The Mediapolis Q&A: Erica Stein’s Seeing Symphonically

Bridges-Go-Round (Shirley Clarke, 1958)
Erica Stein discusses her book, Seeing Symphonically: Avant-Garde Film, Urban Planing, and the Utopian Image of New York, with Paula J. Massood.

In the latest installment of the Mediapolis Q&A, Paula J. Massood moderates a discussion with Erica Stein, author of Seeing Symphonically: Avant-Garde Film, Urban Planning, and the Utopian Image of New York (SUNY Press, 2021).

Paula J. Massood: First, I’ve been enjoying reading Seeing Symphonically. It’s been inspiring for my own work on Shirley Clarke, which has taken a detour in terms of city symphonies in the last month or two, especially in the chapter that I’m currently writing because I was thinking about Hans Richter. When I got your book, I started seeing really interesting connections. So, I just want to say that your work is already inspiring researchers like me.

Erica Stein: That’s awesome, thank you!

Massood: The first thing I wanted to ask you might be sort of mundane, but I’m really interested in the answer. What was the film or films that first inspired you on this line of research?

Stein: When I was first working on this project in grad school, I arrived at city symphonies as part of a survey of utopian and dystopian representations of the city. In part because city symphony cycles tend to historically and geographically map onto places and moments where the city is undergoing rapid redefinition and redevelopment, they’re often talked about in those terms, with canonic texts from the 1920s–30s European cycle like Man With a Movie Camera coming in for criticism because of an allegedly naïve utopian outlook, and generic boundaries enforced by excluding city symphonies with a critical or dystopian perspective, as with The City. The film is indeed quite critical (at least in terms of its voiceover) of extant cities, especially New York, but it was also commissioned by the American Institute of Planners to promote regional planning policies at the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair. The AIP and regional planning in particular, and the urbanism on view at the World’s Fair in general, are historically associated with the kind of top-down, totalizing mid-century planning that both supporters and detractors talk about as utopian. That really interested me, especially because the city symphony cycle that overlapped with this period is consistently talked about as “empty” in its utopianism, sort of like apolitical or even pernicious boosterism of urban capital. The more I considered mid-century planning in New York and mid-century New York city symphonies together, the more I found the films to articulate an anti-capitalist opposition to the dominant forms of urban development and redevelopment of the time. This even extends to The City, where the editing consistently undercuts the paean to regional planning that the voiceover articulates, and instead celebrates an embodied, multiethnic urbanism in its New York scenes. That was the starting point, and from there I worked on theorizing city symphonies in relation to utopia and historicizing them in a way that tried to make sense of generic disjunctions and continuities, particularly between the best-known cycle, the 1920s European films, which tend to be centered in most discussions of the form, and the New York cycle, which runs from 1939 to 1964.

Massood: I want to go back to the connection between European and New York city symphonies. In 1939 there were a number of European expats and refugees in New York (and Los Angeles), not only producing theory but also producing experimental work and city symphonies, and influencing New York filmmakers as well. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that moment in time.

Stein: I have a jump in the book from 1939 to the postwar period because one of the things I was really interested in was institutions and creative communities, so my chronology goes from World’s Fair urban planning films like The City to Cinema16 and the city symphonies that coalesce around it starting in 1948, but in between one of the most important city symphony directors is Rudy Burckhardt, who’s a Swiss-German immigrant. His work provides a fascinating connection because on the one hand he has an early film that is a direct parody of 1920s European film conventions, and on the other his later films use a strikingly different organizational logic and are clearly influenced by the New York street photography tradition. So, you keep a lot of the expected, recognizable montage and interest in social typology in later city symphonies but also start getting a very different selection of sites that make you think through the film’s structure as almost a problem to be solved, as in Burckhardt’s Climate of New York, where the climate is really about the various types of human connection.

Massood: What do you think of the Soviet influence as well on the filmmakers in the late ’40s in New York?

Stein: It’s absolutely there even if you just think about what these directors are watching and are influenced by, and certainly the way someone like Lionel Rogosin is using montage is based in dialectic theories of how contradictions within and between shots are worked out and work on the audience. At Cinema 16, Amos Vogel’s programming utilizes a dialectic logic, which included the many city symphonies they screened and discussed, and you can even see the films reference and relate to one another in terms of techniques, sites, and concepts.

