When the Statue of Liberty drowns, you’ll know the situation is serious. You’ll feel the same way when the Golden Gate Bridge melts. The iconic Hollywood sign will get taken out by a tornado, and the White House will be lost to a snowstorm or a hailstorm of flames. This is how you’ll know you’re in a disaster movie.
But if any state in the union seems to channel the spirit and creativity of the disaster movie genre, I think it must be Texas. The state’s vast and varied landscape means that in any given year Texans battle hurricanes in the east, drought in the west, and wildfire in the middle.
Hurricane Harvey battered the coast in September, and the devastation was utterly unsurprising; for decades, the state legislature has ignored the infrastructure needs of poor communities across our coastline.
Among poor communities in Texas, there doesn’t even need to be an actual natural disaster to achieve the devastation that they usually cause. Our current maternal mortality rate is so high that in one study, scientists openly wondered how it could have happened “in the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval.”
And so we have famine, fire, and flood, but our disasters don’t restrict themselves to the tangible—because in Texas, we have lawmakers who pass “show me your papers” laws, defund medical care for disabled children, and work hard during each session to close abortion clinics across the state while maintaining rigid, abstinence-only sex education.
As a result, poor, queer, and undocumented Texans are often drowning long before the floodgates burst.
When you fly into the El Paso International Airport from the northeast, it’s easy to imagine that you’ve reached a vast and barren land, as though you’ve left all of civilization behind you. First you cross a desert, and then a military base, and then eventually, you make a slow descent. All you see, in every direction, is sand.
The first time my dad had this experience was in the summer of 1972. He and the rest of his family packed up their home in suburban Long Island and said goodbyes to friends in Manhattan. In the middle of the night, they flew to the Texas-Mexico border.
My dad still remembers the pilot announcing they were about to land in his new hometown. When he looked out the window and through the night sky, all he could see were faint shadows of sagebrush. There wasn’t a building in sight. He wondered, not for the first time, why the family had decided to move to the middle of nowhere. He was a month shy of 10 years old.
The early 1970s was a boom time for major disaster movies. And when you’re a stranger in a strange land, there’s plenty of time to go to the movie theater. The kids at my dad’s new school were all about a foot bigger than he was, and many had repeated a few grades. Some had already started shaving. My grandparents recruited a kid who lived next door to drive my dad to school each day. “How old are you?” my dad ventured to ask, eventually. I imagine the driver must have laughed. He was 12.
Five months later, The Poseidon Adventure––widely regarded as one of the most genre-defining disaster films ever made––came out in theaters.
The premise of The Poseidon Adventure is simple: A cruise ship, taking its final voyage to Europe, capsizes on New Year’s Eve as the result of a rogue wave. The ship turns completely upside down. It’s up to the survivors, still trapped in their holiday finery, to figure out how to stay alive until a rescue comes.
Because the ballroom of the ship seems like a giant, floating bubble, the ship’s bursar—flustered and scared—insists that everyone stay still and wait to be rescued. But Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), a man who’s preached from the beginning of the movie about the importance of taking your fate into your own hands, disagrees. Up is now down, and down is now up, Scott says.
Most don’t believe him, but he is able to convince a small group to start climbing what used to be the bottom of the ship, where the hull is at its thinnest point.
“Do you know how thick one inch of steel is?” Ernest Borgnine’s character asks incredulously.
“It’s one inch less than two inches,” Scott replies.
Well, okay, then.
To survive in Texas as a member of a marginalized or targeted community requires boundless optimism, tempered by brutal practicality. First, get ready for the weather—learn, as my friend Hannah recently wrote, that the sky will turn green before a tornado, and that the wind will whistle like a train. Then read about our maternal mortality rate. Learn that Texas has had the highest number of workplace fatalities almost every year for a decade, because we’re the only state that doesn’t require employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Save some money in the bank for a bus ticket out, in case you ever need an abortion. Remember that you might get beaten up if you use a bathroom that doesn’t adhere to your gender presentation.
And know that in the early months of 2015, lawmakers in Texas introduced a record number of bills meant to specifically target queer Texans. Several were focused on eliminating state benefits to same-sex couples. Others banned cities from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances that would cover transgender individuals. One bill would have established the right of small-business owners to turn customers away on religious grounds, even as similar bills caused uproar in Indiana and Arizona.
Like the stock villains in the best campy disaster movies, lawmakers working to pass the laws—arrogant, confident, invincible—knew how to embrace heavy-handed symbolism. They brought a cardboard wedding cake to the floor of the capitol. Their fearless leader, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, gave his dramatic soliloquy: “I don’t know if the end days are today, or a thousand years from now,” he said. “That’s why we have to stand for Christ in all that we do.”
But look at what happened over the next 140 days. As January turned to June, the Texas heat returned and bore down heavily on the capitol’s red granite dome. And in that time, something unusual took place: First one bill went down. Then another did. And by the end of the session, not a single bill had passed. It was a miracle.
Or: It was the work of those who were drowning, and the work of those who were not resigned.
If you want to figure out which characters in a disaster movie stand any chance of survival, use the process of elimination. After all, the biggest hallmark of a disaster movie is a shockingly high body count (the first major disaster film of the ‘70s, Airport, is a notable exception—only one man dies, and the rest of the passengers are left shaken, but alive, by the time the credits roll). Whether by flooding (The Poseidon Adventure), fire (The Towering Inferno), or frost (The Day After Tomorrow), hundreds of extras are always disposed of on screen, and the death of thousands of others is heavily implied.
The doomed tend to fall into three categories: the unlucky, the overwhelmed, and the resigned. The unlucky are always the first to go. They’re the great, unwashed masses; the anonymous and innocent, in the wrong place at the wrong time. To make sure we aren’t completely numb to the mass death onscreen, we occasionally get to meet the victims for a minute or two—in The Poseidon Adventure, this function is fulfilled by the death of the lounge singer’s brother—but most of the early dead are people whose faces we never see. In The Core, they’re the drivers on the Golden Gate Bridge, plunging to their death as steel support beams are melted in the extreme heat. In War of the Worlds, they’re the passengers in the airplanes that the invaders intentionally crash. And anyone trying to escape on a Hudson River ferry. And the entire city of Boston.
Once you account for the tragically unlucky, the next to go are the overwhelmed. They’re the people who can’t account for, or adjust to, their suddenly changed reality. When apocalyptic disaster strikes, they’re the characters who cling to familiar structures—usually the equally-overwhelmed police officers or other authority figures. In The Poseidon Adventure, most of the scared passengers listen to the bursar, when the bursar wrongly assures them that staying in the flooded ballroom is what will save them. In The Day After Tomorrow, they’re the ones who follow the cops, whose well-meaning but ill-informed instinct is to evacuate the surviving masses into the below-zero cold.
The third and final category to die en masse are the resigned. In a way, they’re the smartest ones in the movie. They’re often the priests and the elderly, or those who’ve suffered tragedy before. They know how slim their chances of survival are. They recognize their impossible odds, and submit to them. Most of the elderly folks in The Poseidon Adventure feel this way.
“Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely,” poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in 1928 (although not about disaster movies). “Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go, but I am not resigned.” Who is not resigned? Who is left?
To survive a natural disaster in a movie, you have to be willing to go rogue. To adapt to your new circumstances and seize authority for yourself. You must recognize that you can’t rely on anything—the police force, the government, or the normal rules of nature itself—to help you.
Among the leaders of disaster movies, most of whom are white and most of whom are men, no one articulates this philosophy of fighting against overwhelming odds better than The Poseidon Adventure’s Reverend Scott. Scott is on the ship because he’s being exiled to Africa, where he can explore his radical notions of what it means to actively live your faith.
Scott is openly scornful of the idea that prayer alone is the solution to anything. Both before the wave hits, and immediately afterward, he insists that every passenger has to take charge of their own fate. Get off your knees, he shouts. Stop praying. Save yourselves in the most literal sense.
There’s a reason Scott is able to guide his small band to safety, even though he does not make it to the promised land. It’s because he has the traits that disaster movies tend to reward—that same boundless optimism, tempered by that same brutal practicality. People who survive these films are hopeful almost to the point of delusion, but coldly rational enough to cut losses, to bury the dead without stopping, to figure out how they will survive.
It’s why Scott believes he can survive the violent capsizing of a massive cruise ship, but realistic enough to leave thousands of drowning passengers in the ballroom.
My dad, at 10 years old, watched Scott make these choices. Alone in El Paso, he was learning about what it would take to survive. And he learned those lessons well—because it turns out, the traits you need to survive a disaster movie are pretty much the same ones you need if you intend to do battle with the Texas legislature. My dad, the pale, nerdy kid from Long Island, now fights that battle full-time.
In the four decades since my dad first moved to Texas, he’s also found homes in Austin and Dallas, gotten married, and raised three fiercely Texan children. He loves to show us his favorite disaster movies. When he and Martin, the first friend he’d made in El Paso, went to Austin for college, Martin came out of the closet. A few decades later, so did my little brother.
My dad has always held strong progressive politics. And he loves to fight. He grew up watching Reverend Scott, so he is not resigned. A few years ago, he joined a lobbying group that works day and night to prevent the Texas legislature from making the lives of queer Texans more difficult than they already are. Now he’s the board chairman of one of the largest activist groups in Texas.
They work nights, and count votes; they know which conservative legislators are secretly “in the closet,” quietly willing to support the cause, and they know how to get the worst bills killed in committee. They find parents willing to testify at 4 a.m. with their gender-nonconforming children draped, sleeping, across their shoulders.
They work phones and send emails. They take pledges and they take names. In short: They are not resigned.
In an early sermon in The Poseidon Adventure, Reverend Scott outlines the philosophy that will save him. He lays it out in fierce, plain terms.
“Get down on your knees, and pray to God for help, and then maybe everything will work out? That’s garbage,” he says, scoffing. “Not where I come from.”
That’s not where my dad comes from, either. He’s always known how to look for people who are drowning.