Monday, August 6, 2012

Master Wayne Doesn't Go To Washington

(This post began its life as a comment on another blog.)

You better answer your DKR smartphone: it's Christopher Nolan on
the line and he needs to tell you some deep shit about late capitalism.
The Dark Knight Rises has been out for two weeks, and the discourse surrounding the film is still preoccupied with how topical (for better or for worse) it is or tries to be. Sure, in the months leading up to the release, the internet was alive with fans "pre-congratulating Nolan for tapping into the spirit of Occupy,"  as Anthony Lane puts it in his review for the New Yorker (this buzz was due in part to rumors last fall that Nolan might shoot scenes at Zuccotti Park when filming moved from LA to New York). But as Lane says: "it didn't work out."

I've agreed with some part of most every review I've read of the film, except when the reviewer turns to the question of the film's politics.  Roger Ebert, who generally liked it, calls the setting a "doom-shrouded, apocalyptic future that seems uncomfortably close to today's headlines." But haven't superheroes always been engaged with the headlines, from Germany Invades Poland to Diamond Thief Escapes From Prison? Then there's a review in The Guardian that can't decide if the film is anti-capitalist or pro-capitalist (I will forgive your oversimplification, Mark Fisher, and give you a clue: the movie has so far made more than $300 million). 

See, the thing is, there is very little in the way of coherent political argument in the movie, and it is misguided to expect one from Nolan in the first place, or to try to piece one together from the movie's passing invocations of politics. Of course, I don't put much stake in Nolan's blatantly ironic response either: "we put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things. It's just telling a story." (Again, the movie has made more than $300 million to date. Nolan isn't your grandpa just sitting down to tell you a story--this is business.)

Let's face it: no Batman film has been as political as this one.

I ultimately think The Dark Knight Rises is a very political movie. But in order to understand how the movie functions politically, we shouldn't be glossing its admittedly pretentious themes. Instead, we need to look at its entire narrative structure, which will reveal how the audience expectations encoded in a summer blockbuster comic book romance of this kind (even an 'edgy' one like DKR) result from socioeconomic, ideological, and cultural forces.

Sure there are vaguely subversive scenes of a cop tossing his badge over a bridge, of hanged millionaires, of a masked criminal storming the Stock Exchange, but despite these gestures, the film, like Batman himself, ultimately winds up defending the status quo. The pleasure of a Nolan-style romance is to watch all of the symbols and archetypes get jumbled about for two hours before being placed neatly back where they belong. It’s carnivalesque, you know where a goat gets made king for a day, but the king is still pretty much the king. In Nolan’s Batman movies, justice and chaos, good and evil, powerful and powerless all trade places for a little while, giving the plot that extra helping of tension which makes the pay-off all the more exciting. If you ask me, it’s pretty innovative as far as romance goes, where yeah, duh, the good guy is going to win.
No scathing cinematic criticism
of corporate America is complete
without a cute toy tie-in.
I would give Nolan the benefit of the doubt as a professional crowd-pleaser. The juxtaposition of the little boy singing the national anthem and Bane blowing up the stadium provides that whiff of pretentiousness that audiences eat up. Nolan isn’t really trying to say anything substantive about the ol’ US of A, but he’s counting on us believing that he is. It’s like expecting Radioheader Thom Yorke’s rambling about “bunkers” and “chirping cellphones” and “kicking screaming Gucci little piggies” to be a cogent critique of consumerism; or Bruce Springsteen’s more half-assed lyrics about backbreaking days in the factory to be a rich depiction of working-class life. What do all these guys have in common? They’re all professional entertainers and they’re all stinking rich.

The film winds up irking me the most precisely because it so clearly stands for that very status quo that, had it really "tapped into the spirit of Occupy," it might have set out to criticize. At the end of the movie, I wanted to know: so all those orphans who couldn’t find work and had nowhere to live but the sewers, who desperately rallied around Bane because he promised them a better life, who partook in a popular revolution (you know, the kind that gave birth to Amurrrica)—they just get the shit beaten out of them by the cops? Where are they after the movie? Back in prison? Or back to living in a (literal) shithole, still unemployed? “Yup,” the film seems to say. And what about the next generation of orphans? “Why, they get to live in an eccentric billionaire’s creepy mansion (which will likely serve as a daily reminder of the wealth and status they will never have) until they turn eighteen or the city runs out of funds and shuts the place down.” And Commissioner Gordon, the deceitful and self-serving cop who seems to prefer the thrill of vigilantism to his actual job of fighting crime and dealing justice? “Yeah, nothing really changes there, either.”

At least real cops shoot at children with parents, and not poor helpless 
orphans. Remember, things could be worse. You could live in Gotham.

