Admit it, city dwellers, every once in a while as you walk through the city going about your day you imagine your movements as part of a classic Scorsese-esque tracking shot. Each of us in our own starring role experiencing life through the cinema scored by our iPods and moving at the pace our our swift gait. In James Nares’s recent film Street, this daydream becomes a magical reality. Using high-tech slowmotion digital cameras, the filmmaker drove through the streets of Manhattan with the lens pointed out towards unsuspecting passersby in a poetic homage to the crowd of daily life.
The slow motion dramatizes every movement, every interaction, and every momentary recognition of the camera’s eye. Children are seemingly the most aware of being observed and at times run to keep up with or deliberately provoke the camera in moments the audience at the Metropolitan Museum seemed most connected to. The stringed score by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, though at times over-stated, enhances the dreamy, ethereal quality of the film’s familiar locations. In its current blackbox screening location at the Met, many audience members (myself included) would point or note when the camera passed by a familiar location, perhaps hoping to see ourselves frozen in time.
James Nares said of the film “My intention was to give the dreamlike impression of floating through a city full of people frozen in time, caught Pompeii-like, at a particular moment of thought, expression, or activity,” and indeed this is precisely what it does, except the current viewers identify with and still live out those frozen moments. Furthermore, the camera’s movement – smooth tracking shots that move horizontally – not only break from this archaeological mode of viewing but also connect very strongly to a manner of cinematic viewing that is directly related to notions of place.
In Houston rapper Scarface’s 2002 video My Block, the same tracking shot is employed to unveil the circle of pain, struggle, love, community, life, and death within the artist’s block. Though this video is clearly staged and without the documentary impetus of Nares, the smoothness of the camera’s movement is in both instances can be read in relationship to realism. The lack of montage-style editing in both films suggests that the images and movements we see are simply the daily drama of life at this location. Characters become firmly situated in their environment as the camera’s movement makes them very much part of it. Unlike the shots in Goodfellas (1990) or Touch of Evil (1958), however, the movement of the camera is not dictated by one character or a chain of events, but rather determined by the road, and thus taking on the detached observational viewpoint of the car’s passenger window.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillaud wrote of the experience of viewing landscape out of a car window as specifically related to film and television spectatorship – the car being the spectator’s separate/private space, and the window the screen/interface with the exterior landscape, marking a transitional mode of viewing between simulation and reality, between private and public space. In Nares’s film, we occupy this car’s interior and take what we see out the window as not only visual spectacle but indexically connected to the “thereness” of the street we are passing, just as the camera’s movement reveals the visual closeness of each stage in My Block. Events and people become part of a place, indicative of its past, present, and future.