Boston Neorealism: Beantown in Film

I had the pleasure of visiting Boston for the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting (April 4-8) and found myself enchanted with ‘Beantown’s’ cultural milieu and contradictions. The juxtaposition of high-cultured ‘Brahmin’ Boston with an underlying soul of a working-class fishing town presents a deeply layered, contradictory tapestry: Harvard intellectualism alongside rabid sports fans; Cape Verdean immigrants alongside MIT engineers; buttoned-up Beacon Hill a few miles from rowdy, Irish-Catholic South Boston. With a (European) history nearly 400 years old, perhaps no other major American city features such an entrenched sense of local identity and a particular way of doing things (ok, a fair argument could be made for New Orleans).

20170408_113402

Films are often how we come to understand a place, through stories and themes represented in a certain way. There are many American cities that are brought to life by films that, in some way, bring out their character, their quirks, their beauty, their darkness, their madness. New York has been the stage for countless love stories; dramas; comedies; disasters. San Francisco has been torn apart by Godzilla; ripped apart by earthquakes; and burned to the ground in a ‘Towering Inferno’. Los Angeles has been conjured into a dream and nightmare; Seattle has been ‘Sleepless’, and ‘Fargo’ has been the stage for a great, gothic story of murder and deception. New Orleans seems to lend itself to ‘Vampires’ and ghosts; Washington DC, unsurprisingly, to tales of political intrigue, corruption, and the art of the deal.

I realized that I know Boston more from the way it has been represented through film than I do as a visitor, having spent limited time on brief visits to friends and family over the years. The stories that emerge on the silver screen about Boston seem to coalesce around particularly dark, and indeed, real themes: Boston is rarely the stage for comedies, love stories or frivolous disaster flicks. When the aliens descend on ‘Independence Day’, the death-beam destruction of Boston was not included in the plot.

Rather, Boston as a setting and muse for films has given rise to its own micro-genre, which I am calling Boston Neorealism, in the tradition of ‘Cinema Veritas’, or the cinema of truth. Boston films do not ‘filter’ its often-gray skies; they play up, rather than down, its inherent grittiness; class tensions and social ruptures are brought to the surface, not buried; and human suffering and the oppressive nature of the everyday are brought into sharp focus. Boston films are where dirty laundry is aired, where skeletons in the closet are found.

I think of the great era of neorealist films, in the years and decades after World War Two: Italian Neorealism perhaps being the best example, with its no-holds barred focus on poverty, suffering and misfortune in films like ‘The Bicycle Thief’ and  ‘Rome, Open City’. Through these narratives, the story does not necessarily end with a happy twist; lives are not spared; bruises are not covered. In Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, humor and love are woven together through visceral scenes of life under fascism. Scenes of laughter-filled feasts stick with me, as does the scene of one of Mussolini’s agents pouring hot oil down the throat of a suspected enemy of the state.

On the airplane back to the West Coast from Boston I watched ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016), and the themes and motifs of Boston neorealism emerged that seem to punctuate so many of the films set in, or around Boston. Gray skies and the relentless cold of New England winter, for one. In a gothic twist, the ground is too frozen to bury the dead – and the character Patrick must wait until Spring to bury his father, who spends the winter in a refrigerator. As if William Faulkner himself emerged to write this part of the script.

hero_Manchester-by-the-Sea-2016Fishing boats. Fishing boats seem to always feature in Boston stories, and a boat is one of the main characters in ‘Manchester’. In ‘The Perfect Storm’, a boat disappears in a great Atlantic storm, killing all aboard.

Irish Catholicism: no Boston film is without it, in varying shades. (In ‘Manchester’, Irish Catholicism was not a major plot feature, but still permeated the story).  However, in ‘Mystic River’ and more recently, ‘Spotlight’ – the Catholic Church and its history of sexual abuse are portrayed as anchors of Boston’s fabric. Working-class Irish-Catholic culture also plays a central role in ‘The Departed’, Martin Scorsese’s exploration of mobster / gangster culture in South Boston. South-Boston Irish identity also forms an important core of the character development in ‘Good Will Hunting’, a story about a boy from ‘Southie’ with serious math skills. In one of the most poignant scenes from the film, class struggle is on display when Will (Matt Damon) accepts a challenge from a braggart Harvard student at a bar in Cambridge – and ends up the intellectual winner. ‘How bout them Apples?’ (says Will), remains one of the most memorable lines from the film, and a metaphor for a smack in the face to Boston’s intellectual snobbery. These themes (as well as a winter backdrop) also appear in ‘With Honors’, where a homeless man engages with, and bemuses, a group of competitive Harvard students.

