(The commercial above combines two of my favorite things: reminding people that local “everything is trying to kill you” news is THE WORST, and grown men shrieking like little girls. It’s also far and away the best of all the commercials for Hopper, because the only speaking voice you hear is the no-regional-dialect of the local newscaster, and none of the recurring characters say a word in their awful Southie accents. I will never ever get a Hopper, nor ever buy any product, advertised via South Boston accent. Anyway.)
But yeah, bad times in the news. The train crash in Spain. The Zimmerman verdict. Detroit’s bankruptcy. No shortage of reasons to think a little less of humanity, and its prospects. And I can’t really say anything that magically makes all of that better, but I can maybe offer a tiny salt-grain sized bit of perspective. And to do that, I will look to the oeuvre of John Carpenter, specifically Escape From New York.
Somehow I’ve been doing this blog thing for close to four years and I’ve only mentioned Escape From New York in passing. That can at least partially be chalked up to the fact that it is decidedly not one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, nor is it a particularly glaring omission. I like it, and anyone whom I knew had roughly similar taste in movies as me who hadn’t seen it would certainly get an “Oh, you really should watch it some time” recommendation. But it’s pretty dated, and it’s a little cheap and cheesy and a little rough around the edges in almost every facet. Its main worth as a cultural artifact is in the premise, not the specific beats of the narrative, so to sit through the running time requires a certain amount of either cultish love or ironically distanced appreciation.
Which is fine, because it’s the premise that’s on my mind at the moment. Not even the inciting incident of the plot, which is that Air Force One crashes somewhere insanely dangerous and the President of the United States must be rescued. The premise is the world itself, a dystopian future (1997, ha ha ha) where the insanely dangerous place could exist in the first place, namely the walled off derelict ruins of New York City, which has become America’s foremost maximum security prison.
Dystopian fiction, far more often than not, expresses something about the society that produces it in the moment in history when it was produced. It exaggerates current problems, amplifying them but still allowing them to be recognizable to the audience. Escape From New York was made in 1981, and as far-fetched as its premise seems to be today, back then it was reasonably grounded, by which I mean it was an exaggeration of some real, resonant problems society was grappling with. I was six when Escape From New York came out, and back then I didn’t watch the local news or the national news (or much of anything besides cartoons) and I didn’t actually see the movie until a few years ago, anyway. So none of this comes from my memory, but only what I’ve learned along the way. But two big things are reflected in this dystopian premise:
1. In the late 70’s and early 80’s in the U.S., the crime rate was rising at an alarming rate. Some prefatory text in the flick says that in 1988 alone crime spiked 400%, which precipitated the max prison on Manhattan Island as a national need. That didn’t end up happening in the real world, but the concern was legit.
2. Also in the late 70’s and early 80’s, New York City was in terrible shape and only seemed to be getting worse. A lot of people who had the option of leaving were doing so, and “bad elements” were filling in.
In other words, the world in which Escape From New York was set seemed like a plausible tomorrow. New York abandoned? Already happening. New York ruled by violent gangs? On its way like the A train. Need for a penitentiary that can hold 8 million inmates? Highly likely. Forget plausible, from the viewpoint of 1981 it seemed downright probable. Give the last few law-abiding stragglers a chance to clear out, blow up the bridges and fill in the tunnels, and start airlifting in criminals with life sentences to do as they please under the watch of helicopter gunships? Sure, why not? Sometimes you just gotta steer into the skid, amirite?
Except, obviously enough in hindsight, that didn’t happen. 1997 is now exactly as far in our past as it was in John Carpenter’s future, and although I haven’t been to NYC in a couple years I am given to understand that people may still come and go freely. Actually the city is thriving, and has been for a while, to the point that no one doubted that it could bounce back from a terrorist attack. Nationwide, crime rates have at least stabilized, and in some cases fallen (in other cases, gone up); feel free to slap a  on that if you must but we can all agree that crime rates are no longer rocketing ever upward exponentially.
I may not know exactly what factor or combinations of factors turned around New York City’s fates or why crime lost its terrifying momentum (Freakonomics has some interesting theories on the latter, at least) but that’s beside the point. The point is simply that those things happened. Just to be clear, I’ll say it again: I was six when Escape From New York came out. Its premise has gone from “yeah, something like that probably will end up happening” to “wow, that is insane” within my lifetime. And I’m not that old! (he protests too much)
Deep down in my heart of hearts, I reject the notion that human beings are inherently self-destructive. Good times come and go, bad times come and go. When things get superlatively bad, people put in the good faith effort to fix things. And in the grand scheme of things, the amount of time needed to back away from the abyss and get to a better place can be remarkably short. I don’t mean to be glib, I know that three decades of suffering poverty or injustice is nothing to take lightly, and I also know that not every problem this country had to contend with in 1981 has already been dispatched. But we have taken positive steps in the right direction on a lot of them, and we have no shortage of reminders of times when it was taken for granted that those same problems were inescapable. The value of those reminders lies in realizing the can’t-be-fixed attitude is almost always wrong.
So, there’s been a glut of bad news lately. Sometimes that happens, but all is not lost. It never is. It’s human nature to fear that it is in fact the end of the road, that we might as well pack it in, call it a day, say we had a good run. But there’s no excuse for holding onto that fear as if it’s reality. Things can get better. They have in the past, and the recent past at that, and they surely will again.