Friday, January 02, 2009

MASTER DISASTERPIECES



Sir Laurence Olivier and I sharing a prescient moment this past Thanksgiving regarding the Masters of Disaster: The Golden Age of Cataclysmic Cinema series currently on screen at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian theater

Better late than never, I really would be remiss if I managed to start off 2009 by neglecting the first series of the year from the good and true film geeks who operate the American Cinematheque, in the heart of Hollywood, at the Egyptian Theater. As devoted to the art and craft of the movies as they are, these programmers have never been keen to raise their brows too high and can often be found celebrating avenues of cinema that defy accepted standards of taste, featuring movies that have been derided or avoided altogether by the general critical community. That longstanding tradition of celebrating the redheaded stepchildren of popular film continues this weekend with a series that ought to raise the circulatory rate of a certain element of filmgoers, those who came of age during Hollywood’s golden age of disaster epics, roughly 1972-1977. The new series, entitled Masters of Disaster: The Golden Age of Cataclysmic Cinema, stretches over six nights and, while not exactly exhaustive in its representation of the nooks and crannies of the disaster film in all its various incarnations, the Cinematheque promises an excellent overview of the elemental essentials of the genre (water, fire, seismic shock) that, in its second weekend, extends to include disasters of history, nuclear meltdown and terrorism that most definitely qualify, even if they don’t feature the histrionic heroics of George Kennedy.

(The issue of print availability prevented the inclusion of any of the Airport movies, or as I like to think of them the Ascension of Joe Patroni Parts I-IV—Patroni is the airport rep, played by Kennedy in all four airborne opuses, whose presence near one aviation crisis after another ought to have at least raised questions about his status as a bad luck charm, but seems only to have resulted in a promotion, from lowly tarmac supervisor up to Concorde pilot, over the course of one film to the next. As for the absence of movies like The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and When Time Ran Out… from the Cinematheque schedule, well, I suppose there really can be too much of a good thing.)

What you’ll be able to see on the big screen this weekend and next really is, then, the cream of the crop, for better or worse, from Hollywood’s mid-‘70s obsession with destruction. While I’m not as convinced as folks like Laurent Bouzereau that the blockbuster trend was as much exploration of the social zeitgeist as big-budget exploitation (and anyone who knows me knows I have very few issues with big-budget exploitation), I am happy as a clam to get another chance to see some of these films in the environs that suit them best. Tonight’s feature, which is probably concluding at about the same time as I’m writing this, is Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the picture that, buoyed by its excellent physical effects and ad campaign built around its Oscar-heavy cast, really kicked off the disaster movie phenomenon. I was 12 years old when the movie came out, and I never saw it until about a year and a half later, on one of its rereleases, but I was no less obsessed with it for that. Of course I was convinced that it could be nothing less, sight unseen, than one of the greatest movies ever made, and my vague awareness that most critics seemed, to one degree or another, to disagree with that assessment just made me take it and the movie even further to heart. The truth is, in terms of the quality of its acting, Neame’s sure, rather classical hand behind the camera, and the vividness with which that claustrophobic upside-down environment of the capsized Poseidon is rendered, The Poseidon Adventure actually turned out to be the high-water mark of the then-nascent disaster genre. This is not to say that some of the movies to follow didn’t also have high points to go along with their many lows, but merely that in The Poseidon Adventure the crudities are kept to a minimum and the memorable moments definitely outnumber those that didn’t then, as they don’t now, play quite as well. (It’s worth mentioning too that the recent remake directed by Wolfgang Petersen was a far better movie than either the reviews or the eventual box-office take suggested.)


The real treat for me personally will come tomorrow night, when Earthquake (1974) rattles the rafters of the Egyptian in the original Sensurround. Techies Brian Long of Meyer Sound Laboratories and Ron Surbuts of Dolby Laboratories have devoted themselves to recreating the original intensity of the audio effect that duplicated the seismic shocks and rumbling of an actual earthquake to accompany the blockbuster epic when it was originally released. Surbuts claims to have an original Sensurround box that has been upgraded to interface with modern surround-sound technologies, with subwoofers precisely like the ones that currently provide the deafening subterranean frequencies on tour with Metallica. “There’s going to be some firepower (at the Egyptian Saturday night),” Surbuts promises in a recent Los Angeles Times piece about the Cinematheque disaster movie series.


