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Vertical Acceleration

John Chilver

There's a Q & A format - sometimes called the Proust questionnaire - that has become a fixture in magazines. A micro-celebrity answers questions like "What is your greatest fear?" A recent respondent in The Guardian's weekend version of this minor rite gives "Dying in an aircrash" as her deepest fear. In this she touches on a contemporary archetype.

Cinema articulates two dominant expressions of this fear, the phobia of vertical acceleration: there is the death by falling - usually from a tower rather than a cliff or other natural feature; and there is the aircraft crash proper, though it's a far rarer cinematic image. Actually it's so rare that it would be more accurate to say that films avoid as far as possible the aircrash, but more on that later. As usual with cinematic articulations, Hitchcock got there first in both cases. Vertigo for the fear of heights and depths and Foreign Correspondent for a subjective view of an aircrash.

Let's consider, first of all, the cinematic embrace of the fatal fall. There's an unspoken convention in action movies in which a whole bunch of bad guys must be killed by good guys, or by the single good guy. The convention is that the most powerful bad guy must die last - that his death must form the film's climactic moment. And what's more, that the most suitable death for this demonic generalissimo criminal is the long fatal fall. The logic of the convention is both dramatic and moral. Dramatic because it allows the climactic death to be the most spectacular. Moral because it ensures that the vilest of the evildoers suffers the greatest trauma on the path - literal and psychic - to death. The bad guys who fall to death at the film's climax are compelled to awareness of their path to annihilation. In this sense the death dive is a trauma of reflexivity. The death divers have to feel the pull of gravity, must sense the ground rushing ever closer. They must pay for their sins by the sickening sensation of vertical acceleration.

The impact of the falling body slamming into hard ground - with its brutal deformation by gravity - is too unpleasant for a paying audience to bear. So it is usually hidden from view or obscured by distance. Even if it's hidden, the point of impact is a moment the audience fills in in their minds and as such is no less visible. Alternatively, the impact is seen but cushioned by a car roof. Landing on the roof, the body's impact is soothed and domesticated. Body-landing-on-car is itself a highly conventionalised motif with its own rich oeuvre. Why so many bodies landing on so many cars? OK it's a cushion, psychologically and physically. Two more things: the dent in the car roof is an inscription, the fall leaving its special trace in the social fabric, not passing unmarked; and then also the body as satanic rain falling upon innocent cars and their unsuspecting drivers introduces the reliable pleasure of dramatic irony as the mundane and the extraordinary collide.

Where the boss evildoer must encounter death - just the thing that the philosophers always said you couldn't do with death was experience it - there is the question of speed and of force. The bullet travelling at the speed of sound is too quick. In the pre-Keanu pre-Matrix universe, the bullet is invisible. Shooting is a dramatic version of action-at-a-distance. The victim cannot savour the bullet's approach as the sky-diver can consider the growing proximity of the earth's surface. So logically enough, it's not sufficient to shoot the boss baddie. He deserves greater mental suffering. He has to accelerate vertically. There is one especially beautiful scene in Die Hard in which Bruce "Vest" Willis evades the criminals/terrorists who have seized Nakatoni Plaza corporate HQ. A good-old-fashioned chase sequence climaxes in Willis lowering himself into an empty elevator shaft in the hope of sneaking away along a horizontal ventilator shaft. This is a virtuoso scene. But what I want to emphasize is the iconic conjunction that implies the impotence of the bullet as contrasted to the pull of gravity. Because what is beautiful here is the motif of the automatic rifle: Willis lowers himself into the void of the elevator shaft by jamming his rifle into an opening and then dangling on the end of his rifle strap. The logic is clear: the force of the bullet must be sacrificed to the higher force of gravity. Willis sacrifices his automatic rifle and is miraculously granted survival. This sacrifice will earn its reward later with the death by falling of the boss evilmonger.

Recently the British press has been trying to forget about the case of a young sky-diver who fell some 4000 metres to his death after the cords of his parachute had been cut. (Stephen Hilder, age 20, fell to his death on 4th July 2003 over Lincolnshire.) This imagined spectacle caused an initial journalistic frenzy and focused considerable police time and manpower on the case. Was it a practical joke that got out of control? If murder, what was the motive? Or was it suicide? As another case of vertical acceleration it lodged in the imagination invoking the traumatic archetype, and couldn't be overlooked by police, journalists or the public.

