Monday, May 11, 2015

What the Heck Does Hollywood Have Against Cities?

This may come as a shock to some of you, but when I was about ten, I asserted loudly and often that my ultimate goal in life was to move to Siberia to live as a hermit and commune with wolves. Part of this was because I'd just read Julie of the Wolves and its sequels, which made me realize how incredibly cool wolves are and sparked a decade long obsession, but the larger part was because at age ten I was pretty not fond of people. I wanted desperately to live in a place where I could avoid ever having to see another human being again. Ever.

Now, granted, I was ten and this plan wasn't particularly well thought out. In retrospect, I seriously doubt my abilities to provide food and shelter for myself, as well as the inevitability of my eating something poisonous and then dying tragically. But the point remains. At age ten, I could see no better future for myself than one in which I lived completely in the middle of nowhere, isolated from everyone and everything, utterly alone.

Fast forward to today, however, and you'll find me living on the outskirts of Seattle, having moved here from Los Angeles. I don't live on the outskirts because I want to stay far away, either. I live only a twenty minute car ride from the heart of the city, and mostly just because downtown Seattle is super expensive. Point is, I love cities now. Love them a lot. And when I look back at ten year old me I have trouble wondering how I ever thought I'd be happier if left alone. But we'll come back to that.

The other thing I was thinking about for the past few weeks, ever since watching Daredevil and Avengers: Age of Ultron is how we as a culture think of our cities. We're very two-minded about them. On the one hand, most people kind of view cities as a necessary evil in our society. Without cities we wouldn't have culture and commerce and all those things that make our lives possible. But no one will admit to liking them. 

Certainly politicians won't admit to liking them. It's not seemly to like cities. Admitting you like cities is like admitting you secretly think Dunkin Donuts tastes better than Starbucks. Unless you're from Boston, it's just not done.

But on the other hand, we have this sort of grudging respect for cities that you can see in our movies. And this is the real thing that struck me. Because in Hollywood movies, cities are freaking always getting destroyed. Always. All the absolute freaking time. The new movie San Andreas? Guess what happens in that. Just guess.

Did you guess that Los Angeles gets eaten by the San Andreas fault while Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson yells a lot? Because I'm pretty sure that's what the movie is about.* The first Avengers movie featured the destruction of New York City. The Man of Steel movie featured the destruction of lots of places, but specifically Metropolis, which is an analogue for Chicago (probably). The Dark Knight Rises was about a threat to Gotham, aka New York City. Edge of Tomorrow showed us Paris being destroyed. 2012 destroyed, you guessed it, New York. Among everything else on the planet.

My point is that while we never really seem to admit that we like and admire cities, one look at our media choices suggests that we do. We really do. Because why else would movies always show our cities being destroyed by evil outside forces? If we really hate cities, then why is New York always getting invaded by aliens? If we really don't care, then seriously what the hell is up with our entertainment?

I mean, seriously, why is New York always getting trashed by supervillains? Why does everybody hate the New York infrastructure?

Obviously the answer is that we do care. We care a lot. We care about our cities being destroyed because cities are the seat and symbol of human civilization. See, the reason all of these movies show us the destruction of beloved landmarks and streets full of people (usually in New York) is because that's the best shorthand we have for a genuine threat to the human race.

See, I was thinking about why the ending of Avengers: Age of Ultron fell so flat for me. Minor SPOILERS for the ending, by the way. I was thinking about how, convoluted as Ultron's plot really is, it should have made me more upset for the potential destruction of the human race. Not to mention the fact that it featured a city being destroyed. But as I was musing, I realized that part of the problem is the city in question.

Sokovia isn't a real place, and therefore I have no real investment in its survival. I don't mean it's not real as in it's fictional, either. I care about a lot of fictional cities, like Gotham and Meereen and Neptune and Sleepy Hollow. I mean that Sokovia wasn't real because there was no effort put into making it feel real. 

It was just a piece of cardboard and CGI filled with extras. It wasn't built up and explained to me as a place where people have lived and died, where culture was made and where life happens. Sokovia wasn't real, it had no weight or importance in the world, so I had trouble getting the oomph to care about it being destroyed.

Which is funny when you compare it to the first Captain America movie. See, in that film we don't actually spend very long in New York City at all. We're there for a little bit at the beginning and then at the end there's a threat that oh no, HYDRA is going to send a bomb straight for New York. But those little bits at the beginning around entirely enough to justify Steve Rogers sacrificing his own life to save his city. I buy that. I care about that. I totally get where he's coming from because that city is established for us in the story as a place with personal and global significance. It's completely different.

I've been thinking about this a lot because of Daredevil. Like, why did I spend that whole series getting incredibly verklempt over the possibility of Hell's Kitchen gentrifying. That's not even that bad compared to in Age of Ultron how the whole nation of Sokovia was literally disintegrated. But I cared about Hell's Kitchen in Daredevil because it was shown to me as a real place where real people lived. I cared about those real people, and so I cared about the city.

Basically, the point I'm trying to make here is that for all that we as a culture really pretend to hate cities, we don't. If we genuinely didn't care, then films about the destruction of cities would mean nothing to us. New York is always getting smashed to bits in the movies because New York matters to us.

