Wednesday, August 09, 2006

9/11: Still searching for the pony...

Oliver Stone's film World Trade Center is being released today, another in a string of films about September 11th which have come out or are undoubtedly in the works.

I haven't seen any of the more recent ones. For some reason, I have no strong desire to. I'm not exactly sure what it is.

It may be partly because even the trailers for these films provoke a knot in my stomach, caused both by a lot of unpleasant memories of that day and by the thudding inevitablity of the events they deal with. ('So, how did it end?' is probably not going to be one of those questions asked when friends mention having seen World Trade Center the evening before.)

These are things which I really do not want to relive, especially in widescreen and dolby surround.

My hesitation, however, may also have somethign to do with the word 'uplifting', which seems to feature rather prominently in some of the reviews and commentary about the film.

There does seem to be a terribly strong urge to try to find something - something - which is comforting or admirable about that day. Hence, the focus in many of these recent films on feats of individual heroism, however futile, by police, firefighters and ordinary passengers.

Without denying that there were, in fact, many acts of individual courage on that day, what we're talking about here is not reality but rather the creation of artworks (and commodities...and, in the end, entertainment) which seek to find some kind of overall meaning in September 11th.

Thus, it is a good time to read and reflect upon Ron Rosenbaum's insightful commentary about the last high-profile film to be made about the events that day, Paul Greengrass's United 93. Rosenbaum questions the efforts to find something redemptive and positive amidst the terror and horror of the attacks on Washington and New York.
Could it be that the three films [about flight 93] are a symptom of our addiction to fables of redemptive uplift that shield us from the true dimensions of the tragedy? Redemptive uplift: It's the official religion of the media, anyway. There must be a silver lining; it's always darkest before the dawn; the human spirit will triumph over evil; there must be a pony.
This may explain the way that film and television immediately latched onto flight 93 as a subject. In the flight 93 films, the 'pony' is provided by the passenger uprising against the hijackers, its uplifting power undiminished (and perhaps even enhanced?) by being ultimately doomed. The audience's thrill, in essence, comes from vicariously resisting, from striking back against the powerlessness and chaos which seemed to engulf America on that day. By focusing on this act of resistance (which was indeed remarkable) a broader silver lining can be discerned in what was - otherwise - a disaster.

Rosenbaum, however, resists this interpretation:
I did not come away from watching United 93 feeling optimistic about the triumph of the human spirit and the superior resilience of enlightenment values. Quite the opposite. I came away with a feeling that history has been hijacked by a cult of the undead, or the wannabe dead, suicidal mass murderers driven by theocratic savagery. That, if you want a metaphoric fable, we're all on Flight 93, we're all doomed to crash and burn; whatever we do, the best we can hope for is that the existential rewards of local acts of courage will help us hold on a little longer before the end of enlightenment civilization and the dawn of the dead.
We now have five years' worth of 'perspective' on the events of September 11th. If anything, what has resulted from them has multiplied their horror rather than reduced it. And I think this is obvious, which may account for why the 9/11 films so far seem to have maintained such an almost claustrophobic gaze on the small narratives of that day. Here, perhaps, individual stories, these 'local acts of courage' exist which can stave off the ultimate sense of gloom. The larger narrative, if anything, offers so far little room for optimism.

I haven't seen World Trade Center, so maybe I'm wrong about it. The trailer doesn't make me very optimistic though, including the film's tagline: 'The world saw evil that day...two men saw something else.'

There must, as Rosenbaum puts it, be a pony.

Two other films, both released in 2002, were very different, and, although they received far less hype than either United 93 or World Trade Center, they remain well worth seeing.

The television documentary by Jules and Gédéon Naudet, simply called 9/11, of a single firestation's response to the disaster at the World Trade Center (they happened to have been working on the documentary when the attacks occurred) is chaotic and gripping, while largely (though, unfortunately, not entirely) avoiding overly-manipulative efforts to pull viewers' heartstrings.

And the 2002 film 11'09"01 - September 11, a collection of short films by international directors took a different approach and, in not seeking to provide a single, let alone uplifting, meaning for that day, succeeds in pointing to the varieties of ways that September 11th affected the world. The quality of these films is uneven (I was actually most disappointed by Ken Loach's contribution) but most avoid the navel-gazing and easy answer-seeking which has marred some other efforts.

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