24 Frames: A Bela do Bas-Fond (Party Girl, Nicholas Ray, 1958)

The city in question is Chicago in the 1930s, although its appearance is glossy rather than gritty, its settings largely interiors rather than urban streets. The main structural pairings and oppositions are between one particular location within the city and another (for example, night-club versus courtroom, train compartment versus jail, and so on), rather than between the city as a whole and another contrasting space. The two exceptions to this are California, which is presented as an offscreen place of potential safety for Vicky and the chance of a fresh start, and Europe, where Tommy goes to be cured. Although the use of a place out West to represent hope and new beginnings is unsurprising (it forms the basis for many westerns, after all), what is more unusual is the use of Europe to represent not only healing but a vision of nature and civilisation in harmony. The trees, mountains, green fields, and sea in the background of the shots where Tommy and Vicky are reunited abroad after his cure concentrate on the picturesque qualities of nature wholly lacking in the rest of the film.
Given that the settlement of the American continent is usually represented as an East-to-West affair, with Europe as the ultimate eastern site of embarkation, Europe has tended to be seen as a place of traditional high culture, social hierarchies, and the accumulated customs and practices of the past, from which the westward journey provides a liberating and essentially democratic break. However, this view of Europe as the old country and America as the new is not merely a back-to-nature model of the journey west, but a model of a future involving transcendence of nature as America becomes increasingly identified with such qualities as material progress and driving ambition, outstripping Europe with its youthful vigour and achievement. So if America sees itself as younger and newer than Europe, any sense of this as implying a more primitive condition is overturned by the mythologising of twentieth-century America as more modern, forward-thinking and dynamic in its more positive manifestations, and more oppressive and corrupt in its more negative forms, a matter of modern, technologised forms of violence (both in the shape of gang warfare and the enforcement of the law) rather than the primitivism of nature in the raw. The American city, correspondingly, has been inflected in both positive and negative versions but, in its negative form, it makes possible a reconceptualisation of Europe in terms of a more leisurely, old-fashioned way of life which escapes the corruptions of the modern cities to the west. To see Europe nostalgically in this way is to hold an openly critical view of at least some aspects of what America has become and implies a wish to unmake time and return to an earlier period, displacing a nostalgia for America’s past onto a mythified utopian version of Europe’s present.

Reading Hollywood: Spaces and Meanings in American Film (Deborah Thomas)

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