Thoughts On: City Symphonies - What Have We Done?


City Symphonies - What Have We Done?

Thoughts On: Manhatta (1921), Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City (1927), Man With A Movie Camera (1929), Rain (Regen, 1929), Concerning Nice (À Propos De Nice, 1930), Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Life In A Day (2011), Samsara (2011)

A brief look at a collection of documentaries that poetically explore regions, often cities.


When we think of cinema, we often think of moving pictures motivated by stories and narratives. However, as most will discover once they begin to study film, cinema is not confined to a particular type of storytelling, nor is it even attached to the idea of a narrative. And in acknowledging non-narrative cinema, we find ourselves in the realm of the art film, avant garde cinema and experimental movies. These are the films that play a major part in the construction of cinema's narrative spectrum - one extreme being classical narratives as old as human history, the middle ground being a blend of classical modes and experimental modes and the opposite extreme often being the avant garde and abstract forms of cinema.

Beyond the obvious forms of narrative cinema and its meetings with the abstract - examples of this being films that utilise interpretations of surrealism in otherwise traditional story structures, movies such as Spellbound, Los Olvidados or Shutter Island - I have often been intrigued by non-narrative cinema. And accompanying my interest in abstract animation, which seems to push the bounds of what the frame can be used to accomplish, and surreal narratives, which also question what a frame can do - but in regards to character, subtext and story - I've always been enamoured by City Symphonies.

The City Symphony is a form of montage cinema that sprouted from and flourished in the 1920s. It is one of the most important forms of cinema for many reasons. One reason would be that City Symphonies act as time capsules; tangible moving portraits of lost space and time. Secondly, City Symphonies played a hugely significant part in some of the first conscious forms of experimental cinema - which often, before the true advent of sound, attempted to explore and establish cinema's relationship with music. Thus, some of the first experimental films came from Germany and figures such as Walter Ruttmann. He not only experimented with animation, but the aesthetics and capabilities of documentary and editing. His work, among others', then acted as a branch of sorts to Soviet Montage, as represented through figures such as Vertov, Eisenstein and Dovzhenko. However, whilst we could talk about the importance and influence of Soviet Montage, this introduces the third reason as to why the City Symphony is one of the most significant forms of cinema; it all comes down to its influence. As many would know, the City Symphony often played a part, either directly or through mere contribution, to nationalist propaganda in the 20s, 30s and beyond. Because of this, we can make a strong argument for the idea that the power of imagery was truly allowed to flourish through the City Symphony as a mode of cinema, but, was ultimately used for political and sometimes destructive means. However, with that as a kind of introduction to this mode of cinema, what we will do today is take a brief look, nothing definitive, at a few examples of City Symphonies over time.

So, where to start? I think the best place to begin would be the Lumières. The Lumières did not make City Symphonies; this certainly wasn't on their minds as they popularised and spread the invention of moving imagery around the world. However, it is undeniable that what the Lumières did has strong aesthetic and conceptual links to what someone such as Vertov did in the 20s; they showed the real and mundane world to paying audiences as a captivating form of spectacle. Thus it was the Lumières that, much like Edison, brung to moving imagery the idea that people are interested in themselves and the novelty of humanity being able to control and hone space and time. If you then compile the Lumières' work into a feature length film, which has been done, you will see a basic form of the City Symphony; a simple depiction (one without a concept of editing) of the world and the people that inhabit it.

The pre-cursory form of the City Symphony that the Lumières' body of work can be seen to represent took a few years to then evolve into more complex forms of documentary - look, for example, to the work of Alfred Machin who would spend part of his career around the 1910s hunting exotic animals across the world, or the work of F. Percy Smith who explored biological life in more intricate detail to what Marey initial did in the pre-cinematic era, from the 1910s up until the 1930s. However, in the evolution of the documentary there was lost, in part, the concept of the image itself holding power, and so imagery fell subordinate to information; and we can understand this by considering modern form of documentary (anything to do with nature, science or culture) which are almost all focused on expositing facts and stories through forms closely representing narrative cinema. But, there was a period around the 1920s in which the documentary evolved into something entirely different.

The turn of the 20th century is, in accordance to human history, probably the most radical era we have ever experience. Not only did the industrialisation of the West speed up the evolution of culture and technology like history has never experience before, but it also made possible two World Wars and some of the greatest tragedies humanity has ever known. Cinema as an invention of the late 19th century played a part of this as an expression and projection of change - and this is where City Symphonies seemingly found their footing. It was then in the early 1920s that films such as Manhatta surfaced. Made by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, this is a promotional look of wonder at Manhattan's cityscape, people and bustling life. Thus it is a blend documentary and advertisement that utilised cinema's capacity to enthral and project spectacle. However, beyond introducing undertones of patriotism and advertisement to documentary, Mahatta shouldn't be considered a true City Symphony because of its lack of musicality; which is of course established by the editing. So, because the editing (the stitching of imagery depicting buildings and construction) in this film is interrupted greatly by expository cards or inter-titles there isn't any sense of a symphonic montage, leaving this film more a portrait of a city, less a symphony.

To come to true Symphonies, we have to find ourselves with figures such as Ruttmann and his 1927 film Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City. What Ruttmann further introduced (Vertov's early work pre-dates his, and it is thought that he inspired Ruttmann) to non-narrative cinema and the documentary was the idea that the cut could act as an aesthetic, rhythmic and sensory tool. He began this study of film rhythm with abstract animation, what he would call Absolute Film, in the form of his Lichtspiel Opus films in the early 20s. These are essentially shorts that the animators at Disney would later refine and bring to life with music in the 1940 Fantasia. However, it was Ruttmann that consciously studied this form of animation to test cinema's rhythmic capabilities in the silent era, which lead to the founding of new cinematic language. This is all expressed through two of his interests meeting: film and architecture (which he studied before working on films). And so we come to Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City.

Ruttmann used his documentation of a city as an aesthetic practice ground through which he expressed hair raising abilities in regards to framing and editing. And though Ruttmann denied that his film was politically motivated, there is an undeniable subtext underlying this abstract narrative. In such, Ruttmann very clearly asked one question: What have we done?

This is a question that has forever been attached to the City Symphony - arguably since the days of the Lumières. We could argue this because the awe we find in imagery is often attached to the wondrous nature of creation, being and life itself. This is exactly why cinema was born as a spectacle and novelty; the pure fact that people could make pictures of the world move inspires a question of What have we done? However, whilst this question can be asked in awe, it can be asked in despair and with critical undertones. And we certainly see these two interpretations of this question embedded into Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City. Whilst imagery of the average person, mass production and city life seem to glorify Berlin, there are clear sequences within this narrative that critique the city through a depiction of the poor and impoverished settings. Formally speaking, however, what Ruttmann projected in these sequences was the essence of Soviet Montage.

From the early 20s and onwards, the Soviets utilised cinema as a means of expression in a way that no one else in the world really had before. In such, the Soviets theorised upon and question the idea of the cut. The cut, edit, assembly or montage is almost as old as cinema itself with the first cuts appearing in films dating back to 1895. However, what motivated the evolution of the cut was, in large part, the chase film. Founded by British filmmakers such as Mottershaw, developed by Americans such as Porter and perfected by the likes of D.W Griffith, later, Buster Keaton (though, Keaton developed the content of chases, not so much their form), chase scenes were how movies really dazzled audiences in the 1900s and 1910s and were also how filmmakers proved their technical capabilities. Griffith was probably the first master of this; and we can see this with his use of cross-cutting in films such as The Birth Of A Nation and certainly Intolerance. However, whilst the chase scene motivated an exploration of the edit and what it can do in terms of spectacle, momentum and emotion, it wasn't until the Soviets began experimenting with it that montage took on a whole other meaning, literally. Kuleshov, for example, showed the world that the cut can often mean more to cinema than imagery itself, for it is the collision and meeting of images that can produce mood, atmosphere and subtext.

However, outside of narrative films such as Strike, Battleship Potemkin and Earth, Soviet Montage was of course applied to documentaries. And thus we come to the masterpiece City Symphony that is Man With A Movie Camera. Just like Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City, Man With A Movie Camera celebrates the industrialisation and radical change that the early 20th century encapsulated. But, whilst Ruttmann's film asks the question "What have we done?" with both positive and negative outcomes, Vertov's film is almost entirely positive (for example, despite sequences like the one in which a man is hurt, the efficiency of rescue services becomes the point). Thus, Man With A Movie Camera falls into the canon of Soviet propaganda along with the likes of Strike, Battleship Potemkin and Earth. But, to give an example of a City Symphony that interprets the question, "What have we done?", to the opposite extreme to Man With A Movie Camera, we could look to Jean Vigo's À Propos De Nice. Inspired by the Soviets, and in collaboration with Vertov's brother, Vigo constructed a highly critical depiction of an industrialised city in 1930 that shows the City Symphony's capability to ask its question, "What have we done?", with overwhelming despair. Thus, À Propos De Nice, because of the overt nature of its criticism, is probably one of the most expressive examples of the meaning that can be found through montage and the juxtaposition of images. However, because of its biting criticism we could argue that the spirit of a City Symphony, which is founded in exploration and celebration bordering on propaganda, is quite lost on À Propos De Nice as Vigo seemingly has more of a focus on the culture of Nice as opposed to its geography. At the same time, this could all be disputed.

But, moving on, when we look at A Man With A Movie Camera, one of the most pronounced elements of the City Symphony certainly becomes the evolved power of imagery. Vertov's masterpiece utilises the language of the image and of the cut to conjure imagery that we simply have never seen since; and in such the frames of Man With A Movie Camera, as motivated by montage, are imbued with a momentum and weight that, I think, could only have been captured by the Soviets in the 1920s. This is because Russia in the 20s saw itself as, or at least projected itself to be through propaganda, on the forefront of a world-wide cultural revolution - that being communism. Thus, in films such as Man With A Movie Camera there is a patriotic and national pride in the imagery that was only ever again captured with such force by the likes of Nazi propaganda. Because this motivation to project national pride was so deeply embedded into these films, there is an irrevocable power that exudes from their imagery; just look to the opening sequences of Triumph Of The Will or the entirety of Man With A Movie Camera. However, what this strength and power came to represent was incredibly sinister, leaving City Symphonies, the techniques and aesthetics that they provided cinema with, a stain that, in scrubbing at and concealing, filmmakers utilised quite carefully.

This seems to be a reason why modern cinema doesn't resemble the cinema of Soviet Montage in the 1920s despite its power and expressive nature; to anyone who knows film history, imitating the techniques of pre-WWII propagandists too closely can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Moreover, the motivation for this kind of cinema doesn't really exist in the modern day because our industrialised age isn't such a new one. This implies that the style that came out of the 20s was, in large part, an expression of that era; an era that the modern age doesn't at all resemble. As a result, the City Symphony in many respects became the travelogue, which is a form of documentary that depicts cultures and regions of the world.

However, the City Symphony still exists to this day in varying forms. But, before delving into this, we will have to look at a different kind of City Symphony: Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens' 1929 film, Regen. This is a Dutch City Symphony that, unlike many montage films of this era, doesn't have a singular focus on a city, nor much to say about it, rather, nature's interaction with it. In turn, Rain is a study of weather's, specifically a downpours', effect on a city that gains a rhythmic quality not so much through the editing but the movement and textures of its imagery. Whilst there is a sequence in Man With A Movie Camera that comes close to exploring this, what Rain really represents is a reintroduction of what we could say the Lumières' documentary films resemble in regards to City Symphonies. In such, Rain is a spectacle film and an evolved form of early silent cinema; one that is defined by its capacity to have us not just experience a city, but question and ponder upon the implications of an event. As a result, Rain is both a poetic non-narrative film and a City Symphony. And I believe that this form of montage is what has stayed with filmmakers through the ages as opposed to that which Man With A Movie Camera represents.

When we then look beyond the 1920s and 30s for examples of City Symphonies, we encounter a challenge of definition - or just have to accept that this trend only existed in this era. Assuming that we only have a challenge of definition, the most significant 'City Symphonies' to come out of more contemporary cinema should be considered 'World Symphonies'. An example of this would be Koyaanisqatsi. Much like the 1929 Rain, Koyaanisqatsi applies the principals of montage quite loosely and so should probably be defined as a poetic documentary. This is because the montage present within Koyaanisqatsi is more a compilation of images that ask a question holistically instead of segmentally. In such, I am suggesting that the juxtaposition found in Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City or Man With A Movie Camera builds up to a point. In contrast to this, Koyaanisqatsi uses less juxtaposition and less collision of imagery not to build a point, but to ask a question. As said, almost all City Symphonies ask "What have we done?" as a society and world culture, but Koyaanisqatsi takes this a step further and asks us to critique the manner in which the world is changing through the definition of the word "Koyaanisqatsi". This separates it from City Symphonies as there is an inherent sense of documentary as a form of advertisement and even propaganda within the Symphonies from the 20s.

However, this is not the singular thing that separates Koyaanisqatsi from the City Symphonies of the 20s as films such as À Propos De Nice (which I would also question if it were City Symphony) had this critique and questioning in their subtext. Added to this critique and questioning are the hugely differing aesthetic and formal choices in Koyaanisqatsi. As implied, much like Rain, Koyaanisqatsi chooses to focus on spectacle and framing as opposed to the art of montage.

However, we'll take a quick break from this line of discussion to delve into a most removed example of a City Symphony. In 2011, a compilation of 100s of YouTube videos selected from a pool of over 80,000 submissions were constructed by Kevin Macdonald and Loressa Clisby to portray a life in the day of the people of the world. There is so much that could be said about this astounding film, but, if we consider it to be a World Symphony, not too far removed from a City Symphony, it becomes a representative of how this very old form of cinema has evolved.

Much like Koyaanisqatsi, Life In A Day reflects the manner in which the world has become connected through industrialisation and digitisation. And what both of these films then seem to represent is another reason as to why the City Symphonies of the 20s have gone extinct (at least, in the form in which they initially existed). Not only were much of the Symphonies propaganda, but they represented a nationalistic ideal. And whilst patriotism has certainly not evaporated from the world, there has been a strong trend of revisionism, especially centred on nationalist themes, over the last few decades - arguably since the 1960s and the significant change that that decade and wider era represented for the West. Life In A Day them seems to formally reflect this huge shift in culture and technology; in comparison to the City Symphonies of the 20s, it is a globalised shout from countless individuals and so one of the purest cinematic time capsules that had ever been constructed.

The last 'City Symphony' that we will then touch on is Samsara. An epic exploration of culture and change, Samsara seems to encompass the idea of a World Symphony and so is a significant mirror that the modern age could hold up to the filmmakers of the 1920s and their City Symphonies. Whilst it certainly has the theoretical underpinnings that the Soviet Montage filmmakers gave cinema, Samsara is formally alien to a film like Man With A Movie Camera. This is because the use of juxtaposition is subtle and the camera work less symbolic of 'moving pictures', rather, 'slightly moving pictures'. We see this with the reliance on the wide angle framing, slow and fast motion and colour. Thus, the editing, the montage, in this film is not so much concerned with the stitching of imagery, rather, the mise en scène and the content of imagery. And this is the detail that separates most modern incarnations of City Symphonies from those in the 1920s; they are concerned with content as opposed to form.

When we then look at Samsara, every image is less apart of a symphony, more a motivation for research; to truly understand Samsara you would then have to be aware of all of the cultural and historical details it references. Thus, what really defines World Symphonies as a form of cinema that has evolved from City Symphonies is the idea that "every picture has a thousand words" as opposed to "every cut has a thousand words". It's this poetic use of spectacle that then seemingly acts as a reprisal of the work of earliest filmmakers, such as the Lumières, that partially utilises the techniques and ideas that flourished out of the 1920s. This would then lead us to question if these films function at their optimal formal capacity and if they could be better somehow.

But, it's at this point that I'll end. What do you think of all of the films we've covered today? Do you have a favourite? What are your thoughts on how the City Symphony has changed? And how do you think it could/should change?

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