Monday, October 4, 2010

Virtual Cityscapes

“If you’re looking for what is in reality more real than reality itself,
look into the cinematic fiction”, Slavoj Zizek (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, 2006)
How do the movies and TV inform and structure our reality? What is the role of fictional representations of places, landscapes, and cityscapes in our actual experiences of them? In what ways are our perceptions of reality affected or generated by virtual things? We have seen a recent emphasis in archaeological theory to look not only at contemporary, but virtual material culture as well (e.g. Harrison 2010). Virtual materiality is especially a relevant subject for the questions of how fictions, media and visual representations shape the ways in which we see and interact with material things in their ‘actuality’. Slavoj Zizek points out that movies play a crucial role in the constitution of our realities, and that this fantasy element of movie fiction is integral and inseparable part of what we call reality. “If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you loose reality itself”, he argues in his 2006 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.
Godzilla’s approach to contemporary material culture. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998).
Thinking about Zizek’s ideas on the interplay between the imaginary and the real becomes especially interesting when we look at how a place such as New York City is being perceived in relation to its virtual representations. For all those people visiting the city for the first time, walking around midtown and taking loads of pictures, there is a perspective of pre-experience (or virtual experience), that is, the expectations and knowledge of the place that comes from various media (novels, newspapers, TV, films, etc). In such encounters with the actual materiality of New York City, our ideas, impressions, and experiences are often formed and defined in relation to those virtual experiences that have already been generated through visual and/or textual media. It is to a large extent due to its virtual culture, particularly the one regulated by TV shows and movies, that New York is seen by many as one of the most exciting cities. One hears all too often ‘it’s like in the movies’ type of reactions to NYC, or finds comments on facebook photos such as ‘it’s so Sex and the City!’ It’s also interesting to observe how with facebook, especially with the sharing of photos and comments, our experiences which have already gone through virtual and actual stages, return back again to a virtual medium. Looking at how material things are differently and/or similarly discerned at the levels of our virtual and actual encounters with them could be another interesting question in the archaeological approaches to contemporary materiality.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968): A New York story after all.
But going back to Zizek’s ideas about the movie fantasy forming our reality and reflecting our desires, how can we think about these topics in regard to New York City and its representations in the movies? I was especially thinking about the science fiction-horror-apocalyptic type of films that are so often set in New York City, and what could be the connection here with Zizek’s arguments, both in the sense of what makes the city such a frequent choice for the catastrophic and apocalyptic scenarios, and how could we relate this kind of cinematic fantasy with our actual envisioning of the city? What do the movies like Escape from New York, Godzilla, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, King Kong, Cloverfield, I Am Legend, and others, reveal about our imaginary worlds and how do such fantasies connect with the real world? Where does the virtual New York City meet with the actual one? In its virtual space, the city has had difficult times avoiding meteors, floods, glaciations, aliens, giant apes, monsters of all sort, etc. Whereas in our actual New York City experiences we might not witness the same kind of movie-awesomeness (that is, if one finds Godzilla talking a stroll down Manhattan to be an awesome sight indeed), the more subtle links between the fictive and actual New York cityscapes still remain apparent.
-- Petar
Harrison, R. 2010 Exorcising the ‘plague of fantasies’: mass media and archaeology’s role in the present; or why we need an archaeology of ‘now’. World Archaeology 42(3): 328-340.
Related links: 20 Movies That Destroy New York:


cheyenne moore said...

Rather than NYC as post-apocalyptic city, what about the idyllic virtual construction of New York? Reading this post I considered the myriad of movies where New York is the place where lovers meet, opportunity is found and everyone gets their happy ending. New York itself is anthropomorphized; it effectively becomes a character in the movie. What would Annie Hall or Breakfast at Tiffany's be if they took place in rural North Dakota? The idealized New York thus becomes a mode for New Yorkers to take pride in what's great about the city and momentarily overlook the constant traffic, lingering smell of garbage and omnipresence of rats that may or may not be the same size as your cat. And non-New Yorkers are provided with a virtual reality tour of a romanticized New York chock full of flawless lighting, sanitized streets and beautiful people.

Albert D. Gonzalez said...

