Imploding Maps or the Artifice of Cinematic Apocalypse

It hardly is a coincidence that the narratives of many disaster films parallel less of a storyline than what might be described as an imploding map:  the destruction of familiar landmarks, the upending of orientational signs on a map, and unsettling of the known world extend far beyond the erasure of whole cities, whether New York or Los Angeles, from the map–or even an existential sense that we are the sole survivors, stranded on the surface of an unmarked map.  Such filmic narratives mirror a sense of deep anxiety about the coherence and reliability of the map, or of how maps might help us to navigate space and to process a cohesive or coherent record of terrestrial expanse. Mike Davis described some time ago the history of filmic adaptations of the destruction of Los Angeles, pointing to the multiple fictive destructions of the city of angels by tornadoes, storms, earthquakes, fires, sea monsters, snakes, wolves, or wild bees as a projection and a response to the fragile ecology of the city itself–as if the screen images of natural destruction were the return of a repressed awareness of the region’s ecology of So Cal, and particularly of the basin from the San Andreas Fault and San Gabriel mountains to the Pacific.  Of course, Los Angeles has been defined so many times since the 1950s in film, it is difficult not to lapse into chronicling the appearance of such cinematic destructions, if not evident restlessness on the part of screenwriters to move from the 1974 “Earthquake” to volcanoes, viruses or tidal waves–as in the film “Volcano” (1997), when a volcanic eruption threatens to destroy the entire city and its inhabitants.

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Davis made a strong case that the fairly self-referential act of destroying what was the epicenter of movie-making in the United States was not about the medium of film, but the denial of the quite precarious environmental volatility in the city itself.  “Earthquakes and fires and floods are just the normal metabolism of the landscape,” Davis remarked in an interview; “but we deliberately, almost, keep putting ourselves in harm’s way,” or court disaster in order to deny it.  Take the building and rebuilding of mansions at the mouth of canyons out of which the Santa Ana winds carry fire every decade or two.  He observed that at the same time natural disasters in Southern California were minimized in much of the early part of the century in the press, there was an odd normalization of the destruction of LA in particular in a slew of films that detract attention from the political ecology of the region in the name of entertainment.

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In a somewhat early modern way, the city of Los Angeles became a microcosm on which to project world disaster (or the disasters of modernity) that repeatedly recurred in a string of bloated disaster films of the 1970s and 1980s, from “Earthquake” (1974) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974) to “The Swarm,” that dangerously threatened white men.

earthquake still

The relations between the destruction of Los Angeles that repeatedly occurred on film had clear grounds to be confused with the fires that ravaged its nearby hills–especially for the inhabitants of the city itself.  The recent 1990 Station Fire arson provoked an interested comparison to the mushroom cloud that would be created by the tonnage of a Hydrogen Bomb.  “Was it Hollywood that provoked the Station Fire, as a means to assert that life must follow its ‘art’?” asked one blogger wrote.

Aug2009_LA_Fire cloud

To be sure, the fire created both a filmic image of destruction, and exploded the calm coherence of a map of the region:

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News outlets took some pleasure in the perverse congruence of Hollywood representatives and those charge of response, as Arnold Schwarzenegger himself  traced the fire’s effects on a state map as if to contain the disaster that unfolded on TV:

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Davis was not only concerned with film-sets, of course.

Davis showed how the rise of apocalypses that engulfed LA paralleled a deep historical denial of the ecological destruction perpetuated by the encasing of rivers in concrete and destruction of open spaces revealed in the 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Report, “Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches.”  This report, which detailed the effects of rampant urban expansion–and in the 1990s became an icon and emblem for the destruction of LA’s natural environment, and a “lost Eden” irrigated by riverine paths was transformed into a transformation of the Los Angeles river into a freeway–had the odd distinction of being suppressed by the very Chamber of Commerce that had commissioned it to be drawn, so clearly did it represent an image of the city that they city did not want to encourage.

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Something similar is at work in the disorientation created by the implosion of familiar sites and landmarks–and mental maps–in films that localize destruction or map apocalypse for the masses at the multiplex.  Whereas Davis provides an image of a city that relentlessly throws itself into harms way with oblivious denial and a slight shrug, there is a pleasure in watching the familiar destruction of the map compensates for our own fears of disorientation in striking ways.

This is the destruction of a local network, or a lived network, as if to assert the authority with a fatal stroke of an imaginary world that engulfs the viewer in its violence.  The effects are uncanny.  The juxtaposition of “news” and filmic narratives of destruction in the post-9/11 world has been widely noted, as have the precursors of the tragic suicide attacks that killed so many on studio lots and in the megaplex.  The parallel between images of destruction and of the towers’ collapse is chilling–as the common difficulty many had in discriminating the destruction in New York City (and elsewhere) from the familiar images of a disaster film.

Unknown The rising threshold of shock value of scenes of mega-destruction in many films of the 1990s both contrasted with the relatively quiescent era of the Clinton years, and made it oddly difficult to distinguish fantasies of urban destruction from actual destructive events. There is a broader sense of disorientation to which the recurrent implosion of familiar maps on the multiplex screen reveals–as well as a deflection of anxiety about something as potentially tragic as a terrorist attack.  The implosion of the maps  is worth contemplating in recent films, because it creates something of a parallel universe on screen that oddly offers a promise of orientation on a level of fantasy in its repetition of a global or a micro-apocalypse.  There’s a fairly big prehistory, of course, for the destruction of iconic place-markers, from:

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to Los Angeles besieged in war:

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The implosion of the coherence of place in these pictures suggests the attraction of watching a literal implosion of the known map in both films shortly before the disastrously fatal airplane attacks of 9/11.  And since then, Hollywood seems to have responded by treating the screen as a sort of imploding map of the world on truly phantasmagoric proportions and scale, as the urban canyons created by the iconic Empire State becomes a site of Amazonian appearance, blending nature and culture and undermining our maps:

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The city is itself the battleground for the future and the site of total and utter disorientation to a degree that is itself sublime:
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The most recent Roland Emmerich disaster pic of 2012, rife with conveniently ‘disinformational’ plots that explain global warming by the release of abundant neutrinos by solar flares– rather than any human activity–cryptically and mystically tied to the prediction of a global catastrophe in the Mayan calendar designed to claim box-office victories by a heady mixture of apocalypticism and pseudo-science:  the rise of temperature in the world’s core leads global eminences to save humanity by a commitment to preserve a select 400,000 in new Noah’s Arks in Tibet, as they raise the funds to do so by–you guessed it– allowing the super-rich to buy tickets for just a billion a head. (That’s a fifth of the film’s production cost.)  Los Angeles isn’t just destroyed, but falls with all California into the waters of the Pacific–significantly raising the bar on the films Davis describes–as a destabilizing shift of the crust of the Earth causes a massive 10.9 earthquake of the sort predicted by the hack Charles Hapgood–who has a sort of cameo appearance by video–as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions result in global mayhem on a scale and scope beyond Albrecht Altdorfer’s  1529 “Battle at Issus,” a panoramic canvas whose global purview the movie’s poster both recalls and recreates.
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Amid “megatsunamis” that send aircraft carriers to the White House lawn–killing the American president–even as the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera covers most of the United States and Las Vegas with volcanic ash and debris, and Hawaii basically disappears as volcanos explode, the map is shifted beneath one’s feet, as Africa rises in elevation and South Africa–that lovely place–and the Cape of Good Hope become the site that the ark carrying lucky few lands.  The world map is destroyed in shreds, even as the heroes search for a lost map that may promise redemption, until the colonialist capital of Capetown is finally resettled, and a hope of harmony restored.  Is this a restoration of the colonialist map of a white Cape?
A global pandemic provides the background or only context for the 2014 version of “The Last Ship,” which revisits a tale of post-nuclear holocaust:  the earlier plot focussed on two submarines, one American and one Soviet, that travel from the Barents sea and Arctic Circle to tour a world whose sites are destroyed or covered by dense clouds of radioactive smoke, from London to Gibraltar, through the lifeless Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal until they make it
to an uncontaminated French Polynesia after having braved a nuclear winter in the Indian Ocean until they are forced, as even that island is destroyed, to McMurdo Station to find new homes.  In contrast to the global tour of the “Nathan James” after it fires its last nuclear strike on ICBM silos, global pandemic has rendered the world uninhabitable in the TNT “Last Ship” (2014):  video communications to the ship stranded in Antarctica for months without contact inform its captain of the death of the president and vice-president and thousands more as a virus has made its own world tour from Cairo, the site of its ininitial outbreak, to Russia without government, London burning, and leaving most dead.  Filled with aerial footage scanning Antarctica, imprecations of global duty, blazing guns and more, Michael Bay’s TNT “post-apocalyptic action drama” centers on the paleomicrobiologist conveniently located on the ship as she works to manufacture a virus on the last ship floating, the known world long gone.
The world doesn’t explode so much as our map of it implodes.  Without any map for the future, there is a sense that the world is itself gone: the map no longer covers up the territory, or obscures it, but implodes with the world’s expanse:  the metaphysical beauty is the imploding map.  The recuperative role of the medium of film can also, of course, provide a comfortable context in which to relive the lost in a fantasia of recurrence or re-centering, where we can inhabit the very bodies that themselves stare at the twin towers’ collapse:
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There’s a familiar melancholia in Nicolas Cage’s  wistfully longing eyes that once more brim with stoic regret.  He might be recalling an era of films with more coherent narratives.

2 Comments

Filed under 9/11, apocalypses on film, Collateral Damage, Mike Davis

2 responses to “Imploding Maps or the Artifice of Cinematic Apocalypse

  1. Punchy post … food for dizzying thought!

  2. A stunning apocalypse report.

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