While conceiving a new upper-level Cinema and the City course offering for Marymount Manhattan College undergraduates in the midst of the pandemic and during the Black Lives Matter protests, I decided to keep the course focused on the United States with an emphasis on the role that urban development has played in racial and economic inequality and the ways these issues have been depicted—or neglected—on screen. To introduce students to the relationships among cinema, architecture, and urban planning, the course opened with a unit on twentieth century New York as seen through avant-garde film (e.g. Marie Menken’s Go! Go! Go!, Francis Thompson’s NY., NY.), street photography/documentary (Levitt, Loeb, and Agee’s In the Streets) and famed mid-century Hollywood depictions of New York such as The Naked City (Dassin, 1948) and Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954). At the same time, we read urban theorists including Michel de Certeau and Jane Jacobs, and scholarship on the cinematic city by Giuliana Bruno, Pam Wojcik, Paula Massood, and others. From there, we explored 1970s crisis-era cinema with a visit from Nathan Holmes to discuss his book Welcome to Fear City (I also borrowed from Holmes’s shared syllabus for my course design), and shifted to a more explicit focus on the racialized city. We also expanded beyond New York to consider issues of access and mobility in Los Angeles (pairing Todd Haynes’s 1995 Safe with Mike Davis’s “Fortress L.A.” was a favorite week), Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and white (housing) privilege with Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992), and San Francisco’s creative city hyper-development with Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy (2008) paired with Rebecca Solnit’s Hollow City. The class concluded with a consideration of digital global cities, the post-pandemic city, and urban futures, including discussions of Lawrence Webb’s essay on Her and excerpts of Germaine Halegoua’s The Digital City.
Since so many Mediapolis contributors—as well as my own role as the journal’s reviews editor—played an important role in the development of the course, I wanted to encourage some of the Cinema and the City students to make their own contributions to the journal’s Student Voices section. Given the added difficulties of (another) remote semester, I designed scaffolded assignments that allowed students to focus and develop a topic or area of interest that could potentially result in publication. The first assignment was an “urban spectators and cinetourism” short essay plus visual presentation, which offered students the option of examining the cinematic city in a film or TV series of their choice using Giuliana Bruno’s concepts of cinema tourism and the voyeur/ voyageur, de Certeau’s “Walking the City,” and/ or the figure of the urban detective. Though students had options for a final project, most chose to use the feedback from the “urban spectators and cinetourism” assignment to revise and expand the project into a final essay that allowed for a more in-depth analysis. For the revision, students were asked to incorporate concepts from the second half of the course (gentrification, urban redevelopment, etc.) and original research on the media texts and cities central to their project. The final papers were impressive and often surprising in scope—ranging from Seinfeld’s 1990s apartment plot to the messy, complicated flanerie of Kids. Though only a couple of the students had the ability to revise for publication during yet another challenging semester, there were several worthy contenders (perhaps there will be a part II!).
Will Smith and Sasha Nater, the two authors who made it to this final publication stage, showcase the immense talent and creative engagement of the MMC students who participated in the class. Interestingly, both focus on female urban exploration, but in very different contexts. In “Different Places! Real and Hyperreal Las Vegas in Showgirls,” Smith turns to postmodern Las Vegas of the 1990s in order to brilliantly relate Nomi of Showgirls to the figure of the nineteenth century “badaud” (urban gawker). Smith’s essay provides a necessary reconsideration of both the urban cinematic gaze and Paul Verhoeven’s notorious cult classic. In “The Millenial Flaneuse as seen on Broad City,” Nater considers how both economic precarity and digital access contribute to the trajectory of the series’ twenty-something female protagonists, Abbi and Ilana, as they—two underemployed, broke millennials—navigate New York City of the 2010s. As a young twenty-something also living in the overpriced city, Nater offers both an experientially and theoretically-informed analysis of the ways in which Abbi and Ilana find freedom “walking the city” through their many transgressions of rules, regulations, and expectations.
You can download the syllabus for Noelle Griffis’ Fall 2020 Cinema & the City course here: Cinema & the City, Fall 2020 SyllabusTo read Noelle Griffis’ assignment for this course that served as the basis for the student contributions, click here: Urban Spectators Assignment, Fall 2020
Noelle Griffis is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Arts at Marymount Manhattan College. Griffis received her PhD from Indiana University in 2018. Her dissertation, “Filmmaking to Save a City in Crisis: New York on Location, 1966-1973,” examines filmmaking culture during Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration and the creation of New York’s first policy to encourage feature production on location. Noelle has published in Black Camera and her work appears in the edited volumes Hollywood on Location (Rutgers UP, 2019) and Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Duke UP, 2019). She is also the Reviews Editor for Mediapolis.