Image: cityscape from Wong Kar Wai's beautiful 2046 (2004).

Friday, December 5, 2008

Update: Tokyo... and Jenga Towers?

From the good news column: I recently learned that my proposal to the 2009 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference was successful. I now have until late May to figure out how to fund a trip to Tokyo (!) and to complete my paper on new narratives of gentrification in three recent city films... more "in this space" on that front in coming months....

Also, here's a quick optical riddle: Can anyone else look at this building and not see a giant game of Jenga?

Perhaps that is what the architects of this São Paulo office tower intends when they claim that "the terraces that strongly characterize the towers are nothing beyond a simple game of displacements..."? In any event, an interesting instance of the gaming of the urban landscape... hopefully one that captures a sense of new experimentation with form but leaves off the structural integrity aspect of a Jenga game...

(article and image of Top Towers via

Saturday, November 29, 2008

City Symphony: Joris Ivens's Rain

In my dissertation's introductory chapter, I devote some space to discussing the historical backdrop of city symphonies, those glorious early avant-garde works of cinematic documentation and manipulation that forever tied city and cinema together in our imagination. The best-known among them include Manhatta (Strand, 1921), Twenty-Four Dollar Island (Flaherty, 1926), Berlin, Symphony of a City (Ruttmann, 1927), Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929) and Berlin - Alexanderplatz (Jutzi, 1931), all of which are mainstays of film studies coursework, variably discussed in classes on European, documentary or avant-garde cinema. The term city symphony, borrowed from the subtitle of Walter Ruttman’s abovementioned film about Berlin, has been “applied to numerous films within which practices of visual kinaesthesia constructed a 'symphony' based on the diurnal cycle of life in the modern metropolis, while simultaneously infusing avant-gardist perspectives with a historically and politically cognizant form of social criticism.” (Keith Beattie, see here.) Visual strategies are developed to capture both the image of the modern-era city, and the rhythm and changing phenomena that define it.

Recently, I watched one of the slighter "symphonies" for the first time, Joris Ivens's Rain (1929). In a brisk twelve minutes, the short film captures the scene in Amsterdam during some inclement weather, producing "a poetic meditation on the transformation of a city by rain." (Internet Archive).

You can download the film from the (truly amazing resource that is the) Internet Archive here. (Downloading is better than streaming, fyi, but the quality is admittedly somewhat wanting in either case.)

Ivens’s film adds a weather-related overlay to several of the usual city symphony tropes: a fascination with the changing spaces of the city, crowds of people, public transit (trolleys being the primary mode of the era), the structures that define the landscape and the unusual ways in which the eye may catch them at play. Oblique or ingenious compositions are employed, silently establishing the key difference between the cinematic view of urban life and that available to the citizen on the street: Rain, like the other city symphonies listed, seeks to rise above, peep at from below, run beside, dissect and even re-mix the visual components of early twentieth-century city scenes to capture their kaleidoscopic vigour and frequent social ironies in startling new ways.

In the image above, Ivens films the raindrops on the surface of the canals as the downpour – which arrives a few minutes into the film, after the city scene is established – grows in intensity. The shot is followed by a sequence of images of pedestrians in a square who are, almost to a soggy one, covered with black umbrellas.

The effect is a visual echo, underscoring the manners in which the urban masses are (well?) equipped to respond to their environment. There is something faintly cosmopolitan, one feels, about the crowd's readiness. City life in 1929 is dynamic but orderly.

In the diss, I make the argument that sound film and the dominance of narrative cinema over the avant-gardist project led to a concentration of urban representations in narrative filmmaking and its familiar genres. While there are always exceptions to be found (particularly in the realm of documentary and, perhaps, increasingly so), the city symphony may be considered a form largely confined to the 1920s (predominantly in Europe) through 1940s and early 50s (more so in the United States and New York in particular). I am hoping to organize a screening programme of some sort to return to these earliest films about the city, to facilitate discussion of the optical and cinematic languages that inform more contemporary city films. How, for instance, might one compare the rain-soaked crowds in Rain with those in the polyglot marketplace of Blade Runner, with their futuristic illuminated umbrellas? What characterizes the city spaces of (a vaguely identified) Shanghai (which actually also comprised images of London, Hong Kong and Dubai) in Code 46 versus those of Man With a Movie Camera or Berlin, Symphony of a City? (My preliminary hunch on this latter question is that the sense of an excessively well-maintained master plan is shared among the films while Code 46 is unique more so for what I elsewhere term “the stamp of corporation” than for the visible advancement of its technology.)

In any event, this is primarily a reminder for any who might be interested in the Internet Archive’s amazing depth as a research treasure trove for mid-afternoon curiosity excursions such as this one. Many of the classic city films mentioned above are available there.

One final aside: Rain is a silent film to which – in the version I watched – a grating soundtrack has been added. I’d recommend watching with the sound off or, if you are amenable to a little re-mixing of one’s own, adding a soundtrack. On a first pass, I went with, in order, DeVotchKa’s “The Winner Is” (from the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack), a brief interlude in the form of Eels’ “Theme for a Pretty Girl that Makes You Believe God Exists” and Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight.” The effect was somewhat more downtempo than the symphonic/rhythmic emphasis discussed above, but it was gorgeous. My second attempt was even more successful: a perennial favourite, Saint-Saëns’s “Aquarium” from Le Carnaval des Animaux, followed by Carly Commando’s “Everyday” and Mark Mothersbaugh’s “Sparkplug Minuet” (from the Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack). It pretty much edited itself.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Easing Back In...: "cynicism in the face of mile-high towers"

Just to get a ball rolling here again, I wanted to point out some interesting questions raised over at BLDGBLOG in a post from yesterday. Author Geoff Manaugh is prepping for a panel discussion in Chicago next Saturday titled "Offshoring Audacity." The panel will be discussing the use of the developing countries and desert spaces of the East as laborities for the architectural and urban planning experiments of Western designers and builders.

