Disaster Porn

TV and popular culture.
Jan. 28 2005 4:37 PM

Disaster Porn

The Discovery Channel's Pompeii: The Last Day is an exercise in imagining the worst.

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In the recent (and excellent) documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, the director and film scholar Thom Andersen makes the argument that disaster movies tend to appear at moments when a culture is in crisis about the legitimacy of authority (hence the burgeoning of the genre in the post-Watergate years). Fictional representations of natural destruction on a massive scale—fires, floods, earthquakes—must be somehow paradoxically comforting, he theorizes, perhaps because they allow us to imagine the worst fate the gods can visit upon us, while still allowing us, the viewers, to survive.

I wonder what it says about the current cultural moment that this weekend there will be a golden opportunity to ponder the wrath of nature on television. The Discovery Channel special Pompeii: The Last Day, premieringSunday night (9 p.m. ET), combines science documentary and historical fiction to create a variant on the genre the writer Paul Lukas once dubbed "weather porn." Pompeii is natural-disaster porn; it may rely on impeccable historical research and painstaking dramatic reconstruction, but its real reason for existence is the money shots, spectacular sequences of mass chaos and suffering that, as Lukas writes, "leave you staring slack-jawed at the screen, mumbling, 'Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God' and 'Holy s**t, holy ****ing s**t.' "

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In the late summer of 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted for the first time in 1,800 years, burying Pompeii and the nearby city Herculaneum in 141 trillion cubic feet of rock and ash. As the 24-hour-long eruption progressed, those living at the foot of the mountain had no framework for understanding what was happening; as the narrator points out, the Latin language didn't even contain a word for "volcano." Pompeii: The Last Day is a dramatic reconstruction of the eruption, based on archeological evidence found at the site. A female slave's bracelet found in the ruins of a cheap hotel, the skeleton of a pregnant woman who died surrounded by her family, a child's body flawlessly preserved in the ash; all become the basis for imagined stories about what might have transpired on that individual's last day.

At least two of Pompeii's characters are based on more than mere archeological speculation; the writer Pliny the Elder (played by Tim Pigott-Smith, who could recently be seen consulting goat entrails as the omen reader in Oliver Stone's dreadful Alexander) was a writer and commander of the Roman navy whose interest in natural science led him to approach, not flee, the smoking mountain. Impelled by curiosity or hubris, he died of suffocation as he stood watching the final, massive eruption. His nephew, Pliny the Younger (Martin Hodgson), remained at home, survived the disaster, and provided the account that to this day remains our most complete, and chilling, description of the event.

Like Titanic, this is a disaster movie without any real suspense, since it's a foregone conclusion that virtually every character will die horribly. But Pompeii, unlike Titanic, tries to dramatize the disaster and teach us about it at the same time. As a voiceover explains geological events like  Plinian eruptions  and pyroclastic surges, the actors trade painfully expository dialogue: "We cannot be frightened of pebbles! We are gladiators!" blusters one young man, seconds before being beaned by a chunk of volcanic rock. Despite the lack of character development, watching Pompeii can be emotionally grueling, especially in light of the recent awful events in Asia. One by one, the thinly sketched characters established in the first half-hour are picked off by various phases of the eruption, while the solemn British narrator provides ghoulishly precise descriptions of death by suffocation ("the second breath causes the lungs to fill with a wet cement of ash") or thermal shock ("teeth and bones shattered, like fragile glass under boiling water. Their brains boiled and exploded").

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Pompeii's real drama is provided not by the intermittent dramatic tableaux but by the staggering scientific data recounted by the narrator: At its height, the 25-kilometer-high "eruption column" of smoke and ash rose twice as high as Everest. The volcano spewed up to 100,000 tons of material per second, along with a cloud of smoke that could be seen as far away as Africa. In a half-hour documentary that follows the special, a foxy young geologist named Victoria Bruce visits modern-day Pompeii to investigate the possibility—or, as it turns out, likelihood—that Vesuvius will experience a comparably major eruption in the next hundred years.

Originally produced by the Discovery Channel and the BBC and aired in Britain in 2003 to great critical and popular acclaim, Pompeii: The Last Day doesn't look like a lavishly budgeted film; its most recurring special effect is a shot of a miniature model of the city shrouded in a chimney's worth of smoke. Occasionally, a CSI-style magma-cam descends rapidly into a computer model of the volcano's boiling chamber. The terrifying images of the exploding volcano as seen from Pompeii are done through a mixture of old-fashioned animation and computer imagery; they may not teach us much about geological thermodynamics, but like the film itself, they accomplish the most basic task of disaster porn by looking pretty ****ing cool.

Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005

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Today's paper was full of sobering news: there was the death of 37 Americans in the deadliest day yet in Iraq, the growing specter of impending election-day violence in that country, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But it was when I turned to the arts pages that my reporter's instinct really kicked in: Apparently, there are two women in Vermont who like each other just a little bit too much.

