Urban Apocalypse in Film

One of the greatest oddities in the cultural history of American cities is the frequency—and relish—with which they have been cinematically destroyed. To be sure, while no sane person truly wants cities to be wiped out, American (and global) audiences are nonetheless exhilarated by their cinematic destruction.  A small sample of these visions of earthquakes, floods, monsters, aliens, nuclear wars, tornadoes, and tsunamis will play silently throughout my talk. I hope it will illustrate some of my claims and give you a sense of the sheer spectacle, relentlessness, and terrible fun of the city’s end in cinema. How can we explain the persistence and popularity of this genre? In this talk, I have allowed the overstimulation of these films to infect my thinking. In place of a single line of argument, I will present eight theses. I choose this form because it allows for breadth, for the development of multiple, semi-autonomous, arguments, and yet demands precision, so that each thesis can potentially stand on its own as a complete thought. I have not wanted to decide what I think is the ultimate answer, for it seems to me that the question requires that the following theses, including their complementarity and antagonism toward one another, all be thought at the same time.

1. The cinematic destruction of the American city is a ritual celebration of special effects—that is, of cinematic technology itself. Why does the child painstakingly build a sand castle, only to stomp it afterward? This final act of negation is, paradoxically, the finishing touch, for it affirms the original impulse of the creative act, the child’s desire to alter his environment. Similarly, cinema demonstrates its immense powers of technological simulation in the moment that it abolishes its own creations. We are thrilled to see nature’s revenge, its gigantic tidal waves and tornadoes, because we know nature did not make these images. Cinema mimics a tsunami by staging its violent indifference to human structures like skycrapers and bridges; it masters a tsunami by enabling the audience to witness this within a safe human structure, the theater. Urban eschatology is thus the most optimistic of film genres: its message is “Look what we can do!” For this reason the genre can hardly serve the purpose of critical pessimism. The more or less oblique warnings about climate change that can be found in films like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 are blunted by their celebration of the ingenuity and can-do attitude of digital effects. As the weird cultural studies professor in Don DeLillo’s White Noise observes: “Look past the violence. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.”

2. The sheer stupidity of the cinematic image, its nonconceptuality, its “pornographic” power, as Fredric Jameson described it, to hold us in “rapt, mindless fascination.” The city’s end puts these qualities of the medium on full display. The most truthful response to them is, simply, “cool.”

3. Nothing serves as a better representational shorthand for collective human projects—that is, political life—than the city. It is thus condemned to be the measure of the nation’s political life and death. The aliens in Independence Day blast the White House, and while this represents the destruction of official government, the White House does not have the broader power of cultural synecdoche, of signifying the whole nation through the part. This explains why the image of the burning towers on 9/11 overshadows the attacks on the Pentagon in American memory. And it is why, in an oft-cited and eerie premonition, New York must also be attacked in Independence Day: It has the dubious honor of being the most cinematically destroyed city—followed by LA, which is also destroyed in the film—because, as Max Page writes, “New York City is a touchstone, the symbol of the best and worst of everything, the barometer of the nation’s health and sickness, poverty and wealth.” Even those who had no personal ties to New York were symbolically wounded on 9/11 because the attacks disturbed the priviledged site for culturally producing, reproducing, and remaking the nation as imagined community. In a sense, all Americans are New Yorkers, and to a lesser extent, Angelinos, San Franciscans, etc. For through their real and imagined relationships to cities, individuals who are otherwise isolated from and anonymous to one another come to imagine themselves as Americans, as members of the same political collective, even as they disagree about its definition. The 9/11 attacks were a stroke of evil genius because, like the many films that preceded them, they struck the nation at its symbolic ground zero.

4. In Martha Bartter’s words, the nuclear annihilation of cities is a form of urban renewal. Cities have long been imagined as overpopulated, polluted, poor, rife with crime and racial and class antagonisms. Only a bomb can save us from the urban condition: it clears the slums, wipes the slate clean, and creates the possibility of something new. Or rather, something old, since the survivors of nuclear war usually return to pre-urban (and pre-national) forms of tribalism or nomadism, as in Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog. Literature indulges more fully than cinema in the racist fantasy at the root of many of these visions: as Mike Davis shows in Ecology of Fear, the literary destruction of Los Angeles has often been an excuse for the genocide of African-, Asian-, and Mexican-Americans. The city is the scapegoat for historical forces that have supposedly alienated Americans from the simplicity and purity of small, homogenous community, or the freedom and individualism of the frontier. The city’s death in cinema is the blood sacrifice we pay for maintaining these myths.

