1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy  –  Nathan Smith

Abstract: In this article, I marry star studies to haptic theory in order to explore the complex meanings of space and stardom in 1970s disaster films. I use the The Poseidon Adventure [1972] as my case study, a film often cited as one best epitomising the genre. I examine the way The Poseidon Adventure uses the physical space of the ship at the centre of the film to heighten the chaos of the sinking ship, and mediate the way we experience the (old and new) stars on screen. I consider how in disaster films we see great Hollywood stars battered, bruised, and beaten on screen and argue this allegorically signals a generic and cultural transition in American cinema, with old Hollywood film practices shed in favour of the politics and energies of New Hollywood. This paper offers insight into the underlying star politics of 1970s disaster films, which are often mediated only through the spectacle they provide audiences.

Figure 1. An original advertisement for The Towering Inferno where the two male stars are separated by the fiery burning tower in the centre, while their co-stars line the bottom of the poster.

One of the defining film genres of the 1970s was the disaster film. Depicting scenes of mass carnage, the disaster film came to prominence in the 1970s in a wave of films staging shipwrecks and airplane crashes, joined by a band of new and old Hollywood stars facing these dangers on screen (Keane 2001 2). Critically and commercially, the most successful films disaster films of the 1970s were: Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974), all of which lead to the popularity of other films or franchises including Earthquake (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), and When Time Ran Out (1980) (ibid. 3). While critical scholarship on the genre has mostly centred on how disaster films were widely successful and critically lauded because of the way they allegorised America’s political, social, and economic plights on screen, many of these films actually instantiate other cinematic concerns. There is actually a dearth of scholarship that moves beyond the commercial and political currency of these disaster films.

Although the spectacles themselves in these disaster films are central, this essay assesses the way the disaster film utilises space on screen, in attempt to legitimise to their importance as a cinematic genre. Disaster films actively integrate discourses of cinema as travel experience and engage with the politics of star system to offer complex commentaries on cinema’s haptic meaning and the Hollywood star culture. I argue for the importance of combining the cultural and semiotic language of the star system with haptic theory in order to demonstrate the potential of extending the meanings of disaster films. It is only by marrying the two seemingly unrelated discourse that we can garner the more complex tensions that motivates so many audiences to see and engage with disaster films.

Stars in the 1970s disaster film have an allegorical and cultural function in the literal spaces contained within the text. Films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno embody allegorical meanings that comment on the death of the Hollywood star system and the rise of “New Hollywood” cinema (Roddick 1980 248).[i] I argue the disaster film engages in discourses on travelling and architecture in an effort to not only heighten the spectacle of its disasters, but also to create its own reference points about cinema and physical space on screen, in particular spaces for travelling (the ship, the plane, and airports). By reconsidering the haptic and star meanings of the disaster genre – examined centrally through The Poseidon Adventure here – the affects and emotional meanings of cinema and architecture can be understood away from the ocular-centricism that has dominated critical discourse on cinema for decades (Jay 1988 310).

Cinema has long been cloaked in its own aesthetic, critical, and discursive aura that has privileged the visual experience over the haptic pleasure it provides viewers (see Mulvey 1975; Sontag 1977; Deleuze 1983; Jay 1988; Thomas 2001). In recent years there has been a growing scholarly and artistic (recuperative) interest in resurrecting the intersections cinema makes with architecture. While these intersections have a longer tradition than the twenty-first century, it is only in the last decade that we have seen more explicit interventions – and marriages – between these two discourses. In Atlas of Emotion (2002), American scholar Giuliana Bruno constructs an “atlas” of philosophical, affective, and psycho-geographic responses to art, cinema, and architecture, coalescing all in an attempt to demonstrate how “site” (physical space) and “sight” (visual experience) are inherently married to each other. Likewise, The Architecture of the Image (2008), film scholar Juhani Pallasmaa examines how architecture – like cinema – works around ideas of time, space, and movement, and similar to Bruno, attempts to collapse the distinction between “sites” and “sights” in order to emphasise the potency of haptic embodiment.