Considering that the same "real" place exists as a shifting and ever-changing entity in the minds of the people that live there (especially in a place like New York, where the urban landscape changes on a daily basis), I wonder if the sort of virtual preparation Petar describes doesn't qualify as genuine "placeness." In other words, since the city exists primarily (only?) in our minds, then those virtual New Yorks represent equally valid synchronic slices of New York life. I'd go further to say that the barrage of TV shows and movies set in big cities such as New York amount to continuous exposure to those places, making them qualify as genuine lived-in places for many people, despite the fact that most people will never live in New York. This is especially interesting, however, in the case of people who come to live in New York, having migrated from another place. Perhaps there's a sense of continuity among those people to some degree, having spent not insignificant portions of their lives (TV and movie hours add up!) imagining New York. Something to consider, anyway.


Matthew Teti said...

How can we read these hyper-realities if we take them a signs of material culture? How do portrayals of the city (both under duress and not) reflect our collective notion of the city? It is interesting to think of depictions of urban life, starting from "Metropolis" (Fritz Lang, 1928) or some equally early film. There seems to me to be an anxiety about the city from this early day, straight through to the post-9/11 era. It would be fruitful to consider films of devastation in combination with representations of the day-to-day city life. In addition to the romantic New York that Cheyenne brought up, there are films dealing with many "individual" aspects of life in urban settings. In all of their heterogeneity, I can pinpoint a myriad of anxious encounters with the city, from the comedic to the dramatic: Woody Allen's New York is indeed a muse, but it is also the source of a great deal of anxiety for the neurotic artist; in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (John Hughes, 1986) a group of suburban youth are put through the ringer in their trip to the city; in "Menace II Society" (Albert & Allen Hughes, 1992) and a host of other films from Blaxploitation through the present that comment on life in poverty-stricken urban areas, there is a great deal of anxiety about the conditions of city life and what can/can't be done to escape them. What we experience in the post-9/11 era is a outpouring of films that feature urban catastrophe, but there is also a surge of films dealing with domestic threats: individual or personalized accounts of urban threats. My argument is that these anxieties have always been present in films dealing with the city. Given this hyper-reality, which is definitely tied up with lived experience, what does this say about the twentieth century's experience of the city?

KMKearney said...

In Mikhail Bakhtin's essay, "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” the author introduces concept of chronotope. Bakhtin states that the word chronotope literally means “time space” and is defined as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.” (Bakhtin 84) Thus, when an author creates a world, or a movie, he is forced to create it within the realm of the real world in which he lives. This post provides an example of the concept of chronotope, is a concept that engages reality.

Branka said...

I agree with Slavoj Zizek's notion of the created fiction imposing on our ideas of reality. Myself a recent resident of New York city, being bombarded constantly by media producing various fantasies about this megalopolis, found a bit of a bitter taste of the 'actual' reality. Though, on the other hand,I argue that our perception of this city is in the eye of the beholder. As Cheyenne pointed out, despite the obvious flaws, New Yorkers take particular pride in their city, and most of them would never live in another place. A vast majority of recent immigrants would never leave NY and make a living elsewhere in the US. 'Nothing compares to NY, NY is not America', is one of the most frequent lines I would hear.
The question then remains: is it because they genuinely enjoy all the aspects of living here or is it the twisted reality that movies manufactured, created this feeling of excitement to live in a place that is ''just like in the movies''?


Katie M. Caljean said...

It is interesting to consider, however, the reasons that NYC is generally the setting for post-Apocalyptic films. Yes, the city is identifiable. And, perhaps these movies depict some sort of fantasy world. But, what does this reveal about attitudes in the US regarding NYC? Are these films attempts to deal with and assuage the tensions caused by the unimaginable, or the impossible (much like the events of 9/11)? Images of destruction and death are powerful and enable discourse. Films are a benign space for these fears to be played out as a dramatized, fictional narrative.

Colette said...

Another aspect of the post-apocalyptic NYC depiction is the pure utility of combining the concept of current bustling New York that is so prevalent in the media with images of emptiness, solitude, and darkness. The experience of New York can often be an assault on your senses: the noise and jostling of crowds, street carts selling fragrant foods, bright lights that light up Times Square 24 hours a day. All of these experiences are internalized to form our understanding of the city, even if movies and television shows are the mode of communication. Compare this with the urban emptiness shown in “I am Legend” that Petar brought up. The wide streets are empty, stores and apartment buildings are dark, any sound echoes down a long open space. Would this vision of a true apocalypse have been as shocking if it had taken place on a rural farmstead? No. Our preconceptions about the city are called into question in this eerie juxtaposition of urbanity with characteristics that seem antipodal to it. Thus the media can utilize their own packaging of New York to break it apart and create an unsettling experience for the viewer that will make their film memorable.