Rear View

An image from the movie “The Wave” from 2015.

In “Being EcologicalTim Morton wonders about the prevalent mode of climate writing, which he calls “information dump”, “dumping massive platefuls of facts on to us” over and over again. Morton wonders, why we do that and finds the following analogy:

“Imagine that we are dreaming. What kind of dream would it be where the characters and plot vary, sometimes significantly, but the overall impact—where the dream leaves us, its basic color or tone or point of view (or what have you) —remains the same? There is definitely an analogy from the world of dreaming: these are the trauma dreams of sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” According to Sigmund Freud, Morton writes, “the PTSD sufferer is simply trying to install herself, through her dreams, at a point in time before the trauma happened. Why? Because there is some safety or security in being able to anticipate. Anticipatory fear is far less intense than the fear you experience when finding yourself, all of a sudden, in the middle of a trauma. If you think about it, traumas by definition are things that you find yourself in the middle of—you can’t sneak up on them from the side or from behind, and that’s why they’re traumatic. You just suddenly find yourself in a car crash, for instance. If you had been able to anticipate, you might have been able to swerve out of the way.”
“By analogy, then,” Morton concludes, “information dump mode is a way for us to try to install ourselves at a fictional point in time before global warming happened. We are trying to anticipate something inside which we already find ourselves.”

Atlantis: The Lost Continent (1961)

This movie is certainly not of the greatest to have come out of Hollywood. But made in 1961 it is one of the first movies about Atlantis and has been influential in popularizing the myth in the 20. Century. Made with a lot of stock footage from the movie company MGM, particularly from “Quo vadis” filmed ten years prior, the movie is not concerned with Atlantis as a sunken or submarine civilization, but with the downfall of a civilization and an oppressive political system and class. Really, the so called Lost Continent the story is set on could be any ancient empire or city.

The only remarkable feature of the movie I found to be the destruction sequence towards it’s very end. It’s filmed and edited in a very classic structure giving a good example of the Hollywood aesthetics of destruction. In a shot-and-reverse-shot-sequence the viewer is put in the position of the refugees in three boats and a safe distance from the desaster site. Here are the last 3 minutes of the movie (without sound):

And here is what director John Landis has to say about the movie:

The amphibious communities of Bangkok

Three texts, three authors, three different contexts – all describing the amphibious but perilous life style of the inhabitants of Bangkok, the capital of Thailand:

In her essay from 2018 on contemporary flood protection in several metropolises across Asia, researcher Lizzie Yarina writes:

In decades past (and still today in some rural parts of the country) Thai people lived in “amphibious communities”; for example, in “raft houses” which float upwards on stilts during floods, or in villages built on two levels where upper walkways and living quarters can be used during the rainy season. But those adaptive patterns are disappearing, even as climate risk grows.

In a more visual, literary tone is the following passage. In the 2023 novel “Bangkok wakes to rain” by Thai author Pitchaya Sudbanthad, a British missionary in 19. Century Bangkok writes in a letter home:

The Siamese as a race thrive in the aquatic realm. They live as if they have been born sea nymphs that only recently joined the race of man. He goes on to describe the capital Bangkok: An hour beyond lies the capital, its riverside lined with rickety stilt houses that look incapable of withstanding even the most delicate wake of a modern steamer yet somehow maintain a mysterious integrity. Their occupants drink, , swim, wash away their filth, and fill pots to make soupy meals of their catches, everyone joined in the confluence of fluids.

And in the debut novel by US-American sci-fi author Paolo Bacigalupi “The Windup Girl” from 2009, the scene is set in a future Bangkok:

Just beyond, the dike and lock system of the King Rama XII’s seawall looms, holding back the weight of the blue ocean.
It’s difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond. Difficult to think of the City of Divine Beings as anything other than a disaster waiting to happen. But the Thais are stubborn and have fought to keep their revered city of Krung Thep from drowning. With coal-burning pumps and leveed labor and a deep faith in the visionary leadership of their Chakri Dynasty, they have so far kept at bay that thing which has swallowed New York and Rangoon, Mumbai and New Orleans.

For further reading on Thailand and living with water see the interview with architect Sumet Jumsai.

Ho Chi Minh City

This impressive photo of the Vietnamese metropolis in the Mekong Delta was taken by Lizzie Yarina, a researcher from the MIT Urban Crisis Lab and it accompanies her insightful article “You’re sea wall won’t save you”.

