17 May 2004

Destruction and Imagination

Peter Conrad writes in The Observer about apocalyptic films such as The Day After Tomorrow and the entertainment value of destroying a city:
These fables cater to some dissident craving deep in our minds. Cities are meant to be civic, communal places, yet -- looking at Piranesi's panoramas of ruined Rome, or Bill Brandt's photographs of a lunar London during the blitz -- we take a perverse pleasure in imagining them emptied. Is this because we wish our obnoxious fellow citizens dead, or because we know that the city will outlive us? The metropolis is a teeming, populous graveyard; life in it encourages a postmortem vision. ... The accumulation of stories means that nowadays, wherever you go in New York, you seem to be moving through the traces of a catastrophe that has already happened in fiction and may well recur in fact.
Such films are, perversely, the realization of Bakunin's (in)famous statement that "The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!" By spending hundreds of millions of dollars to imagine the destruction of a city, and then by gathering millions of people together to gain joy, pleasure, and diversion from the imaginary destruction, does the movie purge makers and viewers of the desire to destroy? Or is the imaginary destruction completely unrelated to the real world?

I'm a proponent of the idea that stories which employ fantasy and imagination are as valuable to life as stories which strictly mirror and mime the quotidian world, and that such stories help us think about and consider our world, so it would be ridiculous of me to suggest that a movie that imagines the destruction of New York, and turns that destruction into entertainment, does not have some grounding in real desires.

The distinction, and one often missed by critics of everything from slasher movies to Marilyn Manson, is that the connection between imagination and reality does not need to be one-to-one. Most people would (I hope) think it absurd to say, "Because you enjoy movies like The Day After Tomorrow, you must want New York to be destroyed."

One of the reasons fantasy literatures are valuable is because of the often mysterious and generally unpredictable connections between imagination and reality. Western theatre is a perfect example of this -- we venerate as classic many works filled with imagined destructions, both personal and public. There have been, at least since Aristotle, countless suggestions of why this is so. Perhaps we need to be reminded of our mortality, to face our anxieties and doubts about how and why we live. Perhaps we need to imagine our world destroyed so that we can value it before it collapses. Perhaps we are strengthened by envisioning all that could go wrong.

In truth, though, most people find a marked difference between imagining horrors and experiencing them. Despite all the claims that September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C. "felt like a movie", it didn't. A thousand movies couldn't capture the depth of emotion and the breadth of experience that September 11 continues to represent throughout the world. "It felt like a movie" because we needed a frame through which to look, a vantage point from which to begin experiencing the unbelievable, and the only immediate metaphor was what Hollywood had given us.

There does seem, though, something creepy about continuing to imagine New York's destruction. There's a weight to the imagining now, a shadow to the images. Are they still entertaining, or is there something else going on?