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The Real And The Unreal: Perceptions And Articulations Of The City In Novels And Film

July 11, 2006, 7am PDT | Lainie Herrera
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Are the city and the metaphor of the city, as depicted in film and literature, one in the same? In Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City, Ben Highmore highlights familiar cultural texts in an attempt to show how artists capture the essence of the rhythm, networks, and contradictions of city life, writes Planetizen Correspondent Lainie Herrera in this book review.

Lainie Herrera

Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City Written by Ben Highmore (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)
Reviewed by Planetizen Correspondent Lainie Herrera

Every day, millions of people spend time in a city, forming a complex web of unique actions and responses to the urban environment. Rarely thought about or articulated, these intertwined experiences develop through interactions with neighbors and a society built upon the exchange of goods and services. Yet while most of us never find deeper meaning in everyday urbanity, novelists, screenwriters and other generators of "cultural texts" strive to examine and then recreate the nuances of city life. Ben Highmore's book, Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City, explores a number of contexts to determine "how cultural texts register the larger urban culture that they picture and articulate."

The city offers a range of stimuli, a conflicting mass of experiences and opportunity, where rhythm can be overwhelming. Imagined Cities by Robert Alter discussed this concept as a literary tool -- the city providing an overly saturated context from which a character could develop. In Cityscapes, Highmore explores how various artists (writers, filmmakers) interpret the stimuli -- a "behind the scenes" look at how artists filter real city life and sculpt it for their own storytelling. Yet as Highmore admittedly states in his preface, Cityscapes is "piecemeal and relatively ad hoc", and his separate case studies are ultimately difficult to connect.

The book is broken into a series of discrete ideas: chapters titled "Street Scenes", "City of Attractions", "Colonial Spacing", "Urban Noir", and "Networks". Essentially, Highmore outlines the way artists attempt to capture the essence of the city, including metaphorical visual representation, matching the rhythm of city life to the pace of text, illustrating urban contradictions through examples from the scale of the store to the colonization of an entire country, and analyzing the limits and networks of city life as clarified in more recent work. From film to fiction, his examples are familiar cultural texts.

Cityscapes begins with an introduction to the city and its imagery, using Carol Reed's film The Third Man (1949) as an example. Highmore discusses the mechanical "Big Wheel" Ferris wheel, and the view of the city from above. In the film, Orson Wells' character uses the wheel to illustrate that his crimes are impersonal, that the "dots" (people) as seen from above are inconsequential; Highmore uses this example to illustrate that the view from the wheel is also the urban planner's perspective, of the city as a whole, detached from the individual and any detail. The city can be seen as a body, functioning on the exterior as well as the interior, via sewers and transportation tunnels. Highmore theorizes that Reed uses the city not just as a literary device, but as "part of the material out of which we experience the urban." That is, "to privilege the metaphorics of the city is not to leave the real city behind. It is not to privilege a fictional Vienna over a real Vienna, but to insist that our real experiences of cities are 'caught' in networks of dense metaphorical meanings."

Highmore's second chapter enters the discussion of the city in a more expected way, drawing on the pace, rhythm, and confusion of the city to set a scene. He discusses the works of Edgar Allen Poe, specifically the short story "The Man of the Crowd" where "adjectives and metaphors stack up", and "social character...[is] written on the body." We see, as Robert Alter discussed, the anonymity of urban culture, detachment, and the tone of being lost in a crowd. Highmore highlights the elusive, chaotic nature of the city, leading into an exploration of ways in which writers and filmmakers attempt to articulate this illegible land.

One of Highmore's most interesting chapters features a discussion of the department store, and a deconstruction of everything the store represents in the urban world, hinging upon the epitome of contradiction: the mass production of individualism. The department store further entrenches gender roles, says Highmore, and "shop displays could be perceived as a prison of femininity, while at the same time affording new pleasures to women consumers." Highmore discusses the phenomenon of kleptomania among female shoppers, the psychology of consumption, and the role of the department store as both inclusive and exclusive.

He covers more urban contradictions by focusing on the concept of colonization, with the film The Battle of Algiers (1966) providing illustration of unequal rights under the guise of civility. Algiers succinctly depicts the interplay of the steady, structured European model of city life against the "swarming" unorganized Casbah, where native Algerians made their homes. Ultimately, of course, colonization served to "reinforce a comfortable separation between the civilized metropole and the indigenous population." Highmore also points out that in the context of present-day globalization and war, cultural diversity in Algiers was not valued at all.

Later, Highmore discusses two more recent social commentaries -- the detective novel and the film The Matrix (1999). He draws upon fictional detectives V. I. Warshawski (author Sara Paretsky), Easy Rawlins (Walter Mosely), and Lincoln Rhyme (Jeffery Deaver) to argue that the fictional detective novel illustrates the limited mobility of the city, where skill, clothing, race, and economic status can provide barriers or venues for access. Each detective faces individual limitations (gender, race, physical handicap) that impact their ability to conduct their work. Highmore again highlights contradiction: "genre fiction is mimicry and difference," where the city is at once the same to everyone but also represents a range of opportunities and obstacles to each character.

The Matrix serves as Highmore's venue for discussing the network of the city. Our current state of communications --- the network that can tie us all together at any given time, intensifying workload and expectations -- also brings us into a world of the imaginary, both closer to reality and closer to things unreal. "The Matrix is caught in a plurality of temporalities and the metaphors that go with them. Its vividness lies in its capacity to render a worldscape where transport systems and communication systems have generated a world of immediacy that is haunted by a desire for the real..." In a way, Highmore ties The Matrix to The Third Man by showing that as the city progresses, systems are always needed, and networks are continually being recreated and upgraded. The human condition is to organize the mechanics of the city for individual benefit.

Highmore closes by discussing rhythmanalysis, defined in reference to the field's creator, Henri Lefebvre: "Rhythmanalysis is, for Lefebvre, a form of social and cultural phenomology," the complete package of all the stimuli of an experience, natural and man-made. Rhythm is often one of the primary ways of understanding a city -- the rhythms of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Dallas, can all be individually articulated and differentiated. The study of this phenomenon, the attempt to articulate what makes up city rhythms and why they are important, is central to the understanding of the city as an experience, and is therefore imperative to the artist who communicates the experience.

Highmore's stated purpose in Cityscapes -- one lost in his disconnected snapshots -- is to demonstrate that the city and the metaphor of the city are one in the same, and that rhythmanalysis is a viable way of seeing, understanding, and deconstructing urban culture. Four substantive chapters delve deeply into specific and disjointed topics, which are hardly tied together. Of course, one could argue, and perhaps Highmore does, that this is the nature of the city. Yet to describe the view from a Ferris wheel and the use of dirt in Lincoln Rhyme's detective cases, only to conclude that rhythmanalysis is a tool that will evolve further to describe our environment, is confusing and unsatisfying. His detailed thoughts on the inner workings of the city in art are better taken individually, rather than as credible evidence for one larger theory.

Lainie Herrera is a Senior Environmental Planner at Christopher A. Joseph & Associates, an environmental consulting firm specializing in the management and preparation of environmental documents. When not thinking about urban planning or the environment she reads fiction.

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