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Documenting CityscapesUrban Change in Contemporary Non-Fiction Film$

Iván Villarmea Álvarez

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780231174534

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231174534.001.0001

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(p.179) Metafilmic Strategies

(p.179) Metafilmic Strategies

Documenting Cityscapes
Columbia University Press

Film history can be regarded as a field of study open to researchers of different disciplines, but it is also an account, a historical narrative usually divided into four periods: silent (1890s–1920s), classical (1930s–1950s), modern (1960s–1970s) and postmodern (1980s–2010s). French sociologists Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy have renamed these stages as ‘primitive modernity’, ‘classical modernity’, ‘emancipatory modernity’ and ‘hypermodernity’ because they consider that cinema has always been a modern art, an expression of modernity (2009: 16–21). Furthermore, Lipovetsky has been fighting against the term ‘postmodernity’ for more than thirty years, repeating in book after book that it would be more suitable to talk about ‘hypermodernity’ (2009: 68). Leaving this terminological debate aside, Lipovetsky and Serroys’s description of hypermodern cinema provides three useful categories to define its main features: ‘excess-image’, ‘multiplex-image’ and ‘distance-image’ (2009: 68–70). ‘Distance-image’ specifically addresses the rise of self-reference in film from the 1980s, a growing tendency in recent decades whereby filmmakers systematically quote, honour, parody, rewrite, reinterpret or simply recycle previous works:

Cinema has become a classic ‘continent’ with its legendary history, models, references and founding works which may be unexpectedly revisited over and over again, following the example of other artistic fields. […] Far from reflecting a creative void, recycling the past places cinema in a situation that allows its continuous reinvention: it is not a repetition or a retrogression, but a neo-modern logic that takes advantage of old resources in order to create new works.

(Lipovetsky & Serroy 2009: 129, my translation)

(p.180) The tradition of the compilation film, like that of collage or photomontage, is precisely based on the creative appropriation of previous materials. Many documentaries have been made from excerpts of other films since Padenie dinastii Romanovykh (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Esfir Shub, 1927), but it did not become a common practice in fiction films until the time of hypermodernity. Some of its forerunners were early attempts at détournement, such as What’s up, Tiger Lily (Woody Allen & Senkichi Taniguchi, 1966) or La dialectique peutelle casser des briques? (Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, René Viénet & Kuang-chi Tu, 1973), in which Western directors borrowed the whole footage of Eastern films and dubbed them into English or French with a comic or political intention.1 Later on, at the beginning of the 1980s, Alain Resnais went further by including brief excerpts from classical films in Mon oncle d’Amerique (My American Uncle, 1980) in order to comment on the story from outside the diegesis. The success of this device, which also appears differently in Crimes and Misdemeanours (Woody Allen, 1989), depends on the audience’s complicity, inasmuch as the idea is that viewers recognise both the quote and its cultural meaning. Thus, Resnais and Allen invite the audience to decode these excerpts twice: first, as part of their films, and then as part of collective memory.

Most contemporary moviegoers have grown up with a TV set at home, especially in Western countries, a circumstance that determines our relation with the current mediascape: we are used to reading moving images from an early age, and we are so immersed in visual culture that we do not even notice its ubiquity wherever we go. This dominance of the visual has led many documentary makers to wonder about the meaning of images, regardless of their origin: an excerpt from a film may deserve as detailed analysis as the best-known historical document because both are ultimately vehicles of ideology. For this reason, current compilation films, to mention the most obvious case, have understood that ‘thinking history’, as Antonio Weinrichter states, ‘involves rethinking the representation of history’ (2010: 277). In this context, Catherine Russell, among others, has reminded us that ‘all images become documentary images once their original contexts are stripped away’ (1999: 271), an idea that has encouraged researchers and filmmakers from around the world to re-read any waste of visual culture as a product of a given society.

The first outcome of this global interest in reviewing film heritage has been the emergence of non-fiction works that cannibalise previous images and icons in order to interrogate them from an essayistic perspective. These documentaries have been labelled by Timothy Corrigan as ‘refractive essay films’, a term that establishes a linguistic link with the reflexive mode, although it actually refers to titles that go beyond its usual features and purposes:

(p.181) Refractive essay films concentrate the representational regime of the essay-istic on the cinematic itself in order to distill and intensify the essayistic by directing it not, for instance, at portraits of human subjectivity or the spaces of public life but at the aesthetics or, more exactly, the anti-aesthetics of representation that always hover about essay films as a filmic thinking of the world. Refractive suggests a kind of ‘unmaking’ of the work of art or the film or, as we will see, its failure or ‘abjection’. Like the beam of light sent through a glass cube, refractive cinema breaks up and disperses the art or object it engages, splinters or deflects it in ways that leave the original work scattered and drifting across a world outside. Rather than the mimetic idea of a mirror reflecting a world, these films set up a chain of mirrors … that disperses the image through a social space. Whether the object is other artistic media or other films, these films interrogate first and, most important, their own representational regime not so much to call attention to themselves in a more or less binary relationship but to call attention to the world as a multidimensional field where film must ultimately be thought […] At the heart of many of these films – especially essay films about film – is then a critical reenactment of the cinematic representation itself as a way of reconceptualizing that process as an open-ended encounter with the world, as an act of criticism rather than commentary.

