Person of Interest: Site-Seeing 2.0

The establishing shot is a device of the filmic language to situate the viewer in cinematic space. Here, I briefly trace the history of this practice of filmic mapping and discuss its use in the American television show Person of Interest. Currently in its fourth season, Person of Interest is a science fiction crime drama revolving around secret agents, a billionaire tech genius and the prevention of violent crimes in New York City with the help of an A.I. mass-surveillance system.
From its inception, film sought to take its spectators to new, and exciting locations on far-reaching journeys. Giuliana Bruno, in her seminal book Atlas of Emotion, contends that film transports the spectator to these locations, turning them from voyeurs into voyageurs. She argues that the visualization of filmic travel, through the simulated cinematic movement in space, turned sightseeing into site-seeing.[1]
Traditionally mainly used at the beginning of a film, the establishing shot, just like a map used by the traveler, introduces an unknown location thus making it familiar. To further inform about and position the viewer in the filmic space, actual maps or street signs were used.

Person of Interest is a show that reframes the mapping of space while challenging attitudes towards the question of who is looking. Throughout each episode, the viewer is presented with an abundance of establishing shots, almost obsessively tracking every move of the characters while illustrating the possibilities of modern mass-surveillance techniques. Its two A.I. characters, the Machine and Samaritan, do not simply offer the viewer reassuring security by informing them about their current location. These images make it very clear that the spectator is being situated within the cinematic space as well as being watched. These two differing A.I. characters, one ostensibly imbued with ethical values, the other obviously weaponized, further problematize the importance of who is watching and with what agenda.
In its treatment of terrorist threats, the show also re-appropriates the practice of sightseeing. In “Control-Alt-Delete” (S4E12), various historical landmarks in downtown Detroit become merely endangered sites flagged by Samaritan’s all-seeing gaze. This representation of the mapping of space is Person of Interest’s dystopian vision of site-seeing 2.0.

 

[1] Bruno, Giuliana. 2007. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)

From the first frames, Jim Jarmusch’s 2014 film, Only Lovers Left Alive, juxtaposes the cycle of the eternal with the ephemeral. Night-sky stars transition into an endlessly rotating vinyl record. Bird’s-eye views of the eternal lovers Adam and Eve spin into and out of each other. The desolate, decaying Detroit is contrasted with the physically deteriorating yet vibrant Tangier. New and old technology, rock and classical music, vampires and humans: all represent past and present; life and death – two seemingly opposed yet entangled sides of one element. The lovers are exuberant and restrained – Eve displays childlike fascination with everything and Adam gloomy rejection of life itself. In a sequence that takes place before Eve travels to Detroit, she sensually dances to Adam’s music. He is recording in his house studio as his song transitions from diegetic to extra-diegetic music, and image and sound melt into each other to transcend space and time, connecting the lovers. As the paradigmatic elements of Einstein’s entanglement theory, which is a recurrent theme in the film, Adam and Eve are intertwined even when continents apart. Their eternal love defies ephemeral humanity and corrosion, and triumphs in the cycle of life and death.

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Detroit’s architectural decay is a physical expression of Adam’s apathy and his disdain for humanity’s destructive tendencies. Humans, whom he calls zombies, have not only managed to contaminate their water but also their own blood. Lingering in the past, Adam can only admire what has been lost, refusing Eve’s continuous turn of the hourglass and embrace of the present. His passion solely awakens as he talks of forgotten centuries or vanished beauty. When he takes Eve to the now derelict and sadly re-appropriated “famous Michigan Theater”, they marvel at its lost splendor. Low-angle shots of the faded luxurious ceiling are accompanied by Adam’s sorrowful recounting of the theater’s history. Built in the 1920s it stands on the exact same spot where Henry Ford first built automobiles. In its prime, the theater could seat over 4,000 people for concerts and movie showings. Adam states that “mirrors used to reflect the chandeliers” and as the camera perpetually caresses the remains of the theater’s walls the audience is transported to the bright lights, ordained mirrors, elegant guests and splendid entertainment of the past. When the camera slowly pans down to reveal Adam and Eve in the center of the dark and desolate building, it leaves this past to descend into the present: now the former theater is merely a car park. This architectural decline not only illustrates Adam’s longing for bygone elegance but also demonstrates Detroit’s economic bankruptcy.

Only Eve recognizes the city’s ambivalent landscape. Its desolate streets are seemingly devoid of all life. Yet, as she joyfully discovers throughout her stay, it is filled with wild animals and plants that should not be there. Just like Adam and Eve’s lives are intertwined – his apathy and her fascination forever connected – so too are industrial ruin and thriving nature. Eve’s driving force throughout the film finds beauty in destruction and recognizes that one has to adapt to the eternal cycle of life and death. Broken records that will never spin again and contaminated waters are a part of the city. For Eve, a smashed guitar reveals its inner beauty and the Spanish Inquisition was fun – and Detroit will rise again.

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Detroit: “This Place Will Bloom”

When vampire Adam leaves his house in an abandoned Detroit neighbourhood in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), the front-yard abounds with rampant grass. This grass is nature, is life. In the media perception of the last years, however, the bankrupt city in southeast Michigan evokes the rhetoric of death, from Bloomberg’s “Detroit Is Dead” to the Guardian’s “death of a great American city.” The conceptual contradiction is rooted in the present-day understanding of a living city as an economically functional organism. Urban researchers such as Richard Hornsey and David Harvey have suggested that socio-economic power is connected to spatial control of the city.[1] Henry Ford’s spatiotemporally coordinated labour processes at the Highland Park plant neighbouring Detroit were an example in the work space;[2] the restriction of nature to a groomed rectangular front-garden lawn an example in residential space. The wild grass demarcates the present loss of economic and spatial power exercised in the past. At the same time, the flourishing residential wilderness relates to the future. Detroit, at the Detroit River, “will rise again. […] There’s water here,” says Adam’s vampire wife Eve. “[W]hen the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom.” Note the double connotation of the term “bloom” that is economic and natural. In this logic, the natural resources will tempt humans’ economic resources back to this urban area. The forlorn fire hydrant on the sidewalk will operate because Detroit will have both the money and the water for it. A single Detroit front-yard collapses not only the past, present, and future but also the cause and consequence of the conditions of Western living. The cause is the nineteenth-to-twentieth-century machine age; the consequence is global warming for which the industrial craze is widely blamed. The film casts Detroit as a microcosm of space and time. Yet, some questions remain unanswered: If Detroit transforms again into a “great American city,” will it again control its people and spaces? Will the grass be “put in its place”? What new and old prices will its population and the environment have to pay? While Ford has begun to turn to “greener” production in Michigan, Only Lovers Left Alive never mentions the Garden of Eden that the protagonists’ names Adam and Eve evoke.[3]

Elisa Jochum

[1] David Harvey, The Urban Experience (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989); Richard Hornsey, The Spiv and the Architect: Unruly Life in Postwar London (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
[2] Richard Hornsey, “‘He Who Thinks, in Modern Traffic, Is Lost’: Automation and the Pedestrian Rhythms of Interwar London,” in Geographies of Rhythm: Nature, Place, Mobilities and Bodies, ed. Tim Edensor (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 101; Bill Vlasic, “Detroit Is Now a Charity Case for Carmakers,” NYTimes.com, September 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/business/detroit-is-now-a-charity-case-for-carmakers.html?adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1417615611-d8SuMd/7Ie0bjyCG6HHKNw.
[3] Bill Vlasic, “Ford and Detroit Rivals Make Strides in Fuel Economy,” The New York Times, January 6, 2011, sec. Business Day, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/business/07green.html.