From fic­tion to fact

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Ha­jrah Mum­taz

MOST cities are in­ter­est­ing enough but very few are iconic. And there are some cities that, be­cause of the man­ner in which his­tory played out or it was chron­i­cled or by just hap­pen­stance, are as iconic when they’re down as they are at the height of their splen­dour.

Un­der this cat­e­gory must come New York as im­ages of a famed sky­line now dark­ened fill global con­scious­ness. Hur­ri­cane Sandy wreaked havoc across vast swathes of the US East Coast and Canada; the lights went out in mil­lions of homes but for many peo­ple the fo­cus was on New York, specif­i­cally Man­hat­tan.

In pop cul­ture, of all the cities in the world it is New York that has been de­stroyed the most num­ber of times, and the most spec­tac­u­larly. For rea­sons not quite un­ex­plored, the de­struc­tion of New York has con­sis­tently re­mained the fas­ci­na­tion of film­mak­ers over the decades, no doubt in part be­cause since the sil­ver screen was in­vented, Hol­ly­wood has held sway over English-lan­guage cinema.

In pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, the project to imag­ine what a dev­as­tated New York might look like — and what bizarre quar­ters the threat may come from — be­gan with the 1933 film King Kong, with the gi­ant gorilla crunch­ing and munch­ing his way through half the city’s neigh­bour­hoods.

It says a lot, per­haps, for the sym­bol­ism of the then re­cently com­pleted (and con­tro­ver­sial) Em­pire State Build­ing that the crea­ture’s fi­nal show of de­fi­ance was atop its lofty heights, im­press­ing upon the au­di­ence the vul­ner­a­bil­ity — though only to im­pos­si­bly large apes, per­haps — that comes with icon­o­clasm.

Dur­ing the 1980s New York was men- aced by ghosts in Ghost­busters. The se­quel was, as a film, weak; but many New York­ers re­mem­ber it more fondly be­cause it fed into the much-joked-about but nev­er­the­less se­ri­ous fear that they may well be their own worse en­emy: the stalk­ing mon­ster in Ghost­busters II was sen­tient para­nor­mal slime ooz­ing out of the city’s gut­ters, feed­ing on the neg­a­tive en­ergy that re­mains in plen­ti­ful sup­ply. The 1990s were par­tic­u­larly un­kind to New York. Cul­tural the­o­rists pos­tu­late that this may have been as a coun­ter­point to the con­di­tions preva­lent in the coun­try dur­ing that pe­riod. The US had been el­e­vated to the sta­tus of the world’s sole su­per­power af­ter the break-up of the Soviet Union, and eco­nom­i­cally it was un­der­go­ing a pos­i­tive trans­for­ma­tion. It is dur­ing times of pros­per­ity that peo­ple are ro­manced by the idea of dis­as­ter, pre­cisely be­cause it is so un­likely.

That last decade of the mil­len­nium is marked by a slew of films con­ceiv­ing, in ever-im­prov­ing spe­cial ef­fects, the de­struc­tion of one of the world’s most read­ily recog­nis­able sky­lines. It was struck by gi­ant me­te­orites in Ar­maged­don, sunk by a tidal wave in Deep Im­pact, men­aced by aliens in In­de­pen­dence Day, haunted by ter­ror — then not the con­cept that it is to­day — in The Siege, and stalked again by a mon­ster in Godzilla.

Tes­ti­fy­ing to the thin bound­ary be­tween fact and fic­tion, the un­think­able­ness of the events of Sept 11, 2001, put paid to an un­der-pro­duc­tion film about an­ar­chists bring­ing down build­ings by fly­ing planes into them.

Af­ter the in­cep­tion of the ‘war on ter­ror’, the Amer­i­can cli­mate changed but New York re­mained the tar­get of Hol­ly­wood screen­writ­ers and di­rec­tors, for me most mem­o­rably in the rel­a­tively re­cent I Am Leg­end, de­pict­ing a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Man­hat­tan prowled by flesh-eat­ing zom­bie-like crea­tures.

Noth­ing quite equals the quite spec­tac­u­lar spe­cial ef­fects of 2012, but with re­gard to Hur­ri­cane Sandy, the most rel­e­vant screen im­agery would be 2004’s Day Af­ter To­mor­row, con­cern­ing the fall­out suf­fered by the city and the coun­try of cli­mate change. This film imag­ines a su­per storm wash­ing over the north­ern hemi­sphere, with New York at the epi­cen­tre of a lethal freeze. The bor­der with Mex­ico is over­whelmed with refugees go­ing the wrong way. When the film was re­leased, within the cli­mate-change lobby some quar­ters ar­gued that it de­picted jus­tice of sorts: while very sorry for all the dam­age to life and prop­erty that would oc­cur at such an event, the fact is that the US re­mains amongst the world’s big­gest pol­luters as well as the most no­table re­sis­tor to emis- sion-re­duc­tion tar­gets.

When in 1997 the Ky­oto Pro­to­col was pro­duced af­ter the meet­ing be­tween del­e­gates from 194 nations, Amer­ica re­fused to be part of it and the US Se­nate voted 95-0 against even con­sid­er­ing rat­i­fi­ca­tion be­cause of the asym­met­ri­cal obli­ga­tions. (It, and other im­por­tant coun­tries in­clud­ing Canada and Ja­pan, ar­gue that the un­bal­anced re­quire­ments the pro­to­col puts on emerg­ing eco­nomic pow­ers must change.)

Last week, the un­think­able hap­pened and New York was in re­al­ity struck by a dis­as­ter, though thank­fully not of the scale imag­ined by the Spiel­bergs and Bur­tons of the world. While the coun­try demon­strated that it had learned the im­por­tant lessons dic­tated by Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, will the larger and more cru­cial les­son have been driven home?

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