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Changing Lanes: A Dialogue in Class Struggles Defines Post 9/11 New York

Virtually everything from the choice of camera angles to the meticulous set placement of art reinforces Michell's take that New York (and presumably all of America) has become for the most part a Marxist two-class class system made up of a classical ruling class and a proletariat.

Elizabeth Krasnoff Levy

Issue #66, February 2004

In a contribution to The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reflects upon the bond between his three-year-old daughter, Olivia, and her imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli, who apparently remains perpetually unavailable to play. Gopnik observes that Ravioli's consistent inaccessibility seems to drive the relationship: Much of Olivia's accounts of her imaginary friend center on missed toy cell phone calls, quick lunches, impromptu meetings, shared cab rides, and a growing adversarial relationship with Ravioli's imaginary assistant, Laurie, who screens his calls. Gopnik consults his sister, a developmental psychologist who lives in California. In a subsequent telephone conversation, he explains that he understands that "it's normal for [Olivia] to have an imaginary friend [...] but have you ever heard of an imaginary friend who's too busy to play with you?" After a bit of reflection, the sister responds: "No [...] I'm sure that doesn't occur anywhere in the research literature. That sounds completely New York."

Despite her youth, Gopnik's daughter not only recognizes but employs the modern trappings of the upscale city around her: cell phones, cabs, personal assistants. She uses them to establish her own world of inaccessibility and power. What has become literally child's play to Olivia represents the very elements that fuel — and at times obscure — the Marxist themes in the film Changing Lanes. Much like Olivia, director Roger Michell plays with technology and its impact on two men in New York City, each representing a specific segment of the city's polarized population. Unlike Olivia, Michell uses the city as a microcosm of America to measure the future for human relations on a rainy Good Friday, with two men who allow a minor traffic accident to become a violent, rage-filled vendetta that ultimately defines each man. "By the end of the day," notes Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, "each man's anger [and disregard for others] scares him more than the other guy's."

Some of Michell's choices in casting and plot have invited a wide spectrum of reviews. Roger Ebert hails the film as one of the year's best for its deeper significance, noting, "It's not just about the quarrel between these two men, but about the ways they live their lives." Meanwhile, Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times sees only "cheaply contrived turns" and thin "emotional shifts [that] insult the audience rather than elaborate on the characters." Such negative comments come largely from reviews that seem to have misconstrued the movie's point. As Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers points out, "In its own shallow, straight-to-video way, Changing Lanes is onto something." Though Travers sees a larger point, he focuses on rage rather than social issues, and therefore misses the true value of this film.

What seems uneven in terms of sophistication, Michell renders deliberately. Virtually everything from the choice of camera angles to the meticulous set placement of art reinforces his take that New York (and presumably all of America) has become for the most part a Marxist two-class class system made up of a classical ruling class and a proletariat. Using race as a marker, Michell illustrates Marxist theorist Frederic Jameson's idea that an "ur-narrative or master fantasy about the interaction of collective subjects" can lead us to regard the text as a "class discourse." To clarify his message that this film focuses on class struggle, not an isolated fight between two men, Michell casts Black and White actors in stereotypical roles: Caucasian Ben Affleck portrays privileged, self-diluting (and -deluding) Wall Street attorney Gavin Banek, and African American Samuel L. Jackson plays Doyle Gipson, a cautious, recovering-alcoholic father. These clichéd casting choices, together with somewhat predictable plot twists and underuse of a dynamic supporting cast, are met with well-crafted dialogue and a staging so thoughtfully balanced, with parallel scenes and cuts, it seems almost choreographed.

Underneath the carefully paired and syncopated beat of two men's individual battles for justice and survival, the movie keeps the Marxist theme strong, leading me to recall Edmund Wilson on "Marxism and Literature." The movie "directly and indirectly show[s] class struggle" and encourages the audience to "feel that [they are] participating in the lives described; [... as] a member of the proletariat."

We, as the audience, feel for Gipson early in the film: his car is struck on the freeway by Banek's, and we are disturbed by Banek's callous "Better luck next time" as he drives off. Technology illustrates the divide between these two characters. Automobiles bring them into each other's lives and gauge their respective place in society: Banek's shiny new silver Mercedes collides with Gipson's rust-stained Toyota, and drives off. Leaving Gipson to fend for himself on foot on Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, Michell paints a stark portrait of the African American's vantage point in the superhighway of technology-driven America: Gipson stands alone as cars race by him.

