Sunday, January 17, 2021

My year of watching underwater movies

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On the second the night my husband’s temperature hovered around 103, I watched Titanic. Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater met, fell in love and fought for their lives aboard the doomed ship. Titanic was a last resort. Several of my trusted comfort rituals, including a yoga class on YouTube and a bath, had already proven insufficient. I felt an unshakeable snap panic, as if we were riding an old wooden roller coaster with no way to stop the ride from plunging into a black hole. I wasn’t the only one who felt shaken and scared. It was mid-March in New York City, and the city was realizing that the coronavirus was not only present but was everywhere. Nurses were already asking for PPE. The streets were empty. We did a video conference with a nice doctor from Mt. Sinai who told me to watch Charlie’s breathing, search for a pulse oximeter online, and hang on. She looked tired. Asanas and Epsom salts had lost their calming powers.

But Titanic work. By the time Jack disappeared under the freezing Atlantic as a magnificent frozen corpse, I had relaxed enough to be annoyed that Rose was monopolizing the door. It felt good to worry about something so stupid. And our own crisis seemed manageable compared to Jack and Rose’s ordeal. Yes, Charlie was sicker than he had ever been before, and yes, he had most of the known symptoms of Covid-19. But at least he was not in danger on the sea! By the time the old lady threw it in the ocean at the end, I was asleep.

James Cameron’s masterpiece had one major flaw. It lasted three hours and thirty minutes. No more nights on the couch had to be filled, especially as Charlie’s illness persisted. He had started to feel bad the night before New York City took a “break”. In the weeks that followed, he barely left the room, soaking the sheets in sweat, too weak to eat. By the time he recovered in April, the world had changed. In between, he lost 25 pounds and his sense of smell, and I had become obsessed with the stories of boating mishaps.

After Titanic, looking for more tales of danger at sea, I finally read Erik Larson’s copy Dead Wake: the last crossing of Lusitania languishing in the corner of our bookshelf devoted to books attractive enough to buy but not to actually read. The best bits of Larson’s book were not about the Lusitania or its passengers, but the U-20, the submarine that torpedoed the ship. Talk about cursed. Descriptions of the cramped and damp underwater existence of the German naval forces seemed claustrophobic and grim. They lived on top of each other, stuck, isolated and in constant fear of death. This part reminded me of the lonely circumstances in our apartment, but the situation was much worse. It stank of heaven there. The food, obviously, was sucked in deeply. And you could never dry yourself off. Their sequestered emergencies took place in narrow steel corridors and had to be faced without a shower. Comparison is a thief of joy, et cetera, but in this case, measuring our fate against the misery of the miserable submariners has helped. As Titanic, Dead alarm clock appealed precisely because the situation he was portraying was so horrible. Nothing sounded worse than drowning in the middle of the ocean. Nothing made me feel better than consuming stories about other people doing it. Was it a psychologically sound method of adaptation? I didn’t care. It was a project.

Submarines are an ever popular setting for adventure films, war epics, sci-fi movies, and even slapstick comedies starring Kelsey Grammer. It makes sense. The setting is instantly atmospheric, all the gloomy greens and blues and the sound of metal and ambient danger. The appeal for storytellers is obvious. Like space, the underwater setting is inherently dramatic, an alien world hostile to human life, brimming with ways to kill our heroes: enemy fire, storms, sharks. The hydrodynamic hull looks like a belly, a grave and a weapon all at once, and functions as a great metaphor for the fragility and dread of being alive. Just falling too deep can crush you. The stakes increase with each depth charge and each meter descended.

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