Shade Grown Hollywood: Why We Love an Apocalypse Observed

ColumnWhere celebrity becomes conscious.

Last weekend, I went to see “Battle: LA.” Yes, it is as bad as they say. But you wouldn’t have known it from my theater experience. As the Los Angeles skyline was taken out by aliens, my fellow theater goers cheered. This happens a lot when you see a movie in Hollywood proper amongst the people of the entertainment industry. Hell hath no fury like a boom operator on Two and a Half Men watching the Hollywood sign go up in flames.

Nonetheless, it’s not the embattled grips of Hollywood that drive big opening weekends. The apocalypse is the stuff of huge numbers. “Independence Day,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and “2012” – all three, ahem, films grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide. Everyone seems to love a good ass-kicking, but why do we seem to love to watch our own asses get kicked? What is it about an apocalyptic plot-line that can inspire otherwise compassionate people to cheer on the end of the world?

Because hell, let’s face it. Sometimes the world really does end. While writing this, I’m periodically checking news updates on earthquake and tsunami-devastated Japan. (And again, here’s how to help.)  Though I can’t speak to their experiences, I can guess that the survivors of the recent Christchurch earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, or the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 would not be so easily entertained by “Battle: LA.” Or, say, Roland Emmerich’s ends of days in “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Independence Day,” or “2012.”

We’re not talking well-crafted, thoughtful story telling here. But I do remember almost walking out of the theater in 2003 when a trailer for “The Day After Tomorrow” played out for a captive audience. I felt sick at the images of a tidal wave racing through lower Manhattan, destroying everything in its path. Ugh, this is too soon, I whispered to my friend. Too soon after 9/11, I meant. The New York skyline was precious; I didn’t want it to be manhandled by Hollywood. Yes, even the crap-tacular Emmerich flick got my back up.  But then, I’m not exactly on the tough side when it comes to the “end of days” on film.

The first time I saw a disaster movie was actually on the television. It was the early ’80s and America was about to emerge triumphant in the Cold War, but we didn’t know it yet. So when “The Day After” aired on TV, it was big news.  The melodramatic made-for-TV movie starring Jason Robards told the story of ordinary Americans surviving a nuclear war in the American heartland. I sat down to watch it as a ten-year-old and proceeding to have the living shit scared out of me. You know, usual stuff for a child at the end of the Cold War.

And the result of viewing “The Day After” at such an impressionable age? First, I immediately declared myself a peace-loving hippie environmentalist. Here we are today. Second, I swore off disasters movies for the next twenty years. Besides playing out in the occasional night terror, nuclear war became a verboten topic. The idea of losing everything was enough for me. I didn’t need to pay to see it as entertainment on the big screen.

Fate came to call when I married a man who teaches apocalyptic literature. This challenged my movie choices. Sure, he would go with me to see Serious Period Drama in Petticoats starring Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchette, or Emma Thompson. But all this meant I had to trade on a new cinematic taste. Suddenly I was agreeing to set foot in theaters showing films where the planet would blow up. Aliens would invade. John Cusack would run through the streets heroically. How could I stand it?

As usual, Susan Sontag explains it all. In her essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” first published in the mid-1960s, Sontag discussed the thematic and subtexts of science fiction films from 1950 to 1965. As Sontag writes:

Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin spectres. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors – real or anticipated – by an escape into erotic, dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralises it.

Ultimately, viewing the end of the world from the cheap seats merely allows us to exorcise our fears of it. After all, as environmentalists, we’re worriers by trade. Climate change, species extinction, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – these are the global concerns that we live with. But then our greatest fears are realized safely from the cheap seats, exorcised for just another day. For us, the observers, these movies speak to our fears and our will to live. Even though we’ll still watch safely from our seats, only to return home via Prius to check our urban gardens and personal composting experiment.

And yet, when a truly epic tragedy hits, we’re still left gaping in disbelief. For us, that sense that we’re safe in our seats feels uncomfortably familiar. But for the survivors and victims, it’s more real than we can ever comprehend. We can only admire the courage of survivors and hope that we would likewise persevere in a time of crisis. We try to relate on some level. But we really can’t. Who can, outside of someone who has survived the unimaginable? We can only hope that they will start over, as if everyone really does exist at the end of a Hollywood blockbuster.

And this is why the “end of days” blockbuster resonates. Hollywood always provides a hopeful ending. Jake Gyllenhaal reconciles with his father. Tom Cruise reunites his fractured family. John Cusack sails on to Africa with his formerly-estranged wife and children. There’s a definitive “ray of hope” shining among the wreckage. And this may be the only experience that can transcend film to reality – the only experience we can connect to. This ray of hope becomes magnified, transferred into the admiration of the bravery and perseverance of real-life survivors. And in this, the end of the world unites humanity today – and the day after tomorrow.

This is another installment in Katherine Butler’s column, Shade Grown Hollywood, where celebrity becomes conscious. “Shade grown” refers literally to shade grown coffee, a farming method that “incorporates principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.” Shade grown is our sustainable twist on Hollywood.

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.