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Disaster Mon Amour

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A wonderful examination of our obsession with disasters as they appear on film. Thomson really manages, I feel, to get to the heart of our neverending appetite for destruction, uncovering something deeper within us all that keeps us braying for more.
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People have a remarkable relationship to disasters. On the one hand, they are devastated by an ever increasing number and variety of them. On the other, they are enamored of the spectacles and the stories, and disaster films in particular. Make one well, and it is all but guaranteed to earn big money. David Thomson examines this intersection in Disaster Mon Amour.

Thomson is a film historian, with over 20 books to his name. He lives and breathes cast and crew, author and director. But he is also alive, which means he sees real disasters unfold daily, as we all do. Hardly a day goes by without one being reported. His job in this book seems to be separating romance from fact and ensuring he -and we- understand what is important in the world and in life.

Disasters can be a matter of perception. Thomson dwells lovingly  and unexpectedly on The Music Box, an Oscar winner for best short subject in the early 30s. Laurel and Hardy are charged with delivering a player piano, and disaster after disaster roll over them until they end up trashing the very home where it is to be installed. A small disaster, compared to California falling into the ocean or burning to a crisp, or the Earth being overtaken by aliens, or disease, or even by power-hungry humans. There are so many disasters, real and imagined, they are making us numb to them. A lot of people can only appreciate their impact from Hollywood films where the idea is to make them up close and personal, completely overwhelmed by special effects and stunts.

So should we try to separate fact from fiction? I'm not sure the book even answers the question. It's a lot of reminiscences, often with nothing to do with films and disasters. For example, there are laments over Thomson's relationship with one of his sons (to whom he dedicates the book). If I read it correctly, whatever it was was Thomson's fault. But we never learn what it was, only that it is difficult to repair. Maybe that's a personal disaster? If so, how does it play out, and if not, why is it even in the book?

As the book progresses, we find Thomson actually visiting disaster sites. He spends a lot of ink on Aberfan, a Welsh town that lost an entire school full of children when the coal slurry above it slid into and over it. The coal detritus was not supposed to be 110 feet high. Authorities knew it was limited to 20 feet by law. But jobs were scarce, and nothing bad had ever happened, etc etc., so it grew like Topsy into  headline-making disaster the whole world focused on for weeks in the 60s.

He examines a number of films that we wouldn't automatically classify as disaster like we would for, say, Titanic. Films like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which is as much dystopian as disaster, for example. Or one of my all time favorites, Don't Look Now, by Nicholas Roeg, which leaves everyone who sees it agitated and uncomfortable, and it's really difficult to express why. For Thomson, it is a disaster on a very personal level, while I have always thought of it as a horror film. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie list from one disaster to another, never thinking they are the problem. Even when things get better, they are actually worse. There is tension in every scene, even innocent scenes. And when disaster strikes, it strikes hard. But armies are not decimated, volcanoes don't smother the nation, and hurricanes don't erase any trace of civilization. It's just this couple. Is everyone so important to the universe that these personal setbacks are disasters?

For comparison, an editor of Thomson's was given a new manuscript (as a young man) of Hemingway's to read, and he left it on the subway train. His whole career seemed to end right there and then, and he was a wreck. But he took a chance and checked Lost & Found the next day, and there it was. He went on to an illustrious career. Not so much a disaster as a nice reminiscence, at least to me. Maybe a tip of the hat to a more responsible era, when people would actually take an envelope of papers to the Lost & Found. But a real life disaster?

As entertaining as the book is, it is hard to deconstruct. The chapters detail different disasters and films, but it's not always obvious how they fit together in a chapter. Outside of say, Aberfan, it is not obvious why there are chapters at all. If the book rolls it all up, it is in the perspective that real life disasters are generally far scarier, more serious and life-changing than anything that has come from Hollywood. Read the news, and be shaken to your roots.

Thomson spends a great deal of readers' time on COVID-19, for example, which was rolling out while he was writing this. The figures he cites are laughable now, but they were frightening enough at the time. Connected directly to that is the disaster that was the Trump administration. He considers Trump himself a oneman disaster, expressed remarkably diplomatically all things considered.

Then, unaccountably, in the midst of it all, appears a section praising the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. It seems she is hard working, sincere, thorough and has a great team, which Thomson can name. She has zero connection to the disaster film industry, and is not a reporter, but more of a political pundit, very much of the left side kind. What she and MSNBC have to do with the rest of the book remains a mystery.

Mostly, we've seen so many disasters in recent years, both natural and manmade, it is difficult for Hollywood to top reality. With thousands wiped out in a tsunami, or two million held in a refugee camp for 50 years, there is no shortage of depressing news. Thomson's message seems to be to take the reality more seriously than we do. Get the priorities straight. And he says this as a lover of film. Disaster, he says "was our epic once, but our context now."

