Wings of Desire – Mar.17 @ 6pm

•March 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Wings of Desire
Dir. Wim Wenders, 1987

6pm: Wednesday, March 17 @ Taylor Room (Sidney Smith Hall, basement: 619)

Partially inspired by the work of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Wings of Desire garnered Wim Wenders the award of best director at Cannes 1987. The film is a story of two angels who watch over Berlin, and can travel unseen through the city, listening to people’s thoughts, observing their actions and studying their lives. While they can make their presence felt in small ways, only children and other angels can see them. As a result, the angels remember all of Berlin’s transformations, even so far back as the melting glaciers. Thus drawing on the angels’ perspectives, the film presents the city of Berlin in its totality – its urban fabric, landmarks, and daily life and rhythms – as everything seems to continue through time, including the city’s uncertain future.

This movie was included in our series partly in recognition of the director’s influence, and particularly for its foregrounding the city and urban fabric within the story. In this regard, different aspects of city (life) are showed and analyzed in his films, such as the relation of human beings to technology, and the meaning of everyday life in cities. This movie also depicts images of Berlin landmarks, like Potsdamer Platz, which opens for interpretation the meaning of a place and how this meaning can be transformed by different urban interventions.

French cinematographer Henri Alekan uses a monochromatic point of view to distinguish the angels’ perspective from that of humans (shown in colour). This technique, in addition to aerial camera views, reinforces distance and the difference between the acts of witnessing versus experiencing life – a theme which connects with aloneness, wandering and home. Additionally, setting the film in a city unsettled by the cold war and divided by the Berlin wall raises themes of dis/continuity and history. The concept of history in this film is explored by Rogowski (1992) in connection with the writings of Walter Benjamin, particularly his reflection on Klee’s watercolour Angelus Novus, while Harvey’s treatment of the film as postmodern cinema hinges too on the “intertwining themes of space and time” (1990:308). In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey devotes much of chapter 18 to an analysis of Wings of Desire. The extent to which Harvey’s reading of the film is compelling, and the themes which emerge will serve as jumping off points for discussion.

Suggested reading:

  • Harvey, David. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. Blackwell: Oxford. (Ch.18: Time and space in the postmodern cinema pp.308-323.)  
  • Rogowski, Christian. (1992) “To Be Continued: History in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and Thomas Brasch’s Domino.” German Studies Review. 15(3):547-563.     Rogowski_1992

Chungking Express – Mar.3 @ 6pm

•February 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Chungking Express
Dir.Wong Kar-Wai, 1994
102 minutes

Mar.3, 6pm @ Taylor Room (Sidney Smith Hall, basement: 619)

This week we turn our attention from Rio de Janeiro to Hong Kong, and specifically to Wong Kar-Wai’s classic Chungking Express, from 1994. The film follows a pair of love stories set in contemporary Hong Kong, each involving a lonely policeman and a mysterious woman. It marks the third entry in a career that has now gained Wong international acclaim, landing him a spot on Sight & Sound’s top ten directors list and making him the first Chinese director to preside over a jury at the Cannes Film Festival. Chungking Express also highlights the relationship between director Wong and star Tony Leung, which would result not only in a number of awards for this film (in addition to Best Picture, this film garnered Hong Kong Film Awards for Wong and Leung), but a string of more recent critical successes including Happy Together, In the Mood For Love and 2046.

Wong’s film is of interest for us for many reasons, perhaps too many to note here. An abbreviated list might include Simmel’s work on life in the metropolis, as the setting of the first part of the film – the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, a giant melting pot in the middle of one of the world’s great melting pots – underscores Wong’s fascination with the urban as a site of exchange, contingency and interplay.  Through the camerawork (done by longtime collaborator and cinematographer Christopher Boyle) as well as the mise-en-scène, Hong Kong itself becomes a character in the film.

Additionally, we might look to Wong’s fascination with the cosmopolitan and globalization. His fluent appropriation of global culture (the object of affection for Leung’s character, played by Faye Wong, is obsessed with the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’”) not to mention the film’s international reception (its initial North American release was “presented by” Quentin Tarantino) speaks to the position that Wong’s Hong Kong occupies at the nexus of East and West.

City of God – Feb.17 @ 6pm

•February 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

City of God
Dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2002

Feb. 17, 6pm @ Taylor Room (Sidney Smith Hall, basement: 619)

Based on events that took place in one of the most dangerous favelas in Rio de Janeiro, “City of God” charts three decades of violence and gang warfare starting in the 1960s. Adapted from Paulo Lins’ novel of the same name, “City of God” refers to the “Cidade de Deus” housing project in which the film is set, and from which most of the young actors were cast in open auditions.

