15 November 2010

On Location

From a recent bit at Salon in which author Jonathan Lethem offers a walk-through of John Carpenter's 1988 cult movie They Live. Somewhere between his discussion of the fake graffiti title sequence and the absurdly long fist-fight scene, Lethem explores the film's physical setting:

"'Every film is a documentary of its actors,' declared Godard. The same is true of cities, according to Thom Andersen's 'Los Angeles Plays Itself,' an essay-film on the subject of Hollywood's inadvertent enshrinement of Southern California settings as backdrops. 'They Live' shows up in Andersen's documentary as a typical example of how the city idles in the background, candidly disclosing itself to whatever eye may care to notice. Carpenter's film neither declares its Los Angeles setting as a subject nor troubles itself to conceal it. ...

The most distinctive location in the film isn't architectural, per se: the blasted rise on which the homeless compound Justiceville has assembled itself, and from which it will shortly be cleansed by an army of bulldozers and riot police. I asked Thom Andersen for more on this location's history: a marginal zone west of the Harbor Freeway, it had in fact been cleared by speculative developers in the late seventies and early eighties precisely to make way for more of the luxury towers contemplated by Nada and Frank as they gaze across the freeway in the distance. So, 'They Live's' urban-renewal subtext embeds a bit of real urban history, knowingly or not. According to Andersen, the planned towers never exactly showed up. When the area filled in, it was with cookie-cutter, middle-class condominiums."

If memory serves, at some point in his book Dead Cities, Mike Davis cited They Live as (he felt) a rare example of unvarnished urban vérité; going so far as to extend the film's underlying anti-yuppie subtext into an allegory that was more pointedly about gentrification. Davis viewed the fictional inner-city L.A. location of Justiceville and its inhabitants as a holdout against encroaching municipal urban renewal programs and greedy real estate developers. Interesting arguement, that; but perhaps overly generous in second guessing Carpenter's narrative intent, since we’re talking about the same director who had helped pioneer the non-genre of "urban exploitation" films with his prior efforts Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York.

* * * * *

Carpenter’s Escape from New York was released in 1981, which just happened to be the same year that the (admittedly lower-profile) film Wolfen hit the screen. Over at Cartographies of the Absolute, Jeff Kinkle focuses on the way the city of New York operates as a setting in the latter of the two films:

"The New York of Wolfen feels eerily depopulated. Not just the South Bronx, which is depicted as a complete wasteland, but the city as a whole, which feels like a dead city. There are no shots of crowds, street life, or loud traffic that are staples of most New York films: the only location that could be said to be bustling in the film is the morgue. You have the inevitable skyline shots, but they are always silent and still. The city is more of a rubble-strewn desert than an asphalt jungle."

Adapted from a novel by Whitley Streiber, directed by Michael Wadleigh and starring Albert Finney (while he was in something of a career slump), the premise of Wolfen hinged on a scenario that explicitly involved real estate development and gentrification in the blighted South Bronx.1, 2 Kinkle, among other things, discusses the film's failures and “idiocy” in terms its intended "political" subtext; as well as its place in the general trend towards urban exploitation films in the 1970s and early 1980s:

"There are a myriad of films that came out in the seventies and eighties that depicted, documented, exploited, and/or contributed to this dystopian image of a section of one of the world's greatest cities reduced to rubble, not through aerial bombardment but so-called 'benign neglect' and 'planned shrinkage'… Most of these [films] say little about what created the situations, usually implying that urban decline is a natural process and that the resulting depravity is the inevitable result of packing people together (especially non-white people)."

And elsewhere:

"An argument can of course be made that these films are in fact best classified as exploitation films, and they were both the result of and contributed to the (racialized) fear of the American inner-city. What's remarkable is how hopeless the situation seemed to be and how the era’s imagination saw total urban collapse as being just around the corner."

Anyone who was around and somewhat culturally attuned to films and television in the 1970s, or who's seen The Warriors or Fort Apache: The Bronx, mostly likely knows what Kinkle is referring to. In terms of setting, it was a common theme. It was as if there was a shared phobia about the fate of American urban centers at the time, as well as the unquestioned assumption that major cities were at the Hobbesian forefront of societal deterioration.

Declining industry and unemployment, shrinking tax bases, "white flight," etcetera — the downward spiral of problems that peaked in many major American cities as the country's post-war productivity and affluence began to wane. And I've often wondered if it wasn't a similar sentiment of "inevitable" urban decline that lurked behind the famed "Ford to City: Drop Dead" scenario of 1975. For me, it sometimes seemed like there was an undercurrent of schadenfreude to it all — as if, in what amounts to an inversion of the chain of causation, the middle classes were looking for vindication for having fled the cities throughout the 1950s and 1960s.3 Not much of anyone could get a grasp on the various socio-economic reasons for why the cities were in such a state at the time, there was just a view among held by part of the population that perhaps big urban centers had outlived their function.4

But the sociological pendulum often swings both ways, and in the past two decades this trend has completely reversed itself, with people piling into NYC and Chicago and a number of other cities in increasing numbers. If the city serves as any sort of apocalyptic or depopulated wasteland in recent cinema, it’s usually been the sort that involves an alien invasion, some sort of disaster or another, or zombies. The whole "asphalt jungle" meme probably seems pretty trite and quaint to audiences who came of age in the late 1980s or during the years during or after Giuliani's "Disneyfication" of New York.

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Asides & digressions:

1. As to Wolfen's muddled and confused political themes, some of the details included in this bit about the film and its making provide a likely explanation as to why this was the case.

2. I'll admit that I haven't seen this film since shortly after its original theatrical release. So my own recollection of the film is pretty hazy.

3. It is, of course, a common scenario when people look for information to validate their own fears or prejudices, and this was always the case with the urbanophobic attitude of the era in question. This, I suspect, had much to do with people’s willingness to believe the distorted tale of the Kitty Genovese slaying back in 1964. Chalk it up to "popular delusions" or whatever, but they don't call them "urban myths" for nothing. We watched something similar happen recently with New Orleans, with the reports of the alleged chaos that erupted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — reports that were later proven to be unfounded. Some people's tendency to seek out and believe the worst being what it is, it wasn’t any huge shock to hear these reports circulating in the press and public sphere outside of New Orleans. Likewise for all the gusty "Thomas Hobbes was totally on the money" think pieces that turned up in a number of news magazines (The Atlantic, et al.) the week after the levees broke. But when the city’s own mayor proved all-too-ready to accept these rumors as fact, perpetuating untruths as he blubbered hysterically into the media microphones outside his hotel room, one has to wonder.

And as far as the "outlived their function" verdict is concerned, it should be noted that there were a number of architects and urban planners crowing to the same effect at the time. (As some still are. ) In retrospect, it all comes across as a sort of chorus of triumphalisms of the suburbanite middle class.

4. In the cinematic context, this makes for an interesting contrast to the visual devil-in-the-details sense of suburban dread that permeates many scenes in Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995).


Between Channels said...

It's interesting to think about the belief that 'cities had started to outlive their function' - a big theme of science fiction was the overcrowded mega-city. People couldn't see that the 'Soylent Green'-type overcrowding couldn't happen, and that cities would just begin to seep out into the suburbs and countryside. This is what has happened in Britain, with houses becoming smaller and more claustrophobic.

Greyhoos said...

Good point (or points, morelike), espec in terms of returning the matter to how certain social notions & anxieties are filtered into a sci-fi/"speculative fiction" narrative. Oh, where to start? A few related things that leap to mind...

1) Right. Things like the "Soylent Green"/"Make Room, Make Room" scenario definitely stemmed from social anxieties that were lurking on the periphery. The American landscape of the post-war years was shaped by the idea that the future that involved unlimited growth and expansion (i.e.: "it's all onward & upward from here"). But, in the late '60s & early '70s, some were starting to raise concerns about overpopulation, finite resources, and (what would later be termed) sustainability.

2) I believe the "outliving their function" scenario is something that's been kicked back & forth by wildly different parties since the dawn of industrialism (if not longer). But it's played in odd ways in recent history.

3) As far as cramped quarters thing goes: I believe that was more of a European trend in terms of city planning, etc. Americans have from the very beginning always had the mentality of limitless boundaries, of always having the option to spread out as much as they please. (Hence the discussion on these shores of "urban sprawl" & whatnot that accompanied the suburban boom of the late 1950-early 1960s.) But in a few -- very few -- industrial cities in the U.S., you did certain measures taken toward providing compact housing for working-class populations. (I'm thinking of the many blocks of narrow rowhouses around the harbor of Baltimore -- quite claustrophobic, with some rooms in the "living area" only slightly more than an arm-span in width.)

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