Monday, 17 May 2010

The post-apocalypse movies we'd like to see

Movies about the future are important. If you agree with that last sentence, feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs – but if you are sceptical, I’ll lay out my case.

We are seeing the beginnings of a long transformation as our exponentially-growing population meets the limits of the world’s resources, especially oil. Many of us warned of this for years and were ignored, and now the world is sufficiently far gone that we’re running out of choices. Some things are going to happen whether we want them or not: we are going to have less energy, which effectively means less driving, less flying, less buying, less selling, and less money. The weather will probably grow stranger, and some people will have to move.

The details, though, can play out in many ways. What is now Ireland or the United States can descend into nationwide ghettos: rampant addiction and desperation, angry citizens finding scapegoats and conspiracies, and gangs of young men – in uniform or not – seizing food, shelter and women.

Or, we could have a world with at least as much stability and equality as we see today, but with most people growing and preserving their own food and making and fixing their own possessions -- freeing up the remaining energy to keep factories, hospitals, trains, ambulances and the internet running. This latter scenario could look a lot like small-town America or English village life in the early 20th century – small family farms, schools, libraries – but with up-to-date gardening techniques and basic Internet. Overall, it could be a much healthier world than even most Westerners have today.

These are not the only two possibilities, of course, but two extremes of a wide range, and we might have some ability to make our corner of the world look like that second choice --but only if we get a lot of people on board. I don’t mean a few dilettantes or a countercultural elite, or even a few million Greens and crunchy cons, but all of us: Cops, secretaries, construction workers, janitors, the elderly, and school kids. Everybody.

And we have to move fast: the number of backyard chicken coops could multiply tenfold today and still be rare. People can take years to get the hang of gardening, to get back into physical shape, to build garden beds and walls, to meet other people who are doing the same thing. And none of us are getting any younger.

What we need is a way to reach a lot of people at once, not just to present the crisis and let them walk away scoffing or scarred, but to show the future as it could be. We need a realistic yet hopeful vision of the world, one that would be vivid and memorable in a way that no essay could, that could reach a hundred million people in a way blogs never will. Luckily, we have something like that: they are called movies.

Movies – and television, and the mainstream media in general -- have a remarkable ability to shape people’s views of the world. Movies during World War II helped rally the home front, and films like The China Syndrome helped sour the public on nuclear power. More recently shows like CSI have affected real-life legal decisions, according to some experts, because jurors expect real forensics labs to perform the magic of their fictional counterparts. Be honest – how many of you believe that a ship’s captain can perform a wedding, or that you get one free phone call if arrested? Yes, those are entirely invented for movies and television.

If we agree to take futuristic films seriously, though, we run into one amazing fact: They are almost all depressing. Beginning around the time I was born – I’m in my thirties – our vision of the future went from techno-utopias to techno-horror pretty quickly, from Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Mad Max, The Terminator, I Am Legend and many more. Around the time that America hit its national oil peak, around the time that our exponential rate of progress began to slow, the world – especially my own country – turned towards apocalyptic politics, millenarian religion, and doomer movies, and it’s difficult not to suspect that all these things were connected.

Today, as I mentioned in a previous column, most video stores even have a single section now entitled “science fiction / horror,” since any future they show is likely to be horrifying. And such stories influence us whether we want them to or not -- think of how apocalyptic most peak oil conversation has been, how often the early peak oil list-serves referred to Mad Max or zombie films.

Moreover, for countercultural youths fascinated by the 2012 myth or many evangelical Christians with the Rapture – both scenarios that involve billions of people dying -- these are not just fears. They are fantasies.

These are the worst possible attitudes to have as we enter an age that, to the luckiest humans in history, will feel like hardship. Paranoid conspiracy theorists do not help build a delicate web of trust among newly-met neighbours, and millenarians will not help build lasting infrastructure for the next stage of history. The more people are convinced that we face a violent and despairing future, the more likely such a future becomes.

In the years to come the boom of the last several decades will likely end, and more people go back to manual labour or giving their child a wooden toy for Christmas. It will be genuinely difficult – for me too, probably – and I don’t want to dismiss the genuine pain of families who have been evicted or who can’t afford chemotherapy. Nonetheless, the way most people will live will likely be the way your grandparents lived, the way most of the Third World lives today. It might be a reduction of our fortune by 10 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent – depending on your time and place -- but it’s not the same as Armageddon, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.

