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Relishing disaster movies

05/11/04 12:00AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Apparently, there's a new interest in disaster movies. Commentary Peter Gilbert has been wondering why.

(Gilbert) Recently commercial television broadcast a two-part miniseries called 10.5. It's the story of an earthquake on the West Coast that registered 10.5 on the Richter scale - the one that threatens to make California, Oregon, and Washington fall into the Pacific. It's a disaster film in more ways than one, but the first night of the miniseries was the most watched movie on TV since the CBS documentary about the real disaster "9-11."

The cliche-ridden film harkens back to the heyday of disaster films, the early and mid 1970s. The first major disaster film was Airport, which came out in 1970. You remember: crippled plane needs to land at a busy Midwestern airport amidst a blizzard. Two sequels followed. They weren't great, but we survived them, too. Then, in 1972, came The Poseidon Adventure, about a capsized luxury liner. It grossed a staggering $93 million.

The Towering Inferno followed in 1974 and Earthquake and Juggernaut, and of course, the first real blockbuster, Jaws, in 1975 - then the highest grossing film in history. In Jaws, evil haunts an idyllic New England summer resort town. The town fathers deny the reality for fear of hurting the tourist business, and the killer shark is only destroyed when the politicians acknowledge the reality and confront it head on.

Much has been written about the way disaster films of the 'seventies were a product of socially traumatic events. The trauma to our collective psyche had, some argued, two causes: Vietnam and Watergate. It came from a need to project calamity in some form other than war or governmental scandal, and then put the disaster neatly behind us through a redemptive triumph of the human spirit.

While this TV miniseries shouldn't be taken too seriously, I can't help but wonder whether this recent earthquake fable speaks to a similar yearning now. There are the half-dozen characters in the typical parallel plots, each drawn out by events of their self-centered perspective. We see them -- and supposedly the population generally - come together for the good of all, and learn that we all need each other and can rely on each other when the chips are really down. We hear the fictitious president of the United States saying things intended to be inspirational, like, "We will survive and endure." It's interesting that complete disaster is averted by nuclear warheads: detonated underground in strategic locations, they stop the earthquake. And most importantly, toward the end of the film, we see a presidential aide saying with enormous relief, "The quake's over, Mr. President."

On some level, we all want to know that such dangers and disasters are over. We want to feel that, as a parent might reassure a child, "Everything will all be alright now." But while films neatly resolve themselves, life's more messy, ambiguous, and open-ended. That's why we go to fims. But it doesn't change the reality we have to confront when the movie's over.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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