Paranoid, personal view: Disaster films and realities


THIS must be what I must call an immersive review. For the past three days, since Thursday, October 14, 2021, Naga City where I now live has been experiencing earthquakes. Bikolanos are not used to earthquakes; we are more typhoon people. We know the differences between a depression of the climatological kind and a typhoon; we are conversant about areas of responsibilities. But we are no experts about earthquakes. There could be exceptions and this would be those inhabiting the provinces of Albay and Sorsogon, they with the two most active volcanoes: Mayon and Bulusan. 

It was thus the beginning of sleepless nights when a strong earthquake jolted us at about past 10 of that Thursday, which was followed by more quakes at past one in the morning. All in all, people counted some nine quakes and online reports yielded 11. The next night could have been a relief from the stresses of Friday until more quakes hit the same areas, with the epicenter being placed in a quiet town only a few kilometers from the city.

Out in the streets, people in my neighborhood were looking at each other even as a succession of jolts continued beneath us. We would learn that the depth of some of the quakes were only some 5 to 7 kilometers.

What must be happening under this ground on which our homes rest? I could imagine rocks and boulders rolling past ancient stones. Is there an instrument available that could peer through the soil and show us, CT-scanned, the turmoil below?

I must be watching too many bad films, I told myself. Then, it came, this realization…oh, let us use the apt word, epiphany! That when it comes to imagining how the fury of nature—be it a tidal wave, a volcanic eruption, or an earthquake—my reference (and I believe yours too) is always cinema. This is especially true with earthquakes. Television and documentarians have fully recorded all kinds of perfect storms already but we are wanting when it comes to fully documenting tremors and where they originate.

On the third day of quakes, I began to turn to film. An older movie, the one that became part of the so-called disaster film genre, came to mind: Earthquake. At the core of this film is the story of a couple working on their disastrous marriage. There are other characters in the film, regular people going about their ways, and this creates the suspense of the plot. Human beings are concerned with human concerns and only us in the audience know that something terrible is about to happen already.

As with films belonging to this genre, a load of stars, ancient and new, is conscripted to fill the narrative. So there on the silver screen are giants of Hollywood: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Walter Matthau, George Kennedy, Genevieve Bujold (her appearance as title character Anne of the Thousand Days still clear in the minds of admirers).

Earthquake would become a big hit, but it would only place second in box-office receipts to the top disaster film of the year, The Towering Inferno. The Golden Globe, however, would give Earthquake two nominations: Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Original Score (John Williams).

It would also gain four Oscar nominations for Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Sound. It would eventually win for Best Sound: Earthquake introduced “Sensurround,” a kind of special sound effect where the rumblings onscreen were transferred to the theater chairs, creating vibrations that felt like tremors. The film would be given also a Special Achievement Academy Award for Visual Effects.

Earthquake is directed and produced by Mark Robson with a screenplay by George Fox and Mario Puzo.

A different kind of disaster drama was released in 1997: Volcano while volcanic activities make up the crucial elements in this film, it has its share of earthquakes. This brings me to this extremely personal ruminations of mine: are volcanoes the cause of the numerous quakes felt in my city and in various parts of the region? Believe me, this is a serious question. Each time I checked the Internet about the quake I had just felt, the online notices would always have a line indicating how far or near the epicenter was to a volcano. Now, here is the fact: Bikol has a volcano in every province, with Albay having two to its natural credit!

In Volcano, the story begins with an earthquake. The top officer of the city of Los Angeles’s Office of Emergency Management decides to go to work even though he is on vacation. Very ideal; this means the film is not realistic. In real life, no disaster officer would really care that much. Anyway, I am digressing.

Against another city official, the man tasked with emergencies and his assistant check the subways of the city and there discover gases spewing out. A geologist says there is a volcano underneath Los Angeles. Is there a volcano under my city?  They discover a lava flow beneath the metropolis. The next scene involves people trying to find channel for the lava so that it would not engulf neighborhoods and harm the greater population. As with any disaster film, the villain is in the form of a city or town official who refuses to investigate, and the heroes are many—policemen and brave souls willing to sacrifice for the city. Again, this is ideal; in real life, city officials never sacrifice their lives for the people.

The catastrophes in disaster films are beyond anyone’s imagination. That means only films can capture these horrific scenes and make them even more realistic.

Hey, there is a quake again. 11:30 pm. October 18, 2021. Another sleepless night?

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