Visual Spaces and Modern Subjectivity in the Big City

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Sophie Rodgers


King Vidor’s The Crowd and Harold Lloyd’s Speedy, both released in 1928 during the late silent film era, explore paradoxical themes of one’s individualism and anonymity in modern New York City. Both films convey the changing lifestyles and values of a rapidly urbanizing nation, and highlight the struggle of twentieth century subjects to achieve their individualistic goals within mass society. The Crowd provides a naturalist perspective of life in New York City, where its protagonist, Johnny Sims, cannot transcend his circumstances. Conversely, Speedy offers an optimistic depiction of the city and all the opportunities it has to offer. In this essay, I examine three types of space that reflect the conflicting themes in both visual texts. These spaces are public, institutional, and domestic. Public spaces are open or transitional areas. Open areas can be used for leisure, such as amusement parks, or for movement, such as sidewalks and city streets. Urban sidewalks and streets additionally constitute transitional areas, though closed forms of public transportation, such as buses and street railways, also fall under this category. Institutional spaces are enclosed buildings or stationary areas that primarily function for corporate and civic industries. Domestic spaces are areas related to one’s home, though in The Crowd and Speedy, these are often the most uninhabited areas. The two films demonstrate domesticity as a cultural ideal that eventually erodes in an urban setting, subsequently dismantling domestic spaces into attenuated areas. The three types of space present the paradoxical conditions that the modern subject must negotiate living in mass society.

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