As usual, the BLDGBLOG read is compelling, a quick and provocative sprint that runs from indoor ski slopes to Heidegger in a nanosecond. It sets up the questions to be consideed at the panel: Should we celebrate architectural audacity, especially as it witnesses designs crossing cultural divides and carrying American or European architects to Abu Dhabi? Or, as my borrowed title suggests, adopt a cautious cynicism, if not fear, of titanic endeavours that grow up almost over night? And, what role should regional or national identity play in all of this?

In other words, is it perhaps weird enough that Atlantis was resurrected from myth and built in the Bahamas, without it being rebuilt again pretty much the same, in Dubai?

These are all questions that make appearances in Chapter 5 of my diss, so more on this topic in coming months. For the time being, I'll just end with posting a rendering of one of the forthcoming Dubai projects that BLDGBLOG references: Park Gate, a 4.7 million square foot complex of "six mid-rise towers linked together by soaring vaulted canopies."

As World Architecture News reports, it will be part of a 12-year, $15 billion building project commissioned for Dubai from US firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill. Funny thing is, it's the first incredibly futuristic, aggressively audacious building project I've read of in a couple of years that hasn't left me with a queasy, paranoid feeling. It looks like an ambitious future site I would actually like to visit, when compared even with the other projects in the plan, 1 Dubai or 1 Park Avenue, both of which leave me with a (perhaps entirely irrational) feeling of dread and fatalism. There's probably some kind of easy urban-emotion version of an ink-splotch test I should take to get at the root or my architectural anxieties... I should look into that before I get back to work on Ch. 5.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Dungeon Masters

Another Daily article, this time a roundtable with the awesome filmmakers behind the documentary The Dungeon Masters. This crew rocked.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Witch Hunt Article

My next major piece in the Daily (there've been some shorted q+as here and there) is on the screening of Witch Hunt in Toronto. Click!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Just a wee link...

... to a Daily article of mine on two new city films: Barry Jenkins's Medicine for Melancholy and Terence Davies's Of Time and the City.

View it here.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

TIFF kicks off

If I haven't been blogging much in the last month, I DEFINITELY will not be doing much for the next ten days. I will, however, refer you to the online extracts for the Toronto International Film Festival Daily, for which I am Editor-in-Chief this year.

Happy reading!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Alt Cinema(s)

So, sometimes it takes a kick in the head to get me back into things, and the kicks have been flying thick and fast, at least cinema-wise, lately.

I have found myself knee-deep in the annual floodwaters of preparations for TIFF, working the fifteen-hour days, trying to convince a crew of highly motivated new staff that they need to stay even more motivated throughout the grueling next few weeks, and trying to pry programme notes from the programming team who are as busy as usual corralling new films from around the world to bring to Festival audiences.

I last posted in May; I blinked, and it was almost August. Sad, but also exciting as the summer has delivered some amazing films. The TIFF selection will have to be something I - hopefully - talk about in subsequent posts (though I certainly draw everyone's attention to Us Chickens, a stunning film that is playing in the Festival's Short Cuts Canada programme...). Instead, I wanted to write about two recent, both rather pulpy movie-going experiences: the drive-in and the Trash Palace.

First, the Drive-In.

What does it say about how incomplete my graduate education has been that, while already an ABD in film studies, I had never been to a real drive-in movie until two weekends ago? (I use the qualifier "real" here to keep myself honest, as I once sat in my car in an alley behind a business supply store in Hollywood, trying to stay awake through the projection of an LA indie filmmaker's "pirate" drive-in. I remember some incredibly befuddled narrative, maybe something involving an island, and a desperate, unrequited craving for licorice.) So, after discovering that The North York Drive In Theatre was close enough to make a night of it, plans were hatched.

I suppose I imagined that the only things that still played on drive-in screens would be retro films... something animated by Ray Harryhausen maybe... So seeing The Dark Knight (the first half of a double bill with Get Smart) the Saturday after it opened and set box-office records across North America was not what I had expected. Afterall, the people who are really geeking out about it are freaking about seeing it in Imax. It is a visually lavish, Michael Mann-esque city film that revels in reflections, steel, glass and no small amount of flame, so waiting til the last bits of twilight are faded and trying to take it all in through a dashboard, with the occasional flitting-bys of nighttime bugs and the incessant distortion of the radio sound system, is probably not high on a lot of would-be viewers' lists.

But the experience was perfect. There are many glowing (yes, truly) things that I would say about the film, almost all of which relate to Heath Ledger's Phantom-esque turn as the Joker, and director Christopher Nolan's brilliant decision to make this a film about the villain more so than the hero.
The longer I sit with this film, the more I wind up thinking about its incredible moments of near-orchestral beauty (the image here epitomizing that facet of the film for me) and strange humanism. (On another day, with more time, I'd like to write about the "strange humanism" of the superhero genre more generally.) And the longer I think about how truly amazing Ledger's performance really was. I assume Jack Nicholson has been looking back at his own work in the 1989 Batman and lamenting what could have been.

