Showing posts with label The Country and the City. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Country and the City. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On The Town

Raymond Williams observed in his classic, The Country and the City, “’Country’ and ‘city’ are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for in the experience of human communities.... In the long history of human settlements, this connection between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilisation. . . . On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition . . .”

F. W. Murnau’s justly famous film Sunrise (1927) realizes the contradictions Williams identifies in a rather revealing way: a (naïve) country bumpkin goes to the big city and his life is almost ruined by a wicked temptress. Only the last-minute realization of his deep love for his guileless wife prevents him from certain destruction at the hands of the city woman, the femme fatale. Hence while the city is associated with sophistication and learning, it is also associated with temptation and corruption–feminine guile. In Pretty Woman (1990), for instance, the film that made Julia Roberts into a Hollywood star, the city is also associated with corruption, its opening scenes set on Hollywood Boulevard, with its long parade of hookers and prostitutes. The city woman from Sunrise is among them somewhere.

The word town is derived from the Old English tūn, meaning enclosure, village, or town; the word city is generally used to designate a community of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village. By way of analogy, town is to city as creek is to river, or sea to ocean, although city and town are often used interchangeably, and in any case both actually refer to some geographic place of some indeterminate size. Since the size of the population is irrelevant, to refer to one’s town or hometown is to refer to a community in which one’s identity is remorselessly known and rigidly fixed, a place where one is “stereotyped” and boxed in. In his song, “Small Town,” John Mellencamp sings:

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
eah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

But this is a myth, of course: since anonymity in a small town is impossible (unlike the liminal space opened up by the anonymity of New York City in Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town), people will never let you be just what you want to be. Here’s Gene Pitney:

If we stop to gaze upon a star
People talk about how bad we are
Ours is not an easy age
We’re like tigers in a cage
What a town without pity can do

He goes on to ask, “Why don’t they help us, try to help us/Before this clay and granite planet falls apart?” In a small town, as in a big city, the familiar “townspeople” can very easily transform into the members of a faceless and hostile crowd, as they do in, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The horror realized in that film isn’t that people are replaced by pods, but that anonymous crowds aren’t supposed to exist in small towns. It’s not surprising, then, that popular music expresses the same ambivalence toward the town and city: songs like “Downtown” may talk about the fun of being where the action is, but songs like “Poor Side of Town” talk about the hope of escaping rigid class distinctions.

Twenty Songs On The Town:
The Beach Boys – Leavin’ This Town
Petula Clark – Downtown
Rick Danko, Jonas Fjeld, Eric Andersen – Wrong Side Of Town
The Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town
Steve Earle – Guitar Town
Billy Joel – Uptown Girl
Lipps, Inc. – Funkytown
Gene McDaniels – It’s A Lonely Town
John Mellencamp – Small Town
Roy Orbison – Uptown
Gene Pitney – Town Without Pity
Chris Rea – Windy Town
Stan Ridgway – Lonely Town
Johnny Rivers – Poor Side of Town
Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes – Love On The Wrong Side of Town
Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town
The Stray Cats – Rock This Town
U2 – Red Hill Mining Town
The Vogues – Magic Town
Bill Withers – Lonely Town, Lonely Street