When writing on the modern figure of the flâneur, Charles Baudelaire’s description sometimes gives this figure of the city-stroller making his way down the boulevards of 19th Century Paris the attributes of a camera liberated in its movements as if recording the sights and sounds that assail the individual. Some decades later, the novelist Hermann Broch attached a tripod to Baudelaire’s camera-flâneur. In his novel The Sleepwalkers (written between the years 1928-31) he describes a character’s gait walking down the streets of Berlin in 1888 thus: “So the two legs and the walking-stick went on together, suggesting the involuntary fancy that this man…[was] a tripod that had set itself in motion.” In 1929 Dziga Vertov made that literary allusion manifest as image in Man With a Movie Camera as the animated “kino-eye” seemingly “walks” its way across city vistas.
The cinema was a latecomer to the modernist age; painting, literature, architecture and urban design had already claimed sovereignty over the modern metropolis. Nonetheless, once entering the fray, its contribution to the modernist project, and the discourse on modernity generally, is immeasurable. Whether that be in fiction or documentary film, avant-garde or art-house, mainstream or underground cinema. In that light, this current issue presents a number of articles that each in their own way discuss representations of the cosmopolitan experience on screen.
Many of the films range from different eras and cut across distinctions of genre or style. Man With a Movie Camera, for example, is often mentioned in histories of the documentary and the avant-garde traditions. It is also sometime seen grouped together with a number of films often referred to as City Symphony films. It is this category of films from the 1920s, in particular, Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921) and Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927), that Sarah Jilani’s article focuses on to explore ideas of temporality and the city experience.
New York is of course one of the great film locations and its cinematic potential was understood early on by filmmakers, as Manhatta well testifies. Michelangelo Antonioni, when first visiting the city, said it would require a change of screen format from the horizontal to the vertical axis to do full justice to it. Many a filmmaker has made it the central location of their oeuvre (Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, et al.), however, Philippe Met’s piece makes a convincing argument for seeing Abel Ferrara as the director who has most fully explored its typology on screen. In contrast to Ferrara’s films and characters that crisscross myriad New York locations, Federico Windhausen zeros in on one film and one street, providing a detailed discussion of Ken Jacob’s seminal film Orchard Street (1955) and filmmaker’s attempts to record and explore the Jewish ancestry of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. And finally, as the flip side to cosmopolitanism, Jason Coyle examines the reconfiguration of suburban space in Deborah Stratman’s In Order Not To Be Here (2002).
Hope you enjoy the new issue.