In this corner, ladies and gentlemen, we have the “disaster movie.” Airport 1975, Juggernaut, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, with more on the way. In the other corner we have the remake craze. The Godfather II, French Connection II, The Four Musketeers, Funny Lady (Barbra Streisand’s sequel to Funny Girl), to name a few. There goes the bell in this world championship box-office fight. May the least cynical trend be the winner.
This is not the season to be jolly where movies are concerned. The only current films with wit, originality and emotional power on display are the European releases — notably Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage, Fellini’s Amarcord, Malle’s Lacomhe, Lucien and, with a few reservations, Bunuel’s rather ponderous attempt at whimsy, The Phantom Of Liberty. American films are undergoing one of their periodic eclipses of the imagination. None of the latest Hollywood films are so much “new” as they are simply minimally retooled versions of last year’s models: their titles imply, “Here’s less of the same.”
Not all of the sequels are off the assembly line yet, but I already have the Part Two Blues. With the exception of Richard Lester's The Four Musketeers (made during the same shooting schedule as The Three Musketeers) practically all sequels suffer a loss of energy and inspiration. Producers always try to reassemble as many of the original casts as possible, screenplay writers tell their muses, “Play it again, Sam”; but the lightning doesn’t strike twice. Everyone just goes through the motions the second time around. When the finished product is ready, there can be splashy premieres and full-page entertainment ads for the movie, but no real excitement; the theatre becomes a room with déjà vu — and echoes for a soundtrack.
I prefer the disaster epics to the spin-offs of Yesterday’s Greatest Hits, if only because the type of disaster (highrise fires, terrorist bombs in a ship's boiler room, airplane collisions, floods and earthquakes) changes and with it the whole battery of special effects.
Even though disaster movies are as intellectually limited as primary readers (now see Doomsday Dick and Calamity Jane narrowly escape being trapped in the sewer) their current psychological appeal to great numbers of people is intriguing. People used to go to movies to escape their worries: now many of them go to have their anxieties intensified and their worst fears confirmed. We have developed a paranoid, panic-stricken pop-culture. Doom is busting out all over; give us this day our daily dread.
The present desire to see wide-scale destruction, to see the world depicted as a big mess, is so strong that the movies that gratify this longing don’t have to be at all good (by normal critical standards) in order to be immensely popular. Taking sharp-witted potshots at Earthquake or Airport 1975 is a waste of time; one might just as well laugh at the lame, ridicule the blind and mock the afflicted. They are so devoid of any other point of interest that out of sheer boredom we
all start rooting for the disaster scenes. Since characterization is minimal, and most of the dialogue between the actors is dreary, we don't even care who lives or dies. We become, for the duration of the film, people with an indifference to death, and an empty space where our feelings used to be. We watch people being blown to bits, sucked out of airplanes, devoured by the earth, crushed by buildings, burnt alive and suffocating from poisonous fumes. The films only come alive when people are dying.
In disaster movies, the better the actor the worse the performance is likely to be. Geneviève Bujold (above), in Earthquake is flustery and desperate trying to impart meaning and feeling to hopeless lines. Since everybody else is coasting through in zombie fashion she becomes conspicuous by her presence. It’s far better in such movies as these to do what Myrna Loy does in Airport 1975 — belt back the boilermakers and try to look composed.
So far. Richard Lester's Juggernaut, starring Richard Harris and David Hemmings, is the most sophisticated of the disaster movies. The pace of this thriller, about extortion and time-bomb terrorism aboard a supership, is lively, the characters unstereotyped, and the acting (particularly a scene where Harris gets drunk after his friend Hemmings is blown up) has its moments. Lester’s work proves that even when there is a mindless premise, a film can still be improved by the application of some intelligence.
The Chicken Little school of disaster movies keeps telling us the sky is falling; those in the Remake Rut tell us there’s no time like the present for living in the past. (Billy Jack is back, the ninth James Bond has arrived and the tenth is being made. Peter Sellers is returning in a Pink Panther sequel, Burt Reynolds is returning in Gator, a successor to White Lightning, Futureworld is the follow-up to Westworld, even That’s Entertainment has spawned a sequel called That’s Entertainment, Too\) Assuming we've got the money, guts and talent, it’s a particularly auspicious time to make some original Canadian movies. So far, there are only slim pickings among the ruins and reruns of current American films. People who want more from movies will have to look elsewhere.
BEWARE: The Savage Is Loose is strictly for the squeamish; it ducks every issue it raises. After years of railing against the establishment, George C. Scott (producer, director, star and personal distributor of the film) shows his “integrity” to be merely sincerity in hot pursuit of foolishness. The story concerns a married couple with an infant son who are shipwrecked somewhere in the South Pacific, and the film centres on what to do with the young man’s sexual desires when he reaches maturity. It's not the sort of problem that keeps many people awake at night and as presented in this coy, inarticulate melodrama about incest it will hardly keep many from falling asleep. Along with Child Under A Leaf, Black Christmas and The Night Porter, this is one of the worst films of the year.
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