The Heuristic Relationship between Place and Cinema
In Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (2008), Anne Friedberg highlights the mobilized virtual gaze of cinematic spectatorship - a gaze that makes us move virtually through the mediation of cinematic representation. She analyses several modern occurrences that commodifies the mobilized gaze: arcades, packaged tourism, world exhibitions, amusement parks, shopping malls, and protocinematic entertainment. For her, the progression from arcades to cinema supported the predominance of the gaze in capitalist society: the overload of images and the reduction of lived experiences into representation (37).
Three decades before Friedberg, geographer Edward Relph wrote about tourism, world exhibitions and amusement parks in the context of placelessness, about how they hinder our sense of place and the authenticity of place. Similarly, as noted by Friedberg, Walter Benjamin deemed cinema a placeless, mechanically reproducible art that has lost the unique aura of being in a specific time and place. Together, these thinkers call attention to a visual regime that emerged in modernity and continues to expand in postmodernity. In their analysis, the cinema joins other visually-driven places that produce and feed on virtual mobility, consumption, placelessness and the loss of aura.
The central paradox of the mobilized virtual gaze of cinema spectation is that while the consumer/spectator/tourist becomes virtually mobile, they also become physically immobile in a confined place. Urban parks share this paradox between mobility and confinement - as I described in post 001, we escape from urban life when we are moving in parks but can also easily feel trapped if we want to get out. A fitting example of this paradox in cinema is the final scene of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. In this film, Poppy, an optimistic idealist, navigates her care-free life without much direction or intention. Her optimism is almost a resistance to the cynicism and societal rules she encounters. Her cynical driving instructor says she 'celebrates chaos' and her married sister tells her to take life seriously and get on the property ladder. She only responds that she feels lucky with her aimless life. The film ends in Regent's Park, where Poppy rows a boat on the lake with her flatmate Zoe. Parks are places without directions or destinations, and so are lakes within them. When she learns to drive, she is too easily distracted by roadside events to stay on her track. Rowing on a directionless lake, she has no responsibility to follow any routes. However, even though this lack of direction gives her freedom, she can only be free within the boundaries of the lake and the park.
Friedberg offers various analogies between places and cinematic activities ('the mall itself is an analogic arena for shifts in identity and temporality that take place during the virtual flanerie of cinema spectatorship') (122). These analogies demonstrate a kinship between place and cinema but ultimately lead to a placeless cinema - here, another paradox: the closeness between place and cinema also pulls them apart. Following my last post, my question is: What's the relationship between place and cinema if not analogy or representation? The answer is a heuristic relationship in which they are naturally predisposed to attach to and generate knowledge about one another. To construct such a direct, theoretical relationship between them involves neither the real places that resemble cinema nor the representational aesthetics of virtual cinematic places. Rather, it requires seeing place as an essence of cinema: cinema does not exist without place just as it does not exist without duration. Although the showing of a film does not rely on a specific real time or place, the film itself is always a unique amalgamation of time and place. Therefore, even though the cinematic gaze is virtually mobile and moveably virtual (the virtual journey can take place anywhere), its virtuality and mobility are predestined (or fixed) by the set of times and places that create real experiences and memories in the spectator. When we move from analogic and representational relationships into a symbiotic relationship between place and cinema, cinema gains a paradoxical reality of the virtual and fixity of the mobile.
How does the study of urban parks in cinema forward this line of thinking? On screen, parks perfectly embody the paradox of the mobilized virtual gaze of cinema spectation. They also share other theoretical affinities with cinema. They do so because they are essential to and inseparable from cinema. When these affinities manifest themselves in plots and themes as in Happy-Go-Lucky and Marathon Man, we witness a filmic element directly engage in shaping and confronting cinema's theoretical qualities. While many grand film theories are derived from established disciplines that have more to do with paradigms than films, the study of place restores specificities in film theory, showing that theories can come from films themselves. In this way, the heuristic relationship between place and cinema is strengthened and made useful for the generation of new film theories. 02/01/2023
Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift opens Thinking Space with the qualification that space is a representational strategy in all disciplines: literary theory, media theory, geography, anthropology (2010: 1). These disciplines pay attention to space because it represents something and, in turn, its representation yields theories of practice. In film and media studies, space often signifies an 'aesthetic shift away from narrative - and temporal - modes of structuring' (ibid.). Put simply, 'space' refers to the arresting of narrative time - when a film pauses to focus on the beauty of a female body, for example, viewers are excused from the temporally driven narrative (e.g. continuity editing and storyline) but are instead preoccupied by elements that exist in space. In this case, space makes possible the representation of visual elements that are secondary in a temporal regime.
