Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Judgement in the city

My analysis of films about and in reference to the Genovese murder examined how films participate in the dominant 'case' construction of the crime as a problem of bystander non-intervention in the city. Films are key pieces of the visual culture of the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder, producing powerful ways of seeing the city through the psychologized subject of the urban apartment dweller and paying witness to the past in ways that still resonate today on screen. They constitute part of the historical 'dossier' on the Genovese murder and its durable cultural meanings about social relations in the city. The status of the Genovese murder as a historical case is under regular and repeated construction, referencing and citation.

For political scientist John Gerring, the 'caseness' of an event rests on its exemplarity of a larger phenomenon, such that the Genovese murder, and Genovese herself is asked to play proxy for a host of social problems that can be narrated around the psychology of urban living. As German literary theorist Andre Jolles describes, the case is:
not that which deviates from the norm, but the form that provides the means of questioning the norm itself. The case ultimately does not illustrate a condition or answer a question; rather it poses a question, without however ever being capable of answering it---because it is not in itself a judgment, but rather a means of judging.

To Lauren Berlant, 'to ask the question of what makes something a case. . .is to query the adequacy of an object to bear the weight of an explanation worthy of attending to and taking a lesson from; the case is actuarial'. What, exactly, does the Genovese murder and its filmic depiction represent in the move from a specific sexual assault and crime story into a psychological case of bystander non-intervention seemingly applicable in almost any context? Representations of the Genovese murder as a problem of bystander non-intervention in the city enables, perhaps more than anything else, a way of judging others as failed interveners while also providing the means to explain away inaction toward Genovese and others targeted for violence through a psychological framework.

Films representing, re-enacting and referencing the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese and the story of the bystander who did not intervene, generate a cinematic mode of judgement that enables viewers to witness the city, generalized from New York and the conditions of the Kitty Genovese murder, through viewers' spectatorship of those cast into the roles of witnessing characters. Through them and through the camera lens, spectators pay witness to gendered violence in the city in ways that pose the subjectivity of witnessing at a psychological interface between the individual and the city, telescoping in on the high-rise apartment and its vantage point above the city street. Surveillance onto the city from this perspective is key to the urban imaginary in films on and about the Genovese murder. As different articulations of what Pamela Wojcik calls ‘the apartment plot’, the films examined here focus in on different tenants of apartment living, not to dramatize a depth psychology of the apartment dweller, but to provide a surface glance onto the ways they imperfectly see, hear and act in the city neighbourhood in which they live, and the reasons why they may fear calling the police. Through a show-and-tell framework, films that re-enact and re-tell the Genovese murder diagnose the problem of failed collective responsibility in the city, but they also seek to explain the reasons for this failure that, in some cases, take some of that responsibility off of the individual and place it back onto institutions of policing and immigration policies that make undocumented city residents illegal.

Existing in the space between fact and fiction, filmic re-enactments of the Genovese murder function as cultural technologies that turn bystanders into a recognizable and locatable type of urban subject that became increasingly visible by the mid-1960s. Films make up the visual culture of the larger popular and social scientific construction of the Genovese murder as an issue of bystander non-intervention in the city. As films move through different scenes of the city in which bystanding gets positioned in relation to the apartment and the street, spectators bear witness to the cinematic urban landscape and the Genovese murder in ways that overwhelmingly ignore the structures of sexism and homophobia that produced the violence against Genovese and her invisibility in the press and subsequent media portrayals, respectively. In this way, films construct the meaning of the crime’s witnessing primarily through portrayals of the physical space of the street abstracted from the specific scene of the crime - the 'look of the city' that Kevin Lynch argued was so central to the aesthetic experience of urban life, and which is also a key feature of the historical visual culture of an infamous New York crime story which locates the sources of violence against women in the urbanized ways of seeing as a bystander. Filmic re-enactments of the Genovese murder further frame this experience as an anti-urban social and political vision of the very capacity to act in the city on behalf of others, and to the limits, both infrastructural and perceptual, that lead to the repeated emphasis on its failures.

This page has paths: