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The Importance of City in Cinema

November 8, 2010 | By

Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the
whole world, that is the meaning of cinema.’

Berlin Symphony

A realistic depiction of an urban location and the modern amenities

Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
Hop a flight to Miami Beach
Or to Hollywood
But I’m taking a Greyhound
On the Hudson River Line
I’m in a New York state of mind

 Since the time Billy Joel sang this novel paean dedicated to the magical city of New York, all New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers have swayed to this tune. In this song the city is set up as a character that speaks to its listeners. It is an active protagonist that makes its presence known through every line, every word of the song. Thus, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that in this song the New York City is an entity in itself. In every form of art: fiction, non fiction, song, dance and cinema, a city or a region is often portrayed as an individual that makes its entry over and over in the consciousness of the viewers. A city and its heterogeneous, poly vocal culture when described in any form of art becomes an intimate part of that artistic form. In this article we will delve deep in the psychology of the cinematic art and will discuss the importance of topography in cinema.

It has been said that the changes taking place in modern cities today can be effectively understood through an analysis of cinema. Since the birth of cinema as a source of entertainment in the early 1900’s, cities like Paris, Moscow, New York, London became nourishing grounds for the developing new age film industry accruing funds and providing a stage for the creation of movies. Cinema influenced the facades of these cities, and as more and more movie houses came into being, the importance of depicting the aspects of the city became more important. A realistic depiction of an urban location and the modern amenities a city provided slowly came into the basic character of the movie making technique. Thus it is not strange to find scenes of moving trains as an emblem of modernization in early movies like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). The creation of a gamut of characters in the films whose lives would be influenced by their stimulating experiences in a city became a vital part of film construction. And with the popular acceptance of cinema, the scenes portrayed in the cinematography ceased to be a phantasmagoria of unrelated sights, sounds and colors of a delusive city, rather they became realistic and polished versions of urban cities, attractive and alluring with its varied seductions and dangers.



An emblem of modernization in early movies like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)

With the globalization of cinema and with the deluge of popular funds in the movie making industry, we see not one, but images and flickers of a number of different cities. And not only that, as the cosmopolitan nature of cinema came to the fore front, a correct depiction of cities and its urbane civilization became vital. In Richard Attenborough’s 1983 Oscar winning biopic, Gandhi the accurate depiction of various Indian cities and the then Indian population wrought by the pangs of British rule underscored the success of the movie. The basic truth that it is a society that shapes an individual and that individual in his turn shapes the society in his own way became the fundamental fact of movie making. It is realism which became the single most important aspect of modern film industry. In the movie The City of Joy (1982) the sights of the dispossessed people of Calcutta and the shocking and poignant scenes of poverty and crime is aptly described. It is these realistic images of the real City of Joy that brings out the essence of the movie and the inner irony of the joyful nomenclature. Through the lens of the director the audience saw the blatant truth hidden under a sheet of diaphanous malignancy. So we can say that a real success of the cinematic form of art depends on the director’s ability to correctly portray a city.


City Of Joy

The City of Joy (1982) showcasing dispossessed people of Calcutta

With the development of the transnational cinematic process, more and more people have come to accept movies as encyclopedias of modern culture. It is through movies that we see glimpse of far-off places, like an Italian piazza, a beautiful evening in Paris or a church in Spain. Since movies have become the modern day frigates for a major population of the world, the importance of picturing different cities and a rainbow of their eclectic cultures have inexorably intertwined with the creation of modern films. In various new movies the city is set up as a character itself. In the movie Before Sunrise shot in the Austrian city Vienna, the city and its landmarks have been used as leitmotifs throughout the movie. Even in the recent Bollywood love story Wake up Sid the sights and sounds of the city of Mumbai is linked with the development of the theme of the movie.

It is said that the city allows itself to be evoked through a certain kind of imagery, which may not be beautiful in the first place, and may even turn out to be disgusting and melancholic. While referring to the effective use of the urban imagery, T.S. Eliot in a classic essay on Baudelaire says that ‘It is not merely the imagery of common life, not merely the use of imagery of the sordid life of a great metropolis, but in the elevation of such imagery to the first intensity— presenting it as it is, and yet making it represent something more than itself’ that a mode of ‘release and expression for other men’ can be created. It is through the visuals of the dark underbelly of the polished so-called new India that British director Danny Boyle successfully stimulates the minds of his audiences in heart-wrenching romantic drama Slum dog Millionaire (2008). This movie told in a series of flashbacks brings to light the events that shaped the life of the protagonist and enabled him to answer the questions in the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? By elevating the imagery of the phantasmagoria urban space, Danny Boyle successfully provides a poetic relief in the end of the movie.


With the mass production of films the integrated studio system is gaining importance. However, the presentation of a city as the background of any cinematic happening cannot be undermined. A drama or a melodrama often finds its true character in the city it takes place. That is why in Sleepless in Seattle the character of the lovelorn widower Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) can be linked to the oceanic Seattle weather. It’s mild, rainy Mediterranean climate is like the basic nature of its inmate Sam Baldwin whose character is temperate from outside yet at times tumultuous like the occasional thunderstorms that rock the city. In the American sitcom Sex and the City, the character of the protagonist Carrie Bradshaw is like the character of the New York City–fast paced, electrifying, exhilarating and at times cold and lonely.


