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Invisible of the Cities in Visible Cinemas


Cinematography is a primarily visual form of art, so it is only natural that the viewer concentrates on what is visible on the screen. As Gunning suggests in his essay, the invisible in films is often neglected: it is not seen as a valuable element worth attention and exploration. The author cites Maurice Merleau-Ponty who famously stated that the visible always implied that the presence of the invisible as well as what we see entails the zone of what we do not. Gunning concurs with Merleau Ponty’s approach and reprimands the limiting prioritization of the analyst’s view over the complicity of the medium. According to the researcher, this especially applies to the seventies cinematographic theory that relied too heavily on evaluating visual mastery. This essay argues that the invisible plays an essential role in urban representation in movies and cannot be disregarded when analyzing them.

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The Dialectics of Urbanism

With the rapid urbanization that commenced at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, cities have found a place in visual arts and have since been poetically and philosophically conceptualized. Gunning makes a compelling argument for the dialects of modern urbanism: the researcher states that every city is characterized by an inarguable duality of being. Firstly, the researcher points out that there are two layers to any urban space – the facade and the backend. The former is something that the residents and tourists capture first: it is the surface that is often made to look good. However, this attractiveness and neatness are misleading: the backend of the city is intricate and complicated.

Another juxtaposition that Gunning brings up is the one between the order and the chaos of urbanism. In a quite riveting manner, the author compares this dichotomy to the two key characters in any detective literary work: the detective themselves and the criminal. The first one represents an order: they need to know their around the city and they have to keep it safe. The criminal, on the other hand, uses the chaos that is integral to any urban area to their own advantage. They seek to flee, hide, and misconduct in the dark, away from other people’s eyes. Lastly, one more interesting opposition described by Gunning is that between the bird’s eye and mole view. The author argues that the same city can be presented in two completely different ways depending on the externality or internality of the observer. The points made by Gunning are consistent with those made by Castello who sought to rethink the meaning of space (98). Marrying the two approaches, one may conclude that urban areas are complex and often combine conceptual opposites.

Light and Shadows of The City in Cinematography

Even early films were focusing on both natural and urban views with the latter being paid more attention. Gunning describes various techniques that may seem pretty ordinary today but that were novel back in the day: a phantom ride and an overview. It becomes apparent that the setting became an integral part of any cinematographic work, giving it some extra character and flavor. This view finds a further reflection and development in an article by Saul and Ells (110). The researchers explain that settings do not merely exist: they have the potential to transform the viewer’s perception. Around the time when photography was invented, people realized that there was something about it that was not reachable by the human eye. By manipulating images, fitting them into narratives, and playing with lights and shadows, photographers and cinematographers could put the viewer in a certain, desired emotional state.

Cities are emotionally charged to the point where they may even act as sentient beings, living organisms. Gunning provides an example of a classic film noir, City that Never Sleeps, where the so-called Voice of Chicago becomes the narrator, an entity with a personality and an opinion. Another example is Naked City directed by Jules Dassin that as Gunning claims, contains a thought-provoking contradiction. One would expect a naked city to be a city that has nothing to hide. However, the first sights shown to the viewer dispel this misconception: they see the scenes of murder, corpses, slums, and other terrifying elements of the city’s underground life. Soon it becomes apparent that the nakedness of the city is in its exposure and vulnerability. Dassin shows that the night only highlights the detachment and loneliness of the city’s residents. The producer depicts night shift workers, people coming home late at night, and anyone because of whom the city never truly “falls asleep.” It turns out that despite the seeming interconnectedness, city residents stay confined to their niches and rarely communicate with each other.

However, Naked City did not solely seek to show the individual struggle of every person living in this urban area. If one takes into account the historical context of the movie, one will discover that it was created shortly after the Second World War. Back then, cinematographers expressed their commitment to revolutionizing the American film industry. They wanted to be serious about exposing social problems and speaking out about something others did not dare to point out. Naked City managed to show the tension and the class struggle that characterized post-war America. Interestingly enough, this tendency persisted and lived on: for instance, Marrero-Guillamón describes the power of cinematography in shedding light on ethnic problems (20). In a way, to this day, the film industry has evolved to not only accept the invisible but also use it as a tool to bring about change.

Exposing the invisible may not always be as optimistic: sometimes it is terrifying. The next example provided by Gunning is another film noir classic, He Walked by Night, directed by Alfred L. Werker. The director shifted the focus from the New York City beloved by other cinematographers of that era to Los Angeles. The movie opens with a voice-over that sets the tone and once again emphasizes the dialectics of the city: “[Los Angeles has] been called a bunch of suburbs in search of a city, and it’s been called the glamour capital of the world; a Mecca for tourists, a stopover for transients, a target for gangsters, a haven for those fleeing from winter, a home for the hard-working, a city holding the hopes and dreams of over two million people (Gunning 328).”

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It becomes clear that in a city this hectic, vibrant, and diverse, it is easy to blend into the crowd and work undercover. This is exactly what the main character, Roy, is doing. He is a sociopath with impressive knowledge of technology and police procedures, which allows him to escape the law time after time. However, even brilliant people like Roy make mistakes, and in the final scenes of the movie, the character finds himself out of luck. The finale demonstrates the dual nature of his relationships with Los Angeles. If previously, its chaos and darkness helped Roy to flee and do his evil deeds without observers, now they devoured him. He Walks By Night ends with the police discovering Roy’s body in the sewer and seeing his face for the first time, thus, making the invisible visible, albeit a tad too late.

Gunning closes his argument by stating that light and shadow for a polar pair need to strike a balance to engage the viewer. According to the researcher, sometimes, they are used to depict an ideological concept, but their use does not have to be political. Darkness does not have to be purely negative either: it is there for the intrigue and the secrecy. Gunning states that light and shadow areas complementary as hide and seek and a promise and a threat.


When it comes to cinematography, one tends to focus on what is shown. However, the question arises as to whether this approach to cinematography is too limiting and misses the point. In his essay, Gunning describes the versatile use of light and shadow in depicting what is on the surface and what takes a deeper exploration. The researcher analyzes film noir classics, emphasizing the dialectics of urban areas that tie together order and chaos, light and darkness. Gunning proves that urban settings are more than the background to films: they have a personality and they can interact with the characters. However, the invisible is often neglected, and it takes the viewer thoughtful reflection and insightfulness to understand its role in cinematography.

Works Cited

Castello, Lineu. Rethinking the Meaning of Place: Conceiving Place in Architecture-Urbanism. Routledge, 2016.

Gunning, Tom. “Invisible Cities, Visible Cinema: Illuminating Shadows in Late Film Noir”, Comparative Critical Studies, vol. 6, no. 3, 2009, pp. 319-332.

Marrero-Guillamón, Isaac. “The Politics and Aesthetics of Non-Representation: Re-Imagining Ethnographic Cinema with Apichatpong Weerasethakul.” Antípoda. Revista de Antropología y Arqueología, vol. 33, 2018, pp. 13-32.

Saul, Gerald, and Chrystene Ells. “Shadows Illuminated. Understanding German Expressionist Cinema through the Lens of Contemporary Filmmaking Practices.” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, 2019, pp. 103-126.

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