A Time to Fall

If a decade is also a color, and it is, what color were the 70s? They were blue and yellow, like the cover of my book LACONIA, which was inspired, in part, by the 70s. Specifically, 70s cinema. In the 70s, yellow and blue were the colors of disaster and progress—or, the disaster of progress. The two went hand in hand. Modernity on earth. Earth in modernity.

Sun, sky. Glass, metal. Ocean.

In the 70s, movies open with a brightness that lies. Misleads.



Dirty Harry

Visconti’s The Leopard (1963)

The Towering Inferno 

In The Towering Inferno, Fred Astaire, a relic of old Hollywood, shows up in New Hollywood. Astaire’s entrance into the new era is introduced by his encounter with the Glass Tower. It is daylight when he first sees it. The sun is out. Before he walks in, Astaire (a-stare) looks up at the tower in awe and shakes his head. The sight (site) calls for pause.

Since the monstrosity of modernity is blinding, like the sun—cause for both awe and alarm—it should not be faced head-on. Mediation (a buffer) is required. And yet, at the same time, when one is confronted with the spectacle of a modernity that stupefies, one has to get a better look, which is why Astaire removes his sunglasses when he is sees the Tower. 

A look, especially in cinema, is also a warning. An omen of things and people to come. When a person sees another person, a monstrous skyscraper, a huge dorsal fin. Awe at what you see (at modernity) is also apprehension and horror; at something so grand and imposing and wrapped in its time; so upright, straight, and sure of itself; so costly in all senses of the word (world), it simply cannot last. Which means it can only come down. Can only crash and burn, like it did in 2001, taking the world down with it while refusing to register the world that fell.

Horror is also wish-fulfillment. You are afraid of dying and you want to die. You are afraid to look and you must look. You fear something will fall and you long for it to fall. You build something that cannot collapse and you build something that will. That must.

My mother and I looked up at the twin towers the same way Fred Astaire does when we first moved near them to Tribeca. For years, the towers continued to awe and terrify us, as we were convinced the two buildings were destined to fall.

In an article published in Le Monde on November 3, 2001, Jean Baudrillard wrote:

“…We dreamt of such an event…everyone without exception dreamt of it, because no one could not not dream of the destruction of any superpower having attained such a degree of hegemony.”

Laurie Anderson’s 1981 song “O, Superman,” in which she prophetically chants, “Here come the planes,” is just one of many dreams (visions) of the destruction of a superpower.

Modernity is a burning building we are all trapped inside of.

The sky is the limit.

The sky is the end.


“On February 13, 1975 a three-alarm fire broke out on the 11th floor of the North Tower. Fire spread through the core to the 9th and 14th floors by igniting the insulation of telephone cables in a utility shaft that ran vertically between floors. Areas at the furthest extent of the fire were extinguished almost immediately and the original fire was put out in a few hours. Most of the damage was concentrated on the 11th floor, fueled by cabinets filled with paper, alcohol-based fluid for office machines, and other office equipment. Fireproofing protected the steel and there was no structural damage to the tower. Other than the damage caused by the fire, a few floors below suffered water damage from the extinguishing of the fires above. At that time, the World Trade Center had no fire sprinkler systems.”

In the 70s, the chimera of progress began to disintegrate, resulting in the modality of scope, height, vista. Of soaring and falling. In wide angles that tried to show just how far and deep. In rooftops and windows with glass-encased views of the world (The World Trade Center had a Top of the World observation deck), with helicopters coasting over water and small antiquated wooden boats dwarfed by the infinity of sea. In his film Blue, Derek Jarman’s narrator notes, “Atomic bright photos…with yellow infection bubbling at the corner.” Blue is “The darkness made visible.”

Yellow warms us, blinds us, sets us on fire. Yellow is the sun that heals and generates life, but it is also the sickly and deadly brightness of a progress that kills.

When the twin towers went up in flames in 2001, the disaster resulted in two colors—yellow and blue.

When the fire breaks out in The Towering Inferno (1974), chief firefighter Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) arrives at the Glass Tower and meets Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), the architect behind the enormous and poorly constructed skyscraper.

McQueen: Architects.

Newman: Yeah, it’s all our fault.

McQueen: Now you know you there’s no sure way for us to fight a fire in anything over the 7th floor, but you guys just keep building them as high as you can.

Newman: Hey, are you here to take me down or the fire?

McQueen: This is one building I didn’t think would burn.

Newman: So did I.

During a press conference in 1973, the year the first Trade Tower was completed and The Towering Inferno was made, Minoru Yamaski, the architect of The World Trade Center, was asked, “Why two 110-story buildings? Why not one 220-story building?” Yamaski answered: “I didn’t want to lose the human scale.” 

In exchange for its disavowal of human scale, The Towering Inferno’s single tower takes human lives. But then again, so did cutting the one inhuman tower into a more humane two.


“Plans to build the World Trade Center were controversial. The site for the World Trade Center was the location of Radio Row, home to hundreds of commercial and industrial tenants, property owners, small businesses, and approximately 100 residents, many of whom fiercely resisted forced relocation. A group of small businesses affected filed an injunction challenging the Port Authority’s power of eminent domain. The case made its way through the court system to the United States Supreme Court; the Court refused to accept the case.

“Private real estate developers and members of the Real Estate Board of New York, led by Empire State Building owner Lawrence A. Wien, expressed concerns about this much “subsidized” office space going on the open market, competing with the private sector when there was already a glut of vacancies. Others questioned whether the Port Authority really ought to take on a project described by some as a “mistaken social priority”.

