Early Disaster Cinema as Dysfunctional “Equipment for Living”: or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Kenneth Burke

Carlnita P. Greene, Nazareth University, and Christopher A. Greene, Independent Scholar


Much has been written about Burke’s famous dictum that literature is equipment for living. Many writers have assumed that he meant that all literature (high, low and experimental) performed a salubrious role for its audiences. With great daring Carlnita Greene and Christopher Greene argue that some art may be dysfunctional for its audiences, foreclosing solutions, propagandizing and narrowing rather than opening the universe of discourse.

…men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss— Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement.

IN THE PHILOSOPHY OF LITERARY FORM, Kenneth Burke proposes that form, or underlying patterns of experience in creative works, can function as “equipment for living” because they offer audiences possible strategies for managing recurring situations in their lives (1-2, 296). Since this initial consideration of form, several rhetorical scholars including Barry Brummett and others have extended Burke’s notion and assert that form also acts as “equipment for living” in popular cultural texts ranging from newspapers to films (See Brummett “Homology” 201-204; Brummett, Rhetorical Dimensions 112; Griffin, 152-163; Bostdorff 43-59; Olson 43-64; Young 447-459). Yet, each of these extensions seems to concentrate on form as, not only paralleling an audience’s lived experiences, but also as an efficacious fit such that the “equipment for living” being offered by texts is beneficial to audiences.

However, some important questions that remain unanswered by these previous studies are as follows: 1) Does form within a text always parallel audiences’ lived experiences on a formal level? 2) Does form within a text always provide an efficacious fit for audiences? and 3) Does form within a text ever give audiences defective advice such that it improperly equips them? In addressing these questions, we contend that we may not want to assume that there is an efficacious fit between texts and people’s lives. Instead, we need to consider how texts can be formally dysfunctional, meaning that the form of the text leads an audience to devise incorrect strategies for handling their “real-life” situations which also have rhetorical, social, and political implications.

Before discussing the notion of formally dysfunctional texts, we will begin by describing Burke’s concept of form and other scholarly arguments that films can function as “equipment for living.” Contrary to assumptions that forms in texts and audiences’ experiences are homologous, next we outline the three characteristics of formally dysfunctional texts. Specifically, we propose that formally dysfunctional texts can lead audiences to what Burke labels as a “trained incapacity” and in doing so act as a form of propaganda that harms the public sphere. Then, we will utilize three disaster films— Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974)—as case studies to illustrate the theoretical framework of formally dysfunctional texts by providing a rationale for their study, outlining the form found within the texts, and discussing why this form can be considered disastrous for audiences. Finally, we will conclude providing implications that this work may have and discuss possible future studies that may be undertaken by using this framework.

Form & Homology: How Films Fit People’s Lived Experiences

According to Robert Heath’s work, “Kenneth Burke’s Break with Formalism,” Burke developed his concept of form as a response to a 1920s and 30s move away from the notion of idealism as a foundation for art (132). Heath maintains that during that period intellectuals “...revolted against grand idealistic schemes of the previous century...” and were highly influenced by realism and pragmatism (“Kenneth Burke’s Break” 134). In this way, Heath explains: “Advocates of these positions were ‘suspicious of approaches which are exclusively formal’ and sought ‘to come to grips with reality’ as a means for discovering ‘the vital in social life’” (“Kenneth Burke’s Break”134). It is for these reasons that many intellectuals negated the notion of “art for art’s sake” instead suggesting that art was connected to the social experience.

Therefore, following his contemporaries, such as Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey, Burke “...was disturbed that idealism lacked a sense of society, the collectivity, and of the mind as a product of a society. What slowly emerged [in his work] was a recognition that language mediated between the mind and reality and that artistic appeal depended upon how artists excited and satisfied forms which the ‘generic’ mind had learned by experiencing patterns in nature and art” (Heath, “Kenneth Burke’s Break” 133). In this sense, as Heath argues in an earlier work, Burke most likely also was influenced by the field of psychology (“Kenneth Burke” 393). Therefore, his exploration of form in Counter-Statement is both a response to the “New Criticism” of the time and an attempt to connect form to experience such that experience also can be viewed as form-driven or structured. Form, at a most basic level, is an underlying pattern or structure. In Counter-Statement, Burke explains that: “form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (31). He states that form allows audiences to both anticipate its parts and to be fulfilled by its outcome such that it provides a kind of tension and release (Counter-Statement 124). As Burke explains, “A form is a way of experiencing; and such a form is made available when, by the use of specific subject-matter, it enables us to experience it in this way” (Counter-Statement 143).

According to Burke form underlies those recurring situations with which we, as human beings, have to contend such as deciding what to do in life, becoming a parent, and facing death. He explains that form, not only underlies our “real life” experiences, but also is a key feature found within creative works (Philosophy 1-2, 296). As such, this correspondence of form within literary texts to “real-life” is one of the appeals that form has for audiences (Philosophy 1-2). It is also within these works, like literature, that we can view how form operates as “equipment for living” because it provides audiences with ideas about managing their own situations (Philosophy 293).

For example, many myths such as the hero’s journey, outlined in the work of Joseph Campbell, provide audiences with strategies for pursuing life goals, making difficult decisions, and facing challenges (136). If we consider this example further, we can see how a hero’s journey myth, such as the Harry Potter book series would offer advice to audiences. This advice may include being loyal to your friends, pursuing your dreams, and rising to the challenge of adversity because it is through these tactics that Harry perseveres in his own quest. Thus, Harry fulfills his destiny to become a wizard by working with others and not succumbing to negative influences.

