Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
This dissertation analyzes the group of postwar (1948-1964) independent films known as the New York city symphonies and argues that the films, rather than merely depicting space, produce it. City symphonies combine documentary, experimental, and sometimes fictional techniques to chronicle a paradigmatic day in the life of a given urban environment and its citizenry by concatenating spatially diverse, thematically related phenomena. Produced, distributed, and exhibited outside the commercial system, the New York city symphonies are nevertheless paradigmatic of the nonsynchronous spaces and layered temporalities that characterize late modernity. More important, as late modernist works, they critique this social order and the spaces that constitute it.
City symphony films have often been studied as a crucial instance of the intersection of cinema and the urban environment. Previous work in film studies has used the films to argue for the mutual constitution of city and cinema on the grounds that urban modernity is primarily a mode of vision. This dissertation rejects that tradition on the grounds that it reduces space to a concept and cinema to the depiction of a pre-extant built reality. By contrast, this dissertation demonstrates that a city symphony is not a way of seeing but is rather a method for negotiating space - a spatial practice. Through extensive close readings of the films in close conversation with both Henri Lefebvre's theory of the production of space and models of narrative's spatial characteristics, this dissertation concludes that the New York city symphonies comprise a particular practice in which space can be inhabited and abstracted simultaneously, in which experience and language, place and story, are one in the same. That is, the films challenge modernity's dominant relation of production, in which space as a mental thing displaces space as it is lived and perceived. This relation largely depends on space being reduced to a series of metaphors and metonymies - to narrative. Modernity, Lefebvre argues, is constituted by such abstract space.
Abstract space is reproduced through the construction of various narrations of space that naturalize or cover over the displacement of space as it is experienced. This dissertation identifies two such narratives, both of which employ microcosmic logic to produce the city as a unified, perfectly ordered, legible text to be read. Against the microcosmic narration of space, the New York city symphonies produce spaces that narrate. The films challenge the fantasy of "New York City" as a proper name that can refer to a single, knowable entity. Instead, they narrate an asynchronous multitude of sometimes overlapping, sometimes mutually exclusive New Yorks that are inhabited and invented by diverse populations as they perform their daily routines. They do this by narrating marginal areas as a series of secret passages that relate to the center through the time of the festival, and the center itself as a collective work. That is, the films not only produce space as an experience, but in doing so suggest an alternative concept of space. This dissertation proposes the New York films as a cinematic discourse capable of enunciating the multiple, contradictory meanings of given locations and from them positing an otherwise unfigurable, radically different social order characterized by both the perfect harmony of space as it is lived, perceived, and conceived as well as unlimited freedom. This dissertation claims the New York city symphonies as immanent utopias.
Copyright 2011 Erica Stein
Stein, Erica Hillary. "An island off the coast of America: New York City symphonies as productions of space and narrative." doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, 2011.