Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Disaster Deja Vu

Seems like I'm condemned to view the world through the prism of Hollywood blockbusters. When 9/11 happened, my first reaction was a horrible feeling that someone had snuck in and sabotaged the plot of a gung-ho Bruce Willis flick.

Later, when everyone was appalled that Palestinians on the Gaza Strip were cheering at footage of the twin towers being hit, I felt a guilty familiarity and wondered why no one seemed to understand. Weren't we all overjoyed in Star Wars when they blew up the Death Star? Did we consider for a moment whether there were innocent people on board? No, we just rejoiced at the destruction of what the movie told us was the symbol of oppression (see this only half-humorous article on the Case for the Empire for an alternative view).

Watching the New Orleans floods, I haven't been able to get The Day After Tomorrow off my mind. This is a movie which commands too much space in my subconscious anyway, because I've seen it about five times. The first time was willingly; I went to the cinema in Arequipa when it first came out. After that, almost every long distance bus I caught in Peru seemed to have it as one of the on-board movies.

About the third time this happened, I managed to head if off before it got into the video player. "Please, please don't let it be El Día Después de Mañana!", I begged the bus attendant as she started to insert the tape. Startled by my vehemence, she stopped what she was doing, shrugged, and swapped the video for another one, which fortunately turned out to be something I hadn't seen.

The movie stars Dennis Quaid as a climate scientist who has developed alarming models suggesting that melting ice caps caused by global warming could totally blow the nothern hemisphere's climatic equilibrium and plunge the planet into a new ice age. After he gives a public presentation on his theories, he gets ticked off for scaremongering by the US Vice President (the spitting image of Dick Cheney) who tells him "the climate's not the only thing that might be unstable. This economy is pretty unstable too".

Quaid's right, of course, only instead of all this happening within his predicted fifty years, things start going haywire within five weeks. Sea temperatures in the North Atlantic plunge, a massive tornado devastates Los Angeles, and storms brewing over the Arctic start descending on America.

Every Hollywood movie has to involve a father who is overinvolved in his work and distant from his child and/or wife; he has to endure a crisis where he must rescue one or both of them in order to set his priorities straight. So they work this in by having Quaid's adolescent son stuck on a school trip in New York when the storm hits.

The city is overwhelmed by tidal waves; as a wall of water pours through Manhattan, Quaid's son and his friends are among those who seek shelter in the NY Public Library. Here is where the movie gestures feebly at the kind of issues which would be laid painfully bare in New Orleans. Among the people trying to get into the library is one (1) black homeless guy. He has a dog with him, and when he tries to take shelter someone tells him snootily "you can't bring that in here". Later, the homeless guy (he manages to sneak in the dog) distributes newspaper to everybody, explaining that it keeps you warm if you stuff it under your clothes.

There's a point being made here - something about the hubris of wealth and status and how it all counts for nothing when you're forced to face the elements. But it's all rather lame - there's no looting or real race or class tension, and everyone waits in an orderly fashion, politely sharing out the potato chips, while the rain turns to snow and ice.

Meanwhile, Quaid's spurned scientist has been made an advisor to the US government after they realised they were wrong (this would be kind of like UN weapons inspector Hans Blix being brought on board to help out with Iraq). We see mock CNN footage of refugees wading across the Rio Grande, while the reporter says "Thousands of people are trying to cross illegally into Mexico" (the cinema crowd in Peru chortled gleefully at this).

Quaid draws a line across a map of the United States starting from roughly Washington DC, and tells parody-Cheney that everyone to the south of the line must be evacuated. For those to the north, it's already too late. Cheney vacillates, until the parody-Bush president (who, weirdly, bears quite a physical resemblance to Al Gore) awakes from his slumbers and says "yeah, do it".

We later hear that they've sorted out an agreement for Mexico to take American citizens, in exchange for the cancellation of all Latin American debt (the Peruvian audience hooted with laughter). By the end of the film, the president's evacuating plane has been lost in the storm, and president-elect parody-Cheney gives an address from the American embassy in Mexico in which he admits his administration was arrogant and lacked foresight (as the Tui ad says...)

Meanwhile, the plot has got (even more) incredibly cheesy, as Quaid sleds off into the storm to rescue his son, who is fighting off wolves (escaped from the zoo) to get penicillin for his girlfriend's infected leg which she got saving a poor immigrant woman in the flood...you get the picture.

I did actually enjoy the movie--besides being feelgood fodder for us smug liberals, the disaster set pieces are mostly outstanding (who doesn't like seeing LA get smashed to bits yet again?), the science hovers just on the right side of total implausibility, and there's some original touches, like the astronauts watching the storm unfold from space.

But following the news from New Orleans, I cringed every time I was inadvaertently reminded of The Day After Tomorrow. It's strange; you almost feel like there's something karmic about the way the bad things from blockbusters come true, but with a nightmarish nastiness that punctures the flippancy of the film's treatment.

Part of it is that the stereotypes seem self-perpetuating--the warnings ignored, the head-in-the-sand government, the rule-obsessed dithering bureaucrats (in Bruce Willis films it's always the bureaucrats' fault). Partly the ludicrous way in which all this is smoothed over by the alpha male hero, who saves the day and reunites his family. And then of course in reality there is no such hero, and everyone is shocked that there is no happy ending.

It wasn't so long ago that Hollywood made movies like Chinatown, with heroes who faced a complex reality and real moral conflict. But nowadays any moral dilemmas are telegraphed and comic book-style ("hmmm, about time I turned to the Dark Side"). Obviously you can't actually blame the bread-and-circuses escapism of today's entertainment for things that go wrong in reality. But its constant diet lulls us into dull passivity that leaves us useless when the shit fits the fan, helplessly waiting for the good guys to show up and blaming everybody else when they don't.

I'm sure it's ludicrous to suggest that this attitude even infects people in positions of authority. But is it totally irrational to think that if our popular narratives were a little less mind-numbingly dumb and simplistic, people would be a little less surprised and a little more constructive when things go wrong?

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