I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
On the second anniversary of the day Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York, Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1, posted an image of the Statue of Liberty overrun by a tidal wave from the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow to his Instagram, writing: “2 years ago #Sandy hit making clear how vulnerable the city is.” One of his followers commented: “Great screenshot from The Day After Tomorrow. Funny people believe it’s real.” Biesenbach responded: “I picked the picture because pictures from movies often seem more ’real’ than documents.” Then he wrote: “The days after the hurricane felt very much like in this movie.” And finally: “I will post a pic a day this week, but felt it was good to start with a constructed image as we all didn’t know what was really happening the day/night of [the hurricane] until the floods and fires took their devastating toll.” Several other users continued to criticize his choice of image. He responded that the film still was a reminder that fiction can be made real: “I was evacuated from Rockaway Beach (in the midst of planting trees) and went to the city and spent Sunday/Monday indoors until the storm was over, watching tv and the news until the electricity [blacked] out.” He then wrote: “What did you do?”
I house-sat in the West Village for a wealthy art collector that I had been assisting part-time. In advance of the storm, he’d fled to his second home Upstate with his husband and asked me to watch his apartment for them while they were away. On the eleventh floor of a building at the edge of evacuation zone C, his apartment would be safer than mine, which was in evacuation zone B, in Brooklyn. “We’ll pay for groceries,” he wrote in an email to me. Subject: “My place during big storm.”
I picked up food (tortillas, two chicken breasts, a can of black beans), a few frozen dinners at the Whole Foods in Union Square, weed from a friend in the East Village, and kept awake through the hurricane as the wind picked up speed and the waters of the Hudson, the East River, and the Atlantic surged over the boroughs, into Battery Park and the tunnels between Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. As the harbor rose up over lower Manhattan, I smoked a joint and watched CNN until I saw the power plant by the East River explode in a concussive burst of intense, white light in the window of the apartment. New York, or at least my part of New York, went dark, full-dark, a dark you could brag about. I stood up: Had it been a bomb? I thought I’d smoked too much. I went over to the window to see if I could make out a fire or sirens, but the city had gone quiet in the blackout—my first. I went to check the news on my phone, but it had died while I was stoned on CNN’s rolling coverage of the end of the world. I slid the windowpane up and stuck my head out onto Fifth Avenue, into the throttled calm of what I took to be Sandy’s lopsided eye as it stalled overhead. The air tasted salty, crisp. Little lights, candles, flashlights, whatever else was available to whoever was awake, began to brighten in the windows of nearby apartment buildings. NYU students emerged from their dormitory across the street with flashlights to play in the drizzle. They ran about, enthralled with the novelty of this chink in the city’s armor, screaming and laughing in the cold, misty rain that spritzed the air, unconscious of whatever it was that was happening at the frayed edges of Queens and Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, until the hurricane picked up force again and they returned to their rooms for the final act, whatever that would look like. Far Downtown, the Goldman Sachs building, a cube of gold buried in the dark, glowed obscenely amid its shadowed neighbors, powered apparently by its own generators.
With my phone dead, I spent the next day in the apartment as the food ran out, wondering what had happened and who was injured and if anyone I knew had been killed. I paced the small guest room, moved back and forth between the window and the double bed, and looked out to see what people were doing outside amid the wreck of tree branches and stray garbage that had been flung down the avenue by the storm. I kept to the bed for the rest of the day until I couldn’t take the isolation of somebody else’s apartment with somebody else’s things anymore, and I left and found a taxi. We drove through the manic, cop-directed traffic of Manhattan without its streetlights, past the fallen trees and piles of trash and the dispersed and ugly detritus of buildings and vehicles, chunks of plastic and overturned garbage cans, until we crossed the empty Williamsburg Bridge and headed toward south Williamsburg, where I arrived home almost in tears, though I couldn’t explain to my roommate at the time why I felt so terrible. I was okay and felt ridiculous for being upset, even more so as I began to explain this feeling to him. I allowed the luxury of passing victimhood to take its indefinite, blob-like shape in me.
“It’s fine,” James said.
