Pedagogy in Action: Urban Images in Film and Media

Article excerpt

Distinctions concerning what things are, how we define things, how they appear, and what their appearance tells us about them, are quixotic. In the case of cities, which have long been represented in art, literature, and photographic and electronic media, a second level of complication arises: cities represent themselves. Buildings, plans (both vernacular and grand), and history; marketing for tourism and civic pride; neighborhoods; ethnic, racial, and class identities (among other expressions of style) are ways in which a city produces itself and images of itself simultaneously. Even the theatrical stage with its perspectival backdrop was imported from city streets. Compound these significations, the diverse cluster of popular, cultural, and artistic images that comprise our view of the city with the convergence of disciplines that take cities and the urban process the complex interactions between natural and built environments and social relations that make up the dynamic course of urban history, economics, politics and everyday lives--as their object, add the complexities of film studies, and one has a challenging subject.

For more than ten years, I have been teaching a course titled Urban Images in Film and Media, which introduces students to the intertwined languages of filmic representation and concepts in urbanism. I concentrate on film, but urge students to link, with attention to the demands of each separate technology, what they find to other media, The films I screen in this course do not necessarily illustrate urban problems or even social conditions; narratives, documentary, and alternative films arise from the same systems of representation as the urban environments through which they find their subjects.

Crime, for instance, is not only ubiquitous in fiction set in cities--it is a complex, often urban, set of interactions determined by geography, economics, identities, behaviors, conditions (among them structural inequities and class conflict), and history. Fiction detailing urban crimes and criminality produce anti-urban attitudes, which in turn affect socioeconomic policies and funding. Students recognize ongoing dialogues and/or fictional subtexts that evoke social conditions, anxieties, and attitudes about cities through categorizing and analyzing recurring images and tropes. They question the mutability and persistence of these images while learning the basic conceptual languages of urban geography. I expect them to be able to use terminology such as built environment, public and private space, urban process, capital accumulation, exclusion, structural violence, immigration, and centripetal and centrifugal movement, as well as to explore what Mike Davis calls the "social perception of threat." (1)

We consider the functions of urban spaces including streets, cafes, underground clubs, transport, offices, parks, rooftops, and districts. Interrogation of images is a primary aspect of media literacy and should include consideration of composition, dynamics, color, aesthetics, and the spatial implications of editing. Camera position, framing, and camera movement--"film style as a formal system" (2)--parallel the dynamic visual field of cities. In his essay "Cinema and the City in History and Theory," Mark Shiel argues:

  Formally, the cinema has long had a striking and distinctive ability
  to capture and express the spatial complexity, diversity, and social
  dynamism of the city through mise-en-scene, location shooting,
  lighting, cinematography and editing, while thinkers from Benjamin to
  Baudrillard ... have recognized and observed the telling correlations
  between the mobility and visual and aural sensations of the city and
  the mobility and visual and aural sensations of the cinema. (3)

Students learn that the social production of space--in the movies and on the streets--is a symbolic, aesthetic, and material process.

In the current version of the course, we take the cities of Paris and Los Angeles as our case studies. …