Massood: As you were talking, I began thinking about City College, CUNY, where, at the lead of Hans Richter, filmmakers like Joris Ivens were brought in to teach workshops.

Filmstudie (Hans Richter, 1926)

Stein: Right, and Clarke and Ian Hugo are taking film classes there.

Massood: Yeah, and they’re working on documentary form and theory, but Ivens also really has this hybrid aesthetic that I think you see in a lot of the city symphonies, too. That’s why I was asking about European influences because there’s a way in which this kind of hybridity is being worked out that’s also coming from their literal or intellectual connections to someone like Eisenstein and the workshops they were doing in Europe before coming to New York where they created similar workshops, Cinema 16 and so on, that became creative centers. I love this moment in time for that vibrancy and that mix, which results in this shift where eventually you have this very New York thing and the films they make are not the same as the earlier city symphonies even though there are all these shared connections.

Stein: Absolutely, it becomes a tradition that’s very internal to New York and influenced by other movements in the city, but it’s also drawing from all these other traditions and it highlights the way that the city encompasses these global currents. It also strikes me that this is a useful complication of something I talked about in the book, which is Samuel Zipp’s argument that in the midcentury New York is the face that America shows the world as the triumph of capital and as a global, rather than national capital, but at the same time there are all these anxieties about New York as an anti-American space or this space that’s different from the rest of the country.

Massood: I was thinking about these kinds of transformations, because, in The City Symphony Phenomenon, they talk about whether the city symphony is a genre. In my own writing I’m working through this, because it would be so clean and easy to call it a genre, but is it? What do you think?

Stein: In City Symphony Phenomenon they use Rick Altman’s semantic/syntactic model to argue for generic status, and one of the reasons I’m very comfortable with assessing the films as a genre is because of what Altman calls pragmatics. That is, how is this functioning on an institutional and reception level? How are these films being produced, distributed, exhibited, and consumed with reference to one another? In the case of the films I study, people are responding to one another’s city symphonies, audience expectations are set with reference to older films, distributors market the films under the label “city symphonies,” etc. This also links to one of my larger claims, which is that if you accept the idea that city symphonies appear at and participate in times and places where the definition of the urban is being renegotiated, then the question should not be “why doesn’t this Singaporean film from 2017 look like this German film from 1928?” The question becomes, “how are the differences instructive?” Or, what are the forces that have compelled this intervention into and remaking of the city symphony genre and how has that remaking of the genre enabled us to think through how these films are part of the discourse around this particular kind of urban redevelopment and how they contribute to it?

Massood: This reminds me of something you discuss in your book and that I wanted to address, which is rhythmanalysis. A lot of people, from Richter to Clarke, are fascinated by rhythm and of course the city symphony is as much about rhythm as anything else. Could you talk a bit more about that? What drew you to the concept and how does it work in the films?

Stein: Rhythmanalysis is one of Henri Lefebvre’s theories, actually more of a theoretical practice. It’s a way you can temporarily reconcile that conceptual/experiential divide. You start by almost trying to recall or generate what your body is like when you’re sick – when you’re congested, or have chills or whatever, moments when you consciously register all the processes that are usually automatic and unnoticed because they’ve been disrupted. Being aware of the rhythms of your own body and your enmeshment in them, you begin to analyze your immediate environment with these rhythms. In this way you can unpick all the forces and flows that make up, and are caught up in, immediate quotidian phenomena like traffic at an intersection. Rhythms are series of weak and strong stresses that, repeated in patterns, function like rules. When we practice rhythmanalysis we’re able to perceive the rules and regulations that determine and delimit daily urban life as well as our place within it. I was first attracted to the theory because I thought it got at how the more abstract films I was talking about, like Jazz of Lights, or N.Y.,N.Y., or Go! Go! Go!, which have barely discernible individual figures, depict iconic, commercial architecture, and are apparently quite celebratory of the built environment, articulate a critique. But as I worked more with the history of mid-century urban planning, what really struck me is that it’s essentially the opposite of rhythmanalysis: a disembodied intellect that can only be successful by achieving a visually dominant “objectivity” and moving away from the drive to inhabit – the smells and the sweat and the decomposition that are part not just of living in the city but creating one, and substituting for that drive a falsely perfected, harmonious image.

Studies of the city symphony often argue that rhythm is the thing that makes the films celebratory, or apolitical, or even authoritarian (which is John Grierson’s critique of the original cycle), but for me rhythm is what makes them political texts, especially in that as rhythmanalysis they’re not separate from what they’re critiquing, they’re not a socialist praxis, they’re not fixing anything, but they still allow us to perceive alternatives to the extant production of space.

Massood: Then, how do you think about that as you shift from films that are entirely experimental to something that’s more narrative, like Little Fugitive or The Cool World?

Stein: You know, we were talking about the city symphony as a genre before and I was like, “no, it’s a genre—it’s fine, it’s cool,” but we could also talk about it as a chromosome or thread in the DNA or tapestry of the cinematic city. It’s everywhere, even in the little interstitial transitions that are the only part of highly mediocre basic cable procedurals shot on location. And in the films you’ve mentioned, you see much more of the city symphony than that – and I feel comfortable talking about them as city symphonies because of the institutional and industrial structures they share – but it’s still mixed with narrative modes and popular genres, even as the city symphony is the thing that enables them to tell their story. In the case of The Cool World, you have Noël Carroll arguing that the city symphony content is so evident it’s arbitrary, that this content isn’t integrated with the rest of the film, comes out of nowhere, and does nothing. Which I think is incorrect and suspect you do, too.

Massood: I do.

Stein: I figured. In that film, the question of rhythm becomes important because of the contemporary discourse around Harlem as a space that can’t be escaped, that has no rhythm, no life, where this lack of any kind of movement is also infectious, it has a gravitational pull that’s pulling the rest of the city down with it. We see this not only in racist/racialized political rhetoric and policy but also in crime films and coming of age / delinquent films, narratives of containment and blockage and the impossibility of a happy ending.

The Cool World does, as you’ve shown, have a lot of elements that resonate with that, particularly, Duke, the main character’s, relationship with his family and the intergenerational trauma that shapes it. We can see city symphony elements in beginning of the film, the opening credits, and the end, which all take place in Harlem, but also in the fieldtrip sequence to Midtown and Wall Street, and the Coney Island sequence. The city symphony content asserts and shows that Harlem does have a rhythm, and it’s the rhythm of the rest of the city: Harlem is what it is and its problems are what they are not because of something that’s innate to that neighborhood and metaphorically to blackness but because of the rest of the city’s dysfunction under deindustrialization, and particularly because of the way that the rest of the city excludes, marginalizes, and polices Duke and the Black community. This is especially evident in the film’s circular logic, which emerges in the way sections tend to end with 360 degree pans. These pans directly connect Wall Street or Coney Island to Harlem – they deposit Duke there at the end of his excursions – and tweak the idea that there’s no way out of Harlem by connecting this space to locations of economic exploitation and leisure. These are the places where the relations of production that govern the whole city and produce this kind of experience of and in Harlem emerge.

The Cool World (Shirley Clarke, 1963)

Massood: So this is an entirely sort of an entirely different city, but as you’re talking about this, I was beginning to think about something that we may have discussed ages ago in terms of The Cool World: What about Bush Mama or Killer of Sheep in relation to the city symphony? I’m thinking about the connection in terms of the lack of mobility at times, even as there is some mobility around characters’ neighborhoods.

Stein: I mean, I always think of Bush Mama as a film whose rhythm is the rhythm of not having a car in LA. There are so many other traditions at play in those films, but certainly also the idea that they surface the forces and flows that set their characters into motion and shape their environments.

Massood: OK, What I’d like to consider next is your discussion of Weegee’s New York and Naked City in chapter 2. I love this chapter and what it says about was happening in the city in terms of urban renewal at this point. And so, I wanted to ask you to talk about the concept of the miniature and the gigantic used in this chapter.

Stein: The miniature and the gigantic are Susan Stewart’s terms from her study of narrative exaggeration; she’s interested in how regimenting exaggeration sets norms and helps rationalize social and physical experiences of the world. The miniature is associated with disembodied, distanced views that assure us meaning remains stable beyond the physical limits of our individual perception, and that diverse parts form a harmonious whole. The gigantic is a street-level, intimate view that emplaces you within a collective that exceeds your comprehension but also guarantees the coherence of your identity. The miniature and the gigantic map onto the division of conceptual and experiential space that Lefebvre argues defines the capitalist production of space. As a consequence, planning models like urban renewal reduce the city to a totally rationalized habitat that can’t be lived in, and renders the lived experience of the city entirely illegible. What’s special about urban renewal is that it purports to fuse them and, in doing so, produce a city that retains an experiential component but remains intelligible throughout. That’s a fantasy in which no actual change needs to take place for inhabitants to have the right to their city because they have the right/ability to read and interpret it. Naked City as a film embodies this. It’s a procedural noir that famously also has a lot of elements borrowed from a city symphony. The film starts with an aerial, miniaturizing view, and then it alternates elevated vantage points with street level scenes until the crime is solved through their combination, reassuring you that even something as irrational and seemingly illegible as murder makes complete sense and can be read as long as you have a position of authority and surveillance you can step back to and analyze them from. Naked City derives its name from one of Weegee’s photography books, and Weegee’s city symphony with Amos Vogel, Weegee’s New York, was released the same month as Naked City.

Weegee’s New York (Arthur Fellig and Amos Vogel, 1948)

Weegee’s New York also has a bifurcated structure. The first half of the film is focused on architecture to the exclusion of individuated human figures, deals with centers of commerce, and has an abstract experimental aesthetic that makes these places look like carnivals. The second is a documentary portrait of Coney Island’s beach, that keeps any architecture or other locations almost entirely offscreen. By disarticulating the two key formal components of the city symphony as well as the main components of urban renewal logic, Weegee’s New York insists on the multiplicity of the city, that it can’t be stilled and unified into this single image. It gestures to a miniature/gigantic logic and then shatters it, and also influences what later city symphonies in the New York cycle look like.

Massood: I was wondering about the way in which urban planning picks up some of the language of film theory. As you were discussing the miniature and the gigantic, I was thinking of Kracauer and early film theory that talks about what film can do, how it opens up the world for us in certain ways and allows us to see the small things and the big things and how that was, and is, to a certain extent, celebrated. So that’s present in film theory, and then we have it function in a very different way in urban planning, and also in films that respond to this planning: trying to capture those things unseen, too large, etc. There’s this interesting way in which how we understand film and theorize film and how we understand and theorize cities are converging but are also opposed.

Stein: Kracauer wrote about several of the New York city symphonies, including In the Street and On the Bowery, in Theory of Film. He connects them to exactly the kind of categories you’re talking about, which for him is both what’s innately cinematic and, in that book, what’s going to make a better, more meaningful, more connected, and implicitly anti-capitalist life possible. I can’t make quite that claim for these films, but in the case of In the Street there absolutely is a linkage between theorizing film and theorizing the city in terms of accessing what usually eludes your vision and perception, in this case inhabitation. In the Street was shot in East Harlem just before a lot of that neighborhood was subject to slum clearance and construction of high-rise public housing; it had something like 10 percent of all public housing constructed in the city by the time they were done. The rhetoric that was used to justify this was that the area was trapped in the past, stagnating, overly dense, and slowly corrupting adjoining areas. In that rhetoric and in local and federal housing policy, you get a conflation of people and their environment, so that the multiracial, multiethnic inhabitants are described using the exact same language used to describe their housing, and their raced and classed existence proves the innate corruption of that housing. In the Street has very little structure, even mostly dispensing with a typical city symphony’s day-in-the-life model, and it’s difficult to analyze. Kracauer celebrates this, saying that “the camera dwells tenderly on its subjects; they stand for nothing but themselves.” I read this as saying that it’s in fact crucial that they stand for nothing but themselves. They’re not social types, they’re not evidence of some kind of corruption of the environment. When the camera dwells on them it’s almost as though this could be an alternate kind of housing, a way of thinking of a city as similar to cinema as a place that’s livable through a particular kind of observation.