Fear of Drowning – Aquaman and the Fate of Atlantis

Last year author Ram V and artist Christian Ward published a new three piece comic book on the DC-superhero Aquaman. (I have commented on the Aquaman movie from the same year here and here.) The story is not really about Atlantis, acording to the DC universe the sunken kingdom of Aquaman’s mother. But in it Aquaman tells the story of the kingdom, as he says it was told to him by his father once. What makes this, one of countless variations of the myth, interesting to us today, is the role that the (suppressed) fear of submergence plays in it.

According to the tale, Atlantis was a swimmin city and the Atlantan people were blessed with a magic that helped them create their city and become powerful. This secret power could be accessed by magicians and kings but the power also accessed and read the minds of these rulers and eventually threatened to manifest their suppressed fears as well as their desires. “And which was the one fear that haunted every man, every woman and every child in Atlantis every day,” the text reads. “What if Atlantis were to drown?” (my translations from the German print version)

And of course this is what happens: Atlantis sinks beneath the sea level. It’s rulers manage to create an underwater habitat and thereby safe the population while also sending the magic power source, called “Dark World”, away into outer-space. The text concludes: “The mystery in Atlantis’ heart was both its creative force and its downfall.”

While the fall of Atlantis is usually used as a moral metaphor for blind greed and hubris, the Atlantan society created by comic author Ram V seems controlled and maybe obsessed by their ever present fear of the ocean. This is the portrait of a fragile society, one that despite all the powers and wonders it achieved lives a most perilous life, only waiting for the imminent disaster.

Life in Atlantis is essentially what Geologist Peter Haff termed live in the “technosphere” – an existence that is wholly dependent on technological solutions and utterly lost should these ever fail.

Dipesh Chakrabaty, who quotes Peter Haff in his book “The Climate of History in a Planetary Age” compares Haff’s “technosphere” to a much older text from 1955 by Carl Schmitt. Schmitt there distinguishes between a “terran” and a “maritime” existence, the latter being life onboard of a ship. Chakrabaty concludes: “If Haff’s argument is correct, that the technosphere has become a basic condition for the survival of seven (soon to be nine) billion people today, one could say that we have already made Earth into something like Schmitt’s ship.” (my translations)

Or Ram V’s Atlantis, I would add.

Chakrabaty’s conclusion is even more true for coastal communities. The existence of many of these communities rely on sea walls, dikes, pumps and other technical and architectural structures. It is intriguing to take Ram V’s tale of suppressed fears that become manifest and adapt it to the sensibilities and culture of coastal communities today. One is tempted to ask: How much Atlantis is in cities like New York, Bangkok or Jakarta?

The gradual flood

The movie “Moonfall” from 2022 might be the worst movie ever done by Roland Emmerich, the movie director a Canadian journal aptly described as a “disaster-porn artist”. Emmerich has filmed – or rather digitally created – a whole collection of gigantic flood waves over the years from “The Day After Tomorrow” in 2004 to “2012” which was released in 2009. (see my notes here)

“Moonfall” also features a flood scene albeit a visually and atmospherically quite different one. Instead of the usual bird’s eye view shot of one gigantic, towering wave crashing against the city skyline, Emmerich here chooses to depict flooding as a slower, more gradual event. The flood event is taking place at nighttime and the scene has a very dark and shadowy quality. It’s an interesting aesthetic choice that doesn’t fail to create an intense and uncanny effect.

Like in most disaster movies, the perspective is from an elevated and securely removed position. Yet the director here tries to use a less spectacular and slightly more realistic approach to the pheonomenon.

There is however another scene later in the movie that returns to the old formula of the spectacularly crashing giant water wall.

A very big shark and an underwater habitat for the rich

The action movie Meg was released in 2018 and did surprisingly well at the box offices, considering that the shark-vs-man plot seems so outdated and overdone. Apparently it was two decades in the making and it feels a bit like it too watching it. Nevertheless, there is a sequel already in cinemas now testifying to it’s apparent appeal.

The first half of the film is essentially an underwater movie and thus I found it worth analyzing for this blog. The most striking aspect of this underwater scenario seemed to me the interior design of the habitat. As opposed to the usual submarine research base, this submarine station looks a lot more like the rescue bunkers currently advertised for billionaires across the globe or the luxury ocean resorts by South-African hotel mogul Sol Kerzner. Compare this image from the movie and the one from an ad for “Atlantis Hotel” in Sanya Bay, China, below:

This is clearly not coincidental: The second half of the movie plot is prominently set in this very Sanya Bay, currently a prime Chinese tourist destination. The movie is a US-American-Chinese co-production and there are clearly visible marketing intentions at play here. (I have written about the Atlantis hotel group elsewhere in this blog.)

