La Grande Halle De La Villette

After picking up a pair of headphones at the entrance to this exhibition, I walked into a spacious room in which clips from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1926, and Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, were being shown. Vertov created one of the most emblematic of all film images, featuring the protagonist (the cameraman of the title) perching on a steel girder high above the city and panning his camera over the teeming forms below. Just as this sequence was projected on the screen—a “curtain” made of a regular movie screen cut into strips and hung from the ceiling—a group of people broke through from the next room by mistake. This unusual screening room, it turned out, was the first of many; the curtain/screen was also the “door” between these first two rooms, and the people had lost their bearings and wandered through it the wrong way. Although an accident, this little episode (which could have functioned as a brilliant anti-illusionistic device in one of Jean-Luc Godard’s early ’60s films) conveyed something of the exhibition’s complexity and established its tone. “Cités-Cinés,” curated by Francois Confino, was a witty exploration of cinematic possibilities and traditions, a 20-part installation that added up to more than just a filmic fun house. It was both a history of the cinema’s most recurrent themes and a celebration of its ability to create imaginary spaces through film’s unique mimetic properties.

Cités-Cinés” was conceived as a labyrinthine series of environments that would embody various 20th-century urban themes; each environment was designed to evoke a specific theme, or a specific city (Paris, Rome, New York, Berlin, Tokyo), and to “double” whatever cinematic space was being projected there. Rather than the historical replicas one might find in a museum, however, these were constructed like sets—often with actual props from the films—to emphasize how the cinematic vision has fashioned our conception of the metropolis. For example, spectators ascended a winding stairway for a view over a model of the Berlin Wall, just beyond which scenes from films such as Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, 1945, and Volker Schlöndorffs The Tin Drum, 1979, showed Berlin being ravaged by war. Similarly, they sat on a simulated rooftop in a space designed around the theme “On the Roofs of Paris” and viewed a series of classic images of that city from Godard’s Breathless, 1960, Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932, and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, 1959, among others. Thus, “Cités-Cinés” posited the city as a metaphorical point of departure for film. But because each environment was clearly only an approximation of the original space to which it referred, the exhibition called on the viewer’s memory to supply the missing elements, to “fill in the blanks.”

True to this reliance on the viewer’s memory, the exhibition also employed a sort of cinematic “madeleine” for its effect: the clip. “The worst films that I ever saw,” Man Ray once said, “those which put me to sleep, contained ten or fifteen marvelous minutes. At the same time, the best films I ever saw contained only ten or fifteen worthwhile minutes.” “Cités-Cinés” reduced these moments to a minute, asking the spectator to provide the rest.

The exhibition’s final room, on the theme of “The Imaginary City,” gave us several filmic projections of the future. Through one particularly illuminating choice, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, 1986, we saw how an existing architectural landmark (Ricardo Bofill’s apartment complex at Marne-la-Vallée) could serve as the basis for a cinematic vision of the future that, like many of the clips presented here, is characterized by unmitigated decay punctuated with violence and despair. When the image from The Man with a Movie Camera came up again in this group of clips, the circle was completed. If, as Vertov intimates, the cinema is omniscient, it is also a reflection of history itself. “Cités-Cinés” tells us that there is no escaping the illusion.

Michael Tarantino