It was Earthquake and Irwin Allen’s follow-up to Poseidon, the best picture Oscar-nominated The Towering Inferno (1974), that really upped the ante on not only the spectacle of the special effects on display, but on the gigantic cast of actors recruited to fall victim to crumbling buildings and raging walls of fire. Inferno featured the biggest marquee names (Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire), but I’ve always preferred the cast of Earthquake, not only for its iconic Mount Rushmore of mayhem as personified by Charlton Heston and George Kennedy—one simply cannot think of the disaster movie without thinking of these two—but also because of the sheer perversity of conjuring a single movie which finds room for personalities as disparate and unlikely as Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene (as Gardener’s dad!), Marjoe Gortner, Richard Roundtree, Victoria Principal, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Gabriel Dell, Walter Matthau (as Walter Matuschansky) and even Genevieve Bujold. (Ms. Bujold will be present at tomorrow night’s screening.)


Earthquake is certainly also one of the more disreputable of the disaster hits, in pure movie terms, for what some would term its corn quotient, and what others might term its sheer lunkheadedness (though it can’t put a scratch on the genre’s true barrel-bottom scraper, The Swarm). In fact, in one of the all-time great carny dodges of deceptive advertising, the very fact of the movie’s none-too-stellar reputation is skirted by the folks who assembled the movie's recent home video release. There’s a quote on the back of the Earthquake DVD box from none other than Pauline Kael, who is quoted as saying of Earthquake, “The picture is swell!” Well, a quick look back to Kael’s original review reveals that the actual quote from her review goes a little more like this:

“You go to Earthquake to see L.A. get it, and it really does. The picture is swill (bold and italics mine), but it isn’t a cheat, like Airport 1975, which was cut-rate swill. Earthquake is a marathon of destruction effects, with stock characters spinning through. It isn’t fun, exactly; it’s ejaculatory, shoot-the-works filmmaking carried to the borderline of satire and stopping just short. Universal Pictures, which produced both, is a microcosm of the old Hollywood picture factories, streamlined for TV-age profits and totally cynical. These pieces of contemptuous entertainment might be the symbolic end point of the studio factory system, and there is something peculiarly gratifying about seeing the smoking ruins of the city that movies like this come from.”

I never saw Earthquake in a theater on its original release, a mere three years after the devastating real-life shaker of 1971 gave Los Angeles residents a dose of the real power of nature. The first time for me was at my local drive-in, sans Sensurround of course, and after that on NBC, where my friends and I tried to duplicate the rumbling bass with a couple of jerry-rigged car speakers attached to an FM-radio simulcast of the soundtrack, with unavoidably diminished results. But I always wondered in the back of my mind why audiences in the very city that had so recently experienced Sensurround for real would have been so eager to line up to see it (and hear it, and feel it) at their local movie palaces. Were they as masochistic as Kael's piece seems to suggest? Well, tomorrow night’s screening is going to be a first, one that has been a mere 34 years coming, and being a veteran of a few big shakers myself I may find out about that masochistic tendency firsthand. Ticket already in my possession, the only thing I can think of that would possibly cause me to miss it would be an actual 8.0 just before show time, and even then I might think seriously about sticking around. Somewhere Pauline Kael must be shaking her head in disbelief. (And re-reading reviews like her Earthquake piece makes me miss her even more.)

Sunday night the Egyptian presents Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg (1975), the one actual dalliance with history in the Hollywood disaster genre, and it’s not without its merits. But the movie, whose cinematic helium is essentially the buoyant, haunted score by David Shire, gets mired in a bit of speculative fiction about what actually happened on board the ship courtesy of screenwriters Nelson Gidding, Richard Levinson and William Link, whose script plays the cast-of-thousands game and provides a lively roster of players (including George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, Roy Thinnes, Gig Young, Burgess Meredith and William Atherton) with precious little to do but bide their time until the gas hits the fan. Despite the sober intentions of the director and writers, the movie leaves a creepy taste in your mouth, something like disrespect (or at the very least disregard) for the real people who lost their lives as the ship descended upon New Jersey—a feeling underlined by the movie’s high-tech usurping of the actual disaster footage for its own fiery climax.