Although Burke discusses the use of form as “equipment for living” mainly in terms of literature, he does not explicitly distinguish between “high” culture and “low” culture. In other words, he proposes that “the psychology of form,” can be found within a number of works ranging from Shakespeare to “the cheapest contemporary melodrama” (Counter-Statement 37). Pointing to the prevalence of advertising in his day, Burke believes that it is so successful because it relies upon the use of form as “equipment for living,” however he seems wary of this kind of art suggesting: “The proper complaint is not that art has been ineffective, but that a certain brand of art has been only too effective” (Counter-Statement 90). It is for this reason that scholar Paul Alpers, in “The Shakespearean Kenneth Burke” argues that Burke privileges “high” culture like literature over popular forms of art because “Shakespeare for him was the supreme dramatist...” (¶ 1).

While believing that Shakespeare’s work was of a high quality, Burke nevertheless is more ambivalent in his views on the “high culture/low culture” debate as he concludes: “We ask only to leave the entire matter vague—to say that a work may be popular and good, popular and bad, unpopular and good, unpopular and bad. It may be widely read and ineffectual, widely read and influential, little read and ineffectual, little read and influential...” (91). Thus, Burke contends that regardless of whether a work is popular or not its form can act as “equipment for living” and for this reason, his method can be applied to a whole host of texts. Furthering this perspective, Paul Alpers reveals, “R. P. Blackmur said of him that ‘on the whole his method could be applied with equal fruitfulness to Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammet, or Marie Corelli....’ Nowadays, of course, Burke's democratic alertness to any and all cultural products, high and low, is precisely what makes him attractive...” (¶ 1). That is to say, because Burke’s method is so malleable and applicable to various kinds of popular culture, scholars have extended his notion of “equipment for living” and have used it to analyze texts aside from literature.1

Following Burke’s original notion of “equipment for living,” rhetorical scholar Barry Brummett in “The Homology Hypothesis: Pornography on the VCR,” extends Burke’s idea of form, arguing that form in texts, such as movies and other types of popular culture, also serves as “equipment for living” (201-204). He argues that form, not only suggests advice, but also persuades people because: “the audience identifies with those texts that parallel their own particular experiences, they see The Symbol [form that parallels experiences] as relevant to their experience. We benefit from seeing our experiences articulated so that we may understand that we are not alone or unusual in what happens to us” (Rhetorical Dimensions 112). He also believes that these texts encourage people to view their worlds, and the people within them, in certain ways so that the texts do work rhetorically.

Continuing the previous example of Harry Potter, Brummett’s work would suggest that for those people who might be orphans, the books and/or films might have even more significance because they can relate to the challenges Harry faces as an orphan in a strange environment. This correspondence is not to say that this type of audience believes that they are wizards, like Potter, but it does suggest that they may look to the film for guidance about how to handle their own respective situations such that it provides them with strategies.

Paralleling Brummett, scholar Stephen Young in “Movies as Equipment for Living: A Developmental Analysis of the Importance of Film in Everyday Life” suggests: “audiences can make conscious connections between the meanings they see in art works and their experiences in the world” (448). He maintains that films have the ability to transform audiences’ views of their lives and often influences them to pattern their lives after the forms that they find in movies (447,459). For example, perhaps the young orphan who views the Harry Potter films chooses to view her life from a positive perspective and decides that she, like Hermione Granger, will study hard in school, to achieve success. Young further explains that critics also need to consider how audiences make sense of lived experiences through the viewing of films and that the way they do so is considerably complex (464).

One factor that contributes to the complexity of studying how films function as “equipment for living” is to view the relationship between form and content by questioning the extent to which audiences are responding to the form of films or the content contained therein. In Rhetorical Homologies: Form, Culture, Experience, Brummett explains: “A simple distinction that might be made between form and content holds that content is the information conveyed by a message whereas form is either the pattern that orders the content or the physical manifestation of the message” (3). However, he reveals that it is difficult to tell the difference between the two as they are intermingled and that Burke also views them in this manner2 (Rhetorical Homologies 4). As we can see from the Harry Potter examples, the audience seems to be responding to the form of the story as well as its content because Harry is a particular boy, embodies a specific time and place, and faces challenges that are directly related to becoming a wizard.

Yet, Burke also seems to argue that texts can appeal to audiences mainly on a formal level when their content cannot provide them with information or, in the case of “equipment for living,” advice explaining “…form is the appeal (Counter-Statement 138). For example, music such as acid and/or free jazz largely has no ‘content.’ That is to say, it chiefly is the use of abstract sounds, rhythms, and noises with no lyrics. In other words, it does not provide audiences with any specific information or advice, yet it is popular with them because of its form.

The music creates and satisfies audiences’ appetites through the use of these sounds, rhythms, breaks and silences, but it does not provide them with any specific messages. Similarly, if a filmmaker creates a film based on completely random images with no connection to each other, she may not be providing audiences with any information or advice aside from visual formal appeals. Therefore, while these forms can appeal to audiences and satisfy their appetites, they cannot be considered “equipment for living” because the content does not provide them with any information or strategies.

Perhaps an even more important complication that arises within the form-content dichotomy is that, as Burke argues, form often operates out of awareness (Counter-Statement 138). The form calls to audiences even if they are unconscious of the fact that the form is appealing to them. Brummett also highlights that content can “piggyback” on form such that while form is appealing to people and acting as “equipment for living” by offering them advice, the content specific messages are slipping in sometimes unnoticed (Rhetorical Homologies 20). Therefore, it is hard to distinguish between the form and content of a text as they often work in tandem.

