Monday Over Coffee: Climbing From Disaster

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Climbing from Disaster

 

My favorite genre of entertainment growing up was the disaster movie. The first film I recall being excited to see was The Poseidon Adventure produced by Hollywood’s Master of Disaster, Irwin Allen. I was 8. My brother was equally excited about the movie and we begged our dad to take us even though it was rated PG and surely contained some cursing. He finally agreed. 

 

As you might know, the premise of the movie centers on the fictional SS Poseidon, an aged luxury liner on her final voyage. On New Year's Eve, at the strike of midnight, she’s capsized by a rogue wave. Passengers and crew are trapped inside the ballroom until a preacher, played by Gene Hackman, begins to lead a small cadre of former Oscar nominees, Hollywood starlets, and memorable character actors all doing the best they can with the material at hand, to safety. Moving upward through the bowels of the now upside-down vessel through numerous flooded decks and burning boiler rooms to its hull, they hope to escape the sinking, overturned ship. Obstacles abound.

 

By the end of the show, I’d shaken off my moral qualms about the language, having been captured by the story, the resilience and pluck of the characters, the sacrifice of the hero, and the awesome (for the time) special effects. I was now hooked on the genre. What followed was a string of blockbuster 1970’s disaster movies which my brother and I typically went to see on the first day they came out: The Towering Inferno, Earthquake! (in Sensurround), and all the ‘Airport’ movies (Airport ’75, ’77, and ’79). The plot lines became more and more ludicrous, but they enthralled us all the same. 

 

You’re no doubt familiar with the Hollywood tropes which drive these movies. The impending disaster stems from a natural cause, an accident, a pandemic, a terrorist attack, or the scheme of an evil genius. There’s the build-up, the disaster itself, and the aftermath, told from the point of view of individual characters you begin to root for as they’re confronted not only with the catastrophe itself, but human vice. There’s always a villain to blame of course, but there’s also invariably a cowardly character who threatens the survival of the rest, then dramatically succumbs to his weakness and is consumed in the conflagration at hand. Meanwhile, the often flawed but persevering hero or heroine presses on, leading their gathered remnant in a gritty struggle against the existential threat.

 

The movie industry keeps making disaster movies, and they continue to make bundles. James Cameron's Titanic was a cinematic phenomenon. One of the best tv shows of last year was about Chernobyl. And while they don’t neatly fit into the disaster film genre, Marvel’s most recent Avenger movies and Christopher Nolan’s latest offering, Tenet, have taken the genre about as far as it can go with evil forces threatening to wipe out half of life in the universe in the case of the former and all of it, in the case of the latter.

 

When asked, at the height of his popularity in 1977, if he thought he’d ever exhaust his material, Irwin Allen said, ”No, I'm not going to run out of disasters. Pick up the daily newspaper, which is my best source for crisis stories, and you'll find 10 or 15 every day.”

 

He’s right. The question isn’t whether disasters, man-made or natural, will continue. They are continuing, and they will continue to continue. But here’s something to focus on as they do: there’s a moment in The Poseidon Adventure — come to think of it, most every other example of the genre — a moment of truth when the characters must choose whom to follow. After the wave hits, the ship’s purser tells the panicking passengers to stay in the ballroom. Hackman, the reverend, tells them they must exercise their will and move in faith. Their first step under his direction is to climb from the brokenness of the ballroom using a Christmas tree reconfigured as a ladder. Subtle. In fact, there’s a religious subtext that runs throughout the movie about belief and doubt, about will and grace, about sacrifice, loss, and meaning that, though lost on me at age 8, I now understand better. 

 

Disaster calls upon us to make consequential decisions, to buckle up and choose a path, uncovering meaning along the way as we try to climb together. That’s where we are. Let’s gather our wits and start climbing out.

 

God — I feel like I’m in the broken ballroom of an overturned ship. Though obstacles abound, help me find the ladder, lean it against something solid, and begin to climb out. Amen.

 

– Greg Funderburk


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