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Textual signifiers of time and place in Peter Emanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence (US 1965): John Gielgud’s Hamlet at Lunt-Fontanne Theater; Greenwich Village hot spot San Remo; Paramount Theater with Carpetbaggers marquee; 42nd Str. Subway station
Lupe [1]

Production of urban space in 1960s New York Counter Cinema
by Berit Hummel

The 1960s in the US are commonly described by contemporary witnesses as a decade of rapid change and general alienation from society. After the previous decade of rigid adherence to societal conventions, new forms of political participation were being tested. This growing social tension pervaded all forms of artistic production.

My project aims at a deeper understanding of the way in which an everyday urban environment figures in artistic practices and representations during times of radical urban transformation by analyzing the production of urban space in and through Underground cinema. The starting point is the general observation of a frequency of films with protagonists peregrinating through urban space. Rather than interpreting this trend as a mere effect of a general return to realist strategies in the different movements of the postwar new cinemas, I study these drifting protagonists in a group of stylistically and thematically different films as a medium to filmically investigate the changing metropolis and concurrently as an expression of sociocultural practices.


The analysis of the ways in which the urban experience figures in the films, in their making and exhibition is approached through tracing the motif of filmic urban exploration rather than by laying out narratives of single artists or institutions. Cinema is thus de¬fined through its spatial and social interdependencies. In the film analyses I focus on the way the movements of the protagonists are represented in the framework of the film, how their peregrinations initiate a close study of the urban environment.

I approach this analysis by tracing different perspectives:

  • Camera and protagonists perspective: Close analysis of the films with an emphasis on the relation of the protagonist to filmic space and on the specific kind of urban space construed. A central issue in this context is the relation between documentation and fiction.
  • Producers and spectators perspective: Evaluation of archival material on the films production (production files, authors statements), distribution (material on premiere or longer run venues, press releases and other promotional activities) and reception (reviews and articles in daily newspapers and specialized press).


The focus is on FILMS from the wider context of Underground cinema in 1960s New York. Among the analyzed films are works that have not yet been studied in detail such as Peter Emanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence (US 1965), Robert Downey Sr.’s Chafed Elbows (US 1966) or Dick Higgins’ Flaming City (US 1962) as well as canonical Underground films like Ron Rice’s The Queen of Sheba meets the Atom Man (US 1963/82).

ARCHIVAL RESEARCH in New York at Anthology Film Archives, Film Makers Cooperative, MoMA Film Study Center, New School for Social Research and the NYPL Manuscript and Archives Division; in Los Angeles at the Getty Research Institute and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; and at the British Film Institute in London.

Assumptions and Insights

Being on one side dependent on local networks and communi¬ties, such as cooperatives and collectives for distribution, and at the same time connected to similar developments in other metropolises, artistic production was at once marked by a closeness to daily life and adumbrating alternative worlds within the city.

The motif of the drifter, employed to portray an everyday ur¬ban environment, embodies deviance from a societal norm of progress, thus creating room for play, and with it, an imaginary urban space that allows the spectator an unfamiliar perception of an everyday living environment. Recurring patterns, such as the a seemingly unstable relationship of protagonist and camera, the confrontation of urban space with often intimately portrayed private spaces or the use of specifically transitory types of urban space as filming locations provide indications for paralleling the films’ representations with their sociocultural context.

Working with films that were not in the focus of standard works on North American Underground Cinema additionally opens up a new perspective on an area of artistic production that has mainly been studied along its formal characteristics and canonical works.

Lupe [2]

Berit Hummel studied Psychology at Freie Universität Berlin and Photography at
the Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig. She received an MA of Art in Context from
the University of the Arts, Berlin.

Since 2012 she is DFG Fellow at Technical University Berlin, Center for Metropolitan
Studies. Her dissertation project is supervised by Stefanie Bürkle (Dep. of
Architecture/Fine Art, TU Berlin), Kerstin Wittmann Englert (Dep. of Art History,
TU Berlin) and Rosemary Wakeman (Prof. of History, Director of the Urban
Studies Program, Fordham University, New York).

More... [3]

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