“The Cinematic Universe”: A Video Essay on How Films Cinematize Cities & Places, from Manhattan to Nashville, Rome Open City to Taipei Story

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The City in Cin­e­ma Mini-Doc­u­men­taries Reveal the Los Ange­les of Blade Run­ner, Her, Dri­ve, Repo Man, and More

Watch Dzi­ga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Cam­era, the 8th Best Film Ever Made

Van­cou­ver Nev­er Plays Itself

Watch 1920s “City Sym­phonies” Star­ring the Great Cities of the World: From New York to Berlin to São Paulo

The Cin­e­matog­ra­phy That Changed Cin­e­ma: Explor­ing Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, Stan­ley Kubrick, Peter Green­away & Oth­er Auteurs

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.

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