In a half-hour episode of the PBS children's series "Postcards from Buster"  originally scheduled to air February 2, the titular animated bunny visits a Vermont family headed up by … well, we're all adults here, so let's just say it: two mommies. Brand-new Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who just took office on Monday, has already sent a letter to the producers  decrying the episode, which is entitled "Sugartime!" Though, as this CNN story notes, the show's "focus is on farm life and maple sugaring," Spellings has insisted that the seal of the Department of Education be removed from the offending program, along with any statement suggesting a link between the two. She also requested that PBS give member stations a heads-up on the content of "Sugartime!", so they can decide for themselves whether to air it or not. Finally, she has suggested that PBS return any government money used to produce the episode, noting sternly that "You can be assured that in the future the department will be more clear as to its expectations for any future programming that it funds."

I'm as concerned as the next potential parent about young children's exposure to tree-tapping hijinks on public TV. So I called Jeanne Hopkins, communications director for WGBH in Boston, where "Postcards from Buster" is produced. Ms. Hopkins obligingly granted me an interview, which I reproduce here in its entirety.

What is the specific nature of the content that the Secretary of Education is objecting to? What exactly happens in "Sugartime!"?

The animated character Buster Baxter meets real kids. In this episode he is in Vermont ... [he] meets kids with two moms.  The moms are not central to the story, the kids are. But their family structure seems to be what has triggered the concern.

Is there any nudity in "Sugartime!"?

No.

Is there any sexual contact between the two women? Romantic contact? Do they kiss, touch, grope each other onscreen?

No, no, no, no and no.

Is the word "lesbian" or "gay" ever used in the episode?

No, no.

How about "dyke"?

No.

How do we know that the couple pictured are lesbians?


One of the kids introduces her mom and stepmom, and Buster comments that she has a lot of moms. That's pretty much it. Remember, this is a show from a kid's point of view, not an adult's.


Is "maple sugaring" actually code for some sort of sexual practice between women?

Not that we uncovered.

Is the lesbian couple married under Vermont's civil union law? Does the issue of marriage come up in the episode?

There is no mention of the women's status and marriage is not mentioned. We know from meeting and talking with them off-camera that they are in a civil union.


In the Buster theme song, Wyclef Jean sings : "He's got his camera /And he's gonna explore /All the neat things he's never done before." By showcasing a lesbian couple in this episode, is PBS promoting a homosexual agenda by implying that two women living together as domestic partners is a "neat thing" that children should "explore"?

No, we are not promoting anything. Buster visits kids whose parents are divorced, too—we're not promoting that either. Buster is exploring the neat things that kids all over this country do, and experience, and can teach each other.

As one of Bush's senior domestic policy advisors, Margaret Spellings was once interviewed on C-Span about some census data that indicated a decline in traditional family structures. She answered, "So what?" and added that, as a single mother, she understood that there were "lots of different types of family." How do you explain Ms. Spellings' shift on this issue since she assumed office as Secretary of Education on Monday?

We cannot explain, nor would we try.

What do you think is really at stake when the new Bush administration picks an issue like this to set the tone for the next four years? Is the government trying to find excuses to withdraw funding from public television? Or is this just a symbolic bone thrown to the Christian right? What do you think is going on?

It's not clear to us what this means.  ... 4:43 p.m.


Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005

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I don't have much to add to David Edelstein's lovely tribute to Johnny Carson. During most of Carson's prime (which Edelstein pegs as ending around 1981), The Tonight Show seemed naughty to me, not because of the host's daring wit, but because it was on past bedtime. But for those who missed out on the Carson years via generational accident, two TV networks will be airing substantial tributes this week. Tonight, 60 Minutes Wednesday (CBS, 8 ET) will rebroadcast a 1979 interview with Carson that Mike Wallace counts among his favorites of all time. Thursday night at 10 ET, the cable network TVLand will show the same interview, along with some never-aired outtakes and a clip reel from Carson's career.

On Monday night, Jay Leno opened The Tonight Show with a humble tribute to Johnny, saying that he felt like "a guest in [Johnny's] house." "He built this place," continued Leno. "Everyone who does this for a living owes it to him." But many watchers of the late-night hosting wars (an audience that, like the hosts themselves, is prone to decades-long grudges) have still not forgotten that when he first got the keys to Carson's "house" in 1992, Leno failed to thank or even mention his beloved predecessor in his opening show. He later rectified the gaffe, saying he had been acting on the advice of his legendarily Machiavellian manager Helen Kushnick, but the wound remained. Though Carson never weighed in on the late-night battles (or anything else for that matter) after his retirement in 1992 *, he did lend Letterman his tacit support by sending him the occasional monologue joke and once, in 1994, making a surprise appearance on The Late Show. The audience went wild, but Carson stayed only 76 seconds (at the Letterman's insistence, he sat in the host's chair), waved at the audience, and left without saying a word.

Both Conan O'Brien and David Letterman happened to be on vacation the week of Carson's death, so if you're feeling sleepless next week, it might be worth staying up late to see how these two—Johnny's designated successor and his thwarted bastard child, like the legitimate and illegitimate sons of some mythic king—choose to say goodbye to their comic forefather. ... 12:30 p.m.

Correction, Feb. 1: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Johnny Carson retired in 1991. He retired in 1992. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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