(2011: 191)

Corrigan distinguishes two main categories within refractive cinema: the first would be composed of those films that ‘reflect on art, literature, or other artistic practices as oblique engagements with cinematic practice’, such as Van Gogh (Alain Resnais, 1948), Vérités et mensonges (F for Fake), L’hypothèse du tableau volé (Hypothesis on a Stolen Painting, Raúl Ruiz, 1979), Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002) or Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010) (2011: 182). The second category, in turn, specifically includes ‘those films that engage in a more ostensibly direct relationship with another film or filmmaker’, whether ‘the traditional films about the making of a film’ – Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982), Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper & Eleanor Coppola, 1991), Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe, 2002), etc. – or those films that aspire to enter theoretical or historiographical debates – Tokyo-Ga (Wim Wenders, 1985), Histoire(s) du Cinema (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988–98), Une journée de Andrei Arsenevitch (One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, Chris Marker, 1999), De fem benspænd (The Five Obstructions, Lars von Trier & Jørgen Leth, 2003) or The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes & Slavoj Zizek, 2006) (ibid.). In the last case, filmmakers assume an in-between position which is simultaneously critical and creative: on the one hand, they locate (p.182) themselves outside their object of study to interpret it from a personal perspective; while on the other (and unlike most film critics, historians and theorists) their discourse uses the same language that they are analysing. Accordingly, these film-makers are actually inside their object of study too, because they develop their argument through techniques and devices that somehow mirror those of their case studies.

A metafilm essay would then be a documentary on other films, filmmakers, genres or styles that expresses its main ideas visually, going beyond textual analysis to construct its discourse through audiovisual elements. These films consider that images are not simply reproductions or duplicates of the real, but new realities, partly because they are responsible for the configuration of our cognitive mapping: a key feature of hypermodern times is precisely the ability of images to condition and determine the perception of our everyday environment, as well as the perception of those places where we have never been. It does not even matter who has produced those images: they may belong to a feature film, a documentary, a TV programme, a commercial, a photographic report, an institutional campaign, a website or a YouTube video. In practice, they are interchangeable and almost anonymous, including ours, but never neutral: they always have an ideological substrate that influences our worldview. Rather than giving rise to a parallel reality, the current omnipotence and omnipresence of images have established a set of mindscapes that have become an increasingly important part of our reality, as Arjun Appadurai and Michael Storper argued in the 1990s:

The image, the imagined, the imaginary – these are all terms that direct us to something critical and new in global cultural processes: the imagination as a social practice. No longer mere fantasy (opium for the masses whose real work is elsewhere), no longer simple escape (from a world defined principally by more concrete purposes and structures), no longer elite pastime (thus not relevant to the lives of ordinary people), and no longer mere contemplation (irrelevant for new forms of desire and subjectivity), the imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (in the sense of both labor and culturally organized practice), and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility. […] The imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order.

(Appadurai 1996: 31)

Interpretations and constructed images of reality are now just as important as any ‘real’ material reality, because these interpretations and images (p.183) are diffused and accepted and become the bases on which people act: they become real.

(Storper 1997: 29)

In the same decade, these ideas were applied to urban studies by Edward Soja (1996), and their quick spread led Rob Lapsley to warn that ‘it has become a cliché of contemporary writing that the city is constructed as much by images and representations as by the built environment, demographic shifts and patterns of capital investment’ (1997: 187). Lapsley wrote this sentence in an essay included in the influential volume The Cinematic City, in which, a few pages later, James Hay defined this concept as ‘a formation whose value to cities lies in the production of the past’ (1997: 226). In addition to this primary function, cinematic cities are also replacing real ones as social constructs for their usual residents and occasional visitors, creating an aura of realness that goes beyond what real cities can actually offer, especially when their heyday has already gone. Both past and present are overshadowed by a timeless idea of what a city should be: for this reason, people who go to Hollywood Boulevard in search of film icons must stay within a few blocks, because if they walk too far east, they will find themselves in Thai Town. Wherever we go, nothing will be exactly as it is in films, but we have unconsciously assumed that mental image. Lipovetsky and Serroy consider that this process of replacement of real cities by cinematic clones is so advanced that ‘many spheres of social life have ended up by imitating the film universe’ (2009: 322; my translation). Metafilm essays would therefore be one more product derived from this triumph of the cinematic, although their in-between position, partly critical and partly creative, allows them to question this phenomenon.

Exploring the way in which the cinematic city has been created may seem a task for film fans, usually too obsessed with the accumulation of data, or film theorists, whose professional deformation forces them to seek some meaning in the data. Most filmmakers, however, combine these two approaches in their meta-film essays because they are, first and foremost, moviegoers who have their own subjective relationship with film history: for example, in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) and Il mio viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy, 2001), Martin Scorsese speaks as much about cinema as about himself and his film tastes. Indeed, the choice of one film quote over another may often have more to do with personal issues than with the discourse needs. In this sense, the most abstract and intellectual metafilm essay – let us say, for instance, Histoire(s) du Cinema – always exposes the filmmaker’s self regarding the issue (or the city) addressed in the film.

The final section of this book will analyse, in particular, the metafilmic strategies of two titles focused on the way Hollywood has historically represented the (p.184) city of Los Angeles. The first, The Decay of Fiction (Pat O’Neill, 2002), is an avant-garde work that documents the last days of a symbolic place, the Ambassador Hotel, by means of a series of fictional reenactments inspired by film noir. The second, Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003), is a metafilm essay composed of more than two hundred excerpts from other films that reflects on mainstream cinema’s politics of representation. Both works explore the commonplaces of what Rafael Pizarro has termed ‘the Hollywood Urban Imaginarium’ (2005), challenging its visual monopoly from the margins of film industry. As we shall see below, the outcome of these two experiments is an ambiguous celebration of the cinematic city that cleverly warns against its systematic tendency towards fake and oblivion.



(1) What’s Up, Tiger Lily is made from a Japanese spy film, Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Kagi no kagi (International Secret Police: Key of Keys, Senkichi Taniguchi, 1965), while Can Dialectics Break Bricks? appropriates a Chinese martial arts film, The Crush (Kuang-chi Tu, 1972).