Why the disaster movie will sink without trace

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The Independent Culture

For 50 years or so, the movies have been a culture of damage. I know, this is a large generalisation, but bear with it for a moment. What I am suggesting is that it has been a function of the movies to present us with things and then destroy them - automobiles as new and fresh as the screen's best girls; those girls; houses; cities; our hopes and armies; civilisation. There are so many films to choose from as evidence of these trends, I will leave it to you to take the various categories of damage I have listed and name a few yourselves.

Anyone examining film history can identify ways of measuring the medium that assessed its destructive power (or purchasing power - ie we will buy that ship, that aircraft, that city, so that we can film its destruction). From the late Seventies onwards, enormous advances occurred in this kind of breakage in that you no longer needed a Titanic to sink that ship. A fat model helped, of course, but the magic called special effects had amazing promise. More or less it became possible to make anything, in miniature or virtualness; and thus the manias of explosion, evaporation or deconstruction came all the more easily. It wasn't too hard to see an alarming metaphor in this - a model of vanity in the face of which the nature and promise of reality might waver. Not that the effects film-makers seemed in the least deterred. Increasingly, as the 20th century came to its end, their glee at blowing up anything soared - it was an American art, or frenzy.

Cut, if you will. I am not one of those of the opinion that 11 September 2001 changed everything. Indeed, I believe it was part of the frenzy described above that many wanted us to think that so much was gone forever. But two areas of our life and work came under scrutiny: we began, of our own accord (I speak of America, but it spreads) to restrict our own liberties in the name of fear; and we began to enter into a new but essential disquiet over so much blithe imagery of destruction. When aircraft entering the World Trade Centre made young kids ask, "What movie is this?", even the glee-busters began to restrain themselves.

Perhaps this mercy will be short-lived. But I noticed something else recently in the massive television coverage of the thing called Katrina, and then the Kashmir earthquake. As helicopters from the television networks passed over the exposed roofs of New Orleans houses, and saw the clusters clinging to the sharp angles for mere survival, some people asked, "Well, if CNN is there, where are the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] helicopters to lift those people off?" For a time, FEMA even denied the existence of those desperate people - but FEMA, you see, is part of a culture (curiously coincidental with the rush to epic destruction) that has elected not to show coffins returning from Iraq, let alone footage of bombs there bursting through the defective armour on so many vehicles (note: soldiers can buy their own necessary armoured protection). Now, George Bush's discretion is not exactly the kind I might ask for in the matter of fictional aircraft charging fictional buildings. In his case it is more a profound wish not to see reality: for though he wants us not to see, it is more pressing that he not have to notice these things himself.

I am talking about the reality of broken truth, by which I mean the plain evidence of damage and its relationship with reality. From Louisiana and Pakistan, we have suddenly had a destruction show that should satisfy any fan of "disaster" movies. But it comes at a price. Disaster and damage are sacred things. No, I do not mean they come from God, or remind us of religion. They only remind me of the absence of those things. But they are sacred in that they say, look, those people, they are damaged, they have lost, they are dead, they are ripped apart. And it is not pretending or fun that has done it. It is only nature. But for all you want to believe in - including the power of cameras to move people and bring us together - do not make sport of such things again. There are some things so real that if they are fabricated on screen, our souls may be damaged in watching - unless the creative integrity is large. What things? Well, maybe once you start the list could go on, but here are three items - love-making; the moment of death; and the terrible damage that comes on the wind or in the uneasy ground. Those things have a reality that beggars the attempt at fiction.