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

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-SaĆ«ns’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.