Sunday, July 07, 2002

In her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs skewered the urban planners of the early-to-mid-20th century who viewed cities as, at best, necessary evils, idealized the majestic country estate as the perfect living environment, and hence devoted themselves to introducing rural elements--parks, open spaces, grand buildings--into city life, with disastrous results. The famous "urban renewal" public housing projects of the 1950's, huge high-rises surrounded by large, empty areas of greenery, are typical of the designs of that school, according to Jacobs, and their resounding failure to inspire anything but misery and social disintegration is a testament to the wrongheadedness of the ruralists' ideas.

Steven Spielberg's recent film, Minority Report, is ostensibly about the paradox of free will and moral responsibility in a deterministic universe. But (without revealing too much about the plot) it treats the whole issue in a fairly perfunctory manner; the hero, a futuristic policeman played by Tom Cruise, pursues a resolution to the conundrum of human autonomy pretty much the same way any action hero pursues his designated "McGuffin" (to use Alfred Hitchcock's term for the object--be it a black box, secret document, or missing person--that the hero must find to save the day).

The real focus of the film, in fact, is Spielberg's vision of life in the year 2054, and in Jane Jacobs' old argument about the city vs. the country, Spielberg comes down resolutely on the anti-urban--that is, anti-Jacobs--side. In Minority Report, the city is a filthy, corrupt, brutal place, where herds of soulless people file through soulless public spaces, bombarded ceaselessly with commercial pitches, tracked constantly by identity, and policed by a "department of precrime" that predicts their future offenses, arrests them before the fact, and "imprisons" them by drugging them into a catatonic state that seems little different from their previous urban lives. In an area called "the Sprawl", which resembles a present-day inner-city landscape, the grimy lower classes live squalid lives in decrepit high-rises, hustling to stay alive and ahead of the ubiquitous authorities.

But several times during the film, we see a glimpse of another world entirely: rural settings where happy, fulfilled, emotionally rich characters lead idyllic lives in isolated surroundings of breathtakingly peaceful natural beauty. It's never clear why these people, alone among the hordes, have been blessed with such picture-perfect country estates (there is no suggestion that any of them is particularly weathy, although one of them has a background story that suggests she might be). But it is very clear that any city mouse would switch places with one of these country mice in a heartbeat.

Visions of dehumanizing high-tech urban dystopias and pristine natural Edens are a staple of pessimistic science fiction, of course. But they are normally meant primarily as stylized or symbolic elements; the celebrated rain-soaked futuristic-film-noir Los Angeles depicted in the film Blade Runner, for instance, is more a (magnificently realized) stylistic backdrop to the story than an element of the story itself. The city/countryside dichotomy in Minority Report, on the other hand, is jarring precisely because it appears to be intended as a plausible extrapolation of the present into the future. (The ubiquitous ads pummelling the city folk, for example, are lent verism by the recognizeable real-world products that appear in them.) And as an extrapolation, it is missing the one crucial component that has rendered the city-country debate moot in modern America: suburbia.

Personally, I consider myself an urbanist at heart, and I sympathize strongly with Jacobs' defense of the city. But there's no denying that the suburbs, which already house the majority of Americans and are still growing, provide most people, particularly families with children, with an optimal (to them) compromise between the space and privacy of the country and the convenience and variety of the city. And in a technologically advanced, consumer-oriented world apparently possessed of ample rural space, one would only expect the flight to the security and comfort (not to mention the surveillance-unfriendliness) of the suburbs to expand still further. An imagined future in which suburbia has instead simply vanished without explanation can't be placed front and center in a film--even a science-fiction fantasy--without unduly straining the audience's credulity.

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