Thursday, February 23, 2012

"New York was his town, and it always would be". - Cinematographic Representation of Morningside Heights

It seems that the engagement between art techniques and human responses to landscape still remains partially explored. How has the Columbia landscape in Morningside Heights been depicted in fiction arts? If the critiques we have looked at all through the discussion on the rise of the “Picturesque” as a category of landscape would be applicable in a different way, what are spatial practices that we could find in other fiction genres of art techniques such as novels and films? To put it more precisely, how do visual representations and textual narratives on landscape interact with character’s emotional dissonance or intimacy?


After these questions came up in my mind, I began looking into several works of American novelists such as Jack Kerouac (“The Town and The City”) and Paul Auster (“Moon Palace”). Contrary to my expectation, the contents of these works did not meticulously enough portray the Columbia landscape. Surprisingly, it was not until the beat generation began to emerge in the 1950s that Morningside Heights was widely depicted in the novels. When F. S. Fitzgerald focused on the newly rich in the Long Island community in the 1920s and described its social decay as the uninhibited quest for wealth and pleasure, Morningside Heights emerged as the city’s first middle-class apartment house neighborhood development.

What I eventually found out regarding the spatial representation of the Columbia landscape, then, was not in the novels, but in the films – especially in one of the most prominent and prolific filmmakers Woody Allen’s works. As the black-and-white shots of the New York dim skyline and a montage of city sights in the opening of Manhattan take us on a tour, New York City is the subject and setting of many of Allen’s movies. His trademark slapstick comedy style with great characterization and pathos captures New York City at its most iconic level. Tracing the routes in some of his films may well be elucidating his usage of the landscape that cultivates transformation of human relationships and feelings.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) employs the use of these elements of an angst over death, being skeptical about marriage and a quest for love. In the title sequence, there is a Tolstoy phrase “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless” rolling on old jazz. After that, the Columbia landscape scene starts with a big close-up shot of Rodin’s “Le Penseur”. Then, Allen’s character, Mickey, comes out from the vestibule of the East Asian library in Kent Hall, against the background of its decorative architecture built of hard-burned brick, trimmed with limestone and set upon a reddish brown painted granite base. Clearly, Mickey exudes nervous energy from his intense hypochondria and suicidal tendencies while at a movie. Here, we Columbia students guess that Mickey might wander through Eastern philosophy trying every thought and idea he can find in order to retrieve some sense of meaning for his life, yet nothing convinces him. Where he walks is enclosed almost all the way around, and the landscape in this sequence effectively reflects somewhat oppressive power which Mickey fears, and it even belittles him since he shows a gloomy face.

In the depths of despair, he faces the bleak reality that he is no longer able to get his ex-wife back. The scene ends with Mickey walking alone by the Hudson River in Riverside Park and wistfully staring at the surface of the river - he does not even look at the opposite bank as there is a line fence that separates him and the river. Since the landscape of a river has frequently been used as a metaphor for life, the line fence is expressive of his continuous anxiety.


In Husbands and Wives (1992), the Columbia landscape interacts with his cinematic protagonists more sensitively. Originally the story takes place among two upper-middle class Manhattan, middle-aged couples. The scene in Morningside Heights opens with Allen’s character Gabe, a writing professor at Barnard College, beginning a serious flirtation with an undergraduate student of his. The slightly unbalanced shot captures them coming from the hallway of Barnard Hall. It should be noted that this quiet, small hallway is a short distance back from the main front gate. Physical closeness emerges between Gabe and the student, and this turns out also to bring intimacy.

