Monday, January 5, 2009
A Hell Of A Town
There was no way I was going to miss EARTHQUAKE at the Egyptian, not a chance. How often do you get to experience the modern miracle of Sensurround? Sure, it was a lot of fun getting to see the film in a packed sold out theater as part of the American Cinematheque’s Disaster Movie series but Sensurround was the truly memorable part of the evening. It’s really why we were there. Sensurround, for those not familiar with it, was an elaborate sound system designed to allow the audience to feel the audio sensations of the movie they were watching using an elaborate speaker setup that I couldn’t really begin to understand. In the case of this film, of course, it was designed to make us feel like we really were in the middle of an actual quake. This was the first of four movies Universal released with the gimmick, followed by MIDWAY, ROLLERCOASTER and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Of course, EARTHQUAKE was a natural for the process, probably most of its reason for being anyway but with or without it, the film survives as a huge, glorious chunk of 70s cheese.
The film follows a group of individuals on the day the Big One hits Los Angeles, with the motley cast of characters played by the esteemed likes of Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene, George Kennedy, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Victoria Principal and a variety of others including a drunk billed as Walter Matuschanskayasky but is of course Walter Matthau who probably worked a day on the film and based on his outfit is presumably playing a pimp of some sort. As the first hour goes on, we alternate these storylines with seismologist experts and other officials debating over the possibility of what some believe will be a quake of legendary proportions. Unlike the Irwin Allen films, where the warnings go unheeded due to arrogance or the skinflint desire to reduce costs, here it’s simple political cowardice that prevents an evacuation order to go out. Because, sure enough, the quake does hit, causing massive death and destruction. In other words, it’s exactly what we paid to see.
It’s a terrible movie, no doubt about it, with very few things to pick out as actually good. There’s lots of interesting use of Los Angeles locations, giving us a nice glimpse at what the city looked like back in the 70s, for starters. It is kind of endearing to see Genevieve Bujold work at making that terrible romantic banter with Charlton Heston actually kind of charming. Heston has an amusing moment where George Kennedy tries to carjack him to help out quake victims and there’s a sequence involving a stairwell suddenly losing several floors that is actually kind of suspenseful. But as much as everyone remembers things like the idiotic animated blood splat in the legendary elevator sequence (it got a round of applause and I gladly joined in) much of the earthquake effects work and matte paintings by Albert Whitlock are genuinely stunning, almost surprisingly so on the huge Egyptian screen. The John Williams score, while very much locked into the decade, is extremely effective as well. The main title is appropriately cool (well, in a “Quinn Martin Presents” kind of way), but the quieter sections manage to lend the film whatever dramatic power it actually has—I’ve always particularly liked the melancholy finale that plays over the end titles following the slightly unexpected ending.
There’s not much good beyond that, starting with the awkward pacing right from the very beginning--dealing with so many characters the first hour somehow manages to feel choppy and lethargic at the same time. Directed by Mark Robson, the look of the film also has that patented crappy Universal-70s look to it which manages to make it look as if it were shot for television even if it is being framed in Panavision. Most of the sets are pretty phony as well and probably went on to be used in episodes of “Columbo” or “McCloud” or something by the next week. It was written by Charles Fox and the legendary Mario Puzo, apparently went through numerous drafts before going in front of the cameras and somehow it still manages to feel like I’m spending more time writing this piece than they ever spent on the script. Many of the leads from Heston to Gardner to the ultra-bizarre Marjoe Gortner are terrible, making it all the more interesting when familiar working actors like Lloyd Nolan, John Randolph, Donald Moffat and George Murdock turn up and actually make their stock roles pretty effective in this context (I particularly like Nolan’s moment with George Kennedy at the end). But as bad as much of the acting is, it’s hard not to remember and slightly cherish elements like the Heston-Gardner-Bujold love triangle or Gortner’s wack job trying to have his way with Victoria Principal, in the most ridiculous looking afro you’ve ever seen. If I go another thirty years without seeing this movie I’m going to remember these things and I’ll love that I do. I guess all this was enough to get the film nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes and if that’s not a good enough reason to never take those things seriously I don’t know what is.
And, almost needless to say, it was a blast to be at the Egyptian for it. The screening was introduced by Genevieve Bujold, of all people, who delivered an emotional speech about how this film marked the beginning of her life in Los Angeles, where she has lived ever since. This led into the movie which opens with the all-important disclaimer about the effects Sensurround will provide and how the management assumes no responsibility for any ill-effects that may occur. Sort of an overload of bass and subwoofers that can cause a rumbling sensation, the process makes its first appearance when the quake hits and fittingly, it begins when one of the characters is in a movie theater (watching HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, also from Universal). Sensuround is a goof, but it’s a pretty cool goof and by a certain point is a pretty effective one as well. One brief surprise jolt late in the film immediately followed by an onscreen acknowledgement of it is a particularly good moment. For the record, seeing this film makes me never want to live in a house on stilts or go to a makeshift medical center in an underground garage right after a massive quake a plan which, when you think about it, probably wasn’t very well thought out.
Do I love EARTHQUAKE or do I hate it? Is it a miserable waste of two hours or is it entertaining in spite of all logic? Should I look at it as a cautionary tale of what may happen one day in this town or should I just eat my popcorn? Maybe the answers don't matter. All I know is that I got to see EARTHQUAKE in Sensuround on Hollywood Boulevard. That’s not something you get to do every day.
“This used to be a hell of a town, officer.”