Posted in First Take

[1974] The Towering Inferno

In the “normal” course of a “normal” person’s “normal” morning or evening, things happen both to and around the individual . These things are stimuli of various levels of control. In some instances, the individual acts on a thing that directly affects his or her environment and other times things happen in quick succession outside of anyone’s direct control. As living creatures, humans react and respond to external stimuli either consciously, unconsciously, or subconsciously, and as rational beings some among humans understand the relationship among many causes and effects, feedback loops, iterations, and dead-ends. Enlightenment via order is certainly a waste of precious time considering that we float through space with the capriciousness of the things that happen to us and to everyone else. To wrangle is to fight entropy – a natural state of chaos and disorder. This is true, normality is a subsection of chaos. The “normal” accident, then, is one of a confluence of seemingly random happenings en route to disaster. Thus simplifies the premise of The Towering Inferno.

The film itself is straight-forward, but seems to stall for about two hours in between the introduction of the problem and the eventual resolution. An as-of-yet-to-be detected fire starts in an inconspicuous closet on a single floor of over a hundred, and because of dramatic necessity, the whole building bursts into flames while hundreds of people panic 50 floors up. The story weaves through character profiles whose motivations do not really matter, so the sense of urgency falls somewhat flat, and whose outcomes feel random – normal even. Both Steve McQueen and Paul Newman vie for the audience’s affections, and mostly succeed, though they both seem to want this love in its entirety. Fred Astaire makes a legacy performance worthy of an Oscar, Jennifer Jones exits on a high note, and O.J. Simpson practiced his own peculiar brand of acting, for which he would soon become infamous. Together, this ensemble cast in this situation should have made The Towering Inferno an exciting and enjoyable watch. Normally, it would have been, but the specifics behind the scenes somewhat doomed this picture to bloat and disorder. For all intents and purposes, The Towering Inferno‘s editors could have used a more judicious scissor to demonstrate clearer order of importance for some of the characterization and events pertinent to the “normal” accident. For example: The Towering Inferno expends almost 10 minutes of screen time showing the audience what it might have inferred in two: Paul Newman, as architect Doug Roberts, helps some young children and perhaps a friend of the family (?), literally climb down a crumbled stair shaft with almost no dramatic reason to either show this or for the audience to expect any one of these characters to fall to their deaths. Then, later, this friend of the family happens to fall out of a broken elevator to her death, presumably to throw one more heartbreak into Fred Astaire’s broken character. Or – do we care about the mayor’s relationship with his wife? The builder’s relationship with his son? A random couple caught having an affair? Building a story around a mix of many characters – with whom the audience has a tenuous relationship at best only splits attentions and at worst dooms the movie as its very own normal accident.

A normal convolution of conventional missteps and character canvases stitched together what could have been (and in some respects, was) a thrilling excursion into disaster (not disastrous) filmmaking. A rolling cast of aging stars who sought screen time dominated the whole of the film and with that divided domination, the film teetered much like the story it attempted to portray. Right as the credits rolled after almost three hours, with the characters left to reevaluate the concept of the world’s biggest building as an artifact rather than as a power tool, the audience is hoodwinked into thinking that big buildings are a scourge upon the “everyday man’s life.” Because a normal accident just “happens” without purposeful provocation, The Towering Inferno leaves many questions rightfully unanswered; with that extra hour shaved off for clarity, perhaps the audience would have felt inclined to think about why.

Certainly an obvious choice in 1974, The Godfather, Part II took home the top prize, being the first and only sequel to win the same award as its base film. This year showcased one of the strongest ever, with The Godfather, Part II beating the likes of Chinatown, The ConversationLenny, and The Towering Inferno, which feels almost reductive to mention among these other classic films despite its star power and obscene length. Certainly, the year 1974 produced no normal accident as its winner.

 

 

 

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