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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

Spewing Blood Lust

July 17, 1996|ROBERT A. JONES

Disaster movies are back, as we all know, and that means Hollywood can revert to one of its age-old themes, the trashing of L.A. You know the trashing season has returned when audiences across America break into spontaneous applause as our city gets fried by space aliens.

Actually, "Independence Day" accomplishes the above frying with only modest trashing. It trots out the usual parade of L.A. loonies who seek to communicate messages of brainless love to the aliens before zapping them with the great ray gun in the sky. Relative to some past disaster movies--"Earthquake" is one of my favorites for sheer L.A. bashing--you could argue that the producers of "Independence Day" practiced noble restraint.

But wait! Hollywood is only warming up. Even as we speak, 20th Century Fox is grinding out "Volcano," a disaster flick with a price tag in the mega-millions. The plot presumes that a lava-spewing volcano erupts underneath a great metropolis, pitting the residents against Mother Nature.

And what city did the producers choose? Oh, yes. Never mind that Los Angeles, hapless breeder of earthquakes, fires, floods and riots, has virtually no chance of adding volcanoes to its list of calamities. We still got the nod for reasons most of us understand: America, at some visceral level, needs to see L.A. get blown to smithereens every once in a while.

Based on a reading of the shooting script, "Volcano" will satisfy this need nicely. It opens with a shot of an espresso-crazed mom from Beverly Hills brushing past a homeless character who asks for change. Eat smog, beggar.

The rich mom, it turns out, is headed to protest the building of a subway line along with others of her ilk. The subway will play an ominous role in the movie. The rich moms gather for their protest, whine about their bran muffins, and encounter a fawning politician playing to the TV camera.

You get the idea. These are characters you want to hate. Before long we have a retinue of others: the greedy developer, the incipient black rioter, the TV-numbed teenager. The movie is saying that L.A. somehow breeds these carcinogenic humans and must be cleansed.

And cleansed it gets. L.A.'s specific sin--this time, at least--involves fooling with Mother Nature. The arrogant subway builders have opened fissures deep in the earth by drilling their tunnels through fault lines. Only L.A. would try something this stupid. Through the fissures will come the retribution of fiery lava.

But not before we meet Amy Barnes, Caltech seismologist and chief Jeremiah for "Volcano." Beautiful Amy roars around town in a Humvee stuffed with scientific instruments, preaching to all that L.A. is as doomed as the decadent Judah of old.

"This city is finally starting to pay for its arrogance," she says as the volcano starts shooting lava bombs from the La Brea tar pits. "You can't put a subway under a city that's seismically active. . . . There are certain TRUTHS about the natural world and you have to honor them. In L.A., we just flip them off."

Never mind that Amy's presumed Caltech science amounts to gibberish. Never mind that the real Caltech regards her character as so ludicrous that it has demanded the removal of its good name from the movie, to no avail. We are not dealing with science here, we are dealing with the subtext of blood lust on the part of mid-America toward Los Angeles, a subject the producers understand far better than science.

Remember the paranoid movie "Falling Down" where the Michael Douglas character mows down a succession of L.A. types--the gang members, the Nazi sympathizer, the AIDS-infected panhandler--as he works his way across the city? Remember the part in "Earthquake" where the evil Powers have stymied the use of earthquake prediction machines, only to see the city torn asunder? Remember the dozen other movies where L.A. gets what the rest of the world believes it deserves?

Perhaps that's why God made L.A. in the first place, to serve as the butt of all the accumulated resentment festering out there in flyover territory between the coasts. Maybe that's what Hollywood is telling us.

In any case, "Volcano" hews perfectly to this line. After Amy Barnes utters her warnings, the carnage proceeds. Hot lava spews all over West Hollywood, which seems to serve as a proxy for homosexuals or simply those with too much money and the time to spend it.

The subway construction chief--he who dared fool with the fault lines--gets caught by the hot ooze and goes up in a puff of smoke. The greedy developer sees his new high-rise topple over. The spoiled teenager gets taught a valuable lesson.

"Think it's wrath of God time?" asks Roark, the male hero.

Roger that. In the end, though, the heroes save most of our city from the pillar of fire and we see L.A. rebuilding itself. The Beverly Center is now named the Beverly Epi-Center and the Mount Fairfax neighborhood rises over the old tar pits. In the movie's last scene we hear that Los Angeles is "rebuilding the Red Line . . . "

We're like vampires, see? You can't keep a bad city down. And besides, there's always the sequel.

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