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Popping corn to the end: the apocalypse on screen

13 december 2012, 10:00
0
Photo courtesy of toxicways.com
Photo courtesy of toxicways.com
Hands grip seats and shovel in popcorn as the bomb/asteroid/pandemic zeroes in: omens of Armageddon have yet to come true in the real world, but the apocalypse has a rich and varied track record on screen, AFP reports.

With doomsayers warning of a new Big One on December 21 -- supposedly named by the Mayan calendar as an apocalyptic moment -- what better time to take an End of the World-themed trip through the archives of world cinema?

Isabelle Vanini, of the Forum des Images film centre in Paris, did just that, singling out 80 feature and short films for a month-long movie cycle on the apocalypse screening from December 12.

"I could easily have found twice as many," she told AFP. "You have all sorts, from disaster blockbusters to sci-fi classics, comedy, pseudo-documentaries or black-and-white art-house movies shot on a shoestring."

Recent years have seen the blossoming of a new genre -- call it the intimate apocalypse -- about how people choose to spend their final hours, like the bohemian Manhattan couple in Abel Ferrara's 2011 film "4:44 Last Day on Earth".

For Peter Szendy, a French philosopher and author of a recent book on the subject, "a film like 4:44 offers a kind of chamber apocalypse," exploring how time stretches out in anticipation of a terrible event.

"But it tells a very simple story. What is at stake is the finite nature of things. Every time someone dies it's the end of a world."

In a similar vein, last year's apocalyptic pickings also brought Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" about a father readying his family for a storm, and Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" about two sisters facing Earth's collision with a mysterious planet.

"Lots of auteurs have suddenly been turning to the apocalypse as a theme," said Vanini. "Unlike the blockbusters that blow the world to smithereens, but gloss over the big questions, these are films that go deep, that take their time -- and they can be very powerful," said Vanini.

In the power stakes, it would be hard to outdo last year's "The Turin Horse" by Bela Tarr, a bleak, Nietzsche-inspired film about a world headed for darkness -- which the Hungarian director has said would be his last.

-- "These films hold up a mirror to our fears" --

But filming the end has never been the sole preserve of the blockbuster.

"You can offer a true vision of the apocalypse with a scrap of wasteland and a few gas masks," said Vanini, pointing at the work of Russian art-house masters like Konstantin Lopushansky or Andrei Tarkovsky.

The history of on-screen Armageddon opens in 1931 with "The End of the World" by France's Abel Gance, a sci-fi movie and pacifist propaganda piece about a comet hurtling towards Earth.

"You can sense the fear of the world pitching back into conflict -- which is what will happen with World War II," said Vanini.

Cut to the Cold War era, and fears of a nuclear apocalypse haunt the screen -- from Stanley Kubrick's cult 1964 satire "Dr Strangelove", to "Fail Safe" by Sidney Lumet the same year, or "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" in 1959, by Ranald MacDougall, about a lone survivor of nuclear holocaust.

"All these films are more than just entertainment," said Vanini. "They hold up a mirror to society's fears at a given moment."

In 1965 "The War Game" by Peter Watkins -- a documentary-style drama commissioned by the BBC that depicts the effects of a nuclear war in Britain -- was deemed so disturbing it remained unshown at home until 1985.

For today's globalised world, the pandemic is an apocalyptic theme of choice -- the spectre of an unknown, killer disease racing around the planet faster than virologists can track and fight it.

Stephen Soderbergh's "Contagion" mined the theme to chilling effect in 2011, as did "28 Weeks Later" by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo in 2007, "Blindness" by Fernando Meirelles in 2008 or Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys" in 1995.

Environmental meltdown has inspired just as richly -- from the new ice age bearing down on the US East Coast in the 2004 blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow", to the haunting post-apocalyptic vision of a man and his son trekking through an American wasteland in John Hillcoat's "The Road".

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel, "The Road" is also an example of a rich sub-genre -- the post-apocalypse movie, about surviving armageddon -- of which the 1979 "Mad Max" is among the best-known.

"You wake up, the world has been destroyed, a handful have survived -- mostly men, usually at least one woman. Where do you go from there?" summed up Vanini.

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