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A hunger for destruction

Cheeky analysis of disaster films even celebrates cheesy dialogue

Disaster Movies: A Loud, Long, Explosive, Star-Studded Guide to Avalanches, Earthquakes, Floods, Meteors, Sinking Ships, Twisters, Viruses, Killer Bees, Nuclear Fallout, and Alien Attacks in the Cinema!!!!
By Glenn Kay and Michael Rose
Chicago Review, 402 pp., paperback, $18.95

``Let's face it, it's deep in our subconscious to want to see Charlton Heston try to survive a massive geological upheaval while simultaneously being forced to choose between his wife and a beautiful mistress. Written right in our genetic code is a desire to witness Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Wagner battle a building fire caused by faulty wiring. We wouldn't be human if we didn't wake every day with a hunger for it."

So writes former ``Mystery Science Theater 3000" host Mike Nelson in his introduction to ``Disaster Movies," a compendium of cinematic carnage, and authors Glenn Kay and Michael Rose spend the remainder of their book seconding this notion, offering their takes on spectacles of movie destruction ranging from ``Titanic" to ``The Towering Inferno" to ``Kingdom of the Spiders."

The ``Mystery Science Theater" plug is no accident; ``Disaster Movies" is essentially ``MST3K" between two covers, with snarky, humorous takes on disaster movies good (some), bad (many), and legendarily god-awful (not enough, in their estimation). Movies are dissected for the holes in their plots, inconsistencies in their logic, and poverty of their performances. Breezing past early disaster-ish titles like John Ford's ``The Hurricane" and the Clark Gable earthquake flick ``San Francisco," ``Disaster Movies" rushes to get to what it views as the good stuff -- the big-budget disaster spectacles of the 1970 s, and Grade Z schlock like ``Meteorites!" and ``The Day the Earth Caught Fire." Kay and Rose are pleased as punch with the cheesy dialogue, celebrities biting the bucket, and, most of all, the prospect of mass destruction.

``Disaster Movies" provides us with each film's ``Most Spectacular Moment of Carnage ." It embraces a guy-centric brand of terminology that assumes our complicity in the pursuit of movie mayhem, Kay and Rose being the type of guys who complain that a film about Chernobyl is ``low on action."

They may not know it, but the book is haunted by a presence it never mentions: Susan Sontag's ``The Imagination of Disaster." In her famous 1965 essay, Sontag dissects the conventions of the science-fiction film in a manner that would be remarkably familiar to the authors of ``Disaster Movies." She also does what Kay and Rose are uninterested in, or incapable of, doing -- exploring the moral implications of our endless hunger for seeing our own destruction on -screen. In Sontag's essay, the science-fiction films of the 1950 s and 1960 s are receptacles for a ``strange apathy" regarding the ever-present potential for depersonalized mass death -- a product of the atom bomb and the strategies of industrialized killing introduced by World War II. These films offer the spectacle of our deaths in order to relieve the unbearable tension, but they also narcotize us to the dread. ``For we live under threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters . . . another of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it." These films imagine disaster to make explicit the implicit threat of utter devastation, simultaneously comforting and unsettling us in the process. They provide a culturally acceptable forum for discussing the possibility of mass disorder and death and make such a prospect seem disturbingly familiar and comfortable.

``Disaster Movies" continually tamps down any hint of historical or psychological relevance in the genre . Hence the nonappearance of the largest, most-watched, most-discussed disaster film ever: the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Kay and Rose may think they are being prudent in avoiding the topic , but its absence hangs over every page of their book. How, after watching the deaths of thousands of innocents live on national television, can we have the stomach to read this book? And can we maintain this air of forced joviality before admitting the repugnance of the endeavor?

By Sontag's reasoning, we love these films because in celebrating, and craving, these images of what we must acknowledge as our own deaths, we are hoping to render these nightmares nothing more than fleeting daydreams. But the damage has already been done; the movies have become all too real. The relentless destruction of our cities can no longer be an escapist fantasy, having become the object of our all-too-real preoccupations. Wanting to turn our nightmares into celluloid dreams, we have found them turned once more into nightmares.

As many commentators noted at the time, the events of 9/11 were a fulfillment of the prophecy of the 1990 s disaster films -- popcorn flicks in which New York and Los Angeles were repeatedly subjected to the bombardment of alien spaceships, hurtling asteroids, and 9.0 earthquakes. Now that we have been through the looking glass and experienced the fantasy as a reality, the prospect of yet more cinematic disaster does not seem quite so alluring. Commenting on the film ``Armageddon," Rose notes that ``even the Empire State Building is toppled. But the story is not about those poor New Yorkers, and after this initial scene of carnage, the filmmakers never go back there." Rose is wrong, though; the story is always going to be about those poor New Yorkers, for as long as anyone with a memory of that day still lives, and the pleasures of these secondhand deaths become piddling, and more than a little ghoulish, in the shadow of no towers.

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Globe. He is at work on his first book, a history of music videos.

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