Drowntown Local

Roland Emmerich is a director of monumentally cringe-worthy movies that usually feature two or three minutes of spectacularly cool destruction.

Roland Emmerich is a director of monumentally cringe-worthy movies that usually feature two or three minutes of spectacularly cool destruction. He’s blown up most of the world’s major landmarks at one point or another, but has a particular jones for seeing New York City burn. The Day After Tomorrow is his third film, counting Independence Day and Godzilla , to feature ooh- and ahh-worthy scenes of the wanton demolition of New York (although, in fact, the single best 15 seconds of Emmerich footage-Godzilla’s foot coming down through the, uh, skylight of the American Museum of Natural History and smashing a T. Rex skeleton-didn’t make it into that movie’s final cut). The money shot in Independence Day is the alien blast that takes out the Empire State Building, and the only shot that seemed to get the audience’s attention at a May 24 screening of The Day After Tomorrow at the Ziegfeld Theater was a similar glut of metropolitan devastation: a tidal wave that pulses through the Manhattan grid, cleaning the streets with a thoroughness Rudy Giuliani could only envy. Unlike the wave in Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact , which wiped out everything east of the Appalachians, the wave in The Day After Tomorrow is medium-sized-just high enough to wet the face of the Statue of Liberty, but leaving her head and upraised arm sticking out of the water. Although the image was, I’m pretty sure, a nod to Planet of the Apes ‘ iconic final moment, I was reminded more of a beach-going mom who’s decided to smoke and swim at the same time, determinedly holding that cigarette above the waves.

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Alas, Lady Liberty’s torch seems to have gone out long ago. The statue’s dousing in The Day After Tomorrow failed to achieve cinematic impact, eliciting little more than slightly embarrassed titters from the Ziegfeld audience. The laughter was a reminder that New Yorkers, living under the continually implied threat of actual destruction, no longer seem to invest much in mocked-up (though not mocking) cinematographic fantasies of that end. This is the post-9/11 universe, New York style: slightly bitchy cover stories on FDNY widow’s love lives and newfound wealth; Verizon phone-booth ads reminding us that the Indian Point nuclear-power station is only 25 miles north of the city, and upwind; J’accuse commissions suggesting that the city’s police and fire departments could have somehow handled the situation better, coupled with articles on the upcoming Republican National Convention that treat the expected wave of anti-Bush protesters as cover for potential terrorists. The terrorists don’t even have to fly in, these articles remind us; they can take the train! Amtrak offers dozens of absolutely unrestricted entrées into the city for anyone who can shell out the money for a ticket, and you can even bring more than one carry-on.

The point is not that New Yorkers are living in fear, but that we’re not. We are neither offended nor horrified by these particular images because we have disinvested in the idea of our own destruction, opting instead for the safety of statistics. Another way of saying that 2,801 people died in the World Trade Center is to say that seven million New Yorkers didn’t. This is one of those rationalizations that is either very brave or very foolish, but it is, to all appearances, and for all intents and purposes, the way things are now.

There was a troupe of fresh-faced protesters outside the Ziegfeld when I saw the movie, but it was unclear whether they stood for or against Emmerich’s Hollywood vision of climate change. And indeed, claiming either a pro-environmental or anti-globalist message for a movie like The Day After Tomorrow is a bit like claiming to care whether the bull or the bullfighter wins. Let’s face it, people go to the arena because they know one combatant or the other is going to die, and in either case it’s going to be a good show. If our sympathies naturally vest in the human, we can still distance ourselves in the advent of his defeat by the fact that he chose to step into the ring with a bull, and so what did the fucking moron expect? Similarly, the millions of more or less invisible dead in The Day After Tomorrow are denied any sympathy by the fact that they’re complicit members of a society which imprudently denies the consequences of its industrial lifestyle (the most grotesque example of which is a trio of not- quite -Jewish businessmen kvetching about the uselessness of their $1,500 raincoats and slipping a bus driver a couple of wadded hundreds to take them on, right before that tidal wave turns them into fish food). The only people we care about in this movie are climatologists (Dennis Quaid, still hot at 50, and Ian Holm, still Bilbo Baggins in shoes) and children. Most of all, we are meant to care about climatologists’ children (Jake Gyllenhaal, miraculously rising above the monumental uselessness of his character by playing him with more sloe-eyed seriousness than he gave Donnie Darko), and also a kid with cancer whose parents desert him, leaving him in the care of his pediatrician, who happens to be a certain climatologist’s wife (Sela Ward, smiling stoically under the burden of spending most of her screen time reading picture books to a bald 8-year-old with a tube sticking out of his nose).

All of this evinces not so much Mr. Emmerich’s bathetic sentimentality as a lack of interest in who people are outside of certain Hollywood clichés established in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s: Roland Emmerich, God bless his soul, cares about the human race, but he cares very little for individual human beings, who tend either to be heroes, villains, victims or women. But even he must have finally recognized that The Day After Tomorrow , like all of his previous films, lacks an emotional tug. As a result, his panoramic, painstakingly crafted scenes of nature’s revenge lose their sting after 40 or 50 minutes-so where the hell, one wonders, is that second hundred million gonna go? There are only so many, like, neat things you can do with snow, whether it’s seen in close-up through the goggles of a man on foot or in the ultra-wide angle of the refracted windows protecting a pair of astronauts in orbit around the planet; ultimately, it’s the people who are getting snowed on that pull an audience through a movie. And so, halfway through The Day After Tomorrow , the vistas of annihilation are suddenly subordinated to a remarkably dogmatic rescue quest: Dennis Quaid, setting out, on foot, to travel from Washington to New York, through a storm where the temperature can plummet to 150 degrees below zero in a matter of seconds. His goal is son Jake, holed up with a small crew of librarians and high-school-age scholastic decathletes (I’d say that you can’t make that shit up, but someone obviously did), waiting for him in the 42nd Street library (wait, move that last parenthetical comment here), where they burn books instead of the significantly more flammable wooden furniture to keep warm (no, here ). Ah, well-it’s a good metaphor, even if it doesn’t actually mean anything in this case.

Mr. Quaid’s quest is simultaneously a neat conflation of Mel Gibson’s patrimonial vengeance in The Patriot and Will Smith’s all-for-America flight into the heart of an alien spacecraft in Independence Day . The German-born Emmerich seems to love the spirit of the United States, which he finds inherent in generations (even the sequel-less Godzilla closed with an image of the atomic dinosaur’s eggs hatching in its Madison Square Garden nest), but hates what he thinks the U.S. has become: a debased nation that is less greedy than suicidally, if not simply genocidally, myopic. Artier directors, from Altman to Tarantino, like to attribute much of that shortsightedness to Hollywood, and Mr. Emmerich takes his own piss against the wind in a scene in which a tornado rips down what’s left of the Hollywoodland sign.

But he saves his real enmity for New York. For Mr. Emmerich, New York would seem to embody all that is evil in our post-Revolutionary, pre-Apocalyptic nation, and as someone who writes out a $2,400 check every month for a shitty East Village walk-up (O.K., my computer generates the check, but you know what I mean), it’s hard not to agree with him. Michael Douglas’ era-defining “Greed is good,” from Wall Street (by Oliver Stone, a director who hates the United States far more than Roland Emmerich does), is obviously still at play in some quarters in this city. Part of the appeal, not just of Mr. Emmerich’s disaster flicks, but of the asteroid movies, and the volcano movies, and the tornado movies, and the plague movies, and the biological- and chemical-weapons movies, and, of course, once upon a time, the nuclear-holocaust movies ( The Day After Tomorrow -get it?) seems to be the somewhat resigned notion that, well, we deserve what’s coming to us. Some sort of civilization-ending event initiated not by terrorists but by nature or fate, which we might here term our collective unconscious, or perhaps simply our collective stupidity. And so, in some loopy way, this schlockiest of schlock directors, who appears to know as much about the emotional lives of contemporary Americans as Norman Rockwell, may well have managed to strike, accidentally or intentionally, a chord that resounds deep within his audience. If Freud was right when he declared in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that the goal of life is death, then Roland Emmerich may well be the psalmist of extinction.

Or maybe he’s just some kind of tough-love junkie. In The Day After Tomorrow , he’s hit upon a narrative of particular, if somewhat belated, resonance to New Yorkers. Quaid’s against-all-odds quest trades on the sense of helplessness that all Americans, but especially New Yorkers, felt in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, as we watched the towers burn for a few minutes that seemed to last millennia, and then searched for endless weeks afterward for survivors, or at least something recognizable to put in the ground. Quaid’s command to Gyllenhaal to “stay in the building” is eerily reminiscent of the advice given to occupants of the World Trade Center after the plane hit the north tower. That advice, we now know, was a mistake-and, to Rudy Giuliani’s credit, just about the only fucking mistake that was made-and Quaid is setting out, not quite three years too late, to rectify it. Come hell or high water (both of which do come, if we accept Dante’s vision of the final pit as a lake frozen by Satan’s breath), Quaid will get his son out. And, of course, he does-dads always get their sons out in movies like The Day After Tomorrow . And when he does, guess what: everybody at my screening laughed again.

The predictability of its success isn’t what robs Quaid’s quest of any, forgive the pun, deep impact. Rather, it was real life that beat Quaid to the rescue. In July 2002, nine miners near Somerset, Penn., were trapped underground when their exit tunnel flooded. For three days, rescuers worked around the clock to get them out-and, of course, the media was there with them every moment of the day, broadcasting each advance, every setback. Although I never heard it mentioned aloud, it seemed to me that Americans viewed the unfolding drama through the prism of fear, helplessness and guilt that many of us still felt about not being able to save so many victims of Sept. 11. Early on the first day, rescuers heard taps coming from underground, but within a few hours the tapping stopped. Still, the rescuers pressed on, drilling through the silent earth for two more days until they finally broke into the chamber where the miners were trapped and, one by one, all nine prisoners were extruded, alive, through the narrow rescue shaft. The coverage of that event was, for better or worse, one of the most profoundly cathartic moments I’ve experienced in the wake of the terror attacks. Failure had been replaced by success; America’s ability to protect its own was affirmed. Whether it was that precise event, or the rather weighty accumulation of history in the past 32 months, some force that was more than merely aesthetic prevented Quaid’s rescue from achieving the kind of effect Emmerich was after-indeed, seems almost to have caused Emmerich’s ham-fisted but well-intentioned efforts to have backfired, as evidenced by the fact that various New York pundits are already attacking the movie for its “irresponsible” images of the city’s decimation.

There are images, and there are images. Thirteen years ago, I held up some dumb sign telling people to boycott The Silence of the Lambs because its image of a sexually introverted man was deeply homophobic (which it is, and, like, so?); a few weeks ago, as Susan Sontag pointed out in last Sunday’s Times Magazine , the Bush administration tried to downgrade several instances of torture perpetrated by American soldiers on not-quite-P.O.W.’s into mere unfortunate imagery. Which is to say that some images are made up and some depict real things, and we should remember what the difference is and keep our attention focused on what’s important. On some level, Mr. Emmerich knows this: Though New York is rendered uninhabitable by climate change in The Day After Tomorrow , not a single building falls. One can almost hear brother Ute reviewing the script: “Roland, don’t go there.”

So. The buildings stand, but the city, and indeed the nation, falls. The fact of the matter is, Americans, for good or ill, have made their pact with the devil, and will have their second homes and S.U.V.’s and personal electronic devices and 4.4 pounds of trash per day; and New Yorkers, in denial or acceptance, have made their peace with life in this city in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center. We are a city under threat, a threat that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or climatologist) to predict will come sooner or later, be it another bomb, or radioactive device, or chemical or biological agent. Our fear of that attack isn’t so great that we’re willing to make changes in our lifestyle-to move, or to live under a police state. Rather, we trust to the safety of the herd: It is the stragglers that will get picked off, the weak, the sick, the old, the unwary or unwise. Someone else will die; when the helicopters come to pull the survivors out, as they do at the end of The Day After Tomorrow , we believe that we will be among the pitifully small crowds gathered on the rooftops of this metropolis we’ve chosen to live in. Mr. Emmerich’s vision of the Apocalypse is just about as plausible as the one in the Book of Revelation, but that isn’t why we don’t believe it. We’re much too busy believing in stories we’ve made up all on our own.

Dale Peck is the author of Hatchet Jobs , just published by New Press.

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