When discussing how form operates as “equipment for living,” scholars Brummett and Young, respectively, seem to operate under the assumption that texts advise audiences at a formal level when the form of the texts matches the form of the audiences’ experiences (Brummett “Homology” 201-204; Young 447,459). They assume that this matching of the audiences’ experiences to the experiences of texts is an accurate fit. In other words, audiences can relate to the form of texts because on a formal level it resembles their own lived experiences. As such, Brummett and Young also seem to suggest that the information or advice provided within the texts should be a “fitting response” to audiences’ “real-life” situations and that this advice is positive (Bitzer in Burgchardt 66).

However, rather than viewing them as homologous with the audiences’ experiences, we argue that we may not want to assume that there is an efficacious fit between texts and people’s everyday lives. We are not arguing that films or texts have to be realistic in order to be functional “equipment for living.” Nor are we suggesting that the fit between audiences’ lives and texts has to be a literal one for texts to offer effective “equipment for living.” For the most part, films and texts, especially within the genre of fiction, may not wholly match audiences’ lived experiences. However, we assert that aside from texts not offering any advice, in the sense of being “pure form,” they can offer incorrect or wrong advice such that the strategies that the form conveys are not beneficial for the audiences’ “real-lives.” Thereby, rather than equipping audiences the form becomes dysfunctional “equipment for living.”

Characteristics of Formally Dysfunctional Texts

Before discussing the characteristics of formally dysfunctional texts, it is not that the texts lack form or that they do not provide the audience with rhetorical advice that can be used as “equipment for living.” Indeed, form is one of the main reasons that the texts capture audiences’ attentions and influences them. Nor are we suggesting that films that are formally weak, or do not offer audiences advice, although films without strong form are probably unable to capture audiences’ attentions and imaginations in the same way as films with strong form. As stated earlier, because form often operates out of awareness, audiences may not consciously consider the advice that the form offers or that they are being influenced by the form in the first place.

Consequently, we would like to explore how texts can advise audiences in ways that are disadvantageous for groups within a given time and place. For texts to be considered formally dysfunctional, we must consider them in their entire contexts and take into account the cultural, social, and political milieu in which they operate. In other words, texts can be formally strong and offer incorrect or dysfunctional strategies, but not be considered formally dysfunctional because of the larger cultural, social, and/or political contexts in which they operate. For example, in comedies, like There’s Something About Mary (1998) the advice or “equipment for living” offered often suggests incorrect strategies for managing situations (like stalking or drugging a dog) and these mishaps are usually where the cusp of humor lies. In the same way, texts that are formally dysfunctional within one historical, cultural, social, and/or political period may not be dysfunctional for other times, places, and/or political situations.

Similarly, texts can be formally strong, yet send mixtures of both correct and incorrect strategies. For example, in the film The Wild Bunch (1969) the main form of advice offered is solving problems through violence and expediency. However, simultaneously, the film also formally endorses notions of loyalty and friendship. Therefore, it is important to address how texts are situated in terms of the larger social, cultural, and most importantly political contexts to determine whether they functions as formally dysfunctional texts or not.

As such, we propose that there are three characteristics of formally dysfunctional texts, which are as follows: 1) Abstract form causes audiences to consider their lives as parallel to the experiences of the texts when they are not homologous; 2) The texts favor a particular orientation of reality that leads audiences to a trained incapacity; and 3) The texts mislead audiences because they seem like “equipment for living,” but actually the texts function rhetorically as a form of propaganda.

Before describing the three characteristics in more detail, we must note that texts can possess one or more of these characteristics to be defined as formally dysfunctional. For example, texts may only be firmly rooted within one characteristic and not feature the other two characteristics. Similarly, while texts may possess all three characteristics, one characteristic also may be more prevalent than the others. These three characteristics can be discussed individually, but sometimes overlap in texts. Yet, we will discuss each feature separately so that it is easier to understand how they function within given texts.

First, abstract form causes audiences to consider their lives as parallel to the experiences of the texts when they are not homologous. The matching of form to lived experiences is a key feature of how texts operate as “equipment for living.” As Burke explains, “The Symbol [form or pattern of experience] is perhaps most overwhelming in its effect when the artist’s and the reader’s patterns of experience closely coincide (Counter-Statement 153). By effect, he means that people respond more to texts which they believe are “in tune” with their own lives at a formal level. Accordingly, scholars Burke, Brummett, and Young each argue that the homology between “real life” experiences and texts is what draws audiences to texts. That is to say, the form of most texts operates as “equipment for living” when the form is homologous to people’s lived experiences.

Within formally dysfunctional texts people’s lived experiences may not match the texts beyond the most abstract level. While the form of these kinds of texts may parallel audiences’ experiences principally at an abstract level, when we start to view the texts in their respective entireties, it becomes clearer that the texts and audiences’ lives are not homologous. Yet, because the form itself is appealing, it encourages audiences to view their lives as if they are homologous to experiences of the texts.

The audiences’ identification with the texts also is one that Kenneth Burke describes as “identification by inaccuracy” (in Thayer 269). Burke argues that in this kind of identification, audiences erroneously conflate their own situations and/or interests with those of texts when they are not compatible or linked (in Thayer 270).Using the examples of cars and drivers, he claims “Such thoughts concern man’s identification with his machines in way whereby he mistakes their powers for his, and loves himself accordingly” (in Thayer 269-270). He suggests that this kind of identification also could be labeled as one “by unawareness” or “by false assumption,” because audiences believe that they possess the same kinds of power and/or authority as texts and for that reason feel they are imbued with these same benefits or qualities (in Thayer 269-270). In this sense, he asserts that a person who is a citizen of a powerful nation will mistake that nation’s power for his own whether or not in actuality he is impotent in terms of his own life choices (in Thayer 270).

