Terra Infirma The rise and fall of quicksand

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The fourth-graders
were unanimous: Quicksand doesn’t scare them, not one bit. If you’re
a 9- or 10-year-old at the P.S. 29 elementary school in Brooklyn,
N.Y., you’ve got more pressing concerns: Dragons. Monsters. Big
waves at the beach that might separate a girl from her mother. Thirty
years ago, quicksand might have sprung up at recess, in pools of
discolored asphalt or the dusty corners of the sandbox – step
in the wrong place, and you’d die. But not anymore, a boy named
Zayd tells me. "I think people used to be afraid of it,"
he says. His classmates nod. "It was before we were born,"
explains Owen. "Maybe it will come back one day."

For now, quicksand
has all but evaporated from American entertainment – rejected
even by the genre directors who once found it indispensable. There
isn’t any in this summer’s fantasy blockbuster Prince
of Persia: Sands of Time
or in last year’s animated jungle
romp Up. You won’t find quicksand in The
Last Airbender
or Avatar,
either. Giant scorpions emerge from the sand in Clash
of the Titans
, but no one gets sucked under. And what about

– a tropical-island adventure series replete
with mud ponds and dangling vines? That show, which ended in May,
spanned six seasons and roughly 85 hours of television airtime –
all without a single step into quicksand. "We were a little
bit concerned that it would just be cheesy," says the show’s
Emmy-winning writer and executive producer, Carlton
. "It felt too clichéd. It felt old-fashioned."

Quicksand once
offered filmmakers a simple recipe for excitement: A pool of water,
thickened with oatmeal, sprinkled over the top with wine corks.
It was, in its purest form, a plot device unburdened by character,
motivation, or story: My god, we’re sinking! Will we escape this
life-threatening situation before time runs out? Those who weren’t
rescued simply vanished from the script: It’s too late –
he’s gone.

The alternative
was no less random: Surviving quicksand has always required more
serendipity than skill. Is that a lasso over there? A tendril from
a banyan tree? Cuse throws up his hands at the thought. "Adventure
storytelling has to evolve," he says. "People use up gags.
If you’re working in an old genre, you have to figure out ways to
make it fresh." He cites the trash
compactor scene
in Star
as the last major innovation in quicksand cinema: The
heroes are standing in muck, but the danger has been transposed
from the vertical to the horizontal – it’s not sinking; it’s
crushing. A full generation has elapsed since that evolutionary
step was taken in 1977. "I love love love adventure gags,"
Cuse assures me, "but the best years of quicksand are in the

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25, 2010

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