Critical dialogue on disaster films
Drugged popcorn

by Fred Kaplan

from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, pp. 19-20
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

I disagree strongly with Fred Kaplan’s approach to the discussion of the “disaster movies,” THE TOWERING INFERNO and EARTHQUAKE (“Riches from Ruins”), in JUMP CUT No. 6 (March-April 1975).

Kaplan maintains that it is “vague nonsense” to connect this trend in any way to current political, social, and economic crises. He bases his argument on the grounds that the people behind these productions are not “students of social trends,” i.e., consciously trying to present the current crisis in metaphorical form. Rather he sees them as typical Hollywood hacks out to make a buck, who have seized upon a hot formula to cash in on. The films’ thematic elements are merely the products of individual writers’ imaginations, and therefore don't require much critical attention. For example, there was a physio-chemist who “was just interested in what might happen if the electrical wiring for a high-rise failed, did some research, and wrote a hack novel. That’s all.” In answer to the question of why audiences are flocking to these films, Kaplan attributes it to “the essential boredom of modern life as experienced by millions,” so that “anything really big and action-packed and exciting [will) sell in a very big way.”

I believe this analysis is inadequate. It disregards the fact that we are all (film makers included), to varying degrees of conscious intention, not only students of but also representatives of social trends.

It’s true enough that the boredom of modern life both stimulates and requires the production of various kinds of spectacles, mass entertainment and otherwise.(1) But is that all film criticism has to say in the face of the diverse forms these spectacles take? If it’s all reducible to boredom, then we don't have to concern ourselves with how and why certain trends appear and gain popularity at different times. Monster and science-fiction films, big musicals, biblical epics, etc., all would then be regarded a essentially the same thing—“just entertainment” movies designed to satisfy the escapist longings of the masses and reap huge profits for the studios. But clearly the problem is more complicated than that.

On the most obvious level, if all spectacular, big budget movies were always equally big box office successes, Hollywood would have its tasks and worries enormously simplified. But beyond that, to argue that the disaster films do in fact reflect contemporary social reality, i.e., a society in crisis, does not require us to posit some kind of deliberate intention to achieve this on the part of those responsible for their production. The ways in which social factors condition and in turn are revealed in artistic production are complex and multifold. They often operate unconsciously, as if “behind the backs” of the individual artist or producer. That person, if asked about it, often quite sincerely denies that his or her work contains a political message, social implications, or anything other than what should be viewed in purely creative terms.

So in examining the disaster films, it may be less important to prove or disprove whether their creators had any consciously allegorical or ideological aims in mind, than it is to analyze what the plot, characterizations, and various dramatic devices are saying to the audience.

I won't venture to undertake in detail such an analysis here. But I would like to comment on a few points and trace the outline of an interpretation. I want to emphasize that the significance of the disaster film trend involves not only the question of why these films are so successful, but perhaps more importantly, the ideological messages they contain.

In THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, EARTHQUAKE, and THE TOWERING INFERNO the disasters take the immediate form of great, overwhelming natural phenomena: a huge tidal wave, an earthquake, fire. The first two of these disasters could have been mitigated, the third avoided, but for the corruption, greed, or incompetence of certain individuals. The greedy Greek shipping company has made the Poseidon dangerously top-heavy but refuses the Captain’s request to slow its speed. In EARTHQUAKE both the seismology experts and the mayor hesitate to take the appropriate steps for fear of looking foolish if the quake didn't happen. In THE TOWERING INFERNO there’s the corruption of the building’s electrical contractor who skimped on materials to increase his profits.

I would suggest that all of these films symbolically reproduce what happens to bourgeois ideology—the ideology which continues to maintain its hegemony in capitalist society(2)—when it is subjected to the strains of a period of crisis.

The fact that the disasters come in the shape of natural phenomena corresponds to the fundamental reification of capitalist society. This is the idea that the economy is somehow a “natural” force itself, perceived by human beings as not only somewhat mysteriously independent of their will and activity but actually subjugating them to its own requirements. In the work of the classical bourgeois political economists, and even for some contemporary diehards like Milton Friedman, the market economy of capitalism is a rational, self-regulating force (the “invisible hand” is the mechanism of this rationality). Conventional economic wisdom was modified by Keynesian economics, which, to put it very roughly, sought to be able to remedy the dysfunctions of the market through government intervention in the economy.

