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August 10, 2005

Disaster Movies and Family Harmony

Michael Berube wrestles with "popular culture":

Invasion of the Marriage Disaster Flicks: So Janet and I saw War of the Worlds last night, a movie we wanted to see precisely because it has no emotional content whatsoever. We were pleased, however, to find out that (and I think I’m paraphrasing a reviewer here, but I can’t remember which one) a brutal alien invasion will get Tom Cruise back in touch with his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin). I suppose there’s more to say about the film, particularly about Tim Robbins’s bizarre appearance as himself in Mystic River (apparently he’s now ready to re-enact the child molestation in the basement bit, this time with himself as the molester). But what Janet and I wanted to know, as we left the theater, was how the hell the marriage between Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and Ray Ferrier (Cruise) could ever have happened in the first place. That’s far less plausible than a mass invasion of insect-lizard aliens driving huge tripods around the globe.

As for the closing scene, in which Cruise delivers the kids to Otto (who’s in Boston with her second husband) and Chatwin finally calls him “dad”: what is it with this narrative trope, anyway? There’s a disaster or an invasion or a lethal virus or a mysterious bunch of aliens living in our oceans, and the story ends when the family romance is completed in some way? Quoi? And pourquoi?

I’ve been wondering about this for some time, and even tried to write about it a few years ago, but I don’t really know what to do with it aside from pointing it out. So, dear readers, I cheerily invite you to give it a go. Here are your Texts for Analysis. Please remember to write legibly!...

Well, it seems to me that what what Michael and Janet regard as a strange deviation from the disaster-movie genre is an attempt by Hollywood to stretch the movie's appeal by combining typical narrative patterns expressed by preschool-age boys and girls. The boys want (and tell) stories about power, violence, chaos, and destruction. The girls want (and tell) stories about people embedded in family relationships doing things which end with the reaffirmation or restoration of the harmonious family.

Here, for example, is Agelike Nicolopoulou of Lehigh, analyzing stories told by 4-year-olds at a western Massachusetts nursery school http://www.lehigh.edu/~inpsy/nicolopoulou1997.pdf:

The preschool makes strong and deliberate efforts to create an egalitarian, nonsexist atmosphere.... [O]ne of the teachers' intentions in using this storytelling and story-acting practice is to help generate greater cohesion and a common culture.... [T]o a great extent, however, [the children]... build up two subcultures within the classroom, not one.... The kinds of stories told by the boys and girls differ systematically... in both form and content... embody two distinctive types of genuine aesthetic imagination (surprising as it may seem to assert this about preschoolers), each with its own inner logic and coherence.... The girls' stories show a strain toward order, whereas the boys' stories show a strain toward disorder....

The older girls in this group told stories that largely fit within what I call a "family genre"... start... with characters already embedded... in stable and given networks of social relations, the most favored of these being the family unit.... [T]he world outside the home may be a source of danger and disruption....

Once upon a time there was a castle, and a king and a queen and a prince and a princess and a unicorn and a pony lived in it. And they went for a walk. And they found a playground and they swang on the swings, and they slide down the slide, and then they went back home. But they had some trouble finding the way. But then a dog came to them and said, "I'll help you find the way home," and he did. The End.

[W]hen the girls do introduce a danger, threat, or surprise, they are almost always careful to resolve it in a positive way before ending the story....

In short, the girls' stories are... organized around the representation, maintenance, and restoration of order... rooted in a frameork of stable social relationships... anchored topographically in the home....

In contrast, the overwhelming majority of 4-year-old boys' stories start with isolated individual characters... defined... through their actions.... The characters most often used by boys tend to be either big and powerful animals.. superheroes, villains, and other cartoon action characters... [and] a small number of small but lethal characters.... The stories focus on struggle and destruction... straightforward descriptions of destruction and/or chaos are not uncommon:

Once there was Robin Hood. Then Batman came. Then prince John came--he's the king. Then Superman came. Superman battled with Batman and Batman died. Then he came alive again. Superman died. And then Splinter, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo came. Then an Indian came on a horse with a bow and arrow. Then a cowboy came on a horse with a bow and arrow just like the Indian and shot Superman so he wouldn't ever come alive again. And they lived happily ever after. The end.

The standard action movie pattern used to be (a) that the movie ended when the antagonist had been overthrown and (b) that ending was announced by the clinch between the hero and the ingenue. This new "combinatory" narrative pattern is a shift. And I do not think it is a successful shift--the attainment of harmonious family relationships is simply grafted on, and does not emerge organically out of the central action of the movie.

Hollywood is aware that it has an audience bifurcation problem with movies like "War of the Worlds," and it is trying to figure out how to fix it, but it is failing. In spite of the restoration of harmonious family relationships at its end, "War of the Worlds" does not make it as a chick flick. "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" is a much better movie, even though it lacks death rays and large explosions.

Posted by DeLong at August 10, 2005 05:28 PM