The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

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I watched “The Towering Inferno” a couple of weeks back, which is a hot mess (pun intentional) but also serious fun, probably my very favorite of the era’s “disaster movies”.  It has everything, including Paul Newman and Steve McQueen upstaging each other every chance they got.

 

Over the weekend I decided to watch my second favorite, “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972), and enjoyed it just as much as I ever did, right up to the moment, spoken of by my new friend David Gerrold at the time, when they ran out of money at the end, and couldn’t do the “pull back” to show the full capsized ship as the final shot of the movie.  Its kind of amusing to realize that movies DO run out of money, and can’t add planned SFX shots, (like when Scaramanga shoots Bond’s airplane in “The Man With The Golden Gun” and no laser beam comes out of his Solex Agitator-powered death ray, because Saltzman and Broccoli had run out of money and couldn’t afford to pay the SFX studio. So he aims, and oops!  No ray…but the plane blows up anyway!   But I digress).

 

I enjoyed “Poseidon”, cheesy music and dialogue and overacting and all.  I loved Ernest Borgnine’s adoration of his ex-hooker wife Stella Stevens, and Red Button’s loneliness and desperate attraction to Maureen McGovern (who made a mini-career out of singing doomed love songs in disaster movies: “There’s Got to Be A Morning After” in Poseidon, and “We May Never Love Like This Again” in “Inferno.”  Someone, somewhere, needs to get the memo that hiring this lady for your party isn’t the world’s best idea.)

 

Anyway, the relationships were strong enough to connect the dots on the effects and the stunts, so that you FEEL them.  Ouch!   And it works, probably better than it should.  I just love watching crowds of people scrambling for survival, and individuals rising to courage and leadership under stress.  Great stuff if you love cheese.

 

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WARNING!  SAMBO ALERT!

 

Not about “The Poseidon Adventure.”  There ARE no black people, and that’s fine.  Statistics allow that completely, especially at the time, so I didn’t and don’t care.  Beside, I knew that if there HAD been black people….they’d probably die.  First.

 

Like in 2006’s remake “Poseidon.”   Where Andre Braugher played the ship captain, and was gone in the first wave of death.   I can’t tell you how irritating it is to be able to predict stuff like that, and sit there looking at the only person on the screen of your ethnicity, and know that the people who made the movie (who are NOT your ethnicity) valued him so little that they will kill him rapidly, and that they know the audience who also fails to share his ethnicity will not care.

 

There is an interesting psychological dissociation that takes place when the only person who looks like you in this sense dies.   It is uncomfortable as hell (on an unconscious level everyone understands this, which is why it NEVER happens, and has NEVER happened, in an American film to white people.  There is no such thing as an American film where all the white characters [meaning anyone with a speaking role] dies while non-white characters survive.  Not one.  Not even black exploitation movies, which is bizarre, and suggests some very very deep unconscious conditioning.  But I digress.  And yeah, some of you will try to tell me that this or that movie disproves my thesis.  You are wrong.)

 

In the movie “Psycho” Hitchcock (and perhaps Robert Bloch before him) used an interesting technique to manipulate the audience.    Janet Leigh would seem to be the star of the movie. She is a pretty blond who apparently drives the story with her sexuality and moral errors, who drives to the Bates Motel and during a conversation with the odd Momma’s Boy Norman Bates regrets her poor judgement and decides to redeem herself.  All well and good.  It is a “damsel in distress” set up.    But then…she is killed, brutally.

The only human being you have identified with for the first twenty minutes of the movie DIES.   The camera lingers on it, and it is SAVAGE.   It is hard to overestimate the emotional impact of that death.  Not sure American audiences had ever seen anything quite like it.

 

And…those audiences, who had identified with her, were suddenly bereft of emotional anchor.  We drift around, wondering who the hell to identify with. And finally, with no other choice, settle on Norman Bates.  He’s weird, and a peeping Tom, but was kind to her, and loves his Mommy.  He becomes the center of good in the film, and we breathe a sigh of relief: we have to identify with SOMEONE, or we’re lost.  We all know how THAT turned out.

 

Note: In respect to the following observations, I’m not suggesting that anyone is deliberately manipulating image systems in movies like “Poseidon.”  I don’t think people are that smart.  But an interestingly similar situation on a cultural level exists, and it is negative as hell for black people.

 

When I was a kid, and went to see a monster movie or action movie with a black actor somewhere in the cast, my black friends would ask me: “how did they kill the brother this time?”   In other words, by the age of twelve, we already understood how the culture valued us. Let’s be blunter: what white people thought of us.  Hey, if you’re not comfortable reading that, think about how it felt to LIVE it.  I’m not saying blacks wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing if the situation was reversed and we were able to think ourselves the center of the universe.  That option was removed from the descendants of slaves.

Africans might be healthy enough, though.

 

Anyway,  consider this: once you see the pattern, and go to a movie like 2006’s Poseidon remake, and KNOW that the black person is more likely to die, it diminishes your likelihood to identify with him.  But you need to identify with SOMEONE.  So what do you do?  You identify with a white character. That’s right.

 

Get this straight: you are watching movies made by white people, for white people, in which the value system is laid out clearly based on who is most likely to survive (a white female of breeding age) and who dies first or most reliably (anyone non-white) but in order to enjoy the movie, you have to identify with the people who discount you, rather than the people of your own group.   Learning self-hatred much?

 

But I’ve noticed over the years that I’ve started having a different reaction.  Not healthy, exactly, but healthier than identifying with the people who seem to want me dead (cinematically speaking, of course.  Ahem.  Would it be too much to suggest that those who failed to empathize with Trayvon Martin might reasonably be predicted to be among those least likely to care that Andre Braugher died?  Nah. That’s crazy).  Now note: some of you are going to say: “it’s not racism, its just economics” which makes me laugh.  It is economics because racism/tribalism diminishes identification, so that the white majority wants to see “themselves” as the center of the universe: sexier, stronger, smarter, like all healthy human groups think of themselves.  So the economics are just an indicator of the underlying issue, and it is a distraction and avoidance to say “its just economics”.  It’s like say, “Hey, that’s not water.  It’s ice.”

 

This is like a ship sinking (back to the Poseidon imagery) and there are two lifeboats filled with white people.  A black passenger swims up to the first one.  On it is a Klansman who says: “get out of here, nigger!” so he swims to the second, where there is a very polite British officer who says: “sorry, old chap. But this boat is reserved for white people.”

 

And the guy drowns.  Functionally, was there a speck of difference? No there wasn’t. But that second guy sure was polite. And it wasn’t that he hated black people….he just reserved the seats for “his own.”

 

And somehow, people find that far more acceptable, even if the result is identical.

 

Well, you know what I do when I see a movie with a single black character who dies? Or worse, SEVERAL black characters who ALL die?  Especially knowing that, on an unconscious level, the assumed result is that I will identify with the white characters thereby damaging my psyche?

 

I do something rather ugly. But fun. I start enjoying watching the white characters die. Yes, I do.   In “Poseidon” I sat munching popcorn as every fatality occurred.  Nice effects!  Ooh, I bet THAT shit hurt!

 

Yes, I do.

 

And in The Mist, when poor Andre Braugher and a black soldier died, leaving no one on screen with a speck of melanin, I enjoyed watching the white characters get munched, and actually LAUGHED at the “tragic” end of the movie that had the rest of the theater crying and devastated.  Funniest thing I’d seen in months.

 

Yes, I did.

 

Watched it again recently, and realized that there was, indeed, one black guy in the crowd with one line of dialogue.  Technically a character. And we didn’t see him die, so technically it wasn’t a total wipe-out. And felt just a LITTLE bit bad about my prior response.   Just that much humanity allowed me to extend my humanity to the white characters, and suddenly the ending DID feel a little more tragic…

 

And when Tananarive suggested that we turn the movie off before the end, I didn’t protest. I knew I wouldn’t laugh this time.  I “got” the father’s anguish, and the existential terror and pain and guilt…

 

Ugh.  And hated the entire pattern of films I’d seen my entire life that had triggered that response in me, made me less than the totally empathetic human being I aspire to be.  But…I’m only human. And that response is STILL healthier than identifying with people who devalue you. That kills your soul.  Well, they both kill your soul.  Pick your poison.

 

Sigh.   We’re all of us only human.  And it is good to see things changing.   Maybe I’ll be able to drop my guard a little more.

 

As soon as there is an American film, any film, in which all the white characters die, while some POC survive. There has to be one. I’d bet it is almost unknown, unseen, a failure, because white audiences just didn’t like it.  And maybe even white technicians, film editors, and distributors didn’t bring their A-game to the project.    Didn’t have anything to do with THAT aspect, of course.

 

Of course.   That would be pretty sick, right?

Almost as sick as laughing at the end of “The Mist”

 

 

Namaste,

Steve

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