Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Earthquake

My love for this movie registers a 10.0 on the Richter scale.

Regardless of its flaws, Earthquake is fantastically entertaining. By 1974, the template for the disaster film was so honed and foolproof that as long as a film followed a few simple rules, it was virtually guaranteed success. Throw in scads of practical effects and the awesome matte paintings of Albert Whitlock, and the resulting film is really something. This was also the first film in Sensurround, a new process that required theaters to install massive subwoofers to literally shake the seats. People seem to like that sort of thing.
This movie wastes no time amping up the drama. Within the first ten minutes, Ava Gardner has faked a suicide, Charlton Heston has had his brisk morning workout, George Kennedy's character has been thrown off the police force, and a security guard has drowned in an elevator. This is entertainment!

RANDOM OBSERVATION: Based on the evidence from this film, everything in the seventies was made out of wood, including Charlton Heston's performances.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: In modern-day LA, a group of crazy characters-- a building magnate (Lorne Greene), a structural engineer (Charlton Heston) his jealous wife (Ava Gardner), a doesn't-play-by-the-rules cop (George Kennedy), an aspiring actress (Genieve Bujold), a reckless motorcycle stunt driver (Richard Roundtree), a psychotic grocery store manager (Marjoe Gortner), a harried scientist (Barry Sullivan), and an embattled emergency room doctor (Lloyd Nolan) meet and interact over the course of 72 hours. It's a lot like Crash -- and, while there are no earthquakes in Crash, there ARE car crashes in Earthquake. Yet Earthquake did not win Best Picture. What kind of justice is that?

RANDOM OBSERVATION: Don't even try to figure out the age thing between some of the leading players. Ava Gardner, long past her shelf life, plays Lorne Greene's daughter (Greene was actually only seven years older than Gardner) and Charlton Heston's wife. In their first scene together, Heston is working out in his home gym, and Gardner enters the room in a robe -- my first response was, "Heston lives with his mom?" Heston falls in love with Genieve Bujold, who is young enough to be his daughter. In their bedroom scene together, it looks as if some fancy optical effect is being employed to make Heston appear twice the size of Bujold -- she looks like a fairy tale princess captured by a mean giant. When he takes her face into his overgrown paws, I was worried he might crush her.
I have gone on and on in this column about my love for practical special effects, and this movie provides the motherload: when the titular earthquake hits, we're treated to a twelve-minute-long effects sequence featuring real buildings crumbling, massive chunks of debris falling from on high, amazing miniature work, tons of stunts (a stuntman falls from a high building into a lower building's transom, duplicating a signature shot from The Poseidon Adventure!), and real fire (Lorne Greene's corporate headquarters goes up in flames during the disaster, so we get a ten minute sequence that plays like a reprise of the previous year's Towering Inferno!). Later, we are treated to more special effect sequences featuring aftershocks and a burst dam, which floods the entirety of downtown LA.

Look, audience members in the seventies would feel cheated if there were only given the promised earthquake. The producers provided fire and flood as VALUE ADDED.

One of the aspects of the movie that really sings is the matte painting artistry of Albert Whitlock. I realize that in our CGI age, this now-defunct special effects technique sometimes calls attention to itself as a bit... painterly? I still find Whitlock's work in Earthquake and the scope and breadth he brings to individual shots to be superb and terrifying.
CAVEAT: To me, this early John Williams score is a bit pedestrian; half of it seems cribbed from Planet of the Apes (solo discordant bass piano notes) and the other half is reminiscent of seventies series television. It is amazing to me that one year after Earthquake, Williams would write his iconic score for Jaws.

FULL DISCLOSURE: The comic relief cameo by Walter Matthau is odd, up-its-own ass bad, and does not work. People are dying and Matthau, in a pimp hat no less, is trying to get cheap laughs with a stale drunk act.

The cast includes many fine character actors in small parts. This is another thing to love about most disaster films: the bench of secondary characters is always deep. Earthquake features performances by reliable character actors Lloyd Nolan (the customs official in Airport) and a young Donald Moffat, whom you have seen in dozens of films (1982's The Thing and Clear and Present Danger being two of them). Even in the early seventies, Moffat already sports the bushy eyebrows that would become his trademark.
TANGENT: During the super-cool, twelve-minute-long earthquake sequence, a house I recognized from the famous Universal backlot tour explodes because of a gas main rupture. Surprise! Look carefully -- it is the redressed house on 1313 Mockingbird Lane from The Munsters! Can we consider that a cameo as well?

RANDOM OBSERVATION: No one in Earthquake wears a bra, including Charlton Heston.

One thing that makes Earthquake so great is that it knows exactly what type of movie it wants to be, and delivers with ambition. It also delivers giant chunks of concrete and massive steel girders to the heads of countless screaming stunt people. Earthquake hits all the marks of the genre in a way that satisfies viewers. What are "the marks of the genre?" I am so glad you asked.

JB's Rules of Disaster Films

1. The Disaster Should Be The Result Of Natural Forces, so we can be properly awed by the ferocious power of nature. "Man proposes, but God disposes" is the bylaw of all good disaster films.

2. Though the disaster is natural (a tidal wave, a massive snowstorm, an accidental fire, a particularly deep papercut, a raging flood, etc. . . .) It Could Have Been Prevented, but...

3. No One Listens To The Guy Who Knows (GWK). In countless disaster films, one or two characters have all the answers. In Poseidon, the GWK is Gene Hackman. In Towering Inferno, we get two GWK's: Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. In Earthquake, there is practically a GWK on every corner: an anonymous, young earthquake scientist is told his findings are "only a coincidence;" an anonymous, young dam inspector is told "hairline cracks are perfectly normal;" stalwart engineer Charlton Heston lobbies for buildings that "go beyond current building codes," and honest cop George Kennedy, in spite of the exhorations of his superiors, keeps "caring about whether people die."

4. The Film Must Tease the Audience With Suspenseful Foreshadowing before the main event. In Earthquake, we get a mini-quake within the first 15 minutes! Everyone on screen thinks the disaster is over... but we know better.

5. Yet No More Than One Hour Should Go By Before The Shit REALLY Hits The Fan. The SS Poseidon is knocked upside-down 47 minutes into the film; the major earthquake in Earthquake commences at the 51-minute mark.

6. There Should Be Too Many Characters. This makes it that much harder for the audience to guess who will survive. Many members of Earthquake's original audiences brought scorecards with them.

7. The Audience Should Glimpse Plenty Of Bad Behavior not often displayed in saccharine Hollywood movies. People behaving badly in a crisis, pushing others to their deaths, not waiting their turn in the salvation line, help us believe that we are good people who would never act that way. (We totally would.)

8. Selfish, Awful People Should Die, because that's fun to watch...

9. ...but for the sake of variety and dramatic license, a few Completely Innocent People Should Die Too, including at least one of the leads. This suggests that the universe is random and based on nothing but chance -- terrifying!

Those are my rules -- but my OCD is irritated by a list of only nine. Are there any other rules of disaster films that I have accidently omitted? Add them to the comments section below. Next week-- we ride the Rollercoaster, baby!


  1. Earthquake has one of my all-time favorite poster designs. And I agree, those matte paintings are fantastic. My favorite character is George Kennedy's cop, who gives a marvelous overheated speech near the beginning where he describes a Beverly Hills officer as "some whore in a cop's uniform." You tell it, Petroni! George Kennedy will always be Petroni to me. Speaking of which - do you intend to cover Airport or any of its brethren?

    Pauline Kael gave Earthquake a positive review, and in one memorable section discussed how the film's director would probably like to kill off the entire cast if he could get away with it.

  2. Quick pointless story: I never really noticed matte paintings in movies until a friend of mine pointed out that the waterfall on the Genesis Planet in STAR TREK II doesn't move. Now it's the only thing I can see in that scene.

    I've never seen EARTHQUAKE, and you've convinced me to remedy that. I did manage to DVR ROLLERCOASTER off of TCM the other night, so I'll be all set for next week's column. I know you were worried.

