The City in Film in 2010

For several years now, I’ve written a top 10 list of films on my other blog. This started out pretty unstructured, with just whatever films I happened to watch, and then developed into trying to see all of the Oscar nominated films. For the past two years, it’s become something more than that, involving complex scoring systems and spreadsheets of all of my favorite reviewers’ top ten lists compiled into a giant master list. Last year, the list had about 40 films, of which I finally saw about 30. This year, it expanded to about 60 films, of which I’ve seen 35 so far. I plan to watch another 10 or so before making my final list for the year, but as I started thinking through many of the films that I was watching, I thought that exploring how cities and urbanity have been portrayed in a few of the films might shed some light on how we are conceptualizing cities and urban identity today.

This is a topic that I’ve been interested in for some time. Last year, I was lucky enough to take a fantastic course in Harvard’s Visual Studies Department entitled “Imagining the City: Literature, Film and the Arts” with Svetlana Boym and Giuliana Bruno. Through this course I was exposed to a ton of great (mostly older, mostly European) films and, more importantly, to some great ways of thinking about the city on film.

I tend to think that urban films generally fall into one of two categories. There are films that show the essential identity of a place by adding characters and a plot. In other words, the city is central to the film and could even be considered a character. Good examples of this type of film would be Paris j’taime or, my favorite film last year, Medicine for Melancholy, a fantastic indie movie that follows two bike-riding black hipsters around San Francisco during the 24 hours following a one night stand. We could call these types of films urban love songs.

The second type of film tends to be less about a specific city, and more about how we think about (or are being asked to think about) cities in general. While it’s not always the case, I feel that these movies often tend to focus on the dark side of urbanism and urban life. Metropolis (about labor and class), Falling Down (which can be read as an anti-minority tirade), Candyman (a horror movie set in a public housing complex), or Blade Runner are good examples. Mike Davis and Steve Macek have written at length about this type of film, and I believe that they’ve done a lot to shape our ideas about city life, especially issues of race, poverty and fear. In this type of film, cities may or may not be identifiable (Metropolis is a generic city, Falling Down and Blade Runner are LA, Candyman is Chicago), but the setting is treated as less important than what happens. To paraphrase (and decontextualize) Edward Soja, place is treated simply as a “container for social relations” rather than an active participant in shaping them.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to post a series of articles on several films (and two TV shows) that I’ve identified from the last year that have something interesting to say about the urban. First up, Inception: The City of our Dreams.