I put together this piece (about cities and how they are presented in film) from a number of notes and emails I wrote some years ago. Someone I know was giving a course in the Middle East on that very subject and they asked if I had any ideas, so I managed to collate a few together and then incorporated another few from my friend in the west of Ireland, Colm MacDiarmuida, and my frequent collaborator on Momentary Cinema, Alan Matthews. Therefore, thanks must go to both of them for their input here.
The City Aesthetic
“By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities.”
Be it in sunshine, in moonlight, in twilight or in abstract tones, cities are often aestheticised on film. Monolithic skyscrapers as dramatic backdrops are sometimes utilised in scenes for grand effect. Take for example the city of Houston in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. The city skyline at dusk is captured beautifully as Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis attempts to reconcile his abandoned son with his estranged mother. These scenes are contrasted by the empty but equally beautiful wilderness of the desert shown at the beginning of the film (the famous sequence where Travis enters the picture wearing a ragged suit and a red baseball cap and clearly incognisant of where he is going). The magnificent photography can be attributed to the genius of Robby Muller, who also provided awe-inspiring cinematography to other 1980s classics such as Repo Man and Down by Law.
City streets can be presented in similarly aestheticised ways too. Wenders employed Jorg Widmer to photograph the streets of colourful Havana in his 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club – a celebration of Latin Jazz. The film itself sees legendary guitarist Ry Cooder corral an ensemble of almost-forgotten Cuban musicians (including Ibrahim Ferrer) to record and perform together. This feel-good endeavour is wholly complimented by the vivid colours and the true ‘cool-cat’ characters from around the city. The smell of rum and cigars almost waft through the screen as the lively music prompts you to tango and groove in appreciation!
Michael Mann is no stranger to capturing shots of the contemporary American urban-scape in unique and spellbinding ways. He has a strategic eye for shooting picturesque moments of city backgrounds. In many of his films the mood of the city can provide important metaphorical insights into his protagonists: night-time Los Angeles acts as a perfect playground for Tom Cruise’s grey-haired hitman in Collateral; Chicago acts as a claustrophobic prison for James Caan’s low-time but aspiring hoodlum in Thief (1981) and Miami is a glittering night-time paradise for Latino criminals in a remake of the TV show Miami Vice from 2006. Mann has always been noted for his stylish direction, but I hasten to add that unlike say a Brian de Palma film, there is more meaning to be cut from the way in which he uses visuals. In Collateral for example, Jamie Foxx as the increasingly weary cab driver slows down to allow a couple of coyotes cross the city strip, thus prompting Cruise, sitting in the backseat, to reflect upon his existence silently for a moment. It is a truly magnificent and unexpected interlude and its effect is heightened by Chris Cornell’s haunting voice as background music.
Crime and Decay
“…cities are murky places – hatching grounds for monsters…”
John Geddes, ‘A Familiar Rain’
What of those uglier aspects to cities? The ‘lowest denominator’ that higher society or politics would rather not be reminded about. Criminals, drug users, prostitutes. How are they represented on film? Danny Boyle examined the grimier side to city life in Britain in his ‘quintessential film of the 1990s’ – Trainspotting. It is probably the most striking and unforgettable film ever committed to celluloid about heroin (Christiane F. from 1981 Berlin is a close competitor). In Edinburgh, a city of established beauty (as witnessed from the hills overlooking it in the summer time), Boyle utilises areas and buildings that had social rot and abject poverty written all over. The unmentionable filth of the pub toilet that Renton (Ewan McGregor) ‘dives’ into in order to salvage his drug score can be seen as a metaphor for the city’s social problems. The same can be said of Dublin in Adam and Paul (2004 Lenny Abrahamson) – an astounding and sadly underrated tragi-comedy, where two homeless junkies wander around the city desperately seeking their next fix. They pass some of the most iconic streets and structures of the city but whereas these may signify something for tourists, they have little bearing on the two characters.
