Imagining the City
It appears to me that film today has consigned itself to contemplating the manifest destiny of urban life. The extremes of admiration and anxiety that previously characterised film’s relationship with the city have given way to a state of uneasy resignation. In many respects, this is consistent with how cities are viewed today in general. Art and theory have both come to accept the inevitability that typifies today’s urban life, and have also committed themselves to describing such a predicament without actively looking for a way out. Following mayor Giuliani’s ‘success’ in New York, politicians have taken to thinking of the city as Pavlovian maze that directly conditions behaviour. Film then is attuned to the zeitgeist, and that is not a novelty in artistic practice. Yet, one has to ask, does that have to define film’s relationship to the city henceforth?
Curiously, film’s resignation does not seem to be dulling its interest in the city. If anything, there seems to be more interest in the city itself as subject matter as opposed to its more conventional role as a backdrop. While Hollywood retreats more and more into the realm of fantasy, filmmakers everywhere else can only afford to contend with reality, predominantly that of urban life and its anxieties. In fact it appears that this interest in the city acquires more urgency where conditions of incomplete modernity prevail. Allow me not to call it the Third World or the developing world, both these terms imply a direction that these societies are travelling in, the reality is that of an interrupted and uncertain journey. Think Tehran, think Mexico City, think Lagos.
Think Beirut. It’s an apt if unfortunate choice, a city where modernity was interrupted severely and almost instantaneously. Beirut went from the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ to ‘Belfast on the Mediterranean’ within the space of a few months, and then suspended its modernisation for two decades. Nothing represented that interruption more than the city centre, abandoned and left in ruins for two decades then cleared in the early 90s in anticipation of reconstruction, leaving a visible void where the city ought to be most active. A similar void marked social and political life in the city. When the Lebanese filmmaker Ghassan Salhab tried to film the city, he concluded that it was a place that we cannot know. Salhab’s first film was called Phantom Beirut(1998), alluding to the city’s elusive nature, followed four years later by Terra Incognita, an unknown, and unknowable, land.
Towards the end of Terra Incognita, the protagonist Soraya watches a new building rise from the rubble of the old and a man defiantly comments, "It's the seventh time Beirut has been destroyed. Seven times it was destroyed, seven times we raised it back up." She corrects him: "It was Beirut that rose back up, not us." Salhab suggests that the city exists apart from the people who live in it, its fate is not so much in there hands, but obeys historical laws that are bound to recur. Faced with the complexity of a situation that resists understanding, the camera is mute. Salhab’s citizens are trapped by their circumstances, while the city itself appears potent.
This concession to the status quo confines the camera to a limited space in which it can manoeuvre. Salhab and many other contemporary Middle Eastern filmmakers subject the faces and bodies of their characters to very close scrutiny, as if imploring them to pronounce only to be stared back at, impassively. This close proximity seems to rule out any possibility of seeing beyond the here and now, the surface that appears so close by so as to preclude a bigger picture from emerging.
Yet, it is in ‘images with depth and wider horizons’ that we need to look for the future, as the Lebanese writer Bilal Khbeiz asks us to do in his essay Images of Little Means. In discussing the works of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Elia Suleiman (1), Khbeiz notes:
“These filmmakers are remarkable for their images, which seem to breathe as deeply as trees do. Images with the precision of faces, which even when simply scanning the skies, fields and stretches of wilderness, seem to humbly complain and implore the heavens. When journalists dutifully interview Palestinians who have just witnessed the razing of their home by the Israeli war-machine, they ask them what they plan to do next. The answers are often: “We have God.” For God is all that is left once a man has been denuded and exposed. The homeless Palestinians look at the sky and seem to remember its breathtaking beauty, as if it had been hidden for years by their own built roofs. The sky is all that can be spoken of with familiarity and safety.” (2)
It is to that sky that the camera turns when the present appears too oppressive. But this is not a resigned gesture, nor an escapist one. Instead, it is those filmmakers way of pointing to the future without portraying it. Such portrayal would inevitably become a caricature. Rather, they point to the landscape and see in it a possibility, and show through it an insistence on living that is distinct from resignation. Their modernity is in incomplete one, and even one that is in danger of reversing itself at any moment, yet it is one that is possible to resume.
Compare that wandering movement of the camera away from the city with how a similar excursion plays out in Trainspotting. When the group of friends at the centre of the film visits Ben Nevis, they are encouraged by one of them to climb the mountain by appealing to their national pride: ‘Doesn't it make you proud to be Scottish?’ This remark prompts the now infamous ‘we, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers’ rant, which opens up with “it’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low” and concludes with “it’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference!” Landscape here is clearly no remedy for the oppressiveness of city life.
The Scottish context is, of course, different from that of the Middle East. Modernity there is not so much incomplete as exhausted. As Ewa Mazierska and Laura Rascaroli in Escape from a Celtic City (3) observe, the common denominator between the protagonists in Trainspotting “is that fact they come from the same council estate. The estate also encapsulates a particular way of living and even the state of mind of the characters. In their social circles they are known as ‘schemies’, while politicians and sociologists would describe them as victims of ‘social exclusion’”.(4) It is very telling that modernism’s solution for universal housing ends up being seen as the very thing that traps and marginalises individuals.
It is worth commenting on the differences between Irvine Welsh’s novel and the film itself. As Mazierska and Rascaroli point out, the film neglects the issue of class which features more prominently in the novel. Similarly, Welsh is not entirely antagonistic to the council estate, although it is a limiting environment to grow up in it still gives the residents a sense of belonging. These subtleties around the issues of class and belonging are done away with in the film. Firstly, the estate itself is not identified and does not feature prominently, and secondly the ‘touch of surrealism’ in interior scenes does not allow for direct class associations in the manner of British social realist films. The film consciously creates a sense of an oppressive environment without delving into particularities. It establishes an a priori dead-end situation, so to speak.
Trainspotting is not unique in this regard, it has become common in film today to dwell on situations and dispense with causalities. Inquisitiveness and consideration in this context would invite solutions and remedies, and it seems that these are possibilities that film today would prefer to discourage. This tendency is inherent to a certain extent, for film is not an ideal discursive medium. When it attempts to be explicitly political it runs the risk of becoming didactic, as the recent work of Godard illustrates, or cynical and conspiratorial. (Syriana, The Corporation, Fahrenheit 9/11). Yet, as last year’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) reminds us, it is possible for film to be thoughtful and inspiring, even in the bleakest of situations. This is not to say that Das Leben der Anderen is artistically superior to Trainspotting on the grounds that it has a more positive attitude, it stands out because it does not allow the situation to dictate the narrative. In that sense, it refuses to cater to the idea of destiny.
In contrast, other contemporary German films appear to be captivated by that notion of destiny and the futility of attempting to change circumstances. When discussing films about/in Berlin, Mazierska and Rascaroli note: “…Many of the phenomena are depicted as serious problems in the lives of Berliners, yet the films rarely offer any solution to them. There is no doubt that their authors sympathize with those who are victims of the situation and who are marginalized in Berlin, foreigners, the unemployed, the homeless, the young and those employed in the black economy, but their films lack the political commitment…In a fashion, which can be described as postmodern, they limit themselves to depicting the state of things, instead of proposing how to change them.” (5)
‘Depicting the state of things’ is indeed a common characteristic, yet that description is in itself problematic. Film can selectively focus our attention on an unrepresentative sample of life in the city, but this can never be a complete depiction. What’s more important to observe here is that filmmakers are portraying ‘those who are victims of the situation’. In other words, they are creating characters that lack freedom. Any claim that such characters correspond to real citizens or that their predicaments are authentic will be mediated by the filmmakers’ biases and ideas. It seems that this mediation is tending more often than not towards denying characters a sense of agency.