These recent works highlight the emerging discourse of haptics and cinema, privileging the physical responses to architecture and cinema alike while de-emphasising the long-standing ocular approach to the world of film. Pallasmaa makes the point that every film contains an image of an architectural space (2008 4). From this, we can see an inherent relationship begin to operate between the two (ibid. 5). Whether it is a building, a room, or even specifically Central Park in New York City, film engages in the poetics and politics of architecture: they define space, grid and demarcate a physical area, while centring narrative meanings and affects around this site.[ii] Indeed disaster films – which are addressed in more depth later – are sound examples to demonstrate the potency of haptics – they are characterised by physical movement on screen. Whether it is a moving plane (the Airport series), a sinking ship (The Poseidon Adventure), or the chaotic physical destruction of Los Angeles (in Earthquake), they offer viewers a type of journey experience.

Many of these writers on haptics draw on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) in which Benjamin considers the notions of authenticity and originality in art. In his essay, Benjamin writes on the connections between cinema and architecture, arguing that on the contrary both are “tactile arts” (1936 225). While cinema seemingly stresses its visuality and architecture emphasises its physicality, both cinema and architectural space generate and provide kinesthetic experiences to viewers and participants. Indeed vision is just as important to haptics as haptics is to film. As Kester Tauttenbury writes,

Architecture exists, like cinema, in the dimension of time and movement. One conceives and reads a building in terms of sequences. To erect a building is to predict and seek effects of contrast and linkage through which one passes . . . In the continuous shot/sequence that a building is, the architect works with cuts and edits, framings and openings (1994 35).

By re-evaluating architecture in cinematic terms – and vice-versa by re-evaluating cinema in architectural terms – the two artforms imply a kinesthetic way of experiencing space. This intersection functions importantly in The Poseidon Adventure by problematising the architecture of stairs. Poseidon is concerned with the idea of “Hell Upside Down”, or an overturned cruise ship that forces its passengers to climb “up” to the bottom of the ship in order to escape. Staircases are an excellent example of how an architectural site has been utilised repeatedly by cinema to mark meaning, divide spaces, and represent political and familial hierarchies. For Peter Wollen, “The staircase is the symbolic spine of the house” (1996 15). Here is an instance where architecture and cinema unite. The staircases are places of movement and transition that are directly experienced by the body. The stairs in cinema stage political undertones of the private/public and unseen/seen dichotomy: either one can exit to a private space or enter a social public place through a set of stairs.

The Poseidon Adventure is driven by an intersection of architectural space and cinema. The film is about the “S.S. Poseidon” cruise ship making its last journey from New York City to Athens. On New Year’s Eve, however, the ship is overturned by an enormous tsunami caused by an underground earthquake (Keane 2006 72). The film is a metaphor for this cultural and cinematic conflation with architecture and stardom. Symbolically – because the ship is overturned – the notion of this staircase is inverted in Poseidon. Hence the characters do not “climb up” the ship but “climb downwards” to the ship’s haul.

A major turning point in the narrative is when one of the surviving co-captains tells all the passengers to stay where they are (in the central dining room, near the top deck of the ship) since they are closer to the top deck of the ship. Reverent Scott (Gene Hackman) pleads with them not to listen to the co-captain and instead them that they must go “up” (down) to reach the ship’s haul, since any attempt to escape needs to be made closer to the water’s surface. Although allowing a means for escape for a select few, this inversion figuratively reverses the hierarchies of title and power on the ship and placing a small group of the passengers in charge of the ship, as the co-captain drowns (and, by extension, allows others to drown) in the sinking vessel. I would push this analogy further, arguing how this inversion demonstrates the allegory of a transition of Old Hollywood values into that of New Hollywood. Given that it is the younger Gene Hackman – the then star of the drug-themed crime film The French Connection – who leads the fight for survival (leaving the mostly-older ship-goers to drown), the allegorical meaning is rich. Indeed this moment demonstrates how Poseidon privileges its younger stars and begins to kill off its older stars, seen frequently in other 1970s disaster films (see Dyer 1975, 1979).

poseidonThe “guiding” cinematic experience of these disaster films – in particular Poseidon – is the way it exploits cinema as a travel experience. In Atlas of Emotion (2002), Bruno writes that “film is affected by a real travel bug” and that the “film ‘viewer’ is a practioner of viewing space – a tourist” (76, 61). Bruno asserts cinema has always been preoccupied with the travel experience, signalling how early cinema itself was composed on narratives of travelling to the moon (Goerges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon 1902), to outer space (Georges Melies’s The Impossible Voyage 1904), or train travel (Lumiere Brothers’ The Arrival of the Mail Train 1896).This ongoing preoccupation with not only capturing travel movement (trains, travel) onto the moving image itself but also with providing viewers with the experience of “statically travelling” is what informs the terms of references of the disaster genre (Bruno 2002 7). Given the socio-cultural climate these films were made in – with the rising popularity of the transgressive styles of New Hollywood and their interest in new filmmaking techniques and strategies – the disaster film drew on these early cinematic discourses on travel as a means to rework their cinematic and cultural meanings. Here they are reframed in light of the emerging 1970s counterculture and anti-establishment politics (Wood 2003). By this, the template of cinema as traveling/traveling as cinema began to be manipulated and exploited in texts like Poseidon and the Airport series through the presence old Hollywood stars alongside new ones.

The poetics embedded within the moving space (ship, aeroplane, blimp, bus, rollercoasters, all of which were vehicles utilised in one disaster film or another) are what serve as the central cultural, political, and cinematic meanings that the disaster film seeks to problematise. As Bruno notes, “There is a mobile dynamics involved in the act of viewing films, even is the spectators is seemingly static. The (im)mobile spectator moves across an imaginary path, traversing multiple sites and times” (2002 55). What Bruno addresses is the way film negotiates physical spaces on screen viewers can vicariously experience, while also emphasising the staticity and immobility of the viewer in their seat all at once. If we consider Poseidon – often cited as the cinematic epitome of the disaster film – the captain calls the ship in the film “a hotel with a stern and boor stuck on each end” (Roddick 1980 246). The emphasis is on the ship as a site/sight of luxury, relaxation, and pleasure. The irony in this comment, as we see later, is that indeed it is the fact that the Poseidon is not a hotel that causes it to sink – it is a ship. This comment literalises the paradox Bruno address: the hotel does not move; a ship does. These series of meanings evoke the cultural and connotative meaning that representing travel on screen embodies in the disaster genre.

The moving space – whether it is encaged within the narrative of Poseidon Adventure or in the moving airplane in the Airport series – represents an intervention in the spatial and haptic experience of cinema. In terms of narrative, the site/sight of the exploded airplane, the sinking ship, or the burning hotel makes the spatial environment contained within the film dangerous, claustrophobic, and unsafe. Bruno observes, “Film inherits the possibility of such a spectorial voyage from the architectural field, for the person who wanders through a building or site also absorbs and connects visual spaces … In this sense, the consumer of architectural (viewing) space is the prototype of the film spectator” (2002 55). Bruno’s dialogue between an architectural space and the physical space controlled by the film instantiate many of the same haptic experiences and her re-prioritisation of the affective (as opposed to the visual) qualities of cinema is what I utilise in my analysis here. The disaster film itself – in this case, Poseidon – although preoccupied with spectacle, equally engages with problematising the relationship between physical space on screen and the cultural status and capital of its old Hollywood stars.

What makes the disaster film so palpable as a cinematic experience is the way the old Hollywood stars of the film are battered, bruised, and ultimately killed off (see Dixon 1999, Feil 2005). Richard Dyer writes that while a star is a reflection of the dominant social and political ideologies, they also are symptomatic of the “fissures” in these hegemonic ideologies and have the potential to be read in profoundly different ways (1979 3). I argue two central points on stars within the disaster genre: the death of the stars in the disaster genre allegorically comments on the decline of the Hollywood studio system which had dominated America film-making since the 1930s; and second, the stars act as stand-in for the audiences to vicariously experience the wreck and ruin wrought by the destruction of the travel experiences. Bruno argues this when she writes that we must move from “optical to haptic” (2002 6). This approach figures importantly in my reconsideration of the disaster film. My contention is that Poseidon kills off its former Hollywood greats as a figurative attempt to signal the death of the Hollywood studio and star system, and legitimise the emerging tides in Hollywood cinema.

