Thursday, September 13, 2007

the golden age of cities

Last night I watched "The Set-Up," a movie from 1949 about a boxer set up by his manager to lose a fight, in a deal with a mafia boss. Robert Wise directed it, and my younger brother R, a film afficianado (who worked at Film Forum in NY for a while) suggested it to my mom who rented it.

I have often heard that Hollywood's "golden age" came before the appearance of TV -- from the teens to the early fifties -- but I never paid it much mind. Like most people, I have grown up with the cultural cliches of those few oldies everyone has seen -- Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, etc. But only rarely do unknown flicks puncture my blase attitude: like good books, they have to be actively sought out, and since my drug of choice is the news, I am lazy about seeking out either films or books. (I lay back in the jacuzzi of the internet, an endless flow of info-bubbles pushing around me.)

So, last night "The Set-Up" blew open my preconceptions of staid, cliched old films, yet again (my brother's last recommendation, "The Palm Beach Story," was hilarious and pretty sexy). I won't go into the plot or the story itself. What really amazed me was its documentary quality, entirely set in the environment of a single urban intersection: on one side the smoky arena, on the other side the cheap hotels, cigar shops, penny arcades, and dance halls of the city. Rather than just being a background, the camera lingers on each group of people and lets viewers read the signs: one actually can see several of the games in the penny arcade; one can hear a man hawking "revolutionary" ball point pens for 15 dollars; one sees a group of motorcycle youths talking tough.

The late 40s was not just part of Hollywood's golden age, but a golden age of American cities: after the privations of the war and depression, and before the city's lifeblood (tax dollars and rich people) were sucked out to the suburbs, eviscerated by the knife of the highways. This was the age before public entertainment and consumer culture were entirely privatized: films in theatres turning to TVs in the home, parks turning to yards, street cars turning to automobiles. . .the loneliness of private property overcoming the noisy, bustling, spirit of the city.

How can one not be amazed to see old film of real cities like Detroit, with people pouring along the sidewalks, and compare these scenes to the same cities now? True, select cities have been selected by the rich for a return -- NY, SF, etc -- but in the golden age of the cities, even smaller cities (like the film's "Paradise City") were thriving, their light and noise drawing small town dwellers on the weekends and holidays.

The deadly dullness of suburbs has convinced enough people that there is a moderate return of interest in cities, but the suburbs are established as the template for American life. At its barest, the suburb is a class amputation of the wealthy from the poor, an abandonment of public space to the poor and the criminal, and a retreat of the wealthy to private paradises. Watch "The Set-Up" for a little taste of what American cities were before highways and TVs, in their golden age.

See "Disaster Capitalism" by Naomi Klein in October's Harper's, and "A Consumer's Republic" by . . ..I can't remember her name.

No comments: