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David Thomson on Films: Can You Watch?

Why we should stop making blockbuster movies about the end of the world.

We are looking down on a plain building, without distinction or appeal. Its one point of interest seems to be that rapid, rushing water surrounds it to the height of ten feet or so. Then, the story begins. On the current of this water, a sequence of empty automobiles reverse tidily round the corner of the building—it’s very prettily done and somehow confirms the suspicion that drivers may be the problem in cars. A line of them, six or seven, complete the turn, without collision or dispute, and then reverse out of frame. It might be a film by Jacques Tati.

Or driving along on a waterfront highway, a car is lifted by the incoming wave; it comes to the surface and the driver sees a rainbow off-shore. Cue music?

Then, again, we behold what seems to be a bay, filled with choppy water. The small crests of the waves are put in place by a line or street of large brown paper hats that are bobbing on the stream. But, wait, they are not paper hats—they are the roofs of houses. Apparently, when a house floats like that, it follows the iceberg principle, with only the tops showing. But perhaps the houses are drowning.  It might be … well, it might be from Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, with its spectacular CGI tsunami scenes. Actually, the tsunami in Hereafter is a great deal more impressive, or dramatic, better framed and photographed, than the material I have been describing. It’s more to the point. But Hereafter now has been withdrawn in Japan, while the kind of footage we have seen in the last week was not planned or designed. It was an improv that is now inescapable, unforgettable, unendurable. Here is film to alter your life and let you know how swift its end might be.

From its beginnings, photography and cinematography were ways of showing us the marvels of the unseen world. Look, here is a horse galloping for Muybridge, with all four hooves in mid-air! There is Muybridge, naked, tossing away a jug of water—see how it splays and hangs in the air. Would you like to see the pyramids of Egypt, a head-hunter from Sarawak, or the polar plateau in Antarctica? Here they are. People looked and the world changed. It was an onset of fresh general knowledge, if you like, but it was also the first hint that we didn’t need to travel, to go there, because the there could be brought here on a piece of paper. Never again could we tell ourselves the there was not there, breathing, burning, shaping its air. So, in Japan, you know that there is radiation—which does not really photograph in the old sense—and you know it will be shared. This could be from Alain Resnais’s film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, in which memory has an unshakable half-life.

The tsunami footage from Japan is not very expert—if it was, we wouldn’t trust it. One man tried to record video of the earthquake itself but he kept falling over, so the film looks like abstract experiments in tumbling black and white. The footage of the cars and the paper hats was snap-shot video, filmed with trembling hands perhaps, for how could a cameraman know he was safe? But sometimes, the event and the view are providential. The spectator who was there when the wave as black as oil came over the sea wall, and into his world, had the instinct to pan with the wave. That narrative could be a shot from 2012.

I happened to see 2012 the other day. It’s a film about the Earth’s crust breaking up, with a family and other characters all struggling to escape in great arks built by the Chinese. It ends with the Himalayas flooded. Spectacular effects, as you might imagine. There are also scenes of a small aircraft holding our family and trying to take off before it is caught by the rippling advance of earthquake. Edge-of-your-seat stuff. They say 2012 cost $200 million (I’m betting it was more), and it grossed $166 million domestically. It’ll probably be all right, though, if you take “foreign” revenue into account: In fact, it did 3.5 billion yen in Japan.

I’m not attacking 2012 (it was excitingly directed by Roland Emmerich—he did Independence Day, too) or Clint Eastwood. But I wonder at the relish we have shown in recent years for depicting the many possible ends of the world in film, especially now that we don’t have to bother staging and recording the damage. All we have to do is program it, and—with every proper delay and expense—the desired shot comes up as neatly as six white sedans reversing round a corner. So, because we have made such scenes part of our fictional armory, it’s all the more disconcerting when awkward, inept, amateur versions of the same thing appear as live events.

Photography and film proposed a relationship with the world—yes, you can see this, but only if you accept that it is a part of your world and your life, only if you realize that, as you see it, so it is happening to you, and to us. And I wonder if we haven’t broken that faith and its bond in surpassing “mere” photography and assuring ourselves that we can fabricate these things, as if they are somehow in our power.

In 1973, in Britain, there was a television series, The World at War, more than 22 hours on the history of the Second World War, making use of hitherto untouched archival footage. It was narrated by Laurence Olivier; it was a class act. The series was shown in America, too. You would have thought that, coming from Britain, it must have been made by the BBC. Not so. It was a production by Thames Television for ITV (it was produced by Jeremy Isaacs), the commercial channel, which always showed advertisements with its programs. But, when The World at War reached its episode recounting the relief of the concentration camps, the channel announced that, out of respect, it would forego showing ads.

That’s the same kind of respect that has now withdrawn Hereafter from Japan. And that taste stinks. If there’s a reason for stopping the ads on television out of respect, then there should never be any ads anywhere in that medium—out of respect for us, our attention, and our understanding, as much as for the material (every week of The World at War recounted terrible slaughter). And I think, out of respect for Japan and ourselves, it’s time we stopped generating such box-office assaults about the end of the world. So we’ll know the real thing when we see it.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.

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