Self DestructJune 23, 2015
Issue 15 of The Modernist magazine looks at “E for Entertainment” and is as erudite and eccentric as ever. My contribution to is called “Self Destruct” about the depiction of the destruction of New York City in films – it joins articles on Odeon cinema design, the Vox Phantom guitar and the golden age of kinetic board games.
You really should buy the magazine – your £5 will support the society’s work, but you can read my piece here…
Sim City was (as far as I know) the only video game based on town planning. The profession has been accused of attracting practitioners more interested in destruction than construction and as if to confirm this, Sim City included an option to let earthquakes or space monsters lay waste to your city.
From ancient Rome to Victorian London and on to modern New York, societies that have developed a level of stability, security and comfort, have used popular culture to imagine their own destruction. We are entertained by violence, whilst safely sitting on the other side of the screen. We have become so used to seeing New York’s destruction in Technicolor and Cinemascope, that on September 11th 2001, even those who were physically there described it using “Two contradictory phrase spoken over and over again… ‘it was unimaginable’ and ‘it was just like a movie’.”
Before movies, when London occupied the role of the world’s preeminent city, paintings and books satisfied this appetite for destruction. In 1882, John Martin painted ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ which warned the vainglorious that nature could destroy anything man could build. Thirty years later, Martin’s sequel, ‘The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah’, was a morality tale on the fate awaiting immoral societies. This was not lost on the early Victorian audience who were watching their society remade in an explosion of capitalism, industry and empire. Later, rising levels of literacy and cheap printing allowed a mass audience for stories of destruction. Some such as ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells published in 1895, would move across the Atlantic and make it onto the radio and cinema screen. As an aside, parts of New York City would be built on the rubble of blitzed British buildings shipped to America as the ballast of convoy ships.
Film is the medium of the 20th Century, and in the so-called American Century, New York City became the symbol of Western urban modernity. We recognise and at some level identify with the massed skyscrapers of Manhattan. This represents our world. This familiarity of location adds a frisson of reality to the enjoyment of the fictional destruction.
In 1933 alone, the Empire State Building was menaced by a stop-motion-animated gorilla. King Kong died, the building survived, only to be destroyed in an air raid in MGM’s curious pacifist movie ‘Men Must Fight’. More destructive still was RKO’s ‘Deluge’. This used an elaborate model of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, including a 12-foot tall Empire State Building. The whole lot was knocked down with an earthquake and tsunami. The destruction was judged to be so spectacular (and expensive to repeat) that the footage resurfaced in ’S.O.S. Tidal Wave’ (1939), ‘Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc.’ (1941) and ‘King of the Rocket Men’ (1949). Deluge was a morality tale rather than a prescient environmentalist one. It begins with a biblical quote and ends with the reassuring message that the story was not based on scientific fact. In fact, it went on to say, God had promised Noah there would only be one Great Flood. Hollywood made no such promise.
Disaster movies reflect/cash-in on the concerns of their time. Global warming caused a new ice age in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ (2004). ‘Deluge’-like images of waves crashing over the Statue of Liberty and ships washing down city streets were recycled in CGI splendour. The city froze once more (well three times more) in ‘Category 7: The End of the World’ (2004), ‘Absolute Zero’ (2005) and ‘2012: Ice Age’ (2011).
Instead of the fire and brimstone hurled at Soddom and Gomorrah, New York was hit by a ‘Meteor’ (1979), then asteroids in ‘Armageddon’ (1998) and ‘Deep Impact’ followed by bits of the moon in ‘Tycus’ (2000) and ‘The Time Machine’ (2002).
Sim City style natural disasters hit in ‘Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York’ and ‘NYC: Tornado Terror’. Whilst the game’s mutant monsters were in the tradition of ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’, ‘Q’, ‘Cloverfield’ and a giant Stay Pufft Marshmallow Man in ‘Ghostbusters’.
Great minds (and movie executives) think alike. Spot the difference between the 2008 films ‘The Day the Earth Stopped’ and ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’. One went straight to DVD, the other was a remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic featuring a flying saucer and an inscrutable robot. Aliens were a staple of films made at the height of the Cold War and can be read as a metaphor for communism. Some have argued that Zombie invasions are a metaphor for consumerism, and where better for the undead to go shopping than the Big Apple in ‘Zombi 2‘ (1979) and ‘I Am Legend‘ (2007)?
Cold War atomic anxieties targeted New York in ‘Five’ (1951), ‘Invasion USA’ (1952) and most interestingly in Director Sidney Lumet’s ‘Fail Safe’ (1964). Here, a series of mistakes sets a U.S. bomber on a course to destroy Moscow. President Henry Fonda orders another U.S. bomber to nuke New York at exactly the same time, equaling the score and saving the world from an all-out nuclear exchange. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove was released in the same year and based on the same novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.
Ground Zero in ‘Fail Safe’ was (of course) The Empire State Building. In July 1945, a real bomber aircraft had got lost in fog and crashed into it, killing 14. Two months later, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey was examining the devastated buildings of Hiroshima. The 5 August 1950 edition of Collier’s magazine carried a cover story ‘Hiroshima USA’, which speculated on the devastation New York would experience in similar circumstances. Research was conducted into how American cities could be designed to better survive an atomic bomb. The development of the hydrogen bomb in 1952, meant they wouldn’t survive. So they instead of bunkers they built glass walled modernist skyscrapers such the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.
The Empire State was Ground Zero one last time in 1996, when aliens attacked in ‘Independence Day’. But on 9/11 and forever after, Ground Zero, would be the site of the Twin Towers. The following day David Von Drehle in ‘The Washington Post’ wrote, [Osama Bin Laden] “…has a deeply cinematic imagination. Images wrought by the attack in New York were right out of a big-budget Hollywood production, and made the reality almost impossible to believe”.
Richard von Busack a Californian film reviewer mused, “I want to believe we’ll never see anything so terrible as September 11 again, even onscreen. Maybe the attack will knock an entire moviemaking style out of existence.” It didn’t. There was a wave of self-censorship, removing the Twin Towers from films awaiting release and even from video games. Three days after 9/11, Microsoft announced that Flight Simulator would not in future include the Twin Towers. It was rumoured the hi-jackers had had a copy.
Hollywood moved movie destruction to the West Coast. Godzilla had rampaged around New York in 1998, but in the 2014 remake, it was San Francisco’s turn. Destruction porn would turn to comic book heroes to take stories a step back from a reality they couldn’t compete with. But what of the heroes of architecture? Le Corbusier first visited New York in 1935 expressly to look down from the top of the Empire State Building, which he said was “too small”. He described Manhattan as “utterly devoid of harmony” and “a storm, a tornado, a cataclysm”. He wanted to destroy it and start again.