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

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.