Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday Movie Post

I don't usually cover documentaries with these posts...I'm not sure why; there are some good ones that I've seen, and others I'm confident are very good that I haven't had a chance to see yet. I do remember writing about the absolutely must-see Times of Harvey Milk. But that's about it.

Anyway, I stumbled into one recently, and so here's a second documentary Monday Movie Post. It's The City, from 1939 -- apparently prepared for showing at the World's Fair (in New York) that year. Did I say documentary? Really, just straightforward propaganda, proselytizing against modern American large cities and in favor of invented, planned, communities, in particular (unnamed in the film) Greenbelt, Maryland. Indeed, it's written by the urban reformer Lewis Mumford, so, well, that's what you're getting.

First, about the movie: it's an odd bird indeed. It's highly stylized, very much a self-conscious art film, I'd say (and I know nothing whatsoever about 1930s documentaries, so this is all just my very uninformed reaction). Lots of unusual cuts and jumps, especially in the middle section -- about modern urban living -- designed to make city life as people then knew it as jarring and unpleasant as possible. That's set against the early section set in pre-urban America and the final section in beautiful, peaceful, sanitized, couldn't-be-whiter, Greenbelt.

The other thing about this as a movie is that it heavily features, and in fact is choreographed around, an original work by Aaron Copland, so if that interests you then you'll want to see it.

As far as the politics of the movie are concerned, there's really two things I got out of watching it. One is that the language of the narration is extraordinarily collective, or community, oriented. Just very different than anything that would be made today, at least in my experience. Granted, it's made by people on the left (the narrator would later be blacklisted, per imdb), but I don't think that today's US lefties really sound like that, at all.

The main reason, however, to watch The City if one is at all interested in the political culture and American urban thought is just how viciously anti-city it is. The section set in modern cities (apparently, again per imdb, it's filmed in Pittsburgh) is just brutal. It begins in slums, which are presented as typical of urban living. But the more devastating sections, at least in intent I'm sure, are devoted to showing the normal, middle-class life of the city as highly inhuman: too crowded, too regimented, too machine-like.

Oh, and it's short, so you don't have much to lose. As a movie, it's a curiosity, and not really worth bothering with unless you're a major Copland fan, in which case you should track it down. For the politics, I'd say it's a high-recommend, and perhaps even a must-see, if you're interested in American ideas about cities. Especially if you like cities; it's important to know what you're up against.


  1. You can watch the film at the Internet Archive. It's in two parts:

  2. Lefties for suburban sprawl! Take that, Atrios and Matt Yglesias!

    But what really strikes me here is your comment on the narrative language, 'collective' in a way that modern language on the left is not. Doesn't this suggest an underlying relationship to the often discussed fact that for the last 40 years the left has been winning the cultural battles but losing the economic ones?

  3. Your first observation is intriguing - how much more community-oriented Americans seemed to be back in those days. It reminds me of "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam, tracing exactly that trend of loss of community in the U.S. over the last half-decade.

    Perhaps in coming years, as the pendulum of power swings strongly back to elite, moneyed interests, the American citizenry en masse will recognize the need to unify politically and socially in order to counterbalance corporate consolidation of power.

    The democratic and economic decline of our nation can't be blamed on greedy fatcats alone; widespread civic apathy, ignorance and divisiveness have also played key roles, and there's no one to blame for those but the American people themselves.


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