dissemination of films has played a role in the development of that very consciousness.”10Weiner, Howard R. “The Cinema and the City.” Journal of Popular Culture 3.4 (1970): 825-831. Weiner stresses the importance of the subject and speculatively touches upon the core of the discourse on modernity and the history of the twentieth century. He then gives an inventory of titles and describes tropes and trends. This work, focused on representation, has been continued by others, whereas the speculative argument about the importance has been taken for granted. It holds a promise for the subject to take a central position in the debate on modern culture, which has been appealing to many. This is, however, an ontological assumption that still needs to be substantiated.

To discuss historical inquiry I included William Uricchio’s research from 1982 on Ruttmann’s Berlin,11For the syllabus I chose an article from 1988, which is basically an extract from Uricchio’s earlier research, i.e. Uricchio, William. “Ruttmann’s and the City Film to 1930.” Unpublished Diss. (PhD). New York University, New York, 1982. as an early study of a cinematic metropolis, albeit rooted in a discussion on the documentary and formal representation of reality. I also selected Giuliana Bruno’s historiographical, feminist study from 1993 on the work and life of Elivira Notari and Naples.12Bruno, Giuliana. Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. As Bruno demonstrates, much of Notari’s work is missing, raising epistemological questions of cultural oblivion and biases. We discussed these alongside a screening of her film A Santanotte (1922). Finally, I highlighted the strand of cinema and architecture, through Anthony Vidler’s “The Explosion of Space” (1993).13Vidler, Anthony. “The Explosion of Space: Architecture and the Filmic Imaginary.” Assemblage 21 (1993): 44-59. As a scholarly field it emerged in the 1990s, fueled by the digital revolution. Discussions on condensation of time and space and problems of referentiality triggered a renewed interest in the relationship between image and space, and perception and materiality. This spatial turn has been a grounding corollary to explorations into the digital future, providing a basis for an ontological understanding.

And a Voice Will Be Heard (Jack Glenn, 1951)
And a Voice Will Be Heard (Jack Glenn, 1951)

In this seminar I have made an attempt to discuss both the representation and conditions of the cinematic city. In both years, 2012 and 2013, students carried out experiments, which enabled them to connect theory to their own observations, to relate images to concrete spaces, and to discover the dynamics regulating this relationship. It has, moreover, stimulated engagement, and an awareness of their own “being in the world.” The review assignments have been similarly successful in terms of didactics, even though the final book review consumes much of the required study load. The book review is of general importance too, especially as a preparation for writing an MA thesis. Such factors should be taken into consideration as well.

About the shift I made from contemporary issues in 2012 to an historiographical approach the next year, I am less certain. Elaborating on Brunsdon may have amplified the review character of the course and it may have provided a sense of specificity and a better understanding of problems and trajectories, to establish the ontological synthesis I had in mind. But a meta-critical historiography of the discourse is quite demanding. Moreover, students had not come to Amsterdam to learn about the cinematic city in the first place. One can therefore wonder if it makes sense to bring in obsolete texts and films, which might be of no relevance in any other context. However, I believe it triggered curiosity and a critical engagement with research and theory, discovering the unknown and new potentials. An ideal version of the course, I think, may use selections of known and unknown historical articles to augment a single book that provides an overview of contemporary debates and approaches. In this way, we can connect representation to the socio-spatial conditions of existence, in order to perceive the cinematic city as a prime subject to understand today’s world.

Regarding screenings, I mainly showed clips from (unknown) films mentioned in the texts. However, many canonical films (and established concepts) were not yet known. A required list, with a selection of canonical and unknown titles, possibly together with a (film) review assignment, might therefore still be desirable. Such a list would include ‘other’ cinematic cities too, as reflected by many recent studies. When speaking about city symphonies, film noir, science fiction, musicals, or sponsored films, and the spatial configurations, communities and industries that enabled them, it seems that much has been done in comparable ways across the globe, yet within different conditions, with different parameters. This still has to be discovered. After all, research and education are complementary, and students might become actively involved in this, possibly through joint experimentation.

Still from God’s Horses (Nabil Ayouch, 2012), Casablanca


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