2012: Will End-of-the-World industries end this year?

Read my Sunday column on 4 Nov 2012: End-of-the-World, Inc.

Read my post on 21 Dec 2012: 21 Dec 2012 is here: So where’s the End of the World I was promised?

Simple explanations are always the best - but not entertaining enough?

So 2012 is finally here! I’ve been waiting for you…

Citing various ancient lore, some say this year will see the end of the world — where have we heard that before?

The Wikipedia describes the ‘2012 phenomenon’ as comprising a range of eschatological beliefs according to which cataclysmic or transformative events will occur on 21 December 2012.

And to think that a blockbuster Hollywood movie, rather than any ancient prophecy, likely triggered this wave of public concern!

Wikipedia notes: “The 2009 disaster film 2012 was inspired by the phenomenon, and advance promotion prior to its release included a stealth marketing campaign in which TV spots and websites from the fictional ‘Institute for Human Continuity’ called on people to prepare for the end of the world. As these promotions did not mention the film itself, many viewers believed them to be real and contacted astronomers in panic.”

The campaign was heavily criticized by scientists, of course, but the public chose to believe the scary make-believe rather than the more sober reality.

Will life imitate art? Find out on 21 Dec 2012

The film 2012 became one of the most successful of that year, grossing nearly $770 million worldwide. So the film’s producers were laughing all the way to their bank…

The US space agency NASA has stepped into the debate with sobering analysis. Its website says: “Impressive movie special effects aside, Dec. 21, 2012, won’t be the end of the world as we know. It will, however, be another winter solstice.”

Recalling the Year 2000 computer bug (Y2K problem) that didn’t quite materialise, it says: “Much like Y2K, 2012 has been analyzed and the science of the end of the Earth thoroughly studied. Contrary to some of the common beliefs out there, the science behind the end of the world quickly unravels when pinned down to the 2012 timeline.”

NASA scientists answer many questions that they are frequently asked regarding 2012.

Meanwhile, a few weeks before 2012 started, Lankan astrophysicist Dr Kavan Ratnatunga issued a public challenge on prime time TV.

“I will give 10% of the value of any property to (its) legal owner who will write a deed of sale of their property to me, effective from 22 December 2012, after that owner is so confident the World was going to end on December 21st!”

So far, Kavan has had no takers.

But the hype continues, with the media stirring things up as much as they can: after all, if Hollywood made money from people’s gullibility, why not others?

So might End-of-the-World industries end this year? Not a chance. A sucker is born every minute, and this is one industry that will continue to thrive as long as there are credulous believers.

Mayan prophecy - or their sense of humour?

Why do we still go to the movies in the 21st Century?

Going to the movies has been a shared cultural activity for at least four generations. In that time, technology has marched forward in leaps and bounds — but the core experience remains the same. And we still keep going to the movies, at the cinema, even though we now have other ways of seeing the same films. Why?

On the penultimate day of 2009, I went to the local cinema to see 2012, Roland Emmerich’s latest depiction of the mother of all disasters. For 158 gripping minutes, I willingly suspended disbelief and allowed the myth-makers of Hollywood to thoroughly scare me out of my wits. As did, it seemed, the few hundred other people watching it on wide screen with surround sound. There is no way the literally earth-shattering scenes of this movie would seem and feel remotely realistic anywhere else…

But cinemas are far from perfect – for instance, we had put up with a bunch of screaming brats whose parents had unwisely brought them for the wrong kind of movie. I’ve sat through far more noisy and boorish behaviour at cinemas: notable among them is watching Titanic at a massive, packed cinema in downtown Mumbai sometime in 1998 — and discovering how ‘interactive’ Indian movie-goers can get. (After the initial irritation wears off, I became almost oblivious to the distractions, thanks to James Cameron’s superb story telling.)

I just refuse to see such blockbusters on a small screen. (Ok, I might watch movies on long flights when I get tired of reading, but I have never been able to bring myself to watching a movie on an ipod…)

In fact, the movie industry is as much caught up in the digital wave as all other aspects of media. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times noted in a perceptive essay this week: “How much our world of moving-image entertainment has changed in the past decade! We now live in a world of the 24-Hour Movie, one that plays anytime and anywhere you want (and sometimes whether you want it to or not). It’s a movie we can access at home by pressing a few buttons on the remote (and agreeing to pay more for it than you might at the local video store) or with a few clicks of the mouse. The 24-Hour Movie now streams instead of unspools, filling our screens with images that, more and more, have been created algorithmically rather than photographically.”

Yet, unlike in other media experiences, the changes in the movie industry have gone largely unnoticed by ordinary viewers. As Dargis writes: “Film is profoundly changing — or, if you believe some theorists and historians, is already dead — something that most moviegoers don’t know. Yet, because the visible evidence of this changeover has become literally hard to see, and because the implications are difficult to grasp, it is also understandable why the shift to digital has not attracted more intense analysis outside film and media studies.”

Dargis is probably right: by adapting and evolving with the times, the cinema has survived for over a century. As Donald Clarke noted in The Irish Times at the beginning of December 2009: “Television failed to kill movies. Video failed to kill movies. Internet piracy – not to mention all the other diversions available online – has also failed to annihilate this most stubbornly resilient of art forms. Film-makers will, it is true, tell you that it is now more difficult than ever to negotiate financing for movies that cost between $3 million and $15 million. But you couldn’t say that the current recession has crippled the movie business.”

All this makes me wonder what movie-going might be like in another decade or two. 3D and IMAX are no longer so uncommon or special, and the entertainment industry is working hard to relate to not just our seeing and hearing, but other senses as well. (Did you know that, as long ago as 1960, they tried to introduce smelling movies? Smell-O-Vision was a system that released odors during the projection of a film so that the viewer could “smell” what was happening in the movie. The technique injected 30 different smells into a movie theater’s seats when triggered by the film’s soundtrack. For some reason, it never caught on…)

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter of money or technology. There is also a whole sociology of movie going and movie watching – many of us go to the cinema (not nearly often enough in my case) not just for the personal sensory experience of a celluloid dream, but also for the shared experience of it. I like bumping into friends at cinemas. At a premiere or special screening, I also get to steal a few glimpses of the glitterati of the film world.

Have you been to a film musical and had the uncontrollable urge to burst into song? London’s Prince Charles Cinema not only allows, but encourages viewers to do just this — though only on certain days of the month. Their most famous offering is Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music: a few years ago, I joined several hundred other assorted ‘nuns’, von Trapp family members and Julie Andrews look-a-likes in such a memorable experience. I have the digitally remastered DVD of the 1965 movie, an ever-green title in my household. But watching it at home can’t compare with the sense of community that one feels when the lyrics for all the songs appear on the movie screen, giving the audience every reason to sing their hearts out…

I’m not sure how popular (or even acceptable) such community movie watching would be in different cultures. But going to the movies retains its charm and appeal in this digital age, even if we have come a long way since the glorious days of movie going as captured in this wonderful and memorable song from the musical Annie (1982) – Let’s Go To The Movies

Please Help the World: The call to Copenhagen climate conference

Earlier this week, United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 (COP15) in Copenhagen opened with an apocalyptic video showing the world torn asunder from a variety of disasters.

As one reviewer wrote: “The portrayal sought to play up on the fears of the world should a worst case scenario develop from global warming. The entire video is reminiscent of the recent disaster movie blockbuster, 2012 that was released in movie theatres in recent months.

I haven’t yet seen 2012, now showing in a theatre close to me, so I can’t comment on the comparison. But here’s the video, now playing on COP15 channel on YouTube:

In the video, a child goes to sleep peacefully but wakes to find herself in a desert wasteland. As she sets out to explore, the very land on which she stands begins to crack open and she flees. The girl doesn’t make it far before she looks up to see the world’s largest tornado tearing a city apart and flood waters approaching. The child leaps to a tree branch as the waters overtake her and she screams. It is then that she wakes from what is only a dream and decides to make a home video saying, “Please help the world.”

Will the bickering and myopic leaders of the world heed this call? We shall know in the next few days.

Meanwhile, here are the credits for this film:
Director: Mikkel Blaabjerg Poulsen
Producers: Stefan Fjeldmark and Marie Peuliche
Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen
Production designer: Peter de Neergaard
Editor: Morten Giese
Composer: Davide Rossi
Sound design: Carl Plesner
Production company: Zentropa RamBuk
Advisory consultants: Mogens Holbøll, Bysted A/S and Christian Søndergaard, Attention Film ApS.

For some comparisons, here is the official trailer for 2012: