Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Destruction Therapy

Having watched Washington DC get thoroughly trashed a couple of times in the past few weeks, (in White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen), I was left pondering whether this cinematic destruction of the US capital was somehow therapeutic for domestic audiences, in much the same way as Godzilla stomping on Tokyo in the 1950s was a way of post war  Japan dealing with the trauma of the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Watching both films recently, I was fascinated by the way in which they presented as entertainment what had, until recently, been a taboo subject in the wake of the 9-11 attack, namely, the depiction of US cities under violent attack by terrorists, with the mass destruction of various historic landmarks.  So sensitive was this issue that, following September 11, I recall scheduled screenings of the 1976 King Kong being pulled by TV channels, lest his scaling of the now destroyed Twin Trade Towers cause offence to audiences.  Indeed, to the best of my recollection it was a couple of years before the film played again on UK TV.  I don't recall whether Independence Day, with its scenes of just about every major US city and landmark being totalled, suffered the same fate - perhaps destruction by aliens was less obviously terrorist-like than destruction by giant ape. 

To return to the point, are these films a a form of therapy for US audiences?  Does this playing out of a traumatic 'defeat' and the hands of terrorists in fictional form, but with an ending where the US 'wins', by vanquishing the bad guys and democracy remains intact, in spite of the destruction of many of its symbols (the Capitol Building dome, the White House, the Washington Memorial), somehow make it all easier to come to terms with?  Does it act as a surrogate victory over the forces of terror, reassuring audiences that, unlike the outcome of the actual 'war on terror' response to nine eleven, it is possible to triumph over terror?  At least one cinematic precedent come to mind - the Chuck Norris action potboiler Delta Force, which effectively restages the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in 1985, but with a happy ending where the US gets to comprehensively kick the ass of those Hezbollah bastards, rather than the actual outcome which only saw the hostages being released after the capitulation of various governments to some of the hijackers demands.  The movie was generally reviled upon on its release, dismissed as being a vulgar cash in on a tragedy.  The producers' mistake probably lay in releasing the film only a year or so after the real hijacking - there clearly has to be some kind of decent period of a few years between the actual events and films inspired on them to allow the public a period of 'mourning', after which they are able to accept their exploitation as entertainment.  (Of course, the failure of Delta Force might just be down to the fact that it was a crappy film, regardless of its release date).    

Inevitably, I was left wondering whether it is possible to identify any UK equivalent to these examples of cinematic therapy.  Arguably, recent Bond movies like Casino Royale and Skyfall address recent terror attacks and their fall out, with the London Underground sequences in the latter referencing the 7/7 attacks and 007's killing of a terrorist bomb maker in the former echoing the police shooting of an innocent Brazilian, having mistaken him for a suicide bomber.  But I suspect that the long conflict with the IRA, both in Northern Ireland and on the mainland, has made domestic terrorism too sensitive an issue to be fully exploited for entertainment/therapy yet.  Give it a few more years.  You have to go back to the fifties, and science fiction movies, I think, to find anything similar to the recent Hollywood phenomena  of cinematically recreating traumatic domestic destruction.  We did have our own giant radioactive monster movies, with the likes of Behemoth and Gorgo destroying London, Godzilla-style.  But the fact that the UK hadn't been subject to nuclear attack meant that they lacked the sub-text and impact of their Japanese equivalents.  Rather than nuclear bombs, these monsters, at best, represented the Luftwaffe's blitz and the later VI and V2 offensive.

It is in the BBC's Quatermass serials, and their film adaptations where we, perhaps, see a dramatic reworking of various war and post-war traumas, with London menaced by a scientifically created menace, (delivered by a V2-like rocket ship) in The Quatermass Experiment, and the whole fabric of British society threatened by an unseen foe which looks and sounds just like us, but behaves in an inhuman fashion, bending workers, bureaucracy and industry to its sinister ends, in Quatermass II.   The latter clearly exploited wartime fears of fifth columnist and Nazi sympathisers and post war communist infiltration scares, along with public worries of the increasingly dehanising effects of technology, whilst the third story Quatermas and the Pit, questioned the very basis of our humanity, suggesting that, with the right stimulus, anyone of us might be capable of committing Nazi/Stalinst type depravities against those we are told are 'different'.  Whilst, I admit, not exactly the same as the films I stared out discussing, these performed a similar function, recreating a version of recent traumas in the safety of a film or television studio, in order to 'defuse' them in the minds of audiences - like the US equivalents, the evil is always comprehensively defeated in a way it hadn't been in real life.



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