Reflections on the City: wk 3 literature/discussion

AP: Text’s read:De Certeau, Clarke and Sanders.
De Certeau’s text is concerned with the personal and subjective experience of the city, which lies in contrast to the the panoramic view and god-like perspective presented by the heightened architecture and ‘airport arrivals’ of the modern city. This offers man the city as a ‘whole’, but De Certeau argues that on the ground, another layer of the city appears – the metaphorical city – that is experienced by the ‘city walker’. De Certeau compares the experience of walking in the city at ground level with language, considering that the construction of an experience and a person’s connection with a cityscape can be likened to forming or learning a new language. ‘Pedestrian speech acts’ comprise the spatial act of walking through the city, where a turn in the path echoes a turn of phrase. De Certeau does not explain this in the most straightforward fashion, but the poetic nature of his explanations reflect his preoccupation with language and the poetry of walking.

For De Certeau, walking in the city is a subjective experience that draws upon dream, myth, legend and memory. It is a personal journey that is not necessarily governed by the rational, formal structure of the city. The walker can subvert practices, form new pathways and attribute new meanings to places and spaces. The symbolic naming of places for example is interesting and notes a phenomenon that changes over time and is subjective to each person. Famous landmarks and icons have pre-existing meanings that we bring with us from our collective memories, but these are then moulded via direct experience. Here this can be likened to the city identities that are projected by cinematic representations, as discussed in class. Cinema and the city have an interdependent developmental relationship (as explained in Clarke’s introduction), thus representations formed by cinema affect the city, and the city affects cinema’s representations. One would not exist in its current form without the other. Clarke tracks the more theoretical side of city and cultural theory, referencing figures such as Baudrillard and Benjamin, exploring how the modern city and cinema developed alongside each other, with certain parallels and crossovers. In cinema he identifies figures that appear as coping mechanisms for the modern city, with its formal grids, lack of community and general alienation. The city stroller, stranger and flaneur are explained, however these still demonstrate a lack – the city represents desires that are appealing, but can not be met.

This frustration is reflected in Sanders text, which explores the creation of the dystopian vision of New York city. He traces films that have been made through the 30’s crime movies, 40’s Film noir, and subsequent gangster, crime and action movies that cumulatively reiterate the negative image of the city as constructed from early film. He notes how that even in times of prosperity, New York city cannot shake its horror conventions, remaining the ultimate location for terror, crime, depravity and destruction. Even when this trait shifts to Los Angeles in the later periods, it is still New York city that heralds true danger (Independence Day is a good example – it is the iconic shots of the Empire State Building being blown up that tells the audience that all that is human and good is being destroyed. The Statue of Liberty also has this effect = one shot of this famous figure on the ground and you know you are in trouble). Although Sanders identifies that the 70’s and 80’s were the strongest period for constructing the true horror of the city, the past crime and noir constructions fed this, and the recent genre of disaster movies also reflect this – examples spring to mind such as The Day After Tomorrow and Cloverfield. The core thread of this text is to consider that the representation of the city may not be entirely accurate to the real environment of the city (Sanders notes that the homelessness, poverty and crime that was assumed to be a New York trait – was actually as acute in other American cities). Also once this dystopian vision was established, it was hard to shake and as people’s expectations of the city are shaped upon the media representations that they see – New York was branded a dangerous, fast paced, grimy, dirty metropolis. Even when the city experienced periods of prosperity, the city could not shake this perception – thus when movies focus on the aspirations of the middle classes, hopes and dreams are broken by the city. Couples that move into the city for money and success end up robbed, mugged, homeless and destitute. Most return to the safety of the suburbs. Some stay in the city, but their behaviour changes to match the crazed depravity – turning to violence or crime. You either become the city, or you leave, you cannot find your own (positive) pathway within the city gates.
Midnight Cowboy was used as a key example of showing the negative side of the prosperous city. Classy women and businessmen strut the streets of New York, busy and non communicative, barely looking from left to right. Epitomised by the location (outside Tiffany’s), John Voight stands in his cowboy attire, displaying the contrast between country and city – he the only man looking upon a man slumped on the ground, others too busy to care, stepping over their fellow man. The humanity of the city has been lost. Several other examples show differing ways in which the city has been shown to damage individuals or pose the perfect location for danger. Zombie movies and psychological dramas alike show the isolated, quarantine-able danger of Manhattan  or in films like Taxi Driver – the quiet, lonesome and damaged walker of the city – the ultimate alienated man.
To return to De Certeau, he also links the act of walking to childhood. In our discussions Pam-Roos made an interesting comparison with his passage on childhood and the pictures we were shown in class of children finding adventure and play in the bombed out buildings of the postwar street. This made me consider the experiences of the city through different eyes – depending on your past experience or visits to the city greatly governs your pathways throughout. Exploring with a local lends a different city experience than as a tourist. You are shown a version of the city, tailored to your visit and your acquaintance’s experience. Cinematic representations also show you a version of city, yet the purpose and intention is not as transparent and must be analysed considering the social, economical and political context of production.

Our discussion as a class also raised interesting questions in terms of learning the language of a city in terms of spatial exploration and ‘walking’ behaviour. Although I believe through the De Certeau text the analogy to language is strained, there were elements that had value. For example the idea that forming a path through the city is like ‘speaking’ though footfall, or even that your version of the city holds a particular narrative, or the learning of previous narratives, but ones that have no author or intended spectator.
Arriving in Amsterdam as a temporary resident you learn how to traverse its spaces. The geographical elements fall into place and through habit you condition your walking pattern to the ‘known’ areas – you condense the full span of the city to ‘your’ Amsterdam. You learn its rules. If from the UK you learn to look the other way when crossing the road (harder than it sounds). You learn not to walk in the cycle paths even though they are so appealing. In fact you learn how to experience the city in motion, from your bicycle seat rather than on foot. You learn which landmarks mean something to you, generated by the experiences you have constructed beneath them. You select the pathway you present to visitors. Is this a language? Perhaps. Is the city speaking to you? Telling you its stories by revealing its secrets and histories for you to pass on? Definitely.

This text made me think of several films by Woody Allen, something I might follow up for the class presentations. Particularly more recent films in the form of Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love, and Allen was also mentioned in one of the texts last week for his more utopian versions of New York City. In both the aforementioned films, the protagonists experiences are ‘stumbled upon’ through walking in the city, narratives revealed and constructed through the coincidental meandering of a city walker. Robyn also mentioned the interesting scenes of Inception as another field of enquiry, where the city is moulded and literally folded by designers. Could be a great example to explore elements of subjectivity and control, or the power of dreams and the imagination.



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