Disaster, Self-Destruction and our obsession with Mortality

So, I like my entertainment to have an epic scope. Meaning I like things that are larger than life, or at least a hair this side of reality, where something that is possible might happen or when what can be imagined becomes tangible. Which is probably why I love the MCU movies so far. They are steeped in possibility – and also have a quality that would suggest that not only is this story I’m watching possible, it just might very well be probable.

Call me a fan-boy or what have you, but I think a lot of the success of these films lies in the fact that the special effects and props teams that work on them are grounded in reality and that the images they create not only look so very real, but something you might actually see up close one day. It’s all illusion in the end, but it tricks you into thinking: “Hey, that might just actually work.”

The Iron Man suits for example, or the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarriers. Ok, maybe the helicarriers are a stretch, but we already have so many talented costumers and cos-players out there, seems only a matter of time before fashions that Kirby, Schuster, Claremont and others designed and drew become everyday wear (and not just T-shirt logos) – I mean, we actually have Batman on the streets these days…

But for the most part, the special effects in film are fooling us more and more into presenting what we perceive to be real images, which in turn immerses you in the experience of watching a film. For a brief few moments you are “in the picture”.

And because of this, disaster movies are taking on a grander scale. For example, there is this – San Andreas. Now, granted, a lot of people won’t agree with my observation and those die-hard “CGI sucks” folks will never accept the notion that what is happening can and might happen. For them, it just never looks real. Still, compare it to the big earthquake disaster movie from the 70’s, appropriately titled – Earthquake. It’s probably not fair to make the comparison given the advances in technology and effects over the last 40 years or so.

earthquake_xlgAnd the effects really are the point of this little blurb I’m writing. It’s the fascination we have with death and destruction on such a massive scale.

And I think we are fascinated by it because, it happens. Grand scale disasters are a part of our experience – from Pompeii to Hurricane Katrina to the 2004 Tsunami in Ao Nang Thailand and the Earthquake and Tsunami in Tōhoku in 2011. And so, the drama of real life eventually finds its way into cinema and becomes sort of voyeuristic – a “better them than me” experience.

Because, we fool ourselves into thinking that it couldn’t happen, at least, not to us. We all of us – on a subconscious level – think we are immortal, that we will be the one to cheat death. And we enjoy feeling fear on some level, the adrenaline rush of energy that floods your veins when the serial killer is chasing someone across a field with a chainsaw or the bug-eyed look you get seeing a car wreck, or that sinking feeling in your groin when someone falls from a great height to certain doom.

Its a curse in some ways, to realize your own mortality. To know that at some point, you will cease to be. It’s not always at the forefront of your consciousness to be sure – life happens and there are so many things you need to take care of pay attention to that a lot of times, the thought of non-existence just kind of slinks to the background.

I myself have no real fear of death – fear of not accomplishing some things for sure, but when it comes to not being here anymore I’m ok with that. I’d like to think that I’m aware enough to know that the world will spin on without me, that it does not require my presence to function. Of course, like anyone, if I found myself in the midst of some disaster scenario I’d fight to stay alive.

The animal part of us takes over when fear takes hold. The only thing that matters is to get out of harm’s way, and damn anything or anyone who gets in your way as you fight to safety. As intelligent and self-aware as we are, there is that lizard portion of our brains that’s wired to survive, at any cost. Not long after the movie Titanic came out, I had one of those dreams that incorporated events from the movie, most notably being in the water beneath the ship as it began to crash back down onto the water. In the dream, my solution was to swim down into the water, to allow the buoyancy of the water to slow the sinking vessel so I could escape. Of course, as happens in dreams – for some reason I dove so deep I actually touched bottom. I planted my feet to push back to the surface, only to feel my skull crack against the iron hull of the ship as it settled down on top of me, trapping me beneath it in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

I woke up feeling the fear of that experience. Of course, after the mild panic had faded I started to think, well, what a sucky way to go – especially after I had been so smart as to dive down to get away – I was convinced I had tricked death and was going to make it out alive. Of course, it was just a dream and my logic was all kinds of flawed. Still, that very old, neanderthal part of my brain had taken over and I did everything I could to escape danger. So, I guess in a way, that’s why we enjoy seeing movies that depict destruction and death on a grand scale… because we escape at the end.

We get to go home and giggle about how cheesy the effects were and how smart we would be in the same circumstances and “I would never do such and such, like that moron did. I mean, really of you think about it, you do this instead…” all the while forgetting that in a panic situation, you are not thinking. You are re-acting. And if you’ve ever seen real life reactions to danger situations, they are not very heroic or controlled as you think you might be in a similar situation.

But getting back to the point – why do we seek out images and depictions of death and destruction? Is it a placebo in a way? An opiate to keep us docile and sedated during our every day lives – to fool us into a mind state of “yeah, that will never happen.”? I guess we need that in a way. Life can be very hard and unpredictable and our stress level can get pretty high some days – what with traffic jams and long lines at the grocery store and when the internet goes down. But can you imagine having to contend with some of the things that early generations had to deal with in the very infancy of our species? How terrible must your stress level had been knowing that almost any moment you were going to die – either from a fall, or ingesting the wrong plant or from an attack by a predator or a nearby tribe?

Kinda makes your frustration with a wrong order at KFC look silly, huh? But to be fair, its the context and who am I to say that what we experience today is any less stressful or harsh on our health as our ancient forebears. I’d hazard a guess that way back then that instances of cancer or diabetes were way low, if not nonexistent.

What flummoxes me is the denial that many people display about death. I have known some very smart and intelligent folks who when asked, will always say that they would – if given the chance – would want to live forever. Personally, I thinking that would be the worst kind of hell. But, that’s just me.

Sure, living for a very long time would allow you to – possibly – see and do all the things you would want to do. But to me it seems a very selfish goal. because, when I listen to the line of reasoning about immortality, it’s invariably expressed in singular terms “I would” or I could”. That’s great – but what about the rest of us who are still stuck with a 70 year life span? Or what if it wasn’t just you, what if everyone on the planet were immortal – then what? I guess you could argue for either utopia or the breakdown of society. Its a topic that’s been explored in fiction before – so I’m not going to bore anyone with the what ifs of the question.

But I do wonder how much of our energy is wasted trying to prolong our lives – and please, before you come at me with this take or that take, I’m not really looking for an answer. It’s just one of those things I ponder and shake my head about.

On one hand we are obsessed with living as long as possible – but the majority of our entertainment, books, movies, TV and similar efforts – is preoccupied with death. My last post talked a bit our duality, and this might fall into that category as well. It’s just another take on the eternal question of one side versus the other.

I wonder what the film makers of those long ago disaster flicks of the 70’s think about films like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow or Hereafter. And to be honest, all the special effects in the world won’t help you if your story, film or whatever doesn’t have a human element.

And that’s the crux I think. We obsess on death because we walk hand in hand with it. And sometimes death is such a petty thing. What I mean is, we all hope or wonder if our lives mean something or why are we here, and so we hope that when we go, it won’t be such a mundane occurrence.

Which raises another quandary – what constitutes a “good death”? Bu that’s probably best left for another post.

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One thought on “Disaster, Self-Destruction and our obsession with Mortality

  1. Pingback: Disaster, Self-Destruction and our obsession with Mortality | The blog of COOPER APPAREL. Find us at https://www.facebook.com/Coopertees

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