Geography goes to the movies

The Geography Department is hosting its first ever ‘Movie Club’ this semester in the Rocque Lab every Monday 4-6pm (film introductions at 3:40pm) (see attached flyer). Films include blockbusters, such as The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002) and Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass, 2002), documentaries, such as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke (2006) and Favela Uprising (Jeff Zimbalist, 2005) and even some great silent movie film classics, such as Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The film club is focusing on ‘The City in Film’ this semester, which is also the name of a third year module I teach.

So, why geography and film? Open up any geography textbook and what will you see? Maps. Pictures. Charts. These are representations of the world. But these images do more than depict ‘models’ of the earth (maps, global climate graphs); they also represent the many worlds that humans imagine and make. These representations often influence how we chose to act and make built environments. And this is the real meat of geography! Alexander von Humboldt’s classic definition was that Geography is the study of how humans make the earth into a home. Human geographers don’t just describe a ‘reality out there’. We study the ‘what’, the ‘how’, and the ‘where’: the myriad ways that we humans imagine, visualize, experience, represent, transform and co-habitate (or not) with non-human natures. We know that our material worlds are interconnected to our social worlds and our experiences and memories of our movements through environments include both nature and society. So, if geographers study human transformations of the earth (such as urbanisation), we are also interested in understanding how representations – maps, flow charts, and yes, films – affect our understandings of the world as well as what sort of actions we should and do pursue.

Films are a pretty recent invention: emerging in the late 1880s by Thomas Edison in the U.S. and in France by Louis and Auguste Lumière, early films were thought to advance science and were considered an art form by the pioneer filmmakers. The earliest films were quite short, about 6-10 minutes long, accompanied by live music, and followed by vaudeville or theatre acts. Films were a mass phenomenon, viewed by the working and middle-classes, and by men and women alike. New extravagant movie houses, such as the Savoy in Dublin, were created downtown (consolidating the entertainment district); James Joyce ran one of the first movie houses, the Volta. More informal ‘penny gaffs’ (or ‘nickelodeons’ in the U.S.) opened up in working-class and immigrant neighborhoods also downtown. Later, nicer movie houses screened films in middle-class suburbs. Our own Jim Keenan has authored two beautiful volumes, Dublin Cinemas and Irish Cinemas, that include maps, historical pictures and oral histories of these early days.

Because the geography and history of film is tied to a period of rapid urban growth, we are starting our Geography film club with a focus on cities. Some cities, such as Berlin, grew at such rapid rates that they became known as ‘shock cities’. Early films tried to capture this new reality, but also offered critical commentaries upon the effects of urbanisation on individuals and social groups.

This Monday, October 3, we show one of my all-time favorite films, Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (Soviet Union, 1929), which captures a day in the life of Moscow. For a sense of how Vertov’s work continues to inspire us today, see: Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake, one of the top 25 youtube clips every posted: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEykp9PsDkw. (Images on left are from Vertov’s 1929 film. Images on right are user generated.) This participatory video changes daily and uses shots by people around the world who upload footage to interpret Vertov’s 1929 film for the 21st century. This short segment has 24 uploads from 18 countries. To participate go to: dziga.perrybard.net.

So hope to see you Monday, Oct. 3 (or at a future showing) at 3:40pm for a film introduction and at 4pm for the film. This week our own Pronnsias Breathnach will run an informal discussion of Man With a Movie Camera at about 5:15pm.

Karen Till

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