I finally got around to watching Elvis Presley's It Happened at the World's Fair. It succeeded in being worse than I had imagined. Little in it has any relationship with reality. Its music is bland. And its story is unable to support its 105-minute length. But it does have a moment (just over two-minutes long) that deserves a place in the history of Northwest cinema. The scene, which happens on the Monorail, and has Elvis Presley singing an easily forgettable tune to a sleeping Asian girl, Sue-Lin (Vicky Tiu), and her huge and red doll dog, cannot be denied. It's like looking into a telescope of time and seeing, from 1963, the year the film was shot, a city that's waiting in one of Seattle's futures.
This city (year 2018?) has a robust a public transportation system that smoothly flies over its car-choked streets and offers passengers views of modernist office towers and, at dusk, otherworldly skies. This city waited for us. But it waited in vain. We never arrived there. Instead, we have a Seattle that's still stuck in the car. Its public transportation system is primitive, and it has spent a fortune on a car tunnel whose opening has been delayed and delayed; and even when it's finally opened, it will solve next to none of the city's growing congestion problems.
But this scene. The Asian American girl; the white American icon; the future of transportation, the rocket-shaped monorail. We know all of this does not arrive in Seattle, or any other city in the US. It instead arrives in the post-crash China. And how did this detour happen? We need only to read Adam Tooze's new book Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World to understand why Elvis is, in fact, heading to Beijing with the Asian girl and that big dog thing.
The Century 21 Exposition's monorail did not replace Futurama, the 1939 vision of automobile-utopia that General Motors sold to the public at the New York World's Fair exhibit. In reality (and as the super-expensive car tunnel makes abundantly clear), Seattle never left Futurama. It is still heading to a utopia that now only exists in the past, the first half of the 20th century. But in 1963, it presented a form of transportation that would emerge in China. And how it ended up there was an economic crisis that began in the US's financial sector.
There were two global responses to this crash. One was to bail out financial institutions, and the other was demand-side spending. The US did the former, and China did the latter. As a consequence, the US did not pull the world out of the catastrophe; the Chinese did. And they did so by spending hugely on health and transportation. From the catastrophe of World War II emerged the US's highway system; from the crash of 2008 emerged what Tooze describes as “perhaps the most spectacular infrastructure project of the last generation anywhere in the world,” China's high-speed rail network. This is the 21st century that Elvis is heading to on the monorail.