Time and space have been in opposition since the advent of modernity. Modern telecommunication technologies and transportation are means for time to conquer space as they strive to reduce barriers set up by space (Bauman 2000). Such power dynamic between time and space contributes to their gendering: Time is male, and space is female (Thornham 2019: 1). Time denotes history, progress, change, movement, politics, and transcendence. Space denotes stasis, nostalgia, emotion, absence of history and politics, and immanence. Men move through space and women stay in place (Thornham 2019: 2). In mainstream cinema, male visual presence often advances the story while female presence tends to 'freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation' (Mulvey 1989: 20). To offer an alternative to this gendered opposition between time and space, feminist theorists such as Doreen Massey propose 'a landscape (or space) that is not only always in movement but is itself a "dynamic simultaneity"' (Thornham 2019: 7). Landscape, then, 'ceases to be "something we travel across" in our journey towards becoming (human, or subject, or hero), but becomes itself the intersection of different stories, different temporalities' (ibid). Basically, space is no longer static but dynamic. It cannot be separate from time but is rather imbued with temporality. Space changes through time, and time takes place in space.
The problem of representation becomes relevant to this re-imagination of space. For Massey, to re-imagine space is to liberate it from 'some chains of meaning (which embed it with closure and stasis, or with science, writing and representation) and which have all but choked it to death, in order to set it into other chains […] where it can have a new and more productive life.' (2005: 50). Representation implies the existence of an ulterior reality whose characteristics are mirrored and meanings to be discovered and uncovered; representing space means fixing it into texts, concepts, and meanings. Moreover, representation is conceived of as the spatialisation of time, the taming and fixing of heterogeneity. In these conceptions, space is denied a life of its own and thus incapable of rejoining time dynamically. As such, to re-imagine space, we must abandon the tendencies to represent it and associate it with representation.
In a similar effort to take issue with representation, film scholar Richard Rushton powerfully questions 'why anyone would feel the need to declare that cinema re-presents anything' (2011: 4). Rather, he argues, films create realities, possibilities, memories, experiences, and worlds without representing or reflecting any outside reality. Films are part of reality, and film scholars have long made the mistake of relying on a logic of representation. They only analyze the film behind the film, what films conceal or reveal about the cultural, historical, and societal realities outside films themselves. As with space, films shall be liberated from this logic of representation which shuts them off as 'a deficient and secondary mode of reality' (ibid.: 3). Thus, to study filmic space no longer means studying its relation to cultural geography, capitalism, or history. Of course those disciplines are still important, but their relation with filmic space is not one of representation but experimentation. Instead, we shall study spaces and places in film as they are - a dynamic part of reality that gives us new thoughts and feelings about the world and our place in the world. 30/11/2022
Marathon Man (1976) is a film that begins and ends in Central Park. It follows Babe (Dustin Hoffman), a history student, who keeps on discovering unsavoury truths about the people around him and tries to survive in an cruel, dangerous world. There are three park sequences that denote Babe's development. In the beginning sequence, we see him running by the park reservoir alone, enjoying his peace at first but quickly running into an unfriendly competitor and a howling dog. The second sequence in Central Park is when he goes on a date with his Swiss girlfriend Elsa. They are smitten with each other and have the most wonderful time in the park, but they end up getting violently mugged by two men in suits who followed them. Later, Babe would find out that both Elsa and the muggers worked for the Nazi war criminal Szell, who is targeting Babe because of his secret agent brother's wrongdoing. The final sequence is a direct confrontation between Babe and Szell which leads to the latter's miserable death. Babe has come into full knowledge of previously concealed truths and is finally facing the source of his chain of unfortunate events. He points a gun at Szell behind his jacket and forces him into an indoor location, all while passing by formerly romantic locations and surrounded by giddy children.
Each of the three park sequences marks a stage in Babe's transition from an innocent nerd who runs as a hobby to a hardened criminal who runs for his life. And in each, a set of contradictions: in the first scene, the peace and volatility of exercising in the park. In the second, romance and crime. In the last, a cheerful surface (the children) and the precarious reality (what's going on between Babe and Szell). So, in a way, truth is revealed in and through these contradictions' coexistence and negotiation. We are always presented with a surface and a reality concealed by it. There is a remarkable moment in the second sequence when the couple and the muggers appear in the same frame, the former completely unaware of the danger they are in. This realistic scenario in urban parks captured by the movie camera lays bare how cinema and urban parks house contradictions and unconceal truths by presenting two sides of a contradiction.
Apart from Badiou's philosophy of truth, this mechanism shared by cinema and urban parks evokes Heideggerian philosophy and a quote by Bernardo Bertolucci on interrupting a shot:
I do the shot and then cut it because I feel in general that we ought to work against what we have done. You do something and contradict it, then contradict the contradiction and so on. Vitality is precisely due to the ability to contradict oneself constantly, to deny oneself and eventually you discover that you haven’t contradicted yourself but rather followed your very own truth.