Paralleling Burke’s argument, we suggest that audiences’ might identify with formally dysfunctional texts, but this identification is one that is an identification by inaccuracy because audiences identify the power of texts as their own power when the audiences lack this kind of power in their real lives. They may mistakenly conflate the texts qualities with their own regardless of whether this connection is accurate and/or beneficial. Nevertheless, they are persuaded by the form’s appeal to identify with the texts.

For example, primarily at a formal level, a story might be about people stranded on a desert island that have to band together to escape which suggests a message of “if we work together, we will survive.” However, the audiences’ real lives may be such that they do not have a group to consult regarding problems, which may be highly individualized. In other words, the audiences may take this text as paralleling their lives and therefore believe that the kind of strategy offered in the story can be used as a coping mechanism for their own problems.

While the appeal of the formal elements of texts present audiences with strategies, they impart advice for managing situations that may not parallel the audiences’ real life experiences. In this sense, the “equipment for living” offered by the texts is not “equipment” that they need nor does it benefit them in any way. Formally dysfunctional texts, therefore, do not bestow an efficacious strategy and often suggests the wrong advice to audiences.

Secondly, the texts favor a particular orientation of reality that leads audiences to a trained incapacity. An orientation, according to Burke, is a particular perspective from which to view the world based upon our particular training, occupations, educations, and experiences (Permanence 14). He argues that when we view situations in everyday life, we often do so according to the particular orientation that is most “natural” because it has been developed and reinforced over time. Therefore, our perspectives of reality are, according to Burke, “selections of reality” (Language 45). That is to say, our orientations help us to function in certain ways. Therefore, if people use texts, like films, as “equipment for living” then the films are training them in some manner, which may lead them to a “trained incapacity.”

Although Burke mostly uses the concept of “trained incapacity” to refer to professions, we can extend this idea to form within films as “equipment for living.” As Burke explains, “By trained incapacity he [Veblen] meant that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindness” (Permanence 7). Because we are conditioned or trained in particular ways, over time we may only be able to function in those ways while we overlook other ways that we could live or operate within the world (Permanence 7). Therefore, we develop particular orientations that may make us blind to other viewpoints or ways of seeing.

As Neal Gabler in Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality explains, people increasingly view their lives in terms of the media to the point that people now live their lives as if they are in the movies and can no longer easily distinguish between the two (233). If Gabler is correct in this perspective, then people who rely on movies as guides are shaped or influenced by what they see in these films. However, if the form of the films causes them to become blind or unaware to other ways of living or actions that they could take, then the form functions to create a kind of trained incapacity.

This aspect of formally dysfunctional texts is one of its most important characteristics. It also is one previous critics seem to have overlooked because they assume that texts are providing audiences with “equipment for living” that is homologous to audiences’ experiences in the world. Simultaneously, these same critics seem to presume that the “equipment” being provided is beneficial when it could be creating an orientation that is a trained incapacity for audiences. Nevertheless, in formally dysfunctional texts this “equipment” is erroneous.

Finally, formally dysfunctional texts mislead audiences because they seem like “equipment for living,” but actually the texts function rhetorically as a form of propaganda. By misleading, we suggest the texts appear to offer “equipment for living.” They may give all the hallmarks to suggest that audiences employ their implied strategies, however the outcome of this usage is negative for audiences. In other words, audiences who seek rhetorical advice may be influenced by form to follow the strategies the texts present when the advice is counter to their interests. Yet, perhaps one of the most damaging forms of advice that texts can recommend is “equipment for living” that debilitates the public sphere.

By the use of the term “public sphere,” we draw upon Jurgen Habermas’ notion of a sphere in which citizens can engage in debate by discussing their collective interests and making choices based upon those interests (27). However, as Habermas’ concept of the public sphere is both limited and does not account for the prevalence of mass media,3 as Craig Calhoun argues in Habermas and the Public Sphere: “the importance of the public sphere lies in its potential as a model of social integration” (emphasis added 6). Therefore, following Hauser and Blair, and Seyla Benhabib respectively, we propose that the best way to consider the public spheres of the 20th and 21st centuries are as “rhetorically constituted” in terms of discourse because “the discourse model is the only one that is compatible…with the general social trends of our societies…”(Hauser and Blair 143, Benhabib in Calhoun 95). That is to say, the public sphere is constituted by citizens’ abilities to participate in and deliberate matters politically.

Yet, this public discourse is a rhetorical struggle and often our mass media play a crucial role in terms of fostering and sustaining the public sphere because it is one of the primary ways that citizens become educated and informed about our societal, cultural, and political affairs. As Craig Calhoun further suggests: “In the terms Habermas has adopted, we might say that the public sphere plays a crucial ‘world-disclosing’ role alongside of, or possibly independent of, its problem-solving one” (34). It is in this sense that we can view media operating as an underlying foundation for our public sphere because it is where the discursive struggles necessary to sustain “the public” occur in contemporary society.

As such, because media plays such a fundamental role in enabling the public sphere, there also is the potential for it to function as propaganda. According to authors Jawett and O’Donnell in Propaganda and Persuasion: “Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (7). If media are a key element of the public sphere, and they offer propagandistic messages, then they can be considered potentially harmful to the public because they may undermine the very systems that are necessary for an engaged and participatory public sphere (i.e. educated and informed citizens) who are able to debate social and political matters. However, we argue that although propaganda often is considered as a deliberate attempt to influence people’s beliefs and actions, it also can operate unintentionally as a hegemonic force within society.

As Antonio Gramsci argues hegemony is that form of social consent in “which the dominant group exercises throughout society [in one instance] and on the other hand to that of ‘direct domination’ or command exercised through the State and ‘juridical’ government” (12). He explains that although governments can use coercive power as a means of control, such as military power, the police, and/or physical violence, another, and perhaps more dangerous form of control is that which he names hegemony or the dominant control of ideas (12-13). He reveals mass media can operate as a form of propaganda for social control in which dominant ideas presented within media are made to seem natural (12-13). Unlike coercive force, hegemony perpetuates itself such that the people themselves reproduce it in their own forms of thoughts and actions (12-13).

We argue that formally dysfunctional texts function as a means of hegemony in the sense that they promote dominant ideologies while at the same time masking them. That is to say, they seem to be entertainment, when they are promoting particular ideological stances. They also seem to be offering their audiences “equipment for living” or advice when in actuality, they are promoting particular political and/or social viewpoints about their societies as a form of propaganda. Yet, because audiences suppose they should use the films as guides, they may not be consciously aware that the texts’ messages [meaning the form and content combined] lead them to follow a particular ideological perspective about the world which may not be homologous with their actual life experiences. Again, this identification with texts seems to be an identification by inaccuracy in which audiences are encouraged to see the solutions the texts offer as viable when upholding this ideology may be counter to their own lives.

Thereby, the films actually create a “trained incapacity,” not only to view the world from one perspective, but also to make decisions that are politically and socially ineffective in the real world, to act against their best interests within society, and/or to disengage from the public sphere. As such, it is especially important for scholars to take a close look at texts, like disaster films, that are not explicitly didactic. These texts may appear to be “mere entertainment” or merely “equip” one for living, yet these films may function in detrimental ways. Therefore, we turn to three films from the 1970s disaster genre to further explicate the characteristics of formally dysfunctional texts.

Why Study Disaster Films: An Analysis of the Case Studies

The 1970s was a time of great political upheaval and resulting cynicism. With a faltering economy, the gas crisis, an inauspicious ending to the Vietnam War, the Church Commission, and the Watergate Scandal, the early seventies were a time of extreme socio-political stress in the United States. Coinciding with these “real world” events, a genre known as “disaster” films became prevalent in American cinema with “a veritable ‘swarm’ of 53 disaster movies” being released during this time (Keane 19). Although numerous disaster films have been released since the seventies, it is important to look at the genre’s roots, because unlike many of the later films in the genre, which seem to be rooted in millenarianism, the earlier films provide insight into the social and political climates of the period in which the films were created, namely the early to mid 1970’s. As Edward Berkowitz suggests in Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies, “...movies offered tantalizing vignettes of the era...The best films of the seventies use the form of established genres…to comment on the state of American life” (178).

The disaster genre also steadily has maintained popularity as Stephen Keane reveals at the publication of his book in 2001,“ The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure still feature in the top 280 domestic box-office grossers of all time, the former at number 148 with $116 million and the latter at number 257 with $84 million” (19). The genre of disaster films is recurring within American cinema, in addition to films such as Titanic, a new version of The Poseidon Adventure, simply entitled Poseidon, was released in 2006. Hence analyzing the “classic” films may shed some light on this genre as a whole. Now utilizing, the theoretical framework of how formally dysfunctional texts are constituted, we turn to an analysis of the texts by first providing brief overviews of each film.

The film Airport (1970) launched the disaster film genre as a whole being the first of its kind. Revolving around two disasters, it depicts an airport trying to remain open during a major blizzard while simultaneously a suicide bomber threatens one of its planes. Mel Bakersfeld, the general manager of the airport, not only has to contend with the weather, but also must face a wide array of personal and professional problems. Concurrently, his brother-in-law, Vernon Demerest, who is one of the pilots aboard the potentially doomed flight, has to deal with the fact that his mistress is now pregnant. Aside from the personal situations the characters face, other dilemmas that arise throughout the film are a stowaway, angry homeowners, and a plane blocking the now snow-covered runway.

In the second film, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a ship reminiscent of the Titanic is capsized by a giant tidal wave on New Year’s Eve such that the top of the ship is now underwater and the only means of escape is to climb up to the bottom and out to safety. While most of the passengers believe that they should just stay put where they are, a small group lead by the Revered Frank Scott attempt to escape the now seemingly doomed craft. Along the way, the group not only has to manage conflicts, but also contends with fires, rising water, and navigating the maze of the upside down hull of the ship.

Finally, in the third film The Towering Inferno (1974), the dedication of the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, which is attended by numerous governmental officials and high profile private citizens, ends in disaster. Because Duncan Enterprises, the creators of the building wanted to maximize profits and reduce the costs associated with construction, they were negligent in their wiring of ‘The Glass Tower’ thus leading to a massive fire. The building’s architect, Douglas Roberts, suspects that these “cost-cutting” measures were taken and confronts members of his corporation. In the end, he aids the fire chief, Michael O’Hallorhan, not only in devising a strategy to evacuate the building, but also one to extinguish the blaze by detonating its water towers.

In analyzing the structure of disaster films, Stephen Keane observes that they can be considered from the perspective of archetypes such as “the ship of fools” or “survival and salvation” (23, 36, 39). Similarly, they seem to reflect the themes of “humans versus nature” or “technological advances cause the doom of humans.” However, if we examine the films from the Burkean perspective of form, we find that the one form that pervades all three films can best be described as “a faith in systems.”