But the things I liked about the film were only part of what I loved about the drive-in. Let me paint the picture. The North York Drive In is not, in actuality, in North York, but rather in the area of Holland Landing, outside of Newmarket, Ontario. It is, in effect, in that gray zone where a small suburban city like Newmarket rubs up against its completely, fantastically rural surrounds. The crowd was, I'd say, drawn from these communities. I felt like we stuck out rather obviously... not so much for our "urban" conspicuousness, however, as for our evident rookie approach to the event. Sure, we were there two hours ahead of sundown, anxious not to be shut out on the blockbuster's opening weekend. And naturally we brought a picnic, including a couple of tall cans of Strongbow. But we still lacked even the basic fundamentals: lawnchairs, a frisbee, a deck of cards, about twenty noisy, cigarette-smoking friends (that seemed to be a popular accessory), dogs, air mattresses, even laptops such as the one on which the middle-aged couple next to us watched another movie (Batman Begins?) during the wait til twilight. We brought snacks, and some work to edit.

The drive-in has three screens, the audience for each of which no doubt formed separate small communities, so I can't really say what went on in the parking lots for Mamma Mia or Hellboy 2. But at Screen 1, a carnival broke out. Children ran willy nilly like something out of a Roald Dahl tale; entire families seemed to gather; and eventually, as though everyone knew the code and as though the 1960s-era concession stand had sold its last freezie pop, the horns and flashing headlights started... a subtle inveigling to the (presumably) veteran projectionist camped away in the bunker-style booth (the door of which, strangely, seemed to be barred from the outside...) to start the show.

And start it did. The night unfolded despite audio difficulties (I don't think drive-in broadcast systems are especially satellite-radio-friendly), bugs, humidity, rain and even, eventually, Get Smart, leaving me with a newfound respect for the event of cinema and the communities it creates. Something was different from the usual anonymity of theatre-going at the drive-in. It didn't change the way I felt about the film, so much as the way I felt about watching a film. Taking part in a really, really old concept, going to the movies felt new again, and that was a powerful thing.

And then there was Trash Palace.

What can I really say about the Trash Palace? Check out the link and you will see just how much irony inheres in their self-description as Toronto's "classiest cinema." A labour of love for local print-shop runner and film-print collector Stacey Case, who devotes the 1,800 square feet of his shop to screenings every second Friday night, the Trash Palace is a shrine for the scummiest, B-filmiest, most pulpy cinema out there. We were invited by friends who moved to Toronto just over a year ago, and how they found out about the hushed-up screening programme before I did is something of a puzzle for me. The procedures for getting tickets are somewhat arcane - involving being at a certain coffee shop, at a certain time, on a certain day, as near as I can tell - and the address kept secret until you are officially a paid customer.

The roster of films, including pre-feature shorts (mostly trailers for some of the most egregiously unscary B-horrors ever made with some of the scariest, campiest soft core ever produced alongside them), are luridly, startlingly bad; so horrible they're amazing. Once discovering the secret downtown print-shop turned B-movie grotto, the uninitiated go underground into a realm of really uncomfortable seats (kinda like being back in the Spanish class room at my high school), where one can buy a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon for $3, can pee in a bathroom that's a like a glorified outhouse all dolled up (rather literally) in retro kitsh, and can - if one has purchased a membership - locate their card on the wall and punch it in on the time clock. And one can join a surprising, small population of hipsters and cinephiles and watch a film like The Thing with Two Heads, a social-problem horror film that borrows as much from blaxploitation and Dukes of Hazard's cop-hating car chases as from Frankenstein. It cannot easily be described. All I'll say is: two heads, one body; a monster at the motocross course; and a final scene in which three characters (one of whom recently lost some irksome extra weight that looked a lot like Ray Milland) driving off singing "Oh Happy Day." (Perhaps they were heading to their local drive-in?)

The feature was preceded by a (too long) short film produced decades ago by the Dairy Farmers' Association of America (I think), designed to terrify bankers with a Machiavellian hybrid of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and It's a Wonderful Life that would convince them to invest in more milk farmers.

There were shrieks and giggles, give-aways and custom-made truffles shaped like the Thing with Two Heads, and there were even some yawns as the feature's long final-reel chase sequence, well, dragged. But, in a way much like the experience I had at the drive in less than a week before it, last Friday's trip to the Trash Palace thrilled me. For someone working two jobs (a job with two heads?) related to cinema, and for whom film is a constant backdrop, generally associated with stress and to-do lists, it was amazing to make an event of the movies... even if what was onscreen was downright trashy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Man on Wire ... coming soon

This is cheating. I am a dirty, despicable, cheater of a blogger... This is not the post on the documentary Man on Wire -- about tightrope walking urban interventionist Philippe Petit -- that I have been meaning to write for a few weeks. Rather, this is a placeholder... a slight glimmer of hope that this humble blog is not entirely dead in the water.

The film was fantastic. The feat that inspired it even more so. I will write about them soon.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Incomplete Age

Clearly, "completion" as a concept has been a challenge for me lately, as I have tried to make great strides with my dissertation while on a leave of absence from work. Every moment I am not typing great and meaningful things is laden with guilt. Even when I have been writing away at chapters, I've allowed a drought of posts here on my poor, infant blog to cause me no end of remorse and bad feeling.

