Only the stars survive: disaster movies in the seventies

Nick Roddick’s essay in Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800-1976 is an excellent reference in my ongoing disaster movie research. Stephen Keane relied heavily on Roddick’s analysis, so I went straight to the source for my own read. The title of Roddick’s piece comes from an interview with Irwin Allen who described The Poseidon Adventure as “a perfect set-up of a group of people who have never met before and who are thrown together in terrible circumstances. In the first six minutes, 1,400 people are killed and only the stars survive.”

Interestingly, in Keane’s regurgitation of Roddick, it seems like he was saying that Roddick blamed “a post-Watergate depression, a national inferiority complex” on the appeal of the movies, but Roddick calls those things “a little too obvious and wholly impossible to substantiate.” Instead, Roddick aims to study these movies “because they give clear indications of how a cultural industry reacts to a period of economic and political crisis in capitalist society, and how culture can become ideologically active.” He then goes on to quote Karl Marx by saying disaster movies are a great example of reactionary culture, and as Marx says, “in each period, reactionaries are as sure indicators of its spiritual condition as dogs are of the weather.”

The narrative structure of the films is usually three parts: world before disaster, the disaster, and world after disaster. When movies don’t spend enough time examining the world after disaster, they are less successful, making it seem that showing how people cope with the disaster is an essential part of the cycle.

Elements of disaster movies: isolation, luxurious environments, random gathering of people, elemental cause of disaster (earth, fire, air, water), limited violent deaths (usually just one striking example), reaction to disaster.

Who is killed? The weak, the criminal, people in positions of power for which they are not suited (judgement strips them of power).

Our leaders have been shown to be wanting at times of crisis. This fear, fuelled by Watergate… is evidently a very real one. And disaster movies respond to it in a typically demagogic fashion: by portraying the transfer of power from the old, the incompetent and the corrupt to the new race of super-heroes, brave, morally upright and technologically brilliant. Behind them, the people can be united into a corporate identity, free from the divisions and the individual selfishness which characterised them before the disaster.

This is more than a merely thematic process: the narrative devices of the disaster movie actively encourage our allegiance to it. In addition to providing a character for each member of the audience to identify with, the characterisation of the world in terms of archetypes may be seen as a tacit statement that the world is simple, easily organised and hierarchically structured. Complexity of motivation and a problematic social structure, it is implied, are products of degeneracy…. for Michel Marmin in Valeurs actuelles, disaster movies ‘call for a kind of reassessment of our values. In particular, they stress the incapacity of the masses to govern themselves alone, and the need for hierarchies and masculine supremacy.’… [Disaster movies] are consistently and seductively the embodiment of a corporatist world view, a pleasingly simple solution to the troubling problems of our age within an effective narrative framework. These disasters may happen, they suggest; and if not these, very similar ones: when they come, you will know what to do.

Would like to read Stéphane Sorel’s Catastrophique virilité in Téléciné May 1975 for its analysis of the role of women in disaster movies but I can’t find any trace of this publication.

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate

There is nothing disappointing about Anne Boyer’s uncategorizable work. Poetry, philosophy, humor, jammed together in a sandwich of words. Plato rubs shoulders with the Occupy movement who wave at Bo Diddley who muses about the genius of Willie Nelson who sings about Colette.

The flashes of genius will surprise you and make you giggle, like her Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry, wherein she suggests various ways to make poems more scarce and thus worth more (shoot poetry through pneumatic tubes to world poetry capitals like Oakland, Brooklyn, Tallahassee; choreograph whales’ blow holes to look like words from above; hack traffic lights to blink out morse code poems; put poems on post-it notes slapped to the back of mourners at a funeral, etc.)

She writes of cancer treatments and sweating on the bus in LA, writing a poem about Mathew Barney’s shit sculpture show as an excuse to sit longer in the air conditioning: “maybe Normal Mailer on a river of shit is the art that we deserve.” There are pieces on reading and writing and poetry and art. “To read a book is to acquire the manifest of a ship full of trouble.” Her book of choice while battling cancer is the perfect companion, The Magic Mountain, but in Mann’s world the character can simply sit in the Alps and recover while Boyer must try to earn money in order to afford her chemotherapy.  “Cancer cells refuse to die, proliferate wildly, take over every territory they can… Their expansion—that wild, horrible living—has as its content only the emptiest death. ‘Like capitalism,’ I tell my friends, and mean, by capitalism, ‘life as we know it,’ and I mean, with ‘like capitalism,’ that among other things, ‘it’s dead inside.’ ”

I’m tempted to copy wholesale some of my favorite parts, like Click-Bait Thanatos (luckily already written out elsewhere):

As much as capitalism’s humans seem to generally suspect we should or will die off and take the world with us, many of us also want to live, at least in a manner.

