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2021-05-03 17:53:11 (UTC)

Prompt 118: Historical Films

118. After its release in 1998, the movie Titanic made close to $2 billion dollars worldwide. Why do you think this portrayal of the famous disaster was so popular around the world? What is another famous event in history that could make an amazing movie experience and why would people enjoy watching it?

For the record, I sat in the movie theater with my then-wife and saw that film. And yes, I blubbered like a baby when Jack died. My then-wife and I clasped our hands together until our knuckles were white and our fingers drained of blood, whispering things to one other in the darkness of the cinema: "Oh my god, I'll always love you! Oh my god I can't believe that!" Bullshit like that. I mean, you knew Jack was gonna die by the time you heard, "The Chippewa Falls Dawsons." Thanks a heap, James Cameron.

I behaved largely in the same way with "Braveheart." Though technically not a disaster film, it had all the Hollywood trappings of a stunning cinematic epic. I watched it again maybe three years later, and I was embarrassed at my initial lauding and praising of a hackneyed, poorly-written film. But the "love" story and the intense violence and the implied ending of an empire were there. The long game of Scottish independence was distilled into a disembowelment and the dropping of a handkerchief. Never saw "The Last Temptation," Mel Gibson's follow-up, or his other film about Australian colonialism whatever that was, but I heard they were essentially the same.

Not gonna go to the rise of disaster cinema in the '70s, what with Michael Caine shouting, "The Africans! Kill the Africans!"


I think people have an innate connection to the stories told about - in this order - fuckin' and dyin'. I remember hearing a line similar to that in a play back when I was in college, and it's stuck with me ever since. The phrases, "fuckin' and dyin'. That's all life is, really" were spoken by a recently-returned Vietnam War veteran. That's all good stories are about.

Isn't that what "Titanic" was about? The audience knew when everyone was going to die, and the story was about when the protagonist couple were going to have sex. Everything after that moment in the car - complete with foggy windows - was a spectacle: a drawn-out resolution to the characters' figurative and literal climax. It was the longest "train going into the tunnel" sequence I think I've ever seen.

There's always a love story thrown into the catastrophe film. These things started with even the earliest silent films, then simply continued from there. You could even make a case for the combination of sex and violence being established on the stage, long before the screen. A casual glance over Oedipus, the classic Greek tragedies and myths, can lend credence to this. There can be no great fall until there is an ascendancy to human greatness. Even Samson and Delilah - one of the earliest silent films I can think of - had this trope.

So maybe that's what it's about, I think. The human triumph is both technological, and emotional. You have a person who reaches the height of ideal romantic relationships - the Perfect Lover - and then somehow couple that with an immense human engineering and/or mechanical equivalent. That is what makes a great disaster film. Maybe the typical committee of Hollywood writers feels that in order to sit through the constant barrage of violence and destruction, there needs to be some story of humans' enduring devotion for one another.

An essential quality of the catastrophe is that it needs to have a definite, identified end. You can't have a disaster film about an existential problem of civilization, and you can't blame the dominant culture at large. Everything needs to be knit back together nicely by the close of the third act. In the case of "Titanic," feel free to have it sorted by the -start- of the third act.

What qualifying disaster hasn't yet been exploited in such a way...? No, you can't do this about COVID-19 because there will be no end to it. It's an existential problem. I'd suggest the Spanish Flu, but that end was long and drawn-out, with multiple waves, and there's no way to make the protagonist couple worth caring about. If someone counters with "The Andromeda Strain," well I read the book but didn't see the movie and at least in the book it was dealt with sufficiently at the end. Plus there was no romantic interest if I recall correctly. So it doesn't fit the pattern - or the definition - of a disaster film. It's more a "science thriller," ain't it?

What's left? They released another re-telling of Gojira vs. King Kong just recently. However, the specter of radioactive monster-as-metaphor for Nuclear War is now an existential problem, thanks to the rise and fall of the Cold War. Now, any nation with a grudge and that wants to shake it's dick around has a nuclear warhead.

Superhero films just don't cut it. For example, they pissed-on and shit-on the story that could have been in "The Watchmen," that being the last I could handle before giving up the genre for the foreseeable future. That story was a rare instance of some big-picture, existential problem (human beings just not able to get along, whether on the streets or in the United Nations) being addressed, with the curious effect of a neat-and tidy ending in both the book and the film. Of course, this is a fictional tale anyway, so instead of humans being terrible to one another after such a terrible disaster, they somehow magically learn to be friendly and share. Alan Moore's "From Hell" was much stronger in this respect (having read the book but not seen the film).

Maybe we'll have to wait for Elon Musk's first Mars colony to end in disaster before we can have another fitting historical disaster film. I think everything else has been done to death (no pun intended).

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