I paid to see Will Smith fight legions of robots, and what I got was a trip back to Wabash Street. Rear entrance to the fine department stores of my youth, front portal to respectable lunchrooms, Wabash always seemed to me the Loop’s most beautiful street, since its second-best air felt right for the Second City. Masonry facades guarded its edges, behind which rose many floors of nondescript offices doing a cash business. Overhead, shadowing and shaking you, ran the el. On the clearest spring day, you could turn onto Wabash and step into a twilight drizzle, an effect that lent moodiness and semi-industrial power to places that otherwise might have seemed too genteel for Chicago: the bookstore, the record store, the sheet-music dealer. All this, I remember from the 1950s and ’60s–but having now seen Wabash in 2035, I can tell you it still feels like itself, or more so, with robots weaving their way busily among the humans.
The rightness of the urban setting, and (more often) its wrongness, turn out to be the most interesting feature of I, Robot. Directed by Alex Proyas from a script by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, with a tip of the hat to Isaac Asimov, I, Robot functions reasonably well as a whodunit, a special-effects extravaganza, a showcase for Will Smith’s genial sarcasm, a machine for fabricating the nuclear family. (I doubt I’m giving away much when I say that Smith’s police detective, a chronic loner, must hook up with an equally detached research scientist, having been drawn to her by an ingenuous, orphaned robot named Sonny.) Never mind the philosophical and political implications, which are meant to be no more enduring than your bag of popcorn. I, Robot is satisfactory as a story, appealing as a star turn but arresting only as production design–in particular, for its vision of a specific American city.
A minor topic, you might say. Our endangered republic will neither stand nor fall on the merits of I, Robot, any more than the film will succeed or fail through urbanism. About the latter point, I note that audiences mostly want to smile at Smith’s lanky, cranky performance and marvel at the robots, which spring about like a swarm of grasshoppers. Only Chicago natives, perhaps, will care that the computer-generated Wabash Street comes convincingly to life, or that the digital shoreline is dead. (I’m willing to believe that by 2035, much of the water will have dried up–but what megalomaniac built the pier of a suspension bridge at the edge of Lake Michigan?) Still, I find myself mulling over these background details, having been newly awakened to them and their possible import by Thom Andersen, a filmmaker-scholar whose exhaustive and fascinating documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself is currently running at New York’s Film Forum.
Andersen (who was born in Chicago, by the way) has almost as many points to make in Los Angeles Plays Itself as the film has minutes–169, including credits. I will dispense with my objections by saying that, with so much on his mind, Andersen sometimes organizes the work in the manner of a saloon orator: “And another thing.” Apart from that, though, I like pretty much everything he’s done, from the fascinating opening montage–a tour of Los Angeles as it’s been pictured in dozens of movies–to the closing argument against cynicism, as it’s been perpetrated in films such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. And another thing: Andersen hates that diminutive, LA. “Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it.”
Speaking as a longtime resident of the city–or, rather, using a laconic voiceover narrator to speak for him–Andersen begins by observing that the standard movie image of Los Angeles is doubly false. In the first place, the movies distort urban space for the purposes of cinematography and storytelling. The center-city skyscrapers, for example, though anomalous in the bigger and flatter scheme, can fill a frame nicely, which is perhaps why “the movies love downtown more than we do.” In the second place, America’s show-business culture has persuaded us to substitute a part for the whole–to say Hollywood when we mean Los Angeles–even though only one resident in forty works in the film industry. If I were to reduce Andersen’s argument, unfairly, to a single point, I might say that he wants Hollywood to disgorge the real city it has swallowed. He hopes our myth of LA will change and that the movies will change too, to be more true to lived experience.