We spend our days searching the engines that search us back. We look for instructions, click-baited by fear and trembling, propelled by whatever force allows the ruins of rust-belt factories to be taken over by vetch, the landfills to be filled with rats and sparrows.

Poetry, which was once itself a searching engine, exists in abundance in the age of Trump, as searchable and as immaterial as any other information. As it always has, poetry experiments in fashionable confusions, excels in the popular substitutive fantasies of its time, mistakes self-expression for sovereignty. But in making the world blurry, distressing, and forgettable, poetry now has near limitless competition.

Verse poetry once served a social function as memory structure and didactic aid. Its songishness was useful to memory, and memory was necessary to a kind of cultured thought. This memory-use began to fall away with the printing press, then crumbled underfoot with screens. Changes in memory and the human relation to it under industrialization corresponded to changes in poetic form, which underwent multiple rearrangements in the 20th century as social cognition was also rearranged. Our minds were exteriorized to the paperwork, then indentured to Silicon Valley’s safety-blue empire. As thinking fled mnemonics, so did poetry, and the new poetry of fracture, parataxis, and ragged complexity, if it had anything to do with memory, seemed to always be saying one thing about it: “Don’t remember me.”

And there’s this from Questions for Poets:

“Is the trial of today to flood ourselves with the vast oceanic tides of the marketplace and false feeling and scripted hellos and the aerosolized and the ambulatory and shipping containers and social practice and smile scanners? Is it the vital and great, the epic, or the minor, the depreciated, the commodious,the scatological, the blithe or the charming? Is it a trial of weaponized data entry? Is it the testimony of pdfs?”

Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe

Research for a project I’m thinking about, or perhaps just because I’m interested in the 1970s disaster movie genre. Stephen Keane starts his exploration of disaster flicks with the earliest of cinema, saying the silent films from Italy lead the way (1908 + 1913 Last Days of Pompeii, 1910 Fall of Troy, 1912 Quo Vadis), where the visual spectacle even without sound showed the power of those images to translate across the world. Audiences watch rapt, safe in their cozy theaters, removed but entertained.

Keane makes the point that disaster movies are born out of times of “impending crisis,” the tension of what’s in the air helping to draw in audiences. Thus 1930s and 1950s were ripe, but Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima’s actuality crowded out the need for faked disaster. The movies in the 1970s brought disaster films into the present time (1930s was about the ancient epics/Biblical/Greek/Roman, 1950s about future with sci-fi). With the shift to present day, people more apt to believe it could happen to them.

He relies heavily on analysis from Nick Roddick’s ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies’ from 1980, quoting Roddick: “A sort of post-Watergate depression, a national inferiority complex after the Vietnam debacle, even a ‘bread and circuses’ attitude caused by ‘the erosion of democracy and the Western materialist way of living’…” as contributing to society’s need for these films.

Another Roddick-ism is calling out the elemental forces at play: “the threats arise without exception from earth (Earthquake), air (Airport, Airport 1975, The Big Bus —which ends up hanging over a precipice, fire (The Towering Inferno, The Hindenburg) or water (The Poseidon Adventure, Juggernaut, Airport ’77).” I can think of an exception (Two-Minute Warning).

Discussing Airport, Keane calls it “disaster as therapy” where the movie shows you the path to living a better life. Other points to consider: how traditional roles/patriarchy is used to reinforce middle class values; how religion is used.

All disaster movies seem to follow the formula of using big name stars in their spectacle. It’s a shortcut for having the audience to feel something about the characters—they know Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as good guys already. There’s also a type of game audiences play when they see all the archetypes on display—which ones will die, which will survive. A bingo card of deaths awaits.

I liked the call out of how today’s movies employ green screens but earlier ones meant you KNEW the actors had worked hard in those scenes.

Also discussed: The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake where apparently Walter Matthau had a cameo; he appears in the credits under his real name: Walter Matuschanskayasky and all he does through the film is drink toasts to film stars (need to rewatch this!).

Disaster movies morphed into action movies in the 1980s (he does a nice segue with the Die Hard franchise) and then had a resurgence in the 1990s (Titanic, Independence Day, Armageddon, Volcano, Twister, etc.).