The Towering Inferno (1974), which gets the Egyptian unveiling Friday night, January 9, is a movie that never held up very well for me once I got over my initial infatuation with it. Perhaps another look at it on the big screen might help me remember what I loved about it as a movie-obsessed 14-year-old. But like The Hindenburg, frankly I’m a little queasy about the echoes of real-life horrors that have been imposed upon it in the past nine years that might possibly roar up and over the stereophonic explosions on the soundtrack.


Just thinking of seeing Susan Flannery plummet to her doom (she is on fire too?) lends a slight edge of pornography—deserved or undeserved—to the scenario of The Towering Inferno with which I’m not entirely comfortable. (She meets her fate because she’s screwing a married man—Robert Wagner—but that little smudge of morality, at least, has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden.) Feelings like these might seem like outright hypocrisy, or at the very least turning a blind eye to one group (earthquake victims) and not another (those who have died in cataclysmic skyscraper fires, the World Trade Center included), but the relative verisimilitude of Inferno over the more dated and obvious special effects (good though they may be) of Earthquake makes it harder, for this viewer at least, to take that crucial step away.

Next Saturday and Sunday the Masters of Disasters series culminates with two pictures that might not instantly come to mind when thinking of the disaster movie trend of the ‘70s, but they are pictures that certainly qualify in regard to their facility with presenting worst-case scenarios for human-generated disasters that, to one degree or another, have mirrored actual situations. Saturday January 10 you can relive The China Syndrome (1979) and remember what it felt like to see a movie whose proposed horrors—the very real possibility of nuclear meltdown—was being reflected in the newspapers by the looming Three Mile Island nuclear crisis during the film’s release. As a piece of filmmaking it’s often very clunky and obvious (director James Bridges indulges Jack Lemmon’s proclivity for the sweaty close-up that would be a harbinger for the rest of the actor’s career), but its undeniable power and currency seemed a grimly appropriate capper to a decade-long fascination with movie destruction that was threatening to take over reality.


And finally, Sunday affords a very rare opportunity to see the flawed but essentially powerful (and underrated) Black Sunday (1977), directed by John Frankenheimer from Thomas Harris’ page-turning thriller about an Israeli agent (Robert Shaw) trying to prevent the bombing of the Super Bowl by terrorists led by a deranged Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern). This movie was an essential movie-going experience for me as a young film fan—the sense of spectacle and human drama worked exceptionally well for me, even as I was aware of some of its excesses in performance and conception. I have strong memories of this picture and would be very interested to see if the movie I remember bears any resemblance, especially in this day and age when terror has become an inescapable fact that colors our entire lives, to the one that will play next weekend, 31 years down the line. I also look forward to seeing Marthe Keller in black kitty-kat eye shadow again, as the seductive terrorist who goads Dern into his violent acts—Black Sunday was the epicenter of a major cinema crush on Keller for me, one that started with Marathon Man (1976) but was quickly defused by duds like Bobby Deerfield, Fedora and The Formula. For its pleasures, high and low, and for the resonances with modern life that it eerily prefigures, Black Sunday is, for me, alongside the comparatively silly Earthquake, the can’t-miss selection of this welcome festival.

(Tickets for all performances during the Masters of Disaster: The Golden Age of Hollywood Cataclysm and all other programs at the Egyptian and Aero theaters can be purchased here.)

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29 comments:

FilmDr said...

Nice post. I hate to see Pauline Kael treated that way. I also saw The Poseidon Adventure at a young age, and was enormously impressed by it. I think I mostly liked all of the sets upside down, the sense of the wealthy and the frivolous getting their just desserts, and the remorseless way the water kept rising and driving the characters into more bizarre situations. I've seen many of the other disaster epics, and the mediocre remake, but Poseidon remains my favorite.

Rick Olson said...