Wait, there was no strife during the 1960s. What did these guys do all day?
But then I remembered that superhero stories depend on an imperfect world that is socially stratified, unfair, uncaring—that is fertile ground for strife. If everything is finally made right, there can never be a sequel. The Dark Knight Rises, like basically every romance ever, reinforces hegemonic values by creating a story in which only those values can triumph. In this case, it’s the complacent bourgeois values that the moviegoing audience either subscribes or aspires to: ‘rich people suck, but then again poor people are stinky and still need to play by the rules set out by the rich people to keep them down in the first place, no matter how desperate their circumstances.’ Wha? It's a paradox, but all-too-familiar at the same time, no? Yup,  America is safe again.

More on bike lanes

The history of a very early bicycle right-of-way can be found here. As we know now, for cyclists a stretch of smooth asphalt is always preferable to a rail. But kudos to the South Jersey victorians for trying.

Friday, July 27, 2012


SEPTA is doing something right, it seems. We have to remember that while SEPTA is entirely inadequate for a city that is as big as Philadelphia and that is growing as steadily, it is rare in the better part of this country to encounter a transit system with as wide a network and as large a fleet (most American cities have zilch in the way of public transit).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Tyranny of the Automobile, and the Vile Conservative Agenda on Transportation

I wanted to get this post out in time for Independence Day, as it concerns one of the most important yet, on this day, overlooked forms of independence---that is, transportation. Today people celebrate their "freedom," whatever that means. Ask a flag waver to describe his or her freedom to you, what makes it uniquely American and worth celebrating on this national holiday, and you will probably get some general 5th-grade social studies answer about how we're fortunate (already a confused attitude towards what is otherwise a god-given right) to live in a democracy with freedom of speech and religion and so forth, ignoring entirely that most Western countries, including Canada and France, have these freedoms in equal measure. 

You might hear, too, about how our forefathers threw off the yoke of British tyranny. In our ongoing effort to convince ourselves that our freedom only exists in these United States, we continue to locate "tyranny" in other countries that, conveniently, Tea-Partiers and other flag-waving rubes have never been to: whether it's the Soviet-style national healthcare of Canada, the Maoist and anti-American secularism of France, the (symbolic) monarchy of the UK, the Nazi-ist fever-dream of the Euro Zone. It's a madlibs that media personalities model for the viewers at home: select a social program,  select a tyrannical regime from the 20th century, then compare them in public.  

It's too bad that on this day we're not more preoccupied with throwing off the tyrannies that persist in our own country, the ones that emerge subtly and without fanfare in the midst of our very "freedom." "Free" markets have led to a publicly-subsidized corporate oligarchy that would terminate your job if it meant a slight increase in profits; "freedom" of religion has led to a "christian" state that is more hung up on decreeing who can love who than it is interested in the actual christian mission of helping the less fortunate.

But I want to focus here on a different tyranny, very much of a piece with the above tyrannies, insofar as it is a function of our perverted idea of freedom: that is, the tyranny of the automobile. (I also wish to make a correction to the previous post: by now, readers, I hope it is clear that this blog will feature polemics and puff on fiction and music and modern life).

Life would be so much easier if cars were just people, flawed like you or I.
The tyranny of the automobile affects the most basic of our freedoms, the freedom to move, to be in one place or another, as we see fit. You can come face to face with this tyranny very easily. Say you are walking down the sidewalk and see a friend across the street. If you were to change your course and simply walk over to greet that friend, you could be killed. You have to look both ways and make sure that modern metallic death isn't barreling down at you (and even then you could be ticketed for jaywalking); or you have to go to the nearest crosswalk, which in some suburban areas are few and far between and allow pedestrian crossings for only fifteen seconds out of every five minutes.

Or try biking around a city for a month without being harassed by an indignant motorist ignorant to the fact that, were there to be an accident, it is you who would likely die; or without experiencing the precariousness of riding down the aisle formed by a moving vehicle and a parked one.

Or simply be a motorist and go experience that most absurd of modern phenomena which claims entire days in the lives of millions of Americans: congestion on the expressway.

The Cars are not to blame.
Now some of you might say that cars accomplish a great many things and that the street is designed for transportation and hence for cars, and that the division between sidewalk and street exists to protect pedestrians and motorists alike. But my question is, why must the vast majority of streets belong to cars? With so many streets, why are there not more streets dedicated to just bikes, or just pedestrians, or just trolleys, or just strollers, or just wheelchairs? After all, we have parkways and freeways and highways and expressways and tunnels and bridges (where all traffic other than automobile traffic is prohibited, mind you) that bisect our cities and bring noise and car wrecks within feet of our homes and places of work. And yet where are the bikeways or the walkways or the tramways? How come none of these share the priority of the highway? How come none of these loom so large in our urban landscapes, or in our psyches?

In Philadelphia, where I live, I can think of only two streets that are closed to automobile traffic: Locust and Liacouras Walks, on the campuses of Penn and Temple Universities, respectively. Philly is truly a victim of the car culture, and as a result we cannot get our act together on the mass transit front, as this recent article in the Philadelphia Citypaper reminds us (for those of you who are not from the Delaware Valley, SEPTA is the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, and is always broke). That SEPTA is strapped for cash is not news. But this article points to a troubling trend: even though ridership is up, funding is down. Indeed, even as more people are moving back into the city and riding buses and trains, SEPTA cannot perform basic maintenance. So of course, expansion is out of the question. But it's expansion that would bring public transit to more people, reducing dependence on cars, thus reducing traffic and carbon emissions, and opening up streets for alternate uses, further reducing our dependence on cars, and so on. I would hope that the benefits of this are apparent to you, readers. But in case they are not, here goes: reducing dependence on automobiles gives you a place to ride your bike or stroll, lessens the chance that you or someone you love will die in a vehicular fatality (statistically, trains crash exponentially less than cars), and might help us as a species to avert apocalyptic climate change.

The article goes into the sordid history of SEPTA's funding, of its disproportionate commitment to the suburb-benefiting railroad division, of its inability to levy public money effectively. But what I am most concerned with is the conversation happening on the national scale (today is, after all, the national day), which is perhaps the greatest detriment to transit authorities across the country.  

The Tea Party is about as batshit as this one.
Proponents of the recent conservative backlash, the people who wave their flags most forcefully today and who offer only tautologies about their so-called "freedom," are attacking transit initiatives on the national scale because they see them as un-American, as ostensibly infringing on their right not to pay for things that don't directly benefit them, on their right to not give a shit about anyone but themselves, this wonderful thing they call "freedom." As Daniel Denvir notes in the Citypaper article: "Conservatives have long derided mass transit — like welfare, perceived to be the domain of poor urban black people — as a 'socialistic program' imported from Europe." But this xenophobia is not limited to highspeed rail or lightrail projects (which are indeed successful European initiatives of the last 30 years), but extends to basically any form of transportation that happens outside of an automobile. Tea Party bumpkins have gone so far as to protest bicycle lanes, which, in Philadelphia at least, is the most visible progress on the transportation front.

I wonder: how can one look at this and think it is anything other than politicians in the pockets of the automobile industry, and their gullible constituents imposing their received mode of "American" individualism on their countrymen? What does a bicycle lane do to offend a Tea Partier? Most of these people live in exurbia and the sticks anyway, and will probably never see a bicycle lane in their lives. A bicycle lane gets installed for a pittance compared to the obscene amount of money poured into the highway system each year. And it goes one step toward protecting me and all other cyclists. And all that it asks is that motorists proceed with a modicum of caution and humility.

Jane Jacobs sticking it to cars.
But that, of course, is too much to ask, and this, readers, is the tyranny of the automobile. The automobile is the greatest fiction of American individualism, fueling our erroneous beliefs that we have the freedom to go where we want, when we want, because we're not tied to a socialist, European, faggy, elitist train schedule. And as always, the cost of this "automobility" is  never brought up. Meaning, the billions of federal and state dollars spent maintaining public roadways (hmmm, sounds like a social program to me); as well as the human cost in the form of pedestrian and vehicular deaths; and the psychological-emotional cost of displacing people in the 60s and 70s so urban planners could drive interstates right through their neighborhoods (more info on that here). The latter has been a great wound in the American city, from which it has yet to heal. Jane Jacobs and others tried to tell us about it, but not enough people listened....

People hanging out in the middle of Market St, Philadelphia, a century ago.
All the rhetoric of freedom and liberty and American-ness that surrounds cars is the backbone of the ideology that allows them to retain their dominance in our culture. But that ideology is fabricated by people in the automotive industry who stand to make a buck, a lot of bucks, if the car is the only acceptable mode of transportation in this country (they've clearly already convinced the Tea Party).  The supremacy of the car has been attained with money and lawsuits from the get go, as this insightful piece from the brilliant Atlantic Cities shows.  There was a definitive moment when jaywalking was invented, Sarah Goodyear argues, also known as the moment when cars started to rule the streets, and the ideology machine began to turn, and the pedestrians who were slain by automobiles were no longer thought of as victims of an as-yet-to-be-regulated aspect of modernity, but as perpetrators of a crime against the glory of that very modernity. Get out of the way, or you might just get killed by a ton of American freedom, and it will be your own fault. It is this ideology, the fact that we take the automobile's supremacy for granted, that we ignore at what cost it comes, that makes this supremacy into a tyranny.

So this Independence Day, I want to celebrate the inroads that we've made into the overthrow of the tyranny of the automobile. I'm proud to live in a city that recognizes the need for bicycle lanes and that ensures my natural right to move about my space freely. And I remain hopeful that one day Philadelphia might look that way that Louis Kahn had envisioned it when he drew up his traffic flow plan for Center City, that there will be roads dedicated to all forms of transportation, and that even when we find ourselves barred from a certain roadway because our vehicle of choice is prohibited, we will see this not as an affront to our "freedom," not as an affront to the United States, but as a just and fair measure meant to ensure the well being of all.

Louis Kahn's gorgeous traffic flow plan for Center City Philadelphia.