In each of the films, a group of people must band together to survive the numerous disasters that develop along the way. However, the groups are encouraged to rely on the various cultural, bureaucratic, social, and political systems that are already in place. They are required to take action, but this action is only at the behest of those systems. Additionally, some of the characters are authority figures (e.g. Airport Manager, Fire Chief, Reverend, etc…) that belong to “the system” and initiate solutions to the disasters in the films. Thus, the overarching form suggests that these various agencies will be able to fix any problems and will see them through in the end regardless of “the system’s” potential shortcomings and/or flaws. Employing the three criteria previously discussed, now we will explain why these texts can be considered formally dysfunctional.

1) Abstract form causes audiences to consider their lives as parallel to the experiences of the text when they are not homologous.

One of the main reasons that the films resonate with audiences is due to the casts of characters who represent a cross-section of the American public.4 Having various occupations ranging from pilot to police officer to a nurse, audiences may be able to identify with the characters because they are in an analogous profession. Aside from their occupations, the characters also represent a wide range of social roles and socioeconomic positions such as noble and ignoble, young and old, and rich and poor. Thus, this cast of characters tries to capture, in essence, a sense of the “everyman” in society.

For example in Airport (1970), Mel Bakersfeld, (played by Burt Lancaster) is a no nonsense airport manger who operates within “the system,” yet battles against the commissioners to do what is most effective and right. He, therefore, portrays a white-collar worker able to create change from within the organization. Similarly, Patroni (played by George Kennedy), represents someone who helps “the system” to function smoothly. He is the working class, blue-collar mechanic who saves the day through self-sacrifice and grit by taxing out a plane that was stuck in the snow and blocking the runway. Tanya Livingston (played by Jean Seberg) represents the growing facet of women in the workplace. She is an intelligent, highly competent woman who works and thrives in the male-centered world. Finally, Vernon Demersest (played by Dean Martin) is the cocky pilot philanderer who, nevertheless, is heroic in attempting to thwart the bomber and helps to land the damaged aircraft.

In contrast to those characters that work for the airline, the characters of D.O. Guerrero (played by Van Heflin) and Inez Guerrero (played by Maureen Stapleton) represent a working class couple deeply affected by the struggling economy of the early 1970’s. D.O. Guerrero, a Vietnam veteran, is an unemployed demolition expert for the construction industry who is a victim of the challenging financial times and changing economic conditions of the period. Due to his desperation and war-related mental instability, he takes out an insurance policy and tries to blow up a plane in hopes that his wife will reap the benefits from his death. Guerrero’s wife, Inez, represents working class indomitability through her resiliency in the face of adversity, struggling to meet the family’s financial responsibilities and remaining steadfast in her loyalty to her husband. She, not only tries to stop her husband, but also attempts to save his fellow passengers by alerting the airline authorities. Not only are these characters cross-representational, each of the films utilizes ensembles to draw audiences into the stories. Because the films employ ensemble casts, it is easier for audiences to identify with one or more of the characters. This process of identification may be linked to a character or characters being from the same demographic and/or having similar personalities to the viewer. Furthermore, as these ensemble casts are comprised of stars like Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Gene Hackman, Jacqueline Bissett, and Steve McQueen, audiences are encouraged to identify with these celebrities. In other words, even if audiences do not identify with a particular character, they can ‘root for’ their favorite movie star to survive the disasters of the films.

These two features, casts made up of the “everyman” and the use of ensembles, work in tandem with the specific circumstances surrounding major disasters that make the films engaging for audiences. The disasters themselves present a heightened sense of danger that further lures audiences into the films’ plots and impels them to invest in witnessing their outcomes.

Continuing with the example of Airport (1970), the primary disaster of the film is a snowstorm and a plane landing in this inclement weather. As many people have anxiety about flying, coupled with the extreme weather conditions, the first disaster in Airport (1970) is somewhat steeped in the everyday. Although more uncommon, the second threat of a bomb aboard a plane is rooted in the ever-increasing amount of global terror (especially in Europe) during the 1970s; therefore, a potential hijacker or bomber would not have been completely farfetched. In this sense, the form continually creates tension both through the multiple disasters and offers release as the characters that the audiences have closely identified with survive from one obstacle to the next. As such, audiences can relate to the kinds of situations that the films’ characters face and may view their own lives as parallel, albeit in a more abstract sense.

Simultaneously, the films make problems seem both inevitable and “natural.” That is to say, once one problem in the films is resolved another arises to take its place. This “naturalization” of plights may deflect audiences away from considering that the circumstances of the time were caused by the ineffective governmental and societal systems in place. In turn, they may begin to view dilemmas like a recession as a “natural” occurrence within the economy or an increase in taxes as the “natural” solution to balancing the government’s deficit. In addition, they may view other aspects of life as “natural” such as the increasing tensions between various racial groups as “just how things are” without critically considering how these phenomena occur and are shaped within American society.

2) The texts favor a particular orientation of reality that leads audiences to a trained incapacity.

The sheer scope of the disasters in the films points audiences to a particular orientation that operates as a “trained incapacity.” Because the films’ disasters are specifically “life-and-death” struggles, they trivialize the economic, political, social, and cultural struggles that people had to face during this time. In other words, most members of the audience were not currently facing an airplane bomb, a tidal wave, or a high-rise fire. This kind of form encourages audiences to disengage with their own problems. Granted, a part of films’ purpose is to be entertaining, however, it seems as if the comparisons between the films and “real-life” cause audiences to have a trained incapacity that “disastrous” situations have heightened, grand-scale crises. In this sense, the form may direct audiences to deem that they do not have to engage in the political work necessary to facilitate change within their society such as voting or lobbying the government to solve the problems that they face. They inadvertently may begin to compare their own lives to those of the films and think, “At least I’m not dead,” or “ I’m not facing any life-threatening situation such as a burning building, a plane crash, or a ship wreck.”

