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A city’s obsession: A commentary on the BBC’s ‘London and the Rest’

MInd the Gap: London and the Rest (Source: BBC)

The show currently on BBC2, Mind the Gap, is well worth a watch as it covers many of themes that are important to modern urban geographical studies (you can watch it on the iPlayer, but only till 17th March), notably those being taught at undergradute level, not least by me for GG2053. The first episode ‘London and the Rest’, offered a useful insight into why London is a Global City, and what this means not only for the population of London, but for the rest of the UK and indeed the world. However, despite it’s rather glossy veneer and The Apprentice-style, helicopter, Gods-eye-view aesthetics that is so ubiquitous within mainstream documentaries, the program masked just as many important issues as it did illuminate. It failed to launch the visceral critique that its presenter threatened to do at times (his conservative approach masked an obvious desire to launch a tirade against this gargantuan urban behemoth), and in so doing presented a rather polemic, but no less informative pointer to why London has become the teeming Global City it is today. So I want to map out (using the traditional scalar model for clarity’s sake) a few points of departure from the episode that will help contextualise it in the wider relevant debates about contemporary urban studies.

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Time Lapse Urbanism

It seems a day does not pass without a new professional time lapse film of a city landing in my Google Rea…, Feedly or twitter stream. They all seem to follow a similar pattern; they’re shot at night and from an elevated position perhaps with a slow pan; they contain a collection of shooting angles that span highways, bridges or capture the throng of a pedestrian-heavy zone; some will have the seemingly ubiquitous (and simply annoying) tilt-shift effect (which seems to make everything look miniature) perhaps added to increase the visual metaphor of the ‘God’s eye view’ of the city engendered by such films (a good list of the best ones can be found here). Some of my particular favourites are from Dubai, Sydney, Melbourne, Quito and this rather Miévillian offering of New York. Time lapse films represent the vibrancy, complexity and gleaming aesthetics of urban life, or at least a particular kind of urban life. For me though, the increasing proliferation and professionalisation of these films is an interesting trend because it could be seen to represent a number of cross-cutting contexts and themes that have been debated in contemporary urban geography discourse of late, but also, the time lapse video could be viewed as part of urban entrepreneurial strategy.  Continue reading


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Terminator Tour, Los Angeles

Los Angeles is one of the most written about cities in the world, particularly from an urban geography perspective. Perhaps because of its magnificent sprawl, its constant mediation through film, television, music and other cultural artefacts, or its postmodern-inflected anti-liveable layout, no other city in the popular consciousness has such an imaginary that combines enigma, fascination, frustration, confusion and awe all at once (although I suspect that Shanghai, Mexico City and perhaps Johannesburg are giving it a run for its money). One of the major reasons for my fascination with it is the way it has been so scrutinised through film. Masterpieces such as Pulp Fiction, Timecode and Collateral portray the de-centred, fragmented, multiple, nonlinear and alienating characteristics of the city fascinatingly. However, for me the Terminator films (and here I refer to the first two, not the bilious and soul-destroying detritus of Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation) put Los Angeles firmly in my minds eye as a city of fascination and wonder. The films themselves do not necessarily have a narrative that ‘gets’ LA’s character, but Cameron has utilised the cityscape as a platform for thrilling action and compelling story-telling perfectly. Continue reading


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Tower Block Cinema

Verticality, claustrophobia, lawlessness, poverty. Just some of the themes that are stereotypically associated with tower block living, particular the old post-war brutalist, Le Corbusier-inspired monoliths that litter many cities not just here in the UK, but all over the world. Their architectural designs were meant to be liveable ‘streets in the sky’ but instead ended up resulting in lonely living, but with a panoptic overview of constant voyeurism from everyone else. The dystopic qualities are depressing and oppressive in equal measure, and as such make for fascinating arenas for cinematic narratives. The recent mini-wave of films set entirely in one tower block is evidence of this. The Raid, Dredd and Tower Block have all been released in recent months, and who can forgot John McClean in Nokatomi – all very good films in their own genre. What is it about these gargantuan concrete leviathans that make for such gripping viewing? This post tries to find out… Continue reading


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Visualising Cities Part 7: Gotham, A City Devoid of Life

Gotham, a city devoid of life

I finally got round to seeing The Dark Knight Rises at the weekend. Don’t worry, this is not a review; but what struck me throughout the film (and in a sense, throughout the trilogy), is the narrative surrounding the city of Gotham itself, and how the director Christopher Nolan used it, for me, incorrectly. There a number of pieces of work (notably this one) about Gotham’s role in the Batman universe – the dank, dark, overtly gothic and crime-ridden city makes for a fantastic fictional playground of urban dystopias. However, for the purposes of this post, I will be referring to the Gotham seen in Nolan’s trilogy. Continue reading


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Top 5 city destroyers of all time

When we reach the city...

I have made no secret of my distain for the recent Transformers films by Michael Bay. In my youth, I absolutely adored the original Transformers cartoons and toys, and the original animated Transformers movie, for me, is still one of the best films/stories ever produced. However, seeing the trailer for the third instalment of Michael Bay’s trilogy of detritus, I must admit to feeling slightly intrigued, if only for the visualisation of the destruction of Chicago. Regular readers of my blog will know I have a somewhat guilty fetish for immoderate, overemotional and visually-compelling destruction of cities on film, and Chicago is one of my favourite cities. So, like a moth to a flame, I will no doubt pay to watch Mr Bay’s latest monstrosity and sit through 2 and half to 3 hours of megalomaniacal BS just so I can gawp at Chicago getting ripped apart from the top down.

Such an extravagant annihilation of a great city got me thinking, what are the best city-destroying forces of all time? Its an open competition, monsters, aliens and natural disasters are all eligible. Points are scored for the visual impact of the destruction, the innovate ways in which the built environment is obliterated, but also the frequency with which it destroys. Like all good ‘top X’ lists it is not based on scientific rigour or any actual reliable information, but more an arbitrary collection of what I think to be the best.

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Visualising Cities: Part 6… JB Cities

Does anyone else think that it’s not a coincidence that Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne have the same initials as James Bond? It’s more than a passing homage, the two nefarious super-secret agent characters, Bauer and Bourne have more than a passing resemblance to a ‘revamped’ James Bond 2.0 type character, even if it is a more ‘gritty’ symbolism and less womanising, martini-necking hedonism. As much as I’d like to go into an in depth psychological character assassination of the triumvirate of JBs (although I’ll admit to think that Bauer would win in a fight), there is a really interesting discussion to be had on the way in which they navigate the cities in which they inhabit. I’ll know look at the three of them in turn, or more specifically, the way in which they visualise cities.
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