David Wineberg
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Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?  A film historian analyses our perceptions of the term disaster by examining fictional and real-life examples and reveals some startling shared beliefs for both.

One of my favourite film genres is the 1970s disaster movie. I love watching this disaster unfold on-screen and the seemingly disparate characters come together in the face of adversity be it fire (The Towering Inferno (1974)), flood (Flood (1976)) or the wrong kind of snow (Airport (1978)) or bees (The Swarm (1978)).

These films and TV Movies boasted amazing all-star casts with everyone – such as actresses, from Jacqueline Bisset to Shelley Winters – and everyone – such as actors from Joseph Cotten to Richard Widmark. But most of all I love how these characters more random personal attributes help or hinder the lives of the peers who share their plight.

These films include the most random of characters, and some had those skills for plot convenience and added drama such as Shelley Winters playing a one-time competitive swimmer in the capsized cruise liner in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Five years later, Christopher Lee played a businessman who also happened to be a deep sea diver in Airport 77 (1977) and this attribute was seen when his flight hit the Bermuda Triangle seabed.

It seems I’m not alone in this way of thinking about the allure of this genre, as in his book Disaster Mon Amour (2022), author David Thomson suggests that all human beings are drawn to both “real or fictional” disaster, and then adds with a touch of the macabre “but only if it happens to someone else”. 

David Thomson looks at our thoughts and beliefs on the meaning of the word disaster. He examines the now blurred line between our responses to fictional disasters in films, television and books to how real-life disasters are perceived. Chapter titles include Overture for Two Staircases, In San Andreas, Pandemia Pandemonium and In Aberfan. 

He adds that there is often a coming together of a frightening disaster and a moment of rapture or beauty. He illustrates this unsettling union in the opening paragraphs of the book, we learn that his book title refers to a movie, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1960) and describes a moment pairing disaster with lovemaking.

Thomson vividly “twins” this film’s beautifully filmed love scene  – with a soundtrack to match – between two lovers with the fact that the pair are facing a shared impending doom, namely Hiroshima. Yet these characters are “so alive, near the end” and have found their moment of rapture or joy before they die, and this he says this is both “so lovely, so terrible”. 

The author then cuts to events during 2020, when in real life Europeans celebrated victory in Europe celebrating the end of the Second World War. Hiroshima Mon Amour mirrors a plot for a film analysed later in the book. This is in an intimate scene where two photogenic on-screen lovers – played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland – make love and this scene cuts to scenes as their daughter faces an untimely death in Don’t Look Now (1974).

Thomson defines the word disaster and suggests this concept – in both fact and fiction – can be either personal, pertaining to an event or affect us all universally as the meaning of this word is explored in both reality and fiction. Thomson shares his insights telling of our responses to these forms of disaster in entertainment and how these types of “disasters” are depicted on screen.

In fictional disasters, Thomson outlines and analyses relevant plot “disasters” from films such as Contagion (2011), San Andreas (2015), television shows such as The Crown (2016) and those fictional books made into films such as The Road (2009). His deep analysis explores the nature of the disasters within these mediums and he often adds supportive quotes from the literature and critics. Often he is seen to show apt dark humour as he describes these fictional movies.

This author says through these fictional movies or recreated television scenes, we see how a fictional disaster is relayed using convincingly realistic CGI. These research-backed scenes often demonstrate just how this event would occur should it happen in real life. He also praises those special effects “artisans” who made those convincing visual moments when they created on-screen moments where our real much-loved landmarks and monuments are destroyed.

He writes candidly about recent and historical news events and topics such as climate change, the pandemic and American politics that occurred while he was writing his book. Sometimes these three mediums overlap and the most revealing reference for this is as he writes about Aberfan, a true life Welsh coal mining disaster that happened in 1966. Here he adds his own experiences of visiting this Welsh town and his empathy adds to those poignant retellings of events when this historical disaster happened and how this disaster and its aftermath was recreated for television. 

This disaster was reflected upon in The Crown television series. He illustrates the subtle and more obvious differences in events shown on screen in this TV serial and compares this to real-life events through historical facts, anecdotes and quotes from the time. He notes some disturbing insights into our perceptions of both these mediums. In both mediums, beautiful true stories were discovered and shared when reporting these stories and these often disguised and muted the true horror of the event.

This book comments on how we view disaster with a startling comparison of a film disaster befalling Laurel and Hardy and a real-life one in two scenes involving staircases. In the former, the comic double act navigates moving a piano up a staircase in The Music Box (1932) and Thomson adds that “intrinsically” with these comic characters, we expect “mayhem”. 

Thomson vividly describes this comic scene and then he cuts then compares it to an actual staircase which was a scene of violence in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). There are seen to be a number of plot coincidences and character types in both, yet the former film was made for laughs and the second recreated a chilling moment in Soviet history. This Soviet propaganda film elaborated on a true real-life Odessan skirmish on a staircase. However, the ending of this film was fictionalised – for dramatic effect- as it then became the setting for a massacre.