I was all of 19 the year The Poseidon Adventure came out, but I was equally enthralled. Poor Shelley Winters, that awful song by Maureen McGovern (why does there have to be a morning after?) and most of all, the tragic plunge of Gene Hackman, horrible toupe and all, JUST AS THEY WERE ABOUT TO GET OUT! It was all so very tragic.

A fine post, Dennis, but I also reserve some love for the post-70s variety of disaster flick, like Dante's Peak or Volcano, which had the wonderfully unlikely pairing of Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

FilmDr.: I know. I recognized that "misquote" right away because I'd read Reeling about 100 times by then and felt like I knew that Earthquake review by heart. I wish TPA had done a little bit more with the surreality of the setting-- I remember in the book there's a terrifically weird sequence in which young Robin (the boy played by Eric Shea in the movie) stumbles into a restroom and takes long, fascinated note of all the upside-down urinals-- but as it is it really is a good, solid movie (Maureen McGovern notwithstanding-- but she's a damn sight better than Fergie!)

Rick: "NOT This woman! Not.. this... woman..." (I just got chills!) And you know what? You're right. I didn't much care for Dante's Peak, but Volcano, another one of those movies that tends to end up of people's Worst of the '90s lists, is actually a lot of fun. And I had the advantage of being a Los Angeles resident for 10 years by the time it came out, so I was ready for the various frissons and laughs at seeing some of the local landmarks and architecture get buried in lava (architecture that is more threatened by local indifference to historical significance than volcanoes or even earthquakes). The Angelyne poster tumbling down in flames? That station wagon driven around by the self-promoting actor (I think his name was something like Dennis Richmond?) covered by ads promoting his availability for movie and TV roles being carried away by the molten tide? Hilarious! And the fate of John Carroll Lynch down in that tunnel-- no irony necessary, that's simply a terrific movie moment, wherever it comes up. Thanks for reminding me. Maybe that's next for the Cienmatheque?

Rick Olson said...

I hope so ... it was plenty fun enough for me, and I've only been to LA a couple of times.

I can be entertained by bad movies, I'm glad I haven't "grown up" too much for that. I can get drawn into the ginned-up suspense, rooting for the heroes to get together in the end, and then thinking "Boy, that was bad! And I loved it."

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I hear ya. There was a time (and it really wasn't too long ago) when I figured I was too smart, or too cool, for something like Earthquake. Frankly, I don't have as much time for that stuff as I get older. (Does this mean you and I are aging/regressing Benjamin Button-style?) I'd rather just enjoy what it is that I enjoy, whether or not it's intellectually defensible. At the very least I can always have a conversation with myself (who else would want to listen?) about why I like it that amounts to something more than "I liked it!" Entering in with that spirit, I am beyond excited for tonight's rumblefest!

The Mutt said...

I was in high school during the golden age of disaster films. I loved them. For me, the sign of a must-see movie was a poster with a bunch of little character headshots at the bottom.

What I remember most about seeing Black Sunday was a very exciting trailer that ran before the film. Some movie with robots and spaceships and such. I think it did well.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

That's it, Mutt. All those headshots featuring actors way past their prime, and none more chintzy than this one. Yet it didn't matter! I was as excited for Airport 1975 as any of these movies, and those one-sheets really sold the goods.

Airport 1975 being the exception, however, when it came to really distinctive logos for the movie titles themselves. Look at all of those posters (even, I'd say, The China Syndrome and Black Sunday)-- very memorable title designs. Especially The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake. Did I mention I'm excited about tonight's screening?

MovieMan0283 said...

Dennis, I have included your great post on taking your daughters to High School Musical 3 in my year-end round-up of noteworthy blog entries. You can find it here:

http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2008/12/dancing-image-in-2008.html

Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Earthquake in a midtown New York City theater in Sensurround. I thought the sound and the rumbling were like a subway rolling underneath the theater. The theater was packed with people having a good time, laughing when Ava Gardner met her doom.

As for Poseidon Adventure, I saw it at Fox's screening room in advance. The rival student film critic was indignant and complained about how many films by Jean-Luc Godard could have been financed for the same Ten Million dollars.

