Life in the Dark

Infrastructure. The skeleton, the frame upon which concrete dreams of the city are hung. Networks, seen and unseen, circulate water, power, waste, telecoms, people, and so on. Conduits, the hardware, allow for the movements that keep the city moving; pipes, wires, tunnels, roads, tracks, masts; even the air enables the radiowaves and microwaves to flow.
Darkness. Photons too sparsely distributed. Not just too little light, but a lack of hope. The blackness of eyes closed when open. Like the underside of a rock against the soil.
     Dark Days (2000) shows how a city’s darkness and an element of its infrastructure can be inhabited. At the time the film was made, a small community of otherwise homeless people lived in an unused Amtrak tunnel near Penn station in New York. The film depicts people for whom life is better underground than above. They could be safe, dry, make their own home, have neighbours, establish some kind of existence, some kind of dwelling. Nevertheless, to be ready to do this in cold, rat infested darkness, each person had to be desperate.
The black and white film stock bears out the stark realities of their existence as faces emerge from the darkness like disregarded ghostly presences. As the film records various people and their plight, a kind of light is shed on the darkness of the space and their circumstances; upon otherwise forgotten people in forgotten spaces.
In making their home within the infrastructure of the city, these marginalised people become dwellers within a system designed for flows, transport and transmission. What was a conduit instead provides a sense of permanence in the changing city. Moreover, it becomes apparent how the residents of the tunnel exploit other aspects of the infrastructure by tapping into the city’s electricity grid for power in their makeshift homes, which are full of salvaged, functioning appliances.
The documentary’s director, Marc Singer, spent time getting to know, and living with the tunnel dwellers before the idea of a film was ever mooted. Those that share their stories trust Marc and the others behind the camera — they are telling their stories to their own friends and neighbours. It is this dynamic that enables the film to compassionately, but without varnish, provide a glimpse of life in the city’s underbelly.

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.

On the Edge of Your Seat

Are you as excited as I am about the new ‘Don Draper’ bench in midtown New York? It is a recently unveiled piece of public art created to celebrate the acclaimed AMC TV show, Mad Men, about an advertising agency in 1960s New York, and surely an ideal selfie-spot for any fan. As I wait on the edge of my seat for the final episodes to air over the coming weeks, I am wondering how inviting this bench might be? Situated on a public square in front of the Time & Life Building in Manhattan, it does look rather dapper, as well as roomy and comfortable. Promising you the opportunity to become a part of the Mad Men world and its desirable lifestyle, this piece of art expresses the essence of the show: Not only by paying tribute to its iconic character and opening sequence, but also by masterfully promoting itself. After all, advertising is what mad men and women do best. Buying into the glam and glitz, fans indulge in the consumerism that rose to international heights in the postwar boom years.
But what happens if an individual is unable to join the capitalist frenzy? Is social distance equated to spatial distance? Is it fair to assume that this ‘public’ art is for ‘everyone’ or are there perhaps members of the public that are less ‘desirable’ occupants of this space and its bench? In summer of last year, several articles in the press, such as this[1] and this one[2] in The Guardian, discussed the impact of anti-homeless architecture designed to repel such ‘undesirable’ groups from using street furniture and to prevent anti-social behaviour. In his article, Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm[3], the architectural historian Iain Borden questions this desire to control the character of a public space. He explores issues of ownership of public space, the right to use it, and how it may be used. These articles explore the notion that public spaces are designed to determine people’s actions[4]. Furthermore, even in our mass-communication age, marginalized groups such as homeless people are simply not part of the picture: they are very rarely represented in the media and thus rendered invisible. Since they have no buying powers, their ‘desired actions’ seem to be to stay out of sight and off the public architecture. Given the plight of tens of thousands of homeless people in New York alone, this discrimination is striking in its invisibility.
A recent initiative in 2014 in Vancouver invited homeless people to use specially designed public benches. As I am preparing for my first trip to New York, I am wondering how likely it is that homeless people will be welcomed on this particular bench in Manhattan?

– Sigrid Preissl

 

[1] Omidi, Maryam. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Just the Latest in ‘Defensive Urban Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 12, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/12/anti-homeless-spikes-latest-defensive-urban-architecture. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[2] Quinn, Ben. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Part of a Wider Phenomenon of ‘Hostile Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 13, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/13/anti-homeless-spikes-hostile-architecture. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[3] Borden, Iain. 2005. “Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm.” In What Are We Scared of?: The Value of Risk in Designing Public Space, by Charles Landry, 20–33 and 44. London: Cabe Space. pp. 22-23, 29.

[4] See Borden and Quinn.