The story is loosely narrated by Rocket, a youth in the area who comes of age through the film and dreams of being a photographer. Through his lens and peripheral position to the warring factions, Rocket witnesses the rise of L’il Ze – a charismatic and ruthlessly violent gang leader – who reigned as king of the drug lords during the 1970s. The film depicts extreme and shocking violence, all the more brutal for the youth of its characters.

Some reviews of the film compare it to Hollywood gangster movies, such as Goodfellas, since the genre can address issues of violence, morality and tribalism. However, it is also a very political film, exploring the circumstances that breed gang life and anarchic violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Shot largely with hand-held cameras, the film evokes a documentary- like style, and uses freeze-frames, montage, flashback, quick-cutting and lighting effects to create an energetic, frenetic, brilliant and brutal film.

Recommended readings:

  • Janice Perlman (2005) The Myth of Marginality Revisited: The Case of Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, 1969-2003   perlman_2005_flavelas
  • Enrique Desmond Arias (2006) Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks and Public Security
  • James Holston (2009) Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil

Metropolis – Feb.3 @ 6pm

•January 27, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Dir. Fritz Lang, 1927

This week we turn back to one of the definitive city films of the silent era, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Produced in Weimar Germany but set in an urban dystopia of the future (the titular Metropolis), the film was the Avatar of its day, costing more to produce
than any film previously released.

Lang’s critiques of technology, capital, labor and modernity remain just as striking more than eighty years after the film’s initial release, and his representation of the metropolis, influenced in large part by Art Deco and the German Expressionists, would in turn serve as one of the defining aesthetic cues for future treatments of the city, ranging from the Superman comic books to more recent urban dystopic films like Bladerunner. Lang himself remained conflicted about the film for most of his life, as the screenplay (co-written with his then-wife, Thea von Harbou) arguably betrays some of the Fascist sympathies that his wife would later openly embrace after Hitler came to power. (The couple would divorce and Lang would flee to Hollywood, where he worked for the rest of his career).

Multiple versions of the film are in circulation today. (In fact, the F.W. Murnau Foundation has been working on a new restoration of the film, including newly-discovered footage found in an archive in Argentina, that will premiere in Germany later this month.) We will be screening the most complete version of the film available in wide circulation today, the 124-minute version restored and released by the Murnau Foundation and Kino Video in 2002. We invite all screening attendees to remain afterwards for an informal post-film discussion.

Recommended readings:

  • Nezar AlSayyad – Orwellian Modernity: Utopia/Dystopia and the City of the Future Past (Chapter 3 in: Cinematic Urbanism:  a history of the modern from reel to real)  AlSayyad_ch3

Location: the Annex, room 621 Sidney Smith Hall, 100 St. George street

Los Angeles Plays Itself – TIFF.cinematheque screening

•January 27, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Los Angeles Plays Itself
Dir. Thom Anderson, 2003

Sadly we were unable to include Los Angeles Plays Itself in our current slate of city films. Fortunately, it will be screening  in Toronto as part of the winter  season curated by Cinematheque Ontario. Perhaps we can plan a group outing for anyone who’s interested in seeing the film.

March 1, 2010: 7pm @ Jackman Hall

Los Angeles Plays Itself is a must-see: it is fascinating, and for an audience of cinephiles and urbanists, there is probably no better intersection point than that film.

Recommended readings:

Chinatown – Jan. 20 @ 6pm

•January 15, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Dir. Roman Polanski, 1974

It is only appropriate that we begin a series on city films with a film that is itself about the origin of a city. Chinatown, written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, is nominally a murder mystery, but what intrigues us here is the backdrop against which the film is set: the water politics and battles of early 20th century Los Angeles. The film follows protagonist Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), a private detective who finds himself dragged further and further into a case involving the head of the Department of Water and Power. Based somewhat on the life of William Mulholland and the California Water Wars, Chinatown manages the remarkable feat of not merely dramatizing urban history for a contemporary audience but, as John Walton argues in the attached article, impacting the way that history gets made subsequently.

Also worth considering is the way in which this film fits within the (largely urban) tradition of American noir films and the detective fiction that preceded them. As a style, noir has a fairly specific historical timeframe; though there is no scholarly consensus on the exact endpoint, most film historians regard the immediate post-war years as the era of films noirs. By the 1970s, a new generation of directors resuscitated the style, self-consciously borrowing elements from the noir tradition; these films would come to be known as neo-noirs. Chinatown is an early and important example of that genre. Polanski’s acknowledges his debt to the noir tradition by casting John Huston in the role of business titan Noah Cross; it was one of Huston’s films, The Maltese Falcon, that had inspired French critic Nino Frank to coin the term “film noir” when it was first screened in Paris following the war. The film’s relationship to noir, and the broader relationship between noir and the city, is taken up by Rosalyn Deutsche in her attached article. There, she is responding to earlier article by Mike Davis, which also accompanies this post as suggested reading.

Recommended readings: