Let's not don't fear the reaper

I like stories about the breakdown of society. I've liked a number of post-apocalyptic films: The Mad Max trilogy, 28 Days, 12 Monkeys, Deep Impact, The Day After, AI, and The War of the Worlds. The problem is that most of them just never satisfy my hunger to see a true version of that horrific possibility. But those trailers of collosal waves and desolate cities keep me going back.

I was excited recently to go see Children of Men and its depiction of a world where civilization is coming apart because women, for some inexplicable reason, have become infertile–a new and intriguing version of the apocalypse. This updated version meant that the end of civilization was coming much slower than the conventional mushroom cloud/tidal wave versions of Doomsday. It was a slow decline coming at the velocity of the human life span. Which meant that the movie was able to observe social breakdown happening slowly enough for governments to enact policies to delay it's devastation. What a novel concept.

Doomsday movies usually dispense so quickly with governments that their only role is to announce mass evacuations or “stay in your homes.” But what would governments do if given the opportunity? This film contends that countries would become great xenophobes. Great Britain shuts down all immigration and incarcerates all existing immigrants (a timely and resonant theme, of course). But given the impending global chaos it is probably a rational self-preservationist policy. The film intimates that the United States is already in a state of constant rioting and anarchy as a result of being unable to shore up its borders the way that the British did. That's really where the movie stops observing the effects of such an impending calamity.

At that point it shows British people going normally about their lives, going to work, buying coffee, watching TV, still captivated by celebrities. It's kind of silly. Soon the film basically morphs into a pursuit movie with Clive Owen and the girl on the run. And for me, at that point, it loses much of its appeal.

War of the Worlds did more for me. It's still a pursuit movie, but with social breakdown erupting from beginning to end. There is one sequence in particular that sticks with me. The family, having escaped the destruction of New York City, is tucked safely in their minivan when by night they encounter a mob blocking the road. The mob won't let them pass. The mob wants to be carried in the car. The mob wants the car. They force the family out at gun point with daughter screaming. The pistol-wielding man from the mob starts to drive away. Then he is shot. The car horn blares. It is perhaps the most terrifying sequence of the film. There are no killer robots. Just panicked desperate human beings. This is what it looks like when civilized society cracks.

More than any movie in the last few years, however, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, captured my post-apocalyptic fascination. The NPR news reports I absorbed each afternoon while we went about constructing a roof-top deck were mini lessons in civic organization: What happens when power is out for more than a day? A week? A month? What happens when only 10% of the police force shows up to work? And when nobody gets their paycheck? Or when there are no jails? Or hospitals? When patients can't get their haldol or junkies get their heroin? These questions have real answers. And collectively we all learned them that summer. And this 37 year old discovered just how fragile civilization really is. The screws and bolts and joist-hangers and sheer-forces that hold society together are nearly invisible. But they are real. And they can be broken.

Many years ago my conviction that we all have eternal identities and will live on in some joyous afterlife cracked and fell away. I was about 24. I stopped denying the finality of death. It was a very hard concession. It was, until my father died, the most painful psychic transition of my life. My only consolation was that at least we have the potential for a lifetime of relative happiness and beauty. That consolation lasted until recently. Now in the aftermath of Katrina (and 9/11) I think my conviction that society will be able to provide the framework for such a life has also been damaged. And for the first time in my life, my faith in predictable societal stability is cracking. I still have hope, but not the naive certainty I once knew. All civilizations really do have life-spans.

Two weeks ago the Doomsday clock was moved forward again. It now stands at five minutes to midnight.

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Recently, a post on this blog resonated with me. The necessity of owning a gun (a shotgun, in particular) seems not irrational anymore–rather, seems important. When I was growing up the Prophet of the church I belonged to sent out a proclamation that every family should have “a year supply.” It was apparently a response to Cold War anxieties. And dutifully, my parents purchased and stored away hundreds of pounds of canned foods, grains, sugar, dried milk, and water. We would regularly make use of the stores and then restock them to keep the supplies fresh.

Thinking back on that storage room, though, we hardly had enough supplies to keep a family of eight fed for more than a couple of months. And remarkably, we didn't stock away other essential supplies. We had no fuel stores, no stove, no generator, no great reserve of batteries, no gun, no ammunition. There was a general lack of imagination. Few wondered or questioned. It astonishes me. We stored things away, but no one considered what would really be necessary to survive a doomsday? And even more importantly, no one asked: would anyone really want to survive such an event?

Which brings me to my most recent encounter with apocalyptic themes. Cormac Mccarthy published The Road in September of last year. He is one of my favorite writers. And arguably America's greatest living writer. I wrote my Masters thesis about his works. In the past I have read his novels within days of their publication. But I was really busy this last Fall and didn't get around to the novel until three days ago. I read it straight through in almost one sitting.

McCarthy has written novels before of desolate apocalyptic-like worlds set in the deserts of the West. Blood Meridian, in particular, tells the blood-soaked story of the 19th Century Indian Wars in stylized biblical prose with no god or mercy in sight. It is a dark book. And fantastically beautiful. You come to expect those things from McCarthy.

His new book carries on like that but set now in the future. Set in America several years after a scorching Apocalypse, the story follows a nameless father and his young son journeying through a ravaged lawless landscape towards the coast, scavenging for food and hiding from cannibals and thieves. It imagines the truest and most horrific post-apocalyptic world that I've ever encountered. It is excruciating to experience. You would never want to live in it. But the story of this father and son is riveting and so heart-breaking. You don't expect those things from McCarthy. And by the end of the book, I was in tears, totally bawling, totally sucker-punched by this story. I can't remember when a book ever had such an effect on me.

I'm quite the opposite of our precious town crier, although I wish I weren't. I don't cry very often. In fact I feel quite self-conscious about that fact. In the presence of others who are crying I very rarely join them in their tears. My lady has referred jokingly to me as a robot. It is a sad state. I postulate that my brain was miswired in embryo and as a result strong emotions don't get through to my tear ducts. I am sad about that. Only psychedelics, strong movies, and the loss of loved ones can break through that disconnection and give me the pleasure of a good cry. And I now add to that list Cormac Mccarthy. I still tear up today just looking back on those last few pages. It is a strong spell.

It has been announced recently that the rights to The Road have been optioned and it will be made into an independent movie tentatively slated for release in 2009. It is a great cinematic story and deserves to be filmed. John Hillcoat, director of last year's The Proposition is set to direct. I hope he is able to pull it off. I would finally like to see a movie that can truly depict the horrific aftermath of the end of civilization. I would like everyone to see that movie. I would like every man and woman to carry a visceral image of that horror.

Can a vision of an apocalyptic future prevent it? I don't know. But I think we should look at it anyway. What's to lose? We might just cry. And even more importantly, we might commit ourselves to avoiding such a tragedy. Can films do that much? I don't know. But deluded and a father, I still carry hope.

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26 responses to “Let's not don't fear the reaper”

  1. MF says:

    “I’m quite the opposite of our precious town crier, although I wish I weren’t. I don’t cry very often. ”

    Let me point out the irony of picking “Fawcett” as your screen name.

  2. MF says:

    Of all of the apocolyptic films I’ve seen/books I’ve read, I agree with you that “War of the Worlds” (despite its many flaws) did a great job of depicting the crisis of human reaction to broken social structure.

    Unrelated to apocolyptic stories, I’ve often thought about the role of societal rules and norms. (Haven’t we all?) The need for rule and order is fundamental to survival. It’s good.

    People look for leadership that can provide structure and order. Sometimes that leadership is corrupt. Sometimes delusional. And when there were no scientific answers to questions, the leadership created religion to answer the questions and to set the societal rule structure. Understandable.

    What’s baffling to me is how people don’t see that now. And how so many people think that social structure can only come from religion. (Some non-believing friends, for example, take their kids to church to learn “values.”)

    Leaders in communist regimes have tried to force non-religious social structures, but many citizens resist. They want religion (or relgious freedom, it’s hard to tell). Is this just because science (and the understanding of how seemingly “magical” phenomena exist) is relatively new on the scale of human existence? Will people eventually come to a broader (un-forced) understanding of life and create social structure without religion?

    Farrell describes a moment in his life where he comes to one such realization:
    “Many years ago my conviction that we all have eternal identities and will live on in some joyous afterlife cracked and fell away. I was about 24. I stopped denying the finality of death. It was a very hard concession. It was, until my father died, the most painful psychic transition of my life.”

    If this happened on a broad scale, would it, in it’s own way, be a sort of apocolypse?

  3. G-Lock says:

    Thanks, Farrell, for your coverage of The Road. I had read reviews of the book last year, but I never got around to actually picking it up. Now it is on the top of my list.

    I absolutely hated War of the Worlds. Perhaps it was Tom Cruise. Perhaps it was that I felt it exploited our post-9/11 fears. The latter is exactly what Spielberg was going for, and he did a marvelous job; it just didn’t resonate with me.

  4. MarleyFan says:

    You make some interesting points, many of which I’ve thought about before. I don’t worry much about the future, but I never want to be so secure that I don’t keep my eyes open. This morning I watched Catch a Fire, a very good film about apartheid, with a South African man who’s government devastates both his perspective and ultimately his freedom (Derek Luke & Tim Robbins, 2006). The film also had an unexpected bonus with some of Bob Marley’s freedom fighter music (I should have guessed from the title). I bring up the movie, because, when our lives are going quite well, we never know what events may change them, sometimes instantly. We recently had a huge windstorm in my hometown, blowing over a thousand trees down; many of my friends lost power to their homes for a week. Food was gone from the store in hours, as was generators, batteries, and many essentials. We can’t stop all calamities, but prevention strategies just might help mitigate some of the problems.

  5. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I liked McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses well enough but never really wanted to read any more of his work, but this essay has piqued my interest–i just ordered The Road mere moments ago. (And it better make me cry, damnit!)

    I find that I can be somewhat of a robot as well, especially when it comes to real-life human emotions. But for whatever reason, books, movies, tv commercials, backs of cereal boxes, bumper stickers–any and all of that can set me bawling instantly…

    Anyway, a wonderful post, Farrell.

  6. WW says:

    This is my version of the apocalypse.

  7. Rachel says:

    Great post, Farrell. As someone who also grew up in a church that emphasized preparedness for emergencies (including the dreaded “year’s supply”), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about staying alive in the event of an apocalypse.

    Maybe because it provokes so much anxiety, the idea of stockpiling food is something I’ve often made light of over the years. No, I won’t drink milk, because when I was a kid we mixed the dried stuff with the fresh stuff, and just the thought of those chalky lumps makes me gag. Yes, it was hilarious when the fifty-gallon drum of honey stored in the attic accidentally overturned and started seeping through the bedroom ceiling. Of course it’s normal to have a thousand pounds of wheat in the garage and sixty pounds of butter in a full-sized freezer hooked up to a backup generator. Ha ha.

    But as much as I sensibly absorbed the lessons of family preparedness, the idea of having to bunker down–or worse yet, having to flee–occupied a big chunk of my youthful psyche and filled me with terror. One thing you don’t mention is the “72-hour kits” we all had to have, too–enough stuff to carry on your back to keep you alive for at least three days in the event that you had to leave your home with little or no warning. They even told us to sleep with our shoes at the foot of the bed. And to what end? Why not just build a bomb shelter in the back yard and call it a day?

    Unfortunately, as an adult, I see all too clearly the purpose of the year’s supply and the 72-hour kit. When my family was short on cash or “between jobs,” we dipped into our food storage more often than I’d care to admit. And since 9/11 and Katrina, I know a lot of folks–not just weirdo, plains-crossing, commie-fearing, millennium-believing survivalists–who have an evacuation plan.

    Your last line is poignant–do you really need to justify having hope? I used to feel fatalistic enough to think that an apocalyptic event wouldn’t ruffle me too much–that I’d just let go of living and that would be OK. But not anymore–now I know I’d fight. What has changed? Is it simply a responsibility we accept as we get older? Can you put your finger on anything specific (including parenthood, of course)?

  8. Scott Godfrey says:

    Farrell, awesome post. Growing up in the waning days of the Cold War, I was quite obsessive about the potential for nuclear apocalypse. In fact, I’d often lie awake in bed wondering if during that particular night the bombs would land. It wasn’t the death aspect about it that freaked me out nearly as much as the idea of mass panic – people scrambling to bomb shelters and the like.

    I later found out that this aspect of my fear was a big waste of energy; I called into an NPR talk show and posed the question to Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense under Jimmy Carter: “As a child I was in perpetual fear of a nuclear holocaust. Was there an actual warning system set up, or would there have just been a blinding flash, and no more worries?”

    Brown chuckled for a moment and said in all seriousness: “son, you would’ve never known what hit you.”

  9. Matt Coats says:

    Amen, brother Farrell!

    During a recent super-storm here in Seattle our small condo complex incurred water damage. Out of 9 units all but two were damaged. In dealing with the clean-up (which, thanks to Katrina-wise Allstate Insurance, is NOT covered) one of the owners–whose unit was not affected–seemed almost abnormally disinterested in the building issues. But now that he, like all owners in the building will be paying a special assessment to cover building damage he has become a first rate martyr and, well, cry-baby.

    Taking this event as example I wonder what it says about future doomsday scenarios to see how quickly I have bonded with my neighbors in trying to make the cry-baby’s life as miserable as possible. We have gained great solidarity (and channeled a lot of stress and emotions) in figuring out ways to make him pay. AND PAY HE WILL!!

    Moral: Good fences make good neighbors but if the fence gets knocked down, pretend it never existed.

  10. Lisa Tremain says:

    I am shy of things apocalyptic. It’s my naive side, which prefers to remain naive. But I was fascinated as a child by the story of War of the Worlds read on that fateful radio broadcast when people took it seriously; aliens were, in our minds, upon us. And the world was ending. And then it wasn’t.

    It’s the mind that’s the most terrifying, the ways we can imagine an apocalypse are potentially as horrible as an actual apocalypse unfolding.

    The other side of me is a realist. We are simply a species, not yet endangered like the manatee, or extinct, like the dodo bird. I suppose the question is whether we will “hunt” ourselves to extinction, like some other rapidly declining-in-numbers cohabitants, if the weather will take us off, or if we’ll just peter out, for a multitude of reasons.

    Realist self to naive self: Enjoy it while ya got it.
    Naive self to realist self: But I still wanna have kids.

  11. Stephanie Wells says:

    Farrell, as dark as your post is, it’s really inspiring. And terrifying. When the apocalypse comes I wanna be holed up at your place, that’s for sure.

  12. andrea says:

    Jeremy, you must read beyond “All the Pretty Horses”! I think it is one of his weakest books. Read “Blood Meridian” and “The Road” and “Suttree”.
    I love Cormac McCarthy and thank you for this post, Farrell. I like knowing we like the same stuff, you know?

  13. Scott Godfrey says:

    When I first read Jeremy’s comment I thought he was talking about Andrew McCarthy and the movie Fresh Horses (the first movie I ever walked out on).

  14. farrell says:

    i hate thursdays. i have no internet access until i get home from work. and i hate having to respond to so many interesting comments in one swoop, so, i’ll break this up:

    MF: i like all of your musings. as far as “a broad scale” abandonment of after-life convictions amounting to a type of apocalypse, I can’t say I agree. I think it might amount to something much more positive. When people stop focusing their attention on heavenyly rewards, they might turn that energy onto this-world projects. Certainly 18 muslim young men wouldn’t have flown airliners into buildings.

    G-lock: Yeah, Tom Cruise irritates the shit out of me. Please don’t have great expectations about The Road. It just happened to hit me right.