12 Angry Men: Crime and Punishment in New York City

In the Chicago-Kent Law Review David Ray Papke perceptively notes that few popular procedural dramas focus entirely on the process of jury deliberation as entertainment [1]. As Papke argues, 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957) is the exception that proves the rule. In a claustrophobic jury deliberation room we watch an all-white, all-male jury decide the fate of an underprivileged boy (of indeterminate racial extraction) accused of murdering his father in cold blood. One man, Davis (the juror played by Henry Fonda) goes against the crowd, and cuts through racism and prejudice with Reason, to reveal the innocence of the accused. Papke sees Davis as a ‘genuine American hero’[2] and the film as a Tocquevillian love letter to the juristic process [3]. While there are issues with this view, which I discuss later, it is true that 12 Angry Men is an anomaly, not only as a presentation of the legal process, but also as a cinematic representation of the spaces of New York City.
Despite shooting largely static dialogues and strictly maintaining the Aristotelian unities of space and time, Lumet nevertheless manages to create the illusion of a space beyond the frame. The audience is presented with a picture of New York City and urban crime in a uniquely anti-cinematic way. The film builds up a cityscape, not through images, as you would expect, but through omission. Scenes are remembered and reconstructed through sound bites and memories, in a manner that has more in common with sound recordings of testimony and oral history than it does with film. New York City in 12 Angry Men is a very real space; Lumet, however, chooses to describe rather than display the urban landscape, and so breaks the cardinal rule of cinematic practice: Show, don’t tell!
The city is evoked by means of metonymy through personification. Each character represents a social group or a particular point of view: we are introduced to, among others, the advertising executive, the migrant, the elderly outcast, the sports-fan, the bigot, and the sceptical humanist (Davis). While the jury is hardly diverse (more on this later), the film does at least succeed in defining the city as a space made up of differing social and ethnic groups, occupying different spaces. The men openly discuss urban tensions, ghettos and segregated living, which are reflected in descriptions of personal experience, and the seating arrangements in the deliberation room (Fig 1). The city beyond the room remains an imaginary structure: a sum of recalled events and memories. And urban crime is spoken of and remembered. We hear snippets of the court case and personal testimony in a variety of accents. Urban landmarks crop up in conversation. Billboards and the language of advertising are constantly referred to, conjuring up the signage of the big city. Communal spaces of work and play inform the jurors’ investigations; the sports-fan is late for the game; we ride the subway when, at a crucial moment in the plot, a train is evoked as evidence; we even go to the movies when a juror is asked to recall the last film he saw. All the while we remain locked in the deliberation room.
The film thus demands that New York be experienced in memory, read and imagined by the jurors and, by extension, the viewer. The process of exploring the city is not visual in any traditional cinematic sense, but it does rely on visual metonymy. It is tactile, logical, and archaeological in nature. Objects are examined and handled (Fig 2). The jurors reconstruct their use. We also experience space itself as an object; jurors use maps to build up an itinerary of the crime (Fig 3). Davis even physically paces out and re-enacts key scenarios from the night of the murder. He measures out the length of an eyewitness’ apartment, and walks through the space (Fig 4).

Crucially, testimony and perception are brought into question as individuals reconstruct the same event in different ways (Figs 5 and 6). As the film eschews direct reconstruction in the form of flashback, it actively theorises that seeing should not mean believing. Reality lies in the spaces in between. And what the film doesn’t show or tell us about New York is most revealing, and troubling. Judge Nancy Gertner sums up the issue when she writes: ‘The jurors spoke in different accents, reasoned in different ways, but they hardly reflected the true diversity of the city they were in, New York.’[4] There is, indeed, an undeniable lack of racial and gender diversity on screen. However, I would argue that, again, the film examines through omission. As Judge Gertner demonstrates, Lumet’s twelve angry men remained (as late as 2007 and perhaps beyond), an accurate depiction of the social make-up of a real-life jury. Judge Gertner writes: ‘…while the modern federal jury is not likely to be all male, as in 12 Angry Men, in most parts of the country it could well be all white.’[5]
Arguably then, rather than being a love letter to the American legal system as Papke claims, the film highlights systemic problems. And in doing so, it leaves the viewer feeling uneasy about the structures of crime and punishment operating in American cities. As the jurors disperse on the steps of the court, in one of the films two exterior shots, a troubling question remains in the cold light of day (Fig 7): what if Davis had failed to attend jury duty on the day of the trial? The fact remains that without Davis to lead them, the other jurors may have reached a guilty verdict. A verdict we now know to be wrong. The victory for the justice system is Pyrrhic: the diegesis highlights prejudice and a widespread lack of understanding of legal processes among the citizens of New York. Both as a critical look at the legal system and as a manipulation of the rules of cinematic form, therefore, 12 Angry Men remains relevant. It urges the viewer to look again. It demands that we see beyond omission, and re-evaluate how we reach decisions. The film questions empirical proofs, and asks that the viewer look at and see differently – both the spaces of New York City on film, and the structures that govern them in reality.

[1] David Ray Papke, ’12 Angry Men is not an Archetype: Reflections on the Jury in Contemporary Popular Culture’, The Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 82:2, 2007, p. 735-748, http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/chknt82&div=35&id=&page, (Accessed 25 Jan. 2015)
[2] David Ray Papke, ’12 Angry Men is not an Archetype: Reflections on the Jury in Contemporary Popular Culture’, p. 736
[3] David Ray Papke, ’12 Angry Men is not an Archetype: Reflections on the jury in Contemporary Popular Culture’, p.747
[4] Judge Nancy Gertner, ’12 Angry Men (and Women) in Federal Court’, The Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 82:2, 2007, p. 613, http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/chknt82&div=27&id=&page, (Accessed: 25 Jan. 2015)
[5] Judge Nancy Gertner, ’12 Angry Men (and Women) in Federal Court’, p. 614