Leslie Jamison and Ryan Spencer Discuss How Movies Shape Our View of the Apocalypse
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
The end of the world as we know it isn’t just a popular topic for Margaret Atwood novels or Michael Stipe lyrics; there’s a whole film genre devoted to it too! From Dawn of the Dead, to Southland Tales, to 2012, to all the various Resident Evil flicks, cinema has long been obsessed with worst case scenarios. But are these movies high art? Or more compellingly, is there high art contained within these films? Photographer Ryan Spencer thinks so. His new photo-book — Such Mean Estate — consists of various self-captured Polaroid images; each taken from one frame of a disaster film. Accompanying this book-length photo essay on cinematic apocalypses is a prose essay by Leslie Jamison called “Catechism.” Both the images and the text combine to create unique experience not only in how we think about the end of times, but how we look at it, too.
For the launch of the book, I talked to both Spencer and Jamison about this unique project.
Ryan Britt: Thinking about the images contained in both the photographs and in the book; I wanted to talk to you guys about “cli-fi.” That type of science fiction that is about climate change. What are some influential cli-fi narratives for both of you?
Ryan Spencer: The quintessential — as far as entertainment value — would have to be The Day After Tomorrow. In that, you have family drama and every bad thing you can think of happening. And that is a film that I looked through a lot when I was doing this project. There are a few images from that film [in the book]. That’s a great one. I think 12 Monkeys is a good one too; a great film. It deals a lot with this issue of what would our response be if the climate were altered in a certain way. And when we look at these films that are kind of over the top and absurd, there’s still something terrifying in them. Something I was trying to do with these photos is to take images from these films and to make them terrifying again.
Britt: Because these films have to be consumed by mass culture, they might actually back off on some of the terror.
Leslie Jamison: I want to say a few more words about The Day After Tomorrow. I feel like it was one of the signs of early bonding [between us]. I mean, I don’t go around telling lots of people about my fascination with The Day After Tomorrow because there’s a weird shame associated with loving that film. There’s a line [in my essay] about sending L.A. to hell, and to me that film epitomizes that aesthetic. In these kinds of movies L.A. is always opening up with tiny fire chasms! I’m from L.A. so I feel defensive on L.A.’s behalf and when it comes to disaster movies there’s this weird fixation with just punishing L.A.! So that was one of those things I’ve just been waiting for a chance to talk about.
And I too feel like there is a way in which some of these genre films get sanitized. There’s a way we kind of use them to punish ourselves a little bit, but it’s a kind of inculcation. But this project I think takes away from that safety. I mean, there’s nothing safe about the world we live in right now.
Spencer: Right. And in looking at all of these films — science fiction films — inherently shows the future or some version of the future. For me, it’s interesting to look at the histories of past futures. What does looking at what we thought was going to happen to us twenty years ago feel like? Or what did 2010 look like in 1970? But yes. When this kind of thing is made into a film, there is a feeling of safety: this is the worst thing that could happen; all of the things people may have joked about — superstorms — when you see it actually happening in a movie, it’s somehow more real. For example: during hurricane Sandy, my girlfriend and I actually watched The Day After Tomorrow, not knowing how bad the real storm was going to turn out.
Britt: Ha! Meta. Let’s talk a little bit about the images themselves. Now, which Resident Evil film is the cover photo from? Full Throttle? Electric Boogaloo?
Spencer: Not sure. Resident Evil: Apocalypse? I don’t always remember which photos everything is from. [laughs]
Britt: This brings me to the shame Leslie mentioned earlier. There’s shame in loving the idea that the world is ending, but there’s also shame in loving cheesy disaster movies. What’s so interesting about this, is that here I’ve got a beautiful image from a film that I would have never known as the kind of movie that probably has like a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Spencer: That’s a generous rating for a Resident Evil film.
Britt: Can you both talk about moving different aspects of creative art into different contexts? Has the respectability of these films been increased?
Spencer: There’s a lot of images of course here that are taken from movies that aren’t great films. I shouldn’t say that; it’s not that they’re not great films — they’re just not films that are easy to defend. Maybe I did this whole project to give myself some reason to sit and watch all of this garbage! But even when the script is horrible or there’s not a lot going for a movie, I found something — even once or twice — that is actually beautiful. But, you know I had to comb through to find some of that. A lot of these things happen so quickly. I had to look for some of the best frames in slow motion.
Britt: Is there an example of one of the photos that typifies what you’re talking about? In an instant, we wouldn’t have seen it in a regular viewing of the film, but when you slowed it down, there was then this amazing moment?
Spencer: I think a lot of the Resident Evil movies are like that. They have a video game pace. So you have to slow it down to find the good stuff. And there are great artisans working on those kinds of movies.
Britt: They’re not phoning it in!
So, let’s talk a little bit about some of the images in the photographs that pop up in Leslie’s essay. My takeaway of all of this — if I were to describe the book in one sentence — it would be to say “you know when people are looking at the horizon and it’s all about to go down.” That, to me is what this book is about. Can we speak a little bit about what kinds of people [protagonists] we see in this? What limitations were imposed on the human figures in these photographs?
Spencer: Most of these films have very recognizable actors in them, so a lot of times I purposely didn’t include their faces. Because then I’m looking at a picture of The Rock! But when you show part of their face or a profile, and they’re looking toward something, then you become a spectator to what they’re looking at. And for me, that was important.
Jamison: One thing that kept me drawn to the images when I was responding [writing the essay] was the moment when figures in the images are looking outside the frame, looking at what’s about to go down, what’s just beyond the doorway. What’s the basic mystery of the narrative? What is this character seeing? What is about to happen? I think what happens is that when you re-contextualize these images out of a familiar situation — half the world gets saved, or only the two character we care about get saved — but once you get out of those familiar areas, it makes it scary again, but there’s also a lot more narrative mystery. And I loved that. I didn’t get one story about who these characters were and what was happening. In each frame there were like a thousand stories that could have been. And I loved that. This refused to be fixed into a single storyline.
Britt: In these kinds of movies, we’re dealing with the people in charge, or the people who are trying to fix it. Or at least half the time we are. It seemed like you were both thinking “what would a regular person” do in if the apocalypse were to occur? Is the love you both have of these kinds of narratives tied to thinking about it personally? Which kind of protagonist would you be in these narratives? The scientists in the lab trying to fix everything? Or the person grabbing enough baked beans to get by?
Jamison: I can confess one thing. I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody this. I did have a fantasy about this. Another seminal film for me was Deep Impact. While this may sound sick or petty…A trope you see in these films is that people are “the chosen” or the “saved ones.” And in a film like Deep Impact they had these arks, out in the middle of nowhere. And a certain number of people were going to be given space on these arks. Most of it was determined by lottery but other people were sort of declared to be a “living nation treasure.” I never thought I could be any kind of scientist, but I did have some fantasies that I’d been given a spot on the ark for other reason. “Oh, we really like your essays,” you can have a spot on the ark! (Laughs)
Britt: So, the main motivation to become a writer of any note is to get selected to live through the apocalypse. (Laughs)
I think there’s a million theories as to why these kinds of [disaster] narratives appeal to us generally, but Leslie just revealed why it appeals to her personally. [To Ryan Spencer] What you your role be?
Spencer: (laughs) I don’t really know what I would do. Haven’t really thought that far ahead!
This conversation occurred live on 6.22.155 at the powerHouse Arena in front of an audience for the launch of Such Mean Estate. It has been edited and condensed by the interviewer.
All photographs copyright Ryan Spencer, from Such Mean Estate, unique panchromatic instant prints, 2.9 x 3.7 inches.