Cities In TransitionLike the city, motion pictures move, both outwards and inwards: they journey, that is, through the space of the imagination, the site of memory and the topography of affects.

– Giuliana Bruno (p. 26)

Transition marks a change, a movement from one thing to another, the leaving behind of one state and the dawn of something new. Change can be traumatic, exciting, fleeting, disorientating. In terms of the city, transitions are constantly occurring, and moving pictures have always tried to capture, or represent, these movements. As Guiliana Bruno argues, motion pictures move us, and it is this sense of movement, both physical and emotional, which seems to link film – and screen cultures more generally – to cities, which are seen in this book, Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis, “not as things but processes” (Paul Julian Smith, p. 156). Cities in Transition engages with an incredibly broad range of theories relating to the city, modernity and changing technologies, all seen, in some way, through the mediating lens of the camera. The scope and variety of the essays collected here make it a challenging book to view as a cohesive whole. However, there are a number of recurring threads which provide an opportunity to tie the work together and assess its contribution to the ever-popular question of how the screen, modernity and city cultures intersect. Many of the themes encountered in this volume are by no means new, but they are tackled with reference to a wide variety of filmic texts, and in terms of a number of different countries – including Mexico, China and Spain – offering new perspectives on the debate. Bringing together architecture, philosophy and cultural studies, Cities in Transition resists any glib generalisations about what a city is, how a city works, and what it means for politics, culture and cinematic representation. Instead, the volume provides a complex, sometimes dense collection of musings on the constantly changing nature of the urban experience and the way this experience is negotiated on screen.

The notion of “transition” is taken to mean very different things to the various contributors to this collection, from the literal to the esoteric. In his introduction, Andrew Webber suggests that issues of transit and transition are fundamental conditions of urban life, and of screen media, and identifies the beginnings of a “turn” to the city as an object of study which can bring together many disciplines and foster debate between them. Cinema is seen to be an essentially urban art form, an artistic medium which responds to the changing nature of time and space in the metropolis, and with this comes the inevitable paradoxes which are seen to accompany life in the city. Webber begins the volume by turning to those city-critics par excellence, Walter Benjamin and Georg Simmel, to suggest that film engages with the same ambiguities seen to circulate in the modern metropolis: “caught between stimulation and anaesthesia, shock and distraction, disorder and order” (p. 6).

The book begins by looking at the very beginnings of cinema, just as cities were in their most rapid phases of transformation and transition, with essays such as Bruno’s “Motion and Emotion: Film and the Urban Fabric”, which explores the new ways of seeing – a “shift in the perceptual arena” (p. 14) – brought on by changes in the urban scene. She focuses on architecture and the experience of walking city streets as defining influences on the new medium of film, arguing that

an act of traversal conjoins film and the city. An architectural ensemble is read as it is traversed. This is also the case for the cinematic spectacle, for film – the screen of light – is read as it is traversed, and is readable insofar as it is traversable (p. 20).

Central to discussions of the intersection between film, the city, and modernity is the notion that the cinema spectator is like a flâneur – traversing a film in the same way one traverses a street, faced with a myriad of fleeting encounters, potential “shocks” and a sense of both stimulation and anaesthesia in the face of what Marshall Berman calls the “maelstrom” of the modern city (1). Many of the writers in this volume take up these themes; in particular, they explore the use of space in cities and on the screen, examining the way these spaces are traversed. Filmmaker Patrick Keiller writes evocatively of the “transition” captured by early films (before 1903), which documented city spaces soon to be changed dramatically by development. These films provide a valuable and “extensive document of ordinary, everyday spaces” (p. 32) spaces soon to be transformed. Keiller discusses “transition” both in terms of the transition from one kind of filmmaking to another – from space represented in a single frame to space broken up and reassembled in time with the increasing use of montage – and in terms of the lost spaces of the changing city, which Keiller suggests might actually anticipate the future, when we are forced to slow down, use less energy and simplify production.

