Vol 8, Num 22 :: 2009.11.13 — 2009.11.26
Listening has something to do with being willing to change ourselves and change our world.
Sr. Joan Chittister
Sufjan Stevens’ new movie The BQE is one of the finest and most creative works of social criticism in recent memory. The film, commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, primarily features footage of traffic on the twisting and often congested highway known as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). Stevens intersperses other footage from Brooklyn (architecture, waterways, amusement parks), but his primary counterpoint is three colorfully-clad female hula-hoop spinners, working under the pseudonyms Botanica, Quantus and Electress. As a complement to the movie, Stevens has also produced a comic book in which the three hula-hoopers are portrayed as super-heroes who fight the evil Dr. Moses-a reference to Robert Moses, the progress-oriented urban planner who designed the BQE.
Stevens’ cinematography-presented in a triptych format-captures the winding, free-for-all insanity of the BQE. In his artist’s statement about the film, Stevens observes that the twisting design of the BQE was mandated by navigating through an already-well-established city with a variety of geographical features like rivers, islands and tidal straits and by the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) politics that kept the BQE out of prestigious neighborhoods, like Brooklyn Heights. As Stevens’ comic book illustrates in its simplistic way, the critiques that the BQE raises are aimed primarily at Robert Moses and his visions of cities designed around technological concepts of progress that pay little heed to the holistic health of humanity. For instance, Moses designed parks that were “fiercely antagonistic to the natural, bucolic and egalitarian…more prison yard than public park” (Stevens’ artist’s statement), and instead were typically focused around competitive, athletic endeavors. Thus, hula-hoopers serve to contrast these focused notions of progress-speeding ahead pell-mell into the future like the BQE traffic on any given day-with the circular motion of the hula hoop, a symbol of a recreational idleness (a la Tom Hodgkinson), which spins in harmony with a person’s motions and never seems to get anywhere. Stevens further exposits the hula-hoop in his artist’s statement:
[The] Hula hoop couldn’t be more at odds with modernity. Americans of the 1950s were linear people, hard working and industrious. They fought world wars, drove big cars, and built mammoth roadways in the name of progress. Their popular sports reflected the same: baseball and football were competitive and strategic games … The hoop couldn’t be more different. It required no teams. It wasn’t competitive. It wasn’t linear. It was philosophically personal and metaphysically absurd, a gratuitous recreation built around a simple circular tube of plastic meant for nothing more than idle enjoyment and exercise.
These critiques of progress, along with the film’s tightly-crafted instrumental soundtrack, have earned it comparisons with the best socially critical films of our time (most notably, Koyaanisqatsi). But unlike some critics, who dismiss the BQE as merely rehashing Koyaanisqatsi, I would argue that Stevens’ film has at least one significant distinguishing feature: the specificity of its rootedness in a particular place. Not only was the BQE funded by the people of Brooklyn, but Stevens-a resident of Brooklyn himself-demonstrates a deep love for, and in his pointed criticisms, a strong desire for the transformation of Brooklyn into a more healthy and humane environment. In laying the ground work for shooting the film and penning the scores, Stevens undoubtedly spent numerous hours and days listening to Brooklyn, eventually forging a deeper understanding of the nature of the place. And in listening and being attentive (a rare practice in our modern age), Stevens begins to embody the wisdom expressed by Sr. Joan Chittister at the outset of this review and thus out of his listening began to emerge artistically-expressed yearnings for the transformation of himself, of Brooklyn and indeed of all humanity. We would do well to follow the example of Stevens and to begin to nurture practices of listening to our own locales-countercultural in our age of the placelessness of globalization-and through listening to begin to imagine the transformation of these places (and ourselves).
Over the course of its brief 40-minute span, the cinematography of The BQE is not only deeply rooted in the Brooklyn locale, portraying it from a host of perspectives (moving and stationary), but full of poignant imagery from the shifting between the spinning hula hoop and the spinning tire to the nighttime ride zipping through the lined city streets accompanied by a video-game-like, electronica movement of the soundtrack. The triptych format lends itself well to some visually stunning scenes, especially toward the end of the film where Stevens’ flips the film for one of the frames to create a striking symmetry, forging the illusion that the same cars are going in opposite directions at the same time. This visual illusion, along with the others that Stevens crafts here, are apt images to depict the BQE, itself an illusion of progress woven by Robert Moses into the fabric of life in Brooklyn, but as Stevens notes, the BQE, like all illusions, is beginning to crumble: “portentous pot holes, cracked concrete, bowed railing and rusted buttresses signify the mortality of an expressway-whose safety and construction standards rate far below National Interstate Highway criteria.” To crumble, I suppose is the nature of all illusions, and the prophetic role of the artist is to see the fissures and hear the rumblings and to call us all to renounce the illusion and to begin to change our ways and thus to find ways of living that are more healthful and sane. Stevens has offered us a brilliant critical work of this sort in The BQE; may it inspire us to create similarly revealing works rooted in thousands of different places, wherever we find ourselves, and may we in the process begin to see the transformation not only of these places, but of all creation as well.