taCity

A site about the ephemerality of the socio-urban world


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Visualising Cities: Part 3 – “…starring, Sydney as Nowhere in Particular…”

Carrying on my series of visualising cities (see Part 1 and Part 2), I wanted to focus on one of my specialist cities….

No doubt you have all seen the Matrix films, and no doubt you would have recognised the fact that it was Sydney in the background, playing the role as that anonymous, gritty, futuristic city that the Waschowski Brothers wanted. What is also common knowledge is for that very reason, many of Sydney’s icons were erased from the film, deliberately not shown in order to preserve the placelessness of the city (although, it is easy for those who have spent any prolonged period of time in Sydney to pick out particular buildings and places that are used constantly throughout the film). The script of The Matrix and its subsequent sequels demanded anonymity, and although this annoyed many of the people in the upper echelons of Sydney’s corridors of power, Sydney remained relegated to a supporting role, a paradoxical role of always being in view but never being seen. Trawling the Internet sites and various blogs, it then becomes perplexing when people believe the city on show is Chicago. The reasons for which are the use of Chicago street names, the ‘Loop’ sign on the front of the subway train (referring to a train line in Chicago – even though Chicago has not got much of a subway, only an elevated railway) and the fact that the Wachowski Brothers are from Chicago originally. For some it can be infuriating that Sydney is so hidden from the world in such a successful film, but for others, the brief cameo roles played by the BT tower and the Allianz tower on Market Street, or the fountain on Martins Place, provide them with a sense of pride, a little wink to the world that they know where it is even if the rest of the world does not. Other films have used Sydney as somewhere else – with Kangaroo Jack (with Sydney as New York), and Superman Returns (as Metropolis).

Contrast this situation with that of Mission Impossible 2 which gratuitously shows Sydney in all its glory, with hanging shots of the Opera House and rugged cliff faces of Sydney Harbour. If the rumours are true, this was at the request of Tom Cruise who wanted one of his films to show Sydney to its full potential glory – something we have to thank Nicole Kidman for (although being in the run up to the Olympics helped  – in the same way the Mummy 3 was hastily put together before the Beijing Olympics to showcase Chinse culture). The difference of Sydney’s role in these two films (the Matrix and Mission Impossible 2) is immense, yet for Sydney itself the role it has played in film and the global film industry as a whole has benefited immensely from both these films. The opening of Fox Studios in Moore Park is the reason why these films (among many others) have been shot in Sydney – a move which was controversial at the time, and for many factions of the industry, still very much is.

Sydney is a favourite among Hollywood filmmakers precisely because it can double as pretty much anywhere in the world (you can read my journal articles if you’re interested to know a bit more), but seeing it disappear into the background in many films is testament to the aesthetics and architecture of the city itself. Cities in films are a crucial way in which they can gain popularity, and in fact film maps of particular cities are an important part of their tourism agenda (see Film London’s movie maps – the most viewed item on the website apparently). If a city is ‘erased’ from a film, then so are the emotional, iconic, rhetorical and personal networks associated with them. If a film (or TV series) is set in a city then there are already in place certain assumptions within the viewer, which can either work for or against the filmmakers. If the narrative of film calls for a generic city however then without CGI, the city identity needs to be erased. But can it ever be properly erased? Remember the scene in the Matrix when Morpheus loads Neo into a training simulation near a fountain (the one with the women in the red dress)? That fountain holds a prominent position in Martins Place in the centre of downtown Sydney, and therefore hold certain visual connotations to that city and cannot be truly ‘generic’ (also I distinctly remember seeing large amounts of Chicago in the Dark Knight’s Gotham City). This gives people a sense of place, be it through a personal memory or a recalled image, but links into the visual images of the film.

Cities, or more precisely, the buildings in them can be visually stiking and their skylines make for impressive aesthetics in films. Trying to erase or ‘unidentify’ a city is a perilous task and can only be achieved veneerily; the complexities, networks and chaotic structures of cities cannot be easily hidden.


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Visualising Cities: Part 2

Having described how I think that the image of a city in film can be an interesting and alternative way of capturing its complexity in a previous blog entry, I wanted to elaborate this idea after some interesting comments, most notably from my brother (cheap plug coming up), who hosts an excellent photo blog.

