What happens in New York goes everywhere. By now, no matter where you live, I imagine you’ve passed your personal saturation point in Hurricane Sandy photos, stories, memes. Even I am only sure it wasn’t a mainstream media conspiracy because I was here – in a Lower Manhattan fortress – on Oct. 29. It happened.
That many of the viral #Sandy or #Frankenstorm photos were faked, or recycled from other disasters, and did not help the situation, which was unreal enough in the flesh. If we didn’t believe the climate change predictions, let’s believe, and hope that the re-elected American president believes, the projections. The election – as anyone who’s read Nate Silver, i.e. everyone, knows – came down to a science.
The apocalypse will be much more like art.
New Yorkers are likely to say, when the very bad happens, that it “feels like a movie.” They said it after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history on Sept. 11, 2001. They said it after a man shot one of his co-workers, and cops shot nine bystanders, near the Empire State Building in August.
They are saying it over and over again in the shuddering wake of Hurricane Sandy and the Northeaster lapping at Manhattan’s shores this week.
Because Manhattan is a movie set, because even on the rare days nothing is being filmed here, it is always lit, always in action, there is a false consciousness of safety. In Manhattan, disasters are staged. They do not just happen. Even after 9/11, downtown New Yorkers are pathologically ill-prepared. When they do prepare, it is by waiting in multihour lines at Whole Foods, as though there aren’t 16 bodegas in spit-range.
In its defence, Manhattan has – despite being a geographically perfect storm-landing strip – avoided the worst of many storms, including last year’s overhyped Hurricane Irene. Also, for downtowners, nature is when weeds grow on your roof.
So when this movie-monster storm reached the East Coast, breaching the set-like heights of American culture, the result was a kind of apoca-theosis.
Two years ago I noticed that films depicting the end of times were no longer set in some gleaming, higher-tech future, but in the recognizable now. At first, the meaning was clear to me. Danger has never been more present: A decade after 9/11, with two terms of Bush Junior, the worst had already happened. Ditto climate change, which is undeniable, maybe irreversible. Ditto The Real Housewives of Everywhere.
Whatever the cause, a crop of new worst-case-scenario films captured its contemporaneous result: The sense of an ending – and soon. Some are escapist, like Lars Von Trier’s gorgeous masterwork, Melancholia, which leaps from realism to magic. Some are psychosomatic, like Take Shelter. The first film by indie director Brit Marling, Another Earth, is eerily optimistic, while the first of the Hunger Games adaptations is gloomy under the gloss. The most telling came a few years ago, in 2008, and was set later in time – but not in “the future.” Based on Cormac McCarthy’s great, miserabilist novel, The Road traces a father and son through an America laid waste, no human’s land.
“Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave.” I thought of McCarthy’s words as I wandered through the dead zone the day before Halloween, feeling deprogrammed. Later, I did leave, feeling guilty because many people could not. (Is there a name for the trick by which a metaphor is exactly the same size as the truth? Because that’s how Manhattan looked: half-lit-up, half-dark, with no grey zone, a glaring infographic of economic disparity at election point.)
I thought of the way, in so much recent dystopian fiction, our tomorrows and yesterdays have collapsed. I thought of William Gibson’s famous line about the future lying in pieces at our feet. Manhattan was the future. Now the future, if you believe architects and economists, is Sao Paolo or Shanghai.
We fear “the end of the world,” or, more biblically, “the end times.” But that’s too easy. It’s too singular. The planet comprises many worlds and many times at once; it will meet, I think, many ends.
In 2007, the same year Gore Vidal declared the American Empire dead, artist Eve Mosher drew a blue chalk contour, 10 feet above sea level, around Brooklyn and Manhattan. Twelve days ago, the city flooded almost exactly along those lines. Mosher wrote a blog post titled “I Never Wanted to Be Right.”
Meanwhile, at Sandy’s height, filmmaker Casey Neistat biked through the streets, documenting damage. He set the five-minute result to a twee-pop song called Go Outside, and at first that was irritating: If you paid me in trust funds, I couldn’t think of a more carefree-white-boy thing to do than ride your bicycle through a Category 1 hurricane to the tune of Cults. Worse, it was almost banal. Then I thought that, while he might be a jackass, the banality of his work was correct.
Because Manhattan as disaster movie is the new, already post-apocalyptic reality.
And who knows how many sequels we will see?