    MarleyFan: You rule. I wish I could comment with such consistency, thoughtfulness, and with such enthusiasm as you do. Were you an eagle scout?

    Jeremy: Please, please read with low expectations. I have a feeling the book doesn’t have a universal impact. But i’m glad to hear you bought it. You’ll like it.

    hey, and the backs of cereal boxes? which one? you’re joking right?

  15. farrell says:

    WW: Very funny. Thanks for livening things up.

    Rachel: Damn, i love it when you go to town writing. yes, i left out a number of things. thanks for including all those extra details. I had forgotten about the 72 hour kits. Those were scarry times. We used to brag as kids that Albuquerque was apparently on the Russian’s top 10 bomb-sites because of sandia national labs/airforce base. I really doubt that we would have ranked that high. But it freaked me out. a 72 hour kit would have been useless.

    As to your superb question: Why do you have to justify hope? I don’t know. I just have to–it’s like the ledger sheet is already too stacked against it. Only naive fools retain it against the odds. I can’t be shamed by carrying unexamined hope. Or so I see it. You went right into some automatic thought habits i have. Have you been talking to my therapist?

    Scott: you know, I always thought we’d have like 11 minutes advance warning or some shit like that. quite interesting (and patronizing) the whole “son, you’d never know what hit you.” what welcome news. i for one, would much rather NOT have 11 minutes of shitting my pants.

    Matt: I love this story. There must be so many more details. An expanded version of this would make a great blog you know. When are you going to join the TGW team anyway? We need you. As to the cry-baby/martyr, in McCarthy’s bleak world you would have eaten him by now. Mmmm.

    Steph: I think what i didn’t explicitly state in this blog is that I don’t want to survive a doomsday. Serioulsy. Something smaller, a katrina, or such, I’d be fighting to survive. Study the disaster carefully before setting out for our house. The shotgun might not have any rounds left.

    Andrea: McCarthy fans unite. i highly recommend visiting the official cormac mccarthy website to decompress and debrief after finishing The Road. The forum is a great place to spend a little time.

  16. bryan says:

    hey john farrell

    so i’m stuck in boston tonight, bowling alone. all my friends left here are lined up for coffees, lunches, breakfasts, after work drinks. nobody to go out with tonight.

    so i went to see children of men, on a bigger screen than i’ve ever seen in NY. i don’t think this theater existed when i lived in boston. it’s freaking huge.

    and all i have to say is — you really prefer war of the worlds to children of men? i agree, it loses something when it moves to the chase — but still — all the iconography for that movie is drawn from the world we live in. war of the worlds was totally other. this felt real. it looked like guantanamo, like iraq, like union square after 911. it reminded me of how foreign it felt to exist below 14th street when no cars were allowed and when every street corner was filled with xeroxes of missing people. it was a world i could imagine if bush didn’t have term limits. i thought it was beautifully imagined, deep, and real.

    plus michael cain rocked.

    afterwards, i grabbed a burger in a sports bar. that shit felt like apocalypse, now. how long has it been since you’ve been in a sports bar? when did basketball players gets such terrifying facial hair? when did i last order a drink from someone wearing a uniform? i thought the sky would fall any minute.

  17. bryan says:

    do we have any boston lurkers? i’ve looked through the listings — there aren’t any good shows this weekend that i can see. boston feels a little off to me. mark and pandora are gone, for one thing. i’m still here tomorrow night, since i needed the weekend for research at one of harvard’s libraries. someone come out to play. or recommend another movie.

  18. farrell says:

    Hey Bryan Eliott,

    So to your question: No, I don’t prefer War of the Worlds to Children of Men. Not at all. For one, I would much rather spend two hours watching Clive Owen to Tom Cruise. And two, the premise of Children of Men was so much more compelling. What I am saying is simply that The War of the Worlds depicted the breakdown of society in a more terrifying, truer way. Children of Men definitely felt a lot more like the recent chaos of 9/11 (xeroxes of missing people, mass incarcerations, xenophobia, etc), but it didn’t show civilization colapsing the way WOTW did, like I imagine it would be. Let me say, at the risk of offending many, and prefaced by the fact that I did not witness it first hand, 9/11 did not play out like the end of civilization. The lights didn’t go off, water flowed, phone service quickly returned to normal, grocery stores had food. It was terrifying. I was two thousand miles away and I was frightened. I was numb and so confused. But it felt like the beginning of war, not the end of our society. Children of Men captured a post 9/11 reality. It DID feel real. I know where you’re coming from. And I wish you didn’t have to see it all alone tonight instead of with your good friends. Night night.

  19. Pandora Brewer says:

    Bryan, if we were there, we would so hang.

    Farrell, I really enjoyed this post, for its references and audacity. When I was a kid I loved anti-utopian novels, a relative to the doomsday stories, people thinking they have solved everything only to have it fall apart anyway. In either case, the beast is usually us–space aliens be damned. I btw, did not like WotW at all but agree that the scene you describe was far more scary than all of Tom’s mugging.

    Another interesting example of society falling apart is to read accounts of the black plague. More terrifying than any movie, these folks believed the end had come. We need to look no farther than Hansel and Gretel to feel the devastation–sorry kids, no food and off you go. Love? Social connections? Give me some soup and toss the bodies in a heap.

    “But deluded and a father, I still carry hope.” Meaning from happenstance. Its all we got.

  20. Dave says:

    Does anyone still have a 72-hour kit? I once tried to keep at least a bunch of bottled water around, but I gradually drank it all. Seems like a good idea, though.

    My current subway reading is “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan, about the Dustbowl. Amazing how bad things got and how society held together — frayed quite a bit, but held together. Although I join the Bowling Alone crowd in worrying that our social capital is significantly depleted compared to days of yore.

  21. ssw says:

    Hi Dave,
    Your comment about subway reading made me realize that I’ve been more exposed to the destruction of society by reading the paper. I recently re-subscribed to the New York Times to keep myself updated about what’s going on in the world, and it’s so depressing. The most rampant issue is the war of course, but just generally, there is so much murder and mayhem–it is truly overwhelming.

  22. Jeremy says:

    Speaking of keeping up with what’s going on in the world, I’m incredibly embarrassed to admit that, the other day, while I was leaving school, I bought the last LA Times in one of the few newspaper dispensers on campus. I took it home, grabbed some coffee, and spent the next 30 minutes reading through it before realizing that — hey, this isn’t today’s paper! I looked at the front page and, indeed, the paper was a month old (January 8th, to be exact… I guess, since school had been on break for the last 6 weeks, no one had stocked it with new papers). There are a number of reasons why this depressed me — the fact that I felt incredibly stupid, of course, as well as the fact that the news was all the same: more dead in Iraq, Democrats (and one or two Republicans) thinking about not providing funding for a troop buildup, global warming fears, Palestinians and Israelis pissed at each other, something about Schwarzenegger, “murder and mayhem,” etc., etc. I realized how difficult it is to discern when news is new anymore (unless you actually take the time to look at the date on the front page of the paper, I guess). And, consequently, I had to realize how desensitized I’ve become to the slow, steady “destruction of society.”

    Another depressing thing here is how I finally realized that I was reading a month-old paper: by glancing at the sports page and realizing that the Lakers hadn’t played Dallas last night…


  23. Jeremy says:

    Update:So, per your recommendation, Farrell, I just finished reading McCarthy’s The Road. Actually, I started reading it last night before going to bed, couldn’t put it down, and ended up finishing it at like 4am. Wow. You were right. What a riveting and bleak and yet astoundingly beautiful book. I’ve already passed it along to someone else, with an urgent, “you have to read this…” Thanks for the recommendation.

  24. Dubya says:

    But did you cry?

  25. Jeremy says:

    It was 4am. I was too tired to cry… so I fell asleep.

  26. lisa t. says:

    Just finished The Road (like JZ, in 24 hours– compelling, much?) and, like Farrell, bawled like a baby for about 20 minutes when finished.

    I will never look at shopping carts (or people who push them full of stuff) the same way again.