Take Me to the River
Water, Metropolitan Growth, and the Countryside
For the moment, let us forget California and recall that nameless, unforgettable landscape--"somewhere in the twentieth century"--summoned up in Terry Gilliam's cult-film classic Brazil. Among the many extraordinary images is a metropolis that wears its infrastructure inside out. The film has been rolling for a few scant minutes when all sorts of conduits, ducts, and pipes that convey essential utilities begin tumbling out onto the urban surface. They erupt from behind walls and arc across ceilings in great looping swags--a Gorgon of hoses sweating, gurgling, pulsating. There is no question that the plumbing thrives with insistent life.
This film is a heady, phantasmagoric reminder of the capitalist polis as the accumulator of materiel, of infrastructure, par excellence. But thrive as it will, the hydrocircuitry also wrings the life out of the surrounding environment. Urban plumbing is the flip side of every acre of land having been scoured and turned into desert. Anymore, the rural lives on only in dreams--dreams produced from within the heart of the city itself. (In the movie, this is not only bad for the environment but bad for the dreamers.) Attempting to hide the inversion is "Central Services." Their logo is a lake of fresh, clean water sprouting a branching tree of aqueducts; their motto, "ducts in designer colors to suit your demanding taste." Central Services tends to the vast landscape of tubes and pipes, which are an essential mechanism for the maintenance of political and economic power. Those characters who understand how the plumbing works join together in an organized underground movement against political corruption. They use the urban blueprint against itself, sabotaging its hoses, turning valves on and off, in order to wreak havoc on the halls of power. Other characters, though, are doomed to fantasize a return to easier, more pastoral times in some imagined place beyond the city's