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When disasters aren’t really disasters!                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Aug/22/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Perspectives,

We hear a lot about disasters. In recent history we have had monsoonal flooding in Pakistan, an earthquake in Haiti, fires in Russia, another earthquake in Chili, and the environmental disaster of the Deepwater Horizon rig and oil spill. Despite all these real disasters we continue to go to the movies and watch disasters as entertainment; honestly it can be confusing and misleading.

In the last few years we have had “2012”, “Volcano”, “The Perfect Storm”, “Earthquake”, “The Day After Tomorrow”, “The Fourth of July”, “Towering Inferno” to name but a few. Of course there are also the post apocalyptic movies like “The Book of Eli” and “The Postman”. It fascinates me how we shy away from the evening news when a catastrophic event is more than five days old, but will pursue these movies and buy popcorn to enjoy as we watch.

The disaster movies that are considered “blockbuster hits” all receive critical acclaim for their “realism”. That realism thing seems to really matter, yet I have come to the conclusion that beyond some good computer graphics there is no realism to be had. I know that a tumbling bolder from the sky sure looked real, the way the buildings disintegrated as the tidal wave engulfed everything was award winning. Unfortunately this is just not how a real disaster works.

Want to blame someone, try Aristotle, I know; it’s easy to blame someone who is not here to defend themselves. Aristotle lived about 2400 years ago; He was a student of Plato’s and a teacher to Alexander the Great. That is quite a resume. You know those Greek Philosophers’…always coming up with something that lasts for a couple thousand years. One of his long lasting creations was what is now called the “Aristotelian plot structure”. This plot structure persists today. The structure includes an introduction to the characters, a long dramatic plot build-up, a climactic scene, and a conclusion. Aristotle obviously knew how to capture an audience, this is the fundamental structure used in virtually every book, movie, or play.

So why the long lecture when I started by talking about disasters? Because this is simply not how disasters in real life actually work! The most obvious disconnect is how long it takes for a disaster to unfold. Think about the earthquake in Haiti. If this event had followed Aristotle’s plan we would have had a series of small earthquakes gradually building in intensity over many months. More importantly we would have met many of the key relief workers months before the big event. How about the monsoonal floods displacing thousands in Pakistan? If Hollywood had written this story we would have met some of the families who are now suffering many months ago. The evening weather forecasts would have been predicting the rains and tracking the storm buildup and progression for at least 6 weeks. Instead, the storms ire manifested almost instantly and the faces of the displaced victims are nameless to us.

The disaster at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig could have been written in a variety of ways if left to the entertainment industry. More than a year ago we would have learned about faulty blowout preventers and the people who falsified the test reports. Then the writers would have introduced us to the men and their families who were working on the platform. I am sure we would have gotten to know their children and watched as safety equipment rapidly deteriorated. Slowly the platform would begin leaking oil and as a few voices complained, their concerns would go unanswered. Later some investigative reporter would find some oil soaked birds on a remote beach, but the story would not get published because the home town football team just set a record winning their tenth game in a row. By the time the rig actually catches fire and sinks we would know half the crew working on it along with the faces of everyone who falsified equipment test reports and safety inspections. Please don’t credit me with unwarranted literary creativity; I am borrowing heavily from a distant memory of the movie “China Syndrome” (cir. 1979).

There is plenty in real life that follows Aristotle’s plot structure. Elections have a long and slow build up to one very eventful election day and its companion inauguration day. Sports tournaments like a baseball season or the soccer world cup also start slow and build to a dramatic finish. One of the things most of us enjoy that follows this model is Thanksgiving dinner.

Hollywood also follows formulas that include distinct rules for staying within your attention span. If a movie developed the characters, faulty equipment, and poor policies over a decade or more we would lose track of which characters to associate with. Maybe that is why we don’t have a disaster movie about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Aristotle’s rules call for rising action and character development leading to the big climax. Many of the engineers, managers and policy makers that created the scenario for the Challenger to explode 73 seconds into its flight had retired or moved on to other careers long before that cataclysmic event happened. Doesn’t sound like good fodder for a movie script.

There are some other distinctions as well; Disaster movies have characters while for most of us real disasters have only casualties. Disaster movies are designed to be exciting; watching the World Trade Center towers come down was agonizing and horrific.

The difference between fiction and reality is what sells. In a real disaster you would begin with the catastrophe event of the volcano exploding in the middle of Los Angeles and have nowhere to go next except the clean up and the millions of displaced people. To make the movie sell we have to get introduced to the characters and adopt them as our friends. Then we need to get frustrated at all the warning signs that are being ignored. Ultimately when the volcano explodes we can feel the loss along with the character we have adopted.

I read once that Alfred Hitchcock said for a story to be suspenseful the audience has to know something the characters in the story don’t. In real life no one knows anything so there is no suspense.

Do I sound like an old grump? Sorry about that; I actually enjoy going to the movies periodically and have been known to sit through a disaster movie or two. Good escapism is good escapism. I wrote this only because I was offended by a series of reviews I recently read all speaking to the “realism” in a recent disaster movie. Films are entertaining, but in the movies good almost always shines through in the end and we see the light at the end of the tunnel for humanity to redeem itself. In the realism of real life catastrophes are just catastrophes with casualties. But going to the movies can help you forget your woes.

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Edith Wharton
If only we'd stop trying to be happy we'd have a pretty good time.
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