I was watching Cloverfield the other day, which as a film, is watchable, not as groundbreaking as everybody makes out (Blair Witch comes to mind, as does the excellent Korean film The Host), but what struck me was the visualisation of the destruction of New York City. From a shaky-cam point of view, or a more omnipresent God’s eye view that perhaps Independence Day offers (particularly watch the video between 3:05 – 3:09), the destruction of the city has always been used as a way of invoking total and utter chaos and dystopian ‘rapture’ to a narrative. In other words, in a film maker wants to ensure that their subject (be it an invading alien force, asteroid, sea monster or climate change) is ‘the real deal’, then get it to level a city (usually New York) and then we know the human race is in for it. Remember Jake Gyllenhaal, in the Day After Tomorrow, running from the cold?? Oh no, watch out! Its getting a bit nippy out! Run for your lives!!

In destroying cities, filmmakers are laying siege to the bastion of human development. Cities are the hubs of our inter-connected Castellian world and by destroying them on film is unraveling their complexity without our own perceptions/psyche/memories. If we refer to Bergson’s 1911 publication Matière et Mémoire, he stated that when an image is viewed, the association the content has with the viewers experiences, histories and (more generally) their mind manifests themselves as memories. The instant an image is viewed; subconscious memory (or automatic recognition) is masked by conscious memory (or acquired recognition). Hence,

“The faculty of mental photography…belongs rather to subconsciousness than to consciousness; it answers with difficulty the summons of the will. In order to exercise it, we should accustom ourselves to retaining, for instance, several arrangements of points at once, without even thinking of counting them: we must imitate in some sort the instantaneity of this memory in order to attain its mastery”.
(Bergson, 1911, English Translation, 2004; 101-102).

So when viewing the destruction of a city in film, the ‘instantaneity’ of automatic memory (which is where complexity is to be found – or ‘the void’ in Badiouian terms) is masked by our consciousness. This could be simply the realization that we are watching a film or a specific memory of that particular city or building. Badiou argued that the state of the situation requires a militancy which hides the ‘what-is-not-one’ (or inconsistent multiplicity, rhizome, body without organs etc), and it is this militancy of the consciousness which masks a cities complexity from us. Watching it unravel before our eyes when it is levelled allows to experience the ‘void’ or the rhizomatic nature of the urban, if only for an instant. But as Bergson states, “we must imitate in some sort the instantaneity of this memory in order to attain its mastery”. But as we’re fighting against our own ‘miltant consciousness’, this will take some doing. But if I have to watch anymore of those contrived, nihilistic, brain-dead  Hollywood tripe-fests then it may be little bit easier…


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Visualising Cities: Part 1

Cities are portrayed in films and television programs in differing ways, with the more acute filmmakers, casting the city as another character in the film – in some cases giving the city a narrative or human characteristics (Frank Miller’s Sin City immediately springs to mind). This, while making good story lines is for me, erroneous, as the city is too complex, too multiplicitous to be reduced to the functional and linear systematic mechanics of a human body (Doel and Hubbard, 2002; Smith, 2003a, b).

Is the image of a city (or of cities) more appropriate for characterising the fluidity and mutlifarious form, and in visualising them? We can use the unrepresented ether of memory, personality and emotion to attempt to ‘capture’ what a city is; or at least, what that particular city image invokes. Considering the city in film would take up a library of papers, book, thesis and film reels, and there are many more qualified personnel to do that than I. But, if we consider the city in a moving image, then we can begin to visualise the multiplicitous movement that befits a poststructural theorisation of them. That is, if the moving image is good enough.

For example, let’s take 24. A brilliant show I’ll admit. However, looking at the way Jack Bauer and company move around Los Angeles is in many cases laughable, with people being able to traverse the cavernous freeways, strangulating traffic, impossibly complicated pubic transport system with consummate ease. The real-time aspect of the show gives the production crew a credible way in which to explore the constrictive, striated movement through a city (as is the case with Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks), yet Los Angeles remains more akin to the Salt Plains with ubiquitous smooth movement across what is inherently a complex and sprawling city-region. Now, of course, this is not the point of 24 and I am being unfair to it, however, I only want to use it as an example of how a moving image (in this case a TV series) can help us (by displaying how it hinders us) to understand and get to grips with the multiplicity.