Films about Cities

Fernand Léger. Animated Landscape, 1924. Cubist painters like Léger were fascinated by the geometric signs and competing signals of the modern city.

In James Joyce’s great modernist novel Ulysses, the city of Dublin emerges as a complex multi-storied universe. Fifty years earlier, Dickens and Balzac created similar effects with London and Paris. In these great city novels, fiction mixes with reality, satire and social issues. Joyce departs from the 19th century model by unfolding his story in a single day and by using a variety of experimental prose techniques that draw attention to the act of writing. Influenced by Cubist collage, Ulysses resembles a modernist work of art.

Modernism takes root in cities, where artists pushed for new ways of seeing. Cinema was at the forefront of this development. No film stretches the limits of perception more forcefully or imaginatively than Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera, 1929. The film bursts with the energy of tram cars, large machines, and crowds eager to get somewhere, do things, and be entertained. What’s more, Vertov’s film uses odd angles, quick cuts, and visual tricks. The filmmaker is only too pleased to reveal the secrets behind his mesmerizing effects by including “making of” shots of how the film was made.

When critics and reviewers first saw Vertov’s film, they thought he was making impossible demands on the viewer. The editing was simply too fast, the variety of camera angles too bewildering, the leaps from one scene to another too disorienting. The film uses no titles to explain anything. No narrator describes the action. No voice-over makes an argument. No expert teaches a lesson. The city’s pace is unrelenting: people and their machines are shown as a dynamic network at work and play.

Man with a Movie Camera, 1929. Director: Dziga Vertov

In his review of this groundbreaking classic, Roger Ebert commented: “There had been ‘city documentaries’ earlier, showing a day in the life of a metropolis; one of the most famous was Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927. By filming in three cities [Moscow, Kiev and Odessa] and not naming any of them , Vertov had a wider focus. His film was about The City, and The Cinema, and The Man with a Movie Camera. It was about the act of seeing, being seen, preparing to see, processing what had been seen, and finally seeing it. It made explicit and poetic the astonishing gift the cinema made possible, of arranging what we see, ordering it, imposing a rhythm and language on it, and transcending it.” (, July 1, 2009)

And now all these tricks, jumps, speed editing and behind-the-scenes “how to” revelations have been fully absorbed into mainstream media. Just about any music video contains several of these “disorientations.” It is impossible to imagine a thriller, spy movie, or summer blockbuster without scenes of a bustling metropolis, without a bevy of multiple converging storylines, without information transmitting at dizzying speeds, without information networks seeming all-encompassing and inescapable. This is Vertov’s world.

The Man with A Movie Camera shows how the film is made. Here cameraman Mikhail Kaufman perches on the side of a moving car to get an exciting shot.

In 2008, my wife and I spent a year in Berlin. Europe was vastly different from Canada: its food, housing, schools and public transport. No swiping of tickets, no turnstiles. The famous Ring line and U systems carried trains above and below ground to all corners of the city. My short film, Scratch Peck Fly, included some fun train shots, but its focus was on birds in the city. Like Vertov’s film, my short was equal parts documentary, travelog, and art film. It used no narrator, no voice-over. As far as I was concerned, Vertov was ground zero for the independent filmmaker who ventures into the world without script or budget. Gags, stunts, shooting from the hip in foreign cities, personal film diaries–it’s the very stuff of YouTube videos.

The Man with a Movie Camera, one of many trick shots that adds humour to the film

Another appeal of these early city films is the use of humour to offset the aggrandizement of cities and machines. In The Man With a Movie Camera, a cameraman is shrunk to tiny size to set up a camera inside a glass of beer. Later in the film, a camera and tripod assemble themselves and walk out of the frame. Can a film make itself with no human intervention? In a Russian avant-garde film, they can. In Jean Vigo’s surrealist city film, À Propos de Nice, 1930, tourists are shown (candid-camera style) reading newspapers at outdoor cafés. Before long, a man drops his paper and falls asleep. An older gentleman nods off. A lady in furs is next to slip away. The whole city seems to have fallen asleep, all in public, in the middle of a day. These scenes are amusing, but also carry an undercurrent of social criticism: the idle rich are so idle they can barely stay awake.

Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, 1982, a two hour long American art film, follows in the great city film tradition. The filmmakers use no narration, just dazzling camera work and the sort of optical effects you might see at a pavilion in a world’s fair to convey a sense of industry and urbanization overtaking the planet. A social critique is intended. But as vlogger Kyle Kallgren argues in his essay on the film, every shot of Koyaanisqatsi has either been used before or since to underscore the very opposite position, namely that cities are fast, fun and impossible to resist.

One cannot get too righteous or indignant over the pace of progress, the disasters of progress, the uncontrollable excitement of living in an environment that changes more rapidly than we can possibly comprehend.

In Wings of Desire, 1987, an angel (Bruno Gatz) falls in love with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin). She cannot see or hear him, but can only sense his presence.

Five years later a German film appeared, Wings of Desire, (Der Himmel uber Berlin)1987, directed by Wim Wenders, written by playwright Peter Handke, and starring, alongside a brilliant cast, America’s favourite detective, Peter Falk and Australian rocker Nick Cave. The film features a group of mind reading angels who wander the streets of Berlin eavesdropping on everyday scenes, but powerless to avert human tragedy. The angels are simply there to observe, to comfort, to record and empathize. Like the human characters, the angels are engulfed by the city and merge into its multitude of overlapping stories. After years of observation, some of these city-dwelling angels choose to become human. By choosing earth over heaven, human problems over divine equanimity, human love over spiritual compassion, the angels cross a line from observer to participant that many of us would do well to follow.


I continue to play with hand-drawn gifs. A dancer turns into a winged creature, veering between cartoon and abstraction. The sequence was first drawn on Flipbook, then modified in Photoshop.Dancer2




Language Lessons

NV on her new film, Language Lessons.

Remix, collage, mash-up. Retelling stories. People love stories to the point where they do something terrible to stories. They turn them into products. Commercial stories tend to be glossy and predictable, which to my mind is the opposite of what a story is. A story should be a little messy, and keep changing, growing, surprising.

I found the birth footage in an anthropological film. I thought what if this were framed in a different way? What if we saw this birth not as social studies, but as science fiction? That’s why I show it as a film within a film, following footage from Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

A language lesson from Michel Thomas is used throughout the film. To me, language is the ultimate mash-up. I love Michel Thomas’s approach. His tapes aren’t language drills so much as seductions and hypnotisms. You listen to foreign sounds and you absorb without even realizing it. Looking at art is a lot like learning a foreign language. You feel on the outside of something bewildering, something that communicates but the only way to get it is through habit and immersion.

There’s something absurd about the way the voice-over of the language lesson interacts with the images. It’s the loneliness of technology. I tried to imagine what if a person listening to a language lesson over and over began to fixate on the voice as if it were speaking to her personally, as if it were giving her advice on how to live her life. Magical thinking. William Gibson calls it apophenia or faulty pattern recognition.

The film was partly inspired by Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. The challenge I set myself is to try to merge drama, documentary and animation footage. To see them not as separate fields, but as interacting forces. Drama, believability, imagination.


Computers in Films & Fiction of the 1960s

Computers come into their own as characters in films and novels in the 1960s: the controlling, proselytizing Alpha 60 (Alphaville, 1965), the insecure, ingratiating and murderous HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968), the gender-bending, joke-loving Mike/ Michelle (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, 1966). In these stories from the mid-60s, the computer is linked to the central nervous system of a city, a space craft and a colony on the moon. The computer relays messages, regulates oxygen levels, plays chess, debates with reporters, and even delivers lectures in a university. A powerful figure who can operate in diverse situations, the computer is a compelling virtual character–not quite real as a personality, but real in its effect on others.

Berkley Medallion edition, 1968 with cover art by Paul Lehr.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is Robert Heinlein’s entertaining novel of a penal colony on the moon whose rebellion from Earth is abetted by a rogue computer. The polymorphous computer in the story is known as Mike for one user and as Michelle for another, changing identities and genders to suit all needs. A similar trend of sexual ambiguity appears in the fashion world at this time, with androgynous model Twiggy and rock chameleon David Bowie leading the way. The computer in Heinlein’s novel is also known as Adam Selene and Simon Jester. Selene is the Greek goddess of the moon, a fitting name for a character who controls space operations on Luna. Adam Selene is a pseudonym adopted by the computer to allow members of the colony to believe in a heroic, but unseen, leader of the revolution.

The gender-bending computer in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress reflects the androgynous fashions of the 1960s. Left: portrait of fashion model Twiggy by Christian Borau Pousa. Right: Pop artist Allen Jones challenges assumptions about sexuality in his hermaphrodite series in 1963.

The revolution gains momentum through small acts of social disruption and sabotage. When these symbolic acts occur, the computer credits them to Simon Jester to irritate and confuse authorities. Soon other rebels perpetrate their own acts of resistance in the name of Simon Jester. The tag goes viral and becomes symbolic of the resistance movement. The novel predicts the role of computers in spreading dissent and counter cultural ideas–an extraordinary anticipation of the power and possibilities of computer aided-communications in transforming society.

Themes of rebellion from authority and the expansion of consciousness are common to these works of the 1960s. What intrigues me is the way that computers are portrayed with human traits, neurosis, thoughts and needs, yet are also separated from humanity by their machine-like state. In an earlier post, I described how Isaac Asimov humanized computers by giving them flaws and conflicted motives. The computer stories of the 1960s go further by suggesting that the flaws of the computers  are also flaws in a social order dependent on technology.


Alphaville: Cinematographer Raoul Coutard combines the feel of film noir with a cinéma vérité mobility, shooting Paris at night through glass, neon, reflected lights, and disorienting signs.

Alphaville, like other films of the French New Wave, daringly disregards the niceties of conventional narrative. It is violent and funny, bold and inventive. There are no futuristic sets or props. The night shooting features flashing lights and disorienting reflections. Hand-held cameras track actors through labyrinthine corridors in a treatment that is so stark and unrelenting that it conveys the idea of a strange and alien world.

Alphaville. Lenny Caution tests his wits against the computer in a sound recording booth.

The computer Alpha 60 is shown in a variety of ways stressing Godard’s Pop Art sensibility: as an ordinary stove top element, burning hot, or as a slowly rotating wall fan silhouetted against the light. Electricity and a cooling system are its essence. While the computer is rarely seen, its voice is frequent and omniscient, carrying through every hotel room, lobby, classroom and city street.  Alpha-60 is instantly recognizable by it distinctive voice–spoken by a man with an artificial voice box–as it makes statements such as: “Nor is there in the so-called Capitalist world or Communist world , any malicious intent to suppress men through the power of ideology or materialism, but only the natural aim of all organizations to increase their rational structure.”


Alpha-60 is connected to all telecommunications systems in the city and also conducts seminars at the university. One interpretation of the film (David Anshen, 2007) is that the computer’s control of Alphaville is an allegory for Hollywood’s control of world cinema. Hollywood replaces thoughtful or idiosyncratic stories with formulaic doses of sex and violence. Anshen’s interpretation rests on the notion of a Culture Industry introduced by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in 1944. Culture is prone to mass production like any other commodity. Mass culture is seductive, providing easy satisfactions which deceive people into thinking it is an accurate reflection of themselves, their needs and interests. Mass culture prevents any other kind of culture, any independent voice from being heard. In Alphaville, the computer (representing the Hollywood monolithic model) is defeated by a man who recites French poetry (the New Wave artists) and who baffles the computer by speaking in riddles, paradoxes and metaphors. Flashing light is a repeating motif throughout the film. Godard cleverly uses this light motif to signify both the artificial nighttime world of Alphaville and its control by an artificial intelligence and to signify the awakening of love through the influence of poetry.

HAL: computer as a glowing light encased in a glass ball

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL wants to fit in with the crew on the spaceship. The astronauts treat HAL more like a servant than an equal, though the computer’s intelligence far surpasses their own. The viewer sympathizes with HAL because of this disregard. However HAL’s hurt feelings quickly turn to paranoia. He over-reacts and begins harming the very crew he was designed to serve and protect. One of the great murder scenes in cinema involves the disconnection of HAL by the methodically determined astronaut David Bowman. The computer pleads for his life as his circuits are unplugged.

The murder of HAL. Inside the computer, the astronaut’s helmut looks like the face of a shark, its teeth created by light projected from a computer panel.

HAL regresses to his first memories, singing the children’s song “Daisy Bell”–an incident based on the first talking computer (the IBM 7094) programmed to sing a song in 1961. HAL’s childish regression is the inverse of the astronaut’s journey, which involves a rebirth into a higher form of consciousness.

Childhood's End

As a story of future evolution, 2001: A Space Odyssey parallels Arthur C. Clarke’s earlier novel, Childhood End, 1953. In this novel, aliens come to Earth and impose a set of benevolent rules, which forbid warfare and the exploitation of others. The human race prospers under the guidance of the alien Overlords. However, a small community of people object to this paternalistic benevolence and rebel from it to start their own colony. The aliens have been waiting for this moment because it is only be rebelling, by taking ownership of their own actions, that people are able to evolve to the next step in the expansion of consciousness. In Space Odyssey, all needs are met by the computer so the astronauts do not have to think for themselves. It is only when they rebel from the computer that they begin on a path toward a more advanced and independent form of thinking.