“The World Trade Center design brought criticism of its aesthetics from the American Institute of Architects and other groups. Lewis Mumford, author of The City in History and other works on urban planning, criticized the project and described it and other new skyscrapers as “just glass-and-metal filing cabinets”. The twin towers’ narrow office windows, only 18 inches (46 cm) wide, were disliked by many for impairing the view from the buildings.

“The trade center’s “superblock”, replacing a more traditional, dense neighborhood, was regarded by some critics as an inhospitable environment that disrupted the complicated traffic network typical of Manhattan. For example, in his book The Pentagon of Power, Lewis Mumford denounced the center as an “example of the purposeless giantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city”. For many years, the immense Austin J. Tobin Plaza was often beset by brisk winds at ground level. In 1999, the outdoor plaza reopened after undergoing $12 million renovations, which involved replacing marble pavers with gray and pink granite stones, adding new benches, planters, new restaurants, food kiosks and outdoor dining areas.”

Both Jaws and The Towering Inferno were filmed in 1973. But Jaws was released in 1975, a year after Inferno. The dialogue between Roberts and O’Hallorhan in Inferno foreshadows and runs parallel to what happens in Jaws, with Mayor Vaughn refusing to equate his corruption and deception (the real monster of Jaws. Vaughn decides to profit off of the 4th of July holiday instead of closing down the beaches) with the shark disaster that ensues in Amity. 

Towering Inferno’s score almost sounds like the extra or discarded scraps of the Jaws score. Inferno even turns to water by the end. According to John Williams, who wrote the soundtracks to both films, monstrous buildings and monstrous sharks are similar aberrations, and as a result, the two, the Tower and the shark, sound almost alike. Just as the score marvels at the technological prowess and grace of the helicopter that soars over San Francisco in the opening credits of The Towering Inferno, the score marvels at the impressive speed, efficiency, and grace (technology) of the shark in Jaws, a “perfect eating machine.”

“It my sense in the fall of 2001,” Judith Butler writes in her preface to Precarious Life, “that the United States was missing an opportunity to redefine itself as part of a global community when, instead, it heightened nationalist discourse, extended surveillance mechanisms, suspended constitutional rights, and developed forms of explicit and implicit censorship.”

In Robin Wood’s Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan, on the ideology of 70s cinema, Wood anticipates Butler’s Precarious Life:

“Yet this generalized crisis in ideological confidence never issued in revolution. No coherent social/economic program emerged, the taboo on socialism remaining virtually unshaken. Society appeared to be in a state of advanced disintegration, yet there was no serious possibility of the emergence of a coherent and comprehensive alternative.”

Finally back on terra firma again, Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway are huddled together and wrapped in blankets. Newman tells Dunaway, “Maybe they should leave [the Tower] the way it is. A kind of shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”

In order for anyone to survive the towering inferno, for there to be any future at all, the Glass Tower has to come down, which also means nothing like it can ever go up again. Therefore the film ends with Roberts promising O’Hallorhan to consult with the fire department about the construction of all future skyscrapers in the city of San Francisco. A cool down (the fall, water) after the pump-up (erection, fire). “At once phantomal and commanding, the paternal,” writes Avital Ronell in Loser Sons, “like Hamlet’s father, directs the way the whole house comes down, falling apart around a shared name that seals the demise of a split son.”

But no such pact was made after the twin towers came down and designs for the Freedom Tower (referred to as World Trade Center 2 and what Samuel Weber refers to as the “second coming of the tower” in Theatricality as Medium) were drawn. States became State. One censored two. Nation-building became just that, nation-as-building and building-as-nation. No alternative to the disaster or even an illusion of the end. No end to end times. Not even a faux unitary. Only: never again would we be cut to (human) size or scale back for anything human. 

In the preface to LACONIA, I discuss the architectural trope of modernism that became my cover, Mies van de Rohe’s twin Chicago high-rises in skeletal form, built in 1950. Mies van der Rohe was German. In the introduction to Avital Ronell’s Loser Sons, she reminds us that Mohamed Atta, who crashed into the North tower of the World Trade Center, had studied architecture in both Cairo and Hamburg. At the end of The Towering Inferno, both the end and the future of human life, as well as the end and the future of architecture (i.e. modernity and capital) are placed on the shoulders of Paul Newman’s architect.

In Theatricality as Medium, Samuel Weber writes, “The situation of this spectator is akin to that of the child described by Lacan as the mirror stage, characterized by an Imaginary identification with an image of wholeness. The internal contradiction of such identification is that it institutes an image of unity while occupying two places at once: the desired place of wholeness and the feared place of disunity. ”

While the cultural architects of the twin towers imagined and projected the towers as a unified hegemonic whole, the symbol of capital nevertheless demonstrated its internal contradiction from inception, when it was split in two—into disunity—and, as Weber puts it, made to “occupy two places at once.” One tower not only a double of the other, but each tower an Other to the Other. It is worth noting, too, that the number 11 in September 11 is a numerical double of the two towers. Two towers, two planes, two 1s, reminding us that the dream—the image—of a wholeness as ruthless and deluded as this one, was never and could never be whole, and has always contained its binary split.

– – –

Masha Tupitsyn is the author of LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009), which was voted one of the best film books of 2009 by Dennis Cooper, January MagazineShelf Awareness, and Chicago’s New City. You can read her blog Love Dog, a book project, at mashatupitsyn.tumblr.com

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