After Katrina, disaster movies seem behind the curve

Some say the world will end by fire, and others by ice; but this week we have seen water's candidacy for the top spot, and it has acquitted itself with terrible distinction. The worst natural disaster in the history of the United States has caused the entire country to grieve, to give, to pray, and to think. There is little a culture columnist can add to the profoundly and newly engaged journalism, the elegiac essays by writers who have made the city their home, and the angry calls for change and accountability by victims, citizens, and policymakers of all political stripes and persuasions.

But here are a few words, perhaps from a different perspective, from someone who writes about images on screens, which is what most of the country has to go on in trying to make sense of what has happened in the last few days. It seems that viewers are struck not only with grief, honest sympathy, and justified outrage, but with a kind of horror, and a sense of dread.

The horror of the scene, I think, comes from the sense of inevitability and the helplessness that we feel, for the victims and for ourselves: not the apocalyptic raging of the storm, but the slow rising of the floodwaters that followed it; not the immediate spasms of violence, terrible as they were and are, but the impotence of bystanders in the face of slow dying of victims of thirst and exposure and, yes, of despair.

And the dread - the dread comes from our sense of utter and profound wrongness, when we see refugees lined up, thousands in rows, on the fields where professional athletes run and catch to earn their million-dollar paychecks. When we see dead bodies slumped in wheelchairs. And when we see the simple, inelegant, rough fact of street after street, building after building, partially submerged. And like it or not, our minds go not only to the real-world tragedies that echo this - the tsunami, scenes of starvation in Africa and the like - but to those cultural touchstones that have, in the past, created similar emotions, if in very different contexts: horror movies, broadly defined. Because these images undoubtedly have something of the horror show about them.

The summer's reigning horror movie (if you think about it) was "War of the Worlds," which scared the daylights out of Americans when Orson Welles broadcast it as a radio play in 1938. Spielberg, undoubtedly one of the most brilliant filmmakers of all time, aimed for some analogous frights here. But "War of the Worlds" now seems somewhat behind the curve. Sudden explosions and destructions by genocidally minded enemies seem to recede into insignificance compared with the looming, indifferent nature compounded by our own bad decisionmaking and insufficient planning.

The high sheen of even the best computer special effects cauterizes as it cuts: We marvel at, and are perhaps shocked by, the mass destruction in a movie like "War of the Worlds," or "Independence Day." But what really affects us the most is often the profoundly low-tech: something like the beginning of "28 Days Later," where Cillian Murphy wanders an abandoned and deadened London, its streets filled with garbage. Or the first minutes of the recent remake of "Dawn of the Dead," where the camera lingers on officials at press conferences who understand little of the situation and can do less about it. Big monsters with death rays frighten the child in us, and Spielberg is right to point out that there's a lot of child in every adult. But the movie's scenes of social and organizational breakdown, rendered in small vignettes, scare the grown-up in us.

But one can put aside zombies, which, after all, are safely in the realm of the unreal, and this summer is the summer of reality, in the most profoundly un-network television sense of that word. The most frightening movie of the summer, accordingly, is not "War of the Worlds" but Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man," about a man named Timothy Treadwell who spent his summers camping and living among the bears of Alaska and ended up being killed and eaten by one of them.

In one of the many powerful juxtapositions of the film, Herzog fills the screen with an image of a bear's face, telling us that Treadwell saw a friendly fellow creature, but that all Herzog sees is an indifferent beast. The film speaks to the creeping sensation we feel when all our efforts to come to terms with the vast forces of the universe seem to be futile, and that with one careless swipe, all of our planning and our illusions of grandeur are laid waste.

New Orleans will rise again, in some form; of that I am sure. And we mourn the dead, and hope (and hope to help) the survivors and victims rebuild their homes and their lives. But as outside observers, as thinkers, we will never look at the city, at our country, or perhaps even at ourselves in quite the same way again, because of what we have seen at the end of this summer of 2005.

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