Let us know how Black Sunday holds up, especially in light of current and recent events.

And where's Meteor?

The Driveindude said...

Well, by the time you read this you'll have had your fill of the Sensurround experience. I'd be intrigued to hear your opinion on it.

I saw Earthquake at two theaters, three if you count the sneak preview my folks and I had one summer day on a mid 70's tour of Universal. The two theaters in question are the Chinese in Hollywood and the old Paramount theater across the street, now known as the El Capitan.

Wow, what an experience for me as a 14 year old getting sonically blasted by the monstrous Cerwin Vega subwoofers pointed at the dead center of the auditorium. I bought the actual soundtrack for it that contained a "recreation" of the sensurround experience. Even as a kid I always made it a point to have a bad-ass stereo system so hearing the Earthquake soundtrack at home was a real treat.

Coincidentally, The Towering Inferno is playing in almost the same theater that it premiered in on it's original release. The venue has changed somewhat and the main Egyptian theater is somewhat smaller but it would be deja-vu to see it again at it's original crime scene.

Dennis, you already know of my love for both these films so I can only be enviuos that I cannot attend (stupid work).

Ivan said...

Happy New Year, Mr. Cozzalio, and thanks for your great work!

While Thomas Harris' novel Black Sunday is quite the page-turner, I feel Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat's script (and Frankenheimer’s input, of course) really streamlines and cherry-picks the book for maximum suspense (much like Peter Stone's script did for The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3).

I'm still a fan of Allen/Neame's TPA, first seeing during its original release and its later re-release, and think it holds up because of all the goofy socio-political themes it uses to add dramatic depth: the preacher's loss of faith, the cop/whore dynamic, the child leading them, etc. While I still have affection for L.B. Abbott's miniatures, I think the original TPA would be even more effective if after the tidal wave, all further miniature effects (that take you outside of the ship) were excised.

Interestingly, as much as I love disaster flicks (dude, when The Swarm came out, I sat through it twice--in my defense, I was 13 at the time), but I've never actually seen any of the Airport movies from beginning to end; they just never interested me that much.

--Ivan

p.saga said...

OMG that manipulation of Pauline Kael is hilarious! Way to call 'em to task, Dennis! Having stumbled over "swill" in a recent crossword, it is now cemented in my head. (Mmm, concrete slop...)

p.saga said...

PS It's so great to see pictures of you on SLIFR! You and Lord Larry make a great pair.

Campaspe said...

I loved this post. I wasn't allowed to see these movies upon release (I was too young, and the movies were too violent, decreed the Siren's mommy) and perhaps that is why when we got a pay-TV channel I immediately watched every single one I could tune into when Mom's back was turned. I always liked The Towering Inferno best (ah, Paul!!!!! she said with a schoolgirlish sigh) but now that you mention it, I have not seen it since 9/11 and it's a crapshoot as to whether or not it would be too hard to watch now. (Poor Jennifer Jones! And Robert Wagner running through that room...)

Earthquake is truly bad but damn if I don't enjoy it, and Marjoe Gortner's performance alone makes it a classic of a very weird sort.

The Driveindude said...

I love Compaspe's comments. There is nothing wrong with admitting that cheesy can be OK.

Dave S said...

I am a huge disaster movie fan. I was in grade 2 when The Poseidon Adventure came out (it's still my favourite; at the time I even had the book, the Viewmaster reels, and a K-Tel record with "The Morning After" among its tracks), and I made my father take me to every disaster movie that came out in its wake (including "Juggernaut"; too boring for a 12-year old). By the time "The Swarm" came out, I was able to take myself to the movies, so Dad was off the hook. I'm not sure what it is about these movies I like so much. Certainly the spectacle of the destruction is one aspect, and the "human stories" angle was another element that sucked me in regardless of how cheesy they were. But beyond that, these movies were kind of codes of conduct and early life lessons for me when I was a kid... Don't do anything that is going to hurt others, sometimes sacrifice is necessary, and sometimes, no matter how good a person you are, bad things can happen (I'm thinking of you, Belle Rosen).

Don Mancini said...