What do these doctrines, together with their baggage of associated ideas, look like when they reach the level of mass ideology? Again, to put these things very roughly, there’s the notion that capitalism is “natural,” in accordance with “human nature,” and therefore the most workable system. There is also the idea that either the unimpeded workings of the market economy are rational and desirable (“our great free enterprise system,” which maximizes freedom of choice) or, since this was beginning to ring hollow even in times of prosperity, that the experts will know what to do to keep things running all right.

But bourgeois ideological hegemony is put in different straits, just as most working people are, when a crisis or slump hits. Inevitably the idea of blaming specific individuals for the problem—not the system itself—begins to occur, coined in terms of corruption, greed, etc.. To beat the crisis, what people have to do is to work together, make sacrifices, and get rid of the undesirable elements who were to blame for it, as well as the worn out leaders and “experts” who were unable to prevent and then deal with it. The need for new, fresh, energetic leadership is stressed. At the same time an appeal to traditional values of sacrifice, hard work, and self-help is made.

This is essentially what occurs in microcosm in the disaster films, particularly THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and EARTHQUAKE. Heroic leaders emerge (Gene Hackman, Charlton Heston) who come into conflict with previous, but now discredited, figures of authority, and ultimately guide people through the disaster to survival. Traditional values are constantly referred to and drawn upon throughout the adventure/ ordeal, from which they emerge revivified.

I hasten to add that it’s not only “the economy” that is reified in bourgeois ideological notions, nor is that sphere the only area of modern capitalist society which has proven susceptible to crisis. An undertow of dissent and dissatisfaction manifested itself in different ways at various times in the postwar period. The dissent intensified in the late 60s in what appeared to be an outbreak of social turmoil in politics, racial relations, sexual attitudes and behavior, culture, education, etc. Each of these related aspects of contemporary society experienced and continues to experience developments similar to what happens in regard to the economy at a time of crisis. Established institutions, conceptions, and authorities are hard-pressed by events and their viability is challenged. In the same way, there are attempts to maintain a sick status quo aimed at singling out culpable individuals as the cause of the problems (“outside agitators,” “over permissive” parents and educators, the press, various “misfits,” etc.). In turn there is a move to promote new, “dynamic” leadership ready and able to confront the culpable ones toughly, and a call for a return to the “time-tested” values and virtues.

This leads to a final criticism of Kaplan’s analysis. He dates the origin of the disaster movie trend with the publication of Arthur Halley’s novel Airport which became popular in 1968. That seems reasonable, and let’s assume it to be accurate. But then, to support his assertion that it’s “vague nonsense” to connect the trend with a crisis mentality or zeitgeist, he goes on to describe this year as a time when few people were concerned with Watergate, and “a time when almost nobody was feeling any sores of the economy or guilt over Vietnam.” As I've already indicated, my memories of that period are somewhat different. Contrary to what Kaplan implies, in 1968 the war was not a minor issue; the anti-war movement was already substantial and still growing. In that year the upheaval at Columbia University marked the beginning of a wave of similar eruptions occurring at other campuses. The Democratic convention took place in Chicago in the summer of 1968: more cops clubbing more demonstrators. The 60s had witnessed the change in the movement for black liberation in the United States from non-violence to more militant forms of action; the Watts riots broke out in 1965, Detroit in 1967. 1967 is also remembered as the “Summer of Love,” when youth culture and hippies became the objects of endless media coverage and fascination.

So in fact the United States was in the throes of serious political, social, and cultural turmoil in the late 1960s. And besides, even if the disaster film trend began in a period when “the economy” strictly speaking was not in the state it is today, that hardly proves that the current economic situation has no substantial connection to the long lines queuing up for EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO.

Interestingly, Kaplan sees the box-office success of these films as indicating a reaction by many moviegoers against the youth-oriented and foreign films of the 60s, back towards the older formula of big-budget productions, lots of stars, easily comprehensible and unambiguous plots, etc.. I agree, but this should not be viewed strictly in terms of the realm of film itself. The production and popularity of certain films in the 60s were themselves an aspect of the social and cultural milieu of the time. Much of the audience is now attracted to more traditional production values in films and is reacting against an uncomfortable social reality as depicted in films like EASY RIDER or THE GRADUATE, as well as responding to the somewhat differently uncomfortable, but not unconnected, social and economic situation of the present time.

To summarize: it’s undeniable that in the most immediate sense the disaster films are escapist spectacles, as Kaplan’s article maintains. But a critical analysis which fails to go beyond this observation can neither account for the specific forms these spectacles take at different times, nor link this concretely to the way in which the drug of ideology may be hidden in the popcorn of entertainment.


1. See Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle. English translation available from Black and Red, Box 9546, Detroit, Michigan 48202.

2. As Karl Marx puts it, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”