Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

The cinema archive as witness

In his 1960 book The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch argued that the city is as much a perceptual category as a physical one. Its visual legibility, as a space to be interpreted by city dwellers as they participated in its construction on a daily basis, was both an object to perceive and a stage on which city dwellers participated in its construction. For Philip Howell, ideas about the city and urban criminality create ‘urban epistemologies’, forms of knowledge that move between literary and other forms of representation and academic knowledge production into plans for policing, policies for urban planning and development, crime prevention programmes, architectural design and security practices. Films in particular serve as key cultural artifacts of the legacy of the Genovese murder and the lessons its filmic representation offer about life in the city, and the apartment complex in particular.

Filmmaking plays a key role in how the crime was constructed as a case that could represent a broader set of issues about urban living and fear-based social relations in the city. Film stood in as witness to the murder after-the-fact and for the unknown bystanders to the assault, mobilizing an imperative to both depict the bystanders and who they could have been, and to explain why and how witnesses to the assault - and fictional analogues - could experience the crime first-hand and fail to call for help from within their apartments. Re-enactments of the murder on film turned bystanders into a recognizable kind of urban subject who could be located in the spaces of urban high-rise apartment living. Through these filmic witnessing characters and stand-ins, film did more than transmit or transfer the meaning of the crime in more popular forms. They imagined, projected, modelled and explained the conditions and reasons for bystander inaction, focusing on the high-rise apartment as the social embodiment, and dis-memberment, of collective non-response. In this way, films acted not only public and popular corollaries to social scientific theories of alienated and seemingly uninvolved residents of the city catalysed by the Genovese murder; they co-constituted the public discourse of bystander witnessing.

While the films I analyse are specific to the Genovese case, the issues they address bear more broadly on how media, and their producers, take on the ethical, social and political burden of documentation and witnessing for others. Film does not simply represent the assault and murder; it functions as mediatic witness to the historical case construction of the murder’s witnesses. As media witnesses, films trouble the very conception of a witness as the 'doer behind the deed' of witnessing. In projecting and performing the role of witness to the crime and to the city in place of non-interventionist bystanders, film itself functions as a form of witnessing agent. I define filmic witness as a process of re-mediation, a way of re-enacting and re-presenting an event that calls out for witnesses in place of the original. For Marita Sturken, ‘photographs and images from television and film build on the traditions of lithography, historical drama and the historical novel in retelling the past, but the cultural value of the camera image as evidence of the real shifts this reenactment into new territory of verisimilitude'. Mediatic re-narration, she argues, ‘is essential in memory; indeed it is its defining quality’. According to Paul Frosh, film bears witness by ‘producing experience out of discourse’. As witnessing texts, the films testify to other constructions of bystander non-intervention as a social problem that are not reducible to passivity, inaction or apathy, but instead to imaginable fears such as being deported as an undocumented immigrant in the 1975 made-for-TV movie 'Death Scream' and failures of social responsibility by institutions such as the police in Groping from 1980. Films are situated as belated witnesses to the crime, where their act of witness is turned onto those who may, as spectators, also become bystanders. Rather than treat films as representations of the failures of witnessing in the city exemplified by the Genovese murder, filmic witness stands in the place of those witnesses whom news accounts said did not intervene, exposing their reasons for not acting, situating their reasons in the context of urban psychological frameworks, and passing judgement on them.

The films are drawn from a collection I am building that archives the moving image artifacts around and about the Kitty Genovese murder and what it signifies of urban social relations and bystander complicity. Save for the 2012 movie 38 Témoins, which was shown mostly in art house theatres, the other films were not exhibited in theatres. Broadcast on the local ABC affiliate in Philadelphia and referencing the 1963 riots in the city that year, The Detached Americans blends documentary and civics lesson in teaching viewers how to undo the cultural learning that makes middle-class white Americans conformist and obedient. Proyas and Silverstein produced their 1980 short Groping while they were students in the Australian School of Television, Radio and Film in Sydney. The film pays witness to the conditions of bystander apathy in the city at the same time as it fulfills part of their training requirements in film production. Today, YouTube archives several digital videos by students re-enacting the Genovese murder for assignments in film classes and psychology courses, where students have been instructed in the social psychological research on bystander non-intervention that the Genovese case inspired. With its high-powered cast and gritty police procedural narrative, the made-for-television movie Death Scream, more than any other film or TV production, dramatized the lives and fears of urban residents who aurally and visually witnessed the killing of their neighbour. Often treated as ‘the most misunderstood and maligned genre on television’, the made-for-TV film genre stood out at the time for its dramatization of violence against women as a social problem.

While not high-prestige cultural artifacts, the films represent cultural texts that played significant roles as pedagogic and witnessing media within the particular contexts of their production, distribution and exhibition. The sheer number of films that re-tell the Genovese murder across a number of film genres, time periods and contexts of production and circulation evidences an enduring practice of representation that speaks to the significance of this unusual film corpus. Such ‘re-enactments of dramatic events are staples of popular culture’ in the form of TV documentaries and films, as Marita Sturken argues, producing spectators as ‘tourists of history’. From the perspective of re-enactment, ‘history is not what happened (that’s its press) but what is encoded and performed', becoming a generative event in and of itself. Filmmaking constituted a form of witness after-the-fact, a way of seeing the scene of the crime and by extension the city through the perspective of bystander-actors: standing in for the witnesses to the murder, projecting fictive bodies that could be witness to their witnessing in the form of fictional characters and, in the case of 'The Detached Americans', role-playing mannequins.

Film conjures a look to the city, and a way of looking in the city, that presume a ubiquitous state of fear among familiar strangers, that category of acquaintance that Stanley Milgram described as ‘a real relationship in which both parties have agreed to mutually ignore each another…without any implication of hostility’. For Milgram, the familiar stranger represented ‘not the absence of a relationship, but a special form of relationship’ exemplified in a story he tells of a woman helping a familiar female stranger who has collapsed on a sidewalk in Brooklyn. Calling an ambulance and riding with the woman to the hospital to ensure she received proper care and that her belongings were looked after, the woman who helped described feeling ‘a special responsibility for the woman because they had seen each other for years, even if they had not ever spoken’, representing the loose but responsive social ties between neighbourhood residents. 'Sometimes', Milgram suggested, 'only the right circumstance is needed to change the relationship', such as a crisis situation.

Generalized beyond New York in 1964, the Genovese case stands in for a larger problem construction of bystander non-intervention in the contexts of sociability between the familiar strangers of urban neighbourhoods. Drawing on re-enactments and re-tellings of the Genovese murder, films re-construct the history of the case. In doing so, they project sounds and images of the city and urban social relations as another source of the problem of violence against women in addition to the actions of the perpetrator. Rather than re-construct what really happened during the Genovese murder or tell a straight history of the case, the Genovese murder has been made knowable through its re-mediation in film and other performance, pedagogical and media practices, and it is to these audio-visual reconstructions of the case that my analysis now turns.

This page has paths:

This page references: