Sunday, January 20, 2008

American films love trashing New York City. Why?

Dana Stevens asks the question in her review of the new film "Cloverfield" (author's italics, embedded hyperlinks removed):
I'm more interested in how Cloverfield plays on 9/11 anxieties—not in the way one "plays out" issues in therapy, but in the way one plays a video game. 2008 has already seen a notable uptick in America's historical eagerness to eradicate New York in our imagination. Besides Cloverfield and I Am Legend, there's the upcoming History Channel special Life After People, whose ubiquitous poster shows a crumbling Brooklyn Bridge overgrown with vines. As this fine piece in the Guardian points out, Americans seem almost soothed by replaying the fantasy of our flagship city in ruins. What's that about?
The article from the Guardian that she mentions approached the question from a slightly different direction (embedded hyperlinks removed):
But America also has its destruction myth, inevitably set in New York, whose reduction to rubble both confirms that city's pre-eminence and signals that the stakes are high. The spectacle of NY landmarks (the Brooklyn Bridge, the Flatiron Building) being totalled is as much a recurring obsession for American filmmakers as among the higher echelons of al-Qaida. I can't recall another culture - even the Sumerians, no strangers to fatalism - which has rehearsed its own extinction with such apparent relish.
The key connection that the two articles miss, although the Guardian is closer to it than Dana Stevens, is that what we're seeing is not 9/11 anxiety translated into horror form but biblical imagery translated into modern form.

Consider Stevens's opinion that New York City is America's flagship city? Whatever advantages New York City might have over other cities in terms of pure commercial success, New York City was never intended by the Founding Fathers to be America's flagship city. Instead, Washington, D.C. was supposed to be America's symbol and moral capital. It was intended to be a city that would be created anew as a republic's seat of government without the taint of monarchical corruption that had infected the older cities during British rule. In Jefferson's conception, cities were inherently corruptive for their inhabitants, so it would be far better for a republican capital to be untainted by temptations of commericial and speculative wealth that flowed into the great port cities.

It follows that New York City as an emblem of corruption and sinfulness in the American mindset is what makes it a magnet for destructive acts of nature in film, where destructive acts of nature presumably includes attacks by animalistic super-monsters as in "Cloverfield". The sex scenes and hedonistic parties by the young people simply emphasize this point. The ultimate message is one that occurs over and over again in the Old Testament of the Bible: God is going to smite down the sinful and make nice with the righteous survivors (if any).

The emphasis on hip, young New Yorkers using their cell phones to take pictures of the immanent destruction serves as a form of irony. The biblical equivalent might be residents of Gomorrah worrying about anal lubricant while watching Sodom get obliterated by fire and brimstone. Obviously God is so great that He doesn't have to rely just on brute force to get His point across; He can come up with heavily ironic, postmodern "screw you" punishements as well. The difference between "Cloverfield" and "I am Legend" is a matter of degree in exactly this sense. In "I am Legend", we have not just New York City but all of humanity condemned and reduced to a righteous remnant, but also with an added dose of horror and humiliation when most of the surviving humans end up as vampires.

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