From Manhatta (1921) (screen capture by the author for Hyperallergic)

In 1921, photographers Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler shot one of the first city symphony films in the US. Manhatta, an 11-minute portrait of New York City, paints the city’s contrasts and contradictions: the enormousness of the buildings, the anonymity of the people, and the skyline floating above the cascading waters of the Hudson. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, the city symphony was an impressionistic documentary style that treated cities as tone poems. Marxist architect Aldo Rossi saw the city as “the collective memory of its people,” and these films expressed that sentiment. In recent years, the city symphony has returned, after a fashion, but along with contemporary life, it’s been integrated into digital spaces.

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The Instagram page FuckNoMTL is just one example of this. Filling a void left by dead local alternative weeklies and the slowly dying local press, the Montreal community page has become a popular platform for users to explore and reaffirm the city’s identity. I spoke with one of the page runners (who wishes to remain anonymous), who said that they see Montreal as simultaneously stuck in the past and caught in a state of perpetual adolescence. “People come here and don’t treat it like real life,” they explained. The page emphasizes this whiplash between ruins and adolescent whimsy, packaged in faintly ironic surrealism. 

The most common motifs of the page are orange cones (Montreal has two seasons, winter and construction), unicycles (circus culture), unseasonal dead Christmas trees (a poetic stand-in for garbage in general), and frequently, unholy combinations of all of the above. It’s all filtered through weird grimy grunge hippie culture, which the page runner points out “is not retro; it just never stopped.” They explain that “Being caught in the past has protected us mostly.” Still, new technologies like Airbnb are changing the limits of the city, and the government seems woefully underprepared to deal with the consequences. Deyan Sudjic’s 2016 book The Language of Cities touches on the changing faces of urban regions: “It remains to be seen what cities will form at the level of the cloud or how they will diminish in the physical realm.” 

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Aesthetically, the flexibility of digital spaces allows them to showcase the multifaceted identity of urban spaces. The effect is not unlike the concept of the Kino-Eye, a theory introduced by Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, whose 1929 masterpiece Man With a Movie Camera is a landmark documentary and quintessential city symphony film, showcasing Moscow and Odessa. The idea was that the camera (the Kino-Eye) could capture reality more accurately than the more subjective human eye. In a way, crowdsourced pages like FuckNoMTL (which credits all contributors) become a natural extension of the collective filmmaking style embodied by avant-garde Soviet filmmakers like Vertov, as well as the conceptualization of the camera as an arbitrator of reality.

Some of the best moving images from FuckNoMTL can be found in the #FNOFILMFEST hashtag. The videos capture the poetry and irony of a city caught between the past and the future. In one, a nun walks past an old stone building, only to be overtaken by a tourist bike-bus. In another, a parade of snow removal trucks is scored by Camille Saint-Saëns. The images, rife with irony and contradictions, are not unlike some of the shots from Manhatta. In one video, shot in crepuscular light, an old couple rides mobility scooters on a major highway. It’s an image that hints at the poetry of the city, but also the potential for its death.

FuckNoMTL is far from the only page of its type. There’s the popular Parkdale Life, about the Toronto neighborhood. Lookat Thesestreets showcases the cracked streets of New Orleans. Seattle has one of the most trafficked subreddits in America. There’s Massimiliano Tonelli’s blog Roma Fa Schifo, aka “Rome Is Gross,” which was profiled in the New York Times in 2018. Tonelli described his city in decidedly unromantic terms: “A Roman would not see this. The Roman is so beaten down by the filth in which he lives that he can no longer recognize or see the sad state of the city.” In her 2019 book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell, wonders, “What does it mean to construct digital worlds while the actual world is crumbling before our eyes?” At least for now, the digital city spaces exist as a gateway to the physical city, showcasing them as they are, rather than what people imagine them to be. It allows people to hold on to a small piece of reality, if only fleetingly. 

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.