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World cinema

review

Screening the City Edited by Tony Fitzmaurice and Mark Shiel. Verso, 2003. 312pp. £14

Screening the City could come with no higher endorsement than the quote from urban theorist Mike Davis printed on its cover: 'A wonderfully fresh and kaleidoscopic examination of the strange alchemy between celluloid and asphalt'.While Davis is not one of the contributors to this book, his City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear contain some of the more radical ideas about that most filmed and filmic of cities: Los Angeles.

As the most analysed, most fantasised and quintessentially Post-Modern city - and, coincidentally, home of a global movie industry - it would be difficult to produce a book like Screening the City without mentioning Los Angeles. Moreover, it is somehow impossible to imagine Los Angeles existing outside the cinematic world.

From Charlie Chaplin to The Matrix Reloaded there appears to be an unbreakable relationship between film-making and, not just Los Angeles, but major cities throughout the world. It is film-makers' representations of the city, whether set in the past, present and future, that most consistently excite audiences and theorists alike.

However, the editors of Screening the City suggest that it is not just that the city has provided a particularly dynamic subject for the cinema - the cinema in turn has influenced the formation of cities, both physically and as cultural constructs. This, they argue, is evidenced by a growing body of research, which their book aims to reflect.

With its 14 essays, Screening the City is largely a book of film theory. From the introduction onwards, it deals with its subject in terms of a critical analysis of culture and society - particularly since the 1960s - within a Modernism/Post-Modernism debate.

Any account of the cinema's impact on the formation of cities is made more within these cultural and sociological terms than with reference to specific architecture and ideas of urban planning.

As one of the contributors, sociologist John Orr, points out, however: 'City dwellers not only live in a world planned for them by designers, builders and architects, they also create their own life-worlds within, saturated in the symbolic'. Therefore, 'the metropolis is never the sum of its physical parts, but an accretion of humdrum activities and public spectacle'. And this is what cinema provides us with: social, political, gender and racial discourses; consumption, violence and paranoia. They are seen more clearly on the screen than when we pass through the city itself (usually in a car).

One part of Screening the City examines another favourite of film theorists, the cinema of central and eastern Europe. Under consideration are early avant-garde films made in Moscow, Leningrad and Berlin during the 1920s and '30s as well as Prague and Warsaw during the '70s and '80s.

Accordingly, the intense layering of European history, including its modernisation and urbanisation in the early 20th century together with its political upheavals, is reflected in films from the region. Such films represent the growth of a Modernist world that precedes the Post-Modern one found across the Atlantic. Yet the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. As Carsten Strathausen argues in his essay 'Uncanny Spaces', the early avant-garde film-makers were profoundly torn between celebrating urban modernity and the anxiety of increasing alienation in the metropolitan experience.

Alienation abounds in the Post-Modern, and perhaps is expressed no better than in Wim Wenders' End of Violence (also set in Los Angeles). However, in a lecture entitled 'In Defence of Place', Wenders once described how a close attachment to place informs the whole manner in which his films evolve - not discounting that his reading of place may itself be influenced by cinema. For Wenders, location takes precedence over story, plot or characters - place is the driving force.

It is difficult to know how far Wenders' approach accords with that of other filmmakers, but the inclusion of such an account in Screening the City would have made an interesting counter to the more involved theoretical texts it contains - kaleidoscopic though they are.

Andrew Cross is an artist in London

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