The human relationship to the computer in Space Odyssey is symbolic of a dangerous loss of control of technology. HAL is portrayed as both a gentle male voice and as a round glass bulb with a glowing red light inside. There is some similarity between this glass light and the rounded astronaut’s helmut, the glass visor with its multiple reflections as dots of coloured light superimposed over the human face buried inside. But whereas the computer’s image is visually static, the human face through glass suggests vulnerability and courage in an encounter with the unknown.

Light on glass motif in 2001: Actor Keir Dullea plays astronaut David Bowman

After disengaging the computer, the astronaut travels through space, witnessing a cosmic light-show (with special effects by Douglas Trumbull). This awe-inspiring Stargate sequence suggests an hallucinogenic drug trip and serves as a tonic from the claustrophobic spaceship environment and the controlling, limited viewpoint of HAL.

MGM’s revised ad campaign for 2001 featured the tag line, “The ultimate trip” to alter viewer’s expectations of the film.

Mike Kaplan, marketing executive with MGM, explains how the film confounded expectations of viewers at the time: “It was being presented as “an epic drama of adventure and exploration, and many were expecting a modern Flash Gordon. Instead, Kubrick had created a metaphysical drama encompassing evolution, reincarnation, the beauty of space, the terror of science, the mystery of mankind.” (The Guardian, November 2, 2007)
The revised marketing campaign related the film with psychedelic altered states, heralding a new approach to science fiction. The hallucinatory aspect of the film also signalled a new direction for later computer stories. In works such as Neuromancer (1984), Idoru (1996), Strange Days (1995), The Matrix (1999), computers are depicted not as super-logical machines, but as gateways to mind-bending environments and experiences. In the cyber-punk milieu, computers are depicted less as personalities and more as plug-ins enabling an interface with the human psyche, often presenting illusory projections. In these stories the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial breaks down. The distinction between hero and villain, oppressed and oppressive, also begins to blur. Cyberspace is inherently lawless. Unlike in Alphaville, where the computer represents order and reason, in later stories the computer is a site of uncontrollable energies where hallucinations, viruses, firewalls, hackers, and virtual characters intermingle and where reality and self-identity come into question.


Norman McLaren

Norman McLaren

Norman McLaren directing Neighbours, 1952. photo by Evelyn Lambart

Norman McLaren (1914-1987) is a pioneer film animator, famous for drawing both picture and soundtrack directly on film and for mixing together live action with animated effects. His work is experimental, yet conveys a remarkable sense of charm, humour and popular appeal. Like his mentor John Grierson, McLaren was born in Stirling, Scotland. The son of an interior decorator, McLaren studied at the Glasgow School of Art from 1932 to 1937, but did not graduate. He was absorbed by his early film experiments and left Scotland to work for the film unit of the General Post Office in London.

Norman McLaren. Undulations

“Filmmaking is my work, drawing is my play.” Norman McLaren, 1978

During WW II, Grierson convinced McLaren to come to Canada to work for the National Film Board, promising the young artist he would not have to engage in war propaganda. McLaren quickly settled into the NFB, establishing an animation department in 1941 and creating such ingenious and diverse works as Neighbours, 1952 (Academy Award winner); Blinkity Blank, 1955 (winner of Palme d’or, Cannes) ; Le Merle, 1958; Canon, 1965; Pas de Deux, 1965; and the five-part instructional film, Animated Motion, 1976-8. McLaren used an extreme economy of means to achieve sophisticated effects that have a powerful visceral effect on viewers.  His work brings together interests in abstract imagery, drawing games, folklore, music, performance and education.
Opening Speech

This above clip is a mash-up of two works, Opening Speech, 1961, directed by Norman McLaren, and A Chairy Tale, 1957, directed by Claude Jutra and McLaren. McLaren and Jutra are two of Canada’s greatest film directors, and in this sequence the directors perform in their own films. Both use the stop motion technique to explore the theme of a man struggling with an uncooperative object. This mash-up is meant as a tribute to the charm and inventiveness of two great talents, edited by contemporary artist NV. A new soundtrack featuring the Charlie Parker Quintet has been added. The music dates from the period when the films were made, and, like the films, combines innovation with entertainment.

In 1961, McLaren made Opening Speech: Norman McLaren, putting his name in the title, as well as starring in the film. The project moves away from McLaren’s abstract painting-inspired experiments (Dots, Begone Dull Care) toward performance-based, multi-media work that is also an important trend in the Fine Arts at this time. In the film, McLaren commands a large empty stage, from which he is about to make a formal speech, but the filmmaker becomes lost in his notes, the first of many difficulties for the reluctant public speaker. This reflects a famous anecdote McLaren tells about presenting a script and storyboard to producer Alberto Cavalcanti at the General Post Office Film Unit in London, only to have Cavalcanti tear it up with the advice to, “Never write down everything precisely in advance.” (Derek Elley, “Rhythm & Truths,” Films & Filming, June 1974).

If words on paper do not make a film, then what does? Sound and image, performance and technology. In McLaren’s film, the performance and technology are clearly at odds as the microphone quickly develops a mind of its own. The sound goes out of sync with the picture. The microphone then rebels in other ways. The viewer is reminded that film is a form of technology, but technology, like inspiration or creativity, can never be fully controlled.

Women Studying Optical Construction, 1964

The animator was also an accomplished artist. Norman McLaren. Women Studying Optical Construction, 1964

There is another consequence of this rebellious microphone: a potentially stuffy speech is turned into a humorous game. It might be helpful here to compare the microphone in Opening Speech to HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, made by Stanley Kubrick seven years later. Both films are about machines that function like living entities with their own personalities and agendas. But if the machines have minds of their own, the minds are out-of-harmony, spiteful, devious. In both films, a malfunction occurs at the worst possible time. The errant microphone disrupts a public statement by a famous artist, drawing attention away from the artist onto itself. The microphone’s antics render the artist mute, and turns the honor of the moment into a public embarrassment. It hijacks the event, the opening of a film festival, just as HAL hijacks the space mission in 2001. In order for the space mission and the film festival to get back on track, the obstructing machines must be murdered. Once this murder occurs, both films then unveil a screen and a pre-recorded message—on film—appears and restores order.


Opening Speech and 2001 mix humour and paranoia together in their handling of delinquent machines. Novelist Philip K. Dick, an authority when it comes to delinquent machines, commented: “The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you, but when everything is against you. Instead of ‘My boss is plotting against me,’ it would be ‘My boss’s phone is plotting against me.’ Objects sometimes seem to possess a will of their own anyhow, to the normal mind; they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, they get in the way. They show an unnatural resistance to change.” (quoted in Carl Freedman, Science Fiction Studies, March 1984)

Paranoia involves a projection of fears, mixed with feelings of self-love and self-hate. These are the two facets of paranoia remarked on by Freud, “self-aggrandisement” and “persecution by an imaginary enemy.” (The Schreber Case, 1911) Elements of aggrandisement and persecution are present in Opening Speech. The public speech inflates the speaker’s ego and the rebellious microphone punishes him without apparent cause. Since no audience is ever seen, McLaren’s stage antics become somewhat imaginary. It is as if he were performing for himself or as if the fame and frustration of the moment are all in his head.


In 2001: A Space Odssey, 1968, actor Keir Dullea “murders” the computer HAL.

In contrast, it is not the astronaut but the machine who becomes paranoid in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The machine’s fears reflect a personality weakness in an otherwise seemingly flawless system. This weakness makes the machine appear psychotic, but in a human-like way, as it faces the prospect of being deactivated and removed from the mission.

Opening Speech could be described as a meta-discourse on film. It demonstrates how cinema manipulates time and space, as well as disrupting our sense of reality. Opening Speech ends by directly quoting two famous silent films, Sherlock, Jr. by Buster Keaton and Entr’acte by René Clair, both made in 1924. In the scene in question, McLaren jumps into the cinema screen, then steps out again, shattering the words, “The End.” In these film, figures move forwards and backwards in time to disrupt the viewer’s sense of reality. All three films raise the question: is cinema real? And, if not, what is reality?

Janet Cardiff. The Missing Voice, 1999.

Janet Cardiff. The Missing Voice, 1999. Audio walk, commissioned by Artangel, London.

Opening Speech draws heavily on vaudeville, but it also looks ahead to key moments in Canadian visual art. In one of artist Janet Cardiff’s best known audio installations, The Missing Voice, 1999, the recorded audio guide accompanies the viewer through a tour of Whitechapel Library in London, commenting on work within the space. However, the guide begins making unpredictable remarks that lead the viewer away from the intended experience to other points of interest, shattering accepted conventions in an unnerving about-face generated by a willful mechanical device.