Has anyone ever noticed that the people in these movies seem inordinately, inappropriately (given the situations) obsessed with FOOD?

In POSEIDON, after the ship has capsized, hundreds have been killed, and our little group has climbed up just a few decks, Reverend Scott suddenly tells everyone to "search for food." Even as a kid, I wanted to shout at the screen: "How can you think of food at a time like this?! You're in a race against time! Your air supply is running out! And when the ship capsized, you were in the dining room! YOU JUST ATE!"

In EARTHQUAKE, shortly after L.A. has been devastated, most of the main characters converge at "Wilson Plaza" -- where Genevieve Bujold, Ava Gardner, and thousands of extras suddenly line up for COFFEE! Yes, after a cataclysmic earthquake, one might need something to stay awake.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

psaga-- Your doppleganger sold me popcorn at the 10:10 screening of Milk I went to last night. It was all I could do not to reach across the conter and give her a hug! By the way, Earthquake was swell!

Campaspe: After Saturday night's screening, my friend Don and I, flush with the excitement that can only be brought on by awesome destruction wrought in miniatures and Albert Whitlock matte paintings, vowed to make it back on Friday for The Towering Inferno. (My wife Patty was, curiously, not quite as enthusiastic, though she had a good time and was an exceedingly good sport about the whole thing.)

I haven't seen TTI in a theater since I was a lad of 15 or so, and I am really curious to see how it plays, whether it can stay safely within the boundaries of camp (as Earthquake certainly did) or whether what we all experienced and/or witnessed just over eight years ago will make a difference, and if so, how. As I said, I've had reservations about it anyway, but the allure of seeing it on that giant screen is going to prove to be too much, I think. And yes, you are absolutely right: Earthquake is very often unaccountably, inescapably cheesy and bad. But the great glory of Satruday night's screening was that it didn't matter a damn. It was more fun that way, watching Ava Gardner blowsily swearing at Charlton Heston and trampling through the wreckage in his designer duds and perfectly touched makeup; luxuriating in the over-the-top self-righteousness of George Kennedy's cop; and enjoying to the fullest Marjoe Gortner's singular bizarre performance, with that high-pitched, strangulated voice and that creepy blond wig he wears while enforcing curfews and arresting looters with the Guard("A lot of the guys with long hair wear 'em on duty," he assures Victoria Principal, just before mowing down some punks who threatened him earlier.)

I promise to post full-fledged updates on Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and even Black Sunday, if I'm so lucky as to make it back for thirds!

Dave S.: Thanks for the tip of the cap to Juggernaut. Personally, I wish they'd found room for that overlooked gem, at the expense, perhaps, of The Hindenburg or The China Syndrome.

And here's to Belle-- quite a swimmer in her day, Reverend!

The Driveindude said...

First order of survival, find food. I learned that as a 16 year old explorer scout.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Don, we just passed like two ships (the Poseidon and the Juggernaut maybe? Was that what it was called?).

To your hilarious account of disaster movies and food I would add Victoria Principal's relentless pursuit of the glazed donut, which ends up getting her in so much trouble! Worth crawling through wreckage and maybe even stepping on a nail (maybe even breaking one) for that!

Now I'm gonna be watching The Towering Inferno to see how many people stop down for hors d'oeuvres while the ceiling comes crashiggn down on them in fiery chunks. (I think that in the director's commentary on the DVD is it revealed that the reason Richard Chamberlain ends up upsetting the balance on that dinghy cable chair because, in an extended scene, we see him sneaking a family-sized jar of cashews under his tux.) Are we still one for Friday?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

DID: I knew were a Boy Scout. I just knew it...

Mr. Peel said...

I'm definitely going to be there Friday for TOWERING INFERNO...where William Holden will of course promise us, "Dinner will not be delayed."

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yes! Mr. Peel comes through! I knew there had to be an honest-to-God dining reference in there somewhere. See ya Friday night, eh?

Don Mancini said...

Dennis: How could I have forgotten about Rosa Amici and her precious doughnut? Homer Simpson would have understood.

