Saturday, January 18, 2003

Eminem, 8 Mile, and the North American Numbering Plan

This afternoon I saw the Eminem/Curtis Hanson film 8 Mile. It's quite an interesting film, although rather formulaic. (In a sense, it's a little like Curtis Hanson's previous film Wonder Boys, creative person is stuck in a somewhat nervous rut and needs to get out of it).

What really pays off in spades though is the decision to shoot the film in Detroit. The city is almost the star of the film. Detroit is famous for being the most extreme case of the once extremely prosperous centre of a city being abandoned as white middle class citizens moved out of the city itself and into surrounding suburbs that were not technically part of the city (and that had separate school districts). The centre then decayed and collapsed, and became a (largely black) ghetto. 8 Mile Road is the boundary between the city itself and the innermost of its suburbs, and the film is the story of Eminem's alter ago (named Rabbit in the film) starting to make it in the rap world that exists in the city. The film takes great advantage of the urban decay, and parking lots, nightclubs, and many of the other settings are in run-down buldings that were clearly extremely lush and ornate in their heyday. It was clearly once a very grandiose city, and this shows. The class difference between city and suburbs is omnipresent. An abandoned, ruined house is burned down. It is observed that it would still be a nice house if it was on the other side of 8 Mile Road. (A photo is found in it of the nice, respectable looking family who once lived there). The line is stark. At the end of the story, Rabbit wins a rapping duel with a black rapper (who has been taunting him for much of the film) and wins it with a rap full of taunts about how his opponent went to a private school and comes from the suburbs, and isn't really from "the 313" after all. Rabbit genuinely comes from the city, so he is authentic. Race really isn't the point: class is. You can really feel the city in the film. Movies are constantly giving us Los Angeles and New York, and maybe Chicago and San Francisco and Philadelphia once in a while, but rarely Detroit. Which is a shame. Eminem insisted the film be shot in his home town, and he was right.

The characters do comment on this. There is at one point a mention of "What's this East Coast / West coast business? When are we going to see some rappers from "the 313"? (As the film is a lightly fictionalised story of the rise of a rapper from Detroit, the film kind of answers this).

And what is this about "The 313"? Fairly obviously, it is a telephone area code, and that of central Detroit, but in a way this continues the metaphor. For complicated reasons, when area codes were first allocated in the US in 1947, the middle digit was always either a 1 or a 0. The outer digits could be anything from 2 to 9. The codes with the lowest digits were allocated first, and the largest cities got the numbers that could be dialed quickest on a rotary phone: this meant a 1 for the middle digit and the lowest possible numbers for the outer two digits. Thus, New York got 212, Lost Angeles got 213, Chicago got 312, and Detroit got 313. That's right: at the time area codes were allocated, Detroit was fourth most important city in America. So, as with all the gradiose architecture, the city has a grandiose area code as well. There is almost a certain irony between the run down city and the grandiose area code.

Secondly, in 1947 it was almost unimaginable that any city would need more than ten million phone numbers, and no city had more than one area code (full of seven digit numbers). As the years went by, that was no longer true. New businesses created a demand for huge numbers of phone numbers, and area codes were split in most big cities. Typically, the center of the city kept the old area code and the suburbs got the new ones. Thus 212, 213, 312 and even 313 shrank to only the centres of their cities. (Look at the insets of this map). Thus the phone code represents almost the same thing as 8 Mile road: the old central city, rather than the suburbs. (The 313 area code admittedly covers a fair bit of ground north of 8 Mile Road and technically in the suburbs, but stll, it is another way of saying "central Detroit" rather than the whole urban agglomeration).

Interestingly enough, the audience of the film (in Croydon in south London) was quite different to what I am used to. It was much more ethnically mixed than is usual at that cinema. Lots of black people live in the area, but I don't see them going to the movies that much. Sitting next to me was an enormous black guy with a baseball cap on backwards (who was extremely courteous when he wanted to get past me and who offered me some of his popcorn). There were also quite a few people of east Asian ethnicity in the audience for some reason. Once again, the fact that Eminem is white seems not to be the point: rap is big on the idea of authenticity, but that authenticity seems rooted somewhere else than explicitely in race. This is clearly one of those films where a a different audience from the usual one shows up: this happens once in a while. (You could also tell this from the fact that I was the only person out of quite a large audience who sat through the end credits: the more regular the movie-goers in a cinema the more likely they are to watch the credits, particularly for a film in which music is very prominent, as information about the music in a film comes very close to the end of the credits).

Anyway, quite a good film, and worth seeing.

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