apples_featurePuritanism, morality, and discipline. In contrast to Irish-Catholic culture, Boston’s puritan heritage and its associated set of strict morals have given rise to a sub-genre of films which look at both history and the present day. ‘The Witch’ (2016) was a terrifying peek into the torment of a Puritan settler family in the New England woods (not far from present-day Boston) and the tension between religion, morality, and the temptation of evil. Salem (now a suburb of Boston) is the setting for ‘The Crucible’, based on the Arthur Miller play about paranoia in politics which was as relevant during the McCarthy hearings (around when it was released) as it is now. Ok, and ‘Hocus Pocus’, the witch-themed Halloween comedy. The straightlaced world of the New England boarding school have set the stage in ‘A Separate Peace’; in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ and others – often featuring tortured adolescent men grappling with big questions of expectations, morals, personal autonomy, discipline, punishment, and resistance.

I look forward to the next Boston story, no doubt featuring winter, fishing boats, the Irish, and the tension between intellectualism / snobbery and working-class pragmatism. Neorealism – and truth in film – are powerful reflections of turbulent times, and at a time such as this, all catharsis is welcome. *

Call for Papers: WOUNDED GALAXIES / 1968: Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach

WOUNDED GALAXIES / 1968: Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach

Festival + Symposium 

Feb 8-10, 2018

Indiana University

Call for Papers

The Sixties were a turbulent period, characterized by major revolutions in scholarship, politics, culture and the arts.  Indiana University, in conjunction with The Burroughs Century, plans an academic symposium welcoming scholars, archivists, filmmakers, and others interested in exploring the intellectual and aesthetic legacy of 1968, during its 50th anniversary year.  The conference will be held on the beautiful Bloomington, Indiana campus and will be hosted by Indiana University’s Media School; the Indiana University Libraries (including the Lilly Library and the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive); and Indiana University Cinema, which has earned an international reputation for the high quality of its facilities and programming.

Accompanying the symposium will be a series of films and an exhibition featuring rare and unique items from the IU Library collection. Renowned scholars such as Greil Marcus McKenzie Wark, and, possibly, Penelope Rosemont are expected to give talks, introduce films, and appear in Q&A sessions following screenings.

In addition, we are planning an art exhibit, as well as series of experimental music performances and spoken word presentations, in keeping with the larger theme of radical aesthetics.  We plan to publish the conference proceedings.

Interested participants are invited to submit paper proposals on any aspect of the international history and cultural legacy of 1968.  Papers need not be limited to any particular critical, theoretical, historical, or political subject or method. We hope to receive proposals that deal with previously unexplored issues, but we are also interested in proposals that offer fresh approaches to much-discussed work.  As the symposium title suggests, we are using the Situationists as a point of departure and particularly welcome presentations that consider the revolutionary potential of the Everyday—in both historical and contemporary situations.

But we are happy to consider any proposals that address the historical legacy of 1968, and welcome submissions that attempt to trace the legacy of 68 in contemporary art and culture.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

history and historiography of 1968; the post-1968 generation and terrorism; post ’68 science fiction; anthropology and the Situationists; architecture after ’68; counter/sub-cultures after ’68; literature and literary theory; The Annales school and radical shifts in historiography; Marshall McLuhan and the electronic revolution; The history and legacy of the Black Panther Party; Chicago 1968; The International Student Movement(s); Revolution and the University;Prague Spring – experimental & avant-garde art, film, literature & music made during this period of freedom; the avant-garde going underground during Normalization; lingering impacts of Prague Spring on experimental & avant-garde art/music/lit/etc.; Surrealisms outside France – the internationalization of surrealism that happened in the late-60s onward (U.S., African surrealisms, Poland’s “Orange Alternative”, etc.); Neo-Dada and Fluxus; French New Wave cinema and its response to the events of Mai; Third Cinema(s); East vs. West perspectives: pro-socialist avant-gardes in the West Europe versus anti-socialist avant-gardes in East Europe

Proposals should be limited to 300 words in length and consist of a brief description of the paper’s theme or focus, plus a one-page vita. Proposals may be submitted for individual papers or for sessions featuring two or three panelists. Proposals for panels should be submitted as a group by the organizer, along with a short explanation of the unifying theme. In addition, each panel proposal should consist of individual paper descriptions (limited to 300 words in length), names of panelists and their vitae.

Please email your proposals to Joan Hawkins jchawkin@indiana.edu, by July 1, 2017. The Symposium Program Committee will evaluate all submissions and notify all candidates of the results by Aug 1, 2017. We look forward to your proposals, and to celebrating/reevaluating the legacy of international political and aesthetic upheaval.

 

The City Outside the Window

By Gareth Millington

Recently I have been thinking about two images. Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Young Man at his Window from 1876 and Jeff Wall’s colour photograph A View from an Apartment from 2004-05. In both works, the city (Paris and Vancouver respectively) is framed by an interior window within a domestic setting. Caillebotte’s painting is especaillebottecially significant for its time because it is an urban rather than a ‘natural’ scene that can be seen through the window.  The painting portrays Caillebotte’s younger brother René rising from his chair to nonchalantly stare, hands-in-pockets, at a female figure in the street (at the intersection of rue de Miromesnil and rue de Lisbonne). Rapetti (1995: 148) states of Caillebotte’s painting that it ‘stage[s] a confrontation between interior and exterior’. Moreover ‘[…] the modern world, and not only its exterior aspect: modern iconography was to go hand in hand with a modernity of feeling, with evocations of the effect produced by the new environment on individual human lives’ (ibid).

 

Jeff Wall’s photograph (below) also stages a combination of inside and outside.  It produces two pictorial worlds in a single image: the domestic interior occupied by two women, one reading a magazine in chair and the other attending to domestic chores; and the panorama of the port of Vancouver that is seen through the window. The household objects that are scattered, or cluttered, around the room provide the picture with a sense of everydayness that contrasts with the view from the window. As Wagstaff (2005: 18) comments, it is a ‘commonplace scene that functions as a quiet iconography of modern life’.

wallThese images are fascinating because they offer an insight into the relationship between the interior of urban homes and the boredom, desires and despondencies that are intertwined within this private space and the city outside—an element of urban enquiry I have come to think is under explored. More importantly I think, these two images, produced over a century apart, offer a remarkable mediation upon presence or being in the centre of the metropolis. In this way, interiority gains a triple meaning; the subjectivity of the lens and the actors, the domestic interior and its geographical location in the heart of the metropolis buttress each other to provide glimpses of an existential space; a haven that is a retreat from the modern world outside, but is also itself modern. These two images are not, at least relatively speaking, products of the gaze of the alienated; of a flanêur who is confined to the margins. The quiet, everyday quality of the presence depicted in these images is, as we now know, historical; it is no longer something to be complacent about, such are the centrifugal effects of rising rents and staggering property prices, not to mention forced relocation and dispersal from great metropolitan centres. There is also the issue of a generalised urbanization that has slowly erased the distinctiveness of the city and the metropolitan experience. Each image—Caillebotte’s in the style of high modernism and Wall’s photographic invocation of a late modern ‘urban lifestyle’—provides a reminder of an epoch of urban modernity that, we might argue, is eroding before our eyes.

I’m sure this contention will be too strong for some, such is the enduring vivacity of the city-image in common sense, popular culture and political discourse; a trend I have recently called ‘cultural cityism’ (Millington 2016). And yet, the easy, commonplace attitude of ‘nothing much in particular’ that pervades these artistic works—which prioritise interior tension over the exterior, materialist tension of ‘dialectical urbanism’ (Merrifield 2002)—provides a deep sense of uneasiness (that strange mix of desire and melancholy that Walter Benjamin saw combined in the ‘wish image’) when contrasted with the increasingly exclusive rights to urban inhabitability that are predominant in cities today; which is, of course, the place from where we view these images today. And yet, I am often wondering how the privations of our current urban age are being/ will be depicted. The nagging doubt, as Marshall Berman (1982: 24) once put it, is that maybe we have ‘lost the art of putting ourselves in the picture, of recognising ourselves as participants and protagonists in the art and thought of our time’. I’m not an art historian so I would genuinely be interested in receiving recommendations of art works from the last few decades that do convey a contemporary sense of displacement, loss or the new blossoming of urban life in unexpected places.

