Critical dialogue on disaster films
Lemmings and escapism

by Ernest Larsen

from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, p. 20
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

Few people believe that the momentum of cultural development is controlled or even oriented by the initiative of the likes of Ross Hunter and Irwin Allen, who are the shills not of ideas but of trends. With that in mind, it becomes necessary to take what goes by the name of escapism even more seriously than what are suspected to be higher forms of entertainment. There’s little doubt, as Fred Kaplan says in his review of the disaster flicks in JUMP CUT, No. 6, that “escapism in mass media flourishes in all times.” But especially if we are to equip ourselves to combat this fact, it seems to be drastic surgery to deny (as Kaplan does) the disaster flicks the one feature that distinguishes them from previous forms of the spectacle. With the idea that disaster means something, I'd like to offer another possible explanation.

Although the Biblical Epics of the 50s and early 60s are no longer credible as a source of mystification, Hollywood can still prop up Charlton Heston. In other words, even if people no longer locate the fears they are led to designate as irrational in religion or in the religious spectacle, they still do recognize and accept their idealized screen representative, Heston, who now localizes other fears shielded behind his hairy chest. The function of the disaster image is to remind people with irrational and repeated force (Sensurround, pat. pending) of the fragility of their existence. It’s not done, of course, by pointing to the arbitrary and utterly repressive uses of power but by waving a finger in the direction of the elements, whether earthquake, fire, or water. If this is possible, that is, if people fall for it and march in droves to view their own destruction (as an image), then security has with a vengeance ferreted its way back into consciousness, as the controlling factor, as the economy stiffens and staggers. On the theoretical level of psychological preparation, these films pave the way for cutbacks, food shortages, rationing, or if they impoverish the imagination successfully enough, even simple repression. Once people have seen the image, the reality is a step closer, especially in films which partake of fantasy and prophecy.

In earlier incarnations of the disaster flick, the human interest story invariably takes precedence over the technology of destruction. In John Ford’s THE HURRICANE (1937) a pair of lovers finds the redemption of their struggle against human injustice objectified in the natural disaster. In the new disaster films the people are literally devoured by the spectacle. I take this to be a development different not merely in degree but in substance from previous “escapist” cultural manifestations. It is surely no accident that where once Heston parted the Red Sea on the strength of his jaw muscles, in EARTHQUAKE he quite literally goes down the drain. In a period of the so-called crisis in leadership precipitated by Vietnam, Watergate and the economic malaise, the question of the adequacy of public leadership and managerial control of society becomes an issue in both EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO. If heroism is the myth of leadership, then these films teach us that, while heroic efforts thank God are still heroic efforts, our heroes (through no fault of their own, of course) are no longer in themselves sufficient to save us. Nowhere in either film is it even suggested that survival is very likely on our own efforts either. With even the lie of heroism stripped from us, we suddenly realize that things have gotten too much out of control—even for the authorities, both those in the films and those less easily identifiable authorities who promote the films. When the entrepreneurs of escapism are able to displace the material disorder of our lives (economic and psychological) to the “evil” domain of nature in order to give renewed life to the spectacle, the contradictions of advanced capitalism are at once more sharply and more brutally revealed.