Convenience and efficiency became the raison d’être of the twentieth century. As the burgeoning markets of industrialism led to the shopping markets of consumerism, Washington, D.C. and Paris, France were competing to be the newest and the most efficient. As the cities became more efficient, they also became more automated: both in their infrastructure and in their denizens. It’s the nature of a city to be a hive for large numbers of people—incorporating them into various systems that serve their common needs. But with technology-driven capitalistic advances, that automation carries beyond shopping, over to living.
Whether through a subway system, an airport, a grid of houses, or renovated road systems, twentieth century cities took urban planning a step further than Haussman, Washington, or L’Enfant ever did — they began to work as machines. Not only were they more discrete; setting definite boundaries and creating a core-based, localized city, but mass production changed the way they function. The nineteenth century was characterized by mass production of items; that which previously was made by an artisan in a workshop, was made of iron with machinery and hundreds of hands in a factory. However, as the twentieth century dawned, bringing with it electricity, and production on an unprecedented scale, consumerism wasn’t just a new trend. It became modernism — a lifestyle.
Cultural commentary abounded in reaction to the trend of modernism seizing urban life. With new developments came excitement, and as artists saw these ideas come to fruition around them, they began to mimic (and mock) their ubiquity. Jacques Tati was the foremost name in mockery in 1960s france, and in his 1967 film Playtime he lampoons this grandeur. In one scene, tourists mistake corporate buildings for monuments, and in another, the main character gets lost in the enormity of an office building, which has hundreds of identical rooms. The film’s climax consists of a traffic circle as a merry-go-round, pointing out the absurdity of traffic jams. In the final scene it is more obvious than ever: in a city we participate in a grand scheme; a dance, a machine. Here, he pokes fun at a theme —the standardization of citizens—that Jean-Luc Godard paints in a more devastating light.
In 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle, Godard’s meditative film on life in 1960s Paris, the director shows the listlessness of modern life: equating the city of Paris with a young mother who is a prostitute. This comparison is surprisingly apt: prostitution is the commoditization of an extremely personal experience, and Godard’s view on modernism was that the consumerism served the same purpose. As Walter Benjamin once said of mass commodity: “It prostitutes the living body to the inorganic world.” (Benjamin, 82) It breaks down the distinction between what is unique and human, and what is available for purchase. Her selling her body mirrors the sale of other things previously thought personal which had...