Thomson adds that “damage can be awesome” and believes this is seen in many American action movies. He claims that “well being doesn’t sell” newspapers or films. He argues there is also a dissolve in both the fictional and real-life disasters showing this disaster always happens at the same time as other events or it cuts to other scenes. In the former, Thomson relates to this theory as he describes the events that occurred as he recorded a diary of key moments during the pandemic. This he illustrates in examples found in entertainment, in films where scenes of disaster cut to other non-related events.

He claims through movies such as this one we are now desensitised to the true horror of real-life disasters. Often in films and TV and news reports in the press and on TV, we are compelled to see the beauty in these situations be it through striking or possibly manipulated photographs. He adds that in films, the beauty of these occurrences portrayed in film often doesn’t tally with real-life events.

Thomson adds,

“It’s as if in crisis, we can feel crisis we can feel history rolling over us like a gorgeous wave”

An example of this is seen in San Andreas, the Rock’s earthquake “empathetic” themed disaster movie and in the Holocaust-related movie Sophie’s Choice (1983).  Thomson explains in the former film that he believes this film instils a happy ending and gives us hope that the family unit will remain intact and be able to move on. In the latter, he claims this character was made more beautiful.

When he analyses San Andreas, Thomson explains the reality of the San Andreas fault, its real-life dangers and his own personal experiences during an earthquake in this area. He relates to other true historical events in this area such as an earthquake that occurred in 1906 and he compares this to a fictional disaster film, San Francisco (1936) made about this event.

This 1936 film – starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy – added this real-life disaster as part of the storyline and it happened off-screen. But the on-screen action concentrated on a romantic theme in an attempt to make those cinema-goers happy during the Depression. 

After writing his tongue in cheek, amusing retelling of San Andreas, he compares the final scenes of this film to our real-life current pandemic. He shared some startling coincidences seen in both. The Rock’s character tells his family with the hope that they will “rebuild” in those final scenes. This eerily echoes the real-life bolstering of the masses during the pandemic as a former President hoped to make America great again. 

Thomson also deftly compares the contrast between the media versions of fictional life and the reality as seen news. In this, he tells of India, as seen in the film and fictional version in Slumdog Millionaire (2008). He outlines this cinematic “version” of this country and compares it to the reality of the country as reported and seen in televised news reports. 

But the reporting of facts and those plots from fictional disaster movies get now more and more blurred and this impacts both us and our children in surprising and shocking ways. Thomson tells on how often those unexpected events in the news often mirror a disaster movie plot. He highlights that young children have a tenuous understanding of the truths that blend fiction and reality.

He illustrates this with a personal moment when during a news report about the Twin Towers disaster his child asked what film he was watching. And this blending of those more surreal disasters affects us as adults, as more and more seemingly crazy moments have happened in our lives – be it worldwide, countrywide and personally – as more recently we’ve found that real life is stranger than fiction.
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A look into modern day disasters and movies that highlight them. Honestly it wasn’t that interesting to me but not everything is for everyone. I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.
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My thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher for a advanced copy of this work on film history and cultural studies. 

This book might have started as another book on film history, the idea of studying why moviegoers enjoy watching movies about disasters and cataclysms, and why these movies also seem to come in cycles. However the world became a disaster first with the 2016 election, followed by COVID, a situation where in all the films on contagions, experts, government and common citizens unite to fight this disease, are like most movies just a big fairy tale. And film historian and critic David Thomson seems just at a loss as everyone else as he writes in his book Disaster Mon Amour. 

The begins with the Battleship Potemkin with it's large civilian massacre and Laurel and Hardy delivering a piano, and all the travails that happen . One of the final movies mentioned is the Dwayne Johnson movie San Andreas. A hopeful movie to end on for it ends with the characters discussing rebuilding the shattered city they find themselves in. In between are movie comments, politics and Mr Thomson facing some of the disasters he has left in his wake. Age is mentioned quite few times. Age gives that ability to look back at what seem horrendous at the time, but was not, and what seemed trivial at the time resounds through the decades. I'm not sure if it is the fact that social distancing made introspection more of a thing, but while a lot of Mr. Thomson's film books were personal, this has to be his most exposure in book form.

The idea was to prove that filmgoers enjoy a good disaster movie, because the idea is so huge, so back that there is nothing to do but watch the CGI and hang on. Unfortunately most disasters are not huge, but start small and grow exponentially. I would like to have seen what this book would have been like without Trump or COVID. We shall never know. Mr. Thomson has given us a  fascinating and different kind of book, a novelization of the end times with a cast of billions.
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David Thomson's latest book on film and history (not just film history) is about disaster, not apocalypse. Since covid-19 arrived, it seems that half the writing published has been about apocalypse in some form or other.

