Mean Streets

Dec. 18, 2017

Observatory on the Anthropology of Urban Conflict (OACU)

Mean Streets

The relationship between the city and film as seen from the perspective of urban anthropology

La Virreina Centre de la Imatge: 18.12.2017 – 22.04.2018

Curators: Giuseppe Aricó, José Mansilla and Marco Luca Stanchieri
Observatory on the Anthropology of Urban Conflict (OACU)

The connection between the city and cinema is as old -or as new- as film itself. Little wonder, then, that La sortie des ouvriers de l’usine, filmed on 19 March 1895 by the Lumière brothers and regarded as the first cinematographic work ever made, shows a group of workers, most of them women, leaving a factory in Lyon at the end of the day. The importance of the process of industrialisation in some countries in the Western hemisphere in determining the forms and characteristics of cities has already been stated by authors of major contemporary works, notable among them, for their analytical perspective, The Housing Question, by Friedrich Engels, and the volumes published by geographers like the Frenchman Élisée Reclus over the years.

Prior to this, attempts had already been made in response to the advances and effects of triumphant industrial capitalism to advocate more human urban designs linked to the countryside and nature. In addition, these normally went hand in hand with projects to found new societies, such as those put forward by the utopian socialists, among them Étienne Cabet and Robert Owen, who inspired approaches that were more realistic and, above all, more acceptable to the bourgeois powers-that-be, like Ebenezer Howard’s garden city. It was undoubtedly at this time that cities entered a new golden age. The need for a labour force to supply the ever increasing number of factories attracted and drew together a large part of the rural population, who suddenly saw their daily reality transformed. Film continued to play a role as a chronicler of social changes, as exemplified by The City, based on a treatment by Lewis Mumford, made in 1939 for the New York World’s Fair.

However, following the intuitions of philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre, urbanism became subject to critical analysis, in other words, as a science intended to order the city and urban life so that it would serve the capitalist powers-that-be. Evidence of this is provided by the power, influence and acceptance of the Rationalist movement in architecture, the leading light of which was Le Corbusier. His functional approach, strongly influenced by the legacy of the Industrial Revolution, proposed a city divided on the basis of organicist principles into four parts: dwelling, work, circulation and recreation. The vast urban developments on the outskirts of cities and the housing estates and projects that have sprung up across much of Europe and the United States since the 1950s are his progeny, those selfsame places that have been used and abused endlessly as sets par excellence for films that have entered the history of cinema, or not.

Later on, with the help of television, film was still there to tell us about what was happening to the people living in a utopian design of urban reality that isolated social spheres in an attempt to simplify for the benefit of capital. Those -in some instances- veritable nightmares sought to show not only the arrangement of a social structure constructed in the image and likeness of the middle classes, but also to structure -meaning to control- certain social groups left behind in increasingly unequal and segmented societies. The allegory of difference and the everyday evident in legendary television series such as The Addams Family and The Flintstones, or the profound existential ennui reflected in films like The Graduate, clearly highlights the contradictions of these new urban areas.

The 1970s, with the emergence of the latest and still current version of capitalism, neoliberalism, was a key decade in cities. The rebalancing of the role of the state, the shift from the exercise of social control through the provision of collective goods and services to the establishment of a system based on individual responsibility and the punitive response, is revealed in the care and consideration for the urban space as a generator of capital gains. As a result, certain areas are utterly neglected while others, the most central neighbourhoods, are the subject of cleansing and hygienising. We are in the New York of Taxi Driver and Fort Apache, The Bronx and, more recently, in the banlieues of Paris shown in La Haine (Hate) or even on the outskirts of Madrid in Barrio (Neighbourhood).

Film and the city, like television and the city later on, images and the city, are phenomena that were born at the same time and which have fed on each other for decades. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the relationship between film and the city cannot be fully understood without considering the relationship between the city and its constitutive elements, namely urbanism, architecture and, first and foremost at all times, the social conflict whose setting par excellence is none other than the street. But it is not a question of looking at the conflict which may -with difficulty- develop in the ‘public spaces’ of the contemporary city, spaces that are deeply normativised and strategically stripped of any undesired presence or negative connotation. Rather, it is a matter of understanding the street in its intrinsic and naturally conflictive, sordid, wretched, sinister and covetous essence, as it was portrayed to perfection in the novels of Raymond Chandler and transposed onto the big screen by Martin Scorsese in masterpieces such as Mean Streets.

With these premises as our starting point, and with the aim of understanding the way in which all of the elements that define the city are connected, we believe it is essential to critically reformulate the concepts of the ‘urban space’ and the ‘public space’, which are often -and erroneously- taken to be synonymous. After viewing and then analysing a number of works in the vast archive of HAMACA, we have selected from among the most significant works those that have best succeeded in communicating in the audio-visual language the close relationship that binds film and the city together. Thanks to these works, it will become possible to understand the extent to which both concepts -portrayed through their apparent similarities and above all their profound differences- are potentially key, not only to comprehending the type of urbanism characteristic of the contemporary city in which we are all, inevitably, immersed, but also to restore to the mean streets the protagonism they deserve.

Selected works:

  1. I Pass Through Here Every Day (Raúl Arroyo)
  2. Public Case: Blue Zone (Diana Larrea)
  3. Public Case: Intruders (Diana Larrea)
  4. Through (Carlos TMori)
  5. The End of Words (Raúl Bajo)
  6. Kc#3: Digital (León Siminiani)
  7. The Struggle for the Urban Space (Jacobo Sucari)
  8. South Side (Toni Serra | Abu Ali)
  9. Nightwalk (Andreas Wutz)
  10. Queen 135 (Pedro Ortuño)
  11. Return (Welcome to New Paradise) (Itziar Barrio)
  12. I’m From the Big City (Raúl Bajo)
  13. V-2 (Eugeni Bonet)
  14. Neighbours (León Siminiani)