Manfried the Man

This cute graphic novel was exactly the palette cleanser I needed after a few brutal days. The concept flips the ownership of cats by people and it’s cats that act like humans and who have tiny men as pets. The main cat in this gets ridiculed for being a man cat (kind of like a cat person), his co-workers yawn at all his stories about his man. He does silly things like pile stuff on top of his sleeping man and try to walk him in a harness. Eventually he gets fired for not doing his call center job well, and his man runs away from an open window. The cute “lost man” posters end up netting the cat a freelance gig and he’s reunited with his man, so happily ever after.

Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living

Is my insistence on reading certain books to the end healthy? This book lured me with the bait of lyrical descriptions of nature and (best of all) spending time alone appreciating the seasons. If it had stuck to that path, it may have been worth the effort, but she attempts to mine her own biography for details that I simply didn’t care about. Ho hum, a tomboy whose military family bounced around a lot and whose abusive dad ended up splitting the family. Yawn, her obsession with trusty dog companion (although this reminded me of Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman) who she loved more than her dying mother. Zzz, sleeping through her tales of dating in a small Colorado town and especially snoring once she finds true love on OK Cupid. She deals with a cabin fire in the beginning, and I wonder how she chose to structure it as such. What if she built up to the fire and described the calm and the seasons, then peaked with burn drama and wrapped with lessons learned from getting rid of all your possessions?

Bottom line, there are much better memoirs and much better hymns to the natural world.

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

I wanted this book to be as interesting as the interview the author gave to Ezra Klein (“Is modern society making us depressed?“). Unfortunately it falls short, Hari being a much better interview subject than writer. It’s not a complete waste of time, though, as it reinforces his message over hundreds of pages: society now makes us isolated and has us focused on the wrong values, which end up making us depressed. To solve this, don’t just pop an anti-depressant but dive to the root of the problem—connect with your neighbors, find meaningful work (e.g. bike shop co-op), practice loving kindness and meditation, stay off the internet and stop watching as much TV. Exercise, because we’re animals. Get out in nature. Universal basic income. You know, the usual proscription to solving modern ills.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Excellent book by Richard Rothstein detailing the systematic, de jure segregation imposed on America by its institutions (not de facto but rather de jure, or enforced by law). He layers example after example on you, each page weighing the argument more and more, drumbeats that refuse to back away from this egregious history. Citing examples in San Francisco, Richmond, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, etc. he builds his argument from decades of research.

Lots of other crazy bits are inside, like the 1917 campaign promoted by the Department of Labor in response to the terrifying 1917 Russian revolution: an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign where “We Own Our Own Home” buttons were handed out to schoolkids and pamphlets distributed saying it was a patriotic duty to stop renting.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Zora Neale Hurston tried to get this published in her lifetime to no avail, and here it is almost 100 years later that it finally gets printed. She interviewed Cudjo Lewis (Kossola, his African name), the last survivor of the final shipment of the illegal slave trade right before the Civil War broke out. The best parts of this were when Zora inserts herself into the story, obliquely, unobtrusively. She ends up bringing him gifts like peaches and ham and watermelon and they become friends chatting in the shade of a hot Alabama afternoon as he leads her down his memory hole to what life was like in Africa, how he was captured, what life became for him in Alabama. The hardest part for her was coming to grips with the fact that Africans themselves sold out other Africans to the slave trade.

Everything is Flammable

Is Gabrielle Bell always this whiny? I’ve read several of her graphic novels which detail her autobiographical dilemmas, best of which is Truth is Fragmentary: travelogues and diaries, but I don’t remember feeling annoyed by her tone in those. Maybe it’s my mood.

There are good parts, like the bus ride wherein she’s trapped with an ex-con who’s a bit too talkative and her seatmates all combine to ignore this guy, “as if the 3 of us were arbitrarily given the task of babysitting a large, unpredictable, scary, nasty child who should have been aborted.” The story tips from coast to coast as she travels from New York to northern California to help her mom after a fire wiped out her mom’s cabin. Luckily her mom’s community comes to the rescue, and she’s donated clothing and various supplies. Gabrielle helps her find a tiny home and the guy who’s living on the lot helps her build a bathroom extension. There are bears and dogs and PTSD from abusive relationships in California and tomato plants and homeless bikers camping in her backyard and friends who donate dish racks that are carted across the country in New York.

Why Art?

Eleanor Davis pokes and prods at the question of why we need art in a book you can zip through in 20 minutes, introducing us to various artist types and then spinning a world wherein the creators are manipulating their creations but to what end? Not a book for anyone looking for a meaty answer, more of a frothy jaunt contemplating this major question in the manner of a daydream.


