Disaster stories are crowd pleasers, partly because oblivion can seem an appealing alternative to everyday problems that have no solution. At the very least, such stories disrupt the monotony of our insulated, digitized environments and force us to imagine other scenarios. What if a hurricane rips off our roofs and we have to hang out at homeless shelters and sing folk songs by candlelight?
Nobody really wants a disaster — we all remember Katrina’s aftermath — but the idea of one can be diverting if you’re jobless or behind on mortgage payments or bored stiff by a thankless job in a dreary office park, interacting every day with people who seem as false to you as you must seem to them.
This is what disaster journalism is for, a relief from the everyday. Even better are disaster movies, which are escapist but also help acclimate us to the desert of the real — i.e., to the fact that we live in a “cultural void where the real and the unreal are merged so completely that distinctions between them disappear.”
The best disaster movies challenge our acceptance of the void and even rattle us, but in a highly entertaining way. The Matrix is a great, obvious example, but my favorite is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which it becomes clear that our complacency stems from the illusion that we can control nature.
In one of my favorite scenes, an elderly woman ornithologist, very pedantic, informs the other patrons at a bar that mankind is doomed if the birds really have turned against us. As she drones on, a drunk — with an Irish brogue, of course — repeatedly punctuates her remarks by exclaiming, “It’s the end of the world.”
Footnote: Hurricane Irene wasn’t a complete dud in the Philly area. My basement is a mess. A river runs through it. There are no trout in there yet, but I’ve spotted other creatures and some ancient Christmas ornaments. I’m rattled.