Friday, February 15, 2008

the destruction of new york: an aesthetic on the wane?

New York is the city most-often destroyed in American cinema. Why should this be so? Explanations abound: the dimensions of NYC make it a perfect “scale” by which to gauge the amount of destruction occurring in film; Conservative America secretly wishes to see this hotbed of liberal activity blown to bits; non-NYC-inhabiting Americans generally suffer from “edifice envy” (this is from former Mayor Koch); we enjoy (visually) tearing down what we have erected as much as we enjoyed erecting it in the first place (this seems to be the new aesthetic of “undoing” our built environment that we witness in shows such as “Life After People” where scientists exhibit a strange desire to predict how long it will take Asian-imported mollusks to grind the Hoover Dam to a halt); New York is one of few American cities with features distinct enough to set it apart thus making it worthy of filmic attention (of any kind); and one more—to stop this quickly proliferating list—NYC is the epitome of the “disgusting” and thus figures perfectly as a backdrop to any post-apocalyptic film since, in this version, it is already part-way there.

9/11 initiated an unofficial moratorium on films depicting the destruction of NYC. Two films that broke this visual “truce” (if a war of the imagination is indeed being waged) were “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) and the recently-released “Cloverfield” (2008). In an interesting Op-Ed piece, architectural historian Max Page hails the return of the fictive destruction of NYC as a sign of the nation’s good health. It seems that only psychologically healthy countries attack their cities on film; and—to push his argument further—the actual dismantling of the WTC, rather than its virtual undoing, most likely trumped the imagination in terms of visualizing disaster. This also accounts for the slew of reality-based tribute films (Flight 93 (TV 2006), United 93 (2006) World Trade Center (2006)) produced in the years following the event; although, as the release dates of those films make clear, both 9/11 films and “back-to-destroying-NYC” films circulate concurrently. Apparently, the nation “heals”—to continue with Max Page’s analysis—in uneven ways; some sectors of the film industry arrive at the end of this process, which here entails a re-engagement with disaster—more quickly than others. To quote Max Page:

New York has been destroyed for so long -- since the early 19th century when it came to be America's first city -- that it is somehow reassuring to see the tradition continue. When New York is no longer destroyed, on film, in flight simulator software, video games and paintings -- that will be a sign that the city no longer dominates America's, and the world's, imagination. And if New York is no longer the setting of our worst fears, then it may also no longer be the home of our greatest hopes.

And that would be the beginning of the city's end.

While acknowledging the power a “tradition of destruction” potentially wields in any cultural imaginary, I think Page begins to steer us into another dimension of this aesthetic which warrants attention; namely, that in a kind of Dorian Gray twist, the end of NYC’s destruction on film heralds the end of its potency/prowess in “reality.” What this “reality” consists of—a mélange of the physical, economic, and political—will be taken up next.

First, let’s detour quickly through a consideration of NYC as a spatial form. It’s important to remember that it was the first truly industrial city in the US. Capitalism, in its early industrial form, called the urban center into existence and dictated the spatial logic of its becoming. As early industrialism required the concentration of capital—and thus of people—into large factory systems, the city became a means by which to achieve ultimate concentration. This explains NYC’s verticality; the orgiastic hunger for a slice of its real estate; the stacking of persons on top of, around, and underneath one another; the rise of the “tenement” and “project”; the congestion, overcrowding, and always-threatening lack of sanitation (garbage strikes loom large in the urban imaginary; if a city of its magnitude cannot remove its own excretions, it is must suffocate under the weight of its own excess). Further, the built environment of the city confronts the viewer/inhabitant, whether they consciously engage with this realization or not, with the congealment of hundreds of thousands of man-hours that remain “entrapped” (sort of) in the structures. When De Certeau, in his “Walking The City” looks down from the 109th floor of the WTC, what he reads in the giant texturology laid out below is a “rhetoric of excess” of which the buildings are the letters that spell out this decadence.

The destruction of New York City in film might just be a collective death wish, as has been suggested on the internet forums, that emerges out of deep-seated collective feelings toward the “excess” and “decadence” of the city and its historical position as a beacon of capitalist accumulation. This, of course, was the motivation behind the attackers as they plotted what site(s) they could engage with that would affect the kind of symbolic reading the event would necessarily require. Although, if we do read NYC as the predominant city of the industrial era, it would seem that its financial cache has begun to wane. Was it, in retrospect, a shock that NYC almost fell to its knees in the late 70s at the same time other major industrial cities (Detroit, for one) were similarly defeated by capital’s moving elsewhere. That was the period of the first great re-construction of industrial capital—where the economy no longer demanded highly concentrated cities, but rather sought to break those restrictive bounds and begin circulating more globally. NYC stayed alive despite the fracture; capital continued to flow into the environment, in a continual resuscitation of those masses of “dead” human labor, thanks, in part, to the great symbolic weight it carries in the cultural imaginary. But doesn’t it seem rather passé to destroy New York, both aesthetically and actually, with our knowledge of the contemporary global market? Wouldn’t it make more sense, and this has been cleverly suggested elsewhere, to begin “taking out” (in film!) Singapore? Beijing? Bangalore? This might just be the great swan song (Schwanengesang) of the aesthetic destruction of NYC. A few more films and then we’re done…