Hollywood could easily help people imagine a more realistic future, and there are many models they could use. 1950s America, Irish village life, post-war Britain, modern-day Mexico or India – since people in every time and place used and wasted less than we do today, almost any such model would probably look more like our future than the latest Zombie Apocalypse movie.

So I challenge any filmmakers out there – Hollywood insiders, students, amateurs – to create films like this, images of post-crash life that are both positive and realistic. Here are my suggestions:

In the Brambles: A sweet television comedy series set in a future US suburb where most homes hold extended families of mothers, grandparents and children. If you live in suburbia, just picture where you live with the green space turned into vegetables, coops and hutches.

Most families have at least one person working and taking care of the money side of things – mortgages and a few other basics – and a few parents send cheques from faraway combat zones. Most of the neighbours stay at home, however, and since people rarely drive anymore, everyone sees each other all day.

Many of the storylines focus on the elderly Boomers --a large minority of the population, as many of them moved in with their children or vice versa -- as they argue, maintain long-standing feuds, offer advice, try to make some extra money through get-rich-quick schemes, or play matchmaker with the younger residents. Many of them mind the children, as do local former teachers who run home-schools. Old and young alike work the gardens and hutches while the parents are away, and bond across generations.

The Brambles is what locals call the subdivision, after the blackberry hedgerows that residents have laid around the perimeter, the walls of thorns proving a deterrent to gangs. Residents take turns patrolling the neighbourhood at night, sounding an alarm at any night-time movement, making life difficult for secret cigarette addicts and covert teenage lovers and leading to all manner of comic misunderstandings and hijinks.

Other storylines could involve:

• Residents gear up for the annual vegetable awards, in which everyone gets a little carried away with the competition, spying on each other with binoculars and sending children to scout the other competitors’ yards.

• One of the residents gets an eviction notice, and the neighbourhood bands together to stand against the police. The matter is resolved without violence when the police fall in love with Granny Madison’s blueberry pies, and agree not to evict in exchange for a pie once a week.

• One elderly resident keeps to himself, and is the subject of much gossip among the neighbourhood children, who peek in his windows and frighten each other with stories about him. When one boy sneaks into the house on a dare, however, he finds the old man has a fascinating history, and the two become friends. The episode ends with the boy leading the old man out to meet his neighbours for the first time.

I picture In The Brambles as similar to pastoral British comedies like The Vicar of Dibley or Last of the Summer Wine, with a touch of Seventh Heaven and a dash of King of the Hill.

The Stairwell: A daytime drama about six families who live in an urban brownstone, up and down the titular stairs. Since they all live in the same building and have to share the same gardens and latrines, they are much closer than most neighbours today – more like roommates, and that accounts for much of the drama.

The brownstone is kept covered with raspberries and nasturtiums, which not only yield edible leaves and fruit but help protect the stand against the summer heat. The residents have turned the vacant lot next door into a straw-bale enclosure for goats and chickens, and they fertilise it with the building latrines. A makeshift roof collects rainwater off for drinking and sends it through a steel drum of charcoal for cleaning.

Almost half the residents work in this urban setting, in local factories, hospitals or casinos, and people mind and home-school each others’ children. Since the basics of life are the same for people in every era, storylines could come from many of the usual places: married characters cheating with each other; lovers quarrelling, children bucking the expectations of their parents.

Additional drama could come from the obvious circumstances of neighbours who must function like room-mates: one family is evangelical, and will not allow their children to be taught science. The single man’s post-traumatic stress scares the children, and the neighbours hold a meeting to decide what to do with him. Teenaged children try to make extra money to buy their parents a birthday present. Whole story arcs could revolve around weather, as the new summer heat forces the young men to refit the brownstone with Arab-style ventilation, or cousins have to move in from the old coast.

I see The Stairwell as resembling the dramas of the UK and Ireland, where soap operas are about mechanics and fisherman rather than oil barons and fashion designers. Models would include the long-running London-based soap Eastenders, as well as the Irish soap operas Fair City and Ros na Run.

The Windmills:
A comedy film about a group of recently unemployed men struggling with family stress and poverty, who decide to pool their money and skills and build a small wind farm together out of boards and car alternators. They hope to generate enough electricity to get the Internet coming to their homes again, enabling them to keep in touch look for jobs, download self-sufficiency courses and – closest to their hearts – play World of Warcraft with buddies on the other side of the world.

I picture The Windmills resembling British comedies like The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Billy Elliot, which use unemployment and labour riots as a backdrop for a story of working-class people fulfilling personal dreams. As in these films, the characters in The Windmills finally reach their dream, but more important is the journey to get there – one character is reunited with his estranged son, another kicks his addiction, and they all learn to feel useful again.


