Monumental Fiction and the Cinematic American City

written for Second Year History and Theories at the Architectural Association, 2013

“In America cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic. The break between the two, the abstraction which we [Europeans] deplore, does not exist: life is cinema.”

Jean Baudrillard “America”

            The synonymity between New York City and monumentality has been supported strongly under the pretense that its historic industrialization period has somehow been frozen in time and secured as a kind of modern icon. This notion, as well, has been appropriated significantly in attempts to visualize a monumental American metropolis of the future, notably in the film “To New Horizons” produced for the General Motors Futurama at the1939 World’s Fair. What is striking about this film is not only the overwhelmingly large-scale model of the city, but also its portrayal through the medium of film as a kind of fiction. At a time when film was in its early stages of becoming a critical form of assessing the transformation of space in the modern city and, with the added depth of fictional narrative, the Futurama served as a powerful tool of architectural persuasion. The way that the American city lends itself to the fictional imaginary suggests a connection between varied perceptions of monumentality, such as those in relation to New York City, and the spatial characteristics of the cinema. In effect, “film has provided a test case for the definition of modernism in theory and technique…but has also been criticized for its deleterious effects on the architectural image”.[1]

As mediums for representing monumentality of the city, film and fiction are precarious in so far as they are accessible and effective forms of asserting pseudo-truths about spatial conditions as much as critiquing them. The dichotomy created out of this suggests that the monumental American city can be both a heroic site of social and technological progress, but also an incubator of estrangement and mental anxiety. Such was Jean Baudrillard’s observation that “the centrality and eccentricity can only create a crazed sense of its own end, which the ’New York’ scene aesthetically transcribes in its follies and its violent expressionism, and which the whole city collectively cultivates in its technical frenzy for the vertical, its constant acceleration of the banal…and the insolence of its sacrifice of humans to pure circulation”.[2] So, as a counter point to the Modernist heroism of the Futurama, the notion of cinematic monumentality in New York City will be explored here in three categories – the street, verticality, and estrangement – using three fictions – Cosmopolis, The Fifth Element, and Taxi Driver – as a way to examine the contrasting criticality of modern urban space in film and fiction.

To New Horizons

The kind of American city portrayed in the Futurama film is that of a totality, of a masterminded super infrastructure able to accommodate a population of millions. It accepts the identity of a monumental city only through its radical scale in building and transportation infrastructure. “Here is an American city planned around a highly developed, modern traffic system”[3]. The film sets up the condition for the fictional city through a montage of historic precedents in transportation progress, culminating at a point where urban life may finally be organized so as to allow maximum efficiency in all aspects; an echo of industrial ideology. The totalizing nature of the film is expressed in the sweeping camera movements, unifying the space of the city with the uniquely American notion of landscape as a picturesque object viewed from the road. Aerial views of a ten-lane highway leading into a great metropolis disconnect any relationship to the individual inhabitant. Continuing into the center of the fictional metropolis, a dense cityscape of anonymous towers rise above the streets, products of “modern and efficient city planning, breath-taking architecture; each city block a complete unit in itself”.[4] Finally, a close-up of a street intersection shows an elevated walkway doubling the space for vehicle traffic, while people conveniently travel between monuments. This gesture of architectural containment avidly affirms Baudrillard’s postulation about the city sacrificing humans to pure circulation.

Futurama 1

still from ‘To New Horizons’ by the Jam Handy Organization, 1940

The objective nature of the Futurama’s fictional representation contradicts its claim to monumentality through its reduction of urban space to a machine-like operation, bearing a strong semblance to the kind of alienating industrial metropolis of the late 19th century. If we accept Alois Riegl’s definition of a monument as “a work of Man erected for the specific purpose of keeping particular human deeds alive and present in the consciousness of future generations,”[5] then the film of the Futurama serves to frame the monumental city as a self-referential object, whose architectural content is only a consequence of spatial organization on an urban industrial scale. Although the film does not specifically refer to New York as its site, the characteristics involved in portraying the Futurama’s monumentality appear implicitly connected to the way New York has gained a unique kind of monumental status through its use as a backdrop for numerous fictions, and which set up the following films as a critique of the spatial consequences of such ideas about monumentality in the American city.

photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1939

photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1939

photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1939

photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1939

The Street

            The notion of the street in the monumental metropolis is expressed in Don Delillo’s “Cosmopolis” as a kind of network of arteries fueling the vast flow of capital through the airwaves of global currency trading systems. The antagonist, Eric Packard, is a prodigious young CEO who embarks on a journey through New York City to get a haircut, flanked constantly by his personal bodyguards while he rides in his limousine. What is immediately made clear is that the street, as observed from inside the car, is a bustling space of action, constantly in flux, equally as monumental in its capacity for movement as the tower blocks that define its boundaries. “People hurried past, the others of the street, endless anonymous, twenty-one lives per second, race walking in their faces and pigments…they were here to make the point that you did not have to look at them”.[6] The street is portrayed with an aggressive spatial character that Eric is able to observe safely from within the bubble of his limousine; perhaps indicative of what the proposal of the Futurama suggests. This aggressiveness is given further clarity when compared to Eric’s description of some of the buildings that frame the street,