In the Street (Helen Levitt, 1948)

Massood: It’s interesting because we can only live in the miniature theoretically, not in practice, and with film we can live in it, even though we’re not living in it. You know, we live in it especially when we’re in a theater but we’re also in the film and it’s in our lives in this wonderful and yet increasingly old fashioned, or even impossible to do, way right now. Again, that’s that sort of link to what you’re talking about in terms of the theory and the ways in which these films captured the city or the people within the city or the spaces or the sounds.

I’m bouncing around a bit, but since we’re talking about In the Street, I wanted to ask you about the chapter it appears in, where you also discuss On the Bowery, Little Fugitive, and Under Brooklyn Bridge. You talk about all these films as capturing the everyday life on the margins, but I think that they do so in different ways and are tonally or formally different from each other, so how did you put those together?

Stein: That chapter was determined starting with the geography instead of the films, which is different from the other chapters. I started with In the Street and then began looking for other city symphonies set not only in marginal places, but also ones that had experienced a disproportionate amount of slum clearance. The ones that I ended up with are, as we’ve noted, very different from one another, but I also find them bound together by their foregrounding of festivals and celebrations: In the Street has Halloween, Under Brooklyn Bridge has summer break, Little Fugitive is a birthday, and even On the Bowery is about a vacation. It’s also the weirdest example because it’s about the most famously abject neighborhood in the city, but it depicts the protagonist taking time off from work to party on a summer weekend; he gets in on a Friday afternoon and leaves Monday morning. These films are about highly marginal spaces, are directly connected to slum clearance, and feature these festivals that are essentially moments of eruption or a short circuiting of patterns of accumulation and its rhythms. They do have very different institutional and industrial positions from one another, but those differences also attest to the strengthening of the city symphony as a genre because you have people like Bosley Crowther in the Times call On the Bowery a city symphony as though he expects people to understand what he means by that.

Massood: That’s what I liked about this chapter because these films obviously don’t go together except for the ways that they do.

Stein: Well, thank you for saying that! Putting the films together also made me think about what happens if you look at neighborhoods that are being destroyed on the basis that they have no rhythm, which essentially means no movement of capital through them, so how do the rhythms that these films develop show us an alternative to that?

Massood: Thinking about the bars in On the Bowery: they are also places of community, so the film maneuvers through this sort of abjection mixed with these communal spaces where people are potentially supporting one another. You know it’s interesting with On the Bowery because it’s also, and still, one of those areas of the city that resists changing completely. Developers are trying so hard to change it, but there are still elements you’d recognize from the film, there’s just no elevated train anymore.

Okay, I’ll just ask one or two more questions. In Chapter Four you discuss several experimental films that, as you suggest, present the city as a space of play and fantasy linked to a time outside of accumulation. Can you explain how a film like Wonder Ring does this versus a film like Bridges-Go-Round?

Bridges-Go-Round (Shirley Clarke, 1958)

Stein: In addition to both having a very pronounced circular logic they’re both about infrastructure. They also – sorry for the tangent – have institutional contexts that indirectly open onto your question. Wonder Ring is commissioned to memorialize the Third Avenue El before its demolition is complete, and then it’s shown at Cinema 16 as almost part of a wake. Bridges-Go-Round is commissioned by the State Department to be part of the US pavilion at the Brussels World Expo in 1958. Clarke makes a bunch of short films as part of this commission, and in many of them you can completely see her realizing her vision as described in her production notes, which comes down to “how can I troll the state department and make works critical of American exceptionalism and consumer society?” But this is the only one that gets rejected even though it’s much less obviously critical than films that made it through about housing, construction, fast food, and advertising. For some reason this is where they draw the line and so the question for me is “what’s so threatening about Bridges-Go-Round?”

Massood: Especially since it’s about making infrastructure beautiful.

Stein: Right, and these are all structures built with government funds, several by Robert Moses. Going back to Wonder Ring, it imagines this alternate temporality by taking on the point of view of the train and presenting the center of the city — center as in what determines the grouping of relations to one another — as mobile, anonymous, and contingent.

N.Y., N.Y. (Francis Thompson, 1957)

Massood: It’s not like N.Y, N.Y. where there’s a big entrance into the old Penn Station.

