The Fiery, Towering Phallus
As if inspired by the nine sister Muses of Greek myth—or maybe I’m still being held sway by Susan Heyward’s entry for ‘Queer cinema’ and her snippet about Queer theory—I found myself motivated to take a slightly slanted turn when viewing Towering Inferno. But before I even delve into those infernal depths of semiotic lust, assertions of patriarchal virility, and, yes, simulated gay sex concealed among the smoldering shrapnel of this disaster flick from ’74, let me address the points Maurice Yacowar makes about disaster films in general in his essay, “The Bug in the Rug.”
Firstly, Yacowar notes that “people [in disaster films] are most dramatically punished for placing their faith in their own works and losing sight of their maker. So their edifices must crumble around them.” (p.279); this succinctly summarizes Towering Inferno. Furthermore, Yacowar lists the conventions of disaster films and, in the context of Towering Inferno, is uncannily close to the mark. Firstly, he describes the first convention as one without a “distancing in time, place, or costume…the threatened society is ourselves” (p.284) In Towering Inferno’s case, the timeline appears to be contemporary San Francisco of the 1970’s; perhaps, only slightly out of step with our own timeline. By that, I mean that the technology appearing within the Glass Tower seems to be advanced and outside of our own timeline—or rather our own timeline during the late 20th century. With a vast and spacious security monitoring room complete with blinking lights that signify some level of importance, the constant chattering of computers tabulating their results, and an endless sea of symmetrical knobs and dials that, if turned, might mean the difference between order and chaos for the next 2.75 hours of your life. Additionally, each floor of the towering glass phallus appears to be furnished with a miniaturized version of this advanced monitoring system—each with its own set of lights, knobs, and dials. Thus, I suggest that Towering Inferno is a many-worlds interpretation of 1970’s America where, unlike our own reality, theirs is one that has attained a slightly higher level of technological advancement. Still, it’s close enough to our own.
Yacowar’s second convention listed is that “the basic imagery of the disaster film would be disaster…spectacular destruction” (p.284). Thanks to alcoholic electrical engineer, Roger Simmons, choice in substandard wiring, the Glass Tower is doomed for the most spectacular of destructions. The third convention in disaster films revolves around an “entire cross-section of society…usually represented in the cast” (p.284); in Towering Inferno, not so much. Other than OJ Simpson supervising all of that high-tech surveillance gadgetry and some random firefighter, this cast is about as white as they come. Sure, the aged, deaf, and obese are represented but they’re all lily-white. So, here, Yacowar might be describing other disaster films but not Towering Inferno. Though he does note that the various stars in the film “depend upon their familiarity from previous films, rather than developing a new characterization. Plot more than character is emphasized…In The Towering Inferno an inherited sentiment plays around Jennifer Jones and Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn repeats his corrupt politician…and Richard Chamberlain reprises his corrupt all-American” (p285); nevertheless, 99.999996% of this cast—including its extras—is of the Caucasian persuasion.
Yacowar’s fourth convention asserts that “the disaster film often dramatizes class conflict” (p.285), which for this film is true. However, the class divide is simplified: working class is represented by the average-joe firefighter, while the upper class is indicated by anyone who can afford the luxuriant comforts contained within the Glass Tower. Though, in the context of the film, there is an obvious class divide and not much is done to question it or, at the very least, offer some scintilla of all-illuminating insight into the irony that it’s the working-class firefighters that must rescue, protect, and clean up the opulent upper class’ mess. As is often the case, it’s the working-class that must deliver the rich from their evil pride and vanity, and be the better of the two classes, overriding their socioeconomic differences to maintain the illusion that all life is precious and sacred (praise the angels!). Ultimately, the firefighting joe receives little to no recognition for risking his life to save the wealthy, which logically leads back to the perpetuation of the corrupt system of excess and big business.
A perfect example of the wealthy interacting with the working class materializes between Battalion Chief, Mike O’Hallorhan, and Glass Tower owner, James Duncan. As O’Hallorhan enters the 135th floor to inform the attendees of the Tower’s ceremonial extravaganza that they must vacate the building, Duncan confronts him and attempts to exert his social and financial, O’Hallorhan responds, “Alright, it’s your building but it’s our fire. Let’s get these people the hell outta here.” Duncan growls back, “Hold it! The mayor’s out there. Do you want me to pull rank on you?” O’Hallorhan acts as if he expected such a response and appears unimpressed, which nonpluses and infuriates Duncan; in the end, the rich must yield to the working class.
