An Overdue Clarification

I don’t mean to tread on old ground, but my performance as a blogger demands that I resurface certain memories: In my “violence is the performance of waste” essay, I had carefully attempted to deconstruct Roach’s interpretations of each of the key words in the phrase. He had defined waste as “unproductive expenditure” (40), and claimed that violence, whether  “bloody” or not, always involves expending far more resources than necessary in order to drive home whatever point is being made (41). Thus, “violence is the performance of waste.” I linked this concept to the intent behind When the Levees Broke, claiming the work to be an act of “violence” against the U.S. government and the Corps of Engineers.  By Roachian logic, the film itself is the performance of waste that makes the violence. Continue reading “An Overdue Clarification”

Remembering the (Un)Dead

The classical depiction of the “living dead” in old stories was fairly literal: The long-deceased, through necromancy, witchcraft, or some other form of magic, would rise once more to roam the earth in a complicated state between “living” and “dead.” While the concept of the dead rising once more to wreak havoc on the living dates as far back as ancient Mesopotamian mythology, the term “zombie” originates from Haitian folklore, which involves the raising of the dead from a sorcerer known as a bokor. Continue reading “Remembering the (Un)Dead”

The “Before’s” and “After’s”

A major theme in Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, along with just about every other piece of literature or cinema in a post-apocalyptic setting (zombies or otherwise) is the evaluation of how much the world can change with a single event. In Zone One, the survivors labelled the first day of the zombie outbreak as the “Last Night,” stating that “everyone knows where they were.” Mark Spitz is rational for assuming that the world will never return to “normalcy,” and intentionally tries to distance himself from who he was before the Last Night.However, he often finds himself reminiscing about the previous world, from remembering certain landmarks before they were ruined to imagining what certain zombies were doing before they turned. When he snaps back to reality, the distinct split between how things were and how things are now is always jarring. 

Continue reading “The “Before’s” and “After’s””

The Conundrum of Color-Blindness

When Kathryn Miles wrote about the tragedy of the Moore family in her book Superstorm, she provided several details for the context of their story: Damien and Glenda Moore and their two sons were beloved in their Staten Island neighborhood. Damien was an Irish immigrant and naturalized American citizen, and his Irish blood showed in one of his son’s red hair. On the day that Hurricane Sandy hit New York, Damien hadn’t returned from work and Glenda started to panic. Worried for her husband’s safety, Glenda packed her boys into her car and began the drive to Damien’s workplace. On the way, the car got stuck in the floods and they were forced to evacuate the vehicle. While desperately looking for safety, Glenda lost her grip on her sons and they were swept away by the rushing water.

And that’s where Miles ends her account on the Moore family.

One vital detail that Miles omits is that Glenda Moore is black, and her sons were mixed-race. It’s an odd thing to ignore after numerous mentions of her husband’s ethnicity. Another thing that was left out of Superstorm was Glenda’s desperate pleas for passage into locked homes after being trapped in the storm, all of which were ignored. Observers of the story have agreed this was an unfortunate consequence of her race. The Moore boys may still be alive today if this weren’t the case.

It’s clear that Miles’s rendition of the tragedy of the Moore family was an attempt at racial colorblindness. Colorblindness, as the name implies, is the practice of intentionally ignoring someone’s race and all of its connotations in an effort to promote equality. It’s very much an idealist concept, for if everyone adopted it at once, choosing to defer the harsh memories of racial tension, then the world would likely be a better place. It’s undeniable that, by definition, universal colorblindness would cause an instantaneous end to all racial prejudices, including hate crimes, profiling, and systematic segregation. Colorblindness was even a cornerstone concept in Martin Luther King’s visions for the Civil Rights Movement.

However, Miles’s use of colorblindness demonstrates how it can be a double-edged sword. While her telling of the tale of the Moore family was obviously supposed to serve as an anecdote for Hurricane Sandy’s deadly force, her omission of certain details shows an overlooking of the major moral takeaway from the story. The problem with racial colorblindness is that if an individual practices it in a society that doesn’t, then the individual is knowingly dismissing the plights of those that regularly experience racism. Although the racial conflicts of the Moore story weren’t directly relevant to the narrative Miles was trying to tell, it was still insensitive to not address them. As an author, Miles willingly chose not to tell the parts of the story that would potentially raise awareness of the racism that still plagues this country.

While colorblindness is, in theory, an effective method to combat racism, it only achieves its goal if everyone in a society practices it at once. If there are only a few people practicing it in a racially divided country, then those people’s refusal to acknowledge the racial divide only strengthens it. Because of this, it’s practically impossible for an entire society to adopt colorblindness without a major, unprecedented social upheaval. However, it may not be too late to become a more color-sensitive society. It is, after all, everyone’s personal responsibility to remember and respect the historical and current issues that people of color have faced for decades.

Secondhand Memories, Framed and Forgotten

They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.

There are several portraits in my home of my great-grandparents and other relatives from before my time. Quite frankly, I probably wouldn’t know a single thing about them if I didn’t have these relics that sparked stories from my parents and grandparents.

In one of his stand-up specials, the comedian John Mulaney gave an anecdote of when he met a person who spoke about his hobby of stealing old photographs from family homes during parties. Naturally, all John could muster was “Why?”, to which the person responded, “Because that’s the one thing you can’t replace.” Obviously, the humor comes from the absurdity in the devilish intent. My recalling of this joke, however, comes in a context that is notably humorless.

The story was what kept popping in my mind when I watched the ending credits for When the Levees Broke. The way each person credited his or herself, with their head put in place by a picture frame suspended before them, symbolized how their names and voices will be immortalized in the wake of the tragedy, and how each person has a uniquely framed perspective of it. The motif of picture frames in the context of Hurricane Katrina begs the question: With the destructive power of the floods, how many beloved portraits were lost? How many old photographs were stolen by this kleptomaniac of a storm? It’s difficult to imagine the quantity of memories, intended to be preserved indefinitely, that were forcibly forgotten in one fell swoop.