Stein: Exactly, it’s “what if those spaces were not determined by the movement of surplus labor as directed by the logic of exchange?” So, by contrast, in the case of Bridges-Go-Round, it’s also an infrastructural point of view but I almost think about it like a horror film. It’s like a nightmare of being eternally stuck on the George Washington Bridge, and for me speaks to how often infrastructure is aligned with the stealing of time, as in a commute.

Massood: Especially with the Barrons’ score – it’s really not welcoming.

Stein: For me the score is almost like the bridges’ stream of consciousness and they sound very unhappy.

Massood: OK, so the last question I’m going to ask you is: Are city symphonies accomplishing or not accomplishing what they set out to do? As we’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the discourse around the end of Bill De Blasio’s term as mayor of New York City and how everyone has been evaluating his accomplishments. In my neighborhood there’s been massive development and redevelopment going on, most famously in Essex Crossing, which has now seen six buildings go up in the past four years. The language used to justify it is, “we need housing and we need affordable housing so in order to get it affordable housing is to build these huge towers.” Yet only about 200 out of 1,500 units are affordable.

Stein: Below market rate, right, but only studios and one-bedrooms.

Massood: Right, on the lower floors or in separate buildings. My question is this: we’re in a moment, just like the others you talk about, of reflection and redefinition in urban redevelopment. Have you seen anything recently that you could describe as a city symphony of some sort and is it making an effective critique of this moment?

Stein: That’s a really interesting question, and in a way, I think the images of the city that proliferated about the pandemic are sort of overshadowing films that might deal with policy-driven redevelopment. Recently I’ve been working on contemporary films set in Singapore and Shanghai so it’s totally possible that there are contemporary New York city symphonies that I’m just missing. But what I immediately thought of in response to your question are the installations they did at the New York Historical Society and the booster commercial Spike Lee did for the city set to “New York, New York,” which takes the day in the life conceit and makes it seasonal, where it starts in late winter and here’s the first wave of the pandemic and everything’s empty and awful, and then as we turn to late spring and summer the city comes back to life. So those don’t really seem to be grappling with redevelopment – including the redevelopment that has and will result from the pandemic – at all, the form has nothing to do with that and looks like it could have come from the European 1920s films. It’s like the enshrinement of New York’s greatest hits and seems to be about offering reassurance that the city is not meaningfully changing.

Massood: I think it is absolutely wrapped up in the pandemic and if it hadn’t happened we’d be seeing more cinematic representation of the redevelopment debate. I was thinking about the displacement that’s happening because of redevelopment right now, in places like East New York, where they’ve razed buildings but not finished constructing new ones, leaving people homeless. And listening to De Blasio talk about how to address this it’s, “we have to go vertical, and we need to even go back to let’s put luxury condos in the middle of housing project.”

Stein: It’s funny, as you were talking, I was thinking about where I have seen that kind of displacement referenced explicitly recently: the new West Side Story and Motherless Brooklyn, which are both period pieces set in recognizable spaces.

Massood: Right, they are neighborhoods you know, and they are neighborhoods that are disappearing.

Stein: But at the same time, those films are also about midcentury New York looking awesome. So, although they have these critiques, they’re also freezing and idealizing the city’s identity in this period, and it’s still a city that’s legible and visually unified. I also can’t help thinking that this “we have to go vertical” rhetoric is the same reason that Robert Moses built bridges instead of tunnels: the branding of the landscape. It’s not even that verticality or that kind of density is problematic, it’s that if your solution to a housing shortage is more luxury condos and then like five apartments below market that can’t even accommodate a family, you don’t really have a solution. I guess the short answer to your question is that today’s New York city symphonies have failed, or that I have not yet in the context of New York seen the media corpus that is responding to this particular set of contradictions of capital.

Massood: Yes, and I also think there’s going to be a delay until we see that because of the pandemic, and when we do see it, it might be at a very small scale, on digital platforms. Which is going to make theorizing the city symphony very interesting, since these might be creators who are not drawing from the genre’s history but who do know the rhythms and movements we associate with it.

Stein: And then given the constraints of ultra-short form media, the logic of the rhythmanalysis is going to change again, and it might then be able to highlight a different set of relations and contradictions.

Paula Massood, Paula J. and Erica Stein. "The Mediapolis Q&A: Erica Stein's Seeing Symphonically." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 1 (April 2022).
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