Cinemas and Urbanisms Syllabus, Erica Stein (Vassar College)

Cinemas & Urbanisms Syllabus

Professor: Erica Stein, Department of Film

Course Description:

The cinema is one of the technologies, like mass transit and electricity, that made rapid urbanization in the early 20th century possible. Cities were one of early cinema’s favorite subjects, and their population density provided the audiences media industries needed to flourish. A quarter of the way through the 21st century, as the global population is increasingly urbanized and our lives, wherever we live them, are increasingly mediated, the relationship of cinematic media and cities becomes ever more inextricable. The course surveys the development of that relationship over the past 125 years. We explore how cinema developed a standardized grammar for imagining the city and taxonomizing some of its key features, the role cinematic technologies played in shaping (and contesting) urban redevelopment, the architectures that determine how cities house moving images, and the uses to which the entertainment industry and citizens alike put the cinema as it shapes our daily lives in the city. Throughout our explorations, we encounter mid-century supervillains in New York, lovers and eccentrics in Paris, hustlers in Dakar, rookie detectives in Tokyo, androids in LA, and construction workers in Beirut. Assignments include two papers, a group presentation, and a creative project on the cinematic image of the Hudson Valley region.

Required Screenings: VCDF 308, Tuesdays beginning at 7:00p.m. (Alternate Screening: 305 on the preceding Sunday at 12:00 p.m.)

Required Texts:

There is no textbook for this class. All readings are available on Moodle. Download them before reading as this will make notetaking and access in class easier; I also suggest printing out readings on day we’ll be doing close analysis of articles.


Format of Assignments – All assignments must be submitted to Moodle by the start of class on the day they are due. Only .docx and .pdf files are accepted. All written work must be: double-spaced with one space between sentences and no lines skipped between paragraphs, formatted in 12” Times New Roman font, have 1” margins, contain the author’s name on the first page, feature an original title, and have page numbers on each page. Written work that lacks these requirements will be penalized.

Late Work & Extensions – Late work is accepted with the penalty of 10 points per day late (up to 10 days after the assignment is due). Presentations and group work may not be turned in late and are  not eligible for extensions. Requests for extensions must be made at least 48 hours before the assignment is due Computer difficulties are not accepted excuses for late work.

Technology – We will access most of our readings in class electronically; only tablets or laptops are  allowed for this purpose. When we are not using computers for discussing reading together, you must have them put away. You are required to take notes in longhand rather than typing them. Phones are never allowed to be used in class (you may of course have them with you, silenced and in your bag or pocket, in case of emergency). Students observed using technology except as described above will be marked absent for the day.

Academic Honesty – See pages 133-135 of the Student Handbook, under Vassar College Regulations. Any instances of plagiarism or other violations of the policy will result in automatic failure of the course.

Disability Accommodations – Academic accommodations are available for students with documented disabilities. Please schedule an appointment with the instructor early in the semester to discuss any accommodation that may be needed for the course. All accommodations must be approved through the Accessibility & Educational Opportunity office or AEO (ext. 7584) as indicated in their accommodation letter.

COVID-Related Policies: Your health and our communal well-being are the most important things. If you are not feeling well, don’t come to class! Stay home and take care of yourself; illness-related absences (even if your illness is not covid) are always excused, and I’m happy to meet with you in office hours or over zoom to make sure you stay up to date about what we covered in class. One of the easiest ways to ensure everyone has equal access to and medical safety in a classroom setting is to adopt universal mask wearing. Therefore, the policy in this course is for everyone to wear a mask during course meeting times. We will re-evaluate this policy together as a classroom community after the third week of class. The Film Department has adopted a department-wide policy to mandate the wearing of masks during all screenings, for the entirety of the semester. We have a stash of masks in room 109 (film and drama office) if you need one.


This is a uniquely challenging course because of its interdisciplinary focus and because we will often be putting films in conversation with readings that don’t directly discuss them. Therefore, one of our main goals will be working together to draw on our collective knowledge as a class to fill in gaps in our understanding. As we do so we will also:

  • Gain the skills to analyze key tropes and depictions of screen cities
  • Understand the mutually intertwined historical development of media and urbanism
  • Achieve command of concepts relating to media as productive of urban space via industrial and cultural factors.
  • Perform original research into the generic traditions that define screen cities.
  • Apply course concepts to produce creative work on local spaces and media.
  • Utilize research and critical writing skills to posit and extrapolate on an original thesis related to core course concepts. 

