Mapping the blind city: the urban crisis and false narrative in Shirley Clarke's The Cool World.

Author:Stein, Erica

Abstract: "Mapping The Blind City: The Urban Crisis And False Narrative." This article analyzes The Cool World (Clarke, 1963-4) as a film that ruptures the abstract space on which postmodernity's dominant relations of production depends. This reading of The Cool World is a radical departure from the critical consensus that has grown up around the film, which understands it primarily as an apolitical evocation of mid-century Harlem as an aberrant space. I argue that the film acts as a crucial link between the late modern hypervisual cityscape and the postmodern blind or abyss-like city and positions Harlem as a paradigmatic, rather than exceptional, space. The film troubles dominant accounts of the shift between late modern and postmodern cityscapes by evolving a Deleuzian protagonist-seer and false narration in order to show how this epochal model alibis an urban environment that has become an uninhabitable object-thing and which denies the masses their right to the city. In doing so, the article forges a crucial connection between Gilles Deleuze's understanding of time-image cinema's anyspacewhatever and Henri Lefebvre's theory of the production of space. This study focuses on both dominant and subversive "remappings" of the cityscape as it passes from late modernity to postmodernity, and it does so through an interdisciplinary method that attends to the specificities of the artistic milieu of mid-century New York.


The traumatic social reality of one generation becomes the comforting myth of the next.

Mark Shiel, "A Nostalgia for Modernity"

In 1963, Shirley Clarke began production on her new film, The Cool World. Since beginning her directing career in the mid-1950s, Clarke's work had focused on the embodied negotiation of urban space, as well as the ways in which that negotiation was capable of constituting the city, here understood as the infrastructure and itineraries that mutually constructed it, as a body politic. Her films were especially notable for their fluid combination of avant-garde, documentary, and fictional, even genre-based, content. The Cool World, the first feature-length film shot entirely on location in Harlem, maintains the hybrid modality of Clarke's earlier work and, if anything, intensifies the focus on its characters' fleshy movements through New York. These movements and techniques, however, produce an entirely different image of the city. In The Cool World, the subjective city produced by the protagonist's movements in space are entirely incommensurate with the collective, objective physical and social spaces that render New York an uninhabitable urban environment. Such modifications enabled the film to engage, represent, and critique a city whose image and place in the national imaginary was undergoing radical changes. The changes in Clarke's filmic New York were driven by and were expressive of the shift from a late modern New York characterized by a transparent space that superficially articulated the hyper-legibility of space as it was conceived to the labyrinthine tactility of space as it was experienced to a deindustrialized New York in the throws of an urban crisis characterized by uneven development that yielded a "blind" space that could neither be conceptualized nor experienced.

The urban crisis was characterized by "landscapes of urban decay and deindustrialization, as well as ... [emerging] realities of gentrification, downtown redevelopment, and global finance." (1) In New York's case, the urban crisis was contemporaneous with its transition into a postindustrial economy and its entry into the postmodern period. The Cool World was one of the first in what became a long line of cultural productions--including fiction and nonfiction, cinematic and televisual entries--that locate all these events in the mid-1960s. But Clarke's film differs drastically from the bulk of this discourse, which generally both emphasizes the dangers of the crisis city and valorizes an image of modernist, industrial, pre-urban crisis New York in order to articulate the nature and degree of the postmodern city's crises. This tradition stretches back into the historical moment itself. Mark Shiel notes that even the films of the 1970s, less than ten years removed from this period, had already begun to articulate "a nostalgia for modernity." (2) This nostalgia was particularly receptive to cinematic forms because it was structured by vision. This dominant narrative renders New York's loss of socio-economic coherence as a loss of visual transparency guaranteed by iconicity, and the resulting urban crisis-plagued city as a blind space in which one cannot envision the self as a social being, and in which the city cannot be imaged or visualized. In despairing of this blind city, the dystopian discourses surrounding the onset of post-modernity in New York concomitantly endorse not so much the city that proceeded it as the idea that this New York of the past was livable because it produced itself as a clear, iconic image, and that any future city would only be bearable to the extent that it did the same. In doing so, these texts foreclosed the possibility of the production of any truly livable form of urban space or futurity in favor of a utopian construction of the past. Their nostalgia for modernity allied these texts with the processes of gentrification and the intensification of unequal development that gestated in New York's urban crisis and would structure not only the city's postindustrial economic order, but also the revanchist policies that secured it. The nostalgia did not extend to economically marginal and racially constructed spaces such as Harlem and the South Bronx, although these neighborhoods saw their fortunes change sharply during the postindustrial transition that more than decimated jobs in the area. Instead, it produced these areas as always-already abyssal spaces that could not be allowed to encroach on those central, iconic locations that had been recovered in order to compose an image of the city compliant with the idealized past from which areas like Harlem were ejected.

