Not a Movie

Watching the unwatchable

We love guys and girls with guns, men at war, bodies not at rest but in fast, furious motion. We have an ongoing romance with the Western and film noir, and can't get enough of gangsters. We love characters like the Terminator so much that we eagerly accept his radical, implausible transformation from bad guy to good because there is a part of us that loves the man in the black hat as much as the man in the white one. I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know it is our thing, our American thing. I also don't know if Sept. 11 will change any of this or—and this is hard to write—if it should. Historian Richard Slotkin argues in Regeneration Through Violence that our nation is founded on bloody ground ("warfare between man and nature, between race and race, exalted as a kind of heroic ideal") and accustomed to rising from the ashes. Violence is intrinsic to the American narrative, and it's difficult to imagine a time when it will not be. That doesn't mean that I want to watch the city where I grew up go up in flames in some wretchedly excessive cinematic re-creation, but neither does it mean that I want Jerry Bruckheimer to go out of business. I just want him to make truer movies.

After the attacks, film historian Neal Gabler told the Los Angeles Times, "When you consider the scale of the disaster, Americans have dealt with this with surprising equanimity." He added, "I think the reason is that we've seen it before." But we hadn't seen this before. We have seen numerous American-made movies in which skyscrapers blow up, airplanes and people explode, but the violence in these films is usually sanitized, regulated, rated PG-13 and R instead of NC-17. In these movies, people don't just survive walls of fire, they walk away barely singed, a smudge on their cheeks and a quip on their lips. Bodies are riddled with bullets that somehow never rip apart flesh. Blood spills and sometimes sprays, but discreetly, even beautifully. In horrible contrast, the violence visited on real bodies on Sept. 11 was anything but lovely. At first, television couldn't fit the violence into a category of entertainment, and so the footage remained chaotic. One of the most graphic images from last week was of the thousands, millions of pieces of sooty office paper carpeting the streets. It's hard to imagine many Hollywood filmmakers lingering over an image like that, whose very ordinariness is precisely why it was excruciating.


Independence Day

"It looked just like a movie." The words didn't just sound wrong; they felt like a curse and a coda—I started to worry that the attackers had gotten the idea from Hollywood. It was a ridiculous thought—or was it? The terrorist attacks may not have looked like a movie, but neither did they look anything like our nightly television news. Not since the end of the Vietnam War have Americans been privy to a catastrophe—and a body count—approaching the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States military had censored images from the front lines of the Gulf War, reducing the air strikes on Iraq to dancing lights, a video game. The war in Bosnia hadn't effected much of a (ratings) pull on the national conscience and so received little attention in the broadcast media, which were content with an occasional image of people fleeing across rubble-strewn squares or a shot of the dead, typically filmed at a comfortable distance.

Yet even as our documentary images of violence have been sanitized, our entertainments have become bloodier. For the past two decades, the action movie has so dominated Hollywood that it has effectively become its own genre. In these stories, good men overcome overwhelming odds and fantastically imagined villains through cunning and brute strength. No matter how nominally varied the setups, these movies consistently promote action over introspection, heroes and villains over human beings. During the late 1960s and into the '70s, Hollywood had been more open to stories about people engaged in the world. In the decades that followed, however, our short-lived fling with a kind of searching, almost existential individualism was replaced with a seemingly endless parade of heroes—and sometimes heroines—whose worlds were often circumscribed by chalk outlines, police tape and the confines of genre. The movies flooded over with cops, FBI and Secret Service agents, government officials, CIA operatives, soldiers of fortune and misfortune both. During the '80s, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger became stars by talking as little as possible and carrying big sticks. Ronald Reagan explained life as if it were a movie and the world little more than our backlot; American film evolved into a cinema characterized by radical individualism that bordered on the extreme and increased isolation from the world at large.

The movies could not have prevented Sept. 11, but perhaps they could have helped prepare us to understand it just a little bit better. We expect happy endings in this country, and it is a surprise when they don't come. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock killed off the heroine of Psycho midway through and shocked the nation; a few years ago, M. Night Shyamalan came close to doing the same with The Sixth Sense. In the 1980s and '90s, American movies gave us a limitless supply of invincible, predictable heroes, like those in the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon franchises and any number of Schwarzenegger spectaculars. Although some of the stars have faded, stories of near-doom and regeneration continue apace. In 1998 alone, literally half the top 10 highest-grossing films involved one form of apocalypse or another: Armageddon, Saving Private Ryan, Deep Impact, Godzilla and the most wildly popular disaster movie of all time, Titanic. James Cameron's epic is so well-known that a favorite haircut for young men in Kabul is something called the "Titanic." Barbers reportedly get jailed for cutting boys' hair like Leonardo DiCaprio's, but their teenage customers love it.

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