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Turning to Pop Culture in a Time of Trauma

<!>"Science fiction came true this week." That remark wasn't made by some professional reader of the culture's tea leaves, but by George Robertson, the secretary general of NATO. When a globalist commander falls back on a genre to describe reality, you know the triumph of entertainment is complete.

It used to be the Bible that got quoted in moments of enormity—and to some extent it still is, as all the prayer vigils held last week attest. But these days even the Almighty bows before pop culture's clout. In an unfathomable event, we turn to entertainment, and from the inventory of its words and images, we assemble meaning.

So it's understandable that the first response to what happened last week was to seek the shelter of a show. Many people who went through this trauma felt like they were in a movie, and those who saw it from a safe distance could imagine they were having the ultimate IMAX experience. Of course, we knew otherwise. As George Pataki put it with typical profundity, "It wasn't some grade-B movie. It was life." But some horrified part of us wanted to crawl back into the cocoon of plush seats and popcorn.

It was so surreal and so iconic—the planes, the flames, the giant black cauliflower cloud all seemed like something codirected by Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola. Even the rescue operation, observed up close (courtesy of a press pass), looked like a giant movie set complete with countless cameras panning the scene. But what film was being shot?


Godzilla. That was the first thing that came to mind when the towers tumbled down. I flashed on that failed remake, featuring the world's favorite monster running wild through Hollywood's favorite target: Lower Manhattan. There are scenes from Godzillathat virtually replicate the events of last week, images of crowds running through narrow canyons pursued by billowing smoke as something crashes through the buildings around them. But there are so many movies that turn on the destruction of this city. Think of Armageddonand Independence Day, to mention two recent films in which the skyscrapers of New York are trashed. The Bela Lugosi mad-scientist fantasy of reducing towers of power to "flaming roo-eens" is irresistible. Indeed, it's possible that the World Trade Center plot was hatched in the part of the imagination where real-life rage meets the imagery from dozens of films in which the spires that signify modernity crumble like so many sheets of tinfoil.

Return to the '50s, the golden age of paranoid sci-fi, and you can see this fantasy in countless drive-in epics with titles like 1,000 Years From Now.Those postwar cautionary tales did not always feature the customary creature-feature ending, in which the monster succumbs to American ingenuity. George Bush's recent rhetoric about "ending" states that harbor terrorists harks back to films where force fells the beast, but pop culture sends a more complicated message. Over the past 50 years, we've moved from cockeyed confidence to an eerie premonition of vulnerability. The spirit of When Worlds Collide(the 1951 sci-fi spectacle that depicts a flooded Times Square) informs more recent films like Escape From New York, which imagines a time when the city is uninhabitable by decent folks. The 1998 Godzilla ends with an image of baby 'zillas hatching in the bowels of a demolished Madison Square Garden—a specter fit for the age of AIDS, when our faith in magic bullets has been shattered.

But none of these movies fit the crisis last week, when a new and unimaginable threat loomed literally on the horizon. The unreal feeling may have prompted associations with sci-fi, but this genre faded from the mind as reality sank in. For one thing, death in most sci-fi films is zap-quick and impersonal (the most common final word is "ah-yeeee!"). But too many of us still wake up seeing bodies falling through the air, and we walk past heartbreaking placards with pictures of the missing. Godzillacan't help us make sense of this ongoing nightmare.

But the palpability of death is not the only reason the days after the blast took us further and further from the monster-movie genre. Sci-fi is classically a liberal form, in which blame for what befalls us resides in ourselves: in nuclear madness or the wages of pollution. Same with disaster movies like The Towering Infernoor Titanic. The implication in both films is that the hubris of building big leads to catastrophe. Even when the killer is some utterly cosmic event (such as the sudden descent of an asteroid), there's no sense in most disaster films of deliberate evil raining death out of a clear blue sky.

An exception to this rule like Independence Daymight suit the moment—and indeed, this movie's imagery of genocidal aliens blowing up the landmarks of Washington and New York seems even more credible now that it no longer requires computer simulation. The film's premise—that we live in a dangerous universe—couldn't be more relevant now. But there's a big problem with this paean to American valor: The villains are creatures from the beyond. Exoskeletal Bin Ladens just won't do. If we're to justify the "monumental struggle of good versus evil" that our president says is imminent, we need images of irredeemable people doing demonic deeds.

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