Bertolucci is describing the thesis-antithesis-synthesis process in the Hegelian tradition, that truth must be derived from rigorous, dialectical testing in a spiral formation. In Marathon Man, the contradicting relations presented in the park intensifies with each sequence (spiralling) and eventually brings Babe to his truth. Heidegger holds that modern technology is a way of revealing truths. For Heidegger, new technology presents us with new challenges, and our handling of technology reveals the truth about our Being-in-the world. Now, cinema is a technology that reveals such truths - film scholars have extensively studied and theorised what the various ways of manipulating cinema tell us about the real in ideology and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
At this juncture, I must point out the obvious irony in making the connection between Heidegger and Marathon Man. Marathon Man is the work of a Jewish director, John Schlesinger, and the boss villain in this film is a Nazi war criminal who does unspeakable things (don't see it if you're going to the dentist). Heidegger is infamous for his involvement in the Nazi party, and many have associated his ideas of totalizing truth with his support for the Nazi ideology. Truth is indeed a dangerous concept in today's postmodern world. Its existence is highly contestable, and for some even reactionary. Therefore, the analysis I've made here may sit too comfortably with a tradition that's becoming obsolete. This is not to say that the notion of truth is completely useless. Contradictions still yield some truths, but we must make truth the opposite of totalizing metanarratives. Badiou has striven to perform this task by reconceptualising truth as something wholly contingent and irreducible to language, and I would like to propose that truth can be a phenomenological experience that appeals to affects and the body. 18/11/2022 (film recommended by Ruairiadh O'Connell)
Landscape has all the features of language. It contains the equivalent of words and parts of speech-patterns of shape, structure, material, formation, and function. All landscapes are combinations of these. Like the meanings of words, the meanings of landscape elements (water, for example) are only potential until context shapes them. Rules of grammar govern and guide how landscapes are formed, some specific to places and their local dialects, others universal. Landscape is pragmatic, poetic, rhetorical, polemical. Landscape is scene of life, cultivated construction, carrier of meaning. It is language.
- Anne Whiston Spirn, The Language of Landscape, 1998
Spirn invites us to learn how to read and speak the language of landscape in order to form more appropriate intellectual and emotional responses to the landscape we dwell in and construct. For me, to speak the language of landscape (to be attuned to its shapes and structures?) is exactly like inhabiting a language. We all know that each language is composed of grammar, phonetics, and word constructions that directly influence a person's thought and behaviour. For instance, I recently learned of the concept that English is a writer-responsible language while Chinese is a reader-responsible language, meaning that in the former, it is the writer's responsibility to make sure the message is understood and vice versa. Another more microscopic example is that all single pronouns (he/she/it) are pronounced as 'ta' in Chinese and one would often need to clarify who is who in speech. I have always wondered if that makes personal or objective identity more immediate than gender identity in Sinophone cultures.
Anyway, my point is, landscape is strikingly identifiable by the people who speak it. I can be looking at generic pictures of urban parks from different parts of the world and instinctively sense their different origins. New York parks feel and look artificial, London parks look idyllic and untamed, Parisian jardins have gravel and rectangular-shaped trees, and Shenzhen parks appear joyously tropical and suspiciously clean.
Just like landscape, cinema is also a language, consisting of shots, scenes, sequences, and so on. National cinemas can be uniquely identifiable like landscape, but perhaps not including auteur cinema. I would say that cinema is part of landscape, or at least landscape of a certain culture and people. That's why cinema and landscape are so intertwined, and the question my project asks is: Does the language of landscape give us a new understanding of the cinematic language? 11/11/2022
Cinema basically consists in creating new ideas about what an idea is. To put it another way, cinema is a philosophical situation. Expressed abstractly, a philosophical situation is the relationship between terms that usually have no relationship with each other. A philosophical situation is an encounter between terms that are foreign to each other.
- Alain Badiou, Cinema as Philosophical Experimentation
For Badiou, cinema's philosophical capacity lies in its synthesis of contradictions. Cinema is a mass art, an oxymoron in itself - mass is a democratic element, whereas art is an aristocratic one. This contradiction, if we extend it to place, can come in the form of uneven geographical developments that David Harvey otes in Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Simply put, we observe rich areas getting richer and poor areas getting poorer because of the accumulation of capital. And in reality, rich and poor areas are so often just blocks away from each other.
Parks have a similar contradiction in its past and present. Historically, parks were built by the aristocracy for recreational and aesthetic purposes and served as a symbol of wealth. It was only during the processes of urbanisation and modernisation that parks became public, urban, and for the masses. This does not mean that all urban parks are mass parks - some are still gated and preserved for use by wealthy neighborhoods, such as Gramercy Park in New York and Bedford Square Garden in London. Conversely, many other parks suffer from desolation and neglect due to uneven developments and lack of public funding.
Here is an opportunity to explore the urban park's symbolic function in cinema with regard to this contradiction. Parks can be anything from urban wasteland to exclusive gardens, so what does their cinematic representation say about cinema's polarising tendencies towards 'mass' and 'art'? 03/11/2022
Dusk. In Holland Park.
I had to cut across the park to reach the tube station, and I enjoyed the pleasant scenery until I was near the park's edges. Despite all the signages in place, I felt I was getting lost for a moment. Google Maps did not fully capture the crevices and nooks of the park terrain. So as I was seeking an exit, a brief misalignment between the maps and reality gave me a minor anxiety shock. Just seconds later, however, I caught eyes on a few others who were also leaving the park before it got dark. Following them, I found myself on a cement road that led to a white building: the Greek Embassy.
Urban Parks are strange places - you shift between being at ease in the precious urban greenery and a panic of feeling trapped inside ever so frequently. They are thus simultaneously liberating and confining. 31/10/2022