Essay: Compression of Cities: Negotiation of Space

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¶ … compression of cities: Negotiation of space in Mathieu Kassovitz's "Hate," Charles Burnett's 'Killer of Sheep," and Jia Zhangke's "The World"

Cities contain our cultural myths, myths written onto space. Paris is the romantic city of culture and light. Los Angeles is the city where dreams come true. The city is a carnival, filled with delights and wonder. However, Mathieu Kassovitz's "Hate," Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep," and Jia Zhangke's "The World" all invert or mock these myths. For Kassovitz, Paris is a place of darkness and rioting, and hatred against 'darker' people. For Burnett, Lost Angeles is a place of entrapment rather than a place of upward mobility. And Zhangke's film is perhaps bleakest of all. "The World" is about resident workers of an amusement park who are kept metaphorical and literal captors of their occupations and play-worlds -- they impersonate characters from worlds they will never inhabit or see.

Mathieu Kassovitz's "Hate" (La Haine, 1996) tells the story of several non-white and/or non-Christian) French students who strive to transcend the limits of their lives by transcending space. They escape the confines of their neighborhood for a day in the heart of Paris, seeking to escape their families and the dictates of a world that denies them a job, denies them dreams, and even denies them dignity because of their ethnicities. They are improbable friends who are brought together only by their mutual alienation from French society -- they are an Arab, an African and a Jew -- named Said, Hubert, and Vinz. All are working class and despite their location in Paris, their identities are viewed as antithetical to Frenchness. Their disparate ethnic identities are simply seen as darkness by the 'real' French, and national divides melt away in Paris, not because Paris is a city of culture and delight, but because all three friends are mutually denied the promise of the city as a meeting-place, a space where the past does not matter. The past matters inextricably to all three characters, and they cannot escape how the French see them as part of an 'other' race, not as French and not as individuals.

Interestingly, when an Arab youth is killed by the police, Vinz's synagogue is burned down, but despite this attack on Jewish faith, he feels no solidarity with the French authorities. One can reside in a city, but still feel alienated from it, in fact when a city has such a strong history and identity as Paris, one may feel more commonality even with individuals who might be one's enemy, as in the case of Arabs and Jews. But while the film is filled with violence, most of it is perpetrated by others. Even Hubert, the West African boxer, is gentle outside of the ring, as his participation in staged violence seems to make him all the more acutely aware of the perils of violence. Only these dark-skinned residents of the City of Light know that the promise of light and opportunity is a lie, Paris' romantic heart beats with hate.

The loneliness of the city for those whose identity is rejected by large society is also manifest in the 1977 American film written, directed, produced and shot by Charles Burnett American film, set in the Los Angeles Watts ghetto "Killer of Sheep." Stan, the main protagonist, can only find work in a slaughterhouse, and because of his race he finds few outlets for his energies, like the teenage protagonists of "Hate." Unlike the characters of "Hate," however, Stan does not even seem to feel an emotional connection to his 'posse' or other members of his community, his face is largely blank, despairing of the world he is facing, and the fact that the knows his life is unlikely to 'go anywhere.' Only his wife seems to provide him any comfort, such as when they dance together during a rare, tender moment at night. However, it is only by transcending his place in the world that Stan finds peace.

Given that Los Angeles is often called a 'meat market' because of the presence of the film industry, Stan's occupation seems even more bleakly and painfully ironic. The humor that Los Angeles glamour is cast with, in terms… [END OF PREVIEW]

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