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.)