Then unexpectedly, something clicks and they walk around Riverside Park. Being isolated from the busy, well-disciplined grid of streets in Manhattan and taking a stroll along the winding path with no particular destination, they co-experience the geographical traits which in a way lead them to stir conversation for relationship. When I followed their trails all the way from Barnard College to Riverside Park, I got into the whole experience of how they perceived the physical surroundings and responded to the ambience with a certain intimacy.
In conclusion, massive amounts of landscapes and topography that are accumulated throughout film production inspire us to investigate cultural representations of place and space. They also enhance the possibilities of aesthetic experience. While thinking about this blog post, I recalled the Manhattan's opening monologue of Allen's character’s work-in-progress about the city. He attempts to represent his love of Manhattan through textual and verbal expression (see also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbAq_bxU8Vk). Indeed, the two films that I referred now shows us that non-textual usage of landscape also strongly reflected the psychological states of the characters. As we have discussed how the concept of landscape implies a process of alienation from nature (and of domestication of nature), the depiction of landscape in film may help to reveal and dismantle the varying contexts.

Reference Works:
Graham MaCann. Woody Allen: New Yorker. Polity Press, 1990.
Hannah and Her Sisters. Dir. Woody Allen. Twentieth Century Fox, 1986=2002. DVD.
Husbands and Wives. Dir. Woody Allen. TriStar Pictures, 1992=2002. DVD.



4 comments:

Daniel Molina said...

Mariko, I like how you began, acknowledging how not every aspect has yet been explored. I certainly get a sence of nostalgia when viewing images and films which depict an area I've been. I wanted to include in my post a 1903 short film that Thomas Edison had something to do with. I'm glad you brought in film to the discussion as it builds in another layer of story telling by landscape.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2w3jGgHpI0&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Cassandra said...

I always think of Hannah and Her Sisters while walking around the Columbia campus. Perhaps this is because the campus is portrayed, in the film, in a very positive light: it is a location of constant renewal, surprising discovery, encouragement to step away from the familiar and find whole new possibilities for experiencing the city. There is a wonderful scene where one of the characters turns on her heels and walks away from a huge ongoing family melodrama, and voila, starts a whole new life. Does the director stop her? No, he celebrates her ability to take part in the New York experience of reinvention.

I also find, as you did, that the Columbia landscape perpetually offers new interpretations of emotional states--personal, urban, national, global, etc.--for many reasons. First, its classic architecture proclaims it to be based in the finest aspect of the civilizing influence. Therefore, you have its permission to indulge and explore a full range of ideas and impressions as part of the creative process. Second, there are always new people and new ideas which keep the pace up and push people to initiate new projects. Also, the architecture provides both a haven and caution to stay involved with life. When empty, the campus can embody the discarding of memories, ideas, histories that once meant so much to someone. But when enlivened through use, it demonstrates the possibilities for renewal in any living tradition or culture. The discarded ideas and buildings are now, all of a sudden, a haven and foundation that point the way from the past to the future.

Cassandra said...

I always think of Hannah and Her Sisters while walking around the Columbia campus. Perhaps this is because the campus is portrayed, in the film, in a very positive light: it is a location of constant renewal, surprising discovery, encouragement to step away from the familiar and find whole new possibilities for experiencing the city. There is a wonderful scene where one of the characters turns on her heels and walks away from a huge ongoing family melodrama, and voila, starts a whole new life. Does the director stop her? No, he celebrates her ability to take part in the New York experience of reinvention.

I also find, as you did, that the Columbia landscape perpetually offers new interpretations of emotional states--personal, urban, national, global, etc.--for many reasons. First, its classic architecture proclaims it to be based in the finest aspect of the civilizing influence. Therefore, you have its permission to indulge and explore a full range of ideas and impressions as part of the creative process. Second, there are always new people and new ideas which keep the pace up and push people to initiate new projects. Also, the architecture provides both a haven and caution to stay involved with life. When empty, the campus can embody the discarding of memories, ideas, histories that once meant so much to someone. But when enlivened through use, it demonstrates the possibilities for renewal in any living tradition or culture. The discarded ideas and buildings are now, all of a sudden, a haven and foundation that point the way from the past to the future.

Gustavo Val said...

You did a great job bringing all those film references that use the Columbia campus as a location. Especially in the case of New York, I think that the cinematographic representation of the city plays a central role in the landscape and how we interact on it. Perhaps, in a future work you should try exploring photography.