George Saunders has a great piece in the New Yorker in which suddenly people everywhere start developing superpowers. Except, they don't, they just think they do, causing an "apocalypse of ineptitude". This reminded me of the plot in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening in which people start behaving suicidally because of airborne something-or-other (I haven't seen the film).

Which reminded me: I was thinking today about how the Apocalypse, or just a sudden failing of society in the face of catastrophic change, has become a huge theme in US film, post 9-11. Movies like Cloverfield, Signs, The Day After Tomorrow, The Road, I Am Legend, 28 Days/Weeks Later (UK film, but still), War of the Worlds, Children of Men, or most recently The Happening . These are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head. I'm sure there are loads more (feel free to leave your least favourite in the comments).

Saunder's piece seems to perfectly capture the sense I sometimes get, watching these films. Apocalyptic fiction gives us great metaphors for little disasters in our own lives (as JJ Abrams, who, by the way, made Cloverfield, says in this clip, "Die Hard" isn't a film about terrorism, it's a film about divorce). Actually, most apocalypse films are about divorce. So is The Happening, from what I can tell (the main character uses the death of millions of people as an opportunity to reconnect with his estranged wife, as do almost anyone in any apocalypse movie evah).

But it always seems to me, now, that after 9-11, people are not seeing the metaphors anymore. After the spectacular, Technicolour, Indepence Day¨-turned-into-reality mayhem of 9-11, people have lost the ability to not see the disaster flick as a rehearsal for an actual threat, or a way of dealing with the psychological strain of actual threats.

That's one of the things that lead to the apocalypse of ineptitude of, say, the current security policy in the west. We've mistaken our stories about small, personal disasters for actual, looming apocalypses. It happened once, right? And then there was the tsunami and Katrina, and oh, look, Cedar Rapids is underwater and anthrax and, and, and... All it took was a few nightmare scenarios to become real. Now suddenly you can't carry hair conditioner onto airplanes, even though this does not make you any safer.

I wonder if this wasn't something that would have happened anyway. I can't help thinking that if it wasn't 9-11, it would have been something else. After the global, mediated interconnectedness was a fact, after our entertainment industry had gone into hyperdrive. It had to happen. Sooner or later, the proliferation of narratives in fiction would meet up with the proliferation of reporting, of connection with other people. Maybe it had to happen eventually that some unlikely apocalyptic scenario became real in some hugely mediated way. Maybe another Tunguska event. Maybe a nuclear bomb in LA out of 24. (I'm thinking up scenarios like this constantly.) 9-11 wasn't a killer that was anything close to, say, world hunger or the war in Iraq. And we seem already to have forgotten that we still live in a world that has enough nuclear weapons to kill everyone. As it turns out, we're the apocalypse.

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Blogger Mikkel said...

OR one could say that disaster movies are just fictitious reportage. We all know that reportage has taken the place of religion to most zombies. Reportage is the permanent backdrop of modern zombie existence, supplying a release from the trivial, and a constant and reassuring sense of things going on beyond the horizon of the mundane. The more terrible the events, the more reassuring (in religion: visions of hell), because they contrast the relative comfort and safety of everyday zombie life. Reportage, like religion, is obsessed with death, because what it really supplies (the "news") is a sense of permanency (immortality) to counter the fear of personal extinction. There is also, of course, an element of communication with a greater reality - "news of the WORLD". for this reason, zombies who are deprived of reportage (when vacationing in the mountains for example) often feel disoriented. When you scour the news looking for little items of reportage to blög about, you're actually making a zombie prayer. Disaster movies are supplying the same kind of reassurance: Look at all those people getting killed for no reason. I'm not one of them, but I was there, I saw it happen, which means I'm a survivor. I have eternal zombie life. Yay me.

June 18, 2008 6:26 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Well, I've never really had the sense that reportage provides a sensation of immortality or reassurance. Rather, it makes me either a) fear for my own mortality and feel remote and distanced from actual experience or b) disguise the actual Bad Things happening, which prevents action (tsunami coverage followed by our human interest story and here's Bob with the weather).

So no, I don't see reportage and disaster movies as doing the same thing. I think that it's two distinct phenomena, but they obviously interact in interesting ways.

June 18, 2008 6:49 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

oh, or c) Make me informed and aware.

I almost forgot. That happens every now and again.

June 18, 2008 6:50 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

OK, maybe disaster movies provide zombies with something other than symbolic reportage. If they do, I'm not sure what that is.

Other than that: What you're saying doesn't make sense because a) you're a zombie and b) if reportage does not soothe you, but rather, as you claim, makes you feel fearful of your life and distanced from reality, then why ever would you watch it daily? That would be like burning yourself with a cigarette over and over. Where's the gratification? A tinge of informed awareness now and again? I don't buy it. You must be getting something else out of it, admit it. And c), about the human interest story and here's Bob with the weather - that's my main point. A news broadcast has the exact same structure as a Christian mass: Hell, hell, hell, damnation, hell, and in other news; paradise, eternal life, see you next Sunday.

Reportage is relatively recent, a product of the electric telegraph, first used journalistically during the Erican civil war. Erican war correspondents brought this method to Europe when they covered the Franco-Prussian war, that's when the modern idea of "news" really caught on. In 1870 when William Howard Russell, a veteran reporter of the Crimea, travelled in person from the battle at Sedan to Printing House Square, writing all night, to get his story to the front page of the Times, other London papers had already picked up the news of the German victory - by telegraph. Between 1880 and 1900 the number of newspapers worldwidedoubled.

The development - within a few decades - from a world where most zombies did not know or care what other zombies far, far away did with their time, to a world where zombie minds are filled and refilled daily with detailed and accurate accounts of the doings of absolute strangers, is arguably the greatest change in zombie consciousness within recorded zombie history. By a funny coincidence, the same time span has seen the eclipse of the church as a real power, at least in Europe.

My argument is that modern day reportage has largely taken the place of religion, using many of the same tricks (soothing visions of hell, the promise of eternal life, the suggestion of universal coherence and meaning, the construction of order through the presentation of chaos). If you want to disagree on that point it's fine with me, but you would be wrong, so I suggest you just agree with me. These are not the droids you're looking for.

June 18, 2008 9:36 pm  

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