‘Spectre’ and the City

After the long-anticipated new James Bond film Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015) hit theatres last month, the most talked-about scene was undoubtedly the opening shot. The film opens with a minutes-long tracking shot set in Mexico City, during the Day of the Dead. We see Bond (accompanied by a beautiful woman, of course) follow a masked man in a white suit; go up to a hotel room with the woman; change into his classic tuxedo and weapon outfit; and walk the roofs of Mexico City in order to take aim at the masked man. The scene required thousands of extras to walk around in Day of the Dead fancy dress. It also visits one of Mexico’s oldest hotels, and neatly establishes Bond as the womanizer-and-professional-assassin that is at the core of the franchise. It is without question a skilfully realised sequence. But how does it compare to the film’s scenes set in the other three cities that Spectre visits: Rome, Tangier, and, of course, London?
By setting the Mexico City sequence on the Day of the Dead, Spectre clearly opts for visual impact. The holiday gives the opportunity for dressing up and disguise, and for large crowds that impair Bond’s ability to catch the villain and which increase the risk of casualties. However, the setting also plays on stereotypical views of Mexico by only representing the city on what is an extraordinary and world-famous day. It is a fairytale background that plays on already existing ideas about Mexico, and does nothing to redress viewers’ knowledge to a more realistic viewpoint.
The scenes in Tangier are mainly set inside a hotel room except for the brief shot of Bond and his travelling companion (another beautiful woman) navigating the streets towards the hotel. Yet at no point are the Euro-American views of Tangier challenged. There are steps and windy streets, peeling paint on the walls, and mice in the hotel room. It is romantic but poverty-stricken.
Rome and London are treated differently by the film. The Italian capital’s grand architecture is the backdrop for a meeting of a top-secret and highly powerful terrorist organisation. The criminals are business-like and use modern techniques. Bond’s visit to them ends in a car chase on the banks of the Tiber, in which Bond is driving the high-tech Aston Martin that has been widely used in Spectre’s publicity material. This way, the film’s representation of the ancient city is intertwined with cutting-edge technology. London is also shown to be a combination between old and new: Q’s advanced lab is located in a stone cellar under the Thames, and MI6’s old headquarters in Vauxhall are replaced by a glass and steel column on the other side of the river. This tension between the old and the new is at the heart of the film, with its conflict between the ‘00 programme’ and the new data-collection laws.
Although the film ultimately reveres the old-fashioned (as it must since its main character has remained essentially unchanged since the 1950s), it allows London and Rome to combine the old with the modern. Tangier and Mexico City, locations outside the Western world, however, remain in some sense represented as primitive and backward. For all the – justified – admiration for the technical skill of the Mexico City sequence, Spectre does not dare to challenge what it expects to be the assumptions of an imagined American-European audience.

Spectre_DdM​The Day of the Dead in Spectre (UK/USA, 2015)

Bond treading the rooftops of Mexico City

Spectre_car chaseThe car chase along the Tiber, Rome

City Symphonies

I had the opportunity last week to see a number of ‘city symphony’ films on the big screen. City symphonies are usually understood to be films made in the interwar period, which take a city as their main character. The most famous examples are probably Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walther Ruttmann, 1927) and the Soviet-based Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929). There were also dozens of shorter city symphonies made, across the world.
The city symphony is a product of its time in that it reflects the contemporary interest in the modern urban experience. The classic symphony spans the course of one day, and draws attention to the speed of modern living. Eugene Deslaw’s Montparnasse (1930) includes some quick cuts and close-ups at the start of the film which give the impression that pedestrians are about to be hit by cars. A Day in Liverpool (Anson Dyer, 1929) shows hordes of workers rushing off the ferries and up the steps to their offices. They are so rushed, in fact, that one of them slips and drops his suitcase in his haste.
Another common feature of city symphonies is the inclusion of night-life. Electric lighting was relatively new at the start of the 20th century, and the bright neon lights advertising signs were a popular feature of city films such as Prague by Night (Svatopluk Innemann, 1928) and again Montparnasse.
It is curious, then, that despite the fact that these films were usually silent, they focus on the pace and noise of the metropolis. They derive their sense of haste and tension purely from their editing and cinematography. Although musical accompaniment could enhance the viewing experience, silent films usually did not have a set score so the musical presentation could be different in each cinema due to the background, style and experience of the different musicians.
In a time when technological advances greatly increased the speed of city life, cinematic technology was not advanced enough to adequately reflect this on the screen. Instead of being a ‘life-like’ experience full of noise and colour, cinema was forced to develop its own language to convey the everyday. This is of course true for all cinema, and especially all silent cinema, but the particular point of the city symphony is that it is only trying to depict the quotidian experience of city life. There is usually no overall narrative to emotionally engage with. And thus, by their nature, they are trying to do the impossible. Yet, as a result, this genre developed uniquely urgent and poetical ways of seeing the city.


