Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Thinking cities darkly

Image: frame from West of the Tracks

Cities capture much of what we mean by "modern," and have done so since Walter Benjamin's writings on Paris (link). But unlike the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, much of our imagining of cities since the early twentieth century has been dark and foreboding. A recent volume edited by Gyan Prakash, Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City, offers a collection of recent work in cultural studies that attempts to decode some of this dark imagery.

Several things are particularly interesting about the volume. Most basically, it represents an interesting conjunction of humanities perspectives and sociology. The articles are individually very good. And as a group they pose a series of important questions. How does a film set in Los Angeles or Shanghai serve to depict the city? Is there sociological content in a film that can contribute to a better sociology of the city? But also -- what can we say about the cultural currents that produce a particular vision of the city? Are there post-modern sensibilities and fears that lead filmmakers to turn the ambience dark?

The volume treats cities and their depictions in many parts of the world -- China, South Africa, Mexico, India, Europe, and the United States.  What is unusual about the volume is the fact that it is not a collection in "film studies" or in "urban studies", but rather a series of contributions taking seriously representation and the represented.  Moreover, there is no effort to force the perspectives taken into a common theory of "noir representation"; there are common themes that emerge, but each contributor brings forward a singular perspective, informed by the specifics of the region and genre that he/she studies. It is a project on the nexus between imaginative representation and existing social realities.

Prakash's excellent introduction begins with these observations:
As the world becomes increasingly urban, dire predictions of an impending crisis have reached a feverish pitch. Alarming statistics on the huge and unsustainable gap between the rates of urbanization and economic growth in the global South is seen to spell disaster.  The unprecedented agglomeration of the poor produces the specter of an unremittingly bleak "planet of slums." Monstrous megacities do not promise the pleasures of urbanity but the misery and strife of the Hobbesian jungle.  The medieval maxim that the city air makes you free appears quaint in view of the visions of an approaching urban anarchy.  Urbanists write about fortified "privatopias" erected by the privileged tow all themselves off from the imagined resentment and violence of the multitude. Instead of freedom, the unprecedented urbanization of poverty seems to promise only division and conflict.  The image of the modern city as a distinct and bounded entity lies shattered as market-led globalization and media saturation dissolve boundaries between town and countryside, center and periphery. From the ruins of the old ideal of the city as a space of urban citizens there emerges, sphinx-like, a "Generic City" of urban consumers.
As important as it is to assess the substance of these readings of contemporary trends in urbanization, it is equally necessary to examine their dark form as a mode of urban representation. This form is not new.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, dystopic images have figured prominently in literary, cinematic, and sociological representations of the modern city. In these portrayals, the city often appears as dark, insurgent (or forced into total obedience), dysfunctional (or forced into machine-like functioning), engulfed by ecological and social crises, seduced by capitalist consumption, paralyzed by crime, wars, class, gender, and racial conflicts, and subjected to excessive technological and technocratic control What characterizes such representations is not just their bleak mood but also their mode of interpretation, which ratchets up a critical reading of specific historical conditions to diagnose crisis and catastrophe. (1)
All the essays are interesting and insightful, but I was particularly interested in the Asian contributions -- India, China, and Japan.

First is Li Zhang's treatment of some current treatments of the dark side of Chinese cities (Shanghai and Shenyang) in "Postsocialist Urban Dystopia?".  She treats the Sixth Generation and New Documentaries movements in contemporary Chinese filmmaking, focusing on two recent works (Wang Bing's West of the Tracks, about the decline of a rust-belt city in the Northeast, and Lou Ye's Suzhou River, about the lives of poor and disaffected people in Shanghai).

Both works serve as powerful examples of "noir urbanism" in a Chinese context.  West of the Tracks is a nine-hour documentary capturing the lives and declining prospects of working class people in Shenyang following the reform of Chinese industry in the 1990s.  (C. K. Lee describes this process in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt.) Here is a link to West of the Tracks, well worth viewing.  And Suzhou River captures some of the gritty, squalid aspects of life in contemporary Shanghai, but also dwells on the moral shift that China is undergoing, towards a consumerist, wealth-oriented corrupt society.  Here is a clip from Suzhou River:

Zhang combines her own anthropological fieldwork in Chinese cities with her reading of these films, giving her essay a multiple sense of authority.  Here is a brief description of West of the Tracks that illustrates the intersection of criticism and fieldwork:
While capturing the "raw and the real" experiences of workers, West of the Tracks offers a subtle yet powerful critique of the postsocialist state and its neoliberal turn.  What is so striking in the story told here is the lack of government help and the indifference of society toward workers' dilemmas. (137)
She refers to the bleak setting of the break room at the factory:
In their daily conversations in the break room, smelting workers frequently talk about how the managers and cadres of the factories steal public money to line their own pockets by taking kickbacks at the expense of the enterprise.  The management and bosses rarely appear in the film.  The longest presence is a banquet gathering at a local restaurant where factory managers and cadres talked about the imminent total privatization.  They are well dressed in leather and wool coats with fur collars. (137)
So there are several key themes here: First, there is a critical perspective on the rising inequalities and dispossession of ordinary people that have followed from China's growth policies; this is the documentary aspect of the films she discusses, and plainly reflects the filmmakers' interest in capturing an important and disturbing contemporary social reality in China.  And second, there is a critical vision of the moral dislocations that China has undergone, from Maoist egalitarianism to capitalist and consumerist pursuit of wealth.  Zhang captures this element of contemporary China in her discussion of both films, but especially in Suzhou River.  There is squalor and poverty, to be sure, but more pervasive is the sense of moral ungroundedness.
Moneymaking, market exchange, and pleasure-seeking are the dominant forces of everyday life.  For example, the power of money erodes Mardar's blossoming love for Mudan and eventually destroys her, the symbol of innocent, unpolluted love.  Human greediness corrupts souls and drives violent acts such as kidnaping and murder. (139)
Zhang's summary is explicit:
During market liberalization, Chinese society has irrevocably changed into a mass consumer society in which money increasingly controls people's lives and determines their lifestyles. (139)
Another fine contribution to the volume shifts focus to India's cities.  Ranjani Mazumdar's "Friction, Collision, and the Grotesque: The Dystopic Fragments of Bombay Cinema" focuses on the mental urban landscape -- the way in which an Indian city is perceived by its residents, and the ways in which the residents are impaired by the city.  Mazumdar discusses three "urban fringe" films, Dombivli Fast, Being Cyrus, and No Smoking.  Here is a clip from Dombivli Fast:

