Wednesday, 2 June 2010

First Blog - Disaster!

This is my first blog! Hello to all of you out there. The aim of this blog is for a sad 40something man to learn how to blog and to write out hopefully informative and entertaining prose for any of you wishing to become me.

I thought I'd begin by discussing movies - my favourite subject. My life in movies, as you wish...


We start with the 1970s. Specifically the mid-1970s...

It’s funny to think the mid-70’s were responsible for instilling into a narrow strata of British youth the sense that life is essentially meaningless and individual free will subject to the indifferent, random whims of the universe. Life, death and in between are mere chance and the concept of control over one’s environment is pure illusion.
We’re talking of course about disaster movies.
Disaster movies were massive. I can now only think of the zombie remake Dawn of the Dead coming close to why people would pay money to have their faces rubbed in existential faeces. ‘You are nothing!’ These films scream at you. With huge budgets.
Every conceivable awful natural catastrophe seemed to be fair game, with the Hollywood studios coming up with increasingly bigger and better ways to swipe dozens of tuxedo-wearing men and ball-gowned women out of existence.


The big daddy of disaster movies is, oddly, one of the smallest in scale. The Towering Inferno when compared with such massive mayhem as Earthquake or Poseidon Adventure is small fry – only as Towering Inferno is the culmination of its genre predecessors, it seems massive.
For Towering Inferno is massive from start to finish. To begin with the titles announce this film is based on not one but TWO books – The Tower, and The Glass Inferno. Too big for one book these guys piled two into one building on fire movie. Twice the disaster!
As Scream revealed with horror movies, the disaster movie worked to strict rules.
Paul Newman and Steve Macqueen would survive (although Chuck Heston was swept away in Earthquake, you knew Paul and Steve were going to make it. You just knew). I didn’t know who Fay Dunaway was, or William Holden, so they didn’t count. For everyone else, it was just a matter of time. What mattered in Towering Inferno was how they got killed. And in Towering Inferno there were so many ways.
We start with a great one: a dozy 3 quid an hour Security Guard opens the cupboard door with the fire inside. Why? Because people are stupid and incompetent, the film’s subtext tells us.
Nice Building Manager Guy rushes to stop him only to be enveloped in a blast of flame. So the nob guard escapes and the nice guy pays for being helpful. Just like life.
As a kid, I liked Robert Vaughn’s death best – kicked out of the chair lift just for trying to restore order; thoroughly undeserved and therefore better. But as an adult, slimy Richard Chamberlain doing the kicking, then causing his own downfall by overloading the same chair lift, seems more satisfying.

My primary memory of the actual watching of Towering Inferno remains my Dad, a fireman himself, sat next to me in the dark, studying the film until:
Steve and his heroic fire boys are stumbling through a corridor high up in the Towering Inferno. Fire burns at the end of the brightly lit corridor. My Dad quietly states – unconsciously I think – ‘That room would be full of smoke’. And I realised in reality you wouldn’t see a thing. Not in a real towering inferno.
Even at 9 I understood you couldn’t fill a film corridor full of smoke or you wouldn’t see Steve and the boys fight the fire. So it wasn’t real. What? HOW? My reality took a sudden lurch to the left.
Maybe the Tower had air fans? Maybe it was a weird, special fire that didn’t smoke.
And off we go. The seeds are sown for the habit of ridiculous justifications that continues even now for daft against-logic film conventions. (My mate Mike’s Star Trek ones are brilliant).

Towering Inferno still stands up. Three hours of gruelling, grinding disaster. The only lapse comes about halfway through: Paul has gone rogue to rescue two kids and a blind woman from a burning room. In a fire escape, they find a huge hole in the floor and the stairs blocked. The only way up is to navigate a wobbly broken ladder. One by one, off they go – the ladder creaking and swinging. Disaster watches and hungrily waits. Only – let’s recap: it’s Paul, the blind woman and two kids.
So…they’re going to make it. All of them. We know that. There’s no Roddy MacDowell or equivalent tuxedo wearing waiter whose sweaty fingers slip on the metal rungs, or get caught out as the building rocks under an explosion; dropping to his doom with an anguished scream. This lot, they’re all going to make it.
I reckon Stirling Silliphant knew this when he wrote the script – because at halfway through a three hour film, a boy of nine is going to need the toilet. And he’s only going to go when he knows he’s not going to miss anything. Which is exactly what happened.
So there you go. The Towering Inferno. Genius.


You might be wondering where Jaws fits into all this. The most important, massive blockbuster until Star Wars. I’m afraid Jaws is one of those films. I first saw Jaws on telly in about 1983, one Bank Holiday evening and yes, it was as genius as I hoped it would be. One of the greatest movies ever. I came away feeling sad. Because I knew I’d missed a phenomenon.
In 1975 my Dad wouldn’t let me go and see Jaws.
I don’t know why really. I think he might have seen it himself and found it so gory and frightening he just wasn’t going to let me in there.
Oddly, he let me go to Grizzly – a terrible bloodless pile of garbage – perhaps in the belief that a bad film doesn’t corrupt in the same way. But there was no real pattern or consistency to this parental guidance. He just wanted to flex a few stern muscles. This was the man remember who took me to see Puppet on a Chain and When Eight Bells Toll at age four…
But why did it have to be Jaws?


I saw the Jaws trailer. We were on holiday in Bognor or somewhere and we went to see The Slipper and the Rose – a romantic musical reworking of Cinderella which I thought was great. Only before this came on, there was this trailer with that music. No shark, we weren’t going to see what that looked like in a trailer. Just screaming bathers, a camera nosing around the sea bed, and the image that stayed with me: a teenager on an inflatable swimming from one island to another, far out to sea as the sun set around him. A teenager you just knew was going to get eaten.

You did read that right. I know you know there’s no such sequence in Jaws – the boy on the inflatable is in it for seconds, he’s not really a teen and he’s not swimming to an island as the sun sets. But I swear that’s what my fevered brain made of the Jaws trailer.
I knew one thing: I had to see that movie. It was going to be the most frightening thing ever. And then my Dad wouldn’t let me.


The disaster movie came to its inglorious tacky end in 1979 with The Swarm; a movie I still remember fondly. Like a 40 year old Dad at a night club, The Swarm was ridiculously unfashionable in the new shiny post-Star Wars world. Mind, even in the disaster hey-day, The Swarm would have stood out as real crap. As a small bee remake of 50s giant ant masterpiece THEM, this comes off way worst. Let’s face it, it’s not really a disaster movie; it’s a monster movie in disguise.
As an adult the fatal weaknesses of The Swarm (too many ageing stars, bad effects, a really really useless idea) are so obvious they become comic strengths but as a boy, you want it to work. Sincerely, I wanted a film about African Killer Bees to work.
The African Killer Bees were, in my 14 year old head, pretty good really. They might have been stones thrown at dustbins or puppets or bad matte effects but I believed them. What went wrong for me was the failure of scale. Okay, Houston is wiped out but really you didn’t see anything but a few army guys in hazard suits flapping away until one ‘accidentally’ torches his mates with a flamethrower. There might be a truck that crashes. But hang on, we’ve had a nuclear explosion, we’ve had to wade through the eternity of a small town slowly under attack which I’d already seen on Clapperboard (pensioners go, as do some picnickers – and gratifyingly the little boy you think is bound to make it, doesn’t. Seeing in his fever a guy turn into a giant bee, then dying – not bad, but a bit theatrical; not capricious enough for me). Still, you had Caine as a scientist and a good bit on a US airbase with Bradford Dillman (Mr. Mid-Seventies).
Fond memories of The Swarm: me and Dad getting to the ABC in Aldershot late and missing the creepy opening pan of the dead soldiers on the airbase. We came in as Cainey wonders what could have happened? (Clue – it’s called ‘The Swarm’)…

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