This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men," 1925
If you believe some interpretations of the Mayan calendar (and of course you probably shouldn't), the world is destined to end on Dec. 21, 2012.
Or not. Predicting when the world will end is, to borrow another phrase from Eliot, a mug's game, a fruitless exercise matched by the futility of contemplating how the world will end because we won't know until it happens, and when it does there will be no one to tell.
Regardless, artists for centuries have tried to depict, explain or make sense of the idea that this planet or the people living on it won't always be around.
Artists of all media painters, authors, filmmakers, songwriters have thought up a wide array of ways to go: nuclear holocaust, environmental self-destruction, global pandemic, bureaucratic error, cosmic cataclysm and alien invasion among them.
What they speculate could be right on target or way off the mark. In the end, the way our culture imagines the end of the world says more about our present than our future (or lack thereof).
That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane â¦
R.E.M., "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," 1987
For centuries, we thought there was only one way the world could end: the wrath of God.
The source material for the Western world was Revelation, the Bible's last and freakiest book. In it, the apostle John wraps up a series of world-shattering visions, including the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Whore of Babylon, the Beast (representing the Devil), and God's last judgment on humanity.
This book of scripture has long been a font of inspiration for artists. Around 1500, Albrecht DÃ¼rer made his bones with creepy engravings of apocalyptic images. Michelangelo went bigger and badder than anyone with his 45-foot-high "The Last Judgment" (1536-1541) on the Sistine Chapel's altar wall, depicting Christ's second coming and God's final reckoning with all of us sinful humans.
In depicting the world's demise at God's hand, sometimes painters were influenced by more earthly concerns. For example, English painter John Martin is said to have been inspired by industrial decay he saw in Scotland when he painted "The Great Day of His Wrath" (1851-53), a vivid depiction of storms, avalanches and volcanoes destroying Babylon.
God's destructive powers were unmatched, until humanity found a way to do it themselves.
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, which physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said he thought of when witnessing the first successful test of an atomic bomb, near Alamagordo, N.M., July 16, 1945
With the atomic bomb, humanity figured out a way to wipe itself out of existence. The artists' first instinct was the same as everyone else's: fear.
There was the fear that nuclear annihilation was about to happen. In 1964, two classic movies imagined what would happen if an errant bomber were to drop a nuclear payload on Moscow. Sidney Lumet played it as tragedy in "Fail-Safe," while Stanley Kubrick turned it into dark farce in "Dr. Strangelove."
Then there was the fear that nuclear war had already begun. One example is the 1962 thriller "Panic in Year Zero!" the opening film of this year's Bicknell International Film Festival next weekend in south-central Utah.
"Panic in Year Zero!" depicts a Los Angeles family on a camping trip. While they're away, a mushroom cloud emerges over L.A. and the family (led by Ray Milland, who directed) must fight for survival amid lawless thugs in rural California.
If the prime motivator in early nuclear dramas wasn't fear, it was dread. Nevil Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach, and Stanley Kramer's 1959 film adaptation, took place in Australia in 1964 (the year of "Fail-Safe" and "Dr. Strangelove") as a nuclear war had broken out in the northern hemisphere. The characters could do nothing but wait in the southern hemisphere for the deadly radioactive fallout to head their way, killing what was left of civilization.
Attempts to use nuclear weapons for good led to catastrophe, too. The 1964 disaster film "Crack in the World" (the second film playing at Bicknell) starts with scientists trying to use an atomic blast to tap into Earth's geothermal energy but the explosion sends an earth-shattering fissure around the globe.
The greatest arrogance of all: Save the planet. â¦ The planet isn't going anywhere. We are!
George Carlin in his stand-up routine, 1992
When we talk about the end of the world, usually we're really talking about the end of humanity.
The literary conceit that a few hardy survivors would wander the Earth after a cataclysm goes back a long way to Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley, who followed up that classic with The Last Man, an 1826 novel that was mostly forgotten until a revival in the 1960s.
By then, it had plenty of company. Post-apocalyptic writing proliferated, including Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend (1954), Walter M. Miller Jr.'s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), Harlan Ellison's 1969 short story "A Boy and His Dog" (1969) and Stephen King's novel The Stand (1978).
Filming the aftermath of the apocalypse was simple and cheap: Have a few characters walk around an empty landscape or a deserted street, strew some wreckage and you've got a movie. (Gene Roddenberry often opined that he had created the only popular science-fiction story in which Earthlings avoided the apocalypse: "Star Trek.")
The causes of the apocalypse varied, each an extrapolation of what we were most afraid at the time.
Nuclear annihilation led to the allegorical "The World, The Flesh and the Devil" (1959), the fantastical "Planet of the Apes" (1968), the ridiculous "Zardoz" (1974) and a kinky adaptation of "A Boy and His Dog" (1975).
Disease, sometimes depicted as mutations or zombie plagues, permeated films like "The Omega Man" (the 1979 adaptation of Matheson's novel) and "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) and its many sequels and knockoffs.
More recently, the disease theme has spread, so to speak, with "Resident Evil" video games and movies, the "28 Days Later" franchise of films and an elaborate miniseries adaptation of "The Stand."
And if diseases didn't kill us, our environmental carelessness might. "Silent Running" (1972) was set on a spacegoing greenhouse holding the last specimens of Earth's flora. The "Mad Max" franchise took place in a world after petroleum consumption wrecked civilization. The famously overblown "Waterworld" (1995) imagined Earth after global warming melted the icecaps.
I was dreamin' when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray /
But when I woke up this mornin', could've sworn it was judgment day
Prince, "1999," 1982
Coming full circle, our cultural notions of apocalypse returned to the otherworldly. God may not be the named culprit, but the M.O. is similar.
The prototype is Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's 1933 novel When Worlds Collide. That book (and the George Pal-produced 1951 movie that it spawned, the third title playing at Bicknell) told of a star that was hurtling toward Earth. The only way for humanity to survive was for a few hardy souls to board a rocket ship and leave Earth for a planet orbiting the oncoming star.
For a while, alien invasions were all the rage of cultural storytellers handy allegories for the Russians or whatever other geopolitical terror scared us.
They came in spaceships in H.G. Wells' story "The War of the Worlds (and its many adaptations, including the infamous 1938 radio broadcast), the TV series "V" (1983-85) and the blockbuster "Independence Day" (1996). They came in plant form in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956, remade in 1978, 1993 and 2007) and "The Day of the Triffids" (1964).
And in a big universe, there are plenty of things ready to smack the Earth into a cinder.
In the 1977 novel Lucifer's Hammer, science-fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle imagined the impact literally of a comet fragmenting and striking Earth. Tsunami, earthquakes, global climate change and a general breakdown of civilization follow. It's an idea that was borrowed for farce in the movie "Night of the Comet" (1984) and in the twin 1998 disaster epics "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon."
Or maybe Earth will decide it's had enough of human beings. Roland Emmerich's incredibly stupid "2012" (released in 2009) had tectonic plates sliding around the planet like bumper cars. In the equally stupid "The Happening" (2008), plants conspired to kill us.
Douglas Adams envisioned the end of the world as a massive bureaucratic mistake. Adams' comic science-fiction work "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (originally a 1978 BBC radio series, then adapted into a book series, a 1981 TV miniseries and a 2005 movie) begins with hapless Earthling Arthur Dent escaping as the Earth is blown up to make way for an "intergalactic bypass."
If I could find a souvenir /
Just to prove the world was here /
And here is a red balloon /
I think of you and let it go.
Nena, "99 Red Balloons," 1983
With the Mayans' dubious deadline looming, the end of the world is in the minds of artists as much as ever.
One of the hottest novels this summer is the debut work by author Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles, which supposes the Earth's rotation is slowing down, causing days and nights to get longer and the planet's gravitation to change. The protagonist, a teen named Julia, must adjust to the new normal in her (and everyone else's) life.
Walker's book follows in the footsteps of Cormac McCarthy, who won a Pulitzer Prize (and a spot in Oprah's Book Club) for his downbeat postapocalyptic novel The Road.
In the past year, two movies invited us to watch as a cosmic collision approached and a handful of people tried to cope. In Lars von Trier's dark "Melancholia," the default setting for Kirsten Dunst was depression and despair. In Lorene Scafaria's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," a morose Steve Carell and a buoyant Keira Knightley discovered true love with each other just under the wire.
So why this and why now? What's happening in the world to get us thinking about some big otherworldly whatzit about to doom us all?
Maybe it's an outgrowth of how we feel about the world's problems. Everything from the economy to environmental issues to our own health care is caught up in intractable political squabbles, with unseen and unfeeling corporate forces pulling the strings. And if our world is spinning out of control, what stake do we have in whether it survives?
Doomsday at Bicknell
The 18th annual Bicknell International Film Festival boasts the theme "Duck and Cover: It's Doomsday 2012."
Where • Most events take place at the Wayne Theatre, 11 E. Main St., Bicknell on State Road 24, about 10 miles west of Capitol Reef National Park.
When • Friday and Saturday, July 20 and 21.
Passes • $60 for an adult FastPass, good for all events (and a raffle ticket for each screening); $30 for a child FastPass; and $75 for an "I Want It All" FastPass that includes a commemorative T-shirt and poster. Passes available online at thebiff.org.
Here's a full schedule of events:
5:30 p.m. • Line up for the parade, in front of the Red Cliff Restaurant in Torrey (east of Bicknell). Dress yourself and your vehicle to fit the "Doomsday" theme.
6 p.m. • Parade starts on Highway 24, reaching speeds of 55 mph.
6:30 p.m. • Opening festivities, including a short film and a costume contest, at the Wayne. The opening-night movie, "Panic at Year Zero!," follows.
9 p.m. • "Party of the Stars," at Rim Rock Patio, Torrey. Music by The Sister Wives.
Noon • Lunch and "Survivor Challenge," Bicknell Park (a couple blocks from the Wayne).
2 p.m. • Screening of "Crack in the World," with audience participation, special guests and prizes.
6:30 p.m. • Closing-night screening of "When Worlds Collide," with viewings from the festival's Independent Film Awards.
9 p.m. • "It's a Wrap Party," at the Robber's Roost Bookstore, Torrey. Music by The Mainstreet Relevators.