Yacowar’s fifth convention is the use of “gambling [as] a recurrent device” (p.285). Yep, Towering Inferno’s got it. When the emergency helicopter attempts a landing on the Glass Tower’s roof to rescue those rich white people stuck inside, O’Hallorhan tells the building’s architect, Doug Roberts, to get ten people out on the roof. Roberts takes paper, pencil, and a large brandy snifter and hands it over to Susan Franklin, his romantic interest, to do the dirty work. That’s right it’s “high-rise roulette”, for the landed gentry tonight! Mesdames et Messieurs, draw a number and wait your turn; wielding wads of cash from your wallets ain’t gonna get you on that chopper any sooner. Producer and co-director, Irwin Allen, should be applauded for transfiguring Towering Inferno from a mindless disaster film into an illuminating commentary on the socioeconomic illusions of our contemporary culture. Whatevs.
Skipping over Yacowar’s sixth and seventh conventions, I move to his eight: “The characters’ isolation is exacerbated by the various conflicts between them…people must unite against calamity…personal and social differences pale beside the assaulting forces in nature” (p.287). Lisolette Mueller dismisses Harlee Caliborne’s confessions that he’s a conman all for one last strained stab at love. Susan Franklin decides to sacrifice her dreams to be managing editor of a magazine for a life of domestic bliss with Doug Roberts and his baby-blues. Dan Bigelow no longer cares that he and Lorrie, his secretary, have surreptitiously been having an affair as they succumb to the purifying blaze that will cleanse them both of their adulterous sins. Security Officer Harry Jernigan, the token black man, saves both Mrs. Allbright, the token deaf woman, and Elkie, the indifferent cat.
The ninth convention advocates that the disaster film shares “the further sense that savagery continues to underlie a pretense to civilization. Thus disasters usually breed a lawless anarchy” (p.288). In reference to Towering Inferno, Yacowar offers, “They [civilized humanity] build towers higher than their [the firefighters’] hoses can reach” (p.288), and that “peoples works are dangerous…even the earphone transistors…in The Towering Inferno deafen the boy to the danger around him” (p.288). On a purely reptilian-base-of-the-brain level, Towering Inferno endeavors to visually remind and reconnect we hairless apes with our repressed lawless and godless origins. As Duncan struggles to direct throngs of tuxedos and aerosol hairstyles to use the scenic elevators, one of the express elevators’ doors slide open and it’s every man, woman, and full-length evening gown for him-/her-/itself. Another scene of savagery happens much later in the film when that dastardly Roger Simmons—who’s been intravenously connected to the 135th-floor bar all night yet somehow never appears the least bit intoxicated—challenges Yacowar’s fifth and makes a mad dash for the breeches buoy in a vain attempt for survival, pushing off and kicking at a gaggle of not-so-gentlemen who’ve also decided not to wait their turn. Proof that civility is a myth or God doesn’t give a rat’s ass…or both.
Jumping to his thirteenth convention because numbers ten through twelve are either irrelevant to Towering Inferno or redundant, Yacowar discusses the hero of the disaster film and how he is “usually a layman with practical sense but without specialized knowledge” (p.289). He even mentions the Inferno’s very own Doug Roberts who is “a specialist, an architect, but his knowledge is leavened by his rusticity” (p.289), which is true, but he makes no mention of firefighter Mike O’Hallorhan who serves as the working-class hero. Towering Inferno is noticeably different in its approach to the heroic archetype, imbuing both Roberts and O’Hallorhan with heroic qualities as well as equal screen-time.
Roberts is the former counter-cultural college student who would’ve hightailed it to Canada if he’d been drafted and O’Hallorhan is the high-school graduate who was prepared to fight and die for his country if he’d been drafted. As Yacowar notes, “The disaster [film] cycle of the 1970s followed the slow ending of the American presence in Vietnam” (p.287), and, with that in mind, creating a hero duality between Roberts and O’Hallorhan—watching their blind strides to reach an understanding of the other amidst the chaos surrounding them—is quite telling…if not, confined to the cultural and political chaos of its era.
…And I didn’t even get to my rather long-winded dissemination about the Glass Tower being symbolic of one transcendent, dominating phallus that: is eternally petrified by patriarchal machismo; is riddled with the fires of desire that work their way upward to reach final orgasm; partakes in a homosexual act with the Peerless Building; and lastly reaches its orgasmic climax as cascades of water are ejaculated from the 135th floor. Oh well, perhaps another time.
Grant, Barry Keith. "The Bug in the Rug." Film Genre Reader III . Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 2003. 277-295.
The Towering Inferno. Dir. John Guillermin. Perf. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden. 20th Century Fox, 2003. DVD.