Shadows and Smog

Shadows and Smog

I paid to see Will Smith fight legions of robots, and what I got was a trip back to Wabash Street.


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.

At this point, an unsympathetic viewer might say that Andersen is too severe. Film has always been a trick mirror as much as a window, a tool for Méliès’s magic acts as much as the Lumières’ explorations. But Andersen is not trying to ban fantasy. He just wants to move beyond fantasies that are too constrained and too constraining–the ones that betray their crabbed nature by repeating themselves endlessly, and that tell us our society, too, turns in an unbreakable cycle. In movie after movie set in Los Angeles, the rich and corrupt characters live up in the hills, in Modernist houses by Frank Lloyd Wright or Richard Neutra, while the poor live in flatland bungalows, next to oil refineries or in gang-war zones. Nothing lies between these two spaces, except for those picturesque downtown towers; and so into this vacuum, which is as much imaginative as physical, moviemakers introduce various secret histories of the city, which explain how the rich people got up on the hill and why there’s no use complaining, since they will stay there forever. When Andersen prescribes a heavier dose of realism for the movies, it’s to help liberate us from the tedium of these clichés, the hopelessness of this conspiratorial mindset. He praises neorealists such as Billy Woodberry, Charles Burnett and the almost-forgotten Kent MacKenzie (maker of The Exiles, a film about Navajos living in Los Angeles) not so much to propose a model as to point toward an escape route, into a better world and better films.

So there is purpose to Andersen’s literal-mindedness when he devotes a section of Los Angeles Plays Itself to car-chase sequences that violate the actual street layout. “Silly geography,” he says, “makes for silly movies.” And a respect for physical space makes for more engaging movies, even when they’re genre thrillers. Look, for example, at the wholly disposable Bourne Supremacy, directed by Paul Greengrass in the wake of Doug Liman’s far superior Bourne Identity. You may recall, from the earlier picture, a car chase that was cleverly conceived, meaningful for the characters and photographed with exhilarating immediacy–you could always see the route by which to careen from A to B. The Bourne Supremacy tries to top the original by offering two car chases; but they both chop space into blurry, discontinuous fragments, randomly intercut with close-ups of the drivers, so there’s no sense of onrushing movement. The kinetic experience is what you’d get by whipping your head side to side.

As with the car chases, so with The Bourne Supremacy as a whole. The cities that qualify this thriller as “international” exist on screen as mere rebuses: a series of establishing shots of landmarks, each topped by white sans-serif letters that name the locale.

In Los Angeles Plays Itself, Andersen argues that even a touristic approach toward cities, like Hitchcock’s, is far preferable to such fakery. The reason, ultimately, is political. For Andersen, the movies’ abandonment of urban texture is part of the larger problem of our society’s foreclosure of public space. A case in point, which he presents through clips from three decades of movies: the gradual destruction and reconstitution of Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill neighborhood, which has gone from modest middle-class enclave to raffish boardinghouse district to urban desert to corporate fantasyland. Not surprisingly, films that show Bunker Hill have grown glassy in spirit, as the area’s dwindling life has been shut away in private towers. By contrast, films that dwell on public places may also portray a real community, even if the story and style verge on delirium. A case in point: Rebel Without a Cause, in which Nicholas Ray’s luridly exaggerated images of Los Angeles landmarks convey the fevered visions of a society of teenagers.

This brings me, of course, to Spider-Man 2. My young friend Ben Letzler, whose very existence refutes the claim that cinephilia is dead, writes from Berlin that I was wrong to be disappointed by this movie, and reactionary to prefer Before Sunset. Other Nation readers have issued a similar challenge. Can I really fault Spider-Man 2 so severely for running an el through Manhattan?

I can; I do. The joy of the first Spider-Man came in no small measure from seeing authentic, often unglamorous locations wedded to the special effects. You did not need to reside in New York to recognize the spaces as genuine; you could sense their life pulsing around and through the characters. That respect for actual urban space is also present in Spider-Man 2, but only a little and mostly in the first reel, when Peter has to negotiate Midtown traffic to make a pizza delivery. After that, the movie becomes (to use Andersen’s critical jargon) a little silly in its cityscape. The movie calls up an el where none exists, for a too-conventional fight scene; and then, as if in balance, it makes a real place, Aunt May’s house, disappear, without bothering to specify where Aunt May will go.

Are these problems fatal? No. I found much to enjoy in Spider-Man 2; but I’d still rather watch Celine and Jesse move slowly through the real, inhabited Paris of Before Sunset. Call it a high-tourist movie if you will–again, I borrow the term from Andersen–but Before Sunset makes its characters deal with one another in spaces that are continuous, thickly textured and not entirely controllable by a filmmaker; and those qualities carry over to the performances as well. The result? Celine and Jesse are interesting not for what they say and do as individuals but for what happens between them. The movie’s focus is always on their interaction, which is so amply charged that it can even register thoughts about poverty, environmental decay and the imperialism practiced by one character’s nation.

Before Sunset lets us stray far from the cynical myths of Los Angeles, and far from robotic behavior. That’s what can happen when a movie risks going into the city.

Correction: In reviewing Fahrenheit 9/11, I mistakenly wrote that all of the members of the House who contested the Electoral College decision in 2000 were African-American. In fact, the late Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink also entered an objection. My thanks to the readers who pointed out the error.

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