Monday, August 23, 2010

Quicksand and sandboxes

Why does one gag fall by the wayside while another soldiers on? Movie villains have long since given up tying their victims to the railroad tracks, yet they never seem to weary of planting time bombs. (Think how many colored wires were snipped in The Hurt Locker.) And quicksand? Time was, a director could sink a man in the desert and still win the Oscar for best picture. Today, that gimmick has been scorned in third-rate schlock. ...

By the time I entered junior high, the gag had been relegated to self-conscious horror flicks and zany sitcoms like Perfect Strangers and Small Wonder. Quicksand was ironized and depleted. Across the 1980s, it appeared in roughly one of every 75 films released in the theaters. That's more than twice as much quicksand as we have today but less than half the total from just a few years earlier.

So when was the gimmick at its peak? In the 1960s, quicksand was everywhere. It turned up in B-grade cinema and television—the Monkees once ran afoul of it—but also in legitimate, mainstream work. Lawrence of Arabia had quicksand and earned seven Oscars. There was even quicksand in the art house: The hero of Woman in the Dunes, a 1964 blast of existentialism from Japan, spends much of the movie trapped in a sand pit. (He escapes at one point, only to fall into quicksand.) In total, nearly 3 percent of the films in that era—one in 35—showed someone sinking in mud or sand or oozing clay. Compared with every decade before or since, quicksand ruled the screen. ...

As it happens, there's another recent trend that's worth considering when it comes to quicksand—and one that bears on the games we played in city parks. In the 1970s, when I was born, roughly 800 sandboxes could be found in public playgrounds around New York City. By 1995, just 44 remained. (In Brooklyn, where I live now, the number dropped to four.) Over the course of my childhood, then, and through the concurrent decline of quicksand in the movies, the number of sandboxes in the nation's largest city dropped by 95 percent. ...

In 1986, a geologist and medical doctor named Mark Germine published a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine describing an analysis he'd performed on several bags of commercial sand. The stuff that went into public playgrounds, he said, contained particles of tremolite, a substance similar to asbestos. That same year, the EPA declared for the first time that asbestos may cause cancer at any level of exposure. The nation's children were frolicking in carcinogens.

Pretty soon, a watchdog group affiliated with Ralph Nader became embroiled in a long, public feud with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission over the regulation of sandboxes. (The commission was skeptical: "In the minds of our scientific staff, that evidence doesn't exist," a spokesman said.) Leaving aside the asbestos controversy, many parents and city officials worried that other, macroscopic dangers might be finding their way into the playground—hypodermic needles, used condoms, and broken crack pipes. ...

The ubiquity of sandboxes once nurtured the playful idea of being swallowed whole, while the kids who dreamed of quicksand sustained the movie myth. But in the late 1980s, nervous parents started to take our sand away. When they looked at the sandbox, they saw danger, too.
--Daniel Engber, Slate, on a theory of why quicksand disappeared as a plot device, and why the sandboxes of my youth are now gone

No comments: