Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Earthquake
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!