These are just a few examples, but if you don’t like them, make up your own. If you can’t make a movie, write a short story. Create a comic book. Write a fairy tale for your children.

The point is that very few people read scientific papers or specialist web sites, but we all watch or read stories. If you think there is any hope for a tolerable future – and if you are reading this, you must – then make that future come alive for your family and neighbours. I ask only two things: it has to show a realistic future, and be fun.

Ready? Go.

Photos from top to bottom:
Still from Terminator: Salvation (2009). Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.
Advertising photo for The Book of Eli (2009). Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment.
Still from WALL-E (2008). Courtesy of Disney.
Still from The Vicar of Dibley television series. Courtesy of BBC One.
Advertising photo for Last of the Summer Wine television series. Courtesy of BBC One.
Former petrol station in Mountshannon, County Clare -- now a potter's shop.


Robin said...

Have you read Starhawk's _The Fifth Sacred Thing_?? I read it about 15 years ago and the thing that struck me most about it at the time was that it was the first place I'd seen someone envision a post-apocalyptic future that *wasn't* horrifying. Well, some of it is, in the book, but people have created a second way of living as well and it seems very possible, very real.
It would make a great movie! An antidote to the big screen end-of-civilzation scenarios.

Matt Cardin said...

What a great post. Thanks! I'm a huge fan of apocalyptic entertainment in general, including the typical Mad Max/Terminator vision of things, which I think has achieved the status of a genuine modern myth and is therefore psychologically and spiritually quite viable and valuable. But in terms of my actual expectations about the future, over the past handful of years I've come to think more in terms of the Mayberry-esque situation you describe, with some probable disaster movie-style bumps along the way. So this is all to say that what you say here strikes me as a very necessary complement to the common Hollywood trope.

Also like you, as child I was entranced by all the "world of the future" books, when I was living my way through grade school in 1970s rural America (southwest Missouri). I visited Disney's EPCOT as an early teen, shortly after the park's grand opening, and found myself positively mesmerized by the guiding theme of a shiny clean techno-utopian future. Is it possible to feel nostalgic for a fictional vision of the future that never actually existed? Apparently the answer is yes, given my own experience.

That said, I'm "with you," as they say, in your hopes and expectations about where all of our current civilizational trajectories are taking us.

Anonymous said...

I heartily agree with you. Our problem right now is that we have no positive vision for life after the hard times ahead, no goal to strive for. This is the time for stories and movies are our generations folk tales. And Robin, I too have enjoyed _The Fifth Sacred Thing_. BTW, my word verification below spells out "artize" which is what you are proposing we do with our future

Joanna said...

I think many people anticipate what they think will be the suspension of responsibility in an apocalyptic scenario. And some like the idea that apocalyptic hardship is a small price to pay for having their religious idealogy come to pass.

A pleasant, balanced, functional future such as you imagine in your post takes work and planning and cooperation. Americans (the TV watching majority) have been encouraged away from that mindset. It's not immediately rewarding, can't be bought at Walmart, and might involve tolerance.

Hopefully a tipping point of sane people can steer us back onto the right path. Maybe one positive aspect of an easily manipulated populace will be a willingness to make a gentler 'apocalypse', if someone is there to herd them in that direction.

Hunty said...

great article! Your suggestions remind me specifically of the Studio Ghibli movie Laputa: Castle in the Sky, where mankind's rise and fall and pastoral reconstruction are all covered in the title sequence and lay the groundwork for the story.

Brian Kaller said...

I have heard a great deal about The Fifth Sacred Thing, and really must read it sometime. Thanks for reminding me of it.

A fellow Missourian -- what town? Thanks for the compliments. I agree that post-apocalyptic fiction has achieved a kind of myth, so that we slip easily into each new entry in the genre like we've been there before. Some of them are great works of fiction, though, and do no harm if we don't take them as prophecies.

One of my favourite new words is "Zeerust," the genre of things that we remember fondly because they used to be the future -- Tom Swift books, Art Deco and the like.

That's great -- serendipitous spam-blockers. I agree, fear of vague future disaster only takes your spirit so far.

Matt Cardin said...

My Missouri roots are in Cassville, about 60 miles south of Springfield. I went to college in Columbia and then lived and worked for some years in Branson (yes, in the shows, as a video producer and director), and also east of Springfield.

Which part are you from?

Brian Kaller said...