Both men are on their way to court dates, where White Banek faces a Black judge, and Black Gipson a White judge, and later, a White loan officer. Banek has merely to deliver some papers to reconcile transferring control of a multimillion dollar Foundation from its deceased founder Simon Dunne to Banek's law firm; Gipson has to make a court date in a last-ditch effort to reconcile with his wife and their child. When Banek realizes he lost the papers in the crash, and Gipson arrives too late at court, the stage is set: their collision wires these men in a sort of daylong illustration of a Marxist discourse; alternating desires for justice with desires for retribution, their conflict is conducted largely through electronic communications technology, which ironically leads to miscommunication.

While Banek is proactive, directing his activities through his cell phone, Gipson is reactive, relegated to pay phones and pagers. Rarely does Gipson act, so much as he reacts. He answers Banek, but not always effectively, and often not at Banek directly. Gipson gets into a fight outside a bar with two White strangers; he throws a computer at a wall; he takes on school authorities and the police. In each case, Gipson vents frustration rather than directly and effectively attacking Banek.

Call and Response

This distinction in weaponry defines the differences between these two men and the classes each represent. Technology is Michell's yardstick, with specific electronic devices chosen that reflect Jameson's theory that "the constitutive form of class relationships and class struggle is always that between a dominant and a laboring class." Banek's cell phone symbolizes his role as the proactive, powerful dominator, particularly when contrasted with Gipson's pager, which can only receive information, and lacks a reactive feature to use as a response. For that, Gipson relies on a taxicab.

The class divide is also reflected in the different relationships each man has to the computer. Gipson is the new proletariat; he has computer access at work as a telephone insurance salesman, but does not use it to his advantage. Banek, moving through the shiny-screened world of his law firm, uses the computer to control Gipson — for instance, by destroying his credit history and bankrupting him. Gipson finds himself at the mercy of the White loan officer Ron Cabot, who coldly relies on the computer for facts. In desperation, Gipson begs him, "I need this loan, Ron. I need it for my life." Even his impassioned plea does little, because Ron represents another member of the proletariat who receives and relies on what the computer tells him.

Ultimately, Gipson responds with the only weapon he has — violence. He attempts to throw the computer through a plate glass wall. Michell carefully choreographs the scene so that the computer smashes into a concrete pillar but does not break through the glass. The gesture demarks Gipson's place in life: he is trapped where he is; he can see beyond his circumstance, but he cannot get there; he is a prisoner of technology. Clearly, Michell hopes to illustrate the digital divide, which the latest U.S. Census shows, "61 percent of White, non-Hispanic adults lived in households with a computer, significantly more than Black or Hispanic adults (37 and 35 percent respectively)."

Although Gipson's behavior becomes as despicable as Banek's, the film keeps the audience's sympathy with Gipson by focusing on Banek's response rather than Gipson's actions. Gipson apparently uses a fax machine to taunt Banek, but the audience only sees the results of his efforts in Banek's reaction to the hand-scrawled note. Gipson's only effective proactive action comes when he wields a tire iron — a workingman's tool — to loosen the wheel on Banek's Mercedes. Again the audience does not witness the full act, only a brief shot of him contemplating it, at a store looking at what appears to be metal pipes. Here, Michell gives Gipson a tire iron to underscore how and why the lower classes resort to violence as their only recourse. Gipson's limited access to technology does not render him helpless against White, moneyed manipulation; rather, this proletariat man seizes upon violence as his only effective tool.

Nevertheless, the movie asks its audience to identify with Gipson's cause. It characterizes Gipson as the ultimate victim who suffers at the hands of the White class. Michell leaves us out in the rain with him — literally and figuratively — as Banek abandons him, his ex-wife's lawyer takes advantage of his absence, and the White judge in the custody hearing punishes and then scolds him. All blame Gipson for circumstances beyond his control. In short, he embodies the proletariat's voiceless cause.

Choreographing Dissent

Through Gipson and Banek, Michell humanizes Jameson's ideology "that Marxist classes must always be apprehended relationally, and that the ultimate (or ideal) form of class relationship and class struggle is always dichotomous." Through juxtaposition, Michell conducts a class discourse with his audience. He draws direct comparisons between the two main characters to expose the injustice of modern New York (America's microcosm). Using technology, the director illustrates how a society — even one that prides itself on democracy — can render injustice on a class scale. This film becomes most effective when Michell pits Banek's life against Gipson's. In this way, Michell draws us into Jameson's views that class struggle revolves around engagement and interaction of the upper class and the proletariat. Michell mimics class dichotomy in the film's structure. He divides his film so that he follows each scene of Banek with another involving Gipson. With the exception of the beginning sequence and a cutaway shot to the highways flowing smoothly at night, virtually every scene has one of the two men in it.

Like a pendulum, the film swings back and forth between the parallel worlds of the two main characters, juxtaposing Banek's neat, stylish Manhattan against Gipson's faded, rundown Queens. The collision of these two spheres spins the Marxist dialogue into action. In one sequence, Michell couples over-the-shoulder shots of Banek walking into the spacious, clean, tastefully-appointed Wall Street law office, with clips shot from below ground allowing us to view Gipson as he treads over sooty, open grates in city blocks. Affleck's dark form cuts a straight, purposeful path through the vast beige and windowed surroundings, while we see Jackson — dressed head-to-toe in brown — through holes in the grates as his form blends into the gray-brown background of the New York streetscape. We watch his feet as he wanders in aimless circles trying to determine his direction. In these little moments, the film whispers the innate conflict the class structure of our society dictates.

The shots establish each man's place within society: Banek stands on firm ground and seems to have every advantage; however, placing the camera over his shoulder suggests that his power comes from someone higher up — that he is in fact a marionette. At the same time, Gipson's existence seems precarious, and this footage reminds us that his has been a slow, deliberate rise from the bottom of his addiction. The grates reinforce Gipson's potential to slip back through society's cracks. Michell uses these sequences to reinforce the irony of each man's struggle: White upper class Banek has firm footing but lacks control over his future and spends the day fighting for his survival. On the other hand, lower-middle-class African American Gipson struggles each day to maintain the footing he has established for himself, but what he strives for on this Good Friday is justice. Gipson thinks his survival hangs in the balance, but his plight centers on the powerful granting justice. He cannot sanction his own redemption.

Saving Private Banek

Michell asks the audience to favor Gipson with sympathy, yet he seeks understanding and perspective when it comes to Banek. In this lawyer, he directly draws an Orwellian characterization of Marxist issues with imperialism, suggesting that the powerful control the less powerful even within its own circle. Repeatedly we hear from Banek's wife, Cynthia, and from Banek's former lover, Michelle, that he has become "one of them" — meaning, the suits, not people like Michelle who toil for them. Initially he cannot figure out what's wrong with that. Isn't that the measure of success? In rising from working-class roots himself and marrying the boss's daughter (Cynthia), he does not see that his bosses more than control him; they own him.

Eventually, Banek discovers that despite his education and because of his marriage, he is not omnipotent-not a Master of the Universe, as Tom Wolfe once put it. Rather, Banek and the audience learn that he has been the horse in this Animal Farm: "I'm 29 years old. [Simon Dunne's] Foundation is $107 million. My bosses are the trustees — so why didn't they come to court with me? I don't know why Mina Dunne hates me. I assume there's a reason. Why am I always the last guy in the room to know why?"

As Banek pursues the answer to this question, he discovers the limits of his own power. The director encourages his audience to share Banek's self-awakening journey, in order to fully appreciate the power Banek's class holds and the repercussions of that power. For instance, when Banek raises questions with his father-in-law/boss Stephen Delano, Delano justifies forging documents to seize the assets of rich clients like Simon Dunne, by saying: "Come on, where do you think Simon Dunne got his money? Huh? You think those factories in Malaysia have daycare centers in them? Wanna check the pollution levels of his chemical plants in Mexico or look at the tax benefits he got from this foundation? This is all a tightrope — ya gotta learn to balance."

Changing Lanes does not consider degrees of separation; rather it dissects the ways in which wielding power for greed directly and indirectly impacts the lives of masses of people who have intimate to little or no contact with the powerful. The film warns against the innate corruption and arrogance of greed and its effects in classic Marxist fashion, a timely subject as news stories unfold about Enron, Martha Stewart and alike.

Ultimately, Banek learns that his power amounts to whatever morsel his bosses allow him. Near the end of the film, he joins his wife and her parents for dinner at a restaurant. Michell uses Banek's hunger and the dinner table as a metaphor, bringing Banek to the table, face-to-face with his father-in-law and boss. Sending a message that he has learned how to survive in this world he has chosen, Banek snarls, "I haven't had a fucking thing to eat all day, and I'm starving-so what are we going to eat?" Banek does not leave the law firm and his wife, nor does he reveal the truth about the documents to the court and go to jail. Rather, he chooses to live within the system and adopt the philosophy Delano espouses: "At the end of the day, I think I do more good than harm. What other standard have I got to judge by?"

Interestingly, Changing Lanes suggests that the proletariat does not want what the upper class has, but rather the opportunity to develop its own power, its own path. Early in the film, after the two men have both arrived and failed at court, the two men meet a second time, outside in the rain. Banek, tucked snuggly inside his Mercedes, drives alongside pedestrian Gipson, as he attempts to save himself and retrieve his file from Gipson. With transparent insincerity, Banek feigns remorse and apologizes. The shot of him driving along side Gipson — encouraging him to get into the car — underscores the Marxist distinction between the two classes. Gipson ignores Banek, for he knows that temporary refuge in this dry, antiseptic environment will not ease his burdens. After Banek condescendingly offers him a new car, Gipson sets him straight: "Money, is that what you think I want is money? All I want is my morning back. Just 20 minutes. Can you give me that?" Michell uses time — an elusive element that cannot be purchased or retrieved through legal finagling — to highlight the limitations of the upper White class.

Throughout the film, Michell establishes the parameters of power for each man's class by juxtaposing elements of city life that can be sold — technology, institutions, material goods — with those that cannot — time, love, inner peace and contentment. Banek uses a wide range of resources to manipulate technology in a proactive effort to resolve his dilemma. He drives around in his Mercedes, offers Gipson money more than once, uses his wealth to destroy Gipson financially, and even takes advantage of his whiteness and influence when he convinces school officials that Gipson poses a threat to his own children. (When Gipson shows up at school, the result is a clash that lands him in jail.) But Banek cannot destroy Gipson.

Apparatuses of State

Turning to those elements of city life that cannot be sold — time, love, inner peace and contentment — the movie examines what Marxist theorist Louis Althusser calls 'Ideological State Apparatuses' (ISAs). According to Vincent Leitch, "they [the social institutions: law, politics, education, religion, the family, etc.] manage social stability and conflict to impose and maintain hegemonic order, working for the most part outside of official state power." Michell borrows Althusser's ISAs — particularly those involving religion, law, and family — to question how people treat one another.

While Changing Lanes reflects examples of classic Marxist arguments about how the upper class undermines, manipulates, and controls the proletariat through these institutions, it does reinforce the idea that these institutions can generate positive outcomes when people choose genuine human interaction over superficial, avoidance behavior.

Michell explores how city dwellers control and manipulate ISAs to define their role within the microcosm of the city.

In terms of religion, we cannot ignore that Changing Lanes sets its daylong argument against the backdrop of Good Friday — the anniversary of the Crucifixion of Jesus. While Banek argues about the meaning of life with a priest, and Delano takes a godless approach to judgment when he suggests there is no standard higher than his own, Gipson uses the 12-step mantras of his Alcoholic Anonymous experience to shape his life, insisting when the car accident occurs, that they do what is "right." Later, when Doyle attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife Valerie after arriving late at court, Jesus makes a cameo appearance; Michell unobtrusively places a small picture of him looking over Valerie's shoulder in the house in Queens, as if to suggest that this home represents Doyle's salvation. Interestingly, a sort of Christ figure statue stands in Banek's office as well. His hands are not fully raised, but the figure does suggest that Banek's survival hangs in the balance and that his law firm represents the potential for either his crucifixion or his salvation. The movie's use of religious references echoes Althusser's warnings that such institutions may offer hope, but they also provide a venue for control that the powerful can abuse.

Along with religion, Michell explores the relationship the upper class and the proletariat have to the law. Each of the main characters faces a lecture from a relatively minor character who enlightens him about how society should function under the law. Doyle's 12-step Sponsor in A.A. explains to him, "What you saw today: that everything decent is held together by a covenant, an agreement not to go batshit. You broke the contract." His point is to make Doyle take responsibility for his own actions.

Contracts and law come up in Banek's life lessons as well. In the midst of his hurlyburly day, Banek must take time out to interview a young lawyer for a position at the firm. The young man explains his desires to practice law: "I believe in the law. I believe in order and justice. I believe that people are by nature good. I believe that historical forces push us into conflict and without the law as a buffer between people, we would have a world of vendetta, a world of violence, a world of chaos. The law keeps us civilized."

By this point in the movie, Banek can only laugh with caustic irony at this diatribe. But Banek chooses to give him the job, and suggests that he will not be able to sustain his views in the face of reality. In these scenes of religion and the law, the movie takes a more sentimental approach to the potential of human beings in a two-class system, suggesting that each person has an obligation to make an effort to do what is "right" rather than "more good than harm", even though the ideology may not exist in practice.

Humanizing Connectivity

In considering family and marriage, the tone is more skeptical. The movie emphasizes that while true love and genuine human connection can never be a commodity for sale, marriage can. Michell separates marriage from love when he contrasts Gipson's and Banek's relationships: Banek's wife Cynthia tells him she chose him based on her desires to maintain her parents' lifestyle, while Gipson's wife Valerie attempts to shore up her feelings to leave him. In these relationships, Michell portrays the ugliness in the institution of marriage and the establishment of family.

In Gipson's case, loss of love does not seem to be the problem. Here, acting out has caused his grief. When Valerie visits him in jail after the clash at school, she tells him she does believe his story of the vendetta with Banek. However, she points out that their lives no longer center on their relationship and their issues but rather on the well-being and happiness of their sons. Later, Banek's wife Cynthia explains that she has no interest in a marriage based on that warm, fuzzy honesty. She chose to marry him because she wants a man who will live with her in a world of privilege and power, a partner who will cheat to protect his interests and get ahead. She, in essence, tells him that she will stand by him if he cheats on her, but not if he takes the honest road and admits wrongdoing. Ironically, this hollow existence does offer honesty and connection but no warmth.

Clearly, the greatest hope of true human connection comes with Doyle and Valerie. In the end, Michell leaves the two longingly watching each other from opposite sides of a street. The scene echoes an opening shot of Manhattan from across Long Island Sound. In these final frames, Michell implies that Doyle and Valerie still have a chasm dividing them, yet their connection keeps their focus on each other.

Ultimately Michell's work sends the message that nothing more important than humans and human connection exists in our world. Ironically, he packages this belief that power ultimately rests in the hands of each individual, to be used or misused, in a glossy film experience, which sells for anything from $3.50 for a video rental to $8 for a theater ticket. To prove no substitute exists for human connection, the film director has produced a piece of celluloid that cheapens its very message. Marxist theorists Horkheimer and Adorno had something to say about this in their "Dialectic of Enlightenment", where they suggest such efforts replace true human interaction with ninety-nine minutes of a "world of dreams" through "aesthetic mass consumption." In some regard, the film industry does turn all moviegoers into voyeurs, but this experience can either substitute fiction for reality, or it can create the opportunity for each of us to gain a better understanding of those different from ourselves, and offer us perspective on our own behavior.

Both the film and the story of Gopnik's fledgling New Yorker illustrate the tragic irony of modern American city culture today: We focus on making a connection, rather than on the connection itself. Little Olivia plays out the experiences she sees in the adult world around her, but this quagmire of machines — computers, answering services, e-mails, automobiles, and the like — offers little more than what her father calls "busyness" — the newest traffic jam for city dwellers. Now we face clogged airways and misunderstandings no different from the infamously frustrating fender benders and traffic jams of New York's busiest thoroughfares. Where once New Yorkers used physical dividers — neighborhoods, boroughs, miles, red lights — to filter out inconvenient or unnecessary interactions, now they insolate themselves with Internet correspondence and fax machine letters. Gopnik notes, "We build rhetorical baffles around ourselves to keep the crowding out, only to find that we have not let anyone we love in", and, "All are devices of perpetually suspended communication."

Gopnik's article and Michell's film illustrate a dangerous irony: They each remind us how little city dwellers have learned since the beginning of the Industrial Era that spawned these metropolises. New Yorkers still live under the illusion that they run the machines and fail to recognize how these modes of connection shape their lives and ultimately control them. New Yorkers still face the classic battle Charlie Chaplin fought nearly a century ago, when playing a bolt tightener on a production line in his film Modern Times. Horkheimer and Adorno warned of what comes when people choose to isolate themselves, avoiding genuine intimacy to curb unhappiness and inconvenience: "The liquidation of tragedy confirms the abolition of the individual." As they instantly respond through their cell phones, jump to the beep of their pagers, and relay their thoughts through faxes, are New Yorkers truly in control of the trappings of modern city life? Are they connecting more with their family and friends, or are they isolating themselves and remaining once removed from intimacy? In Changing Lanes, after a virtual day of suspended conversation and misunderstanding, Banek and Gipson offer hope for future human relations, only because (recalling Roger Ebert), "by the end of the day, each man's anger [and disregard for others] scares him more than the other guy's."

New Yorkers and all city dwellers must decide how much longer they want to be Chaplin, caught in the machine. These mechanisms have turned the U.S. — and perhaps the world as a whole — into an extended neighborhood. New Yorkers and much of the developed world have become addicted to instant answers, instant news, instant relationships. Yet ironically, all who dwell within this sort of global metropolis must disconnect the electronics to interact genuinely, at least for a little while. Gopnik knows no amount of Xs and Os offer the same feeling as Olivia's good-night hug or welcome-home kiss.

A former reporter and film reviewer, Elizabeth Krasnoff Levy is a graduate student working on her MA in literature at Wichita State University in Kansas.

Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Krasnoff Levy. All rights reserved.