A Book Review by Margaret C. Flinn.
Johan Andersson and Lawrence Webb’s Global Cinema Cities (Columbia UP, 2016) poses as its task to explore “the evolving, mutually constitutive relations between moving image media and the global city, [but to do] so at a time when profound questions are being asked about the ontological and experiential nature of each” (1). This is no small task, but Andersson and Webb’s introduction does a masterful job of concisely synthesizing the stakes in the rather massive quantities of (interdisciplinary) scholarship that have recently been addressed to key words such as “global cities” and “world cinema.” They even give a cogent and evocative definition to explain their title: “The global cinematic city of the twenty-first century is a flexible city of multiple screens and modes of access, a programmable city of festivals, seasons and symposia, and a branded city of transnational media production and film offices” (4).
The collection is broken into four parts, each containing three individual essays: “Transnational Screen Cities,” “Global City Imaginaries,” “Public Screens and New Media Landscapes,” and “New Narrative Topographies.” The essays in “Transnational Screen Cities” address changes in patterns of exhibition, distribution, and production. Contributions in “Global City Imaginaries” focus on case studies of films set in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles and Kolkata, to see how films have “revised or repurpose[d] the traditional screen image of those cities” (10). As one might guess from its subtitle, the essays in “Public screens and New Media Landscapes” consider various expansions on the notion of cinema, working with forms such as surveillance videos, found footage, transmedia work and public screens. The final section, “New Narrative Topographies,” has essays which address the different types of stories being told about different sites, as social and cultural evolutions have transformed urban topographies. Locations discussed in the essays, beyond those mentioned above, include the Øresund city region (Malmö and Copenhagen); Lagos, Asaba, and Onitsha; Shanghai and Cairo; Mumbai, Caracas, Nairobi and Jakarta; suburban Paris and Marseilles; Seoul and Busan; and Tangier and Manila (many of the individual essays treat works that involve multiple cities, track shifts in cinematic centers, etc.).
With any edited collection, not all essays will suit all tastes, but I have to say that this volume is striking for the universally high quality and interest of its contributions – perhaps if I were more of a specialist in certain world regions, I might take issue with certain specific analyses, but from an outside perspective (or at least as a person whose expertise is suited to the theoretical framework of the volume rather than the specific details of all individual case cities), I found myself well-engaged from cover to cover. Moreover, while the essays are unquestionably scholarly, the prose is uniformly clear – the essays read well across disciplinary boundaries and most could, I think, be appreciated by students and non-specialists.
In order to give something of a window into the books contents, I would like to underline a few essays that I found to be especially interesting. The always compelling and insightful Thomas Elsaesser examines the place of European cinema in the networks of the international film festival in “In the City, but not Bounded by It: Cinema in the Global, the Generic and the Cluster City.” Pei-Sze Chow’s “Traversing the Øresund: The Transnational Urban Region in Bron/Broen” posits the way the “Nordic noir” television series is a “tangible product of the political and planned vision of a transnational region” but “is at the same time paradoxically critical of the Øresund imaginary of borderlessness and integration” (37). As an avid watcher of the show – but one with no cultural or linguistic competency – I found Chow’s contextual and textual analyses to be quite enlightening. Volume editor Lawrence Webb’s chapter, “When Harry Met Siri: Digital Romcom and the Global City in Spike Jonze’s Her,” shows how Her enters into real-world discourse on an evolving urban environment, while also deploying generic conventions of both the romantic comedy and science fiction, arguing that
the film revises and repurposes [generic] lineages with the emerging realities of the global city in the digital era. In doing so, it demonstrates how our figuration of the contemporary city of digital media, portable screens and constant connectivity is still mediated via the accumulated legacy of the ‘cinematic city,’ its representation tropes and genre logics. (97)
Meanwhile, the film resists reduction “to a simple utopia/dystopia binary” (97). Like the co-written introduction, Webb’s contribution skillfully engages a broad range of scholarship pulling together an impressive framework, while also making insightful commentary on the film’s construction as well, such as the preoccupation with “views of the material” in a film “notionally about the virtual” (100). In “Cinephilia and the City: The Politics of Place in Contemporary Bengali Cinema,” Malini Guha presents and elicits what is at stake in the fascinating intersection of cinephilia and topophilia in recent Bengali films of Kolkata. Guha explains that each of these “-ilias” have competing iterations, narratives, or positions that show the city as linked both to the “love of what is past” but also “oriented towards the future” (136). Jonathan Haynes and Will Higbee both build on the informative and insightful work they have done elsewhere on Nollywood and Franco-Magrehbi filmmaking, respectively, while Joanna Page, Jinhee Choi, and Christian B. Long’s essays have inspired a trip to the library in search of DVDs of films to watch or re-watch with their readings in mind.
In closing, I would reiterate that all of the contributions were extremely interesting, and I appreciated the expansiveness of the project for integrating an entire section of essays (by Chris Berry, Yomi Braester, and Igor Krstić) on various types of screens or screen objects that might not normally be studied in such close conjunction with feature-length fiction films. The editors and contributors of this volume are to be congratulated on producing such thought-provoking work on a complex contemporary topic.
Margaret C. Flinn is Associate Professor in the Department of French and Italian at the Ohio State University, where she researches and teaches on French and Francophone cinemas. She is the author of The Social Architecture of French Cinema, 1929-39 (Liverpool University Press, 2014). Her current book project focuses on the documentary in French cinema, in relation to globalization and technological change.