Dave Cullen unravels the myths and falsehoods that swirled around the 1999 school tragedy that ushered in a new era of terror for children. For those of us who haven’t followed the twists and turns over the years, you probably have the idea that the media pushed at the time, a couple of loners who were angry at the jocks and wanted to shoot them all. Well, no. Eric Harris was a certifiable psychopath who had been planning an even bigger bombing than McVeigh’s OKC event, and he pulled Dylan along with him, the poor depressive kid who had planned on killing himself before the event actually came to pass. (Evil Eric and Depressive Dylan is how I’m keeping them straight in my head).

Beyond the inner workings of Eric’s mind, we see things that set the plan in motion in the months leading up to April 20: E & D steal things from a van and get caught, have to do some sort of juvy probation program, start stockpiling weapons, but still find time to go to prom and pick up chicks. Yes, they had bowling class but that’s not what they did the day of, sorry Michael Moore. Meh, overall, unless you’re completely nerding out about gun control and just want to feed your frenzy.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

This story was more bonkers than I realized. Besides the willfully deceptive insistence that their fake product worked, there are seamy tales of hiding the bizarre relationship of Holmes and her much older, pudgy, Indian boyfriend from the board, the strained relationship of grandfather & grandson Schultz, the egg on the face of many pseudo-respectable figureheads on the board who were mesmerized by Holmes, a suicide prompted by impending grand jury testimony, and direct consequences to patients who had tests done by these fake pinprick sticks. Despite what seemed to be excellent reporting by Carreyrou, I can’t help feeling like there’s a bit of smacking of the lips, people enjoying this story a bit too much because of the meteoric rise and fall of this woman. Surely the Travises have participated in similar fraud? The investigative reporter must have mentioned Holmes’ preternatural deep voice over a dozen times. Bonus points for the fact that the fraud charges continue to pile up as everyone flips the pages of this book.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Another one from Deep Focus’s Novel Approach to Cinema wherein writers deconstruct, analyze, roll around in the playpen of a particularly kitschy film (see previous post where Jonathan Lethem takes on They Live). This covers the hastily put together sequel to the classic Bad News Bears, a 1977 movie where the team hits the road to play in Houston’s now exploded Astrodome.

I’d have to say that the author’s father was my favorite part of the book, reaching through the telephone to dump doom and gloom on his son when he was looking for a personal recollection of how they dealt with the 1977 NYC blackout but instead his dad talks about the limits of capitalism and how the global economy had reached the end of its post-war boom in 1977: “The mid- to late-1970s were the beginning of an unstoppable decline.”

Wilker picks apart all the continuity mistakes, the new actors cast into roles that rolled over from the previous movie, the flimsiness of the sequel itself. I think this is a less interesting book than Lethem’s mostly due to the movie comparison; They Live is a commentary on what we’re dealing with now whereas Breaking Training takes us back to a simpler time where racism and misogyny were normal and kids could play unsupervised even to escape in a custom van on the road.

The Perfect Nanny

An easily digested beach-read-y type book that was actually quite good for the nanny genre it’s in. This French novel (translated to English by Sam Taylor) was a re-telling of the real life nanny murders that happened in NYC a few years ago, but Slimani shapes the psyche of Louise the nanny in such a way that doesn’t cheapen her motives, doesn’t suggest envy of her employers’ barely middle class possessions, but rather her complicated child-like state and total neglect of her own life subsumed by her employers’ kids. As Jessa Crispin noted in her Baffler review of the book, “But if one can’t reach a person’s inner world via journalism or a court of law, fiction seems like the ideal place from which to attempt radical empathy and reach a consciousness that is capable of monstrous acts.” It is “a novel about internalized post-feminist anxiety,” when women try to have both successful career and happy family.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

This was a good book to read, living up to the reputation that proceeded it from the lit nerds on Twitter, and a great choice to devour during Pride month. It’s a mix of writing and life advice, a memoir about surviving some terrible things as a kid and as a gay writer, some musings on gardening, 9/11, “The Election” (and what’s the point of continuing in this world?), friends dying of AIDS, apartments rented across NYC, dressing in drag in SF for his first Halloween, the terrible jobs picked up along the way (waitering, cater-waitering, tarot card reading), teaching writing, handling success, and more.

I think I first came to Chee’s writing from his essay on having Annie Dillard as a teacher which is included in this collection. He distills her wisdom into a dozen instructions:

  1. Put all deaths, accidents, and diseases at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use the word “soul.”
  3. Never quote dialogue that you can summarize.
  4. Avoid describing crowd scenes (especially party scenes).
  5. Vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices bring adverbs.
  6. All action on the page happens in the verbs. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
  7. Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.
  8. Avoid emotional language. She isn’t angry, she throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.
  9. The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
  10. Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
  11. Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
  12. Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there. Create the space for yourself. Visualize it.