Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Gotham City Under Siege

I live a stone’s throw from New York City, alternately referred to as The City, Gotham, The Big Apple, The Melting Pot, The Capital of the World, and Metropolis. It is also considered the publishing capital of the world, which is perhaps why many writers make it the object of destruction for supernatural and alien invaders because all of our rejection letters seem to have return addresses from New York City. Of course most of that destruction occurs on film and although the famous Hollywood sign has borne the brunt of many said invasions I don’t think people get the same satisfaction watching nine wooden letters shattering to bits as they do from seeing the Empire State Building being reduced to a pile of smoldering steel and dust. When I speak of New York, as a resident of this metropolitan area, I am particularly speaking of Manhattan. Even the word Manhattan suggests the famous skyline with its letters reaching up in Gothic spires and serifs. There in the adopted Indian name we Americans have our very own Rome, our center of commerce, gateway to freedom and democracy, city of every culture, denomination, and social bend. Most of America is plain, white bread, Christian. Manhattan is the bazaar of the ancient world transplanted to modern times. I admit this grand lady has broken my own heart many times and I’ve once or twice savored the moments of its destruction in say the miles-wide saucers in Independence Day or the demonic, marshmallow sailor from Ghostbusters.

But why, I wonder, do we love the sight of steel superstructures crumbling under the power of a laser beam or a giant gorilla? What is it about turning the city into a frozen tundra that warms our hearts? Do we all secretly hate Manhattan? Are we afraid of what it has become, a modern day Sodom or Ghamorra? It’s a little more superficial than that, not so rooted in our collective morality or religious mythology. The fact is that New York City is the center of the modern world in many, many ways. Think of it. Art, Fashion, Commerce, Publishing, Finance, Bagels! All of them are better and bigger in New York. Imagine if in one fell swoop, all of that went away. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. I mean, a robot with giant metal feel can put an end to it all. The lights on Broadway can be put out by one treacherous electrical storm.

Remember Stephen King’s great novel The Stand? A virus wiped out everyone in America except for a chosen few within hours. People died in their cars trying to escape the city. In one scene a couple of survivors have to climb over and around the stalled cars lining the streets and tunnels to escape Manhattan island. King captured that feeling of utter despair by using the destruction of Manhattan to exemplify the quandary of how to escape the city from the inside when all services, everything imaginable, just goes dead. The entire wealth of the city is at their disposal and all they can think to do is escape. The smell of rotting bodies, decomposing foodstuff and stagnant water in the heat all posed both a sensory and a very real medical threat to the characters. They were trapped in a floating citadel of death. The closeness of the people and places, once a comfort, becomes the most frightening thing about it.

Also think to the classic Escape From New York. The city itself becomes so degraded that the government decides to just wall it in and let the criminals fend for themselves. It’s Road Warrior on the streets of New York. A dismal apocalyptic future where, of course, New York City represents the lowest of moral and social squalor. Some here in the states and abroad think that this might be a good solution. Especially in the late seventies and early eighties when crime in the city was high and the flight of the middle class left this borough almost literally smoldering.

The city has risen up from that lowly state of disgrace. I love those corny images of a new shiny city, like a phoenix, rising from the dirt and spray paint of New York City. See Manhattan as you know is a much safer place than it used to be when tourists were killed in the subways for their sneakers or teenagers were gunned down by vigilantes sick of it all. That is the dystopian version of Manhattan. In the last decade or two Manhattan has reclaimed its crown all shiny and new.

So, new threats come from the sky to try to take her down. In Independence Day, King Kong, The Day After Tomorrow, X-Men, all the threats seem to be bent on destroying what we have built up. If you want to show force, really get to a country at its heart you don’t go to some backwater and kill a few cows. You go to center stage and put on some fireworks. You shake the society at its foundations and try to interrupt its social and financial hub. New York City is that place. It can be said to be the first modern city, the city of the Twentieth Century. There is history and art, there are people of great import in residence on any given day, and there is symbolism that pervades through every gothic ornament, every cobbled street and every broken down warehouse, even in the small, dark, corners of the city has history. If you can destroy that, you can stab the heart of the world.

The Big Apple is a character in itself. When you speak about the setting as a character in  a story, you just can’t avoid it with Manhattan. The island is many characters, a virtual Sybil of split personalities and you never know just which face she will show. That is why it is so powerful when you see it scarred and smoking on film. Those who know her, love her. Those who don’t want to know her. And those who dislike her have a grudging respect. To everyone, she represents something and it always horribly uncomfortable to watch someone we know suffer disgrace. And despite the fact that she is harsh and cruel sometimes she is also undiscriminating. There are folks who have visited once and feel her aura, they know that they are home. From the moment they step onto the asphalt, embraced by the kinetic energy of hustle and bustle, they are New Yorkers.

Of course, Toronto is usually a filmatic stand in for Manhattan because it has similar looking locales and is cheaper to film in. At least when they are destroying New York I can take solace in the fact that it is the wannabe northern neighbor they are trampling and not the real thing.

In many ways the attacks on the World Trade Center met and exceeded every dramatic depiction of destruction we have ever produced. Frighteningly, we now know exactly how those buildings of steel and stone explode from every angle. No special effects technician could have imagined a death more horrible for the Towers. What was left was nothing more than two giant smoldering holes and a red glow, as if they were swallowed by Hell itself. We also know how the masses will react. How the world will react. Watching the real video of the attacks on that day I felt both too close and too removed from what was happening. Too close because it was my city that was falling and too removed because of the eerie feeling of familiarity, that I had seen this many times before. The billowing thick smoke was the Blob of the old fifties film and the people were running and screaming exactly as they did in that black and white classic film. Or it was War Of The Worlds and the invaders had just touched down and with gigantic guns had blown to bits our most sacred structures. We were awe struck at the power. Where could the people run to when nowhere was safe? Or perhaps it was Dawn of the Dead and those smoke and dust encased people, wandering the streets of the city, were the undead, bewildered, transported from one plane of existence to another, climbing from the hell hole to wander the alleys of New York forever. What could have been more scary than, after the smoke settled, those emergency sirens from the Firemen’s suits, constantly whistling, warning of the lives slipping away just below the surface of rubble.

The movies of ultimate destruction of this gothic citadel prepared me for the visuals but not the emotion. The sense of utter sadness and uselessness was missing from those films. It’s easy to use special effects to place a spaceship into the skyline of Manhattan. They did it in the eighties with the miniseries event V. That we can do. It’s easy to use rotoscoped laser beams to destroy little models of the Empire State Building or the flood a pool with a scale figurine of the Statue of Liberty. But it’s hard to capture that real sense of vulnerability that comes with watching a monolith or two that were never meant to crumble come falling down, reduced to dust. In the movies we vaporize people and things all the time, usually more and much bigger. But in reality, to watch these structures literally disappear before my eyes was a scale of enormity I never believed I’d witness in my life.

I remember very soon after the Nine-Eleven attacks on New York when people were discussing these things. I remember that everyone was rightfully, hypersensitive to violence and destruction. Now the memories and emotions have faded just a little. And although many people like myself thing in terms of the world before Nine-Eleven and after Nine-Eleven much the same way I imagine my grandparents thing of life before Pearl Harbor and after Pearl Harbor or my parent think of life before Kennedy was assassinated and after Kennedy was assassinated or even my Great-Great Grandparents might thing of life before the Civil War between the American States and after the Civil War between the American States, I long for the next image of dramatic representation that depicts New York City crumpling. I believe that the next time I watch the city destroyed on the big screen, I will know what is exactly at stake.


The Phoenix said...

Remember how they had to digitially remove the Twin towers from Spiderman? Then, in the scene where Spidey is hanging from a cable at the Goblin is about to kill him, all the New Yorkers start throwing crap at him yelling, "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!"

New York represents the world man created. So it makes sense it is the setting for all the bad guys to destroy and take over. Afterall, if they can conquer New York, they can conquer Any Town, USA.

"Escape from New York" was actually filmed in St. Louis, interestingly.

Thanks so much for the great feedback on iTunes. I really do appreciate it. I look forward to your podcast as well.

ObilonKenobi said...

I didn't think it was necessary to digitally remove the Twin Towers. It would have been like a little memorial to them to se them in the movie. I still notice when I watch movies and I see the "old" skyline. I don't get angry, I get sad.

True about conquoring New York but in all the movies isn't it Anytown that fights back and wins. Remember Red Dawn? Maybe, next time the invaders should forget NYC and go straight for America's Heartland.