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Comfort Food for the Literate
Posted 9 March 2011
Anybody who reads my columns knows I love cities, but I have always had a comparable passion for films. So for me the Oscars is an event I must watch, however critical I usually am of the quality of the nominated films. I am willing to sit through it all despite the tedious nature of the ceremony, and generally banal acceptance speeches, which rarely strike an unpredictable note. And I don't do so primarily for professional reasons, but because I find something seductive about the evening's show biz patter and sentimentality, and its lavish, overdressed triviality. It's the movie fan part of me (who absurdly remembers the names of every actor) - not the film critic - who watches it unfold.
However, I tend, with some exceptions, to be less interested in Hollywood mainstream film than in European art and American independent films. Except for the powerfully realistic Winter's Bone, and the fresh, vibrant, brilliantly edited The Social Network, most of this year's nominees were merely skillfully directed, well-acted works that left me intellectually and emotionally untouched. Obviously, The King's Speech was from the start a lock to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It's uplifting, decorative, and upper class English in the style of many PBS Masterpiece Theater productions, and it leaves the audience undisturbed - comfort food for the literate. Yet some of the most original and trenchant American films of the last four decades - Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Altman's Nashville, Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence and the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man - never won an Oscar for Best Film. For the most part, that's the Oscar norm: reward what's safe, and neglect what's artistically and culturally tough, painful, and visionary.
This year's ceremony was as interminable as most of the past ones were, despite its self-conscious attempt to appeal to the young. Instead of the middle-aged Alec Baldwin, Whoopie Goldberg, and the best of more recent MC's, the quick-witted, too comfortable-in-his-own-skin Billy Crystal (who made an appearance, basking in thunderous applause), two young hip stars James Franco, and Anne Hathaway were anointed. But Franco was uneasy and unsuited for the job - being so ironic about the role he was playing that he seemed to be sleepwalking through the evening. Hathaway was just too eager and hungry for approval, but at least she was lively and, truly believed in the industry's rites. Of course even Billy Crystal never could save Hollywood's empty homage to itself, but he always made it more tolerable.
The Oscars contained only one brief moment that aroused my full attention. Charles Ferguson, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job (a critique of Wall Street for helping perpetrate the economic crisis of 2008) said on accepting his award: "Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong." His words may have had little to do with the televised proceedings, but they succinctly reminded the audience that there is a larger, troubled world outside the insulated, self-serving one being celebrated.
That larger world, especially cities, has always aroused my fervent interest. And it comes to people who write books about cities, I find my sympathies tilting towards those who passionately love urban life. Consequently, I recommend reading Harvard economist Edward Glaeser's provocative and lively Triumph of the City (Penguin Press), despite the fact that I suspect Glaeser's politics are more conservative than mine. Still, anybody who can write, “cities magnify humanity's strengths,” and New York is “a paradigm of urbanity,” shares a great deal of my urban perspective.
For Glaeser, a native New Yorker, “urban concentration can have magical consequences,” as density and proximity makes people more inventive, and ideas emerge “that eventually spread beyond their border and enrich the rest of the world.” He believes it's only in cities where urban scale can provide support for a host of theatres, museums, restaurants, and specialized shops and products. (Of course, he is not a Pollyanna, and he also writes about cities in decline like Detroit.) Given those sentiments, Glaezer is antipathetic to suburban sprawl, which he sees as environmentally disastrous, and having been sustained by a set of flawed policies-federal highway and housing programs,the mortgage tax deduction, and low gas prices.
The book is filled with insights and policy proposals, all of them suggestive, but some that also give me pause. Glaeser is wary of preservationists who make buildings more central than people. He wants to discard the idea “that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city's physical past.” He may not be a fan of the Trumps of the world, but he too blithely wants New York to build more skyscrapers to make housing more affordable. Nothing wrong if it's a building like Frank Gehry's stunning seventy-six storey rental building just south of the Brooklyn Bridge, but odious were such a monolith placed on an exquisite Village side street or even on upper Madison Avenue.
Glaeser even makes some of the right noises about urban poverty. But his deepest concern is not the plight of the city's poor. It is to construct a powerful argument for the importance and grandeur of cities. And in my biased view, he makes that case damn well.