Dombivli Fast is quite different from the films discussed by Zhang. It is reflective of the current social realities of Mumbai -- meaningless work, endless commuting on super-crowded trains.  But it is more personal and introspective than the Chinese works, in that it focuses on one man and his family; it attempts to reveal his inner anxieties and thoughts.  The dystopia here is not crushing poverty -- Madhav Apte and his family live a middle-class life in Mumbai.  Here the dystopia is the pressure, stress, and callous injustice of society that drives Madhav to the breaking point.
Madhav Apte does not go back home for three days after he explodes. Armed with a cricket bat, Apte acquires a menacing persona as he moves through a city that is almost fated to collapse because of corruption, inequality, and indifference. In his journey across Bombay's deadly streets, Madhav becomes an active figure whose rage makes him see the city with a heightened perception. (159)  
(There are clips from Being Cyrus and No Smoking on Youtube as well.  This is one of the fascinating realities of reading the volume: it is possible for us non-specialists to view segments from most of the films that are discussed.)

David Ambaras takes up Tokyo in its cultural representations in "Topographies of Distress: Tokyo, c. 1930." He too highlights the discrepancy between official, ideological expressions of the city, and the underlying grinding reality that modern cities often represent.
Yet despite this ebullience, to many contemporaries, urban modernity signaled the destruction of Japanese social values by Western materialism and individualistic hedonism, of which the modern girl served as the prime example. (188)
Ambaras doesn't work through cinema, but rather what he calls "slum discourse" and graphic pictorial representations of urban life.  He highlights the popular and journalistic literature of the 1870s through the early 1900s as a barometer of the anxieties Tokyo residents experienced about their changing city.  Stories of disease, child murder, beggars, and abject poverty permeate this literature.
These various forms of representation, ... had combined to produce in the Iwanosaka case a set of images that both shocked the sensibilities of readers and investigators and were necessary to their understanding of themselves as part of a modern metropolitan social formation. They reinforced the sense, common to many interpretations of the modern condition, that modernity was best apprehended through contrasts -- between, for example, utopian promise and dystopian reality -- or in terms of dark mysteries concealed beneath the surface of social relationships, and that the modern (urban) subject was compelled to navigate anxiously between these two positions, ever unsure as to which was the "truth" or in which direction he/she was being led. (210-11)
It is worth sorting out the different perspectives on social knowledge represented in this volume.  First, there is the question of knowledge of the object, the contemporary city.  Does cinema shed light on the current social realities of Shanghai or Mumbai?  Can cinema contribute to urban sociology?  Second is the question of the mentality of a place and time; the way that contemporary Mumbai-ers or Shanghai-ers think of themselves and their society.  Can cinema accurately capture some strands of social consciousness and anxiety that are real threads in the social landscape?  Is cinema a legitimate form of ethnography?  And third is the mentality and intentions of the creative class itself -- the filmmakers.  Can the critic discover threads in the filmmaker's work that sheds important light on the preoccupations of this slice of contemporary society?

Finally, we can ask the question of perspectivalism: how many Shanghai's are there?  Zhang refers to the Maoist preference for social realism or socialist romanticism; there are the entertainment-oriented Shanghai thrillers; there is the global Shanghai as an exotic backdrop to drama; and there is the noir representation of the social problems of the city.  Can we say that one depiction is more veridical than the other?  Or perhaps, can we say that several of these perspectives are compatible with the truth of Shanghai; and that optimism and pessimism are equally distorting frames for social perception?

(I note that several of the essays refer to Mike Davis's Planet of Slums; this is worth reading.)


Yayaver said...

Check this NYT article A Physicist Solves the City on urban planning.

Eric Tolle said...

While cinema is excellent at portraying common fears and stereotypes of an age, it doesn't really follow that it is an accurate depiction of a society at a given location and time. As an example, consider the numerous movies that came out in the 1980s that portrayed the Japanese as alien economic invaders, or the Soviets as more-or-less human Terminators with no goal other than crushing the U.S..

Films are also not egalitarian enough to make a good ethnography; a given film is a product of a very small group of people, often a writer/director, and as such can really only be understood in terms of presenting their agenda or point of view. Almost from the beginning of cinematography there's been countless films that have portrayed historical and current events distorted by the views of the writer and director. On the one hand we have "Battleship Potempkin", on the other, "Birth of a Nation". It's easy for writing and cinematic tricks to give a view of a local that reflects almost completely the view of the film maker, leaving out any factors that may make reality more complicated or ambiguous.

To summarize, films make for lousy depictions of anything other than what the filmmaker is thinking, and trusting films to accurately depict a culture is giving too much authority to a small group.

To be sure, one may be able to use films to illustrate common viewpoints in a society, but one has to bear heavily in mind that they are edited and manipulated portrayals based on the vision of a limited number of people. In short, don't confuse films with reality.