Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Map-Making through Multi-Thread Urban Film and Television Narratives

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Map-Making through Multi-Thread Urban Film and Television Narratives

Article excerpt

Abstract: "Map-Making through Multi-thread Urban Film and Television Narratives" This paper investigates the way multi-thread narrative structure represents the complexities of the turn-of-the-century American city. Multi-thread narratives feature multiple plot lines with unrelated characters that run parallel and occasionally intersect. Such a narrative structure replicates an ethnographic or sociological portrait of urban life, rather than one based on a central protagonist with a few key relationships. I argue that multi-thread narratives are by their nature "world-building," and thus are very relevant to theories of place-making and cognitive mapping. The article focuses on the films Grand Canyon (1991) and Crash (2004) and the television series The Wire (2002-2008). The comparison of multi-thread films and a five-season television series allows us to see various possibilities for mental mapping. It becomes clear that the films seek to create authoritative, "closed maps," with the spectator an all-knowing map-reader. The Wire, by contrasts, constructs a more "open map," which confronts viewers with the dynamism of place and the inevitability of unknown terrain. Such "open maps" are key to the politics of multi-racial urban imagery, as a means of countering the impression of totalizing knowledge.

**********

All cinematic and televisual narratives build virtual worlds. These worlds are constructed by the photographic realism of location (whether studio sets or real streets and neighborhoods) combined with the fiction of storytelling. However the visual narratives that combine multiple plot threads and large casts of characters seem most deliberate in their ambition to build an onscreen world. Their larger scales allow them to either paint ethnographic-sociological portraits or to pose philosophical questions. My project here is to compare cinematic and televisual urban dramas in order to reveal the way their narratives construct the complex space of the American city. Two films--Grand Canyon (1991) and Crash (2004)--and the television series The Wire (2002-2008) seek specifically to understand the way characters of multiple races and class positions experience urban locations. Their portrayals of characters encountering each other dramatize the way that places are not static entities, but continually re-made with each encounter. The experience of watching such narratives is akin to building a mental map of these virtual cities. Distinct differences in their mapping strategies--including parallelism and degrees of omniscience--lead to maps we may see as "open" or "closed."

These three texts belong to distinct styles of filmmaking and television production: Grand Canyon comes in the midst of an early 1990s interest in the so-called "inner city," an interest triggered by sensationalist reports of drug use and gang violence. Crash is a product of its decade's attempt to see greater complexity in American race relations as well as a trend toward "puzzle narratives." The Wire is a fusion of socially-engaged journalism and "quality" television. As distinct as their styles are the two cities they take as their subjects. Grand Canyon and Crash are both set in Los Angeles, and reflect its image as a city of vast income inequality and of personal alienation. The Wire is grounded in its creators' intimate knowledge of Baltimore, and projects the image of a largely working-class and post-industrial city.

While these differences are worth study, the project here is to compare the way that a distinct type of narrative structure represents urban American geographies. At issue is the representation of urban-ness as a dense, inter-related network of people--not the accuracy of these texts' depictions of their specific cities. So the main points of comparison will be the way that these narratives depict the formation of places as subjective experiences, the way characters map multiple itineraries through the same physical spaces, and the way that watching these narratives sets up distinct spectatorial experiences. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.