As symbols of human ambition and frailty, high-rise buildings have inspired some of cinema's most memorable moments. In a fascinating extract from his new book, Mark Cousins examines how our preoccupation with status, celebrity and death has been captured on film – and the impact on those who watch

CHICAGO led the way. In 1871 a fire destroyed a third of the city, an estimated 28 miles of streets. Two years later, a gifted, idealistic young architect, Louis Sullivan, moved to the city to help with its reconstruction. Soon he was talking height. His short, classic essay, the Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, was a call to arms. "The architects of this land and generation are now brought face to face with something new under the sun – namely ... a demand for the erection of tall office buildings."

The rush was on. In 1885, the Home Insurance Building in Chicago became the world's first modern skyscraper. Four years later New York's first tall building opened. Also in 1889 Chicago's Tacoma Building was the world's first with a completely steel framework.

The Chrysler building was completed in 1930, less than a year before the Empire State. Tall buildings began, perhaps as an outward, upward impulse, but stack enough of them together and stand amongst them and you are inside something. Outwardness disappears.

Seen from a distance and at night, tall buildings take on other properties. Woody Allen's film Manhattan opens with wide black-and-white shots of the skyline of Manhattan. Even the idea of a skyline was newish. New York's, with its forest of verticals, lent itself to a horizontal composition, like a Chinese scroll. Allen films fireworks over it and, at night, without colour, it is hard to see where the burning magnesium ends and the internally lit steel skeletons begin.

No wonder that tall buildings created their own image systems. In the Batman #4 comic book, the title character's home city, which resembled a noirish downtown Manhattan, was called Gotham. In thousands of subsequent comics, films and TV shows, Batman is a looker. He stands on, or swoops between, tall buildings to observe his prey, a vigilante of the era when capitalism has gone wrong and the law is dying, dead or a joke.

Outside and above the city, Batman is seeing his place in it, or lack of a place in it. He is like Proust looking at France – fascinated but vaguely repulsed. Galileo stood on the roof of St Mark's in Venice to survey the moons of Jupiter. Tall buildings afford looking, not so much outwards from the citadel, but inwards and downwards, into the thing we have built, its circuitry and grid. Parkour, the recent urban exploration activity, often involves people climbing tall buildings to see what it is like up there, to transgress, to excite, to reclaim and to challenge the fact that their summits are where the penthouses and rotating restaurants of the rich are.

High looking in modern cities like Dubai has such a premium on it that tallness becomes a sign of social status. You go high to show off or break in, or perhaps to escape and die.

Within three years of the Empire State and the Chrysler being built, audiences saw a beleaguered beast climb the former and look at the latter. He was America's Godzilla, an overseer from the dreamscape who died for our sins.

King Kong did not climb to the skyline of New York to admire its modernism or become king of the world. He wanted to escape, to get out of the gutter and away from his tormentors. He did not hate people, but they hated him. His was another kind of early 20th-century outwardness. The great cities festered. Above, the air was clearer.

VISIBLE stardom was enhanced by cinema. By the early 20th century looking at famous people had become so commonplace that it had started to replace other things that we did with our time. We looked up, to people like Vladimir Lenin. Often filmed from below, making great speeches, his stardom took the form of a paterfamilias, a leader, storyteller and interpreter of history (and our place within it). His insights and arguments were so central to the Soviet Union that when he died (in 1924, aged 53), he had to remain visible. It is claimed that the authorities wanted to bury him, but they received 10,000 telegrams from citizens saying that they should not. Do we believe this? Certainly, like Tutankhamun, or like a Christian saint, his body was preserved. It was on display for decades in a modernist red granite pyramid mausoleum in central Moscow. People queued to see him. Expectation built as you got close. In the flesh, he seemed to glow like alabaster. The whitened skin gave him a divinity of sorts.

Amitabh Bachchan, Hindi cinema's greatest star, is the king of movie kings, whose first name means "the light that will never die". Born in 1942 to a cultured Indian family, he has 215 film and TV credits; some of his movies played in cinemas for years; his face appears in advertising across India; he was a politician for a period; he presented the country’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; and his musical style influenced how Indian men dance.

Through much of the 1970s Bachchan played angry young men. India had fought another war with Pakistan, its population topped 500 million, there were food shortages, the economy struggled and the international liberation wave of the late 1960s crashed on the country’s shores. The government’s response to these events was authoritarian – press and judicial freedoms were curtailed – and young people were enraged. In the movies Bachchan embodied that rage. His characters’ physicality and facial expressions made it visible. Like the Surrealists, he unearthed feelings that were repressed. If the government abjured what was happening in the real world, his stardom, by force of its personality and momentum, evinced it.

There was sex in this too. Like Sharmila Tagore and many of the other stars of Indian cinema, Bachchan was beautiful. There was no actual sex in Hindi cinema of those days, but there was masses of desire. The films were inflated with it, like hot air balloons. Fame and desire propelled each other upwards. Audiences saw their heroes desperate to have sex but not doing so. The erotic energy seemed to aerate the style of the films. The musicality, colour, swirl and scale were a kind of pregnancy.

Bollywood is often said to be masala cinema, referring to its mix of ingredients: epic storylines, family saga, romance, comedy, dance sequences, tragedy and action.

The masala of 20th-century celebrity, delivered on platters by television and cinema, returned irrationality and desire to the human banquet, as well as degrees of alienation and passivity. As such it restored a degree of reality to our lives. We were naturally more preoccupied by sex, beauty, narcissism, power, hubris and death than the rationalists of the Enlightenment liked to believe we were.

