Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

The vertical city and violence against women

If The Detached Americans aimed to demonstrate how not to be a bystander in mid-1960s America using the televisual apparatus of role play and re-mediation, 16 years later, Alex Proyas and Salik Silverstein's 1980 short student film Groping located responsibility for bystander non-intervention on police inaction and an ambient urban landscape of fear. Groping offers a voyeuristic slasher genre depiction of the slow, and deliberate, scopophilic predation of a woman walking on her way home at night. In the style of horror and science fiction filmmaking for which Proyas would become known in films such as Dark City and The Crow, each portraying the 'city as nightmare', his 1980 student film offers a fictional re-enactment of the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder, placing viewers into the position of accomplice witnesses to a woman's sexual assault and murder, and also to the bystanders who witness the assault from their apartment windows.  Save for the woman as victim, the young man who witnesses the crime and calls the police, and the male perpetrator, the other characters in the film appear as little more than ghostly reflections cast against the window shades and blinds of their apartment windows. 

Shot at night, Groping tracks two of the three characters as they make their way home through a desolate, de-peopled cityscape. As the camera follows the man walking up some stairs and into a multistorey apartment building, it cuts to the street, where another man has come out of the apartment building, quickly pursues the woman, sexually assaults and then stabs her to death on the sidewalk, re-enacting elements of the Genovese murder in the context of a dark, nondescript cityscape where Sydney, Australia, stands in as ‘the city’ in place of New York.

The film casts the problem of bystander non-intervention as an extension of police irresponsibility and negligence, an irresponsibility viewers see high-rise apartment dwellers enact as they drop their window shades in a seeming refusal of engagement with the crime happening on their street. The young man viewers watch making his way home through the barren streets of the city to his apartment calls the police as the assault is occurring, but dispatch never answers, suggesting that it is the police who are irresponsible bystanders to the murderous act of sexual violence. In this way, Groping inverts the moral of the Genovese story as it is normally told: as a failure of bystanders to call to the police. From the film’s vantage point, viewers witness the young male witness in his act of witnessing, thereby projecting the film spectator into the role of someone who bears witness to the assault alongside the young male character who makes the phone call to the police. Shot from the perspective just behind the male witness at his apartment window, Groping’s viewers see the rape and murder as the witness could see it. Viewers become witness to his act of spectatorship, an act that transforms seeing into a practice of witness as soon as viewers watch him act on what he sees by calling the police. The act of calling the police may be futile, the film suggests, but it breaks the apathetic role of spectator signified by the film’s portrayal of urban apathy as a psychological construct of complicitous bystanding built into the urban environment.

Groping’s opening sequence scales the experience of witnessing crime alongside the experience of moving through the darkened infrastructures of transport and high-rise residential living in the city. Using a decelerated frame rate, the film slowly, and jerkily, scans scenes of the cityscape. The movement of traffic on the roads appears as blurs of light. Trees sway in mechanical fashion as winds whip between large concrete buildings. Merging shots of city buildings, transportation routes and an urban high-rise at night, the unnamed city appears as a concrete landscape of fear. To geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘urban sprawl…is seen as a jungle, a chaos of buildings, streets, fast-moving vehicles that disorient and alarm newcomers’. Groping locates fears normally associated with wilderness and sparsely populated rural areas in the large city, ‘the most visible symbol of human rationality and triumph over nature’. Moving from de-peopled spaces of urban infrastructure to the high-rise apartment building, Groping builds an architectural imagination of the scene of violence against women and the urban structures of witnessing that violence. Witness, as an act, here becomes an experience of scalar movements and the technological and concrete infrastructures shaping urban social relations, guiding the viewer to scan the cement surfaces of the built city for signs of danger.

There are no crowds to read, no masses of people on the street in Groping. Instead, the camera follows the action like 'a cautious predator', as Roy Brand describes the film camera as witness. The filmmakers' use of a markedly slowed frame rate emphasizes the deliberateness of the characters’ movements through the film's scenes. At this point in the film, shown in the above clip on the top left, viewers do not yet know that the female character will be assaulted, nor do viewers know that the man whose movements the camera follows will become witness to her assault once he enters his apartment. The film locates witnessing as a position that moves from the exterior space of the city streets to the interior space of the apartment. Cinematically, the spectator witnesses the streetscape from the space of the street; the character who plays the witness in the film only comes to take on that role of witness once inside his apartment, when he translates his spectatorship of the violence on the street into action, picking up the phone and dialing the police. In this scene, witnessing marks the movement from outside to inside, and from seeing to saying, or their attempt thereof.

In ‘the vertical city’ of the skyscraper and high-rise apartment building, Stanley Milgram argued that the high-rise building prevents collective action by dividing people by floor and by unit. Groping suggests almost matter-of-factly that men’s violence against women is a product of the built environment, a behavioural effect of the city and the fragility of social bonds that most often fail to be responsive, and responsible, when the need arises. Like other horror movies, the film situates spectators as experiential witnesses to the female victim’s gendered experience of threat. In the tradition of slasher films, where viewers see the male character slashing and plunging a knife into the victim, Groping ‘presents us, in startlingly direct terms, with a world in which male and female are at desperate odds’, as Carol Clover once argued. Like the perpetrator, the camera positions viewers in pursuit, casting them as both spectators and potential predators in the city. From early in the eight-minute film, when viewers accompany the witness and the soon-to-be victim through the streets of the deserted city, the film’s spectators are already situated as voyeuristic accomplices to the violence. As a morality tale about vulnerable femininity and dangerous masculinity in the city, Groping locates male predatory violence against women in the highly visible physical environment of urban spaces, those spaces of female fear where anyone in the high-rise apartment building can ostensibly see the sexual violence occurring on the street below. Rather than set the place of male threat against women in the woods, tunnels, caves or enclosed domestic spaces of the bedroom or shower stall in slasher films, Groping places it in the fully visible empty street. As the camera pursues the woman from the position of both witness and predator, the film spectator, like the apartment dweller, also becomes complicit in the violence.

Groping depicts male sexual violence against women as a seemingly naturalized feature of urban space; it also portrays failed witnessing in the city as failure of police response. Set in the monumentalized cement urban landscape of Sydney, Groping seems to confirm, in physical form, the psychological barriers to individual agency and the systemic failures of policing that support them.

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