Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Imagining Disaster

Recent releases such as WALL-E (2008), Terminator Salvation (2009), and 9 (2009) reveal that the imagination of disaster is a robust motion picture genre, as popular now as it was during the decades of the Cold War. Stories about the catastrophic end of civilization are ancient, of course. I was about to say that animated films such as Pixar’s WALL-E and the Tim Burton-(co)produced 9 reveal that post-apocalyptic stories are now being made for kids, but it occurred to me that outside of a few exceptions, they always have been. When I was a kid, books such as Robert A. Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold (1964) transformed nuclear disaster into a big, exciting adventure story, in effect allaying any fears I might have about a nuclear war. (I was one of those kids you have seen in those old civil defense films sliding off his desk chair onto the floor and covering his head with his hands, playing “duck and cover.”) No doubt this is what Susan Sontag meant, in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster,“ that fantasy serves to “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.” She said science fiction disaster films are a kind of “collective nightmare” that “reflect world-wide anxieties” but also “serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction that I for one find haunting and depressing. The naïve level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alienness, with the grossly familiar.” They are, finally, “in complicity with the abhorrent.”

While I think the vast majority of Sontag’s points are still valid, she wrote the essay 45 years ago, a couple of years after the so-called “Cuban Missile Crisis” (October 1962) and decades before 9-11. What the events of that latter event reveal is the relationship between a catastrophic historical event and the subsequent instability of the so-called “metaphysical realm,” the way one’s “world view” is supported and enabled by one’s daily existence. Put in another way, the world looks vastly different depending on which way the gun is pointed. As long as the gun is pointed in the right direction, one’s life is both content and perhaps even banal - “routine.” But once the gun is pointed in the wrong direction, though, the beauty and stability of the world is no longer assured, and complacency is impossible. Do the post-apocalyptic films released since 9-11 reflect this fear? As David Byrne sings in “Life During Wartime,”

This ain’t no party
This ain’t no disco
This ain’t no fooling around

13 Songs About (Mostly Nuclear) Apocalypse:
Black Sabbath – Electric Funeral
The Clash – London Calling
Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Donald Fagen – New Frontier
Jimi Hendrix – 1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)
Jefferson Airplane – Wooden Ships
King Crimson – Epitaph (including "March For No Reason" and "Tomorrow and Tomorrow")
Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction
Men At Work – It’s A Mistake
Nena – 99 Luftballons
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Enola Gay
Rush – Distant Early Warning
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime

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