Thursday, October 06, 2005

On the nature of cities:

Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist

One of the many great occupations of my mind is to reflect on the nature of the great cities of the world. I naturally most often turn to the greatest of them all, my very own, New York City, but almost as often I think about the great cities I have traveled to: London, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, to name a few.

I mentally retrace my steps through their streets, their smells, flow, heartbeats, virtues, vices and character. I read about them in fiction and non fiction portrayals and always look for that layer I missed before.

Great cities have always held the fascination of our minds. Whether in attraction, desire, and love, or in fear and loathing, the great city (as exemplified originally in the Western consciousness by Jerusalem and Babylon) has always had that central place in our minds of being an example for all; as often examples of virtue and community as the example of ultimate depravity an inhumanity

In Roman Polanski's new adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, we see early Victorian London in all of its glory and all its squalor.

London (as it is in most Dickens novels) is a living breathing character. The city is as important to the story as Oliver, Bumble, Fagin or Sykes. The characters look, sound, smell, and talk like the city, and the city absorbs their souls and strivings so that it begins to look like them.

The filthy back alleys and tenements filled with men brawling, babies crying and women wailing stand next to the glorious avenues filled with golden hued shops, tall, black leather clad coaches and men dressed in fine linens. Its Mr. Brownlowe's. London, the birthplace of the Industrial revolution, modern science, great literature and the capitalist ideal.

London capitalism and its detrius, its waste products. It's Oliver Twists, its Nancies, its Artful Dodgers, Fagins and Sykes'. It workhouses, gin mills and dirt.

This is perhaps the best film adaptation of a Dickens novel I have ever seen. The time, place, ethos and pathos of the city and its characters are perfectly evoked. The sets, acting, attention to detail and spirit of the Dickens novel are perfectly reproduced.

The city of London shapes Oliver, and yet at the same time Oliver's innocence, desires, and good heart work to change the city in turn. This point (as well as the real affection that Fagin has for the boys and the boys for him) has almost always been overlooked in both the original novel and its later adaptations.

The city as a living breathing unit where its ultimate paradox is that every individual, his heart and action has an effect on all others, while at the same time, the size and complexity of the city ensures compartmentalization and distance, is put perfectly into focus in this masterpiece.

Oliver Twist captures the essence of this paradox perfectly and beautifully.