The Mayan apocalypse isn’t forecast to hit until December 21, 2012, so BAM’s four-day, five-film apocalypse movie retrospective might seem premature—but really, when hasn’t the end been nigh? In movies, the nuclear scare was a scenarist’s jackpot, but doomsday cinema predates the Bikini Atoll. As early as 1916, a Danish film called Verdens Undergang (The End of the World) was capitalizing on the still-current panic left in the tail of Halley’s Comet’s 1910 drive-by.
Mel Gibson’s magnificently titled 2006 Apocalypto is one of few films depicting the Mayan world that foretold our demise. However, our shared notion of what a return to primitivism would look like, and music-video post-apocalypse chic from “California Love” onward, comes from the star-making trilogy that cast Gibson as a vigilante policing a dystopian Australia, beginning in George Miller’s 1979 Mad Max (at BAM). The look is as much post-punk as post-apocalypse—the art direction seemed wonderfully far-out, though watching Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 Wake in Fright at Film Forum, one wonders if this was just what the Australian bush was actually like in the ’70s—while the “a few years from now” setting of the first Max film is a society on the brink of rather than over the edge. (Max even slips into a pair of khakis!)
Mad Max–style dystopia is the generally accepted preset for imagining a post-apocalyptic world, but the genre’s popularity suggests that it’s equally a utopian fantasy for many viewers, the fascination stemming not so much from a fear that society will crumble as a fear that it won’t. Jim McBride’s 1971 Glen and Randa (at BAM) straightforwardly accepts the end as a new beginning, opening in an unusually verdant Pacific Northwestern landscape where after-the-fall mankind has returned to innocence, an Eden where the detritus of departed civilization is the corrupting fruit of knowledge. (BAM’s
program pairs Glen and Randa with the late Chris Marker’s great time-hopping sci-fi flip book, La Jetée.)
Commentators mused that another
infamous date, September 11, 2001, would curb Americans’ appetite for spectacles of mass destruction, but one needn’t look far for testimony of the enduring appeal of Armageddon scenarios: The Fallout video game franchise is on its sixth popular iteration, Béla Tarr’s 2011 The Turin Horse offers a highbrow counterweight, and the fourth installment of the Doomsday Film Festival & Symposium touches down at 92Y Tribeca on October 19. Having previously burned through end-of-the-world standards like Dr. Strangelove and A Boy and His Dog, this doomsday edition digs up obscurities like Hajime Sato’s 1968 Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell and Walon Green/Ed Spiegel’s 1971 The Hellstrom Chronicle, a rapturous micro-photography symphony embedded in a rib-tickling pseudo-documentary that has sweaty-palmed narrator Dr. Nils Hellstrom (actor Lawrence Pressman) warning of the inevitable triumph of the insect kingdom over man . . . while cruising past necking couples at a drive-in.
“Don’t they ever stop migrating?” Suzanne Pleshette’s Bodega Bay schoolteacher asks Tippi Hedren of a gathering flock in Alfred Hitchcock’s when-nature-attacks film, 1963’s The Birds (at BAM)—though for its first half, the film is mostly distracted by the mating habits of Homo sapiens. Beginning like one of Hitch’s Technicolor baubles, with urbane and knowing pet-shop badinage between Hedren and Rod Taylor, the first sign of something sinister is the close-up of a drop of blood on the finger of Hedren’s suede Edith Head glove when a low-swooping gull tousles her perfect coiffure, anticipating total chaos ahead. Here Hitchcock further refines the structural sucker punch of 1960’s Psycho with The Birds‘ abrupt about-face, confirming, per H.G. Wells, that “as men busied themselves about their various concerns,” catastrophic fate was always making its own plans just around the corner.
More even than most movies, apocalypse narratives serve as time capsules of their era: Where McBride’s film provides the quintessential counterculture dream of a world after civilization, 1984’s neon-and-fallout Night of the Comet (at BAM) plays with the then–au courant Valley Girl archetype. When a cosmic catastrophe reduces the population of the Los Angeles basin to red dust or ravening zombies, permed military-brat survivors Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney grab their semiautomatics and hit the mall: “The shops are open!” What caused the mass extinction? The tail of a passing comet with an elliptical orbit, a plot hook feeding into contemporary anticipation of Halley’s Comet’s 1986 pass—just as Verdens Undergang had tapped into memories of 1910. All of which only stands to prove that nothing is so perennial as the end of the world.