Reflections on literature and class discussion

RC: From reading Penz, Schwarzer and De Certeau and partaking in the discussions that followed in class, one of the main conflicts I noted was this constant return to the tension between romantic, free, idyllic perceptions of the city and the restrictions of the planned, built, modern city. Jacques Tati and De Certeau, in particular, favoured a nostalgic and poetic view of the city, excited by it’s potential for exploration and uncovering of new, narrative layers. Yet for both, this ideal was shattered by the introduction of the modern, post-war city and the limitations they felt it imposed. In our group discussion, we were able to relate this discomfort and suspicion of modern architecture to Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ and his ideas on panopticism and it’s ability to establish control in the city through the assertion of fear of visibility. I used to live in Paris and when I first arrived, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of a safe place the city always felt to me. After a trip up L’arc De Triomphe (the panopticon of Paris) looking down on the city, I realised that part of the reason I felt so safe was that there are no alleyways in Paris, no dark little side streets, everything is straight and wide and open. Fear of visibility, in my eyes, therefore not only exerts a sense of control but also of comfort and security for city inhabitants. Thus, the planned city may not be as all offensive as Tati and De Certeau maintain. To develop Foucault’s ideas further I briefly thought about the relevance of panopticism in contemporary society and the (post?)modern city. Particularly in the UK, city surveillance – in the form of CCTV cameras – is an ongoing social and political issue. Do those in power have the right to be observing the actions of city inhabitants at all times through street CCTV cameras? Also does the awareness of potentially being observed affect the way we live our lives in the city? For example, when a shop installs CCTV security cameras there is often a very clear, visible sign stating that customers actions will be recorded on camera. Therefore, the purpose of the camera is not so much to catch customers out but again to create this fear of observation, how we act when we know we are being watched. Does it take the spontaneity and excitement out of the city experience?

However, the tension this panopticism creates between the idyllic city and controlled city is one I think cinema has the power to abolish. In his fifth chapter, Schwarzer notes when discussing establishing shots, that films are not restricted to entering spaces through doors, film-goers can become aerial voyagers, they are offered a voyeuristic transgression of walls and boundaries. Thus removing the element of control and convention the modern city usually enforces. Schwarzer also highlights that film can reveal architecture existing only in the mind, memory and imagination. Film can freely manipulate the city with no limitations, ideologically as well as physically. This immediately made me think of Inception (2010) when the streets of Paris literally fold up and crumble before the spectators eyes. The importance of the dream architect in the film is another thing which stands out to me, when a location or setting is ‘built’ with a mistake, the dreamer becomes aware of his dream state, highlighting the sheer significance of one’s surroundings and how we may unconsciously observe them on a daily basis.

A final way I thought about this tension between the two conflicting views of the city is by looking back at David Bass’ text on Insiders and Outsiders. Is the nostalgic and romantic view of the city reserved for the outsider whilst the insider knows the planned, panoptic verision of the city? Continuing with the filmic location of Paris, I thought it would be interesting to explore this idea with Paris Je T’aime (2006) and the representations of the city portrayed from different perspectives, both inside and out.

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