Thursday, August 23, 2007

The New Watersheds in Art and Literature

Last night I watched The Host, an excellent Korean monster movie. I'd heard it described as a cross between The Royal Tenenbaums and Godzilla, and also as a hybrid of Little Miss Sunshine and Jaws. I'd been skeptical, but these descriptions turned out to fit pretty well - it's a monster movie with a cunning and unique sense of humor. The movie also satirizes globalism and media-fueled groupthink, with a number of scenes that reminded me of one of my favorite books, Don Delilo's White Noise.

But what made me particularly fond of The Host was its underground staging in the concrete rivers beneath Seoul. The first scene takes place in a United States Army hospital, where an American doctor orders his assistant to dump toxic chemicals down the drain. Presumably, a sewer overflow event then discharges the stuff into the Han River, and before long, a mutant man-eating creature is rampaging among picnickers in the riverside park. The symbolism is cutting: here's the Army, aloof and detached from its environment, unwittingly creating a monster.

How does one defeat the product of municipal toxic sludge, then? By familiarizing oneself with the mysterious new watersheds that delivered it, of course. For the rest of the movie, the leading characters try to avenge themselves against the monster by navigating the city's underground rivers and surveilling the sites where they discharge into the Han.

Meanwhile, above ground, the city takes its cues for panic not from the monster itself, but from detached television newsreaders. Television networks are like sewers that run uphill, delivering terror and misery from God knows where into our homes and public places.

Anyhow, go rent it - it's out on DVD. After we saw it last night, Jess and I tried to think up other works of literature and art in which sewers play a major role. Here's what we came up with:

Les Miserables: Jean Valjean's escapes via Paris's sewers, which also receive an extensive historical treatment in an earlier plot digression;

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: as with the Host, the Turtles were born in the crucible of sewer-enabled environmental disaster, and continue to live in sewers to this day;

Gravity's Rainbow: Tyrone Slothrop disappears down a London toilet early in the book.

Can anyone think of others? More sewer arts and literature in the comments, please...


Andrew Riely said...

Not exactly sewers, but there's a French film called Subway from the 80s that involves a guy hiding out in Paris' underworld. There's a great character who steals purses by flying down the median between those huge escalators on roller skates.
I'm also a fan of The Host. I loved the panoramas of the undersides of bridges and all the different ways they try to kill the monster.

sally said...

KANAL- world war 2 movie where the characters- soldiers i think??- are trying to navigate a city in Poland via the sewers. people die from methane gas, someone pops up out of a sewer in German occupied territory, everyone gets lost. i don't think any of the characters survive.