So, wrapping these emotions up with the novel that I have recently begun to read, The Book of Dave, by Will Self, I found myself puzzling over a web-era phenomenon this morning: that is, all the languished, obsolete blogs that have been started then abandoned by well-intentioned folks across the past decade. The picture below is a screen-grab of the first blog I ever started, which was born - and died - in May of 2005. It only ever had one post, in which I referenced all the things I'd write about: film, travel, politics on either side of the border, life between Toronto and Los Angeles, etc. Poor Exorbitant City might have met a similar fate were it not for today's flurry of inspiration. (Of course, it likely will yet.)

The descriptor given atop the page on my first blog informed my non-existent readership that this blog was to be "the only solution to a peripatetic, transnational, time-sapped existence in which i am never everywhere at once." The chosen design was garishly pink. Somehow, I recall sorting out the code to give the website a custom icon to appear in the navigation bar... that's still the way it appears in my Mozilla bookmarks list, though I guess the uploaded image has died a natural death, since it does not seem to load that way any more. The few scraps of writing to be found on the page are over-wrought, if sincere and, well, well intended.

I cannot make this blog disappear from the web. The email account to which it was tied is dead, so I cannot find the way to access "the dashboard" for the corresponding user and delete it. So out there it stays, floating on the net waiting for nothing in particular except my periodic checks to see if it is still there.

Or, perhaps, waiting for some future researcher to come along and sweep it into a net with thousands of other samples from The Incomplete Age. This is where The Book of Dave is no doubt taking over my thinking. The novel is, in part, about the radical attempts at interpretation (and the resulting misinterpretation) of a London cabbie's notebooks -- written during our epoch -- by a post-apocalyptic English society centuries after. His histrionic rantings are taken as nothing short of scripture and tremendous social consequences follow from that.

But think about it for a moment: all the detritus out on the web now... those very personal, well-intended blogs started to commemorate a group or a university seminar, to help keep people in touch over long distances, to document a love of experimenting with different recipes involving stout ale, and what-have-you, that got off the ground and then fell into neglect. Are these the cave drawings that anthropologists of some future era will sift through trying to understand that cryptic period in which the web exploded into life? What will they deduce? That we were a society with great promise and a tremendous affinity for beginnings, but with very , very poor follow-through? That we didn't clean up the virtual mess we made any better than the environmental one? That some of us misunderstood the word peripatetic? Will we be labeled "The Incomplete Age," laughed at beside the Stone, Industrial or even early Electronic ages for our megalomania and lassitude? All because I can't delete that old blog or may, one day, let this one die?

Reasons I Wish I Was Teaching...

... an undergraduate class on Ideological Hollywood:

(It's only one reason, actually...)

Drillbit Taylor.

It amazes me that this film was released. (Why did I go see it, you ask? I was both desperate for something fluffily non-dissertation-related and wrongly sympathetic to the plight of poor, charming Owen Wilson. I figured that if his movie tanks, he might try to do himself injury again. Little did I realize that this movie has to have been why he tried to do himself injury in the first place.)

Drillbit Taylor...
... glorifies high-school violence and resolution of said violence through front-yard ultimate-fighting showdowns in which the morally just will no doubt prevail.
... makes a mockery of a very really problem of security in America's schools.
... allegorizes (in the least subtle way imaginable) a lovely, humble, nature-loving and fundamentally sweet American soldiery that is unwilling to commit or witness any violence whatsoever... until someone it loves gets hurt. Then it (Drillbit, natch) will destroy you with lethal force and the commendations of all, all while blithely laughing off the loss of a little finger. (In non-allegorical terms here, we are no doubt reckoning with the equation that reasonable losses are to be expected if peace and security are to be ensured.)

Have you seen this movie? Probably not. It's a disaster. Badly made, ideologically Frankensteinian and offensive to: teenagers, adults, twins, rappers, the homeless, Canadians, Americans, Asians (I could go on at length about the sub-plot regarding how the homicidal high-school bully is portrayed as a grossly affluent "emancipated minor" whose indifferent parents have shipped him to LA from Hong Kong), Owen Wilson, you, me and Dupree.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Criminy! Way too long since a post, and I have a great deal of things back-logged to post about... another day. In the interim, I'm pleased to report that as of about a week ago, we have floors once more and as of pretty much yesterday, we've got the place not only set up, but better than ever.

(Now, however, after another massive snow storm and no resealing of the balcony - yet - by the condo management company, we're more than a tad worried about a repeat of the Dread January Flood... )

Also pleased to report that I'm finishing a chapter tonight. I'm on official leaves of absence from both work and my graduate department... on the surface of it, one might think I was living the most leisurely life ever seen... instead, the days are filled by the constant fear of looming deadlines, clicking clocks, turning calendar pages (note the intentional cinematic cliche) and, not nearly as often as I'd hoped, fits of mercifully prolific writing.

Everything else, including my planned/hoped-for response to this post at BLDGBLOG on architectural paranoia, anon... And, in that vein, here's a still from Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, one of the films that figures into my discussion of urban paranoia in Chapter 2.

And, yes, I am acutely aware that this blog long ago became an exercise in deferring tasks. One day, that diss will be done and gone and I will post non-stop. Then you'll be sorry.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Here are the things that are scaring me right now, besides my dissertation and my horrible struggle for a better work-life balance:

1. Costs
2. Falling Objects and the People Who Shoot at Them
3. Titanic Excess
4. And whatever the heck this is supposed to be: I get that it makes sense, but, I mean, really, who's gonna put one on?