All three movies, influence audiences to consider that they should continue to rely on the current governmental, social, religious, economic, and political systems. Regardless of bureaucratic corruption, corporate malfeasance and/or incompetence, “the system” will overcome the disasters. This representation of “the system” as savior predominantly is exemplified through the main characters as ultimately these authority figures, whom “stand in” for the systems they represent, solve the problems and alleviate the situations. For example, in Airport (1970), the mechanic (played by George Kennedy) and the airport manager (played by Burt Lancaster) represent “the corporation” and the reverend (played by Gene Hackman) symbolizes “the church” in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

To further analyze how this “standing in” for “the system” functions, let us examine how various systems operate in The Towering Inferno (1974). Here we have the architect (played by Paul Newman), the businessman (played by William Holden), and the fire chief (played by Steve McQueen). First, the architect, Doug Roberts, is represented as an “everyman” fulfilling a vision by creating the world’s tallest skyscraper. Throughout the film, he is positioned as a hardworking individual who tries to do the best he can despite unforeseen circumstances. Unaware of the corporate malfeasance of cost cutting and substandard methods, which result in the fire, thus absolving him of direct responsibility, he is represented as an individual who, while part of “the system,” is incorruptible and rallies to solve the problem and helps to save lives.

Paralleling the architect, the businessman, Jim Duncan, is positioned as a man of substance who leaves his mark on the world through the foresight to bring the tallest skyscraper to fruition. As a representative of “the corporation,” the businessman epitomizes how “the system” is a catalyst for change and progress. For example, at the ribbon cutting ceremony, when the mayor asserts: “I hereby dedicate this magnificent Glass Tower tallest building in the world” he labels the skyscraper a feat of human achievement and advancement.

Furthermore, while Duncan is largely responsible for the disaster as the head of Duncan Enterprises, the ethical scapegoat is his son-in-law, Roger Simmons (played by Richard Chamberlain) who is the individual that “cut corners” in order to maximize profits and ‘causes’ the accident. In his own defense, Simmons contends that Duncan is ultimately responsible when he alleges:

You didn’t talk like this two years ago, did you? Running over budget and out of money. Did you ask me then how I could shave two million dollars off our electrical costs? So let me ask you, my dear father, am I the only subcontractor you encouraged to cut costs? Where did you save the other four million dollars in Doug’s [Paul Newman] budget?

However, Duncan does not admit to culpability and “the corporation” is still left with plausible deniability because he can argue that his son-in-law acted without his consent. Thus, Jim Duncan remains free of blame and like many of the business and political figures in the film, conducts himself in a heroic manner, underlining “the corporation’s” favorable representation. Furthering this absolution of “the corporation,” the disaster itself is chiefly represented as a strong case of “bad luck,” a random fire in a new building that was built to government code.

Finally, Fire Chief O’Hallorhan, as a representative of governmental agencies, is the main person who comes to the rescue and is the definitive voice of both government and moral authority. He takes control, delegates responsibilities, and is expertly knowledgeable about how to handle the fire. He is also the primary individual who brings about a resolution to the dilemma of the fire in a courageous and competent manner. As such, he is the moral compass for the film and at the end places the blame, not on “the system” itself, but on the “everyman” for his hubris and failure to consult “the state” when he addresses the architect at the end of the film by professing:

You know we were lucky tonight; the body count less than 200. You know one of these days you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps. And I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.

3) The texts mislead audiences because they seem like “equipment for living,” but actually the texts function rhetorically as a form of propaganda.5

As stated in the last section, the notion of relying on “the system” to provide solutions for problems also is applicable to this section. In this sense, the form functions as a kind of ideology, or propaganda, that seeks to shape people’s behaviors and beliefs about their respective positions within society and their relationship to governmental structures. The propaganda encourages audiences to maintain the status quo, does not encourage them to seek out their own solutions to problems, and does not encourage resistance to and/or questioning of the society as it stands. As we saw in the last section, in the films The Towering Inferno (1974) and Airport (1970) the fire chief and architect as well as the airport manager and mechanic, suggest that a reliance on “the system” will lead to a viable solution.

Perhaps, this notion of “equipment for living” acting as propaganda is best exemplified by The Poseidon Adventure’s (1972) Revered Frank Scott (played by Gene Hackman). The reverend is a combination of both “old timey” and modern religion, which preaches with a fervent passion, that people have to take responsibility for and solve their own problems. For example, when he gives his fiery sermon at the beginning of the film he declares, “Therefore, don’t pray to God to solve your problems; Pray to that part of God within you. Have the guts to fight for yourself! God wants brave souls! He wants winners not quitter! If you can’t win at least try to win! God loves triers...”

However, he still morally and ethically represents the institution of “the church.” He persuades some of his fellow passengers to take control of their escape by vacating the ballroom to climb up into the ship’s engine room, which is now at the top of the ship. Yet, fundamentally these passengers have to rely on his guidance to survive the tragedy and he leads this “flock” of mainly women, children, and the elderly to safety. In this way, Reverend Scott both literally and figuratively saves them from the shipwreck that includes both fire and destruction, which some religions believe is reminiscent of Hell. This idea of salvation is also demonstrated through those characters that do not survive because they are considered “immoral” or “flawed” in some way and die for their “sins.” For example, Linda Rogo (played by Stella Stevens) a former prostitute signifies the “sin” of lust and Mrs. Rosen (played by Shelley Winters) represents the “sin” of gluttony. Even the reverend himself is guilty of the “sin” of pride and eventually sacrifices his own life to save the others.