A Day in Liverpool: Rushing to work

European migrant crisis: rethinking urban opportunities

As the biggest migrant crisis since WWII continues to dominate European affairs, some academics, politicians and urbanists have proposed ways of rethinking current housing structures which could offer solutions to the problem. Some of these are concerned with re-thinking the design and build of refugee camps; others tackle longer-term rehousing and propose to use towns of which the population is decreasing, for the rehousing of migrants.
Currently, there are over 20 million refugees who have crossed an international border globally[1], many of whom live in refugee camps in border regions. Although the name ‘camp’ might suggest a temporary stay, many people in fact live in these camps for years, waiting to be either allowed to continue into another country, or to be repatriated. The current design of refugee camps is still based on short-term survival: it is difficult for those living there to access basic needs, let alone to work or develop an existence. Professor of refugee and forced migration studies Alexander Betts argued in the Guardian that ‘If refugee camps could be rethought with the opportunities of, say, a university campus or a functioning city, they might offer opportunities for human flourishing, built upon representation and self-governance, even on a temporary basis.’[2] By treating the camps as cities, complete with urban planning and design, instead of campsites, they would give the people living there more opportunities to develop themselves, rather than forcing them to biding their time. This creates opportunities to re-think the status of refugees and migrants, and allows temporary lodgings to be seen as places of opportunity rather than problems.
Interestingly, the current practice of separating refugees and migrants from ‘normal’ society has been compared to how in the past lepers were housed in special leper colonies, such as Spinalonga in Greece which this blog has previously discussed. Spinalonga’s current state as a ‘ghost town’ provides a link with the second solution to the refugee crisis which has been raised: re-housing refugees in towns with shrinking populations. Oliver Junk, mayor of the German town of Goslar, has stated in the media that Goslar, in which currently 10% of housing stands empty, would profit from taking in large numbers of refugees.[3]This idea is supported by academics working in urban studies, as long as it is executed with care. Rehousing refugees and migrants in existing communities would give those communities an economic boost, as well as providing the migrants and refugees with the possibility of building up an independent existence. And the idea is not without precedent: Detroit, one of the prime examples of a Western city that has suffered population loss, is currently housing a 300,000 strong community of people from the Middle East, which has revitalised the city.4It is however important to integrate the new community with the old, to prevent segregation. This can be done by careful planning and consideration of the needs of both the existing population and the new inhabitants.
The current increase in worldwide displacement of people provides opportunities to radically rethink how we use our urban areas, and how we think about migrants. Rather than putting the focus on a return to the country of origin, and considering all international movement to be temporary, it would be more fruitful to allow migrants and refugees to integrate with existing communities and give them the opportunity to take control of their own lives. This would enable them to contribute to the economy and society of their ‘host’ country, as well as potentially solving issues of urban degeneration.

