Image: cityscape from Wong Kar Wai's beautiful 2046 (2004).

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Freaking Out Over Freakonomics (and National Treasure Mini-Review)

I finally read the Freakonomics Quorum on "How We Should Be Thinking About Urbanization."

As others have noted, there's a strange aspect to the thinkers/writers represented... some of their points are completely contradictory, yet still manage to sit side-by-side with head-scratching plausibility. Does this mean that the near-term future of cities is really beyond the predictions of even the savviest thinkers in the realms of urban studies? Are we reduced from projects of reasoned argument/prediction to something of a deleterious crap shoot? I'd prefer to hope not, but when one of the most persuasive statements in the batch is the following -- from a celebrated urban planner no less -- it is worrisome:

"No one knows what the next chapter of urban history will bring, but if there is any lesson to draw from what has happened to date, it is that abstract ideas about the proper form of settlement, whether urban or rural or hybrids we can’t yet imagine, tend to lag far behind the reality on the ground." - Robert Bruegmann, professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago

I guess in the end it is here that I like to imagine film serves its social and cultural purpose... When city films are born from a perspective other than that of theory, planning or realism-driven reaction to the state of present cities, but, rather from that of imagining future ones, the cinema may in fact be seen as going where thought with a capital T cannot. I read the varied perspectives in the Quorum, which run, in the words of moderator Stephen J. Dubner, from the apocalyptic to the appreciative, and cannot help but think of the impossible contrasts of Invisible Cities, of that desire to catalog possible futures that can never all sit side-by-each in the unspooling of reality. In Calvino's work, as in the more formidable of the films featured in my study, at least we have a sprawling effort to envision possibilities, diversely wonderful and innumerably horrible. That is the cinema that I love.

In other news, National Treasure: Book of Secrets was precisely what I should have expected: nerve-wracking, cliffhanger after cliffhanger, with occasional dabs of simply lamentable dialogue that has to have been accidentally captured audio of some of the craft-services team making fun of the action: "It's a dead end, we HAVE to go back." Really? Truly? Moments of (I thought) symbolically anti-right-wing plot twists failed to materialize (dumb Kate... it's a Disney movie) and in the end the bad guy (a war profiteer, doncha know) still manages to be redeemed while the President of the USA reveals himself to be a lovable scamp who is game to throw open the history of the White House to some playful historiographic hijinks that will, in the third installment in the franchise, no doubt involve Nicholas Cage and crew unstitching the museum-housed antique petticoats of some former Washington mistress to tease yet another tawdry but lucrative secret out of the American past. There are so many ways in which a film like this could be -- dare I say it? -- smarter, but when kick-ass action sequences and special effects fill seats, well, you know, why bother? Cue the closing sequence fireworks over the compromised silhouette of Mount Rushmore, pass me my copy of The Society of the Spectacle and call it a night, shall we?

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