Unreal Nature

May 12, 2016

A Concentration of Private Spaces

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:09 am

… what is disappearing is more precarious than what is arriving …

This is from The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place by Scott MacDonald (2001):

… For my father, whose hopes of a college education vanished the year he graduated from high school, when the Great Depression hit, the distant, wavering flames burning off petroleum fumes in Elizabeth [New Jersey] were candles lit in honor of America’s postwar industrial boom and the smoke that darkened the sky was incense — even the horrific stockyard smell near Secaucus (if we were entering Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel) was humorous: “P.U. Secaucus,” we’d laugh.

[line break added] Of course, the conclusion of our journey and the greatest product of America’s industrialization was New York City itself. It was the largest and, we assumed, the most dynamic city in the world. That seemed obvious from the panorama we could see from the top of the Empire State Building and from the awesome golden cavern of Radio City Music Hall, two of the inevitable goals of these [road] trips [from his childhood home in Easton PA].

… That the development of the modern cityscape seems to require the transformation, even the destruction, of rural and wilderness landscapes long distances away is a problem that increasingly confronts all thinking people who love both the dynamism of the city experience and the serenity of the traditional experience of nature. How can we achieve a sensible balance between the two?

[ … ]

… In the second shot after the title, “Water and Power,” O’Neill reveals simultaneously, the inside of a bare room with a small table and chair in front of an empty water-stained wall, filmed in time-lapse so that the sheets of light made by the sunshine coming from the window to the left and behind (the same windows, presumably, that we see in the first shot after the title) move from left to right, across floor and wall; and a blue sky with cumulus clouds, again recorded in time-lapse, moving from right to left on the same, far wall … . After a moment, the time-lapsed sky and clouds fade out and the movement of time-lapsed light through the bare room continues through the day until dusk and the screen fades to darkness.

[line break added] Next, a time-lapsed image of the moon — accompanied by the sound of a locomotive — moves diagonally across the frame from lower left to upper right (as if to signal the passing of the night following the day represented by the image of room and sky); and then, after another moment of darkness, a second “representative day” dawns, and we are tracking along the Owens Valley aqueduct from left to right (in time-lapse, to the accompaniment of jazz) — a desert mountain is visible in the background — and, a few seconds later, from left to right along the L.A. street where (time-lapsed) people go about their business.

O’Neill suggests the obvious; the modern city is not simply a public space or a set of public spaces, it is a concentration of particular private spaces as well. And while the city symphony form [of film] has assumed that the city is a space that can be dealt with as basically separate from the country, O’Neill suggests what we know to be true: every dimension of city life is made possible by alterations in the country that surrounds the city — and further, the very social and political power of modern cities, especially those of the American Southwest, is dependent on the water table of land hundreds of miles away.

… The city has always been with us (the population explosion has proliferated urban areas, but the urban has been central to human society throughout recorded history); and therefore, it has always been and will always be evolving, decaying, rebuilding, forgetting, remembering — a mix of the newest technological achievements and the remnants of ways of life in the process of being left behind.

[line break added] And since what is disappearing is more precarious than what is arriving, the photographer-filmmaker’s job is, as the narrator explains late in the film, to pass on our memories of our moment in the ongoing evolution of city life to the next generation — and to remind viewers not only that the constancy of change is our connection to earlier generations but also that the evidence of this constant change within the urban environment can be celebrated as well as mourned.

My most recent previous post from MacDonald’s book is here.




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