Cinema has been a prophetic medium from its inception. I’m not talking about the drama, musical, comedy, or the Western genres, but horror movies, science fiction, fantasy and thrillers. These genres, which are too often dismissed, are the dark burbling id of cinema and of the human psyche. It makes sense they should show that which we cannot bear to face.
Picture this: a screen is radiating a light that pours forth from an impenetrable blackness. The faithful congregate before the mouth of darkness to hear and witness hidden truths, and to resurrect beings that walk a fine line between existence and non-existence. Expectations are high; the senses are alerted.
The gathered faithful are an audience and they are sitting inside an auditorium in a cinema complex. However, many will never realise that the auditorium has been transformed into a modern-day Delphic oracle by the force of collective subconscious desires. Although they consult this mouth of madness with obsessive regularity, cinema audiences rarely heed its warnings.
The reason for this, I suggest, is that we forget or ignore the fact that artists, creators, writers can be visionaries who, on occasion, manage to part the veil and reveal that which is hidden.
Now, recall the visions conjured by Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926), M (Fritz Lang, 1931) Things to Come (1936, William Cameron Menzies), THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1970), Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982). The list is endless. Yet every one of these films contains an insight or the grain of prophecy that was revealed only in retrospect, sometimes many years after the films’ release.
Often without realising it, viewers were witnessing the goals, achievements and the possible consequences of their own very human Promethean urge to dream, to strive and to yearn. The ultimate and unpalatable reminder at the end of all these films is the inescapable reality of death.
In view of this, I have no hesitation in saying that King Kong (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) and the Hollywood version of Godzilla (Roland Emmerich, 1998) foretold the attacks on Manhattan in graphic detail. And while the X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) only hints at the destruction of Manhattan, Earth vs the Flying Saucers (Fred F Sears, 1956), poses a warning for Washington’s landmarks.
Similarly, I would argue, films like Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001) reflect and create the climate in which such spectacular vengeance could be brewed and wrought on a city and a nation that is the embodiment of the Promethean myth. In a further twist that burrows from films such as The Other (Robert Mulligan, 1972) and The Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1986), the threat comes from a force that is familiar and unfamiliar, internal and external.
Watching Ray Liotta being fed his own brain in the sequel to Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1990), I remember thinking any nation that dreams this up for entertainment is on the verge of imminent national crisis. Contrary to what some have said, Hannibal was not Buñuelian satire, nor was it Daliesque surrealism. It was Auschwitz, pure and simple. The murderous id set loose by America to wage terror abroad had finally come home to cannibalise its host and creator.
Frankenstein’s monster – let’s be honest and call it Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, whatever you will – had traversed the wildest regions of the earth only to end up on the doorstep of its creator. The promise of Lady Liberty was too strong to resist. But it turns out that the brave new world promised to the monster contained a bitter pill that could not be digested at any cost. When it was expelled from the body, it issued in the form of an acid vapour that engulfed an entire city.
Finally, literally out of the blue, the catastrophe was realised. On September 11, 2001, the slaughterhouse mentality so beloved of the American entertainment industry brought its destruction to Manhattan. Frankenstein’s monster broke into the bridal chamber to desecrate the bride. The prehistoric creature rose out of the depths of the ocean to stomp inelegantly through the heart of civilisation.
We should not have been surprised. Yet we were. Jets loaded with passengers smash into towering, potent symbols of the capitalist West. Flames and explosions lick the sky. Well-dressed people leap to their deaths. Constructions meant to withstand mammoth assault crumble without protest. Thousands of lives pulverised; blood and bone and flesh litter the site like an abattoir. Titanic plumes of dust roil through the city canyons. Pagan Hollywood had come to cultured Manhattan.
But more importantly, East and West, two coasts and sensibilities, yes, but also two historically opposing civilisations and religions clashed, literally and metaphorically, on the only reality we recognise: television. The force of their violent opposition caused a meltdown that created a seemingly unreal reality. Bad special effects that were somehow more affecting than anything dreamt up by ILM were everywhere to be seen on September 11. Like the phantom crawling out of the television set in Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1999), that morally and ethnically reprehensible genre, reality television, ceased to be contained and therefore controllable, and engulfed the entire Western world.
Airport ’77 (Jerry Jameson, 1977), Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974), The Fall of the House of Usher (Roger Corman, 1960), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981), Godzilla were all being shot on the one sound stage simultaneously. And the world stopped to watch the spectacle.
The main players in this ultimate disaster movie were, of course, the terrified, bewildered Americans themselves. As usual, the rest of the world was relegated to the supporting role of witness or criminal. The heroes had yet to emerge. When they did, they observed more realistic standards than did the firemen in Backdraft (Ron Howard, 1991).
The invisible monster, the criminal mastermind, is immediately identified as an Arab Muslim. Fortunately for our photogenic age, his features turn out to be as beatific as his heart is black. Thanks to mass media, he has become the poster boy and the bogeyman for a new age of terror.
In the West, he is the spiritual grandchild of Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Fidel Castro, Pol Pot. In some parts of the East, however, his impassive, almost serene face now embodies the rage felt by Arabs who, a few years earlier, had been portrayed in The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999) as fly-ridden, cowardly slime bags, whose primitive state was equal only to their ignorance. And whose primary objective was to act as fodder for noble English and American guns.
Should we be surprised that such absolute negation seeks absolute means with which to remedy a wrong? One has to wonder at the world’s reaction if Jews and blacks were portrayed as negatively.
While the American West has been mesmerised by its own reflection on the giant screen, it seems someone else was also watching, and waiting. They are cineastes of a different breed, connoisseurs with darker intentions and a nihilism that makes a fraud of much that is coming out of the dream factory. Now that they’ve already recreated scenes of destruction from a multitude of entertainments, it seems the invisible cineastes are working on making Virus (John Bruno, 1999) a reality.
As in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994), fantasy and reality are no longer exclusive. The two symbiotic states, turning on each other, have blended to create a new species that remains as yet unknown.