We mustn't confuse this archetype with Icarus, however much we might be tempted to regard duplex airbuses and duplex penthouses as the tokens of contemporary hubris. Because the Icarus myth is a moral allegory it is precisely not a narrative of somatic trauma, as the elevator shaft scene in Die Hard assuredly is. Pieter Bruegel's painting of Icarus is all about banality, the clockwork of the everyday, the turn of the seasons, the persistence of routine. Icarus falls but his fall is invisible to the lifeworld and goes unrecorded, even unwitnessed. Bruegel only shows us the legs splashing in the sea. And no car roof. Here is Auden's reading: "everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, / But for him it was not an important failure". Icarus is a cautionary tale against aspiration, hence his fall is not an important failure, and not an event at all. Icarus is a moral sign. And our reading of that sign is not visceral. Bruce Willis, pecs in vest, dangling on a rifle strap is, however, a fully-fledged and fully fleshy apparatus of somatic trauma. The contrast gives a clue. The dive into death was formerly a determinate sign and a specified moral indicator, and by the same token, it was never a practical possibility and never a lived fear. Today it is an endless fascination precisely for being meaningless and ordinary. Only in the moral economy of a movie does it have a meaning.

In one of Hollywood's rare productions focusing on a plane crash and its aftermath (instead of simply employing a plane crash as a plot device), the 1993 movie Alive, the camera remains inside the plane as witness to the dismemberment of the aircraft and violent deaths of passengers. It's an edifying tale of sacrifice, transubstantiation and redemption. A plane crashes in the high Andes; the passengers killed in the initial impact are symbolically redeemed by nourishing the remaining passengers who survive only by feeding on their flesh. This is an exchange. On the one hand, the dead are redeemed by nourishing the living. They do not die in vain. On the other hand, the survival of the living - requiring cannibalism - lies in self-debasement: the survivors enact the sacrifice of their very humanity in order to eat. What is clear is that cinematic description of air disasters remains taboo, more or less. Plane crashes are OK for marooning characters in the plot, and they're fine if Bond and Pussy Galore have parachutes while Goldfinger doesn't. But for a protagonist to wallow in the abject saturnalia of a fully felt and sensed air disaster is beyond visualisability. To transgress this prohibition requires immense delicacy and, as we've seen, plentiful symbolic compensation.

There's no escaping it. Sometime or other this line of thinking leads to 9/11. The traumatic magnitude of that event was substantially a matter of its manipulation of the archetype at issue here. The architecture of 9/11 as an event sequence ensured a cinematic realisation of the two kinds of vertical acceleration.

The case of the fourth plane - the one that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania (Newark to San Francisco flight UA93 crashed 80 miles south-east of Pittsburgh, near Somerset, Pennsylvania; hijackers' target thought to have been Camp David which is about 85 miles from the crash site.) - echoes the symbolism of Alive. Why? Because it offers a vision of the few who are sacrificed to sustain the many: passengers, we are told, when they learned of the fate of the hijacked planes in New York, chose to force a crash somewhere out of harm's way. The Pennsylvania crash was not captured on film. Notoriously the suicides from the rooftops of the burning towers were. Again - and this is not to trivialise matters - there is a surprisingly precise movie parallel. This is the climax of David Fincher's 1997 film The Game, where the despairing Nicholas Van Orton, played by the reptilian Michael Douglas, throws himself off the roof of a Manhattan tower. His suicidal nadir is thus attained as the desolation of his symbolic order is completed. Indeed the film articulates the inversion of his symbolic order in these most literal physical terms: his nadir = his zenith, i.e. the rooftop; low = high. Again, as with Strange Days, we can't bear to see the point of impact of a falling body, we want a cushion. But in The Game we are granted the full deus ex machina plot twist in which the symbolic order is restored - its temporary inversion was precisely the game of the title - and the game's completion takes the form of a choreographed impact of the falling body into a huge protective stunt cushion, which indeed will be Van Orton's unwitting entrance into his surprise birthday party. The motif of the birthday signals that Van Orton has both died and survived death by rebirth. In the closing minutes of the film, loose ends are tidied up and the symbolic order emphatically reasserted by the final romantic gesture. For the poor desolate souls of the 9/11 rooftops there was no cushion, no deus ex machina, no restoration of their symbolic order. At best a deus absconditus.

The suicide bomber is a trader who attempts to trade death for death at a heavy premium. And isn't the suicide bomber also squaring up to a world of a deus absconditus? For what God is it that has left her/him with no effective weapon except indifference to death? The passengers of the Pennsylvania crash plane reasoned their way rapidly through the same logic and, under the circumstances, chose to brandish the same weapon. Indifference to death is the key. (Famously Hegel says the gesture of indifference to death distinguishes the Master from the Servant.) It answers the riddle of how it could be that the events of 9/11 seemed to have been addressed to the film camera as well as rehearsed, prefigured by films. For the logic of sheer indifference is precisely what culminates in the embrace of the most traumatic kind of death we can now conceive. Indifference and its opposite - we could call that concern, we could call it affect - can point toward the same metaphobia. If I am concerned and affected I succumb to this fear. Yet equally, if I am indifferent to death, it is precisely the most intense, most affecting fears over which I love to display my mastery. Those indifferent to death may nestle in the darkest collective fears. The 9/11 suicide bomber and the micro-celebrity intuit a consensus.

An air disaster is always imagined or remembered in terms of chance, or under its scientific name, probability. The following story of the history of culture as the minimisation of shock and the rise of predictability is told by Nietzsche, and is useful here: "In the inner psychic economy of the primitive man, fear of evil predominates. What is evil? Three things: chance, the uncertain, the sudden.╔ Now the whole history of culture represents a diminution of this fear of chance, the uncertain, the sudden. For culture means learning to calculate, to think causally.╔ With the increase of culture╔. a state is possible in which the sense of security and belief in law and calculability enter consciousness in the form of satiety and disgust - while the delight in chance, the uncertain and sudden become titillating." The scenario is also that of The Game where, for the jaded Van Orton, anaesthetised by the tedium of affectless wealth (as his brother tells him "You were such an asshole"), the uncertain and the sudden have to be brought back into life artificially, by playing the game. Of course it ain't that simple. The cynical wit of the film is that in the course of the game-playing, uncertainty and suddenness are no more than the simulacra of uncertainty and suddenness. But if culture in general means calculation, and our culture in particular calculates then, as Suhail Malik has stressed, most of that calculation now is done by computers and, what's more, cannot be done by humans, the quantities are too big. Computers manage air traffic systems, navigate individual aircraft, dispose portfolios on the stock market better than the human experts. The phobia of the aircrash is the doubt that lingers around a triumph of calculation. It captivates us as a paranoid oscillation between fear of the evil of chance and uncertainty on the one hand, and the embrace of this evil as power for titillation, understood so convincingly in Fight Club, The Game etc., on the other. The deployment of violence-as-terror is of course an attempt to generate chance and uncertainty and so to disrupt calculability. Or it would seem so. But, again calculation colonises all: insurance premiums are adjusted; Tel Aviv citizens calculate that they won't go to restaurants for a while, and so on. But this is to think terror only from the point of view of, so to speak, the audience. What about the view of the agent of terror? Where does the agent stand with respect to calculation? Yes, she/he interrupts the calculability of the everyday; yet the tactic of violence-as-terror is calculation par excellence. And then there's the business of means and ends. In other words, the agent of violence-as-terror holds to a strategic goal which is a return to a stable, calculable status quo of some sort. Agents of terror in one period - Menachem Begin, Gerry Adams - are the sober domesticated suits of the next era. These agents are not in it for titillation, for delight in chance. Quite the opposite. Should that come as a reassurance? Or is terror as lived delight in chance a possibility? Fight Club answers yes╔but. Yes it is possible, but it eventuates in psychosis. In that case, Van Orton, who casts himself into the abyss at the climax of The Game, is as much the figure of the "terror formalist" - the one whose "delight in chance" is an end in itself, and whose attainment of such delight renders him psychotic - as he is the figure of the 9/11 rooftop suicides.
Starship Nummer 6, Seiten 137ff