I know I told a lie in my (fantastically underappreciated) previous post, but, I promise, the next post will include that update on That Thing I Did the Other Day.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

City View

This is gorgeous. I came across the music of Max Richter today while on my never-ending hunt for music that I can listen to while writing. (Fundamentals: sparse, no lyrics, but not atonal or a-rhythmic, nor overly staccato or martial in tenor... I'm tricky that way... lots of Philip Glass, Eluvium and Arvo Pärt listened to around here.)

Richter is a German-born modernist composer who trained in the UK and Italy. I guess, in truth, I had encountered Richter's music previously, as a few of his songs were part of the soundtrack for Stranger than Fiction, but I can muster no particular memory of their place in the film. His compositions are very "cinematic," I think it could be said. I wonder if this means they work better when NOT placed in the service of film narratives but left to stand on their own, to filter in through my headphones while I try to arrange my disorderly thoughts about films and cities into a persuasive argument. Perhaps, but most likely, Richter's pieces are best served by being wedded with imagery like this:

The images were shot by filmmaker Yulia Mahr, who pointed a camera out Richter's NYC window over five nights while Richter was working on the album "Songs from Before" (2006). The song featured is called "Fragment." Collectively, the unison of image and music is exquisite, and produces impressions lying somewhere between the uncomfortable menace of Wavelength, or the chatty (then menacing) voyeurism of Rear Window, while simultaneously reminding me of the urban nighttime footage from Lawrence Johnston's astonishing recent documentary, Night (which I wrote about here and which I'd encourage you to see no matter where you had to drive or fly to to do so).

In the simplest of assemblages, the short film and the music explore the simultaneous beauty and distanciation of quasi-communal urban living.

You can watch other Richter/Mahr collaborations on youtube and, I imagine, all over the web... if you look.

In my next post: an update on that thing I did the other day, and some other sundry thoughts.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

So I Did this Thing Today...

... that probably made no sense. I sent an email, out of the blue, to a highly distinguished professor in UCLA's department of Urban Planning. I have been considering a critical/theoretical construction of his for some time now and recently decided it could be the missing dynamic that subtends questions of periodization, methodology and intent in my Introduction and... by extension... the entirety of my dissertation.

Emailing him resulted from my following one of those random impulses that I have to try to take the "virtuality" out of my current academic situation. (I've been corresponding with some of my committee by email and phone and just yesterday emailed our remarkable Student Affairs Office in the FTVDM department to ask him to please print and deliver a letter to another committee member who apparently does not email, ever.) After all, if I were still in the environs of UCLA, I could have found out this professor's office hours and just turned up, all inquisitive and such.

Though, in fact, randomly meeting him face-to-face would probably have made me dreadfully nervous and all the smart, informed questions I had about his work would likely have turned into a lot of "hi smart mister... I think you are smart... can I use your smart words in my book?"

So, a thoughtful email was probably the way to go. It may lead to a fruitful exchange of ideas between two people interested in notions of community, progressive scholarship and urbanism, or, it may have ruined my academic career permanently. Or, he may never write back and the result will be fantastically nil. I'll update if anything comes of it.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Exorbitant Happiness?

Incredibly, an article in En Route magazine caught my eye tonight (discovered via Where). Yep. En Route, the magazine found on Air Canada airplanes, which I have pulled out of a seat-back pockets countless times, flipped open, discovered the crossword to be already half complete, and then closed with some small measure of disdain and a complete measure of disinterest.

But, now, En Route is writing about cities. The article, "The Happy City," explores initiatives recently undertaken in Bogotá, Mexico City and even Paris to make cities happier by making them more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly, less asphalt jungle and more urban Riviera, and more prone to positive encounter and intersection. The initiatives include turning motorways into beaches in the summertime... in Paris... who would have thought? The author, Charles Montgomery, has a lovely writing style that interweaves moments of flâneur-like urban description with some fairly strong reference to urban researchers and planners:

"There is a wondrous, stirring power to the Champs-Élysées. The street’s lifeblood pulses along sidewalks that are cumulatively much wider than those famous six lanes of traffic. It exists between paving stones, newsstands and café tables, in the dripping of ice cream cones, in long legs and gusts of wind and in the electric possibility of a thousand simultaneous stolen glances.

"The more time we spend on foot, on bikes or even on public transit, the more we slow down and the more we fuel this kind of social alchemy. Ironically, it may be the crisis of climate change – and the push for carbon austerity – that reinvigorates street life around the world."

It's a very interesting read -- again, from an airline magazine no less -- and dovetails with my dissertation's analysis of the function of intersection in urban narratives. In the films, intersection is calamitous, often fatal. In the brilliantly re-planned Happy City of (really?) the real world, close encounters with urban others is the idealized road to a more content, trusting and trustworthy populous. Whence the disconnect?

Also, for another marvelous late-night read about urban culture, head over to my favourite speculative architecture blog and check out Geoff's post on Cloud City (proposed by Studio Lindfors for a design competition aimed at concepts for a disaster-destroyed NYC). As is often the case when I encounter a seemingly impossible concept city, I find myself convinced that this zeppelin -based urbanism is inspired directly by Invisible Cities, but find myself unable to lay hands on the passage, given that book's uniquely confounding structure. Maybe I'll be able to find it tomorrow.