I mean, cities are basically encoded in our DNA. The structure of civilization came about when humans began to cluster in cities. Literally the world civilization comes from the latin word for city or social gathering of people: civitas. And Tim Keller (who I adore) defines cities as any place of "population density and diversity where culture is born." 

Cities are the places where we come together to dispense justice, give shelter and refuge to those in need, and where we come to understand each other better.

Sure, cities can also suck sometimes too. There's crime and people hiding from the law and corruption and violence and institutionalized racism and all kinds of really horrible stuff. Cities are places where great evil can happen. But they are also places where great good can happen. Basically, cities are places of great potential where the future of human society is being invented every day.

And I know that sounds overly optimistic and kind of crazily idealized. Who cares? It's still true. If it weren't true, then human society would never have happened. We destroy cities in movies because it's the only real way we have of expressing our fears that all of human civilization could be destroyed. Cities are our standin for the world. The global city. The indelible fact that we are all connected in a society that is diverse, dense, and potentially wonderful.

So, going back to me at age ten, convinced of the horribleness of the world and the necessity of being a hermit in Siberia, how did I get from that to who I am now?

The answer, honestly, is that sometime between age ten and age twenty-seven, I learned to actually give a crap about other people. And I know that sounds a little harsh, but it's true. My desire to live in the wilderness by myself was selfish. It was me thinking only of the ways in which society and culture were capable of infringing on my rights. It was me completely ignoring the duty I have as a human being and as a Christian to engage with other people and serve them as best I can.

The turning point, I have to say, came when I was sixteen. That was the year that I helped start a chapter of Amnesty International at my high school, and the year that I went to my first big protest. We got on a bus at the crack of dawn and drove down to New York City. Then we all filed off, hundreds of sleepy teenagers, to be given signs and placards. 

We stood outside the doors of Dow Chemical on Wall Street and shouted for reparations for the people affected by the Bhopal chemical disaster. We stationed ourselves outside the Chinese consulate and protested the treatment of Tibetan activist Tenzin Delek. We stood in the city and we clamored for justice. And that was the first time I think I really saw how powerful cities can be, both good and bad. It was the first time I saw how I mattered to the city and how the city mattered much more to me.

The movies that I love most aren't the ones where the city is destroyed indiscriminately in order to make you feel bad about the villain, though. It doesn't work in Man of Steel or in Age of Ultron. No, the movies I love are the ones that show you exactly why a city is worth saving, and then show you it being in danger so that the saving, when it comes, matters all that much more. 

The films I care about, and the stories we need, are the ones where human beings gather together to fight for their cities. Not because of nationalistic pride or anything like that, but because the cities matter. They are a sum and creation of the thousands of people who live in them. They are the future. And when a movie gets that and then shows the heroes getting that too, I feel like we all get a little closer to making all my idealized visions of the future a reality.

I'm not saying that you personally have to pack your things and move to the nearest metropolis. I am saying that as much as movies like San Andreas are kind of stupid, though, they do have a point. Cities matter. And as we come up on another election cycle where candidates do their level best to pretend they've never even been in a big city, I hope we can all remember exactly why cities matter to us. They are the places that shape our future. They matter. If they didn't, we wouldn't care when they get destroyed.

*Note: I'm only pretty sure, as I have not seen the movie or watched the preview with the sound on. I cannot express how much I do not care about San Andreas as a film. Sorry.


  1. No, the movies I love are the ones that show you exactly why a city is worth saving, and then show you it being in danger so that the saving, when it comes, matters all that much more. ... The films I care about, and the stories we need, are the ones where human beings gather together to fight for their cities.

    The weakness of the fight in Man of Steel (I don't share the usual criticism of Superman not saving enough people, because there's only one of him, and when fighting Zod, pretty much the only thing he can do to save people is to make sure Zod's too busy fighting him to attack anyone else) - but the weakness I do see is the reactions of the people - they just stand and gawp, only even running away when a building is about to land on them. They become a backdrop to the spectacle of the fight.

    In New York in Avengers Assemble, they're mostly just screaming and running, but doing so relatively sensibly towards cover - and helping each other along the way. In Washington in Winter Soldier, we see the uninjured passengers in the trashed bus helping the injured, and when Nat's running through the streets a couple of guys look like they're going to try to help her before she warns them off. The people do stuff, in other words. In Age of Ultron...

    In the unnamed African city, you see the same thing. Police try to contain the Hulk, people scream and run, but some of them help the injured, and there's a general movement towards cover.

    The battle in Soeul takes place under circumstances that the question doesn't really apply to.

    But in the end battle, the people evacuate when told to, but they don't really *do* anything the way the people in other MCU battles do; they're backdrop to the race against time. I care about the city because it's personal to the twins, and because Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson have done a great job of making me care about the twins. But as you say, its own sake doesn't really come up.

    1. Hmm. That's a good point. The idea that the people should be treated as actual humans with reactions, not idiots who stand and gawp and serve as set dressing. Totally agree.

  2. See, I was thinking about why the ending of Avengers: Age of Ultron fell so flat for me.

    I disliked the ending, because I found the idea of Ultron using Sokovia as a meteor to destroy humanity plain dumb and non entertaining.