From fiction to fact
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?