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

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, St├ęphane 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.