There is also a scene in the movie indicating quite directly the connection between the taste of the mega-rich and this kind of submarine design: Towards the beginning of the movie the US-American Billionaire who finances the research station comes to visit. Entering a freight elevator to go down to the station, he expresses his disdain with the raggedy look of the elevator’s inside, calling it inappropriate for such an expensive research project. He is than relieved to find that the station itself looks much more to his taste.

Here are two more images, with the first one being clearly reminiscent of hotel resorts (with a little girl frolicking along) and the second of the type of sleek office design favored by global market players:

The interior design tells us that this project is actually catering to the taste and needs of the wealthy class more than to science. The topic of submarine refuge is never touched upon verbally in the movie but the images speak quite loudly too, I think. One can’t help notice the stark difference to earlier movies about (and the reality of) submarine research and thus the attractiveness of these fictional rooms.

As billionaires in the real world continue to publicly participate in person in all kinds of enterprises that were once reserved for scientists only, the work environments change accordingly. This of course makes the whole enterprise highly questionable in scientific terms. And I am afraid we are going to see more of this in the future – in film and real life. (See also my post on rich men’s rescue schemes here.)

Leaving Planet Terror

The movie by  Robert Rodriguez from 2007 is definitely not a climate narrative. Rather “Planet Terror“, a true retro flick, picks up a theme popular in the 1970s: anihilation through some mysterious chemical experiment gone havoc. Still I found the closing images worth sharing here, as they are not only quite impressive visually, but also because they combine narratives and traditions that are important for coastal climate adaptation.

Set in the US state of Texas the story eventually culminates in a biblical exodus of the last survivors from the barren land called USA to the promised land – called Mexico.

One of the central characters, a Latino in the US himself, gives the crucial advice: “You’ll be able to defend yourselves with the ocean in the back.”

This direction of the exodus is of course a critical comment and reversal of the image of the USA as a promised land for Mexican migrants. But the movie also references the ocean shore in particular as a mythical place of refuge. This might seem like an odd concept, considering that living by the sea actually is living with the proverbial “back against the wall”. But it resonates with the attraction coastal living holds in our culture. This has not always been the case – quite to the contrary. There is historical argument that coastal settlements at least in the Global South are a colonial heritage.

Rodriguez’ garden of Eden combines an ocean idyll with reference to ancient Inka civilisations and a military base, as can be seen in the image above. Obviously these things don’t really match. It’s a very ambivalent and complex collage, very dreamlike and thus inspiring us to think about the relationship between human civilization, destruction and violence and the natural environment as our habitat.

FloodZone – an ongoing visual research of life in the tidal zone

FloodZone is an ongoing photographic series by Anastasia Samoylova, responding to the environmental changes in coastal cities of South Florida. The project began in Miami in 2016, when Samoylova moved to the area and experience living in a tropical environment for the first time.
The works display in an impressive way the ambivalences and the fluid frontiers between city and sea in a community exposed to frequent floodings. I am particularly impressed how artist Samoylova expands the topic and visual themes onto popular imagery and the everyday in the urban scenery.

All images are from the artist’s website.

Thanks to Ulrike Heine for the lead!

The Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

In a theme park near Tampa, FL, you can see mermaids perform for you live since 1947.

The producers write on their website: “What do you get when you combine underwater fantasy with SCUBA technology? Why, you get mermaids, gliding and twirling to the soundtrack of children’s fairy tales or popular music. […] In the shows the mermaids (and mermen — called princes) discreetly take mouthfuls of air from the slender breathing tubes while they perform. Even with the air tubes, though, it’s clear that part of being a mermaid is being able to hold your breath for quite a while.”

Interestingly, the audience is seated in a giant glass tank, turning the concept of aquarium inside-out: “The mermaids are swimming in a natural spring; the 500-seat theater is embedded in the side of the spring 16 feet below the surface.”

The park is a business venture by the famous performer and sports swimmer Newt Perry, a former Navy soldier who became a celebrity by appearing in over 100 of filmmaker Grantland Rice‘s “Sportlight” short films over a period of three decades. Newt Perry, once dubbed “The Human Fish”, went on to became a much sought-after film advisor for Hollywood.

Newt Perry and mermaid Nancy Tribble in Tampa, FL. Click on the pic for the online source and additional info!

Thanks to Bernd Mand for the lead!