Deadlines, Grades, and Assignments

City Genre Group Presentation (20%), 10/11

Methods and Models Paper (15%), 11/1

Hudson Valley Creative (20%), 11/29

Research Paper (30%), 12/9

Participation (15%), continuous

Grades on all assignments are given on a numeric, 0-100 scale. Within each letter grade, -/prime/+ are as follows: 0-59 F, 60-69 D, 70-73 C-, 74-76 C, 77-79 C+, 80-83 B-, 84-86 B, 87-89 B+, 90-93 A-, 94-96 A.

Genre Group Presentation – There will be a sign-up sheet the first week of class with a list of popular genres (gangster film, musical, romantic comedy, science fiction, etc) closely associated with the city. Each genre will have slots associated with it. You and your group will work together to assemble a brief list (three films and at least three scholarly sources) on the urban manifestations of the genre you have selected and, drawing on what you have learned, present a taxonomy and brief historical survey to the class. The presentations will each last 8-10 minutes, including any clips used. Please note that you must keep to the time and will be stopped at the 10-minute mark, so practice in advance. Along with the presentation itself, each group must submit a 250-400 word creator’s statement stating who in the group was responsible for doing what. The statement must be signed by all group members.

Methods and Models Paper – This assignment helps you prepare for the final research paper. As we have seen from the beginning of this class, there are multiple ways we can approach the study of cinematic urbanisms. Select from one of the topics/provocations listed on the sheet and prepare an argument for what kind of model you think is best suited to addressing the topic, and assemble a materials list (both films and scholarly writing) that supports your position. Note that you do not have to use the materials or methods you argue for here in your final research paper, but you are certainly allowed and encouraged to do so.

Hudson Valley Creative – Unlike the metropolis at its southern terminus, the Hudson Valley (with few exceptions) is not particularly well-represented on screen. Working with your group, you will prepare a creative presentation addressing the Hudson Valley’s relationship with media. This might mean putting together a video essay that constructs a thesis about the role the area plays on screen when it does make an appearance; building a digital map of places that have served as production locations whether or not they actually “appeared” as the Hudson Valley; putting together a business plan website that argues for why the Hudson Valley should attempt to attract more location shooting (and how to do it); researching and interviewing local exhibitors and/or artists about what it means to share and/or create films in our region. Along with the presentation itself, each group must submit a 250-400 word creator’s statement stating who in the group was responsible for doing what. The statement must be signed by all group members.

Research Paper – This paper is open prompt and may address any of the core themes raised in the course by: 1) closely analyzing the form, production history, and/or discursive or material impact of a particular urban film; 2) explore a specific moment in urban history OR strand of transhistorical urban phenomena through film; 3) explore how a given film technology, discourse, or production practice resulted in a specific, material, change to urban policy, law, or culture; 4) single city approach. It must incorporate at least three out of class scholarly sources for each film studied. Depending on what kind of research you choose to undertake, there are different types of assessment in place; please see assignment sheet for more details.

Attendance & Participation – This category is assessed continuously and on both axes; students must both attend class and screening and participate in class. Each student is allowed one unexcused absence per semester without penalty. After this, each additional unexcused absence will result in a reduction of your grade in this category by 10 points. If you reach five unexcused absences, you will automatically fail the course. Students are not penalized for excused absences. An excused absence is one due to illness, family emergency, or religious observance. If you know you’ll be absent due to a religious observance, let me know in the first two weeks of the semester so we can plan ahead. Illness and family emergency can be unexpected and make it difficult to complete work or anticipate impact to schedule. Take care of yourself first and then, as soon as you can, let me know what’s going on and what kind of academic support in the course would be most helpful for you.

In addition to skipping class, students who violate the technology policy, do not bring the reading to class, or are more than 5 minutes late will be counted as absent. To earn a good grade in this category, students should not only attend, but also participate. Participation can include responding to a question, asking a question, engaging a classmate in structured discussion, leading group work, etc. Students with perfect attendance who do not participate will earn no more than 80% in this category. Students who regularly participate will earn between 85-95%. A 100% in this category is reserved for the 0-2 students whose participation noticeably and positively impacts the direction of the course as a whole. Act accordingly.