In the 1970s a film about a Great White shark showed how particularly

potent was our attraction to the last item on that list – death – and so a two-word phrase entered the story of looking.

If scientific and Enlightenment looking was about curiously discovering things about the material world, Hollywood’s rethink in the 1970s was a reminder of more compulsive types of looking. The crowds who thronged to the Paris Morgue in the 1800s to look at human corpses were driven by such a compulsion. "Morguer" in French means to stare disdainfully. That compulsion was, in Hollywood, called "want see".

The pruning of "wanting to see" to just two words, is brutal but effective. It focused the minds of those who were in the business of appealing directly to things in our psyches.

Before the release of Steven Spielberg's Jaws, Hollywood’s fortunes were on the slide, but after it and images of the Devil in The Exorcist, the era of the blockbuster was born – people queued around the block. Crucial to the idea of want see is that it does not give you new visual information about something that you had never previously imagined. Instead, it is (an often horrific) confirmation of what you had long imagined.

When we swim in the sea, somewhere in our minds is that question of whether there is something below us, some malevolent leviathan as powerful as the swell, which could prey on us. Jaws pictured just this, and the human remains of those who have been eaten by that leviathan.

An image from another Spielberg film gives us a clearer sense of want see. It comes at a moment in Jurassic Park when actor Laura Dern has just glimpsed a dinosaur. She is so shocked that her jaw drops open and her eyes widen. Her face gets bigger, more moonlike, as if reflecting

light from the sun.

Want see undermines the polite idea that human beings are civilised and self-improving. It explains why traffic slows as it flows past road traffic accidents. It kicks in when reality is losing its realness. It hurls up psychic materials as a memento mori to our socialised, evolved selves. More associated with Thanatos than Eros it shows that consciousness is fascinated with its own demise.

To say this is to evoke two final images, both from the country that invented the phrase want see, America. Jaws, The Exorcist and Jurassic Park were entertainments, and so, playful and escapist to varying degrees, but want see is a neat and disturbing label for the more real shocks of recent decades. Take, for example, the long-suppressed moment from the famous Zapruder film of the assassination of American president John F Kennedy. The footage was widely shown soon after the shooting on November 22, 1963, and became fetishised thereafter, but this particular frame was considered too much. The bullet’s impact

has an effect like scattering orange powder, or a balloon bursting, but what was so shocking was that this was part of the president’s head exploding.

A section of his brain, the seat of his consciousness, a thing that had thus far never seen the light of day, a metonym for America’s consciousness, as the president is such a symbol of the nation, was, instantly, seeing the light of day in the most violent way imaginable. A horrifying enlightenment.

Much of the discussion of what happened in America on that day has mythic properties. Commentators said that "Camelot" was over, that an idealised era had died. The Zapruder footage was incontrovertible, shocking visual imagery that stormed the citadel of progressive America’s imagined self. It overturned the madrigal and stopped the mead drinkers in their tracks. Their jaws dropped open. In seeing the frozen or slo-moed frames, they had gazed at the Tyrannosaurus

Rex, the Godzilla, the proof that consciousness is only a few pounds of mince.

That is the ultimate reality check. For all its entertainments, blandishments, reality TV programmes, mendacious advertising, hidden persuaders and political elisions, the 20th century was a reality check. It served up a series of visual shocks which, like the Surrealists and Dadaists, showed life by detonating its surface.

The most famous of these shocks came soon after the century had turned. Beautifully lit, curling clouds, like those in Baroque paintings which elevate the Virgin Mary to heaven and are filled with cherubs, billow out from something hard, linear and monumental, a grid-lattice world. That world is almost Zen-like in its graphic simplicity. Nothing so straight could have grown in nature and, as if to compensate for all that lovely order, the cauliflower clouds extrude like lichen. What a pleasing visual contrast. What formal harmony.

What a shame, then, that we are looking at a mass grave coming into existence. What a shame that there are body parts and the myriad smithereens of offices, coffee machines, handbags and lunches in the lichen. Television ushered these platters into the banquet. They were beamed live, and then re-run and re-run, as if their repetition would dislodge the disbelief. But looping in the media does not undo looping in your head, and so, 9/11 was spoken of in almost aesthetic terms. The then president of the United States, George W Bush, said "these acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve".

Flying two planes into the World Trade Center was an effective way of making America’s jaw drop. The people at the top table had been listening to the madrigal and drinking their mead, oblivious to the humiliation of the Middle East and the sophisticated culture of one of the world’s biggest religions, Islam.

Not any more. On 9/11 the bombers – whose aggression was rejected by nearly all Muslims – castrated the US. On TV. For the world to see. How’s that for humiliation? The often mentioned irony was that Hollywood had regularly depicted the destruction of great cities and buildings. CGI technology had allowed film-makers to imagine such disorder in hyper-realism. Tall buildings will eventually fall. Potential energy will eventually be converted. Entropy will have its way,

and so, when Louis Sullivan started imagining and building beautiful, high structures, their demise became something we imagined and wanted to see. The more elegant and gravity-defying the buildings were, the more we foresaw their unlovely end. Hold an egg in your hand and its perfection and frailty make you want to crush it. Hollywood, and the 20th century, were alive to the desire to crush, to see something unfeasible destroyed.

This is an edited extract from The Story Of Looking by Mark Cousins, published by Canongate (£25). Mark will be speaking about the book at the Aye Write! book festival on March 24 at 1.15pm in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow. The Sunday Herald is the festival’s media partner. For tickets and programme visit