The Italian film, aptly named Gomorrah (2008) is set in Naples and follows the gritty and bloody goings-on of the mafia and organised crime in the south of Italy. The beautiful historical city of Napoli looms large in the background as shocking crimes are carried out without regard for humanity (or the environment). The Brazilian film City of God (2002) shocks in a similar way but here we are transposed to the poverty-stricken streets of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. Every alleyway and street brims with life and atmosphere but at the back of it all, there is only exploitation, hopelessness and decay. And city decay is to fore in the 2000 documentary Dark Days by Marc Singer. This excellent film examines the daily lives of homeless people who dwell in the subterranean levels of New York City. The photography is in grainy black and white and DJ Shadow provides a trip-hop soundtrack, which all creates a sense of other-worldliness. It may indeed be another world, but it is in fact a part of the most famous city in the world, and it is very, very real.
Dystopia and Apocalypse
“The city is alive, the city is expanding. Living in the city can be demanding.”
Flight of the Conchords
Fritz Lang made Metropolis in the mid 1920s, and at that time it was a huge expense to create the futuristic cityscape design that characterised the film. He had been inspired by the skyscrapers in New York City which he visited some years prior, but also incorporated ideas of Gothic architecture and artistic impressions of the biblical Tower of Babel. His ambition had always been to create the biggest and most expensive film that had ever been seen, and the city design was to be the key. The gigantic vertical buildings of Metropolis city are still something to behold despite the film being over 90 years old. These were actually miniature models that were enhanced by illusory mirror effects. Lang’s visionary brilliance indeed would go on to inspire and influence some of the greatest sci-fi works of modern times. Ridley Scott’s stunning setting of Blade Runner (1982) for example was equally inspired by the steamy, bustling, high-rise and highly populated cities of Hong Kong and Singapore as it was by Lang’s vision.
‘What I remember about Blade Runner was the claustrophobia and the neon and advertising overload. Just loads of tiny little businesses crammed into one tight street with the buildings soaring into the sky above. As well as the explosion of trade there was also a strong element of multiculturalism, pollution and danger.’
In 1997, Luc Besson created the most expensive European film by that time with The Fifth Element, and not unlike Lang or Scott’s cinematic vision before him, his realisation of a comic-book-style, futuristic New York is very memorable, despite it mostly being generated by computer effects. Most of the action progresses to other, more internally-based sets, but the earlier scenes showing multiple lanes of flying cars between gigantic skyscrapers (and all manners of mayhem such as a hovering junk-boat selling Chinese food – shown above) are most impressive. Arguably more impressive than the now-dated, but still immersive, Logan’s Run from 1971 (directed by Micheal Anderson and starring our hero Micheal York), which cuts away to an unrealistic-looking Thunderbirds-style model set whenever it requires to visually depict the city-dome structure where all people are concealed in.
Another great example of a dystopian city appears in Dark City, where Australian director Alex Proyas effectively renders a deep space-set, noir-style cityscape, that cleverly draws on styles and architecture from a variety of known cities around the world – you await Bogart’s Philip Marlowe to appear around every corner! Then you have the imagining of a post-apocalyptic, police-driven New York City, under siege from punks, in John Carpenter’s excellent Escape from New York (1981) – notably made prior to Blade Runner. Mention must be made too of Terry Gilliam’s madcap Brazil (a comic critique of an over-industrialised world), a version of near-future London overran with ultra-violent delinquents in Kubrick’s notorious adaptation of A Clockwork Orange or indeed Neil Bromkamp’s attempt at retelling the story of apartheid in an alternative 1982-set Johannesburg (with scary-looking prawn aliens) in District 9.
Then there are visions of de-populated and abandoned cities in post-apocalyptic films such as the great New Zealand film The Quiet Earth, Danny Boyle’s zombie flick 24 Hours Later or The Omega Man with Charlton Heston from 1971 based on Richard Matheson’s novel (let’s not mention Will Smith and 2007’s I Am Legend). There must be a hell of a lot of money and paperwork involved in evacuating these areas to film scenes of uninhabited streets and buildings, but they are definitely worth it for the visual impact. They can be really eerie and affecting and much more authentic than the apocalyptic events depicted in more recent times by commercial directors/producers such as Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) or JJ Abrams (Cloverfield).
“A city isn’t so unlike a person. They both have the marks to show they have many stories to tell. They see many faces. They tear things down and make new again.”
Rasmenia Massoud, ‘Broken Abroad’
Some directors have an obsession with cities. They draw us in, prompting us to believe that the city is a living thing, a neighbour, a sibling, a parent or a lover. In many cases, the city is close to the director’s heart. It’s their livelihood, their bread and butter, their hometown. Two directors and one city clearly come to mind here – Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and New York. Allen’s New York trilogy from the 1970s and 1980s, constituting of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, all pay a glorifying tribute to the Big Apple as a setting and a place. The city provides more than just a backdrop to the deep, human elements of the stories, it becomes a part of the story and sometimes becoming the heartbeat of the human characters.
We can see the same in Martin Scorsese’s earlier films from the 1970s, in particular Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (New York is the setting for Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and The Wolf Of Wall Street too). Like Allen, Scorsese is a quintessential New Yorker, but in contrast to Allen’s Jewish background, he grew up in Queens in a very traditional Italian catholic family. His films have always shown an intimacy with ‘the inner neighbourhood’ of New York. In Harvey Keitel’s character in Mean Streets and De Niro in Taxi Driver, there is an intrinsic knowledge of what’s around every street corner – they live and breathe its essence. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, from the early 1990s and set in Brooklyn and Harlem respectively, also incorporate this idea of embodying the city within its characters. With Lee, however, the focus is more explicitly on racial tensions than on crime and romance.
For the animated film Porco Rosso, Hayou Miyazaki (of Japanese Studio Ghibli fame) brainstormed an image of a completely imaginary city set somewhere on the Adriatic Sea. Supposedly it was a city located on the Italian mainland – the main theme of the film concerns itself with fascist Italy between the two World Wars – but apparently it more resembles a town called Rijecka in Croatia, where Miyazaki likely visited back in the early 1990s when the Balkans was mired in conflict. The city in itself, as seen mostly from the skies (the main character Porco is a literally pig-headed fighter pilot) plays a pivotal role in setting the political context of the film. Needless to say, the Miyazaki signature images (rolling plateaus, the effects of wind, innovative aviation models) are drawn to perfection by the Studio Ghibli team, and it all makes for a wonderful and magical film.
A city lends itself as a supporting character in many films, my favourite being a rubbled, post-war Vienna in the timeless The Third Man from 1949. The city’s many alleyways, sewers and broken walls crucially lends itself to concealing the on-the-run venture capitalist Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles). Berlin too is a city that has captured the imagination of many viewers over the years and with good reason considering its history – we see it as a character in Goodbye Lenin, The Lives of Others and the transcendental Wings of Desire. Then we have Sophia Coppola’s surreal and magnificent Lost in Translation where dreamers Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson mostly play second fiddle to the culture and beauty of Tokyo. Venice is genuinely haunting in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Parma is enveloping in Bertolucci’s Before The Revolution, Buenos Aires is emanating in the thoroughly unique gay romance Happy Together and Mexico City is chaotic in the labyrinthine multiple-plot-laden Amores Perros.
And so one can see that perceptions of a city through the medium of film can vary considerably across genres, across time and from director to director. Where a city can be alive and well and brimming with vibrancy and well-being on the surface, it can be stale, stagnant, sterile and slowly in decay underneath. But thankfully not always. As long as there are films that utilises cities as a device to communicate something or other to the viewer, it makes things more interesting and intriguing.
To sign off, I will leave you with a clip from the greatest documentary ever made (in my opinion) – Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi from 1982. A film that captures an astounding stream of moving images from cities and places around the world. The title comes from a Hopi word that roughly translates as ‘unbalanced life’. Say no more…
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