Course Schedule:

Course schedule is subject to change. Readings are due on the days they are listed. All screenings are in italics. Readings are marked with their location.

8/30                 Taking Place: Ways of Looking at Cinema/Urbanism

Syllabus, introductions, initial definitions

8/30                 Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, 2003)

9/1                   Shiel, “Navigation”

9/6                   Screen Cities 1: Consciousness and Alienation

Mennel, “The Founding Myth of Cinema”; Simmel “Metropolis and Mental Life”

9/6                   Pont d’alma; La Tour Eiffel; Place de la Concorde; Fire Brigade (Lumiere Bros.1896-1900); Coney Island at Night (Porter, 1905); Rien que les heures (Cavalcanti, 1926); The Crowd excerpt [intro, Coney Island, accident, finale] (Vidor, 1928)

9/8                   Fischer, “The Shock of the New”

9/13                 Screen Cities 2: Crime

Gunning “Invisible Cities, Visible Cinema”

9/13                 Stray Dog (Kurosawa, 1949); Naked City excerpts [intro, 5th avenue, precinct window scene, LES/bridge chase] (Dassin, 1948)

9/15                 McCoy, “Two Paths After Defeat”

9/20                 Screen Cities 3: Abstraction

Ross, “Moving Pictures”

9/20                 Playtime (Tati, 1967) & San Yuan Li (Ning & Fei, 2003)

9/22                 Marie, “Jacques Tati’s Playtime as New Babylon”; Berry, “Imaging the Globalized City”

9/27                  Screen Cities 4: Realism

James, “Minority Cinemas”

9/27                 Rain (Bellenger, 1978) & Killer of Sheep (Burnnett, 1978)

9/29                 Massood, “An Aesthetic Appropriate to Conditions”

10/4                 Screen Cities 5: Simulacrum

In-class time to work on Genre Group; Davis, “Sunshine or Noir”

10/4                 Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)

10/6                 Rowley, “False LA”; Wollen, “Ridleyville and Los Angeles” [we’ll only read one of these and will pick which one as we get closer]  

10/11               Screen Cities 6: Festival

Mennel, “The City as Queer Playground”; Genre Group Presentations

10/11               Shortbus (Mitchell, 2006)

10/13               Shahani, “Getting Off (on) The Shortbus”


10/25               Screening the City 1: Pretexts and Texts

Dimendberg, “Naked Cities”; Ballon & Jackson, “Robert Moses & the Modern City”

10/25                Motherless Brooklyn (Norton, 2019)

10/27              Schleier, “Masterplanning”

11/1                 Screening the City 2: Gentrification/Policy

Webb, “Cinema and Crisis in the Entrepreneurial City”; Smith, “Is Gentrification a Dirty Word”?; Methods Paper Due

11/1                 The Landlord (Ashby, 1971)

11/3                 Griffis, “What Am I Supposed to Do With All These White People?”; Class Visit by Prof. Griffis

11/8                 Screening the City 3: Security

Davis, “Fortress LA”

11/8                 [Safe] (Haynes, 1995)

11/10               Seymour, “It’s Just Not Turning Up”

11/15               Screening the City 4: Migration

Brenner, “Planetary Urbanization”; Iheka, “The Migration Turn in African Cultural Productions”

11/15               Touki-Bouki (Mambety, 1973) & Atlantiques (Diop, 2009)

11/17               Williams, “Entering and Leaving Modernity”

11/22               Screening the City 5: Construction

Haenni, “Imagining Migrants in Cities”

11/22               Taste of Cement (Kalthoum, 2017) & Moving House (Tan, 2001)


11/29                Screening the City 6: Amusement

Hudson Valley Presentations; Bruno, “Site-Seeing: Architecture and the Moving Image”

11/29               The Florida Project (Baker, 2017)

12/1                 Detweiler, “Idealism, New Urbanism, and the Politics of Hyperreality”

12/6                 Into the Screen

Stein & Halegoua, “How to Do Things with Media and the City”