Teaching Film Urbanism

Erica Stein discusses the syllabus for her course "Cinemas and Urbanisms" and introduces the essays in the Student Voices section.
Ed. note: This article is part of our bi-annual On Teaching & Student Voices section. Click here to read about this issue and the other articles in the section.

Over the course of the last decade and a half, I’ve come to believe that mediation and urbanization not only mutually produce one another but can’t be thought apart from each other; they need to be thought together as media urbanism, which is in and of itself a method, rather than a description. I wasn’t sure if that concept, which is fairly abstract, would work as the foundation of an undergraduate introduction to the topic. However, because the course I taught this past Fall – Cinemas and Urbanisms – had an enrollment split between film majors on the one hand and urban studies majors on the other, I thought students would likely be able to grasp and benefit from an explicit focus on media urbanism as methodology, while the rest of the concept remained implicit within the syllabus structure and course design.

I organized the course around concrete examples of and questions about the ways in which media and the city mutually constitute one another, and how we understand them together today. To explore this more fully, I book-ended the semester with two films that deal, in very different ways, with how media builds cities, and the extent to which to live in those cities is to live within media: Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, 2003) and The Florida Project (Baker, 2017). I paired each film with a reading – the first chapter of Shiel’s Hollywood and the Real Los Angeles for the former and Detweiler’s article on Disneyworld, Celebration, and the New Urbanism for the latter – that articulated an historically specific way of visually navigating the city that each film dealt with. The readings in question also helped pull out particular skills, such as close analysis of editing and mobile shots and key questions (Is every film a documentary of its locations? How did early cinema help create a particularly “urban” form of vision? What remains outside mediated experience when media companies build towns?) that we returned to throughout the course.

One consequence of this approach is that I didn’t organize the syllabus chronologically or via geography or genre. Rather, I built one unit around key perceptions of and approaches to the filmic city (as criminal, celebratory, etc.) and the second around screenings and readings that dealt directly with urban redevelopment and its attendant issues of access, displacement, community, and power as they shape daily life. These stylistically diverse screenings and readings – from Edward Norton’s thinly fictionalized account of Robert Moses’s slum clearance tactics (Motherless Brooklyn, 2019) to Ou Ning and Cao Fei’s experimental documentary about the extraordinarily rapid expansion of Guangzhou as it envelops the titular village of San Yuan Li (2003) – built shared vocabulary and an understanding of how screen media affirm, contest and contribute to urban redevelopment. Favorite student weeks included Playtime (Tati, 1967) and the Situationists and Taste of Cement (Kalthoum, 2017) and migration. Several assignments with varied formats helped synthesize this material. For example, working in small groups, students took a creative approach to addressing the immediate location of our campus, the Hudson Valley, and its relationship with screen media. This generated the satirical video Hudson Valley Plays Itself – which argued that the myriad films and series shot in the area turned it into a generic pastoral other of New York – interviews with local exhibitors, and a GIS map collating location shooting with local and state investment.

The assignment that generated the papers featured in this section of Student Voices was scaffolded. It started with a topic proposal stage that focused explicitly on methodology, asking students to connect their research question with one of several methods and approaches, such as a reception study that focused on one film to map its influence on a certain kind of urban representation. The goal was to help students grapple with the multifaceted complex that is media urbanism by thinking about what kinds of materials and resources they needed to answer their question, and how certain kinds of approaches were able to evidence and support some types of arguments, but not others. While the research proposal assignment is not the most successful I’ve ever written – it was trying to do a lot and was not the kind of topic proposal assignment the class was familiar with – students used the feedback to produce papers that addressed an impressive array of topics and texts, almost none of which had been case studies during the semester.

The papers that make up this installment of Student Voices showcase the immense engagement and thoughtfulness of the students who participated in the course, and the extent to which they were able to pursue their own interests in these research papers and connect them to the course’s core concerns. Although the papers span films from the 1940s to the 2010s, and spaces from Indiana to India, all of them display a concern with how the built environment and media work together to shape subjectivity, and the experiences of embodied subjects. This is especially evident in the exciting ways that each paper thinks about architecture. Sophie Mode’s paper, “The Rise of the Indian Multiplex Theater and its Impacts,” explores how the urban and national spaces and identities that popular Hindi cinema generates have become increasingly globalized and privatized through the architecture of new multiplex exhibition spaces, which are often attached to spaces of international finance and function as disinvestment from traditional, informal spaces of neighborhood commerce and community. Anna Molloy explores a similar tension, through a very different context, in her paper “Temporal Possibilities of Set Design and Architecture in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle.” Molloy shows how Tati satirized the rapid postwar modernization of Paris (especially technologies within the home) through a set design that mimicked Modernist and International Style architectural principles while suggesting an alternative vision of Paris’s future, and the social ties it might sustain, through representations of older neighborhoods. In “From a Derelict Mansion to the Malibu Coast,” Junyi Zhou explores the varied domestic spaces of Los Angeles noir, in which those ties are long frayed. Drawing on Mike Davis’s “Sunshine or Noir?”, Zhou shows how this dichotomy shapes not only interior spaces, but also a gendered negotiation of them, attending to the ways in which the moral chaos of noir is plotted through the placing and dis-placing of women in domestic settings. Finally, Charlie Tynan turns to Kogonada’s 2017 study of a small city and minor works of modernist architecture in their paper “Columbus Plays Itself.” Tynan shows how an exploration of exteriors can access raced and gendered interiority, focusing on the film’s tendency to disarticulate its audio and visual tracks at key moments or hold either the characters or architecture offscreen to help us renew the ways we think about the relationships between buildings and people.

Course Syllabus: Cinemas and Urbanisms (Erica Stein, Vassar College)


Stein, Erica.
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.