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.
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|
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.)