The towers loomed just beyond the avenue. They were covert structures for all their size, hard to see, so common and monotonic, tall, shear, abstract, with standard setbacks, block-long and interchangeable…they looked empty from here…made to be the last tall things, empty, designed to hasten the future…[7]

The monumentality of the city, defined here as a monotonous and ambiguous homage to the future, manifests itself in the action of the street, which is charged with the intention to celebrate its banality in a frenzied race from point to point.

The richness of the street reaches a high point as Eric’s limousine passes through a massive protest in Times Square. Eric notices, in particular, the racing stock ticker that wraps around an office building, speeding across the façade, complimentary to the pace of the street. “The speed is the point…we are not witnessing the flow of information so much as pure spectacle”.[8] The setting in the city’s biggest intersection describes the inability to mediate the urge to manifest the monumental desires for the future in the present, and at a pace that is detrimental to its inhabitants. The reference to time in this scene emphasizes the tumultuous link between the tension of the street space and the historic effort to unify the city and monumentality through the industrial appropriation of clock time. Eric’s chief of theory, Vija Kinski, confirms this point in explaining,

The more visionary the idea, the more people it leaves behind. This is what the protest is all about. Visions of technology and wealth…What is the flaw of human rationality?…It pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future…they want to normalize it, keep it from overwhelming the present[9]

The idea of monumentality in the American city is reciprocated in Eric’s perception of the street action as a beautifully mindless performance of capital exchange, offering a critical spatial reading of the street differing from that of the Futurama. The absent hierarchy of the monumental blocks in Delillo’s fiction treats the space of the street as a kind of service zone for maintaining their self-referentiality in a city of perpetual circulation.

Verticality

            Moving from the monumental street to the towers themselves, “The Fifth Element”, directed by Luc Besson, portrays 23rd century New York as a city of pure verticality. Taking the lust for monumental towers expressed in the Futurama to a new extreme, “The Fifth Element” depicts the city’s vertical monuments pushed to their habitable capacity. The context in which the verticality of this distorted future vision is described is a combination of uncontrollable population expansion and a threatening shortage of water that has left the Hudson and East Rivers dried up and available for building development. In need of even more space, the ground plane of the city has been excavated, adding to the exaggerated vertical character of the city. This can be seen, for instance, when one of the protagonists, Leeloo, escapes the laboratory where she has been reconstructed from the remains of her former skeleton, and bursts out of a ventilation network to find herself on what seems to be the ledge of the building façade, miles above the imperceptible ground. She is shocked to see a high-speed train travelling vertically up the side of the building. There is no point of reference to exactly how high up she is; in this monumental city you can only be high. The suggestion of the Futurama, for each block to act as a self-contained unit, is realized in the filmic space of “The Fifth Element” to the greatest imaginable extent, where there is not even the street for one to observe the monumental architecture; it is a permanent inhabitation of monuments.

the fifth element 2

the fifth element 3

            The one way of traversing the city outside of the buildings, by flying car, is best described during a car chase after Leeloo meets the second protagonist, Korben Dallas. Korben manages to evade the police by expertly navigating the network of gorges between the buildings. The details of the scene display an anachronistic aesthetic, surprising for a futuristic city of flying cars, which reflect the idea of the city as a monument to itself and its once iconic status. The anachronistic monumentality of the city is shown further in a wide shot of the city towers, with the headquarters of the antagonist, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, at the center. Rising high over the rest of the city, Zorg’s tower appears as a relic of 20th century vernacular, somewhat resembling Philip Johnson’s AT&T building. Rather than a vision of a city struggling to regulate the monumental thrust into the future, as in Cosmopolis, the scenes of the city in “The Fifth Element” are stagnant. The lives of people residing in the constrained towers takes on a bleak character, derived from the way the monumentality of the city is memorialized in the verticality of the film space. The passive inhabitation of the monuments is shown in the scene of Korben eating lunch from a hovering food truck parked at the window of his multi-functional living pod. He finishes to take a phone call and the camera turns to show the food truck drifting back into the multi-layered traffic. In the background the vertical city can be seen reflecting shades of rusty brown, towers lining the banks of the former East River, and the Brooklyn Bridge soars between the boroughs, appearing immense due to the absence of the ground plane. The critical resemblance between the film space of “The Fifth Element” and the proposition for a vast landscape of towers in the Futurama suggests a cruel and depersonalizing urban spatiality manifested in the constrained vertical monuments.

the fifth element 4

the fifth element 6
the fifth element 7

Estrangement

            The kind of monumentality expressed in the material nature of the street and the verticality of the city is also reflected through the individual inhabitant, in the psychological responses to the spaces of the city. The protagonist of “Taxi Driver”, Travis Bickle, provides a subjective individual juxtaposition to the perceived monumentality of New York. Travis is a taxi driver working the night shift because he suffers from insomnia, and wanders the street during the day, occasionally stopping into 42nd street’s infamous x-rated theaters of the time. The nature of his character, as it relates to the space of the city, is expressed as he speculates, “some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets”.[10] The aggressive backlash of Travis recollects the psychological interpretation of modern spaces proposed by Georg Simmel, who “sought to establish a science of social form and structure that treated space as a category for modeling social relations”.[11] The film portrays Travis’ nightly drives as an alienated experience within the urban fabric, helped along by his inner monologues about filth and scum. In terms of monumentality, his isolation counters the totality of the Futurama’s objective bird’s-eye view to the city. “In the face of the crowed disorder of the modern metropolis,” Simmel argued, “the sensitive and nervous modern person requires a degree of spatial isolation as a kind of prophylactic against psychological intrusion”.[12] This is represented in the space of the film as Travis frequents x-rated theaters, a haven for isolated individuals, or fancies himself as a gunslinger, apparently to fend off the urban sludge who wish to intrude upon his psyche, in his small apartment. Jean Baudrillard makes the point that

the American street…is always turbulent, lively, kinetic, and cinematic, like the country itself…where change assumes virulent forms: its violence is the very violence of the way of life[13]

taxi driver 1
taxi driver 15

Travis’s character appears to be searching for something in his efforts at urban living and tentative social relations. His interactions with the space of the city do not relate so much to the romantic wholeness of the Futurama as they do to Wilhelm Worringer’s depiction of the “true primeval” Man developing though history. In giving context to an analysis of urban anxiety he argues “the real development was not from wholeness to estrangement, but rather from the feeling of strangeness to familiarity”.[14] This familiarity is played out in the way Travis is trying to find a way to entertain is insomnia and in the way he routinely navigates the city in his taxi. It is all building up to a confrontation with the violent space of the city. Rather than a monumental city that naturally “displaces outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas,”[15] the monumentality of the film is given critical light in the very details of the outmoded businesses and slummy living conditions. It is not until the moment Travis kills four men involved in a prostitution organization that he is finally folded warmly into the social fabric of the violent urban monument, alleviated of his estrangement.

taxi driver 3

taxi driver 8

The use of fiction to capture the monumentality of the city testifies to Baudrillard’s assertion that “it is in America’s materialism, realized in a transformation of a way of thinking into the ‘action’ of life, that becomes its cinematography”.[16] The vision of a monumental city as proposed in the fiction of the Futurama is not only the industrialist meddling with ideas of a modernist utopia, but also the example of a cinematic culture driven by “a certain strain of modernist architecture intent on transforming the world into [Siegfried] Kracauer’s nightmare of rationalism triumphant, a gigantic hotel atrium”.[17] Like Kracauer’s hotel lobby, the Futurama “epitomizes the condition of modern life in its anonymity and fragmentation”.[18] The selection of critical films fill the gaps of the Futurama’s objectivity by suggesting that it is the notion of the city as a monumental entity that enables the identification of the various spatial distortions through an appropriation of the cinematic cultural signifiers such as the street, verticality, and socio-spatial relations. The critiques of these filmic representations of New York are similar to Alois Riegl’s description of the age-value in monuments “being revealed in imperfection, a lack of completeness, and a tendency to dissolve shape and color”.[19] This signifies that Baudrillard’s account of America’s cinematic space and way of life undermines the abstraction of the city as a monument. So too, perhaps, it has been the representation of the city’s monumentality in fictional space that has been the undoing of the great modern American metropolis.

Hell's Kitchen and Sebastopol by Jacob Riis, 1890

Hell’s Kitchen and Sebastopol by Jacob Riis, New York, 1890


[1] Vidler, A. Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture p.100

[2] Baudrillard, J. America p. 25

[3] To New Horizons The Jam Handy Organization, 1940

[4] ibid.

[5] Riegl, A. The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Essence and Its Development p. 69

[6] Delillo, D. Cosmopolis p. 20

[7] Delillo, D. Cosmopolis p. 36

[8] ibid. p. 80

[9] ibid. p. 90-91

[10] Scorsese, M. Taxi Driver, 1976

[11] Vidler, A. Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture p.67

[12] ibid. p. 67

[13] Baudrillard, J. America p. 18

[14] Vidler, A. Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture p.45

[15] To New Horizons The Jam Handy Organization, 1940

[16] Baudrillard, J. America p.91-92

[17] Vidler, A. Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture p.79

[18] ibid. p. 72

[19] Riegl, A. The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Essence and Its Development p. 72

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