5. Since the nineteenth century, every generation of Americans has destroyed cities in order to enact symbolic solutions to historically specific social contradictions. This is the conclusion we reach by combining Page’s great cultural history, The City’s End, with Jameson’s The Political Unconscious. The study of cinema’s urban eschatology now becomes the study of cinema’s ideologies. Perhaps the city itself is not the proper object of analysis, but rather serves mainly as container, staging ground, dreamscape. In a sense, the city is but the raw material, the immense waste product, of the ideological process. Consider two nearly identical films, Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds and 2012. If we look beyond the semantic differences–aliens vs. climate change–the syntax of both films is the same: a deadbeat single father, estranged from his ex-wife and rapidly maturing children, learns the true meaning of fatherhood by leading his family through a crisis. The social contradiction to which the films respond is the breakdown of the old patriarchal family as the nation’s moral and economic center. These films are domestic melodramas, with urban eschatology added as a supplement to give the old generic codes new life, thus enabling them to continue to function ideologically. I am reminded of Žižek’s analysis of the ending of Titanic: the ship must sink and DiCaprio’s character must die in order to save the lovers’ relationship, which would have certainly broken down under the pressure of their class differences if they had made it back home. Similarly, the destruction of the city is the price paid in War of the Worlds and 2012 for modifying and preserving the idea of the family after its historical conditions of possibility have vanished.

6. Behind the vivid spectacles of destruction, another, invisible war is being waged–the war against utopia. Every crumbling skyscraper is a rebuke of utopian imaginings of large, complex, beautiful, clean, rationalized cities, and of the utopian project to build them without apocalypse.

Cities of Tomorrow

Amazing Stories, 1939

When Edward Bellamy’s time traveler in Looking Backward asks if the construction of utopian Boston was preceeded by violence, the answer is no. In the late nineteenth-century, prior to two world wars, belief in progress apparently caused significantly less cognitive dissonance. Film has historically been fairly bored with utopian cities, unless the point is to depict utopia itself as a disguise for totalitarianism. Apparently utopia is uncinematic; reversing Bellamy, cinema tends to be capable of building utopian cities only if they are preceeded by universal catastrophe or if the catastrophe will befall the city later (see Logan’s Run). While these are relatively explicit examples, cinema’s greatest anti-utopianism is more implicit, but constant: the cities keep falling, and with them are burried the better cities of the nonapocalyptic future.

7. The city’s end is the most pessimistic of genres because it gleefully transfers the ability to enact fundamental change to nonhuman agents. The city is an ironic setting for this alienation of political power because it is perhaps the greatest testament to the potential of human collective action. The cultural historian Lewis Mumford called the city the “home of man,” the intentional environment that human beings construct for themselves over and against the sheer giveness of nature. This is why the shots of empty cities in films about the extinction of humanity are so hauntingly effective: here are the spatial bulwarks humans have erected against time, now orphaned in a natural world that cannot recognize the purposiveness they embody. But we need not wait for extinction to see that humans have already disappeared. Not human agents, but disasters make history. The thrill we feel as meteors rain down on Times Square is the thrill of the momentous event, of history’s decisive turning. That this thrill is antihuman is exemplified in the dominant apocalyptic figure in contemporary cinema, the zombie. The zombie horde that destroys and overruns the city resembles a revolutionary collective. In the title sequence of Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of Dead, images of zombies are rapidly mixed with stock footage of rioting. Sometimes the analogy between zombies and radical political violence is not even figural: the zombies in the French film The Horde are played by residents from the Parisian immigrant neighborhoods that rioted in 2005. But of course zombies are not political agents. To the zombie horde belongs only the nonagency of blind drive–the power of negation, of canceling the political order, but abstract negation, the production of sheer rupture for its own sake, without design, critique, alternative futures. Yes, zombies eat flesh, but even more importantly, what zombies eat is the future; they are the dead, festering past that refuses to die. When people dress up like zombies and perform zombie walks in American cities, they show that part of what attracts audiences to zombies is collectivity itself, the oblique desire to join a universal collective that acts in public space. But the great irony of the zombie walk, and of the spectacle of the city’s end more generally, is that participants  rediscover collective agency only by staging their own mass death.

8. Perhaps there are films in which the city’s end enables a truly emancipatory collective to rise from the rubble. But perhaps, in the end, cinema can glimpse true emancipation only by abandoning the American city altogether. In Children of Men, humanity is slowing dying from universal infertility, that is, the impossibility of the future. Britain is the last functioning government, but it is also a police state that brutally cracks down on unauthorized immigrants. Tellingly, while the United States has collapsed, the familiar sequences of urban destruction are conspicuously absent from the film. Indeed, what is so striking is that the film mostly displaces the United States and its cities from the cinematic future. While a portion of Children of Men takes place in London and the surrounding countryside, its most important space is the immigrant prison city, Bexhill, where the film reaches its climax during a battle between a revolutionary immigrant rights group and the British military. But if cinema’s urban eschatologies would remain in the city and focus on the dramatic struggle between good and evil, the two lead characters in Children of Men flee from the violence and escape into the ocean on a small boat, where they hope to board the ship of a mysterious group called the Human Project. The only way to reclaim the future, the film suggests, is to reject the city and the desire to witness its destruction. If there is an alternative to cinema’s urban eschatology, I think it is here with these characters, on the periphery of the destroyed city, drifting in the great expanse of the ocean, waiting and hoping to arrive at a new place that they cannot imagine, and that the film itself cannot show us. Today the furthest the cinematic imagination can reach is to deliver us to the immense empty space, beyond the city’s end, where utopia demands to be dreamed again.

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