Last night my wife and I rented the 1974 disaster classic “Towering Inferno”. Following on the heals of Airport (1970), the Poseidon Adventure (1972), and Earthquake (1974), it was one of a series of disaster classics focused on calamities as they reveal man’s hubris. Like Icarus who believed he could soar to the world of the Gods only to be struck down by his lack of humility, these stories lay bear an intrinsic fear in our modern, mechanized culture: somewhere along the way, while we were playing God, we cut a few corners, got some attitude and now God is really pissed at us.
Usually two human foibles play into these films – arrogance and greed. We believe we can create as the Gods did – our arrogance, and we believe we can do it on the cheap – our greed. The result is something the military calls “F.U.B.A.R.” Typically, in disaster films, things start out bad and quickly get worse. Once they’ve gotten worse the initial “bad” gets redefined and things get so messed up viewers become convinced everybody on the planet will die – FUBAR. We settled in for a campy, star-studded, 1970’s high budget morality tale.
For those of you too young to remember, or too refined for Hollywood pablum, the 1970’s disaster genre is fundamental to American identity. Forget Whitman and Thoreau, forget Kennedy and Kinsey. If you really want to understand what it means to be an American, go to your video store and rent all of the movies I just mentioned. Its all there – the tacky furniture, exciting women struggling with the “career vs family” question, manly but humble men, villainous effeminate men, non-white heroes who will inevitably die saving white people, plucky children who are always smarter than you give them credit for, and at least one sensitive guy who was right about how screwed up we were all along. Tacky, plucky, heroic, manly, doomed, and definitely getting laid – sounds American to me.
Towering Inferno begins with Paul Newman (sensitive guy, hero, and architect) landing atop the worlds tallest building, which he designed. He’s been off helping third world countries build modern temples to technology, which of course will somehow save their lives and make them more like us. He has returned only briefly to have sex with the almost equally successful Faye Dunaway and put in a reluctant appearance at the buildings fabulous grand opening (our arrogance rears its head). It quickly becomes clear that while away, his building was completed with cheaper materials (the dose of greed). The fire that will eventually consume the building, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, and countless underpaid extras, starts innocuously in the first half hour. It slowly marches through the film, faithfully delivering poignant moments via the myriad of subplots that develop throughout the film. Incidentally OJ Simpson saves the old woman’s kitty and manages not to die despite his blackness. He is, after all, OJ Simpson.
Surprisingly the body count was very high in this film. People were lit afire, crushed or otherwise creatively killed in increasing tempo. Somehow their deaths were less personal than modern disaster films, perhaps making it easier and more necessary to dispense with people in greater numbers.
And then it happened. One of the early fire victims was blown out of an upper floor window. Her body fell seventy stories before finally hitting the pavement. The image was unmistakable: victims of the Twin Towers on 9/11 hurling themselves out of floors a hundred stories up to escape smoke and flame. Those images have been etched into our collective mind. They cross the terrain between the somewhat silly disasters of Hollywood and the devastation of real personal loss in the blink of an eye. Unlike watching 1970’s cheesy cinema, its nearly impossible not to identify with the people who fell from the Twin Towers. None of us needed a script to help us imagine what drove those people to throw themselves to certain death. It could have been you or me, or our spouses, parents, children, siblings or friends being forced to hasten their life’s end in this way.
Suddenly Towering Inferno was no longer a savory bit of ’70’s kitsch, but rather an earlier, quaint, child-version of an American myth that would ultimately grow up and leap off the screen in astonishing epic horror. Sitting there with a gaping mouthful of popcorn, I saw the spectacle of Icarus-Americana stretching out before me. A growing, repeating tale of prideful success assaulted by a destructive, humbling hand. Where the hell did this story come from and why is it trying to kill us now?
Its a viciously pernicious story when you think about it. We’re driven to define ourselves by our accomplishments. We create monuments to our success, and then set a high admission price to participate in our successes – excluding and pissing off everyone else. Inevitably it seems, we anger off God, or lately the extreme religious fascists of other cultures. True to the Icarus script of hubris, our terror enemies must see themselves as the hand of Allah humbling the infidels. Of course we’re not going to stop being God’s uppity fools, we never learn our lesson – that would be un-American. We build, we admire ourselves, we swagger, we do stupid things. In short, we are the chief makers and exporters of FUBAR.
George Bush walks with that uniquely American swagger. He is able to wear ignorance as if it were both a badge and a halo. Taking our story to the next level, he only made a half-assed attempt at the tower building part of the tale before turning Iraq into a monument to past inferno’s. He takes care of the arrogance while Cheney’s friends at Haliburton take care of the greed. Together they have elevated the story of Icarus to new heights of conflagration. First our wax wings burned, then our sky scrapers. Now we’re knee deep in nation-burning. Oddly Bush remained true to his 2000 campaign commitment not to engage in nation-building, he just forgot to mention the burning part.
Casting the Bush Administration in a remake of Towering Inferno would not be difficult. Our opening shot has President Bush landing in a Halliburton helicopter on the Whitehouse front lawn, the new corporate center of America since the fall of the Twin Towers. He’s just returned from a successful vacation at his ranch, choking on pretzels and oiling his chain saw. In this flick we’ve gotten over helping the poor of the world – Katrina taught us how NOT to care. His fighter pilot cod-piece prominently displayed he walks with a swagger that speaks of big plans, and a small cyst that formed while watching a rerun marathon of the “Dukes of Hazzard”.
He’s greeted by the stiff yet wholesome Condi Rice dressed in another Woolworth’s Jackie O’ knockoff. There’s no kiss, just the handshake of two almost-equals dedicated to increasing the girth of America’s greatness.
“He went hunting, he’s just getting back from the memorial service now.”
“Have him meet me in my office when he gets in, we’ve got a nation to build.”
Flash forward a few months. The faces of ecstatic news anchors embedded in U.S. tanks taking giddy rides into Baghdad flash across the screen. Next we see the fall of Saddam’s statue set against a still of the fall of the Twin Towers.
Flash back to the Oval Office.
“Once we’re in there and greeted as liberators we’re going to need to rebuild the nation. Thats where Halliburton comes in. Some people think we should use local contractors but in the long run its going to make us a lot more money to use good old American know how.”
Flash forward a year. American contractors are standing atop a power-plant project. One grins at the camera, a can of beer and a dogwood sandwich in his hands.
“How much will it cost?”
“Nothing, we’ll make them pay for it with their oil. We’ll transport the oil at a premium and sell the oil back to the American people at a profit. We’ll also make the Iraqi’s pay for some permanent US bases to make sure we’ve got a toe hold in the oil.”
Flash forward a few years to scenes of oil fields burning and partially
constructed buildings blowing up. The faces of arguing Iraqi politicians flash across the screen. The original News anchors are now seen scurrying about in flack jackets while gunfire erupts over their heads. Geraldo grimaces as he carries a child to safety. Images of Steve Mcqueen and his fire crew flash in the background.
This is like shooting fish in a barrel. I love to blame the Bush administration, but I think we owe it to ourselves as patriotic citizens of our Icarus world to take a kind of radical responsibility. We may not be to blame for the debacle of Iraq, but we are all responsible for letting this story of Icarus get under our skin and drag us so far into bloody mediocrity. All politicians exploit the mythologies of the day to achieve their underlying goals. Our Cowboy-Icarus is an open invitation to the global industrialists of our age to take us on a blood soaked, profit-bloating jaunt around the oil-rich middle east. We’ll do anything for the golden cow of progress.
So what do we do with the Icarus we’re saddled with? Can we do without Steve Mcqueen, Charlton Heston and Paul Newman? Maybe its not their fault, after all Icarus is the son of Daedalus and he seems like a good guy. Do hero’s always give birth to an Icarus? Can’t we find a place in the back room for the nimrods? Lately they seem to have a way of finding their way out of the backroom and into ground zero. I think history has shown that America really knows how to produce nimrods.
Without a change I see a new generation of disaster flicks, with increasing body counts and an increasingly ridiculous cadre of swaggering sons of Daedalus. Imagine the love child of Rumsfeld and Coulter leading America the wounded giant through a future filled with global warming charged disasters. Coastal flooding, stampedes of giant tornado’s in sub-zero temperatures all amidst a collapse of the food chain we all depend on. Atop the rubble an uber-neocon Christio-fascist walks tall, proclaiming our greatness to the starving masses. That script is too horrifying to write now, the body count is just too high.
Maybe it really doesn’t matter what you and I think. Didn’t you know most of us are Ernest Borgnine – too far removed from the action to be anything but mostly clueless, not removed enough to get out with our ass in one piece? We exist in that grey space of disaster flick, not important enough to kill dramatically or save outright, but a little bit more than an extra. We might just have a pipe drop on our head, be one of a dozen bodies cast about in an explosion, or be the happy child-like face of one of the grateful survivors seen in the last frames.
Or we might have to step out of a window and fall, our wings wounded by the sun or the fires of our own folly. The tale of Icarus is a strange one. I can’t really blame Icarus for trying to fly close to the sun. It is our destiny to aspire to greatness beyond our grasp. Of course I can blame the forces that brought the Twin Towers down, but the tale of Icarus implies that equalizing forces will always exist in the world. Suggest humility might be the answer to an American, and we only seem to hear “loser”.
Perhaps the answer is to draw Icarus closer to us. Embed him in our hearts and know that as we sew successes we may also be sewing the losses of our children. Our flight will be brief, likely with painful consequences, but at least we had a moment in which we flew.
by Richard Drew
September 11, 2001 9:41:15 a.m.