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  Tema: Katastrofer:

Revengeful Nature

Erik Hicks, in his article in viten.com, discusses briefly our fascination with nature's forces, particularly when its activities become catastrophic. The fascination is not new. Hicks notes, for example, Immanuel Kant's writings on the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, and the concerns of the local priesthood that the Day of Judgement was near after Christiania was hit by an earthquake in 1657. Film and television display the same fascination: earthquakes again and also fires, floods, hurricanes, monsters from the laboratory or the deep, and animals that turn unpredictably savage. For media-scientists, here is a fertile field for questions about the way we perceive ourselves and nature, and the place of science, about what both excites and horrifies us.

Films provide a good starting point. Two main groups stand out. In one, the forces represented are already part of nature (earthquakes, tornados, tsunami waves, avalanches, volcanoes). They arrive unpredictably and without direct human intervention, although they are often made worse by human greed or weakness and they may be softened in their impact and unpredictability by the actions of "good people" (pure-hearted scientists, for example). In the second kind - horror films more than action-dramas - human intervention is often the cause of nature being out of control. Now we have monsters, mutants, malevolent beasts, ravaging invisible bacteria. These are often brought about by human greed (greed that encourages pollution, for example) or by "science gone wrong". The proper balance may again be restored by those on the side of good rather than evil.

On the surface, these two kinds of film have several points of difference. Common to both, however, is the theme that these changes in nature threaten our sense of order, stability, and proper boundaries. Common to both also is the reassurance of human strength. People do display courage, pureness of heart, knowledge in the service of others, and these qualities help us restore order, reduce the sense of unpredictability, and mend the fences between us and "nature out of control".

The films Earthquake (1947) and Twister (1996) provide examples of films of the "natural catastrophe " kind. In Earthquake, the action takes place in Los Angeles, an area known to be earthquake-prone - and, in the form of Hollywood, an area that invites a contrast between an artificial culture and an untamed nature. The "good scientists" are represented by an engineer who dies after placing early-warning devices in faultlines which then caved-in, and an assistant who continues the work and discovers that a major quake is on its way. The contrasting human forces are represented by Charlton Heston (a corrupted engineer married to the daughter of a major building corporation: Ava Gardner), officials who are reluctant to disturb the wealthy, and a group of scientists whose jealousy, indecisiveness and worries about reputation lead them not to follow through on the warning in good time.

Heston adds a theme of redemption. After ignoring safety principles in the past, he insists on the proper construction of the last building he puts up, and supports the wife of the dead scientist (she provides as well "the good woman" contrast to Ava Gardner). His moral recovery comes too late for his own survival. The quake arrives. Skyscrapers tumble. The Hollywood dam bursts and Heston, together with Gardner, is drowned in the flood but not before he has saved innocent lives from the same fate. Earthquake (1974) has its precedents. In The Johnstown Flood (1926), for example, an honest engineer attempts to warn the city fathers of an impending flood but is ignored by them for financial reasons. There are as well some Biblical parallels: "God saw that the wickedness of man was great" and destroys the sinful city by floods, fires, and tremors.

As a sequel, consider Twister (1996). The story is again about early warnings. The hero of the story, Bill (Bill Paxton), is a scientist who seems to have been granted the gift of being able to communicate with tornados. Standing alone in a field, he mixes knowledge, intuition, and "signs" from above thereby second-guessing where its path of destruction will be, and where to position themselves to measure its strength and patterns (they attempt to place sensors in it to be able to make simulation models of it later). He and his colleagues are both good and poor (they are underfunded and work for a public college). What drives them to pursue more than wealth and to put their lives on the line is the hope of saving innocent lives, represented by mid-Western American families with golden-haired children.

The less pure of heart are scientists who previously worked in the same lab but sold out to a corporate body that sees the possibilities of huge profits in early warning devices. In their greed to be first, these scientists turn down the good scientists' offer to share information. They perish in the tornado that the good survive, largely because Bill and Jo (his scientific partner and in the end marital partner) have learned to harness its power, thereby ensuring the safety of theirs and continued funding for their lab. Twister, fundamentally, tells the story of how science can lead to the taming of nature, through the combination of knowledge, some empathy with nature, and a pure heart.

In the second major category of natural catastrophe films, the threat of nature is often caused by science (or science and 'progress') itself. Andrew Tudor, in his book Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie, argues also that while early horror films featured mad-scientists creating unusual forms of human life, the last half of the century predominantly featured nature itself as threatening humanity both unprovoked as well caused by forms of scientific research.

Science and industry, often in collaboration and therefore suspect, have been the culprits in numerous films. Piranha (1978) and Piranha II Flying Killers (1982), for example, feature piscal threats emerging from government-funded research into the development of weapons. In other films, various forms of research into radioactivity lead to overgrown creatures such as ants (Them!, 1954), molluscs (The Monster That Challenged the World, 1957) or locusts (The Beginning of the End, 1960). The radioactive theme continued even up into the late seventies, with radioactive mutation leading to giant ants in Empire of the Ants (1978). Industry also takes its share of the blame. Prophecy (1979) features a giant mutant bear created by mercury poisoning from a mill; agricultural developments lead to revenge-seeking spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders (1978).

The forms that our fascination for nature's forces out of control takes are clearly of several kinds. Where does the fascination come from? Part of the proliferation of natural catastrophe films can be traced to economic goals. The action dramas created by natural catastrophes and attempts at containment fit well into the classic dramaturgic model appreciated by Hollywood's large production houses. In classic dramaturgy there is a hero (someone to save the weak and win the woman), a perpetrator (culprits such as nature itself or bad science) and good victims. There is a need for character development (e.g., the doubtful figure makes good while the law maker or politician is proven weak and fails), and a need for clear structure (the beginning, middle and end in catastrophe films are clearly delineated): Furthermore, natural catastrophe films offer the chance for great special-effects - see, for example Asteroid (1997) for floods, fires and asteroids hitting the earth: one more film in which the good scientist provides early warnings but encounters sceptical law makers. Fascination stems also from the sense of nature not being totally within our control. With the death of God and the departure of the devil, it has been argued, we need to look elsewhere for the sense of something that is more exciting than our everyday lives, that provides a contrast to today's emphasis on rationality. Nature restores the sense of mystery and hidden forces.

Of particular importance are the links between nature's catastrophes or monsters and the presence of borders. Every society puts up clear boundaries, borders or categorisations to define itself: to define and separate the normal from the abnormal, the edible from the inedible, the clean from the dirty. We are alternatively fascinated, horrified or excited by the breaking down of these borders and by the possibility of contact with what is "other", with what is on the other side of our orderly world. Films that deal with these topics offer the excitement, the adrenalin rush, without the danger. The experience of the breakdown is made controllable by our knowing how films of this kind work out, or by being able to close our eyes and distance ourselves from the events represented.

If we start from this kind of basis to our fascination, we can see catastrophe films of the action drama type as facing us with a variety of border breaks. The forces of nature blow the top off the mountain, break down the dykes or the sandbanks, split what was solid ground into separate pieces. We know, however, that the genre will keep the border breaks within certain kinds of limits. Nature may provide huge waves or great heat but in this kind of film it will not mutate into something half-human, half-animal. Moreover, the breaks and their impact will be clearly visible.

Horror films on the other hand attempt to make the viewer feel that they have lost control over the borders. They also threaten not to return the viewer to a state in which the borders are re-established and the Other is safely back into its place: i.e. the virus contained, the mutant destroyed. The dangers are often implied rather than displayed clearly. The dirt within, for example, is implied by the presence of skin growths or disfigurements but not openly displayed.

Visibility is also often reduced by having the horrific occur in dark places, or by the use of particular camera shots. Point of view or over the shoulder shots, for example, create a sense of danger approaching from behind, out of sight but not necessarily out of sound. David Lynch is a master of such shots, using camera movements which don't allow the viewer to look away from the horrific object - the accident, the amputated ear, the heinous act. Lynch forces us to become voyeurs with him.

Nature in revengeful mode for no apparent reason is a further case of borders weakened. The border between human as hunter and human as hunted is now blurred. It may also be difficult to be sure that, in the end, nature has been contained or tamed. Jaws, which plays between the action and horror genre, is an example. It is upsetting in part because we become the hunted. It is also upsetting because the action takes place in an area - the sea - where visibility for us is limited. We cannot be sure, even at the end, whether the threat has been contained or might suddenly re-appear.

Overall, culture becomes in many ways a symbol of control over nature - nature becomes its Other. The role of the good scientist then is to ensure that nature remains on the proper side of the boundary - classified, categorised, tamed, tracked or marked in ways that provide signals of any change in state. What scientists should not do is to forget their proper role, one in which they protect society rather than pursue only financial success or status. What they should also not do is to let what should be kept on the other side of the border or on the fringes escape its proper space or lose its proper form.

Up to this point, the emphasis has been on films and, within these, films of a fictional kind. Are the same forms and sources of fascination to be found in other representations or other experiences? Suppose we ask first: Are they confined to fictional films? The answer is "no". A fact-based film from the National Geographic Society - Nature's Fury - provides an example. The synopsis picks up again the combination of nature's forces and human courage: Earthquakes, tornadoes and floods - these colossal powers of nature have had dramatic consequences for humankind. Now in dramatic scenes of cataclysmic destruction and human courage, you'll journey with National Geographic as we learn how earthquakes create and shape our landscapes. But as massive as these forces are, the stories of heroism and tragedy are very personal. You'll meet heroes fighting to save homes and lives, but see victims too, suffering unspeakable tragedies.

And are films our only encounters with border breaks? Again, "no". Many reality TV programs build on the opposition of culture-nature, particularly playing on the possibility of death in the face of nature untamed or unleashed. The footage, for example, of bears or lions attacking trainers is often very graphic, and without concern for human courage or a deep concern for victims. These programs have, in fact, been compared, by industry spokesmen themselves, to "snuff films" (NBC executive Dan Ohlmeyer referring to Fox network's program When Animals Attack quoted in The Seattle Times Dec. 24, 1996). The programs rate highly and are defended on the grounds of audience appreciation. In the same article mentioned above, Fox spokesman Jeff DeRome defended When Animals Attack by saying that it was just a single component of the network's schedule, a schedule which reflects the diversified taste of American television viewers. In a Web-TV future, we are likely to see more such programs, with footage from bystanders or rescue workers recognised as eminently marketable.

We do not even need to restrict the representations of nature to objects or animals. People also may be classed as "primitive", as "foreign", as needing to be kept on the other side of the border or on the margins rather than allowed into the center of a society. Contact with what is "foreign" can then be made interesting but safe (as in watching tourist or anthropological films) or be experienced as horrific (e.g. for racists, the horror of mixed blood). Nor do we need to consider only representations in the media. Consider, for example, Europe's fear of the Ebola virus, or Norway's fear of contaminated food. Norway's "Godt Norsk" campaign is in fact a particularly nice example of efforts to establish boundaries between what is safe and what may contain non-visible horrors.

In short, whether in the form of eco-doom, human doom in the hands of revengeful nature or natural catastrophes as part of the Day of Judgement due to our society's sinful excesses, nature's forces will continue to fascinate, give scientists a role, and bring financial reward for those who put these themes into safely viewable form.

© viten.com 2000