Consider the premise of Dark City. A species of “Strangers” who inhabit the bodies of dead humans have created a massive laboratory somewhere in outer space to perform experiments in search of that x factor the human soul. The lab itself resembles a weird amalgam of different periods and styles, though it is most notably an extreme version of Noir. Every midnight– a meaningless distinction because there is no sun and thus the city-laboratory inhabits a permanent midnight– the Strangers busily produce a plethora of objects– personal effects, papers, keepsakes, etc.– intended to support the new memories implanted in experimental subjects such as John Murdoch. They revise the city by “Tuning”– essentially harmonizing their psychic power, which is then amplified by some unspecified machinery. As if in a fairy tale, each night spirits fiddle with the world while mortals sleep, unaware.
There are more than a few problems with this set-up– most obviously perhaps the hoary old trope, milked to death by the Star Trek franchise, of monsters/aliens driven to discern the irresistible magic of human subjectivity and agency. What IS it that makes humans so awesome? For our purposes we need to attend to the ways that Dark City, a film riddled with US American cultural signifiers, picks up the dark materials of the Gothic in order to dramatize the city as a haunted machine.
Note that this film was produced right at the turn into the mainstreaming of virtuality. By the late 1990s the IT industry– feverishly celebrating itself as the ultimate instrument of Human Ingenuity even as the Silicon Valley financial bubble popped– was already embarked on its project to fabricate a fully hyperreal environment. The suspicion that the world was being encased by an impermeable virtual surface began to proliferate. The media-confected Y2K Panic gave momentary form to this sense of crisis, providing anecdotal support to the Situationists’ prescient theories of the Spectacle. Any effort to peel back the layer of appearances, it seemed, would reveal that nothing existed beneath– just as Murdoch and Bumstead discover when they hammer through the wall under Shell Beach.
Manhattan Transfer is not a gothic novel, though its Modernist techniques can be productively contrasted with the visual style of Dark City. The action of Dos Passos’s novel is set around the turn of the last century– a period of chaotic development in New York. The Strangers in this historical scenario tended to emerge, unwashed, from steerage. They were the muscle– the quick fingers and loaded backs– driving American industry. From the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act to the start of World War I, about 20 million people– primarily from southern and eastern Europe– arrived in the United States. Dos Passos represents this multitudinous flux by stringing fragments together loosely. This is a matter of narrative discourse— of a narrative form that owes more to the principle of montage than panorama. As a counterpoint, Dark City will help us understand Manhattan Transfer.