This book includes a diary of the virus, too, but it is more about what kind of disaster stories we tell ourselves.

By focusing on disaster rather than apocalypse, Thomson evokes films from the golden age of seventies disasters movies: Earthquake, Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Towering Inferno, back to the 1936 Spencer Tracy movie San Francisco. 

Is there a difference between apocalypse and mere disaster? Is it possible to  speak of  degrees of destruction?

Besides the movies there was reality: Guernica, the Blitz, Dresden, and Hiroshima.

There was disaster on a personal scale—again, both real and cinematic. Thomson often returns to a particular tragedy—Marion Crane stopping off at the Bates Motel.

There's universal disaster, on and off-screen. For example, the Great Depression that touched everyone in the thirties, and the Vietnam war, which was fought by cinematic proxies throughout the seventies. 

While writing this book, David Thomson was preoccupied with the Camp Fire near the town of Paradise, California, one of the conflagrations that consumed California in recent years. 

The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 (a disaster we lived through in Daly City, California) seemed more like a TV movie of the week with low production values than the kind of planet-destroying superhero movie they make now. Watching the horror of September 11, 2001, one of Thomson's children asked what movie they were watching. 

Thomson begins his book with Sergei Eisenstein and Laurel and Hardy.

In the comedy, Stan and Ollie are furniture movers who lose control of a piano down outdoor stairs in Los Angeles.

Thomson tells us disaster is comically inevitable.

Or maybe not.

In the Eisenstein film, there are also steps, where victims of revolutionary violence are shot.
Thomson uses the recent film San Andreas, starring the Rock, to show how disaster movies can be hopeful. The city is destroyed at the end, but the family is together. 

(Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a digital review copy.)
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In many respects a continuation of Thomson's previous book, Murder And The Movies, with the same queasy determination to pick at the way that we can be fascinated, thrilled or even amused to see on screen that which we would find horrific in real life – and then asking whether, after all, it might affect our reactions in real life. And often it has the same insights and juxtapositions which make Thomson such stimulating reading, not least because he doesn't fall for the lazy assumptions which animate so many soi-disant serious film critics. No kneejerk anti-blockbusterism here, instead the observation that the vast teams who worked on the special effects for San Andreas should be considered in the same way as the forgotten master-craftsmen who together built mediaeval cathedrals, the comparison of the film's setpieces of disintegration to Fred Astaire's dancing. And I'm not sure anyone else could have got away with the passage which cross-cuts between Eisenstein's Odessa steps and Laurel & Hardy taking a piano up stairs. 

Now, bearing all of that in mind, and remembering also that expecting David Thomson to stick to the point is entirely missing the point of David Thomson, there is also a bit of a tendency for the book to wander off into other territory altogether. To some extent, if you conceive a book about disaster in 2019, and then write it in 2020, it would be perverse not to incorporate that reminder of how much less fun they are to live through than watch in action-packed 90-minute highlights reels which – most crucially of all – are happening to someone else. On top of which, yes, we all went a bit strange from the Event; and if you have got a reasonably solid excuse to incorporate your journal of the (first) plague year into something you're publishing and being paid for, well. But in places there's more than I found illuminating about eg the specifics of US news channels, most bafflingly in the assertion that "If you're reading this book (or any book?), you know who Rachel is". That's one Rachel Maddow, who apparently is on MSNBC. Sounds like a reasonably good egg from what Thomson says but no, I could sit next to her on the bus and not have a clue. I'm past being surprised by this unthinking universalism from actual Americans, but from Thomson, born this side of the fishpond, it's an odd lapse. 

Too often the book carries on in this vein, trying to take on everything from systemic inequality to marital breakdown under the heading of 'disaster' where, yes, they all have some claim to sit, but especially as the link to cinema fades out, the centre cannot hold. Sometimes it is still enlightening - Thomson is very good on Aberfan, on how we might feel guilty about having forgotten it, but that same year there were landslides in Brazil where not even the Brazilian government knew how many died, and which were never really regarded outside the region; on how The Crown dressed it up for TV; on how the money raised by the appeal afterwards was sufficient that, spent beforehand, it could have prevented the catastrophe (this in turn foreshadowing the big, once-avoidable disaster of climate collapse which looms over the whole book); on the inhumane disbursement of that money, which spookily popped up in the news right after I'd been reading about it here. But elsewhere, this was the first time I ever found myself wishing Thomson had been reined in a bit by his editors - who, curiously, are thanked before the book proper has even quite ended, like a gig which incorporates introducing the band into the last song.

Also, yes, obviously: title of my sex tape.

(Netgalley ARC)
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This is an interesting book but I can’t figure out what he’s doing under arts and photography.  This book discusses the effect disasters have on our community.  It’s a highly timely conversation especially with global warming.  I enjoyed it.
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