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Black Lamb


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One balmy night

September 1st, 2003


The Towering Inferno changed my life. No, really.

Not that it was a particularly spectacular flick. It was entertaining, certainly, but no one would place it on any list of the greatest movies of all time. Even as an example of the disaster movie genre, it’s probably not much more than mediocre. (My vote for the best movie of that ilk goes to 1936’s San Francisco; drawn into the story and the characters’ relationships, you forget that it’s a disaster movie until almost the end, when the earthquake finally hits with sudden, startling fury. Who needs state-of-the-art special effects?)

The Towering Inferno (1974) was one of a string of disaster movies that achieved huge box-office success, though little critical acclaim, in the mid-Seventies. One of the highest-grossing movies made up until then, it featured a suspenseful plot, dramatic — for that time at least — special effects, and a stellar cast, including Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Dabney Coleman, and Robert Wagner. A synopsis: while a glittering VIP guest list gathers to celebrate the opening of the Glass Tower, a newly built San Francisco skyscraper, the tallest in the world, shoddy wiring, installed by a shady contractor, short-circuits, starting a fire that rapidly spreads, trapping the aforementioned guests helpless on the 135th floor. Mayhem, of course, ensues. Thrilled audiences lapped it up, delighting in playing that old disaster-movie guessing game, Who’s Gonna Make It Out Alive?

But it’s not the plot of the movie — or its stars or its special effects or any other such thing — that makes it significant to me. The Towering Inferno holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first movie I ever saw in a foreign language that I was able to understand with relative ease without subtitles.

“Foreign language?” you interject, “But that movie was in English!” Well, yes, in its American release. But I first saw The Towering Inferno in 1976, in Singapore, dubbed into Chinese. I had been there about six months on a year-abroad study program with my college, Washington University in St. Louis, where I had been a Chinese major. There were a lot of problems with the program, not the least of which was that I was hardly immersed in Chinese, since the native students there were hell-bent on learning English. My roommate and most of the guys on my dorm floor were Japanese and even worse at Chinese than I. But still I was learning a great deal. At Washington, we used texts from Communist China, and the faculty was embroiled in ideological warfare. I had learned how to say “capitalist running dog” before I could ask where the bathroom was. In Singapore I was learning real everyday speech every day. So as the weeks progressed, I began to make that most exciting transition for any language student, the ability to think in the language you’re learning.

There was in Singapore — still is — something called a pasar malam. The phrase is Malay; pasar comes from the same Persian word that gave us “bazaar”; malam means “evening.” It’s essentially a floating evening market set up in empty parking lots, appearing in a given location usually once a month. You could buy all sorts of things, new and used: clothes, jewelry, records, books, even TVs and stereos. They had a barbershop and food stands and rides for the kiddies — all the conveniences of the modern American mall, but a lot more colorful. And they had a movie theater. The features were about evenly divided between Hong Kong martial arts flicks (which had to be subtitled, since Hong Kong Cantonese is unintelligible to most Singaporeans) and two- or three-year-old Hollywood blockbusters, always dubbed rather badly into Mandarin. Understanding the Hong Kong movies was hopeless — too much slang and rapid-fire conversation — but I strived mightily to “get” the American stuff, always in vain.

Then, one evening on a balmy night in February (all nights in Singapore are balmy) came the epiphany. As the Glass Tower was going up in flames, I suddenly realized I was able to understand most of what was being said. What a giddy moment! All that stultifying work repeating words and sentences and memorizing tones was actually paying off! In that open-air theater on the western end of the island of Singapore, Chinese, for the first time, became a living language for me, so much more than an abstraction. I haven’t looked at foreign languages in the same way since. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Hess | Link to this Entry


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