Monday, 6 December 2010

Not-So-Mini Essay | Magic Lanterns, by Nicolas Pillai | Part 2: The City

It’s only a movie, Ingrid!
Alfred Hitchcock, on the set of Spellbound.

Last year, I flew to Detroit for an academic conference, two months before Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate an explosive on a NWA flight. It was my first trip to the USA and, jet-lagged, I stumbled around a city that bore no resemblance to my idea of the American metropolis. This was a city where trees grew up through the roofs of forgotten buildings, where skyscrapers stood derelict as a sad reminder of more luxurious times.

On that first night, I walked through the heart of Detroit’s Metro district, along wide empty streets, feeling eyes watching me from shadowy alleyways. I realized I was lost. I started to panic. Then I turned the corner and stared down the barrel of a tank rumbling towards me. Soldiers with rifles slung over their shoulders were marching alongside.

I hadn’t seen a newspaper in two days. I thought martial law had been declared.

Stunned, I backed around the street to a group of onlookers. ‘What’s happening?’ I asked. They smiled pityingly and explained, ‘They’re shooting a movie.’

I’d stumbled onto the set of the remake of Red Dawn. But in that eerie environment, it could just as well have been invasion. I was in a war movie or a zombie movie. I was in Detroit, the abandoned city. I suppose what I’m getting to here is that the city is an entity endlessly recreated in movies. Haven’t you ever walked home at night under the streetlamps and felt that you were on a film set?

One of my few pleasures in Detroit was walking through the steam that came up through manhole covers. Why on earth should I find this pleasurable? Restrain the urge to answer, 'because you’re weird.' I think it’s because I was (okay, tragically) entering into the iconography of the film noir city. That film noir city is entirely a construct of the cinema, the product of a visual expressionism that Hollywood’s émigré directors brought over from Europe. It is a city of night, of shadows, of sin.

The death of Tony Curtis brought these thoughts to the forefront of my mind. In his finest film Sweet Smell of Success he plays Sidney Falco, the weaselly press agent who runs around town doing the dirty work of celebrity columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Incredibly, given that it is one of the sleaziest movies ever made, it is directed by Alexander Mackendrick, the Scot from Ealing Studios. New York is an expressionistic nightmare of neon, wet sidewalks and exhaust pipes.

A drunk gets kicked out of a nightclub. Striding toward him, J. J. Hunsecker booms, 'I love this dirty town!'

So do we. That’s why we keep dreaming about it.

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