Slumdog Millionaire

Heart-wrenching romantic drama Slum dog Millionaire (2008)

Several movies have heightened the character of a city, added new elements to them, and over-modernized its mundane nature for comic or subtle effects. In the Sleeper (1973) the classic slapstick comedy by Woody Allen depicts an austere ultramodern society where cheap thrills and foolhardiness run amok under the vigilant eye of a fascist government. The images of dystopian future and the unreal region falsely portrayed gave the movie a new kind of unreal-aura. Realistic or unrealistic, it is indeed the cinematic picture of the city that we carry in our minds, it the instability of the cinematic image that evokes the city in all its errance.

These days many movies are being based on popular works of fiction and non fiction. As a wide variety of movies are bringing to life the various works of literature, the cities and regions described in those works are being brought to life too. In the Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, we see through the brilliant cinematography unforgettable images of the life in New Orleans in 1921 post World War I era. The film takes us through many decades, culminating with the Katrina Hurricane, thus bringing to life not only a 1921 society but also a glimpse of the havoc caused by the hurricane. The director David Fincher has deftly linked the fiction and the non fiction together in the foreground of the same city, New Orleans. As the cinema is gaining reputation for its role in providing empirical evidences for the understanding of an urban space, a wide variety of classic and new imageries are being used to describe a city. As the character sifts through the various experiences in his life, the city becomes a representative aspect of the film. The city is brought out in different lights, under the blanket of illusion and finally, as the story ends, through the elevation of imagery a representative aspect of the city is left behind for the audiences to wonder about. By it I mean the director’s skill of presenting a mundane aspect of the city and leaving behind under the layer of apparent simplicity of a mere image a deeper stratum of inner meaning. The metropolitan life with its exigencies cannot but be a part of an urban legend that the director has set off on describing. The apparent complexity of a cinema lies in the complex labyrinth of the city life the film depicts. The real and unreal complexities of city life become a part of the imagination of the viewer. But the city depicted in any movie is much more than an idea or a figment of imagination; it is a kaleidoscope of the world the director speaks about. In short, the city with its obsessions and idiosyncrasies and with its various urbane experiences is a microcosm of the whole world.

The visible and invisible aspects of the city conditions the mind of the protagonist and his responses to the various incidents that he faces totally depends on this innate conditioning. Walter Benjamin in 1939 describes a city dweller as ‘a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’ thus an actor who is representing the city in a film is taken as a mirror image of the urban space. And in some way our own expectations are often linked with the behavior of the actor under certain conditions. In the whimsical comedy The Garden State (2004) the story deals with the life of a perennially depressed central character, Andrew Largeman, who returns to his New Jersey hometown to begin to see his life in a new light. The film begins with Largeman, a mundane character that doesn’t know who he is or what he wants. The transformation of his character from a sleepy head to an actual individual is what the film is about. Largeman is basically portrayed as an urban human being, like us, who is forever torn between what he wants and what he gets. The movie is a piecemeal of the city life and the dichotomy its inmates face everyday are brought to life through the character of Andrew Largeman.

Satyajit Ray who had always believed in a realistic and insightful depiction of a society, paid meticulous adherence in The Chess Players (1977) to description of Lucknow city. The social atmosphere of the 1856 colonial India as Awadh was facing its downfall was brought to life by the sites and sounds of the city: laden with culture, seeped in tradition and obsessed with pleasure. The scene of the city bazaar where the local crowd attended chicken fights for entertainment deftly brought out the callousness of the citizens deriving vile pleasure while being unresponsive to the political tumult that was about to change the face of Awadh.

Thus, we can deduce that since the inception of filmmaking as a source of entertainment up to the avant garde era of globalization, city and cinema have forever been intertwined. From Hollywood to Bollywood, all the films that we see and will be seeing in future would have their roots in some urban space. A cinema does not only come from the crux of urban experience, but also depicts such experiences in its body. The rhyme and rhythm of all movies of all time have revolved around some society, some region, or some city. So, it would be prudent to end the argument with of Andrei Tarkovsky’s definition of cinema ‘Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, that is the meaning of cinema.’


[1] Abbas, Ackbar, “Cinema, the City and the Cinematic” in Global cities: cinema, architecture, and urbanism in a digital age, pp. 142-156, Rutgers University Press, 2003

[2] Eliot,T.S, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975

(Pictures used in this article are taken from the Internet)

Creative Writing

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Barnali Saha is a creative writer from Kolkata, India, currently living in Nashville, TN, USA. She enjoys writing short stories, poetry, travelogues and articles. Her works have been published in several newspapers and magazines in India (The Statesman, The Indian Express, Womans Era, DNA-Me, Muse India Literary Journal, Silhouette Magazine, etc.) and also in the USA (Mused Bella Online Literary Review, The Smoking Poet, Long Story Short, Pens On Fire, Fiction at Work, Palki, Parabaas, etc.). Apart from writing, she is interested in painting and photography.
All Posts of Barnali Saha

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Silhouette Magazine publishes articles, reviews, critiques and interviews and other cinema-related works, artworks, photographs and other publishable material contributed by writers and critics as a friendly gesture. The opinions shared by the writers and critics are their personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Silhouette Magazine. Images on Silhouette Magazine are posted for the sole purpose of academic interest and to illuminate the text. The images and screen shots are the copyright of their original owners. Silhouette Magazine strives to provide attribution wherever possible. Images used in the posts have been procured from the contributors themselves, public forums, social networking sites, publicity releases, YouTube, Pixabay and Creative Commons. Please inform us if any of the images used here are copyrighted, we will pull those images down.