In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The City in Film

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Urban Auteurs
  • Race, Ethnicity, and the City

Cinema and Media Studies The City in Film
Pamela Robertson Wojcik
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0109


Cinema and the city are historically interrelated. The rise of cinema followed on the heels of urbanization and industrialization, and early cinema production and exhibition was largely urban. Moreover, the city has proved to be a rich and diverse cinematic setting and subject. Early cinema recorded scenes of urban life in actuality, melodrama, and City Symphonies. Gangster films, German expressionism, and Film Noir rendered an urban underworld; the musical and romantic comedy produced a more utopian view of the city; and art cinema rendered the everyday reality of urban life. Recent films imagine dystopic post-urban settings and, alternately, megacities populated by superheroes. The relationship between the cinema and the city can be examined in numerous ways. In part, cinema provides an urban archive or memory bank that reflects changes in the urban landscape. At the same time, cinema serves to produce the city, both literally—in the way that film production shapes Los Angeles, Mumbai, Rome, Hong Kong, and other centers of production—and also by producing an imaginary urbanism through the construction of both fantasy urban spaces and ideas and ideals of the city. Theorists suggest that there is an inherent urbanism to cinema. Kracauer 1997 (cited under General Overviews) claims the city, and especially the street, as exemplary and essential cinematic space, attuned to the experience of contingency, flow, and indeterminacy linked to modernity. Hansen 1999 (also cited under General Overviews) suggests that cinema worked as a kind of vernacular modernism to articulate and mediate the experience of modernity—and especially urbanization. More recently, attention to theories of space and urbanism across the academy have generated broad interest in cinematic urbanism. Much of this work brings film scholars into conversation with urban planners, geographers, and architects. Of course neither cinema nor the city is singular. Thus work on the city and film must attend to multiple global cities at different historical periods and, furthermore, consider that cinema produces multiple versions of even a single city, such as New York, as different narratives, genres, studios, directors, and individual films will each produce a different city. Some books and articles tangentially examine films set in cities. This article will include only those texts that have the urban sphere as a primary focus of their investigation.

General Overviews

This section includes books that provide an overview of the topic of the city in film. Some works, such as AlSayyad 2006 and Mennel 2008, are intended to provide chronological and topical breadth appropriate for undergraduate study. Others, such as Brundson 2012, Bruno 2002, and Donald 1999, are more theoretical and aimed at scholars wishing to consider the relationship between the city and cinema more deeply. Barber 2002 speaks to both popular and scholarly interests. Hansen 1999 and Kracauer 1997 provide theoretical models that underpin much work on the city and cinema.

  • AlSayyad, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Argues that the city and the filmic city are mutually productive. Examines key urban films in terms of changing experiences of modernity and postmodernity. These include Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Metropolis, Brazil, Blade Runner, Rear Window, Manhattan, Taxi Driver, Do the Right Thing, and The Truman Show. Useful overview for undergraduates.

  • Barber, Stephen. Projected Cities: Cinema and Urban Space. London: Reaktion, 2002.

    Discusses early cinematic renderings of the city; postwar European and Japanese cinema’s exploration of peripheral, disintegrating urban space; and the disappearance of cinematic projection in the context of contemporary cities saturated with digital images and technology. Writerly and theoretical.

  • Brundson, Charlotte. “The Attractions of the Cinematic City.” Screen 53.3 (Autumn 2012): 209–227.

    DOI: 10.1093/screen/hjs021

    Something of a literature review and a manifesto combined. Emphasizes both the importance of attending to the plurality of cinematic cities, as opposed to a generic city, and paying film discipline-related attention to city films—reading them in relation to genre, authorship, studio, aesthetics, stardom, etc.—even while doing interdisciplinary work.

  • Bruno, Giuliana. “Site-Seeing: The Cine City.” In Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. By Giuliana Bruno, 15–54. London: Verso, 2002.

    In the larger context of theorizing about the interchange among film, architecture, space, and geography in terms of a gendered model of mobility and sensory experience, this chapter presents a tour of various configurations of the cine-city, including panoramas, early city films and City Symphonies, Film Noir, Italian neorealism, and art cinema as well as urban cinemas.

  • Donald, James. “Light in Dark Spaces: Cinema and City.” In Imagining the Modern City. By James Donald, 63–94. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

    In considering meanings and imaginings of the city, this chapter also considers the city as a way of seeing, and views cinema as a crucial mediator between the reality of the city and its imaginary status in mental life. Brings in Frankfurt School theories but also examines individual films, including Candy Man and Blade Runner. Sophisticated study for graduate students.

  • Hansen, Miriam. “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism.” Modernism/Modernity 6.2 (1999): 59–77.

    DOI: 10.1353/mod.1999.0018

    Claiming Hollywood as vernacular modernism, this essay situates cinema at the intersection of modernity, industrialization, and urbanism. Provides a theoretical and historical model for urban studies of film.

  • Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

    Kracauer’s book is not primarily about the city but offers crucial insights into the relationship between the city, especially the street, and cinema. In particular, he claims that the street is the quintessential cinematic subject.

  • Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. Routledge Critical Introductions to Urbanism and the City. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    This book is intended for classroom use and provides students with useful guides and references for analysis. Considers particular genres and modes of representing particular cities, including Berlin and the city film, Los Angeles and Film Noir, Hong Kong cinema, ghettos in “blaxploitation” films, and eroticized cities in queer cinema.

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