Good point -- building community is so much less fun than being a ridiculously attractive and well-armed young person in a place with no boundaries. I'm sure that's one reason community has eroded so much in recent years -- it's work.

We share the same hope.

I had never even heard of Laputa, and I thought I knew most of Miyazaki's films. Thanks for letting me know about it.

Andrew J Brown said...

Wonderful post. Do you ever run across the Ralahine Center at U of Limerick? What you say is right up their alley. As an anthropologist who's always enjoyed teaching a course on "utopianism" -- I've always been struck at how difficult it is for most people to imagine a better future that they can really believe in. As you say, most filmmakers gave up trying to portray such things -- figuring I guess that dystopia was inherently more entertaining. (Even Starhawk propels her story by crashing a utopia and dystopia together.)

Suburban Guy said...

A while back I started, what I would like to call, a "pre-post carbon diary". It was in responce to the run up in gas prices 2 years ago.

It first began with the hardship of higher gas prices and it's effect on a local suburban neighborhood. I then began to expand out the entries in the diary over several months, then a few years. With each new entry, there was a new challenge and a new hardship that was experienced by the residents of my little street. Adapting to lifes new reality, took many forms. The conversion of old lots to huge gardens, forced capture of rain, the narrowing of roads to increase farming space (since there were no vehicles other than a hand full of horses and a few suriving bikes. Rubber tires, you know). The breakdown in the information network and how ham radio became their own source of communication with the outside world. (Batteries of any sort become a commodity). It goes on and on. Emergency services eventually end as the last of the refined fuels finally vanish and are only used by the central government.

Government congrol of the various localities degrades to the point, where private armies become the new "law enforcement". Thus giving rise to a Feifdom sort of societal structure.

I have thought long and hard about novelizing this diary and I still may, but it just depresses me so.

Frankly, what I think we need more than anything is a new Steinbeck. Where is todays, "Grapes of Wrath"? That population is primed for it. Where is the social commentary on our existance? We as a nation keep hoping for a "recovery", but if one every does arise, it will be vastly different than we are being lead to believe. As long as our right continue to erode, any "recovery" will be hollow at best. But no one wants to make a movie about that.

Unknown said...

Great post!

Johan said...

I don't mean to be rude but your film idea made me yawn, it had no panache. It didn't really ignite any emotions, and it didn't seem that intellectually appealing either. Sounded like that boring British soap "Emerdale" that my mom likes to watch when she has nothing better to do.

What if the movie began a bit like one of those apocalyptic movies, but then started to turn more positive as people band together etc. A bit like the TV show Jericho, I think that one was pretty inspiring.

I'm sure that might be how it will turn out when people begin to realize what's happening. Denial, panic, bargaining, acceptance, peace.

Brian Kaller said...

I can’t believe I haven’t heard of the Ralahine Center before – they are not far away, seem to have overlapping interests, and I know at least one of the visiting faculty. Thanks for the tip.

I agree, there has to be some discord for drama, and the future will involve some destruction – but so does the present, and we are able to have comedies and dramas without the plot device of genocide.

Suburban Guy,
I would love to read that diary – are you willing to let others see it? The future you posit is entirely possible, and probably will happen in certain places, though I think other places can do better.

That’s an excellent point about the media today. In America in the 1930s and 40s, for example, people knew there was a Depression, and the movies reflected it, and there was often a lot of social commentary mixed in with the escapism. Today, working people are almost never shown in the US media at all, nor are most locations, lifestyles, subcultures or accents, and this is taken as normal – when I say this to people, most don’t know what I’m talking about, and I have to list examples to point it out to them.

I hope we can not only find a new Steinbeck, but that he becomes well-known – so few people read anymore. And I hope (s)he is able not just to trouble people, but to inspire them .

Diane, thank you.

That’s all right, maybe I’m not a born screenwriter. Of course a synopsis doesn’t tell much – what I was describing was essentially a blend of the plots of some very good movies, whose synopses alone might not be to inspiring either.

I understand what you’re saying, and while I never saw Jericho, your idea sounds interesting. Part of my point, though, is that we need to get people away from thinking about what they will do when it hits – there might never be an “it,” in the sense of a moment that changes everything in the world and then never happens again. If people prepare for that, they may wait for something that never comes, and be unprepared for what really happens next.

Also, while your ideas sound much more exciting than mine, we might need some less exciting ideas too. We need to reach Mums and Grans as well, and people must watch “Emmerdale” for something. :-)

Anonymous said...

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Robert Whelan