Therefore, the cultural, cinematic, and semiotic meaning of the star functions importantly in the 1970s disaster film. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are major films that demonstrate the intersection of spatial destruction and the harm this carnage reaps on its Hollywood stars. The original advertisements for both films highlight how the stars are the central identifying features for mediating the experience of the film. The posters also imply the internal disasters within the narrative threaten the stability and indeed safety of these stars within the confines of the story. On a poster for The Towering Inferno (Figure 1), the star image of the actors is central with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as the male leads battling not only each other (and their masculine bravodo) but to attempting to control the blazing skyscraper. The poster demonstrates the intersection of destroying the stars through floods, fire, chaos, and death. This advertisement also has a row of other Hollywood stars that appear in the film – such as William Holden alongside Faye Dunaway – and although these are ostensibly the supporting cast of the film, nevertheless, they too are presumably encaged within the wrath of the fiery tower. The original movie poster for Poseidon (Figure 2) evokes a sense of claustrophobia with its stars bordering a drawing of waves of water overflowing a ballroom. Called “Hell, Upside Down”, the graphic is engulfed with seawaters. The poster encourages viewers to believe that not all the stars of the film will be saved by narrative end. These advertising meta-texts embody the important formation these films bridge between the collapsing of space and the destruction of the star.

To demonstrate this transition, I examine Shelley Winters’ role in Poseidon. The most striking physical feature of Winters’ performance as Mrs Rosenburg is her overweight and bulging body. Winters purposely gained weight for the role and insisted that she do all her own stunts (Keane 2006 76). A successful supporting actress throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Winters’ re-emergence in this film allegorically aligns itself with the transition of Old Hollywood to New Hollywood.[iii] With the rise of more countercultural subjects and constructed around less bureaucratic institutions such as film studios, New Hollywood sought to dislocate the institutionalisation of films with the rigid studio structure (Berliner 2010 62). Winters, who embodies these cultural, star, and cinematic ties to the studio system, is forced in Poseidon to undergo a gruelling and exhausting escape that she is truly not capable of. Symbolically, her bulging and overweight body is suggestive of the hedonism and profits of Old Hollywood that is no longer able to meet the challenges of cinema of the 1970s. Winters’s Mrs Rosenburg is a figure of comic relief as the carnivalesque quality of her squatting, falling, and struggling index her weight and the fact this obese figure is the great Shelley Winters – or “that fat old cow” as another character calls her. Therefore, Winters – like Jennifer Jones’s character in The Towering Inferno – metonymically acts as a figure of the old studio system.[iv] Both Jones and Winters not only signal the star system but also are utilised by both films to heighten the danger, destruction, and claustrophobia nature of these restrictive and deathly spaces on screen (Yacowar 1977).

The disaster film “must be consider[ed] as a single group” and as part of “a long tradition of screen catastrophe”, fitting in with traditions of cinema representing spectacles on screen to heighten their haptic value (Roddick 1980 244). I argue disaster films declined in the late 1970s and early 1980s because they became an overused template that could not meet the demands of the changing cultural landscape. However, the template resurfaced in other different generic arenas such as the sci-fi action (The Terminator [1984], Die Hard [1988]), while being altered in the 1990s with less stars (Twister [1996]), or simply remade in the 2000s (Poseidon [2006]). Unlike the original 1970s disaster films, however, these later generic templates are less concerned with an ensemble of stars and are instead driven more by special effects (Keane 2006 101). As with the changes in cultural demands, the later series of films with disaster as a main narrative and thematic pull did no need to alter the star status or star value of their actors unlike the 1970s series of films – they were the reference points with which to exploit and parody the star to batter and bruise them in the film.

In this way, the disaster films of the 1970s instantiate many more complex and important cultural and cinematic meanings than existing scholarship suggests. Indeed, while the literature on the disaster film has mostly considered the financial, aesthetic, or commercial value of these films, this essay has privileged the star iconography and haptic meanings of these films to revise their cultural and cinematic value. Although this essay has only concentrated only on The Poseidon Adventure, this film nevertheless embodies many of the tropes of the disaster film, having been cited as the “epitome of the genre” (Roddick 1980 246). The disaster film marries the concerns of architecture with the haptic meanings of cinema, utilising space as a means to comment on the status of stars in the 1970s cultural milieu. Given the rise of scholarship examining the haptic experience of cinema, reconsidering bodies of cinema that have only be considering for their visual value has immense importance in understanding and legitimising some of the more meaningful concerns these films embody. This essay has explored the growing scholarship considering the physical responses cinema can provide spectators while also revising the dominant interpretations of the disaster film, arguing that in particular The Poseidon Adventure draws on histories of film as a travel experience. Ultimately, in reprioritising the spatial and star elements in films like The Poseidon Adventure, the haptic and affective experiences can be more palpably felt.

 

WORKS CITED

 

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press,1994.

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 217-252.

Berliner, Todd. Hollywood Incoherent: Narration in Seventies Cinema. Austin:University of Texas, 2010.

Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New   York: Verso, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and     Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Dixon, W. W. Disaster and Memory: Celebrity Culture and the Crisis of Hollywood          Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Dyer, Richard. ‘American Cinema in the ’70s: The Towering Inferno.’ Movie 21   (1975): 30-3.

—— Stars. London: British Film Institute, 2008.

Elsaesser, Thomas & Hagener, Malte. Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses. London: Routledge, 2009.

Feil, Ken. Dying For A Laugh: Disaster Movies and the Camp Imagination. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.

Jay, Martin. ‘The Rise of Hermeneutics and the Crisis of Ocularcentrism.’ Poetics Today 9:2 (1988): 307-326.

Keane, Stephen. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London: Short Cuts, 2006.

Mulvey, Laura. ‘Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.’ Screen 16:3 (1975): 6-18.

Roddick, Nicholas. ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies.’Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film, and Television 1800-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. 243-269.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

Tauttenberry, Kester. ‘Echo and Narcissus.’ Architecture and Film (Architectural Design). Ed. Maggie Toy. London: Academy Press, 1994. 20-38.

Thomas, Deborah. Reading Hollywood: Spaces and Meanings in American Film. London: Short Cuts, 2001.

Wollen, Peter. ‘Architecture and Cinema: Places and Non-Places.’ Rakennustaiteen Seura 4 (1996): 10-29.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Yacowar, M. ‘The Bug in the Rug: Notes on the Disaster Genre.’ Film Genre: Theory and Criticism. Ed. B. K. Grant. London: Scarecrow Press, 1977. 90- 107.

 

FILMOGRAPHY

Airport. Dir. George Seaton. Universal Pictures. 1970.

Airport 1975. Dir. Jack Smight. Universal Pictures. 1974.

Airport 1977. Dir. Jerry Jameson. Universal Pictures. 1977.

The Arrival of the Mail Train. Dir. Auguste & Louis Lumiere. Lumiere. 1896.

Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1988.

Earthquake. Dir. Mark Robson. Universal Pictures. 1974.

The Impossible Voyage. Dir. Georges Melies. Star Film Company. 1904.

Poseidon. Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Warner Brothers. 2006.

The Poseidon Adventure. Dir. Ronald Neame. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1972.

Terminator. Dir. James Cameron. Orion Pictures. 1984.

The Towering Inferno. Dir. John Guillerman. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1974.

A Trip to the Moon. Dir. Georges Melies. Star Film Company. 1902.

Twister. Dir. Jan de Bont. Warner Brothers. 1996.

When Time Ran Out. Dir. James Goldstone. Warner Brothers. 1980.

 

Notes

[i] “New Hollywood” refers to a period in the late-1960s and early 1970s when a wave of new American directors began producing films that moved against the classic Hollywood cinema grain. New Hollywood films, such as Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and The French Connection (1971), resisted traditional Hollywood narrative techniques, used grittier film methods, and often valorised the anti-hero at the centre of the story (Berliner 2010 51).

[ii] It is beyond the scope of this paper but also see The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard [Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958] for a comprehensive rumination on the poetics and subjective meanings invested in physical spaces.

[iii] Winters was nominated for multiple Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress, winning for her roles in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965). In most of her film work (like A Place in the Sun [1951] and Lolita [1962]), Winters was often sidelined to a supporting role, with her characters later killed from the narrative. Her roles in the aforementioned films see her play a very emotional, sometimes hysterical female character. In A Place in the Sun and Lolita she is convinced that her male partner is cheating on her. (Which, in fact, prove correct in both films.)

 

Bio: Nathan Smith is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne specialising in queer and star studies. He is also a freelance culture writer whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and Salon.