While cinefiles debate the merits of Apocalypse Now Redux, the restless imagination of Francis Ford Coppola has already moved on to his next film, Megalopolis, scheduled to begin shooting early in 2002. In fact, Coppola's been working on the screenplay for Megalopolis off and on for 12 years. According to David Germain's summary in an AP story, the movie "focuses on a man who sets out to build a utopian city. He clashes with big business forces who fear that this dreamer's notions of societal perfection will undermine their financial interests."

Coppola fleshes out the vision of the film a bit in conversation with Germain: "I'm trying to say, what's really possible? Do we really have to live in this kind of pay-per-view world in which everybody's going to be in debt and a few people are going to own whatever the key resources are?

"Or are we going to live in a world that is really created by artists and scientists, and is just uplifting for people. Because we could." Coppola adds that in this future he envisions, "Everyone's going to be an artist. That's the destiny of the human being. We're not going to worry about doing dumb work."

Coppola's effusions provide more evidence, if any was needed, that even great artists can be idiots. But his "educated stab at future history" also reminds us of the powerfully ambiguous image of the city concentrated in the word "megalopolis." The first Megalopolis, as we saw last week, was a planned city in fourth-century B.C. Greece, an Attic Brasilia intended to serve as a unifying capital for a federation of city states. This would be a city greater than Athens, the supreme monument to the greatness of Greek culture. You can still visit Megalopolis today, but it is just a small town, a historical curiosity. The dreams that fueled its construction were never realized.

Still, the name of that failed experiment persisted as a symbol of the human ambition to build the City. It was given currency in our own time by the French geographer Jean Gottmann, who lived in the United States for several decades. But Gottmann's megalopolis, described in a 1961 book of that name, was crucially different from its predecessors. Unlike the classic planned cities over the centuries, Gottmann's megalopolis evolved without conscious direction. It was an urban system, not a city, far too complex to be "planned" as a city might be constructed from scratch, but not so complex as to defy understanding.

For Gottmann, the megalopolis was bursting with vitality. It marked a new stage in human evolution. And he could be withering about complaints against the "insecurity, criminality, and hostility" of everyday urban life. Such "moaning," he said in a 1986 essay, is "caused by short memories. Today, even wealthy people dare to go about their business in cities without being guarded by armed escort, which was a necessity, generally accepted, in the cities and towns of yore."

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But for many others, megalopolis is the Inferno. Coppola's vision for the City of the future is radically opposed to Gottmann's. Note that the bad guys in Coppola's Megalopolis, we're told, will be "business forces." They would presumably be kindred spirits to the dominant elite in Fritz Lang's great 1926 film, Metropolis, a dystopian vision of the twenty-first-century City.

Others would dissent both from Gottmann's vision and from Coppola's. They would suggest that both visions are infected by hubris. In the vein of Wendell Berry, they would champion the local, the small, the modest human community. Such folk often regard the megalopolis as a kind of cancer; their loathing is palpable.

Certainly these skeptics are right to warn against the perennial snares of utopia. But isn't their own vision always in danger of sliding into utopian fantasy? Perhaps what we need is new way of thinking about the megalopolis, neither celebrating it uncritically nor falling into despair. This new form of the City is a tangled mix of good and evil. But what else did we expect to find, while we await the New Jerusalem?

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Last week's Books & Culture Corner looked at "Megalopolis Forty Years On."

While out of print, Amazon.com has used copies of Jean Gottmann's Megalopolis.

An extensive About.com report examines "megalopolis" in Gottmann's terms and another report tours the Greek city.

Coppola talked to AP's David Germain about his vision for Megalopolis, but told Variety that he wants it to have a dream cast.

Fan sites for 1926's Metropolis have lots of information and multimedia.

Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.com or subscribe here.

Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

The Future Is Now | You want the news? Read science fiction. (Aug. 6, 2001)

Memorable Memoirs | Whether telling us about the Spirit in the South or the crumbling atheism of a Chinese immigrant, these books provide windos into others' lives. (July 30, 2001)

The Distorted Story of Memoir Inc. | There are many good autobiographies out there, but do those who write about them have to pretend they're the only books worth reading? (July 23, 2001)

Looking for the Soul of CBA | Nearly anything that can be said about Christian publishing is true to some extent, thanks to the industry's ever-enlarging territory. (July 16, 2001)

Give Me Your Muslims, Your Hindus, Your Eastern Orthodox, Yearning to Breathe Free | Immigration's long-ignored effect on American religion is garnering much attention from scholars (July 9, 2001)

Shrekked | Why are readers responding passionately about a simple film review? (July 2, 2001)

Debutante Fiction | The New Yorker should have paid less attention to the novelty of its writers and more attention to their writing. (June 18, 2001)

Saint Teddy? | Yes, Roosevelt paid the usual presidential respects to Christianity, but didn't show much explicit personal devotion to it. (June 11, 2001)

History Bully | Christian scholars speak not-so-softly over a big sticking point: Theodore Roosevelt's faith. (June 4, 2001)

'Taken Up in Glory' | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 21, 2001)

Who Won? Who Cares? | Skip the latest ballot reviews and read Italo Calvino's brilliant election novella "The Watcher." (May 14, 2001)

Infamy Indeed | John Gregory Dunne suggests imperialistic Americans got what they deserved at Pearl Harbor. (May 7, 2001)

Rantings of a Not-So-Primly Dressed Person With Too Much Time | The Chronicle of Higher Education infuses some not-so-subtle bigotry into its fetal-tissue research coverage. (Apr. 30, 2001)
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