The notion of space, and its transformations and traversals, is one of the concepts which links almost all the essays. David Trotter, for example, looks at the urban narrative space of D.W. Griffith’s early films, such as Three Sisters (1911) and Death’s Marathon (1913), and suggests that they required audiences to understand and reconstruct urban space (often in specifically gendered ways) from their urban experiences, pointing to the kinds of new, modern perceptual skills mentioned by Bruno and later discussed by François Penz and Thomas Elsaesser. Bruno quotes René Clair as describing film as “the art that is closest to architecture” (p. 15) and Cities in Transition, too, is in some ways like a highly varied urban landscape – its contributors come from a wide range of backgrounds and approach the analysis of screen cultures very differently. Chris Petit, for example, takes on cinematic London with humorous irreverence, while Elsaesser makes “an intervention in the modernism/modernisation/modernity debate” (p. 88) with a strong theoretical grounding and refreshingly close analysis of Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926) and Kuhle Wampe (Slatan Dudov, 1932). He discusses in depth the different aesthetics, politics, and reception of these films, with reference to the “epoch-defining changes in consciousness and mental life, shifts in perception and sensory attention” (p. 88), which are seen to accompany the intersection of modernity and the metropolis.

Out of the many and varied discussions in this volume there emerges a strong focus on the idea of maps and mapping, and of how these maps – temporal and spatial – relate to our memories of films and of the city. The transition from one urban space to another, and the transition from one mode of filmmaking to another, seem to both follow and create mental and emotional maps, which many of the writers obliquely engage with. One of the most interesting engagements with these ideas is Penz’s elucidation of the debate between “topographical coherence” and “creative geography” in the representation of the city through film (p. 123). He discusses the ways in which we traverse the gaps both in our memory and perception of the city, and in our memory and perception of film. He discusses Eric Rohmer’s film The Aviator’s Wife (1980) as a (rare) example of topographical coherence – the director cares so much about his city that he does not play with it or jump across it in unexplained ways – and contrasts this with Buster Keaton’s play with geography, where there is temporal, but not spatial, coherence. In both cases, the audience is capable of negotiating the different uses of space and is able to construct a sense of continuity, much as we create a coherent sense of the city and even of our identities, despite gaps and inconsistencies in memory and in our experience of urban space, which are always in flux. Penz finishes his essay with a very interesting analysis of a “spatially organized narrative” (p. 134) – Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (1980) – mapping the parallels between the film’s locations and the evolution of its narrative, again evoking ideas of traversal, flânerie, and spatially organised memories.

William Uricchio also focuses on memory and perception in “city films” and suggests that film and other “time-based city representations” can act as contemporary memory palaces, which spatialise the ephemeral processes of memory (pp. 103-104). His essay, “Imag(in)ing the City: Simonides to the Sims”, tracks the changes in the relationship between the city and the moving image, from the first urban panoramas to recent computer-based simulations, looking at the various ways these representations respond to our need to evoke the city experience and spatially organise memory. He discusses how Walter Ruttman’s The Symphony of the Big City (1927) departed from traditional narrative and took everyday city life as its focus, evoking “a palimpsest of rhythms, experiences and scales” (p. 108), rather than focusing on the monumental or touristic. Oricchio suggests that “the last hundred or so years of non-fiction moving image representations of the city” (p. 111) are an important resource for exploring the contours of public memory – how and why do we remember parts of the city, or parts of city experience, and how does it affect our notions of “historically and geographically specific spaces, events and processes” (p. 104)?

Cities in Transition asks us to consider the intersections and discontinuities of space and time in the metropolis and questions both how the modernist city experience affected the development of film, and how film has mediated our experience of the city. The notion of transition is a valuable linking thread, as it can suggest movements and change in transport, technology and perception, but in some parts it can produce too broad a range of topics which are briefly introduced, only to be left behind by the next chapter. Despite this, Cities in Transition offers a highly diverse examination of the way “films constitute a symbolic resource upon which we draw in order to navigate the changing topography of our social world” (Isabelle McNeill, p. 213).

Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis, edited by Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson, Wallflower Press, London, 2008.


  1. Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Penguin, New York, 1988, p. 1.