[1] See ‘UNHCR warns of dangerous new era in worldwide displacement as report shows almost 60 million people forced to flee their homes’ UNHCR report, 18 June 2015 http://www.unhcr.org/55813f0e6.html accessed 5 September 2015
[2] Alexander Betts, ‘Is creating a new nation for the world’s refugees a good idea?’ The Guardian, 4 August 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/aug/04/refugee-nation-migration-jason-buzi accessed 5 September 2015
[3] See “Flüchtlinge sind zuerst Chance und nicht zuerst Last”’’ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 17 August 2015 http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/goslars-buergermeister-oliver-junk-fluechtlinge-sind-zuerst-chance-und-nicht-zuerst-last-1.2611191 accessed 5 September 2015
[4] See ‘Dearborn: Home Away from Home for Iraqi Refugees’, http://www.refugees.org/refugee-voices/refugee-resettlement/dearborn-a-home-away-from.html accessed 5 September 2015


Our recent blog posts on the Spinalonga island off the Greek coast got me thinking about other deserted cities that are tourist destinations. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is Pompeii, in southern Italy. After its burial under the ashes of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the city was not properly rediscovered until 1748. As soon as excavations started Pompeii became a tourist site, and it currently attracts around 2.6 million visitors every year. The main appeal of the city is seeing a world frozen in time, as everything is so perfectly preserved. What can we learn from this fascination with the permanent and enduring, and how does this interest in the city reflect on changing views of what is worth remembering, over time?
The appeal of Pompeii is in the quotidien, ‘the loaves of bread and hair pins’ as cultural historians Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul put it. [1]  But it is precisely its ordinariness that makes it so extraordinary today. Normally cities disappear gradually, they crumble away and then they are gone. Pompeii is the opposite of that, and the fact that it has been naturally preserved for so long makes it now all the more important not to allow any type of decay to impact on it. When the House of Gladiators collapsed in 2010, the general response was that Italy as a nation had failed to protect the city. [2]The city is no longer seen as a living, developing thing, but instead as something that must be preserved exactly as it was, forever.
This is directly at odds with how tourism to Pompeii has developed. Soon after the initial excavations started in the mid-18th century, Pompeii became established as part of the Grand Tour; aristocratic gentlemen from England visited the city on their longer journeys across Europe. The Tour was supposed to give the young men a solid grounding in culture, and an acquaintance with classical culture was part of that. When rail travel made tourism accessible the middle-classes were also able to visit Pompeii, and its popularity has not flagged since. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy today. The modern town of Pompei (with one ‘i’) was founded in 1891 and now provides the train station and hotels for all the visitors. The site is struggling with balancing its need for preservation with the increasing number of tourists, and the income that they bring. Large parts of the city which had been open to tourists in the 1960s, have since been closed off. At the same time a restaurant and cafe have now been constructed in the centre of the town, to cater for  the tourists. Previously, there were no amenities in the old city. So while the social function of Pompeii lies precisely in its status as unchanging city, the fact of its popularity has forced it to adapt, both for commercial and archaeological reasons. Additionally, some of the wall paintings, such as the one of the God of Fertility Priapus, are locked away from public view or put on display, depending on the morals of the age.
So when we visit Pompeii and believe ourselves to experience what it was like to live in a Roman city, we must remind ourselves that this is a myth. The city is as much a product of our own times as it is of the Pax Romana. Its very existence today is a reflection of what we value as history, what we think of as important to preserve, and of the apparent belief that a city should be kept static. The derelict, abandoned city is an empty canvas on which beliefs can be projected.

[1] Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from its Rediscovery to Today, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 2.
[2]  See ‘House of the Gladiators collapses in Pompeii’ BBC News, accessed 5/8/15 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11704720

Dirt and Humanity in Elysium

In the 2013 science-fiction film Elysium (Neill Blomkamp), which is set in the year 2154, the action takes place in two distinctly different built environments, one on Earth and one in space. On Earth, we are in Los Angeles, which has turned into a vast, poverty-stricken city, with a Spanish-English bilingual population which is kept in order by a robot police force. Earth’s wealthiest inhabitants have moved to space, to a space station called Elysium, where life is idyllic and immortality is an option. The main plot of the film hinges around a body-scanner capable of curing all injuries and diseases, and thus extending human life. These are only available in Elysium, and the main plot of the film concerns Max, a LA inhabitant who receives a fatal dose of radiation, after which he attempts to reach Elysium to be cured.
Rather than exploring the overtly political message of the film, I would like to turn my attention to a representational aspect of the urban environment that is perhaps less obvious to the viewer: the depiction of dirt throughout the film.


Nineteenth-century literary representations of modern cities had a tendency to use the underground world as a metaphor for poverty, dirt and the lowlife. [1] In Elysium, the underground/overground juxtaposition has been replaced with Earth/space. At no point in the film does the action take place underground; instead, the planet’s surface has become the space equated with the lowest life-forms. It is no coincidence that this future Los Angeles is also littered with dirt. Every street-shot shows plastic bags, empty bottles and other debris on the ground. Elysium, by contrast, is spotlessly clean. In our Western culture, what we perceive as dirt has long been seen as something that should be avoided.


At the same time, it is an inevitable by-product of human life. Elysium’s clinical cleanliness feels cold. The environment is reflected in the characters of the humans that live there: they, too, are cold and impersonal. When some of Earth’s ill and injured inhabitants attempt to reach Elysium in a guerrilla ship, Secretary Delacourt kills them all, seemingly without any emotion or moral qualms. By contrast, human relationships in Los Angeles are shown to be more meaningful: Max’s neighbour and friend Julio helps him after he has become ill, and there is the possibility of romance with Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey.


Elysium shows a dystopian future: one where technological advancement has taken a bad turn, but where there is still hope for humanity to triumph. Thomas Moylen explains that a ‘typical dystopian conflict’ is ‘between the established order and the potential dissident.’[2] In the case of Elysium, the conflict is also between cleanliness and dirt. When Max and the other ‘Earthlings’ reach Elysium, they bring their dirt with them. When a group of ill and injured people try to land in Elysium in a guerrilla spaceship, shots inside the spaceship show rubbish floating around in the zero-gravity environment. When one of the guerrilla spaceships crashes on Elysium, it creates rubble and disorder. Yet this dirt is necessary for humanity to outstrip the cold order of Elysium. Although dirt is never explicitly referred to in Elysium, it’s representation at the edges of the frame subtly reinforces the ideology of the film.

[1] Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London: Methuen, 1986, as quoted in Campkin, Ben and Rosie Cox, Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007, p. 64.
[2] Moylen, Thomas, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, Oxford: Westview Press, 2000, p. 112. 

London Road: The Ephemerality of the Spoken Word

The film London Road was recently released in British cinemas. The film is based on a National Theatre stage production, which in turn is based on interviews with residents of London Road, Ipswich. London Road became infamous in late 2006 when five prostitutes were found murdered in the Ipswich area. The police arrested a resident of the road, Steve Wright, who has since been convicted of the murders. In the aftermath of the arrest, writer Alecky Blythe visited London Road and interviewed a number of the residents. She used these recordings to create a musical, which uses verbatim transcripts of the residents’ words. The production first ran in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe studio, and was later transferred to the bigger Olivier stage in 2012.[1] And now, in 2015, it has been turned into a film.

The biggest selling point of the production is this exact use of the resident’s words. All the ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ and all the grammatical errors are preserved. However, using the exact words also means that the musical preserves comments from residents that would otherwise have been long forgotten. The spoken word, in conversation, is normally extremely ephemeral. Humans do not usually have the capacity to remember things that have been said to them, word for word. The consequence is that when things are said, they are said to be forgotten: ‘a throwaway comment’ is called that for a reason.

By recording the interviews and then composing the text of the musical around them, Blythe gave them a different, more permanent quality. This was only preserved up to a certain point in the stage production, which of course again is a fleeting medium. But now that the words have been committed to (digital) film, they are seemingly recorded forever (or at least until technology moves on so much that we are no longer able to use current file formats).

What are the implications, ethical or otherwise, of making something that is ephemeral, permanent? When the London Road residents were interviewed, they knew they were assisting in the creation of a stage production, and they knew that their words would be recorded. They did not know, at the time, that eventually these words would find their way into a feature film. They were perhaps also not aware that their words would not be used plainly, but that they would be layered, repeated, and spoken by multiple characters, in order to create the rhythm and flow of the musical piece. Would they have said different things, if they had known all this? Would they have said different things if they had just been speaking to a neighbour, without a microphone in front of them?

When London Road claims to be using the residents’ exact words, this does not mean that it is reflecting the residents’ actual thoughts. The words have been mediated several times over in order to arrive at the current text. London Road explores something very interesting with its use of the spoken word: not the supposed realism of using verbatim texts, but what happens when speech is reworked and recycled.

[1] See Ben Lawrence, Alecky Blythe: ‘I revere the way people speak’, Telegraph website, 28 July 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-features/9433269/Alecky-Blythe-I-revere-the-way-people-speak.html Accessed 24 June 2015

The Fleeting and the Enduring: A Salt Photograph of Nelson’s Column


Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, William Fox Talbot, 1843 ©The Wilson Centre for Photography

During a recent visit to the Tate Britain exhibition ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’, which displays early salt print photographs, one image in particular caught my eye. Nelson’s Column (1843) shows the construction of the eponymous column on Trafalgar Square. The viewer sees the bottom of the famous London landmark, shrouded in scaffolding. In the background is St Martin-in-the-Fields church. What most interests me, however, is an apparently irrelevant detail: the advertising posters displayed on the hoarding around the column. The contrast between the enduring column and the ephemeral posters and playbills is mirrored in both the transience and permanence of the photograph itself.
Salt photography was one of the earliest types of photography, invented in Britain in the 1830s by William Fox Talbot, who also took the photo under discussion. This type of photography used a salt-based solution to fix images created by a camera obscura on paper. [1] Along with the French invention of the Daguerreotype this innovative process gave photographers the ability to record a fleeting moment, seemingly forever. Over time it became apparent, however, that the photographs printed on paper were not enduring; any exposure to light degrades the image. Talbot’s photos, although an attempt to capture the beauties of the world forever, in fact turned out to be most ephemeral.
The image shown on the photograph Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square reflects this tension between the lasting and the fleeting. The column was built between 1840 and 1843. As a commemoration of one of the greatest naval commanders in British history the column is closely linked to Britain’s imperial identity. The column was built to last, and serve as a constant reminder of the country’s achievements. The church of St Martin’s was erected, in its current form, in 1726 and represents the enduring importance of the Anglican Church to the British state and society.
These two Classical structures are the centre of the viewer’s focus. At the bottom of the photograph, the posters on the hoarding around Nelson’s Column represent the transient aspects of the built environment. They display a mixture of text and images, advertising shows and spectacles which could be visited around the capital. The display as a whole would have been ever-changing as billposters layered new adverts over the old ones. The use of advertising posters became mainstream practice at the start of the 19th century, and is perhaps most famously represented in John Parry’s ‘A London Street Scene’ (1935). As Sadiah Qureshi demonstrates, Parry’s image also juxtaposes the transience of the posters ‘to the seeming permanence of St Paul’s Cathedral.’[2] Nelson’s Column serves a similar purpose in Talbot’s photograph. Whereas in Parry’s drawing the juxtaposition is an artistic invention, Talbot merely captured a scene already available on the street. His artist’s eye spotted the suitability of the composition, but the posters were already there, right around the column. His photograph shows that on the streets of the Victorian capital, there were tensions between the permanent and the temporary. At the same time, the newly invented art of photography was trying to find ways to make fleeting moments last forever, but was not able yet to shed/overcome those tensions between the eternal and the ephemeral.

[1] For a more extensive discussion of the invention process see: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

[2] Qureshi, Sadiah. Peoples on Parade: exhibitions, empire and anthropology in nineteenth century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 49.