Clarke's Harlem is animated by the journeys of Duke Custis (Hampton Clanton) as The Cool World follows him through the early summer after his freshman year of high school. The head of The Royal Pythons, a local youth gang, Duke's goal throughout the film is to acquire a gun so that he may prove his leadership abilities by killing members of a rival gang, The Wolves, in an upcoming brawl. In doing so, he hopes to be recognized as a "bad man" by the rest of the neighborhood, and to assume a position of both power and responsibility that will secure his social role and economic comfort as an adult. He fails in everything except in bringing more violence, and a more aggressive police presence, to Harlem. Clarke finished the film in 1964, a year in which Harlem would respond to that presence, the violence it meted out on its citizens, the deindustrialization that cost those citizens their jobs, and the racist housing policies that cost them their homes, with the riots that would help mark the onset of the urban crisis in New York. The Cool World's completion was also co-terminus with sociologist Ruth Glass's coining of the term "gentrification," which would mark the uneven development of postmodern New York both during and after the urban crisis, and would help ensure that Harlem remained an emblem of the crisis city for long decades after its production. Duke's dream of success in Harlem embodies its own nostalgia for modernity, as the role he desires is more indebted to the black cast, Harlem-based gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s than it is to the 1960s organization of the neighborhood. The film contextualizes Duke's story with location footage of Harlem that stresses infrastructural decay, a loosening of social cohesion, and myriad forms of criminal activity. It contrasts this footage with tourist-like itineraries of New York landmarks reminiscent of earlier modernist city films that totally alienate the protagonist, and suggest the waning of the iconic image of the city such itineraries and films once helped to construct. Clarke's film thus apparently embodies the nostalgia for modernity narrative and this narrative's construction of Harlem as the ultimate blind city.

However, I argue that The Cool World evokes this nostalgia only to critique it. In The Cool World, the nostalgia for modernity is enunciated by a character, rather than by the film itself. By superficially imitating the spatial itineraries of the city film and the gangster film, The Cool World explicitly invokes the nostalgia for industrial New York and the representation of Harlem as the incarnation of the urban crisis that undid it in order to subvert these linked urban representations, manifest their political and racial stakes, and produce the condition of the postindustrial, unevenly developed city as itself a crisis, with Harlem as a paradigmatic, rather than exceptional, space. The film accomplishes its subversion through its use of false narration and its production as irreconcilable of Duke's subjective image of the city and the image of the social city through which he moves. I show that, in doing so, The Cool World also problematizes the elevation of vision and the concept of the image of the city so often held out as the solution to invisible postindustrial space, suggesting that rather than a return to a now anachronistic industrial and modernist New York, a truly liveable image of the city arises instead from the negotiation of blind space, space that cannot produce a clear image of the city and is thus held to be resistant to both analysis and habitation.

From the Transparent City to the Blind City

Paula Massood's several studies of the cinematic African American urban chronotope and of Harlem's filmic history help pinpoint the changes the onset of the urban crisis wrought in (self) representations of African American...

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