Although the main form of resistance to the reverend and “the system” comes from Detective Lieutenant Mike Rogo (played by Ernest Borgnine), a retired police officer (who is also a part of “the system” in his own way), Rogo is represented as a resistant agitator who consistently seeks the authority of leadership, while lacking the moral authority of the reverend. For example, when Rogo suggests that they abandon the reverend and join up with other passengers, traveling in the opposite direction from their group, he is overruled by his companions. Instead, they wait until the very last second for the reverend’s return. Therefore, throughout the journey Rogo is placed in a subservient position to the reverend’s authority.

Finally, the Reverend Scott not only represents the power of “the system”, he literally becomes the final savior of the passengers when he sacrifices his life to open one of the ship’s steam valves by leaping off a catwalk and turning the wheel. During this scene, he offers himself as a sacrifice to God by saying, “take me,” before descending into a lake of fire. Thus, the reverend, much like the fire chief in The Towering Inferno (1974) and the airport manager in Airport (1970), is a voice of righteousness that simultaneously is the voice of “the system” as embodying said righteousness.

Another way that the films operate as propaganda is that they also create an ideology that suggests change can only occur on a large scale and not on a personal level. While the characters in each of the films have personal problems, these are easily resolved and are a backdrop for the foci of major disasters. As the general understanding of disasters is that they are larger than normal events, some of the other disasters of that time (a recession, racial tensions, Watergate, etc.) if positioned in contrast to the films would be considered trivial by comparison. This idea also carries over into the lives of the audience members as they may feel that the only way they can change their lives is on a grand scale. Therefore, they may feel overwhelmed if they cannot come up with a viable solution that makes a large impact in their lives.

Consequently, the form that spans across the films provides the audience with a false sense of “equipment for living.” Because the form is so persuasive and pervasive, audiences may believe that the films are providing them with practical advice for managing their lives. Yet, the films may be acting as a form of propaganda that equips them in ways that are detrimental to them as individuals and to public sphere. Thus, it is of utmost importance that critics continue to analyze these kinds of texts.

Conclusion & Future Implications

Correspondingly, Burke’s own argument provides reasoning for studying these formally dysfunctional texts because as form exists within various works of literature and art, so too, do we need to continually revisit how form functions within them. As “equipment for living,” the films offer people instructions on how to live their lives. Yet, we need to consider how form also can recommend inadequate advice or equipment, which not only is not homologous with people’s lived experiences, but also causes them to act against their best interests. These films do work rhetorically and if their messages are propagandist then certainly they are doing political and social work. It is also important to look at specific historical and/or cultural moments, even if those moments occur in the past. Because forms and patterns are repeating, (and Burke believes some are transhistorical), the disaster films of the 1970s as “equipment for living” may elucidate our current social, political, and cinematic situations. In other words, by examining these past forms, we may understand how they are currently functioning in society.

Throughout this essay, we have outlined a theoretical framework that extends Burke’s notion of “equipment for living” to include texts that are formally dysfunctional. However, there are some questions that remain and could be the basis for launching future research in this area. First, since these disaster films emerged within a specific historical and cultural period they have pertinent messages that are particularly relevant to that time frame. Yet, does this creation of formally dysfunctional texts occur in other specific time periods within a specific genre? For example, since post-911, there has been a significant rise in Zombie films. Do these films or others have similar hallmarks to the disaster film genre as formally dysfunctional texts with propagandist messages?

Secondly, because the disaster films’ messages are for a specific political and cultural climate, would someone watching these movies today have a similar reaction to the messages as seventies audiences? Or are these messages simply outdated for our own time? Thus, it is hoped that scholars will continue, not only to examine the disaster film genre, but especially how texts can operate as formally dysfunctional and potentially disastrous “equipment for living.”


*Carlnita P. Greene (PhD, University of Texas at Austin) is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Rhetoric whose research interests lie at the intersections of rhetoric, critical theory, and popular culture. Christopher A. Greene (M.F.A., City University of New York) is an Independent Filmmaker whose research interests include film and television theory, cultural studies and media history.

  1. Because notions of “high culture” often are steeped in elitism and because culture is more fluid than in the past, we will do not distinguish between “high” culture and “low” culture.
  2. Following Burke and Brummett, we also assert that there is slippage between form and content such that the two are hard to distinguish as they are intertwined.
  3. Habermas’ idea of the public is a very narrow one, according to scholar Nancy Fraser, due to the very nature of using the term “bourgeois public sphere” because it was never entirely public or representational. She reveals the irony of Habermas’ definition explaining: “Of course, we know, both from the revisionist history and from Habermas’s account, that the bourgeois public’s claim to full accessibility was not in fact realized” (in Robbins 9).
  4. Of course, we must note that only a small portion of society is actually shown in the films as various minority groups are rarely seen in them.
  5. We are not arguing that the creators of these disaster films consciously or explicitly set out to create propagandist films in the same way that war films sometimes are created. However, as formally dysfunctional texts, these films do operate rhetorically as such.


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"Early Disaster Cinema as Dysfunctional "Equipment for Living": or How We Learned to Stop Worry and Love Kenneth Burke; by Carlnita P. Greene and Christopher A. Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.