In the following week, my grandparents sent me a chain email with images from movies that were being passed off as photographs from the real hurricane (almost all of them were from disaster films), including the one from The Day After Tomorrow that Biesenbach would post years later to Instagram. These were composite images of tornadoes over Manhattan, a supercell storm system photoshopped over Midtown, sharks cruising the Financial District. My grandparents were glad to know that I wasn’t hurt, but they wanted to know if the statue had survived the storm. Subject: “FWD:FWD:FWD:FWD:FWD: You won’t BELIEVE what Sandy did to NYC!!”
Ed Halter, writing for Artforum online about disaster films of the 2010s, notes that these films propose a day after tomorrow in which we no longer overcome or survive disaster but rather enter an age of its permanent management:
These are cynical films at heart, allowing us to fantasize about negotiating survival within a failing system rather than letting us hope to replace it with something better. Their anxieties mirror the just-in-time logic of networked economies, in which a typical day of work consists of the management of multiple crises, thrown onto the laps of multitaskers thanks to the unfettered spread of instant connectivity.
Halter concludes by quoting Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster,” her prophetic 1965 essay on atomic-era films, in which she writes that these works “are only a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people’s response to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness.”
In recent disaster films, the crisis frequently results from the strain on—or collapse of—those networked economies as their multitaskers go offline once the power has shut off, or the city has flooded. Scientists, realizing too late that the seismograph has recorded the first tremors of an earthquake of unprecedented power that is about to destroy underprepared Los Angeles, or that a global superstorm is forming in the Atlantic, fail to alert or convince the right authorities of the coming disaster, which unfolds faster than the response system can react and leaves ordinary people, played by extraordinary actors, to their own means of escape into the new world.
“I picked the picture because pictures from movies seem more ’real’…”
The Day After Tomorrow ends with frosty New York lost forever to the tundra of New Siberia, an icebox in the Acela corridor, its streets buried in white snow. Exiled to Mexico, the United States government sends a helicopter rescue mission to scoop up the remaining survivors in the Northeast, knowing few—if any—have survived the weather no one believed would come. Shit’s come all right, the president acknowledges. After all these years of saying it wouldn’t happen, it has, a cinematic comeuppance in a world too afraid to face a changing climate. With much of the us made uninhabitable, unseated permanently from its metropolitan kingdom, the film ends in an absurd prophecy of crisis management that concurs with the doomsday mood of the eco-disaster films of the past few years.
“What did you do?”
Susan Sontag concludes:
There is a sense in which all these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent. They neutralize it, as I have said. It is no more, perhaps, than the way all art draws its audience into a circle of complicity with the thing represented. […] The films perpetuate clichés about identity, volition, power, knowledge, happiness, social consensus, guilt, responsibility which are, to say the least, not serviceable in our present extremity.
In 2015, Patricia, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded, made landfall on Mexico’s Pacific coast with winds at 165 miles per hour. It emerged as a tropical storm in the south Pacific, gathered strength in the unusually warm waters of our Indian summer, and charged toward the resort town of Cuixmala. On its website, the New York Times published a lush AP photograph of Puerto Vallarta’s coastal vista taken by Cesar Rodriguez. In the image, men—some tourists, some locals, but only men—idle near the docks by the calm coastal waters. Against the sherbet-peach sky, dark palms dimple the marina while a large sailboat idles in the distance, the edges of its deck lit hot white in the sunset. It’s a great photo, gorgeous evidence of a far-off place we are already invited to mourn, a ghost we must bear within. It conveys the sense of pending destruction, of course, the big force of the sea that will either pulverize the city or spare it from its path. And also, of indifference: come what may, go what will; Mexico remains. Later, the Times provided live coverage of the storm in a stream of articles, tweets, and photographs from its reporters. Despite its enormous power, damage from Patricia was minimal. After arriving inland, the hurricane reduced wind speed and avoided most populated areas until finally it sputtered out and broke down into a disorganized system of smaller storms that likewise collapsed and dissipated.
Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the historian Mike Davis notes that Cuixmala is best known for La Loma, the Xanadu of Sir James Goldsmith, an eccentric English billionaire financier who developed his own ugly form of environmentalism through independent activism in the 1980s and ’90s, some of which is summarized in his bestselling book, The Trap(1994), which argues that nations ought to protect their natural resources lest immigrants arrive to steal them. Knighted in 1976 for “services to exports and ecology,” Goldsmith was a staunchly anti-European nativist politician and businessman who served in European Parliament with the explicit goal of disrupting the unification of Europe. He was a founding member of the short-lived, xenophobic Referendum Party in the UK, which sought to prevent the country from joining the European Union, and he traveled frequently to the us to testify before Congress against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. In 1990, he founded the Goldsmith Foundation to support environmental causes and formed a coalition of green activists with Ralph Nader. Goldsmith captivated the media with his bullying political and personal style, the peculiar charisma of a roguish financier similar to Donald Trump. Goldsmith was known for his boozy grand fetes with women he wasn’t married to in party cities across the globe. He had three families that lived together in Mexico, each in a separate wing of the big house, and he made no effort to hide his many affairs from the public. He was diagnosed with diabetes in the late 1980s and his health flagged. He died in 1997 at the age of sixty-four of a heart attack brought about by pancreatic cancer.
Goldsmith built his “mad castle” in the 1980s over the course of two years and conserved much of the 25,000-acre estate land of wild jungle and lagoons for African antelope and zebras as a wildlife refuge far from urban life. A federally protected land, Goldsmith’s La Loma wasn’t only a personal retreat from the industrialized world, but a “survivalist paradise,” as Davis writes. Davis ties Goldsmith’s La Loma to a larger battle among the world’s billionaires over moneyed conservationism, which “preserves” land through privatization and resort development. When he died, Goldsmith’s daughter turned the compound into a tropical getaway for celebrities while rebranding the nature reserve as a paradisiacal buffer between guests and the paparazzi.
La Loma’s sprawling complex can accommodate seventy-two guests, with a variety of lodging options, from the big house to smaller cabins for the less wealthy or famous. La Loma offers massages, beauty and spa treatments, complimentary Wi-Fi, sports facilities, a library, a restaurant and bar. It is “gasp-inducingly opulent,” according to its website, with elegant views of the forest and grove shores from a number of gardens and terraces. Dress code at La Loma is “Boho beach style with linen trousers and espadrilles, supplemented with a flash of stupidly expensive jewellery [sic].” The resort offers horseback riding through the jungle, polo, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking in the Pacific, and snorkeling. There is also a golf course at a nearby resort that is available to guests of La Loma, though it requires a short drive.
There is a movie theater at the resort where popular American films are often screened, including The Day After Tomorrow, a favorite of Enrique Jimenez, the manager of the entertainment offerings for the guests. He’s asked his projectionist to screen it tonight.
The elderly audience—smallish since it’s the off-season and the film’s an older movie about bad weather—arrives slowly, in sluggish little pods of two or three that swim up in the thick air, so the film starts fifteen minutes later than Mateo—the projectionist in Boho-style trousers and a slightly wrinkled polo with La Loma’s logo, a squiggle meant to symbolize the mountains—had hoped it would, meaning he’ll be late, maybe perilously late, to a date. He sits on a stool at the entrance of the theater near a small popcorn machine, his legs crossed at the ankles, and greets the visiting Americans and Europeans with a grin he’s trained to widen enough to show the teeth he’s worked hard to keep extraordinarily white, not for La Loma but for himself. He’s become—since high school when he “discovered” women—a perfectionist about his own body, so it’s no problem for him to show off this hard work as soon as guests show up. This isn’t life as he’d wanted it, but he accepts it as essential to some later success, as the necessary move before he can advance on the board. They know when you mean it, Mateo, his manager has told him, so he tries not to force it when he says hello in his accented English, and whenever one of the bright white faces nods his way, he tries to think of each of them positively, like he’s seeing his mother for the first time after she’s gone on a long trip to the States, though sometimes even that isn’t enough, so he thinks of both his sister and his mother after a trip to the States and then he can smile, really smile because he loves his mother and his sister.
He’s heard that Bianca Jagger is staying at the resort. At the moment, she’s the most famous person around. He hopes to see her, though he’s not exactly sure why, since before the whispers of her arrival, he’d never heard of Bianca Jagger—and had to google her name after a coworker mentioned her in the lunchroom. Most of the images he finds show her from decades ago, when she was the young wife of the rock star Mick Jagger. He reads her Spanish Wikipedia, which is brief on everything except her ex-marriage and her political activism in Nicaragua: Durante los años 80, se opuso a la intervención de los Estados Unidos en Nicaragua tras la revolución Sandinista. Se ha opuesto a la pena de muerte y se ha manifestado a favor de los derechos de las mujeres y las minorías indígenas de Iberoamérica, especialmente los de la tribu Yanomami de Venezuela y Brasil. He doesn’t really think about the ’60s, the Rolling Stones, hip England, any of that. He thinks about not being at La Loma longer than the semester he’s had to take off from school to raise cash for school, this dalliance into a luxe world he’s spinning for himself as potentially career-advancing if he makes the right friends here. Which has not happened at La Loma. Still, he would like to see a star.
When an American senator arrives, he starts the DVD. Sometimes he watches the films, too, standing near the exit in case anyone gets up to get a snack. He has never seen The Day After Tomorrow, but the IMDB page, which rates the movie 6.4 stars out of 10, doesn’t convince him to watch it. The top-rated review is titled “Clichéd, illogical, unscientific but the first hour really delivers even if the second hour is like the 1970’s never happened.”
He lingers in the projectionist booth at the film’s start. In the opening title sequence, the camera pans across the Arctic Ocean before hovering over the Larsen B Ice Shelf on the east coast of Antarctica, where a small encampment of scientists—one of whom is played by Dennis Quaid—is nearly killed when the ice cracks underfoot. The action sequence is brief: the scientists leap across the chasm that opens up in the ice, risk death in the manner of every scene in every movie like it, fall back onto the snow panting and shocked by the shelf’s sudden change. Something terrible is beginning, Quaid’s handsome face reads. Mateo realizes he might fall asleep, so he gets up to make an espresso at the concession stand. He manages the theater five nights a week, and he can only do it by way of espresso, three or four shots a night, sometimes five if it’s a date night. Since the film was released, Larsen B has collapsed and disintegrated, but Mateo doesn’t know that. Nor does anyone else in the audience.
He pours the espresso into a small ceramic cup emblazoned with La Loma’s logo. The lobby is open, glassy with cream walls and large bay windows that let in the ample Pacific light. When he’s at the theater, he sometimes catches himself staring at the light as it tracks the wall with the movement of the sun. The metal window frames, each intricately patterned with stars and other astrological forms, cast geometric shadows across the wall that gradually warp as the sun begins to set. He decides to skip the movie and watch Pornhub on his iPhone instead. The film will run itself.
“Has it started? God, I’m so, so late.” A woman enters from the garden, and, to his luck, she’s who he thinks she is. She looks like the photo on her Wikipedia page, only made real, the image rendered flesh and standing before him, a complete person: square headed, jowly with dark eyes that crater her features. She is completely out of breath. She must have run across the campus to make it. No one’s ever done that, he thinks. She leans forward and puts her right hand on her knee, her left on Mateo’s chest. He can smell her, and the intensity of his desire to kiss her nearly overwhelms him, unexpectedly, though perhaps all the breakroom excitement, the bored fever of off-season folk, has bundled him a set of desires he never knew he had, including this one. He steps back to deaden the feeling before it overtakes him. Bianca Jagger is perhaps the most famous person who’s ever attended a movie at La Loma while he’s worked there. He cannot think of another time that a guest has touched him, has placed her hand on his chest. Touched him, and in doing so has administered an unexpected personhood that usually goes unearned among the staff of La Loma, has made him flesh like hers.
“The film only just started five minutes ago. I am sure you haven’t missed anything.”
She straightens herself. “Oh thank god. My friend produced this, years ago, and I’ve been meaning to see it ever since so that I can finally tell him I have.” Mateo watches her as she goes into the theater. Stay put, he tells himself, after feeling drawn to follow her. Alone at the stand he distracts himself by making two hotdogs on the small grill and checks his phone again, forgetting about the porn: Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp. No new notifications. He tries not to pay attention to the dull thud of the film in the next room, the popcorn smell, Bianca, Dennis Quaid on the ice, the global superstorm that lingers over the face of the world.
