By Christopher Sharrett.
“Today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
– Quote attributed to Fredric Jameson, or Slavoj Zizek, or J.G. Ballard, or perhaps an urban legend.
“It’s quite enjoyable to watch things being destroyed, sequence after sequence of progressive destruction, buildings crumbling and falling, trains and automobiles crashing together, fires.”
– Luis Buñuel
San Andreas (2015) is the latest and very representative example of the disaster film in the neoliberal moment, as the United States feels itself, it seems, impervious to the worst terrors that might befall it. The film predictably cites images of massive dust clouds associated with that all-time instance of human suffering, “9/11,” but there isn’t a scene in the film that allows the viewer to figure that things will end badly. In the disaster film’s current mode, even very grim films like The Road (2009) end with the bourgeois family reconstituted. The amazing 2012 (2009) ends with the rich leaving earth in space ships (stealing from When Worlds Collide (1951)), the befuddled, comical husband reunited with his astray family, the divorce and bickering ended, the degenerate boyfriend dispensed with. The reunion of the divorced couple is repeated with insistence, playing out a fantasy more childish in its temperament than that of The Parent Trap (1961), but the nuclear family is primary once again, these days returned to us as the “bedrock” of capitalist society. San Andreas sticks with the formula.
Ray Gaines (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson of wrestling fame) is a helicopter rescue pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department. In the film’s preamble, he saves a young woman whose car has tumbled into a gorge—the hero’s bona fides are established with some physically impossible maneuvers. The formula continues to unfold—and the politics of the genre constantly affirmed—as Ray meets with his former wife, who has a less-than-reputable boyfriend. Ray and his ex-wife squabble over things as their daughter is driven off by the evil boyfriend. Meanwhile, a university seismologist (Paul Giamatti) notes that his machines say that something is very awry, as things start to rumble and shake. The scene shifts to San Francisco and sites beloved of Hitchcock, like Coit Tower (I couldn’t help but think of the genuine films shot in this city). Buildings start to crumble and fall, then crumble and fall on a huge scale, then a monstrous tidal wave heads for the city. Ray is on the job, plowing through falling debris, as his daughter meets two very nice, asexual British lads. The wife’s no-good, cowardly boyfriend is crushed by a huge metal container in a Looney Toon moment that brought chuckles from the audience with which I sat. Ray reunites with his ex-wife, daughter, and the two annoying British lads, as a huge U.S. flag is suddenly, out of nowhere, unfurled on the Golden Gate Bridge as Ray intones “now we rebuild.”
As is typical of the neo-disaster film, there is no blood (except when one of the Brits gets a piece of wood stuck in his thigh) or images of dead bodies — the catastrophe is without real consequence, the audience invited to enjoy the 3D-enhanced CGI with assurance that it all amounts to nothing, our enjoyment totally vapid, hardly Buñuel’s anarchical embrace of conflagration. Nothing can touch the American spectator. The main affirmation, as indicated, is the American family, even after it has been shredded by the evils of divorce, with the discomfit it brings to children. The U.S. will persevere even if the San Andreas Fault cracks apart — from what I recall of my undergraduate geology course (very little) such an event would be utterly devastating not only to California but much of the nation. Not so in this representation.
The disaster film of the 1970s — the period when the genre came fully into its own — had a distinctly different worldview, and has little relationship, despite the non-arguments of media reviewers, to what has come to pass in the last two decades. The 70s disaster film, with the vigilante cycle (Death Wish (1974), Dirty Harry (1971), Walking Tall (1973)), spoke to the rage and general discontent of the Vietnam/Watergate era. The seismologist of Earthquake (1974), like the mayor of Jaws (1975) and the builder of The Towering Inferno (1974) (Barry Sullivan, Murray Hamilton, William Holden respectively), represent the cynicism, corruption, and outright cruelty offered by Hollywood to an embittered population, a form of inoculation, perhaps, to stave off political action. What these films ultimately offered was embittered nihilism — at the end of Earthquake, a haggard doctor (Lloyd Nolan) looks out over the ruins of the smoking city, saying to a haggard cop (George Kennedy), “This used to be a helluva town, officer!” (but don’t we recall the image of Los Angeles from The Day of the Locust (1975) to Dragnet (1967-1970) to Hollywood Babylon (1972)?). The cop mutters “Yeah.” The past is the past. At the end of Towering Inferno (1974), architect Paul Newman looks up at the golden skyscraper he designed, now a smoldering husk, remarking, “I dunno, maybe they should just leave it the way it is, kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.” But girlfriend Faye Dunaway snuggles close, and macho, prickly fire chief Steve McQueen shakes hands with the arrogant architect, promising to teach him ways of building fireproof skyscrapers. Still, the active nihilism of the 70s films gave us burning bodies flying out of windows, sexual transgressors (including a lunatic homosexual in Earthquake) soundly punished, faces gouged by flying glass, and philandering husbands drowned or burned to death, even if played by Charlton Heston and Robert Wagner. An older, puritan America lurked here, not the hypocritical, pseudo-multicultural, feel-good atmosphere of this century’s extreme reaction with a democratic face.
The 70s disaster cycle had nothing to offer as a political vision; it was commercial culture acknowledging the critical faculties of the audience of the time, and no more. The remains of the old Hollywood felt like the public that bought its tickets, that actions have consequences, and that we have to take our medicine after our fun. The lessons were puerile and evil. The spectacle of flying bodies wasn’t uplifting, hardly even entertainment, but there was a sense that the nonsense on the screen was connected to the experienced reality of everyday life. These disaster films, produced by a “liberal” (but fading) industry, had nothing to offer except joy at our own annihilation, with the usual Hollywood consolation that somehow things will be all right — maybe. But San Andreas? No doubt somewhere in such films there is a sense that things are plenty bad, not that we have to do anything at the moment — the narrative of The Day After Tomorrow (2004) flows from global warming anxieties, but even after the ultimate calamity, the film says we can always “rebuild.”
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He has been listening to the songs of Dinah Washington, one of the greatest vocalists of the last century. Her masterpiece (among many) “This Bitter Earth” has been savaged by being used as a dirge for two films, one very bad (Shutter Island), one mediocre (the recent French thriller The Connection).