Book review: CHRONIC CITY

I don’t know if it’s related to fatherhood, but in the past year I’ve read a lot more fiction than had been my habit. My two favorite novels from this past year are China Mieville’s The City and the City and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. (I only just realized I never reviewed The City and The City, and as it has been a while since I read it, I won’t do a full review here. Rooted in the hard-boiled detective genre, it’s a tantalizing mindfuck of a book, involving a pair of Eastern European cities that actually overlap, and where the populace conducts a consensual hallucination to ignore the other city (and if they break the spell, they’re taken away). This construct allows Mieville to pursue ideas on urban existence, many revolving around the idea of “unseeing”, an act that citydwellers unconsciously do everyday.)

Chronic City is also a mindfuck, though in a different way. Set in a parallel-universe Manhattan (the 9/11 bombings have been replaced by a mysterious gray fog; The New York Times publishes a war-free edition; every character has a strange, but awesome name), our guide and narrator (the book is mostly first-person) is Chase Insteadman, a former child actor engaged to a marooned astronaut. In the opening chapter he meets Perkus Tooth, an apartment-bound pot-smoking contrarian intellectual driven by conspiratorial thoughts at the fringes of pop culture, and gets caught up in Tooth’s associations, both human and cognitive.

I really enjoyed the book. Mostly, it’s a lot of fun. Lethem constructs a oompelling simulacrum of Manhattan, and teasing it out provides endless amusement. The mind-trip is well executed. And Lethem has evolved into a remarkable prose stylist, a master of metaphoric language, someone who can really paint with words in a way I haven’t read in a very long time.

If you like trippy fiction; if you’re a pop culture and literati junkie; if you already find Manhattan otherworldly, Chronic City is definitely worth a shot.

Cities in film

Watching a documentary on the gangster film, it got me to think about cities in film. What films depict the idea of the city really well; communicate the warp, weft, and flow of a metropolis. The types of movies that all my friends who are engaged in thinking about urbanism should see. Here’s the start of a list:

Though a soundstage picture, it must be acknowledged, in that it’s essentially a filmic treatise on the idea of a city, and is so phenomenally influential.

The lure of the city proves great for a country boy. Murnau’s films had palpable energy.

The Naked City
The first shot-on-location crime film of the sound era, it’s use of New York City milieus provides texture not found on soundstages.

The Third Man
The desiccated husk of wartorn Vienna exposes what cities are like when pushed to their extremes.

Rear Window
Because of the limits of its setting, I almost didn’t include this, but that setting is so distinctly and undeniably urban.

High and Low
Class bifurcation; seaminess and fun; a police procedural that turns over the rocks in Yokohama.

Maybe cities aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Blade Runner
a.k.a. Metropolis 2. L.A. is as much of a character as any human (or replicant).

Wings of Desire
Thanks to angels, we get to peer into the minds of Berlin dwellers.

Dark City
The first 2/3rds of this movie are a brilliant reflection and commentary of urban life. The last 1/3rd is a mindless showdown.

Run Lola Run
Only in a city could you cover so much ground on foot. Also, the flash-forwards in passersby’s lives reveal more about urban life.

I’m surprised, given massively expanding urbanism, no film in the last 10 years strikes me as suitable fodder. I’m sure there are flicks I haven’t seen, though, that would qualify…

Crime dramas shot in the city

A few posts back, I linked to a video of Bullitt‘s famous car chase geocoded. As a near-San Franciscan, one of the things I love about Bullitt is the use of real San Francisco locations.

I recently rewatched the mother of all shot-on-location crime pictures, The Naked City. I strongly recommend viewing the Criterion Collection edition, which has a gorgeous picture, audio commentary from the writer who crafted the story, and illuminating interviews.

If it weren’t for The Naked City, you’d have no Law & Order or CSI – this one movie pretty much is the blueprint for all police procedurals to come. And, in addition, it was shot on location in New York City (107 locations!), and used the entire city — not just the shiny parts of Manhattan.

The Naked City was released in 1948, and Bullitt in 1968, so we also have their anniversaries to celebrate. I have no idea if there’s a quality location-shot crime drama from 1988, and I’m pretty certain we haven’t seen any this year.

(It’s also worth noting that The Naked City is the second of a string of 5 amazing pictures helmed by Jules Dassin, perhaps one of the most overlooked/underappreciated directors in Hollywood history.)