The cinematic meaning of presence

Godzilla Eats A Commuter Train

Since the invention of the first motion-picture technology around 1890s, there has always been a fascination in comparing the development of cinema with the urban extension of the modern city. Thus, David B. Clarke argues in the Introduction of Previewing the Cinematic City that “the development of the city is related to cinema as the development of cinema is related to the city” (Clarke 2002,p. 4). Nonetheless, which kind of spaces are those that cinema has developed in the city? And consequently, which kind of space are those that the city has developed in cinema?

It is, perhaps, quite typical already to mark as a point of departure the writings of Walter Benjamin to introduce the debate of the affinity between the city and the cinema. Thus, even if Benjamin reflected in the profound changes that film produced in the way an individual perceives the city (Benjamin 1969, p.250), I would like to argue that it was Franz Hessel who in Ein Flaneur in Berlin (1929) inaugurated the idea of the city as a universe of signs to decode. Even if such a distinction may seem quite vague here, it turns quite important to depart from Hessel and not from Benjamin in my way to analyze Clarke’s statement. Thereafter, it is then quite intriguing to start with Clarke’s affirmation that “the practice of flânerie and the apparatus of the cinema both changed the social meaning of presence, and did so in much the same way; both effectively embraced the virtual” (Clarke 2002, p.7). Here, even if Clarke’s statement sounds quite convincing, it is important to recall older conceptualizations of terms such as `presence´ and `virtual´ in relation to the aesthetic space and the virtual experience as such. Hence, Deleuze and Guattari make us remember in 1988 that Hessel’s idea of wondering around the city is also highly related to the joy of a `ludic peregrination´, which was afterwards highly exploited by the Situationist International’s `situations´ produced in urban spaces. It is in Hessel’s conceptualization of the act of walking through the city with no destination, thereafter, when one could defeat the landmark of socioeconomic and political strategies imposed by the modern city.

Here, even if Marco de Waard text’s `Rembrandt on Screen: Art cinema, Cultural Heritage, and the Museumization of urban Space´ (2012) can risk to fall in its own pessimism, his awareness of “the rise of a new kind of globalized cultural literacy which is firmly tied up with commercial promotion of cities of culture” (De Waard 2012, p.147) is highly revealing. One must notice that it is precisely the appropriation of the notion of flânerie by the spectacle of capitalism what has produced its aberration as a new form of nomadic consumption. Thus, it is the appropriation of flâneur’s originally antisystemic existence by the cinema industry what has degenerated its criticality, inaugurating cinematic `virtual´ places that transform real spaces into non-places (De Waard 1999, p.161). Moreover, it is towards the end of his essay when De Waard quotes Peter Wollen, arguing that “films more and more resemble the rides intheme parks and that there is a growing symbiosis between the two entertainmentforms. If this is indeed the case, then cinema is destined to become an art devotedto creating non-places for touristic consumption, rather than places for dramaticconsumption” (De Waard 2012, p.162).

Overall, and returning to David B. Clarke, it seems that the spaces that cinema has develop in the city and the spaces that the city has created in cinema have effectively changed the social meaning of presence. Yet, a presence that in its `virtuality´ of consumption has forgotten to talk about the real politics of space. And here, Debord’s critique of the self-perpetuating commodity form of spectacular cinema as a way to attack the spectacular subject creation seem to be safeguarded in the romantic underground in an era in which the art of revolution is no more than a faint rumour.

Photo: Radioactive monster Godzilla stomps through a city and eats a commuter train in a scene from Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse.

Published in Cinematic Amsterdam