Friday, November 11, 2016

The Deserted City



Imagine that you are living in a modern, bustling city with a population in the hundreds of thousands and you wake up one morning to discover that everyone in the city has mysteriously vanished, as if, while you were sound asleep, every single resident of the city had been vacated or evacuated for reasons that are unknown to you.

Just before he died of tuberculosis in January 1950, George Orwell confided in a letter to a friend that he was having recurring dreams of finding himself alone in a deserted city. Fearless to the end, and without knowing that his own death was imminent, Orwell self-diagnosed the dream as a fear of death. 

Something like this nightmare scenario was enacted in a movie I remember seeing when I was ten or eleven years old called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which was made in 1959. It was a quite direct presentation of the consequences of a worldwide nuclear war. A mine inspector named Ralph Burton (played by Harry Belafonte) is down a mine in Pennsylvania when there is a cave-in and he is pinned, unconscious, under a beam. When he revives, he hears workers digging him out. But after a few days the sounds suddenly stop. After Ralph manages to dig himself out, he discovers that everything is inexplicably deserted. He finds newspapers with headlines describing a worldwide nuclear catastrophe - not from atomic explosions but a poison cloud that circled the earth for several days, wiping out all forms of life. (Quite implausibly, there are no bodies to be found anywhere.) 

Ralph drives to New York City looking for some sign of life, but finds the city deserted. It was this point in the movie that I remember most vividly: images of the empty streets of Manhattan and Ralph despondently searching for someone, anyone. He manages to get power restored to a high rise building, taking up residence in the penthouse. He brings a department store mannequin to his flat, names him Snodgrass (he pronounces it "Snuffgrass") and has conversations with him. Just when he seems to be cracking up from his solitude, he throws Snodgrass off his penthouse balcony. When the mannequin hits the pavement below, Ralph hears a woman's scream. A toothsome blonde (thank you, Hollywood) named Sarah, played by the eternally toothsome Inger Stevens, had been following him and was afraid that Ralph had jumped to his death. 

The injection of an interracial love story might have been ballsy in 1959, but, for me, the movie veered off course thenceforth. Things get even sillier when another man (white Mel Ferrer) shows up before Ralph and Sarah can surmount the racial divide and the film ends with the promise of a menage a trois, the three human survivors walking hand in hand away from the camera and the film closing with the title The Beginning. But the only reason that The World, the Flesh and the Devil has stayed for so long in my memory is due the startling pictures of a city forever stilled by a man-made catastrophe. A soundless, strangely alluring abandoned stage - civilization's end.

I don't dream of deserted cities, but it has become a compelling image for me since the death of my sister two weeks ago. The world feels somehow like it has collapsed. It has grown colder, like the time of year. Familiar places are less recognizable. Where the presence of my sister was, where the promise of Family once stood, there is now vacant space. I have lost all interest in Alaska, where she was living. Its natural wonders, its enormous open spaces, under the drifting snow of oncoming winter, a winter now endless, have lost all their allure. And since she has been cremated, she will have no resting place there to be visited some day, some flowers to leave on the ground - sweets to the sweet.

Even the people among whom I live (a girlfriend, her daughter) seem less familiar than they did. Their sympathy and support have helped me over the shock of losing my sister, but there is a point at which their continuing to live, going about their undisrupted lives, becomes intrusive - an affront to the prevailing sadness. Instead of morning greetings and coffee and breakfast, I feel that there should be lowered voices and muffled footsteps. the cat should be prevented from mewing with a saucer of milk, the television on but the sound turned low. 

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