There is a small town that is not destroyed by the tomorrow that approaches it, tomorrow as precipitous country, which makes landfall everywhere at once, the total space of things (resort and theater, lagoon and crocodile) as soon as it engulfs you. Over the town, the charcoal sky, an overwhelming wind the gulls idle in, aloft without moving forward or falling back to land below, surrounded by the “local,” which in this case equals woods plus sky plus a resort that has boarded itself up, local birds over a local jungle under a local storm. Nothing is destroyed.
In “The Imagination of Disaster,” Sontag notes that a deep anxiety underwrites science-fiction films (particularly sci-fi involving an alien invasion), not only the anxiety of total destruction (the Bomb), but rather “the negative imagination about the impersonal”: the aliens, typically humanoid, resemble us in most ways except in their emotional response to events and other individuals. While humans fret and resist, scream and attempt contact, the aliens in these films remain cold and unemotional, indifferent to the fluctuation of human emotions that define the moment of first contact, which they frequently leverage to their advantage. This fear, Sontag argues, rests on the belief that aliens will impose a “regime of emotionlessness, of impersonality, of regimentation,” like that of the Soviet Union. In ecological disaster films, the source of fear is reversed: it is not the threat of a new regime of impersonality, but rather an emotional chaos of only personality, where survival is based on the strength and tenacity of individuals who resist group safety or survival efforts—Jake Gyllenhaal in The Day After Tomorrow or The Rock, a decade later, in San Andreas—amid the wreck of civilization. In these films, love of family trumps (and triumphs over) the emotionless bureaucracy of the rescue effort, of government-protected “higher ground,” FEMA and its conspiracy of trailers. The storms come, destroy what they can, whom they can, especially those who follow the lead of others, into the fire, the epicenter, the flood zone, the imploding skyscraper. We do not witness these deaths with horror when the group makes its collective miscalculation on the stability of that shelter, that road, that path through the woods. Rather, we are relieved that our heroes were not so foolish as to follow them. We wouldn’t do that, we think. We would follow The Rock or Jake Gyllenhaal. On the screen, no one believes the tedious Cassandras who insist on the global catastrophe, that a global superstorm will destroy the United States, not even the protagonists tenacious enough to go against prescribed safety in order to survive. They live because they refute the premise of the prediction: life will go on and will never end no matter what the Fed says; San Francisco will be wiped out, but it’ll carry on for those with a knack for piloting any nearby vehicle out of the implosion.
Bianca Jagger opens a bag of Skittles. “Can you please not look at your phone?” someone asks her as she checks the weather for the night. She apologizes and nods. “I’m so sorry.” She swallows a handful of the candy and goes back to the film. Haven’t I seen this?
She hasn’t. She moves a few seats down, away from her irritated seatmate, and pulls out her phone again to make a quick note for herself, part of an ongoing diary she keeps when she’s viewing a film, the unwritten essays of Bianca Jagger: “The Constructed Imagination of Disaster,” she writes in the absurd default font of her iPhone 5s. On screen, a view from space shows the giant snowstorm headed for North America. She lists the points she’d like to make about this constructed imagination:
Someone behind Bianca taps her on the shoulder and asks her to stop using her phone in the theater. Again? She has dimmed her iPhone down to its lowest setting. She looks around: the theater is tiny, only twenty seats, but she realizes she’s been noticed by the few guests around her. Several men stare at her. She always makes notes during films; why should this be any different? She prefers the impersonal theaters like those back home: big, crowded and rowdy, with people checking their phones and getting up and going to pee and falling asleep and moaning and sighing.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispers, turning around to face the man who’s just tapped her. He’s huge, beefed up by way of some kind of regimen of steroids and painful hours at Equinox in SoHo into the uncomfortable build of a bodyguard, and his face has gone a deep, cherry red. His big warty nose flares in disapproval. “Maybe you should go?” She doesn’t move. “Okay then, I’m getting the manager,” he says.
