Los Angeles in Chinatown, Rome in Rome Open City, Manhattan in Manhattan: you could say that each of these films’ cities becomes a character in the story. You could say it, but you’d be making a cinematic observation that has, at this point, become severely clichéd. What do we actually mean when we call a setting something more than a setting? This question is at the heart of “The Cinematic Universe,” the new video essay from The Cinema Cartography, a MUBI-sponsored series by Channel Criswell creator Lewis Bond and Luiza Liz Bond. It explores not just how cities appear in film — a subject, to some of us, hardly without interest of its own — but the “cinemazation” of place itself.
Many count Fargo among the Coen Brothers’ masterpieces, but who counts it among the great city films? Its geographical scope exceeds the boundaries of the North Dakotan metropolis, granted, but more importantly, its concerns run deeper than telling a tale of kidnapping and extortion there. In a picture like Fargo, says Bond, “something has invaded what the place truly was and altered its very being”; its ostensible genre story is “elevated by the fact that it’s the least likely and least accommodating place for a crime narrative to take place.” Where “most people’s concern lies in staying warm, inertia “makes it nearly impossible for any progression to occur at all,” as both the people and the land have become frozen.
Far from Fargo‘s icy highways and snow-covered lots, Robert Altman’s Nashville depicts another America entirely. Less a portrait of the Tennessean capital than a series of “colossal showcases of humanity,” the film’s bustling action and overlapping voices, noises, and songs suggests the existence of a grander, even more flamboyant socio-cultural pageant carrying on, unseen and unheard, throughout the rest of the country. “We can learn a bit more about the United States as long as we understand Nashville first,” says Bond, and the same holds for a much quieter, smaller-scale movie like Edward Yang’s Taipei Story. “The more we learn about its people, the deeper the anatomy of the city reveals itself,” and the more clearly we see a changing Taiwan whose citizens “can’t decide, on either micro- or macrocosmic levels, where they want to be.”
A film can be about its city, but it can also be about the society that created that city. A film can be about a place, but it can also be about a place in time — that is, a place remembered, as in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, or Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. For some auteurs, the realization of a vision demands not just the return to a place in memory or the use of a place as it is, but the creation of a place unlike any seen before. In building a whole city for his magnum opus, Jacques Tati inhabited the role of the auteur to its fullest, crafting in cinema “a modern world we’re more than familiar with now, and how the change of the old world to the new can bring change within its people.” Playtime “is not a film where the setting is the character,” says Bond. “The main character is the futility of how we interact with our settings.” Naturally, it’s a comedy.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.