Real disasters make some films unwatchable, particularly the old 1970s Towering Inferno type. But other kinds can reach into the heart of human catastropheby Mark Cousins / February 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
Television schedulers know more than any of us about cinematic tone. Imagine that you worked in programme acquisition at BBC2 and were planning to screen The Towering Inferno on a dull Wednesday night in September 2001. Then 9/11 happens. You cancel the screening in a heartbeat. Its Hollywood pathos, its movie-star versions of real lives, its artifice, are suddenly plain to see.
The same applies to the 1968 movie Krakatoa, East of Java, a juicy depiction of the 1883 volcanic eruption that caused a massive tsunami and killed thousands. I saw it as a boy and was thrilled by it, but remember little now except actor Sal Mineo’s face. Doubtless some television station somewhere in the world scheduled it for the week after Boxing day—and quickly pulled it. But why is Krakatoa, East of Java (it is actually west of Java) unshowable at the moment? And for how long?
The first question is easy to answer. Krakatoa, East of Java’s purpose was to deliver pleasure to people long after the grief caused by the real disaster had faded. Eighty-five years on, aware that audiences like to experience horror vicariously (the poster’s tag line was “You are Engulfed by a Terrible Tidal Wave”), Hollywood could step in, dress history in production design, throw in movie stars and serve up the result. Our television scheduler knows that actual human pain abhors such dressing-up. Only when it subsides can the aesthetes tiptoe in with their costumes and squibs and rehash what happened as fantasy.
The second question, about the duration of a disaster movie’s unshowability, takes us into more interesting territory. Can we reschedule Krakatoa, East of Java in a few months, at Easter perhaps, when the kids are on holiday? Or, when we look into Mineo’s big eyes, will we just think of the recent news footage and feel the shock of kitsch? Maybe summer or autumn would be better. But certainly not next Christmas.
The more you follow this line of thought, the more the apparently harmless idea of the disaster movie unravels. If we are honest about the nature of human fantasy we must accept the principle that storytelling will always involve vicarious jeopardy. Yet the cycle of late 1960s and 1970s films like The Towering Inferno and Krakatoa, East of Java are different from modern disaster movies. They have none of the seriousness of Titanic or the ecological…