 

Berman, M. (1982) All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Verso

Merrifield, A. (2002) Dialectical Urbanism: Social Struggles in the Capitalist City. New York: Monthly Review Press

Millington, G. (2016) ‘Urbanization and the city image in Lowry at Tate Britain: Towards a critique of cultural cityism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40 (4) 717–735

Rapetti, R. (1995) ‘Paris seen from a window’ in Distel, A, et al (eds) Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist. Paris: Abbeville Press

Wagstaff, S. (2005) Jeff Wall: Photographs 1978-2004. London: Tate

The Other Berlin Zoo: The Tierpark Friedrichsfelde

The impact of some forty years of division on the city of Berlin manifested itself in interesting ways in terms of cultural, recreational, and social activities. While most people think immediately of the physical barricade in the form of the Berlin Wall as it impacted traffic patterns and cut through streets and neighborhoods, the division also forced both sides of the city to create mirrored recreational and cultural opportunities. For many cultural institutions that existed in the East such as museums and opera houses, West Berlin needed a cultural equivalent. But what about recreational areas? The Berlin Zoological Garden is a well-known tourist destination and beloved by Berliners as well. But, Berlin actually has two zoos: The Tierpark Friedrichsfelde was founded in 1955 on the grounds of the Friedrichsfelde Palace as an attempt by the East Berlin city magistrate to provide recreation for East Berliners, and thus also encourage East Berliners to remain in their half of the city, for at the time, the borders between East and West were still fluid. Deutschland Archiv has published an interview with the journalist Jan Mohnhaupt about the competition between the two zoos. You can read the full interview here.

“It takes the hood to save the hood”: Art and culture against gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area faces perhaps the most severe housing shortage in America, putting tremendous strain on low income neighborhoods, many of which are home to longstanding communities of color, of immigrants, and refugees. Two neighborhoods – the SoMa area of San Francisco and the San Antonio area of East Oakland – face different waves of the gentrification process. Tax breaks and high-rise construction have transformed SoMA (South of Market) into the city’s tech-hub, home to Twitter and many smaller companies. East Oakland, meanwhile, is seeing the slow encroachment of more affluent residents who are looking for affordability, and an upcoming BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) line (in addition to the existing BART line) will likely intensify this process.

SoMa has traditionally been home to a large homeless community, many of whom live in the SRO’s (single-room-occupancy [cheap] hotels) in the area and are drawn to the public services located nearby. There is also an older, working-class Latino community, especially closer to the Mission and Potrero areas. San Antonio, Oakland, is home to a diverse potpourri of African American, Latino and Asian residents, including many immigrants and refugees from areas like Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

These two communities are home to unique organizations that are using art and culture to build community, to maintain local identity, and to combat market forces and mediate – if not stop – the gentrification process.

The University of San Francisco, as part of “Urban Studies Week” (sponsored by Urban Studies and Urban and Public Affairs)  hosted two leaders from these non-profit organizations: Misha Olivas from “United Playaz” in San Francisco, and Prishni Murillo from Oakland’s “Eastside Art Alliance”. In a forum entitled ‘Art and Culture Against Gentrification’ (moderated by Professor Diane Negrin), Misha and Prishni discussed their approach to community building.

Artists

Too often, art and culture are seen (at least in urban theory) as harbingers of the gentrification process: artistic pioneers colonize under-valued urban space, sometimes de-populated former industrial zones, sometimes home to extant low income communities; followed by galleries and trendy parties; followed by cafes and shops and then by mainstream, more affluent residents and destination restaurants – ultimately resulting in the ironic displacement of the artists. At least, so goes the usual story (Zukin, 2011 for example).

Misha and Prishni presented a slightly different – and intriguing – twist to how art and culture can be utilized in a community as deliberate mediators within / against the gentrification process, rather than as facilitators of upscale neighborhood change and displacement.

In SoMa, United Playaz owns and operates a “clubhouse”, which serves as an anchoring point not only for neighborhood-based art groups,  but also an important home base for one of the poorest communities in the city. In a city where land and building ownership is elusive for so many, the leveraging of city resources to buy property – and become a permanent neighborhood fixture – sends a powerful message.

clubehouse

United Playaz Clubhouse, SoMA, San Francisco (From UnitedPlayaz.com)

Meanwhile, in East Oakland, the Eastside Arts Alliance is helping to curate a strong, intersectional neighborhood identity and a sense of permanence amidst the forces of change. Their mission statement encapsulates Oakland’s long history of activism, empowerment and liberation: “We are an organization of Third World artists, cultural workers, and community organizers of color committed to working in the San Antonio and other Oakland neighborhoods to support a creative environment that improves the quality of life for our communities and advocates for progressive, systemic social change.”

In addition to providing a physical space for the grassroots arts, Eastside Alliance also helps bind disparate and sometimes awkwardly-juxtaposed groups into a sense of shared belonging: one anecdote given was the example of an event, where a “Cambodian youth with gold teeth” mixed with “community elders in a traditional dance.” On March 11, the Alliance hosted a “Feast of Inter-generational Resistance”, featuring an open mic night and curated events relevant to the Vietnamese-American community, both young and old. But topics also included discussions on anti-Black racism, LGBTQIA themes, tools for grassroots activism and the experience of immigrants, among others.  By providing a platform for such intra-generational and intersectional experiences – as well as intersections for various racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural histories to intermingle and co-exist – the Arts Alliance helps cement Oakland’s unique diversity and identity within the broader constellation of a fast – changing Bay Area.

There are practical applications within the City Planning sphere as well – the Arts Alliance, which has a presence at Oakland’s government’s table – has been pushing for “cultural plazas” as part of the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route through the neighborhood. These will serve as neighborhood markers, but also, as educational tools for newer residents to say “we are here, this is our history”.

Murals curated by the Eastside Arts Alliance, Oakland

The pressures of the Bay Area economy and the shortage of housing and community space will continue, and the waves of change will reshape Oakland and San Francisco. But within these processes, groups like United Playaz and Eastside Arts Alliance are demonstrating the possibilities for alternative, and emancipatory, conversations and productions of urban space and self. As Prishni Murillo said in her closing remarks, people “cannot live their essence” under the oppression of (market forces, authoritarian government, racism, classism, any ism). Therefore, the arts provide an avenue for liberation; art-produced urban space is thus liberating urban space. In Murillo’s words, “as power pushes one way – it is our obligation to push back”.

 

Spatial Impacts of Office Buildings?

Urban space is shaped and re-shaped by many competing forces. Global cities have been marked to varying degrees by the grand ideas of planners, the whims of political will, and the machinations of capitalism. David Harvey (1985) is a prominent voice in theorising the spatial effects of capital. The essence of Harvey’s contention is that during periods of over-accumulation in capitalist production a shift occurs whereby capital moves from production into the production of the built environment. This occurrence is a method of diverting surplus capital and a means to deter a larger crisis (Christophers, 2011).

 

In London, during the reign of the previous Mayor (2008-2016), a shift in desire and thinking took hold, one that argued that London needed an iconic skyline of imposing skyscrapers. The city soon ‘boasted’ a cheese grater (The Leadenhall Building), a walkie talkie (20 Fenchurch Street), a Shard (Shard London Bridge), and even a gherkin (30 St Mary Axe [formerly Swiss Re Building]). This is not to mention City hall which is either an ‘onion’ or ‘testicle’ depending on your point of view. However, as Harvey suggests capital in times of crisis focuses on the production of urban space. For London, this has been combined with the desire for skyscrapers that offer premium office space in boom times and bust.

Images courtesy: CityAM, Architects’ Journal, Skyscrapers News

The EC3 postcode, in the heart of ‘The City’, is home to the major headquarters of the leading insurance companies. It is a district that is spatially configured and development to the tunes of the insurance sector. However, as new buildings are completed they are standing empty. The Financial Times reported recently that One Creechurch Place which is a modest 17 floors and boasts 272,00 square feet is completely unoccupied. New developments including the 59-floor tower at 22 Bishopgate and 24 floor 60-70 St May Axe with the sobriquet of “Can of Ham’, among others, are being completed without any pre-letting. Some of this due to more efficient use of space or changing working patterns and some is due to nervous businesses reacting to uncertain times. The search for new tenants is hampered by business rates, declining interest of banks wanting to be in this area, and new tech companies preferring a location closer to ‘Silicon roundabout’.

This leads to questions of the possible spatial impacts of Brexit and how this will play out in urban space. If companies move or working practices continue to be increasingly flexible then these high-rise projects could stand temporally as indicators to the uncertain flows of urban capital. However, as Harvey suggests, the tendency for destructive creation in a capitalist economy means that maybe these building will be more ephemeral than expected. At present the show still goes on. The Scalpel (Lime Street/Leadenhall Street) is under construction and two further buildings, at 22 and 100 Bishopgate respectively, are part of a projected extra 4 million square feet of office space that will available by the end of the decade. How much of this will stand empty and what will happen if they do are questions that will soon to be answered.

Christophers B. Revisiting the urbanization of capital. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 2011;101,6:1347-64.
Harvey D. The urbanisation of capital:  Studies in the history and theory of capitalist urbanization. Oxford, Blackwell. 1985
Ralph O, Evans J. City of London skyscrapers rise just as demand heads down. Financial Times. 2017: https://www.ft.com/content/15cab8e6-f511-11e6-95ee-f14e55513608