    1. If you refer to the waterfall inside the Genesis Cave ("Jim, this is incredible! Have you ever seen the like?!") it's not a painting, it's a giant prop with lighting effects. Matte paintings were used for exterior shots.

  3. Yes, give it up for Petroni. He's in charge of the grounds crew in the original movie and by the third or fourth sequel, he has worked his way up to pilot. America.

    Yes, I do intend to visit Airport in the future... but next week we've got theme park tickets and I'm taking my readers TO THE FRONT OF THE LINE!

  4. I think the number 10 on your list is that shot at the ending of a lot of these disaster movies, where the remaining survivors are huddled together, and they all look upward at once, full of hope and wonder that they are still alive, etc.

    1. That's certainly there in Poseidon and Inferno. In Earthquake, there is a little different tone... it's sort of hopeless and terrible... then Petroni, ah er... Kennedy says, "This used to be a hell of a city..." Except for Earthquake, though, I agree. I'm calling it "The Morning After" Moment (MAM).

  5. Great article JB, I am not sure if I share the same amount of love for disaster films as you but there are a couple I like (does Daylight with Sylvester Stallone count?) My best memory of Earthquake was going on the Earthquake ride at Universal Studios Florida. It takes a while to get to the actual ride part on the mini subway but once you get there its pretty cool in person (and looks horrible when it was squeezed into Beverly Hills Cop III).

    As for the 10th rule I would say its "The cute animal (usually a dog) will always live." Two examples that come right to mind is Tommy Lee Jones in Volcano and the Pierce Brosnan joint Dante's Peak. Personally I always thought the most ridiculous animal surviving moment was Independence Day, which admittedly not technically a disaster film, is an absolute riot.

    1. Independence Day is totally a disaster film.

    2. If you find yourself in a disaster movie, you definitely want to be the cute dog. My favorite "miraculous rescue" moment comes in Dante's Peak. What really makes it is the look Brosnan gives right after the pup jumps into the truck bed. His look conveys 2 important facts: 1) This is totally ridiculous, and 2) we love it all the same.

    3. At the end of Earthquake, Kennedy saves a little white puppy. He places it in Charlton Heston's car's trash bin. He's cute as a button.

    4. Yes, I agree with Patrick that Independence Day is a disaster film-- it follows every beat of that genre. You know what else is disaster film? Jaws.

    5. Wow, I never thought of Jaws as a disaster film. I have mostly seen it as a quasi monster movie. I can see it though, a killer shark is a force of nature. Moreover, no that I think about it Jaws does seem to hit more beats from the disaster film genre than monster film genre.

      JB what do disaster movies say about the times is which they are made? Once you and Patrick discussed monster movies reflecting zeitgeist. (vampires = STDs/AIDS etc.) It seems as though one of the greatest disaster film waves is the one that you are pulling your films from, the 1970s, though we have had more than a few in the 90s.
      Also, is "Two-Minute Warning" (1976) a disaster film?

    6. Yes, Two Minute warning is a disaster film. I still need to puzzle this out, but I'm leaning towards most disaster films from the seventies channeling Vietnam and Watergate anxiety.

    7. Two-Minute Warning has some problems, but I think it's really underrated. It's remarkably prescient in how it shows the authorities struggling to deal with what is essentially terrorism. It might make for particularly queasy viewing now, what with Sochi coming up.

  6. Really enjoyed this post! Another perspective on #10 in your list is there must be romance, to pull in viewers like me. And that romance needs to face some kind of difficulty (broken relationship, opposition to the relationship, or the "good guy/gal" is really the "bad guy/gal")someone's heart is broken, and all must overcome the difficulty to the romance by the end of the movie. Thanks JB!

  7. For movies I've never seen before these have been really enjoyable posts. Thanks JB (and Jan)

    I love matte paintings. I wish they were still used. When I first became aware of them they annoyed me but now I think they can add to a movies look and feel, in particular fantasy/scifi where it adds a dream like quality (ie Never ending Story, Labyrinth etc). But such an art. Beautiful.

  8. TOWERING INFERNO came out later the same year, not before.
    The movie takes place in one day (& night).