Many people died as a result of the storm. How many more had their proverbial “second death” in the time that followed?

The Paradox of Disaster Movies

I’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow more times than I’d like to admit. At least four separate occasions, possibly five. After the third viewing, it sort of blends together into blurry mess, and my impressions of the movie become far less potent with each subsequent screening.

I can understand when someone repeatedly re-watches their favorite movie. Some are just so packed with fine details that it feels like a new experience each time. Unfortunately, The Day After Tomorrow is not my favorite movie. I wouldn’t even consider it a good movie, and my opinion of it has become even less flattering over time. So, why, exactlyhas this movie been repeatedly drilled into my brain?

The answer lies within its nature. The Day After Tomorrow is categorized, quite neatly, as a disaster movie. It fits right in with the likes of Deep Impact, Twister, 2012, and Dante’s Peak, and even alongside some of the sillier films in the genre, such as The Core and Armageddon. Most of these movies, to some degree, follow a pretty standard format: A researcher in a niche field of natural sciences gives an ominous warning of the dangers that he discovers from his research. His warnings are quickly cast aside by rivals, deniers, or greedy politicians. Suddenly, a disastrous situations erupts that is conveniently relevant to the researcher’s area of expertise. Now the viewers must hold on to their seats as our hero traverses the volatile results of this disaster to either “solve” the problem or save as many people as he can. Throw in some child bystanders and a montage of cities being consumed by rampant special effects and you’ve got yourself a movie!

The “nature” of these movies lies within their appeal. Yes, some viewers might enjoy the suspenseful or interpersonal struggles of the protagonist in the midst of his predicament. Yes, many are suckers for the “destruction porn” provided by the blob of special effects crashing into an urban environment. Sometimes these movies have comedic or romantic elements that can keep people entertained. However, the thing that keeps people coming back has a lot more in common with that of horror flicks: Audiences crave the adrenaline from fear. They’re addicted to projecting themselves into terrible situations that would stimulate their primal urges for danger and excitement.

The requirement for these movies to achieve this exact thrill is that they must be remotely grounded in reality; if they break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, then the thrill, and subsequently the appeal, dissipates. Because of this, most disaster movies have concepts (usually loosely) based in science, bringing forth and exaggerating familiar concepts such as storms, earthquakes, and meteors. The success of these movies hinge on people’s natural fears of these phenomena. In order to ramp up the excitement even further, many disaster movies brand their plots as “warnings” in attempts to convince their audiences that these events are realand it could happen to you! 

The reason I’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow so many times is because the “warning” it gives has been relevant to a number of courses I’ve taken throughout high school and college. In eighth grade I took a low-stress extracurricular class on alternative energies, and the teacher showed The Day After Tomorrow to demonstrate their necessities. In ninth grade I took earth science, and as a treat after a test the teacher decided to show a movie. That movie? The Day After Tomorrow. In twelfth grade I took an environmental studies class. Needless to say, we watched The Day After Tomorrow. Now, deep into my college career, I’ve found myself watching The Day After Tomorrow once again.

Some may say that the popularity of these movies are a good thing. It would be logical to assume that people who are more aware of the consequences of global warming from this movie would be more conscious of their carbon footprint. Or that those that watch Twister would know how to protect themselves and their families from tornadoes. Or even that the viewers of Deep Impact would advocate for better preparation in the case of a major asteroid collision. However, these movies are more likely to cause more problems than good.

The problem with disaster movies is that, while they present the audience with extreme examples of theoretical disasters, they undermine the actual consequences of natural disasters that happen every year. A disaster movie isn’t going to show a family hopelessly watch the California wildfires slowly approach their home, or an elderly couple being stranded on their roof for three days after the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, or a Kenyan village gradually starving because the annual average temperature rising six degrees Celsius killed their crops. While tragic, real-life disasters would be considered “boring” to the typical disaster movie audience. People familiar with disaster movies are less likely to care about the victims of a real disaster because it wasn’t as “flashy” as what they see in the movies, like how a suburb being flooded by five feet of water isn’t as emotionally impactful as the entirety of New York City getting leveled by a giant tidal wave.

Disaster movies set up an impossible expectation for disasters to be large, sudden, and exciting. People often don’t realize that they simply aren’t so extreme. Many actual disasters are small (relative to what’s seen in the movies) with the real dangers being the long battle of endurance rather than flying debris or giant fireballs instantly killing people. When someone tunes in to the fallout of a natural disaster but is “disappointed” by the severity, how would that affect their sympathy towards the victims, or their willingness to help? While disaster movies certainly give the impressions of being omens of the future to come or inspirations for the resilience of the human spirit (also usually tugging at the watcher’s emotions by destroying beloved national landmarks), the over-the-top display of natural forces delusions people to what it means for others to experience danger and tragedy.

It should remembered that movies, despite how realistic they claim to be, should never be taken seriously. The film industry is, after all, a for-profit industry, and is more than willing to stretch the truth to increase drama or justify having crazier special effects. It may be difficult for common audiences to disassociate disaster movies with actual disasters, but if that is ever achieved we would certainly end up with a more socially and environmentally aware society.

(As a side note, it should be pointed out how problematic the ending of The Day After Tomorrow is for people who might take it seriously. The movie doesn’t do anything to offer a solution for people to pursue, then goes on to depict the storm dissipating on its own, as if to say “Even if this did happen, don’t worry! The problem will fix itself soon enough.” What a great lesson to teach your children.)