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2 Hollywood Sodom Enjoying the Pain of Others If Artaud imagines his audience as twentieth-century Lot’s wives, petrified by the spectacles it must witness, Hollywood films often imagine a different audience and a different experience: we take pleasure in looking at disaster. The burgeoning literature on the ethics of spectatorship for the most part assumes a liberal or cosmopolitan subject granted access to scenes of distant destruction he or she can do little about.1 The pathos of a distanced sympathy, with varying degrees of identification and claims of political solidarity, marks much thinking about the problem of seeing carnage and destruction happening far away. But this massively mediated spectatorial predicament has a history . To return once more to the Lot and His Daughters attributed to van Leyden (plate 3): in a brilliant short essay that focuses on the upper-righthand corner of the painting, where cities fall and towers collapse, John Berger speculates that the early modern viewer might differ from his or her modern counterpart in that the former might have seen the destruction as a matter of the justice of a divine father: The power of this father lies not only in his ability to rain fire down upon the city, but in the very form of the fire in the sky. It is symmetrical , ordered, lucid—like a perfectly developed part of a chrysanthemum. It is part of the order of justice which man fails to understand but cannot escape. Perhaps the reason why such an image can still work on one powerfully—if one allows it time—is to be found in the fact that in one’s dreams and unconscious the notion of a higher order may remain. The word ‘‘father’’ can be very potent in this respect, while scenes of destruction by fire often possess, if we are not in immediate danger, something of the quality of a dream.2 PAGE 41 41 ................. 16422$ $CH2 04-17-07 12:51:19 PS 42 Forgetting Lot’s Wife Berger partly dissolves the historical difference he earlier insists on, and it may be that traces of the medieval experience of ‘‘scenes of destruction by fire’’ still survive in twentieth-century disaster movies. Again and again, after September 11, 2001, one heard that the sight of that day’s destruction was dream-like; equally often, as many observers have by now noted, witnesses averred that, perhaps because of this dream-like quality, those events resembled a Hollywood spectacle.3 And yet the most remarkable feature of the Hollywood extravaganzas that seemed a model for the destruction of the World Trade Center may be that they produce spectatorial pleasure. Perhaps lurking in all these testimonies of mass-mediated déjà-vu is, then, an unconscious confession of pleasure—or, if not pleasure, the reassuring intimation that only a ‘‘higher order’’ could be responsible for such a ‘‘symmetrical, ordered, lucid’’ scene of destruction. Along with the Bible, I would argue, Hollywood has shaped what Susan Sontag called the ‘‘imagination of disaster’’ in the post-Christian world. Hollywood has also, however, been the object of this imagination; depicted as falling or figured as doomed to fall, its critics picture Hollywood as one of the key targets of onrushing calamity. Further, this fantasy has fueled Hollywood: it revels in the spectacle of the Hollywood sign blasted to smithereens.4 This chapter examines a set of films, ranging from an experimental depiction of the story of Lot to a pair of noir films to a biblical epic, in which Lot’s wife emerges as a figure for a set of concerns about spectatorship. Latent in all these depictions is not only a fear about the potential dangers of spectatorship, but also something like the reassurance that Berger sees in immersion in Lot and His Daughters. Sontag describes how science fiction movies allow one ‘‘to participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.’’5 These films elicit the anxieties that surround Lot’s wife; beneath these anxieties, they invoke a desire to escape being Lot’s wife, indeed to look back at Lot’s wife, to recall the place of a spectator that is no longer one’s own. They invoke, that is, the pleasure of a total disaster one can somehow escape. Hollywood is rarely among the palimpsestic cities of the modern imagination . For the dazzling layers of Freud’s Rome, the historian of Hollywood...


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