Friday, February 04, 2005

Well, Denham..

The talented and mind-bendingly prolific columnist/blogger, James Lileks, writing in his every-weekday personal weblog, The Bleat, was talking today about the psycho-patholgy of the 1970s as demonstrated by the ending of Irwin Allen's film, The Towering Inferno.
It was a pleasure to watch it wide-screen in HD – made it more enjoyable than a crimped & cut-up pan-and-scan that shows up on late-night TV. But it still ends with two segments of typical stupidity. Newman, the architect, is sitting at the foot of the ruined structure with Faye Dunaway. “Maybe they should just leave it as it, as a monument to all the bullshit in the world.” That, friends, was the 70s. One bad guy cuts corners on construction and orders substandard electrical work, a building catches on fire, and somehow this is not only an apt symbol of “all the bullshit” that stalks the globe, but the building should be left as a 137-story indictment whose empty, charred hulk dominates the San Francisco skyline. Have a nice day!

The second moment comes immediately afterwards, when Steve McQueen upbraids Newman for building something too tall. “And until you ask us how to build ‘em, we’ll keep eatin’ smoke and pulling the bodies out”, or words to that effect. Whereupon Newman promises to consult with the firemen on his next project. Which presumably will be three stories tall with a hook-and-ladder crew in the basement. And a catapult on the roof to throw people off should the need arise. I think the main problem with the buiding in the Towering Inferno was not the towering part but the inferno segment, which was assisted by a malfunctioning sprinkler system. Just a guess. But it was typical of the era: You and your hoobris, man! You’re bringin’ us all down! If this attitude had been common in 1929, the headlines would have read “Empire State Building announced; 128 expected to die in construction.”
His mention of the building of the Empire State Building while discussing The Towering Inferno reminded me that I have compared the ending of Inferno with that of the 1933 King Kong. Ignoring the final scene with Fay Wray and her beau sailing off into the sunset, Kong ends with the giant ape laying dead and bleeding at the base of the (newly built) Empire State Building. In the foreground a policeman approaches Carl Denham, who brought Kong to New York. "Well, Denham," says the cop "the airplanes got him." Denham pauses for a second and replies "Oh no, not the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast.

I love that part: "Well Denham, the airplanes got him" and not "You Madman! Your beast has destroyed half the city and killed hundreds of people!" or "Look at that mess, would you now? And who'se going to be cleaning that up?" or even "There he is; get him!" Just "the airplanes got him" in the same tone of voice as he might say "The Yankee's pitcher was hot today. He struck out the last eight batters." Interesting, but all in a days work.

It's insane of course; Denham is clearly responsible for a great deal of death and destruction and it would be only sensible to be rather cross with him. But it is an insanity that is refreshingly out of phase with our current atmosphere of chilly litegiousness which grew out the the mindset that Lileks was talking about. In the audience of Towering Inferno there were lawyers taking notes. Building should have additional inspections. Architect must check with local emergency services to verify sufficiency of infrastructure. The list of things a "reasonable person" must think of to avoid liability gets longer every day. Sometimes it is lawyers whose clients want to make their misfortunes be someone else's fault. Caution: when solidly frozen squid tentacles can be sharp and cause eye damage. Other times it is lawyers whose clients are obstructionists. Trucks carrying nuclear waste will release hydrocarbon particulate pollution that might impact the habitat of the endangered, Night-digging Desert Hertztooter. In either event it makes the "reasonable person" test harder to study for. Todays "reasonable person" is not just reasonable, (s)he is, apparently, also a compulsive-excessive precognitive details freak. If Denham were to return from Kong Island today he couldn't bring back a dead beetle pinned to a board without being prosecuted for irregularities in his environmental impact statement.

But there are reasons for hope. The tide seems to be turning. Tort reform seems to be a winning issue, politically, despite the best efforts of the trial lawyers. People seem to be realizing that it is often better to do anything than to do nothing, and that insisting that no action have a down side is a recipe for inaction.

I look forward to a day when a reporter at a press conference says "Well, general, the JDAMs got them." And the general replies "Oh no, not the JDAMs, it was democracy killed the beast."

No comments: