Watching the Eiffel Tower fall: why do we love seeing monuments exploding in movies? | ICON Design

Watching the Eiffel Tower fall: why do we love seeing monuments exploding in movies? | ICON Design
Watching the Eiffel Tower fall: why do we love seeing monuments exploding in movies? | ICON Design

“Man has always loved buildings, but what happens when a building says ‘this is how far we’ve come’?” narrated the voice in off of When buildings collapsethe fictional documentary about collapsing buildings The Simpson with which Homer and Bart rejoiced loudly, before Lisa’s frightened gaze, precisely in a chapter about the gifted girl’s fear of being as stupid as the boys in her family. Although the animated series joked about the primal instinct that perhaps leads certain viewers to enjoy a form of spectacle as basic as seeing blocks or monuments jumping through the air, disaster cinema has been dazzling millions of viewers around the world for decades. thanks to images as iconic as the one of the White House being destroyed by aliens in Independence Day (1996), the villains of G.I. Joe (2009) firing a warhead at the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge being subdued by the tentacles of the super octopus Emerged from the bottom of the sea (1955) or, to give a native example, the Puerta del Sol destroyed by the storm of Geostorm (2017).

“I admit that it is my favorite genre,” Víctor Riquelme, architect, interior designer and director of 022 Estudio, admits to ICON Design. “I have recorded the image of 2012 (2009) of the dome of Saint Peter in the Vatican breaking and overturning on the square itself. As an architect it makes my hair stand on end and it fascinates me.” For Riquelme, the appeal of these films and their durability lies in “a component of morbidity, related to that satisfaction of destroying the beauty we create.” “In the end, every great construction, emblematic building or singular work is an achievement of humanity. “These great structures are peaks of engineering, of architecture, they can even embody culture or progress,” he believes. “Seeing how something like this is interrupted or cracked will always shock you.”

Still from ‘Independence Day’ (1996) where the White House is destroyed.Alamy Stock Photo

The architect, who has his studio in Valencia, links it to the closest possible reference: “This city is an example of how human beings like to create beautiful things, such as the Fallas, to destroy them instantly.” Even though, he says, as a professional he gets “the hair on end” talking about the recreational destruction of buildings because he knows first-hand “what it costs to design something, the work, the involvement, the investment both financially and in creativity and in resources”, Riquelme anecdotally even associates that attraction for the ephemeral to the training process of an architect. “In the race we had to make many models. A common denominator among my colleagues was, after presenting the project, to destroy them. And in every way you could think of! Putting firecrackers in them, setting them on fire, throwing something on them… That gave us a satisfaction that I don’t know how to explain to you.”

In one of the most impressive sequences of Fast & Furious (2023), the last released installment of the car movie saga, Vin Diesel’s character embarked on a frantic race in his car to prevent a rolling bomb weighing several tons from hitting the Vatican. After avoiding the horror, he solemnly muttered: “When Rome falls, the world falls.” The phrase, by itself, contains the eroticism that defines disaster cinema, the idea that something destined to last, a torch of civilization and its highest values, is abruptly extinguished. The recently released Civil War Imagine how, as a result of social and political polarization, a conflict breaks out in the United States, with the White House attacked by gunfire. One of the film’s posters shows a trench installed on the Statue of Liberty.

If there is a title that represents like no other that crash due to the fall of everything that humanity supposedly means (and, literally, that torch), it is Planet of the Apes (1968). Released in the midst of nuclear anxiety, a few years after the Cuban missile crisis threatened to unleash a conflict with unpredictable and potentially devastating consequences, the dystopian film ended with Charlton Heston prostrate before a mutilated Statue of Liberty exclaiming: “Maniacs.” , you have destroyed it! I curse the wars, I curse you all!

In ‘2012’ (2009) the dome of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican broke and overturned onto the square itself.

See the world burn

In a piece for the architecture website Architizer, writer Pat Finn referred to the monograph Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), by Sigmund Freud, to equate the attraction towards disaster films with the feeling of comfort that many viewers obtain from horror films. “Trauma victims often replay the memory of that trauma to gain some imaginary control over it,” Finn recapitulated. “Sometimes this even goes so far as to represent the traumatic scenario in real life, a phenomenon Freud called repetition compulsion. If fears are projected on a screen, they become less powerful than they would be if they were allowed to wander unchecked in the dark corners of our minds. As in exposure therapy, the viewer will leave the cinema with less fear than he had when he entered. And he concluded: “Seeing a monument be destroyed is like tasting a bite of the Apocalypse.”

German filmmaker Roland Emmerich, surely the name most associated with the subgenre, has made an entire career out of taking the pulse of the public at different times. Yes in 1996 with Independence Day The destruction of symbols (the White House, the invasion on the eve of the national holiday of the 4th of July…) activated the meanings behind those icons and put into images the American fantasy of a war hero president dirtying his hands to save his population of aliens, in 2004 he used the then incipient concern about the climate crisis to forge another series of disturbing images in Tomorrow. Trey Parker and Matt Stone Team America Satire: The police of the world (2004) played with the rhetoric of the subgenre to outline a critique of the militarism of the Bush era, portraying an elite group that, in its war against the enemies of the West, caused much more destruction – the Eiffel Tower or the Great Sphinx of Giza were wiped off the map – than the terrorists. But Emmerich, it must be said, had already incorporated that irony about the destructive sense of American self-defense in his not very celebrated version of godzilla (1998).

‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968) showed the mutilated Statue of Liberty.
Alamy Stock Photo

The 9/11 attacks, far from shelving the representation of great human and heritage disasters on screen, were the quintessential trauma that redefined and fueled the subgenre in the 21st century. In the trial The empire of fear. Post-9/11 North American horror cinema (Valdemar, 2016), the historian and film critic Antonio José Navarro analyzed the new dialogue between reality and fiction that was established with that tragedy and its broadcast: “No one with a minimum of sensitivity has forgotten the tremendous shock lived on September 11, 2001 in front of the television (…). Reality imitated art; catastrophe cinema, science fiction and thriller political had become a real thing, in a macro story that hit our consciences hard, making us fear for the immediate future. The arrival of Armageddon, of the end of times, so often prophesied by Hollywood, was being broadcast on CNN and Fox News.”

“Post 9/11 North American horror cinema is the representation of a historical trauma,” he continued, “the allegorical moment that exploits the tension between those who think that certain traumatic events cannot (nor should) be captured in a film, and those who feel the need for this dramatic event to be shown in film fiction as counterphobic therapy.” Navarro, who dedicated his book not to disaster films but to horror films, equated the “therapeutic properties” of these films with those of Universal monster films at the time of the Great Depression or those of aliens, invasions and false identities – as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – in times of the Cold War and McCarthyism. The television nature or first-person experience that 9/11 had for part of the American public also led to the proliferation of hyperrealistic and semi-documentary declensions of the disaster subgenre, such as the fake found footage film. Monstrous (2009), where the Statue of Liberty was also decapitated.

Precisely, from this new public perception towards the catastrophe in famous enclaves and the blurring of the limits between narrative codes of fiction and information, a controversy was born, in 2019, around some reactions to the fire of the Notre-Dame cathedral. of Paris, which had no fatalities. Various social media users disgraced others who made comments about the abstract beauty that, for them, was contained in the image of a monument of such caliber being consumed in flames, without these words necessarily implying an apology or an anticlerical plea. On this double dimension of images, director Jean-Jacques Annaud built the film in 2022 Notre-Dame burns, which, although far from the orbit of disaster cinema, exemplarily synthesized its essence: a mixture of dramatization and real videos recorded that day, Annaud played with trompe-l’oeil (the mirror team of firefighters placed at President Macron’s disposal so as not to alter the authentic work of professionals, Christ’s false crown of thorns displayed while the supposedly authentic one was protected elsewhere) to separate the iconographic from the real. An exploration of the paradox between how important a symbol is to us and how the symbol, by itself, is nothing.

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