Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: The Poseidon Adventure

Over the next few weeks, I am going to talk about disaster movies and, tangentially, my love for disaster movies. So take my broken, bloody hand and  come along on this adventure as we metaphorically slog through fires, earthquakes, alien invasions, maritime mishaps, really shitty weather... and shame.

The Poseidon Adventure has always been my secret shame -- a movie I loved loved loved by assumed everyone else hated hated hated. My shame has abated recently, as I discovered that many other people share my love for what I have always referred to as "my favorite bad movie." Also please note that I am only talking here of the original 1972 film. WARNING: Avoid the awful 2005 remake. It is devoid of pleasure.
The Plot In Brief: On the New Year's voyage of the S.S. Poseidon, the ship is hit by a ninety-foot tidal wave, which literally turns it upside down. The surviving passengers will need to work their way up to the unsubmerged bottom of the boat-- to the engine room, where the hull is the thinnest. Of all the A-list and B-list stars left alive--motivated young priest Gene Hackman, crusty New York police captain Ernest Borgnine, his wife and former prostitute Stella Stevens, charming retired couple Jack Albertson and Shelly Winters, precocious teens Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea, dutiful purser Roddy McDowall, avuncular older priest Arthur O'Connell, professional singer Carol Lynley, and lonely single man Red Buttons-- who will survive? Or put another way: in what order will they die?

SPOILER ALERT ABOUT SPOILERS: When I first saw this film I was ten years old. I found the hyped-up melodrama of the film enthralling and literally leaned forward in my seat. A major character was about to buy the farm, but the sequence was still full of suspense for little me. I leaned forward in my seat and whispered, "Will he make it? Will he make it?" The guy in front of me turned around and shouted, "No! He dies!"

Because some people like to crush children's souls.

I, on the other hand, prefer to embiggen the souls of children by using disaster movies to teach vocabulary. During the years I taught ninth graders, the curriculum required weekly vocabulary and, year in and year out, "pompous" was one of the words I had to teach. I would play them the following dialogue snippet from The Poseidon Adventure. To show how much things have changed, I used to play it from a cassette I had taped off a television broadcast.

We have to stay here until help arrives!

Help from where--from the Captain? He's dead. Everyone is dead
who was above us because now they're beneath us, under the water!


It IS true, you pompous ass!

The little fourteen year-olds dug it the most, probably because Hackman says "ass" (giggle, giggle). By the way, I played that little clip so many damn times over the course of the years that I was able to transcribe it without referring to web page, script or tape. It is written on my heart.

For a few years, The Music Box Theatre in Chicago (the happiest place on earth) tried (and failed) to start a new tradition. For two or three years in a row, they hosted a special screening of The Poseidon Adventure on New Year's Eve, complete with champagne and noise-makers, timing the start of the film so that the ship turning over happened exactly at the stroke of midnight, just like in the film. I am not sure how many people attended. It sounds like a fun idea. The theatre probably stopped doing this because not enough people went. After all, this sort of thing is right up my alley, and even I never went.

The performances in the film may be hard for some viewers to take, but at least they are all hard to take in the same way. Every performer overacts to a ludicrous degree. Of course, I myself have never experienced this sort of Grade-A maritime disaster, and perhaps this is the way that real people would act. People shout. People bellow. People speechify. The Poseidon Adventure is a film full of PERFORMANCES in all capital letters. Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine seem to have made a side bet during the production about who could be more over the top. (Borgnine wins.) Leslie Nielsen appears briefly as the Captain and it is impossible to take him seriously -- you keep waiting for him to tell a crewman, "Don't call me Shirley." Luckily, Nielsen is quickly killed off and we the audience can give the remainder of the film all the disaster-y seriousness it deserves and requires.

I realize now that it is neither the hambone storyline nor the ham-fisted performances that make this film so endearing. For the longest time I believed the conventional wisdom: that the box office bumper crop of disaster movies we got during the 1970s was a reaction to the fact that things had gotten so irredeemably shitty in America (Altamont, Kent State, Watergate, inflation, gas shortages, the hostage crisis,) and Americans wanted to forget their problems by going to the movies and seeing people with MUCH BIGGER PROBLEMS. I fell victim to the old saw that tragedy makes us all appreciate what we have. I no longer believe this to be true. I believe my love for The Poseidon Adventure, and for similar disaster films of that period, stems from other things.
First of all, I delight in the fact that most old-school disaster movies used practical effects to manifest their mayhem. Have you been to Universal Studios Hollywood lately? The "Earthquake" ride (cleverly disguised as an innocent part of the tram tour) is still in use! It was recently used on an episode of CSI. Take that, CGI! I love when filmmakers actually attempt to create impressive spectacles instead of faking them in a computer. Terry Gilliam once observed that in real life, light hits real objects all sorts of ways, and that is the way human beings are used to seeing the world. In a computer-generated world, all the light is "one way" and that is why most humans can instantly detect fakery.

In his 1986 remake of The Fly, David Cronenberg and Edward Pogue remind us that "It's the flesh that drives [us} crazy" and so to do real stunts performed by real stuntmen. Disaster films are full of amazing sights of amazing people doing amazing things. A signature shot in The Poseidon Adventure (it was even used in the trailer) shows a man falling to his death as the ship inverts, plummeting five or six stories into a huge, stained-glass skylight that both shatters under his weight and electrocutes the poor guy. It's a breath-taking stunt, and some unsung stuntman actually does it in one single unbroken shot. Ask Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan about how they do it. The answer is, by doing it.

Which brings me to the second point. There's an often unnoticed cornerstone of all disaster films: a celebration of excellence. I embrace this trope with both hands covered in fake popcorn butter. I am good at my job and take delight in watching others who are good at theirs. In all of these disaster films, the characters' very lives are in the hands of A FEW MEN WHO KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING. (Unfortunately, it IS always a man. These films are way sexist--definitely not a redeeming feature. Women exist to be ornaments, obstacles, victims, or screamers.) Think of Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith in Independence Day; they save the world through computer know-how and piloting skills, respectively. The same trope can be witnessed in The Towering Inferno; only thanks to Steve McQueen (the firefighter with the piercing blue eyes) and Paul Newman (the architect with the piercing blue eyes), do some people actually get out of the conflagration alive.

In The Poseidon Adventure, much of the drama comes from THE TWO MEN WHO KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING butting heads. Gene Hackman seems to be in charge of all the "faith" stuff; he's our cock-eyed optimist, good at motivating people to do the right thing. Ernest Borgnine's police captain, on the other hand, is practical: well versed in physics, the real world, and the way real people act when the shit goes down. He's our tender-hearted realist.

So is The Poseidon Adventure really a shadow play, a disguised sermon, or a big metaphor? As Hackman and Borgnine shout and cajole and insult and press on, this is a morality play about the two sides of our own nature -- a bickering match setting who we are (Borgnine, most of us) against who we aspire to be (Hackman).

I also love how throughout the film, the Ernest Borgnine character keeps calling the Gene Hackman character "preacher," to mock and antagonize him. Didn't white people stop using that term for priest around the turn of the last century?

Could my love of this film have anything to do with the score? This is early work from John Williams, who, as we know, would come dominate contemporary film music with his iconic scores for Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Home Alone, JFK, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, and Lincoln. What a resume. I have long thought that film music is at its best when you are not consciously aware of it, and I believe William's score for Poseidon works well on that level, underscoring emotions rather than calling attention to itself.

The Poseidon Adventure was nominated for eight Academy Awards. It won only for "Best Song," for the miserable and insipid dirge, "The Morning After." Check out these beautiful and trenchant lyrics:

"The Morning After"
(Al Kasha and Joel Hirshhorn)

There's got to be a morning after

If we can hold on through the night

We have a chance to find the sunshine

Let's keep on lookin' for the light

Oh, can't you see the morning after

It's waiting right outside the storm

Why don't we cross the bridge together

And find a place that's safe and warm

It's not too late; we should be giving

Only with love can we climb

It's not too late, not while we're living

Let's put our hands out in time

There's got to be a morning after

We're moving closer to the shore

I know we'll be there by tomorrow

And we'll escape the darkness

We won't be searchin' any more

There's got to be a morning after

(There's got to be a morning after)

There's got to be a morning after

(There's got to be a morning after)

There's got to be a morning after

(There's got to be a morning after)

There's got to be a morning after

(There's got to be a morning after)

There's got to be a morning after


One line of this godforsaken song has always intrigued me, "Let's put our hands out in time." What does this mean? The rest of the lyrics are pretty simple, a series of "storm and darkness" versus "safety and light" metaphors. What might "Let's put our hands out in time" possibly mean? This line sort of disrupts the consistent metaphoric conceit-- or does it?

Are we: 1) putting our (metaphoric) hands out in THE NICK OF TIME to break our (metaphoric) fall?  2) putting our (again, metaphoric) hands into the space/time continuum, by which I mean literally "in time?"  3) are we dancing and putting our (jazz) hands (somewhere) in time TO THE MUSIC? The possibilities are endless. Please post in the comments section below what you think this @#(*&^%$! song lyric means!

TANGENT: My Google search for the term "The Morning After" yielded predictable results, all of them concerning a new form of birth control recently cleared by the FDA. You know what else keeps people from making babies? DROWNING IN A BOAT.

The Poseidon Adventure was a monster success, the top-grossing film of 1973. It was, for a time, the sixth highest-grossing film in history. More than thirty million people tuned in the first time ABC showed it on broadcast television.

Of course, we all know that massive popular success never speaks to the real quality or worth of any art form, Michael Bay.

Is The Poseidon Adventure one of the most entertaining bad movies ever made?

It is true, you pompous ass.


  1. Great read, JB - very funny (esp loved the "Spoiler Alert About Spoilers") - The Poseidon Adventure is a movie I've known about forever but never really felt compelled to actually watch - you have changed that, sir!

    As for your lyric - I pride myself for being a literary-minded person with some good close reading and interpretive skills forged in the flames of being a pothead English major for a few years in university. All that to say: Fucked if I know!

  2. I think it's pretty simple due to the lines before like "It's not too late, not while we're living

    So "Let's put our hands out in time" means better handle biz before it's too late.

    Great article! Makes me excited to re-watch this as it has been many years since I've seen it.

  3. I like the way that Pamela sue Martin was so hot for the priest