“The manager, really—”
“Can you please be quiet, ma’am,” the man who first complained about Bianca says from down the row. This isn’t any of his business.
“Yes. The manager. You’ve been on your phone for the whole movie.”
“That’s a complete fib,” she tells them. More people in the theater begin to complain, including the American senator, whom she knows quite well. She shoots him a look: You, too?
“Do we need to have you removed?”
“Removed? I mean, how can you be serious.”
“Just stop using your phone.”
“I was hardly. I take notes, I—”
“I’m getting the manager,” the man behind her says.
“Okay. I’ll leave, I’ll leave,” she says and gets up. With The Day After Tomorrow behind her, she stuffs her Skittles in her pocket and says, “Fuck you. Fuck all of you.” She sidles out of the aisle. “Pricks.”
She passes Mateo in the lobby as he moves to hide his popcorn under the counter. It’s dusk. A sleepy, mauve light has settled over the resort, and he feels nervously romantic at the thought that she has come out here to talk with him again, to possibly tell him she finds him handsome. Her face reads otherwise. “Can I help you?” he starts.
She stops him. “Real assholes in there.”
She raises her hand. “Doesn’t matter, not your fault.” She smiles, which surprises him, and leans forward to grab a bag of popcorn off the counter. Her nails slide across the lacquer top, a move he finds inscrutable. “I won’t stand for it—and I’ll be in touch with the manager. Can I have this?”
“Of course,” he says. It’s evening. He’s off once the film is done and he cleans up. Should he tell her he would like to see her later? He could cancel his date. The feeling evolves quickly, almost getting away from him, as the words begin to form their script in the half-second it takes her to grab the popcorn, I’m off in an hour or so if you’re free, Bianca Jagger, I know this is very strange probably but I was wondering … and he loses the thread as she fishes out a handful of popcorn and begins to eat in front of him. She stares angrily out the window toward the gardens. In his mind, the letters of her name appear billboard-sized and set off in the distance, just over the horizon line of the jungle, glowing neon in the sky, B-I-A-N-C-A, he smiles, so I was wondering if, but she’s gone out, into the gardens without a goodbye. She disappears down a path among the palms and heliconia, the sky overhead an unnerving purple that swallows her into the last of its light.
We now abandon theory for practice, weather for weather event. The email arrives with a series of images claiming to show the devastation of the storm. The wave overtakes the Statue of Liberty. Cars lift up in eight feet of floodwater in an underground garage in Lower Manhattan. Soldiers guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the rain. Scuba divers in the 42nd Street–Times Square station. A McDonald’s flooded to the counter, the brown water littered with branded trash. Ronald McDonald floats facedown amid the debris. A great white shark attacks a rescue helicopter, the EMT dangling by a rope just in reach of the animal’s jaws. Lightning bolts tear through Midtown Manhattan. I’m pacing an apartment that isn’t mine, smoking a joint I eventually flick into the fire when it’s finished, as a strong wind beats the windows. The doorman calls up to recommend that I unplug any electronics, especially the computers, in case of a blackout that might cause a power surge when the lights go back on. There is a blackout within minutes of the call, the power plant explodes, and the apartment darkens completely. I run into the kitchen to fetch a flashlight or candles, though it’s so dark I don’t even know where to begin to look. I rummage through the drawers of someone else’s home, but find nothing. In the film version of this moment, Jake Gyllenhaal plays the character based on me, and he calmly manages to locate a self-generating flashlight and a set of candles, which he uses to relight the apartment, only to realize that much of the city is on fire and that, fifteen flights below, water is beginning to rise in Lower Manhattan. The music begins to swell. I continue to search for the flashlight from room to room. The lighter’s flame fades. A supercell hovers over Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge is inundated by the East River. A flashlight. A tidal wave crushes Midtown. Traffic snarls on Fifth Avenue, everyone slowly gets out of their cars to look Downtown to where a hundred-foot wave is moving toward them. Everyone begins to flee, pushing aside fellow commuters, cabbies, strangers, Gyllenhaal. A Burger King is destroyed. Water rises.
Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes and the forthcoming novel Blonde Summer (2017), both from Nightboat. He coedits Wonder and lives in New York.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee