Police Beat
dir. Robinson Devor

For those who haven't heard, Police Beat (which was written by Charles Mudede and is based on his column in this paper) is an engaging picaresque about a Seattle bike cop distracted from his job by a girlfriend who has gone camping with another man. The cop, known only as "Z," is Senegalese and he narrates the movie in Wolof, which we read in English subtitles.

There are many reasons to admire Police Beat. It is beautifully filmed, the script brims with insights about love, and (despite its observation that "relationships are cruel, therefore the world is cruel") it is deeply optimistic. But what I admire most is the film's depiction of Seattle and, by extension, of the contemporary city.

The bike cop, like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, is a kind of seer guided by voices. His route is shaped by the impersonal commands of a dispatcher who narrates the city's unfolding transgressions: a man drinks to excess; a silent intruder is agitated by a pet bird; another forces two women to exercise at gunpoint; someone bleeds to death beneath a desk; a dead tree "attacks" a woman. Z follows, and the city reveals itself.

This kind of will-less watcher—a fairly common cinematic device—transforms a collective story (with Police Beat and Taxi Driver, that of a city; or, in the case of military dramas, such as Battle of the Bulge, Saving Private Ryan, etc., the putative story of a nation) into the story of an individual, a hero. Guided by voices, the hero stands in for the group. Thus, the potentials and power of the collective are displaced by the romantic tale of the isolated man. The logic of the hero's tale suits and supports many other hierarchies, including that of the old centralized city with its dependent rings of suburb, countryside, and nature. The hero, standing at the center, organizes our understanding of people just as the old city organized our understanding of space.

Police Beat somehow manages to elude this fate. To begin, its landscape is hopelessly confused. Wilderness blooms beneath freeways. Buildings tower above densely overgrown waterways. Moreover, where the terrifying psyche of Travis Bickle came to dominate Taxi Driver, Police Beat obscures the psychology of Z within the gauze of a foreigner's politesse and Z's fussy equanimity in the face of widely diverging challenges. Z meets a floating corpse with the same dispassionate gaze as he does a sidewalk contretemps. Both are punctuated by distracted calls to his girlfriend's unanswered cell phone. The use of Wolof also flattens Z by making him alien to us. In Police Beat, the hero—that towering presence around whom most films array their subservient stories—is brought low so the vast, horizontal expanse of the city can become visible.

And what a city! Equal parts towering bridges and tangled woods, caged pets and wild animals, rich and poor, the living and the dead, this city offers no organizing hierarchies by which to arrange our feelings or experience. Z's serial encounters, lightly patterned by the steady hum of his longing for the absent girlfriend, turn the city into a collection of scattered curios.

The landscape that holds them is rendered as an endless series of surfaces. A laurel hedge becomes a towering wall of green in which a gardener discovers a sleeping drunk. The view west at dusk stacks horizon upon horizon: a close slope of lawn beneath a distant field of streetlights on a dark forested hill, remote mountains topped by a light summer sky. Fenced houses bisected by loping power lines frame a man in a kilt who shoots a stalled postal truck and runs away. The sky is absurdly dramatic, reducing the human drama below to a kind of insect triviality. Across this flattened terrain various lives play out, at once static and restlessly moving, atomized yet pressed upon by others, repetitious yet of infinite variety. This is the logic of the contemporary city.

Art creates cities, or at least makes them legible. Godard gave us Paris, a freewheeling cinematic Paris where the deluded bourgeois remain still, unwilling to recognize the complexities bursting at the edge of their paradise, in the banlieues. In America, we could happily go on consuming the image of the old city with its drama of the urban center surrounded by dependent rings. Or we could look frankly at the city where we actually live. Police Beat insists that we do so.