And yes, we have a date Friday night at the Promenade Room, on the 135th floor, with "294 other guests." (I always loved that bizarrely specific detail on the one-sheet.) We may never love like this again.

Don Mancini said...

Another hilarious (yet still rather disturbing) hallmark of the disaster genre is its inherent sexism, right down to the "women and children first" credo. With few exceptions, the women are all helpless, screaming sex objects who need to be rescued by the men. Its probably no accident that in POSEIDON and INFERNO, the only heroic women are sexless old ladies who are killed off. Interesting that these movies were made when the feminist movement was in its infancy.

Look at the major female characters in TOWERING INFERNO:

1. The aforementioned Old Lady, Jennifer Jones. Pathetically grateful that "at my age, (my date) shows up at all" -- even if he's a con man! She was actually going to let him take her money! She selflessly saves two kids -- then falls 110 floors to her death.

2. Faye Dunaway. Her conflict: whether or not to accept a job promotion that will require her to move away from boyfriend Paul Newman. The crisis ultimately teaches her that her place is by her man.

3. Susan Flannery. Her conflict: having a secret affair with boss Robert Wagner. She pays dearly for her sins, bursting into flame before falling 65 floors to her death.

4. Susan Blakely. Married to electrical contractor Richard Chamberlain, whose cost-cutting causes the fire. The guy is a complete asshole who obviously married her to further his career (her father is builder William Holden). But despite all this, Blakely is a hysterical wreck when her hubby dies, and Dad must explain to her, as if to a child, "There's nothing any of us can do to bring back the dead." (I always imagine Blakely looking up at him in teary confusion and blurting, "There isn't?!")

And let's not forget the Women on the rooftop helipad. A chopper is coming in for a risky landing. Suddenly, completely unprovoked, the women go running in hysterics out onto the pad, causing the chopper to swerve and crash, killing the pilots -- and everyone else's hopes for rescue.

The Driveindude said...

Mancini: That was hilarious.

Dennis: Yup, Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Explorer Scout. Aye Dios!

Don Mancini said...

Sorry to blather on, but I can't resist describing another favorite disaster movie moment -- this one from AIRPORT 1975.

GLORIA SWANSON, playing her regal self, and dressed to the nines by Edith Head, comes sweeping through Dulles Airport, followed by by a phalanx of adoring paparazzi. They pass by a couple of seated NUNS, played by Helen Reddy and Martha Scott. Naive novitiate Helen asks her older companion, "Sister, who is that?"

Martha answers with a sneer, "Probably one of those Hollywood persons."

Helen asks, "You mean -- an...ACTRESS?" (She pronounces the word as if she's never uttered it before.)

Martha says with contempt: "Or WORSE."

The movie isn't five minutes old, and it has already called Gloria Swanson a WHORE!

Peter Martin said...

Late to the party, but I loved this post! As always, you bring back a lot of fond memories; for me, the first disaster movie was Airport (which I saw at a drive-in). I missed seeing TPA, but by the time Earthquake rolled around, I'd become obsessed by earthquakes. I was 10 years old and living in Van Nuys when the Sylmar quake hit, and had an endless fascination for the subject.

As near to its opening as possible, four of us headed off to see Earthquake at Grauman's Chinese. I will always love the folks responsible for hanging a huge net below the ceiling, covering the (light fixtures? chandelier? sculpture?). We had good seats, we loved the rumbling, and I fell in love with Victoria Principal (or at least her t-shirt, when she took off her jacket, part of me exploded).

As cheesy as it was, as young as I was, I was oddly haunted by the last line in the picture and that shot of the ruined city, my city, even after we walked outside and saw that everything was still standing.

As to why we Angelenos lined up to see it, it wasn't masochism, it was, I think, a way of dealing with the fear that lies buried in the back of the mind of anyone who has experienced an earthquake; the realization that it could strike at any time and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.

Which might explain some of the appeal of the disaster movie.

Maya said...

Dennis, what a thoroughly entertaining entry! It certainly brings back memories. Not the least of which was The Divine Miss M's tacky and hilarious impersonation of Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure. Did you come up with the term "disasterpiece"? Catchy. Enjoy the festival.