[image courtesy of Studio Lindfors]

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Pensées sur l'art du déplacement

While working on chapter 3 (yes, still) last night, I was surprised to find myself heading off on a digression on the activity known variably as parkour or l'art du déplacement (or, similarly but not quite the same, free running) in relationship to discussion of Breaking and Entering. (There is a typically solid article on parkour on wikipedia for you to go and look into that is better than any fast summary I'd draft up. There's also many videos available on youtube - see this, for an example- and on

The realization dawned on me that the fact that the film's teenaged character of Miro who uses his skills as a traceur to stage brilliant B+Es wasn't just a small plot embellishment in a film about relationships in contemporary London. Rather, it is its own discrete discourse within the film about one character's (challenging) relationship to London. I'm kind of shocked I hadn't realized before. Parkour is, in the words of its founder, David Belle, about "gaining ground." He means gaining ground in a chase or emergency, as in catching up to or getting away from someone, of course, but I think there is a nice way of thinking about parkour in relation to the theories of Michel de Certeau (The Practice of Everyday Life) and, in particular, his thoughts on the use of the city in relation to the walker. If de Certeau sees the walker as reclaiming the city from the panoptic power that seeks to programme or control boundaries and flow on the city's streets, traceur(e)s must be seen as extending this potential, literally, into another dimension. Gaining ground indeed, they go over walls, over buildings even. They do so for training, but they also do so for play and, in all this, they are redefining the acceptable use of the built spaces of the city, remapping what is permissible in the urban space.

Quite amazing and, I guess, inspiring: if traceur(e)s can throw themselves through holes in walls and climb buildings, I can turn out a few hundred tight pages, right?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Monkey on Your Back Is the Latest Trend

So, since last posting, my quest for floors has been totally unsuccessful, I've had exactly one meltdown, exactly one dose of bad news about my dissertation (just when you think the deadlines can't get any tighter, someone finds a way to insist on getting the finished product sooner), gone to San Francisco, got caught in the rain, watched groceries roll down a steep, steep San Francisco hill, been hurt (no joke) attempting to do this class with my sister, said goodbye to a beloved coworker and thought of two dozen more ways to make myself feel badly about my doctoral qualifications.

I did, however, get some writing done today, and it is not yet midnight.

And, rather than waste time on the emptily yet overly emotional spectacle that is the Superbowl, I opted instead to finally go see the almost overly emotional mini-spectacle that is Juno. Not only did it play at TIFF, where I am happily employed (well, most of the time... more on that later), but it seems everyone on the planet has seen it. Parents of a three month old have seen it. My parents have each seen it... not even jointly. The person sitting beside you as you read this, or someone who will sit beside you a little later... they'll have seen it. So I felt immensely derelict in my film-going duties for having managed to miss (NOT avoid, just miss) it thus far. And, by now, I feared the hype. I feared the inevitable disappointment that befalls me when all the world has seen and loved something and convinced me that I have missed the veritable second coming of entertainment itself. I typically despise the thing that everyone else adores. (Case in point: that Sarah Silverman anniversary video for Jimmy Kimmel... wow that was dull.)

So I was so pleased to love Juno, to love it enough, in fact, to giggle and then get all weepy eyed and shelve all analytical distance. Ok, in truth, I've spent quite a bit of time since the film -- and even a bit during -- muddling over how insufficient traditional auteur theory is when confronted with a film such as Juno that is so clearly signed by its mercilessly clever screenwriter (the improbably but delightfully named Diablo Cody) and by the defiantly excellent performance of Ellen Page as much as by the decisions of skilled director Jason Reitman and his wiz of an editor, Dana Glauberman. But I struggled to keep it in check (I still am as I write this) since going to see it was supposed to be a nice cathartic break from all things film-theoristy.

And, given the abovementioned tears, it was clearly cathartic. Of course, I've been getting weepy-eyed a great deal lately. I may have welled up at one of the trailers that preceded the film. I may have sobbed my way through the final five minutes of Rescue Dawn, Werner Hertzog's truly wonderful remake of his 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The latter might not seem so odd to many who've seen it -- it takes a fantastically simple narrative device and tells an incredibly lasting tale of human perseverance and is given heft by a ludicrously good and criminally overlooked performance by Christian Bale -- but I watched it on a plane, on one of those little choose-your-own adventure type screens that are about two inches by five inches in size. It was the kind of screen that ought to flatten landscapes, deflate epics and belittle (sorry for my literalism) performances, no matter how strong. But Rescue Dawn still managed to be excellent, and not just as a way to kill time between YYZ and SFO. Its politics seem somewhat transparent and, to me anyway, also completely appealing: why retell Dieter Dengler's story now, in a trenchant, viewer-ensnaring narrative form, if not to hammer in the point in every screening, everywhere, that troops, abandoned in North Vietnam then or in the Middle East now need to come home?

So, yes, I have been having some heightened emotional responses to film lately, but the monkey on my back that answers to the name of diss is getting both fatter and meaner and that probably has a lot to do with it. (It hurts to walk on bare concrete... all the more so with monkeys on ones' backs.) And, truthfully, I wouldn't be in this racket in the first place if I didn't prize the power of films to unlock and unleash emotions that are inconvenient, often unpredictable, even unwieldy.

In other news, I've been meaning to post about the dream I had in which I was hanging out with Paul Virilio, except it was Virilio as embodied by some younger dude who may have been Viggo Mortensen. Virilio, Viggo... I guess I do not need to go too far to figure that one out. We were talking about fear and his (Virilio's, not Viggo's) theory of dromology. (How much would I enjoy it if Viggo had his own theory of dromology?) It made perfect sense at the time and I woke up laughing, which is a plus.

Next week, my dream about my fireside chat with Baudrillard as embodied by Michael Cera.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Exorbitance of Another, Awful Kind...

I hate these kind of numbers.

I'm guilty here of posting another link that ostensibly has nothing to do with film or cities... I have been giving some thought to a project - to follow my current research, of course - on progressive filmmaking and green causes, but I know that's a tenuous link at best.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

ABD ("Always Be Doing [something]")... Easier Said...?

The watery disaster that has befallen our home (and this past week's sundry ironically related disasters, such as repeated water-outages) have run amok with my writing momentum. Yesterday was an abysmal day in that regard; today is slightly better, so far. I had set this past Friday as a chapter deadline... I have to re-schedule that deadline for this Thursday and try and try and try.

I did, however, find myself organizing my thoughts in a chart today... its completion sent me into paroxysms of quietly self-deriding laughter over my sheer delight at the false sense of accomplishment it brought. I wonder if I ought not to have chosen a career as a statistician?

In other news, I had a tremendously lovely dinner at a friend and colleague's home last night... where I got my first-ever glimpse of his ludicrously lovely home office, and the simply astonishing library of books on film culture, history and theory that he has meticulously organized there. It made me more jealous than was rational. Having been fairly recently separated from the bulk of a formerly shared film library, I have to decide whether to try to build up a personal reference library from scratch, or whether to adopt the philosophy that owning less and borrowing more is the way to live (at least until I have a professor's salary and on-campus office). For now, just about as many books as will fit on the shelf of my desk seems to be my plight/state/fate.

Now if only my desk had an actual floor underneath it still, as opposed to raw, crumbly, stained, recently flood-saturated concrete...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The X Prize Goes Automotive

While this is starting to get a bit far afield from my purported areas of interest for this blog, the X Prize Foundation has come up here a few times recently, so this seemed relevant to post.

The foundation recently announced a new competition geared at inspiring "a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles" with a prize yet to be determined but to be at least $10 million.

Fascinatingly, the foundation is looking for "host cities" for the contest, which will be the stops on "a rigorous cross country race that combines speed, distance, urban driving and overall performance." How far have we come from Cannonball Run? A car race that is, actually, sponsored by an organization with a mandate to "create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity"?

In any event, you have to love the idea of cities filling out the RFP (no kidding, there is one) to be stops on the race... it's like a whole new era of Olympic bids, only the athletes are replaced with the cars of the future.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What I Am Reckoning with Today...

... intellectually, rhetorically and emotionally: Paul Virilio's 2004 treatise (released in an English translation by Julie Rose in 2005), City of Panic. Written in the shadow of 9/11 and the new Gulf war/the war on terror, but also linking brilliantly to the increasing bunkerization of societies (urban and otherwise), the still inadequately understood ramifications of virtual/networked culture, the intermittent urban blackouts of the past decade and even the X Prize (recently considered in a totally different, more positive light here), City of Panic is a typically perspicacious Virilio text, if an atypically bleak one.

The following two passages, among the more dire, sum up the book's urgent primary argument with some concision:

Describing NYC, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Hong Kong but also explicitly all cities: “CITIES OF PANIC that signal, more clearly than all the theories about urban chaos, the fact that the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century has been the city, the contemporary metropolis of the disasters of Progress.” City of Panic, 90, emphasis in the original

“FORECLOSURE, EXCLUSION… Megalopolitan hyperconcentration is now topped not only with mass hyperterrorism, but also a panicky delinquency that is dragging the human race back to the original dance of death. The city once more becomes a citadel, in other words, a target for all terrors, domestic or strategic.” City of Panic, 95, emphasis in the original

Grim observations but from a prescient thinker on cities, culture, militarism ... and on the militarization of both cities and culture. Once we get past the rhetorical challenges I refer to at the beginning of this post ("megalopolitan hyperconcentration"?), must we de facto accept the challenging conclusions Virilio draws? Are cities doomed, and citizens everywhere along with them?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hi-Rise Under Water

For this post, I tried to find some smart, sexy graphic to illustrate in oh-so-wry a manner the theme, but despite such searches as "city underwater," "underwater skyscraper," "lost city of Atlantis" and "help! my condo flooded," nothing really caught my eye. So instead, here's a picture of the actual thing...

It has been an awful few days. In additional to waylaid mail, an injured (sprained? chipped? who knows?) baby finger, and a totally inoperable cell phone, my home flooded. Despite being several floors above ground, Tuesday's freakish thaw lead to a perfect storm of melting water on the balcony failing to go down an inoperable drain and then flooding in under our floors through a faulty membrane. Whatever all that means, the floors have had to be taken up in most of the condo and will need to be replaced, five industrial-sized fans and dehumidifiers are blasting away trying to dry out the soaked walls and concrete and making sleep an impossibility and, perhaps worst of all, the lovely productive writing streak I had going over the weekend and the beginning of the week is completely shot. Two and a half days of nothing. Nada. Depressing.

We are admitting defeat and moving out for a few days... hope doesn't just spring eternal... it floods in through the walls and covers everything I own...

**Update (January 13): my super-high-capacity memory stick broke into two pieces for no apparent reason this morning. One minute, whole; the next minute, little bitty bits of data. Seriously! C'mon already...

Monday, January 7, 2008

Good Reasons for an Academic to Blog?

Anne at Purse Lip Square Jaw posted an incredibly insightful piece today - citing work by Melissa Gregg - regarding the motives behind the proliferation of graduate-student and junior-faculty blogs. It knew more about why I started this blog than I did, I think. A very worthwhile post to check out, and I look forward to following up with more of Gregg's research... but maybe after I file.

Published: Article on Continental, un film sans fusil

A speedy update to announce that a brief article of mine has been published in Cinema Scope's Winter 2008 Issue #33. Unfortunately the text isn't available online, but you can check out a copy of the magazine at your local bookstore or Film Reference Library.

Here's the article's intro:

"Cinema is as much about disappearance as it is about presence; after all, “persistence of vision”—the mind’s subconscious determination to bridge the image that has just vanished to the one that is arriving—is as much about that which has departed as that which remains. On a broader scale, Stéphane Lafleur’s Continental, un film sans fusil is inspired by that process, by how we bridge the gap that comes after loss. Its loosely knotted narrative is initiated by a single, specific and yet baffling disappearance: a businessman who dozes off on public transit wakes to find himself alone on the bus on a deserted roadside. He steps off, peers into the near-absolute darkness of the adjacent woods, then walks—purposefully? timidly?—into the trees and is gone.

"While the man’s vanishing is the ostensible glue between Continental’s four protagonists, it is merely the analogue of their deeper commonalities: loss, disappearance and emptiness. It is a film of myriad absences, proceeding from the second half of its title (“a film without guns”). Watching Continental is like spying on the Quebecois cousins of the grey-faced, typically despondent protagonists of Swedish iconoclast Roy Andersson’s films. Like Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (played TIFF 2007), Continental focuses upon modern dissociation and disconnect."

I go on to explore the film in relation to my theorization of networked narratives. It was a short article, but one that I really enjoyed writing, in part because the film itself is so lovely. (It was declared one of Canada's Top Ten by TIFFG for 2007.)

You should check it out.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Freaking Out Over Freakonomics (and National Treasure Mini-Review)

I finally read the Freakonomics Quorum on "How We Should Be Thinking About Urbanization."

As others have noted, there's a strange aspect to the thinkers/writers represented... some of their points are completely contradictory, yet still manage to sit side-by-side with head-scratching plausibility. Does this mean that the near-term future of cities is really beyond the predictions of even the savviest thinkers in the realms of urban studies? Are we reduced from projects of reasoned argument/prediction to something of a deleterious crap shoot? I'd prefer to hope not, but when one of the most persuasive statements in the batch is the following -- from a celebrated urban planner no less -- it is worrisome:

"No one knows what the next chapter of urban history will bring, but if there is any lesson to draw from what has happened to date, it is that abstract ideas about the proper form of settlement, whether urban or rural or hybrids we can’t yet imagine, tend to lag far behind the reality on the ground." - Robert Bruegmann, professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago

I guess in the end it is here that I like to imagine film serves its social and cultural purpose... When city films are born from a perspective other than that of theory, planning or realism-driven reaction to the state of present cities, but, rather from that of imagining future ones, the cinema may in fact be seen as going where thought with a capital T cannot. I read the varied perspectives in the Quorum, which run, in the words of moderator Stephen J. Dubner, from the apocalyptic to the appreciative, and cannot help but think of the impossible contrasts of Invisible Cities, of that desire to catalog possible futures that can never all sit side-by-each in the unspooling of reality. In Calvino's work, as in the more formidable of the films featured in my study, at least we have a sprawling effort to envision possibilities, diversely wonderful and innumerably horrible. That is the cinema that I love.

In other news, National Treasure: Book of Secrets was precisely what I should have expected: nerve-wracking, cliffhanger after cliffhanger, with occasional dabs of simply lamentable dialogue that has to have been accidentally captured audio of some of the craft-services team making fun of the action: "It's a dead end, we HAVE to go back." Really? Truly? Moments of (I thought) symbolically anti-right-wing plot twists failed to materialize (dumb Kate... it's a Disney movie) and in the end the bad guy (a war profiteer, doncha know) still manages to be redeemed while the President of the USA reveals himself to be a lovable scamp who is game to throw open the history of the White House to some playful historiographic hijinks that will, in the third installment in the franchise, no doubt involve Nicholas Cage and crew unstitching the museum-housed antique petticoats of some former Washington mistress to tease yet another tawdry but lucrative secret out of the American past. There are so many ways in which a film like this could be -- dare I say it? -- smarter, but when kick-ass action sequences and special effects fill seats, well, you know, why bother? Cue the closing sequence fireworks over the compromised silhouette of Mount Rushmore, pass me my copy of The Society of the Spectacle and call it a night, shall we?

Blog without beginning, dissertation without end?

Today is about chapter three:

"Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spider-webs of intricate relationships seeking a form." – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities: 76.

A chapter about films that many have discussed, but putting them in an urban context. More than that, actually: arguing that the urban context is the reason for the films' proliferation. Titles: Last Night, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Amores Perros, Songs from the Second Floor, Crash, Breaking and Entering, This Beautiful City... and on and on.

"Entangling the lives of their multiple characters and exposing the surprising nature of those connections, these networked narrative films – and in particular the many that ultimately do propose city/narrative centers amid car crashes – create a new center, if often one coded by fatality and trauma, around the incident that causes lives to intersect." -- from my dissertation, draft date January 6, 2008. All rights protected.

Heavy stuff. Later, I will go and see National Treasure: Book of Secrets with my mom.