In talking about agency, we need to be very precise. We can assume that John McClane in Die Hard is endowed with agency, yet the opposite is exactly true. McClane has no choice, he has to shoot himself out of situations and wisecrack his way through 90 minutes of film at the end of which he meets his wife again. Agency rarely manifests itself in super-heroism. I am thinking of another type of agency, such as that masterfully depicted by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. Almodovar talks of giving his characters a sense of freedom and moral independence, something which he considers essential in all his films. This doesn’t mean that things will turn out their way, they often don’t. As Almodovar puts it “I give my characters a problem, but at the same time I give them energy, an energy to survive and fight that is based in freedom.” (6)
The outcome is uncertain and, to a certain extent, inconsequential. What matters is the struggle itself, and a sense of loyalty to it. In the words of Agrado, the transsexual character in Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother, 1999) “The more you become like what you have dreamed for yourself, the more authentic you are”. Authenticity is not derived from the past but aimed at the future. Not of where you come from but what you can become. This concept of authenticity is transferred to how Almodovar imagines and films the city with a great deal of artifice and manipulation. This is not a style of realism that relies on truthfulness to the original but on the plausibility of entirely constructed situations. In Volver, even raising the dead, reversing the ultimate destiny, becomes plausible.
Defining the task of neorealism, Cesare Zavattini wrote in the 50s: "The moral, like the artistic, problem lies in being able to observe reality, not to extract fictions from it." Abbas Kiarostami proposes a different idea. “What is cinema? It’s an image that’s not limited to what you see. It has many different layers, and sometimes those layers dissolve the images that you see, and you just think about the layers.” (7) The role of children in Italian neorealism was indicative of its sentiments and aspirations; they witnessed the problems of the day but also represented the solution. At the hands of the Italian masters, realism was grounded in the present but open to the future. Today, realism is grounded. It is trapped by the paucity of visions. To observe reality without an eye to the future is an opportunistic pretext for filmmaking, it ends up portraying the city as a destiny.
That’s why Kiarostami’s definition is more relevant today. It’s obvious to me that much of film’s transfixion with the banality of existence and its limitations is self-induced. Yet, the continuing success of Iranian cinema despite its modesty highlights the possibility of making meaningful films that have universal appeal without appealing to rigid ideas of culture and identity that mask a reverence of destiny. A similar thing could be said of Almodovar’s films that transcend the barriers of language and culture, primarily because of their insistence on freedom. Rather than demanding that film provide solutions, it is more appropriate to ask that it challenges our expectations and not reinforce our preconceptions and ideas. This is not an unreasonable demand, especially if we were to treat film as art.
The challenge for film today, it seems to me, is to represent its context without appealing to pre-constructed notions of identity, locality or tradition, but rather to confront experience with imagination. It has to engage with situations and create a representation that is layered and not immediate. This it would have to do without bearing the burden of realism, but rather of plausibility, relevance and, above all, meaning. Kiarostami’s definition of cinema as ‘an image that’s not limited to what you see’ is a remarkable recipe. As long as cinema doesn’t limit itself to reality as it appears, it will be able to create complex and engaging representations of the city.
Karl Sharro 2007
Published as a Battle in Print for the Battle of Ideas 2007. http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/index.php/site/session_detail/159/
1 Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf are both Iranian directors that have become well known in the west in recent years. Elia Suleiman is a slightly less-known Palestinian director, best known for his film Divine Intervention. (2002) which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival.
2 Images with Little Means by Bilal Khbeiz available at http://www.sescsp.org.br
3 Ewa Mazierska and Laura Rascaroli. From Moscow To Madrid, Postmodern Cities, European Cinema, I.B. Tauris, London. 2003. Escape from a Celtic City is a chapter that deals with Welsh and Scottish film,
4 Mazierska and Rascaroli, Page 1995 Mazierska and Rascaroli, Page 135-6. Some of the films discussed are Life is a Building Site(1997), Run, Lola Run(1998), Plus-Minus Null(1998), Night Shapes(1998), and Sara America(1998).
6 Pedro Almodovar talks to BBC Newsnight, 3 September 2007
7 From a talk at the New York Museum of Modern Art.