Tuesday, March 15, 2011

At the corner of Hollywood Boulevard & Death Drive

John Cusack was running for his life, and I was laughing.

Buildings very familiar to me were collapsing like giant, fainting robots.  Freeways and boulevards I drive on regularly were crumbling.  Finally, as Cusack and his family escaped in a plane, the entire city of Los Angeles fell into a crack in the Earth or slid into the Pacific Ocean. 

This was the opening of Roland Emmerich's 2012, and I was watching the apocalypse with delight.  For some reason, it was great fun to see things I was familiar with get trashed.  Apocaslapstick.

I love apocalyptic films, movies that show the end of civilization, that destroy man's monuments in a beautiful spectacle.  So, when I saw trailers for Battle: Los Angeles, I knew I had to see the movie.  The City of Angels was going to take in the shorts again!

It's not that I hate Los Angeles.  It's just that I love any movie about the apocalypse.  The apocalypter the better.  But my desire to see LA's latest flogging made me think about how often this happens.  Is there any city that has imagined its own destruction more often?

In 2012, natural disasters destroyed it.  In The Day After Tomorrow (2004), tornados tore the town a new one.  Earthquake (1974) and Volcano (1997) sort of explain themselves.  In films such as Battle: Los Angeles, aliens did it, as they did in the 1953 version of War of the Worlds

But this masochistic mayhem was going on in novels before it hit the big screen.  For instance, in The Flutter of an Eyelid from 1933, Myron Brinig has Southern California slide off into the ocean after an earthquake.  In that book, that fate somehow seems like a justified punishment for the vain and dissolute characters he depicted living there.

More famously, Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust (1939) includes someone creating an epic painting called "The Burning of Los Angeles" and the novel ends with an extended description of a riot destroying parts of the town and sweeping away West's characters.

Why would a city that includes Hollywood, also known as The Dream Factory, be so fascinated with these nightmare scenarios?

The city brings the nation cinema and television filled with beauty and sex and dreams of perfection.  Perhaps there is some psychic need to balance that with death and dismemberment.

It might make sense from a Freudian perspective.  Sigmund Freud speculated that humans possessed something called "the death drive."  This was like the flip-side of his thoughts on "Eros," which was related to the biological instinct for procreation and the pleasurable experiences of living.

He was trying to understand why people's behavior often contradicted his notion of "the pleasure principle."  People were often times attracted to things that were scary to them or even had threatened their existence.  For instance, soldiers back from World War I kept reliving their traumatic experiences, rather than repressing them or avoiding them.

For Freud, dreams and the unconscious worked toward wish fulfillment.  So he had a hard time understanding an unconscious or compulsive attraction to fear or pain.  Why would people keep imagining their own deaths?

Kind of like Los Angeles does.  Mike Davis, in The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, counts more than 150 short stories, novels, and films that imagine the city's destruction.

One possible motivation for repeatedly imagining a deadly or traumatic event is the desire to overcome it, to rewrite the story.  Los Angeles has lived through many traumas -- mud slides, earthquakes, wildfires, riots, Charlie Sheen.  It is a city founded upon trauma: the Spanish dispossession of its indigenous inhabitants, and their double dispossession by the arrival of the United States.  In most of the stories and films, the city survives.  We could see the destructive narratives as the city working out its traumatic experiences in symbolic terms.

In some instances, the city's death has been imagined by artists who were angry at Los Angeles.  Brinig was from Montana and didn't like Southern California during his brief stay.  Imagining it sliding into the ocean might have been his way of saying, "This is what you degenerates deserve."  Or he might have been imagining its disappearance so he would never be able to return.

West was probably bitter that he had not found wealth and fame as a writer in Hollywood.  So The Day of the Locust becomes a kind of revenge fantasy.

Sodom and Gomorrah
This "mysterious masochistic trend," to borrow Freud's description of the death drive, could be as simple as a love-hate relationship.  Sure, Los Angeles has sunny skies and warm weather just about every day of the year.  But we also have oppressive smog on some days, ubiquitous, ugly strip malls, oceans of concrete -- and did I mention Charlie Sheen?  We have beautiful men and women, but we also have botox zombies and the insufferably shallow.  We have every culture in the world rubbing shoulders, but we spend so much time trapped in our cars that we never get to meet each other.  So perhaps it is no wonder that we sometimes want the whole frackin' thing to fall into the sea.  I am sure even some of the folks in Sodom and Gomorrah were relieved to see the fire and brimstone headed their way -- "Anything to get out of this traffic!"

Or imagining our own immolation may be driven by guilt.  Look at what we have done to paradise.

So, do you hear that Hollywood?  We've been a bad, bad city and deserve to be punished.  But next time, do it in 3D.

(Please see the comments for a postscript about the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami.)


  1. I have had this posting in mind since I saw the previews for Battle: Los Angeles. And then on about the same day it opened, Japan was hammered by an earthquake and a tsunami. How could I describe my delight in apocalyptic films when the tide brings a thousand bodies a time to the Japanese coast?

    People share my desire to see these films -- Battle: Los Angeles grossed nearly $36 million this past weekend -- and yet react with shock, tears, and great compassion at the site of real disasters.

    That is at it should be.

    Narratives are the way we deal with what scares us, even making it not scary but fun or thrilling. Narratives should not make us react to the real world in the same way. They should not dull us to pain and suffering in the real world. And when they do, they diminish us.

  2. I, too, love this kind of movie, and love spotting the LA markers familiar only to Angelenos. Not just the Hollywood sign, but the Angelina billboards, the Palisades, our blue buses, our town....

    I am pleased when a volcano or spaceship destroys downtown LA. But I am heartsick at what's happening in Japan. Perhaps because it's real, perhaps because, unlike LA, Japan doesn't deserve it.

    Is it a sign of an older audience that, while sex = death of the individual in a teen slasher movie, sex and venality and vanity = death to the entire community in an apocalypse movie?

  3. Huge disaster movie fan. It's a fascination with the train wreck in a fiction work, especially of the familiar. The familiar is also typically "home."

    IRL, I'm typically no lookie lou. When I do take a look, it's from a place of habit—I grew up in the mountains where nature does what it does. One either adapts or gets screwed. I learned the habit-of-necessity to "survey the scene," to assess what action is needed in order to survive. When watching tsunami videos coming out of Japan recently, I noticed my wife (who grew up in the city) covering her mouth, horrified. I was noting activity: the power & speed of the ocean "boiling over", the impact and way boats rolled, collided with other things, the fact that traffic was still racing down city streets as the water was pushing towards them a block away, and of course, noting potential escape routes, etc.

    In movies it's almost a relief just to sit back and behold the spectacle. It's safe because it's fiction--and okay, part of me is still looking for escape routes... old habits die hard.

    Blowing up "home": LA-as-target in fiction, narrative and film alike, probably because it's more that filmmakers (mostly male) live in LA, so LA would be the natural place for them to fictionally put through hell. Humans share a common fantasy, 'what if everything around me blew up/was flooded by a 1000 ft high tidal wave/was invaded by green bolt shooting aliens/overrun with zombies?' [I used to imagine my elementary school getting hit by a tidal wave or a nuclear war when I was a kid (the Poconos were a bit far from the Atlantic but there is a major Army depot nearby). I didn't find my elementary school sinful or wicked. I loved school.] Ask any eleven year old boy if he's ever imagined a disaster hitting his town. If he's honest, and not in front of a school administrator, he'll tell you all sorts of terrifying stuff. I'm sure this has a root in an adaptive evolutionary gene thing among humans as a species.

    My favorite destruction-of-LA film quote, "Today was the first time I used the subway. Thank God for the Metro Rail." (01:26:37, "Independence Day," Emmerich, 1996). Why? Because I use the Metro Red Line. It's familiar to me and perhaps too because it has a bad rap for no real good reason (other than the corruption that jacked up the construction bill, I guess). LA is like any other place: lotta people live here, lotta people die here. Lotta people=lotta problems getting along. And it's on the planet Earth, that's always moving, always changing. Stuff moves around, sometimes suddenly and with great intensity... but such movement is NOT a function of malice (unless we pissed off the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That's different). What makes LA the frequent location for destruction fantasy is simply that the imagineers who make narrative and film, live here.

    [I was a little freaked out at the citation to Steve Sailer of VDARE, a White Nationalist group (http://www.splcenter.org/vdare-foundation). Sailer's that guy who promoted the spurious idea after the Hurricane Katrina disaster that African-Americans have lower IQs therefore require "...stricter moral guidance from society." I was relieved that you at least cited to non-psycho stuff from him. Still, I threw up in my mouth a little when I saw his name.]

  4. Comparing LA to Sodom and Gomorrah, disaster-as-collective-punishment for some sin or evil committed by the populace (interesting to note that Jewish tradition views the story with an entirely understanding & conclusion than Xtian tradition): Popular axioms by non-Californians I grew up with: "L.A., that hot-bed-o-sin," or "California: fires, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, must just not be livin' right. Not right at'all." Bogus IMO, particularly where speakers of such "proverbs" routinely experience their own annual catastrophes like “ternaders,” hurricanes, floods, fires, blizzards, lethal heat waves, etc. It's the Earth, man. It just does what it does.

    I wouldn't disagree that some of the fictional artifacts where LA is toast are a function of the axe to grind or the dogmatic ideological variety, clearly some are, but like I said in my other comment, I think what makes LA more so in fiction is the simple fact that LA's artists writing and filming LA getting smacked down by nature, aliens, what/whomever is more a product of the 'what if home was toast" fantasy.

  5. Mister Page - the other oneMarch 21, 2011 at 5:24 PM

    Or imagining our own immolation may be driven by guilt. Look at what we have done to paradise.

    We transplants have to own some of that.

    So, do you hear that Hollywood? We've been a bad, bad city and deserve to be punished. But next time, do it in 3D.

    I love that tag! I wanna know the safe word....