We go to the movies for many reasons—for the sheer love of movies, because we are bored or lonely or anxious, or perhaps because we simply need to get out of the house. As the events of Sept. 11 unfolded before us, it became clear that we go to the movies for another reason—because they put a frame around the world. The movies teach us how to process the everyday, all that phenomenological stuff swirling around us, into comprehensible, graspable moments. The movies teach us to think of our lives as having discrete beginnings, middles and ends, so that, to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan, "We become what we behold." At least, we think we do.
Some of the defining words of last week's terrorist attacks were "This changes everything," "How could this have happened" and, a phrase from which I recoiled, "It looks just like a movie." People repeated these words almost insistently. But it didn't look like a movie, not at all. The edges of the planes and the twin towers didn't soften and blur against the sky, as they often do in even the most digitally sophisticated movies. Pixels didn't dance on the screen—ash did. Bodies flew through the air, though differently than they do in the movies; there were no safety wires to keep these bodies from smashing against the buildings in their 100-story falls. To look at the photograph of a severed hand that ran in the New York Daily News was all the proof you needed that none of it remotely looked like a movie. Unlike the prosthetics that sometimes scuttle through horror movies like crabs, the place where this hand had once met its body was frayed.
In American movies, the bad guys die and the good guys win. We kiss and make up. We live happily ever after. Hollywood is built on this peculiarly American imperative; it's a dream we all dream and export to the world. It wasn't that we didn't want to believe what we were seeing last week, but that we couldn't. We wanted our happy ending, desperately. Our movies have taught us to expect nothing less. Even at their most dystopian, they offer some glimmer of hope, a day after. Paramount's 1953 science-fiction film The War of the Worlds ends with a montage of cities in ruin. There's a skeletal Eiffel Tower, the charred Taj Mahal and, finally, Americans intoning "amen" on a hilltop. Explains the stentorian narrator, "After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God in his wisdom had put on this Earth." In this case, the littlest things were bacteria, to which we humans were immune.
We have just been reminded how far from immune we are—specifically, we Americans. At first, the refrain that the terrorist attacks were "just like a movie" simply sounded wrong; it looked like no movie I'd ever seen. Television broadcast terrifying images of men and women leaping to their deaths that day, but unlike those of the planes crashing or of the towers collapsing, it didn't keep repeating this footage. By late Tuesday, the initial anarchy of images had been reduced to a loop of the planes hitting and the towers collapsing—an endless loop of destruction with an occasional cutaway to a falling body. On CNN, Garrick Utley said that the network was showing the plane crashes again and again because "we want to understand." But this loop seemed less like an attempt at understanding than some sort of visual repetition compulsion, a tic and a ritual both.
New footage began to come in that brought fresh angles on the devastation, and soon television began to shape the images into a familiar narrative of disaster. The invariable triumph of the human spirit was invoked; Dan Rather told us to "take a minute" and look at the eerily lighted New York night in which rescue workers struggled through shafts of shadow and smoke. A soundtrack of elegiac classical music was added, dissolves applied. More dynamic images of people fleeing through the financial district's narrow corridors were edited together with scenes of rescue and mourning. On one station, a montage was scored with music from Raging Bull. The raw footage had looked nothing like a movie, but we couldn't wait to turn it into one. Within days the biggest terrorist attack in history had become our newest blockbuster.
Before Sept. 11, one of my guilty pleasures was movies dedicated to blowing stuff up. While my taste runs to John Woo rather than Michael Bay, even Woo can make me wince. But my occasional twinges of discomfort are generally offset by an appreciation for pyrotechnics, even violence that seems essentially cinematic—maybe essentially American. In Don DeLillo's satiric novel White Noise, there's a scene in which a Middle America college professor talks about the "car crash seminar" in which he screens B-movies, TV movies and drive-in movies. "I tell my students," he says,
not to look for apocalypse in such places. I see these car crashes as part of a long tradition of American optimism. They are positive events, full of the old 'can-do' spirit. . . . It's a celebration. A reaffirmation of traditional values and beliefs . . . These are days of secular optimism, of self-celebration. We will improve, prosper, perfect ourselves. Watch any car crash in any American movie. It is a high-spirited moment like old-fashioned stunt flying, walking on wings. . . . Look past the violence, Jack. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.
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.
"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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Given our appetite for destruction, it is hard to know how to take some of the statements currently coming out of Hollywood. On Sept. 16, The New York Times quoted Sherry Lansing, chairwoman of Paramount Motion Picture Group, as saying, "Violence is part of the world. But it's our responsibility not to trivialize violence, not to glamorize violence, not to make it look cartoony." As with the rest of us, Lansing sounded shaken to her core. But this is the same producer who made Fatal Attraction and, as head of a studio, has given us such suspect entertainments as The General's Daughter, a thriller in which the naked, battered but still very shapely body of a dead woman is not just part of the scenery, but also a very totem of her outr sexual habits. Producer Brian Grazer (Apollo 13) was quoted as saying that there are now areas he simply doesn't want to pursue, among them "anything that involves explosions, anything where a person's life is at stake." You can sympathize with Grazer but wonder about his prohibitions. Shakespeare's tragedies turn on the frailty of human life, as does history, including the World War of which we have recently become so fond. To listen to Hollywood, you would think all that's in store for us is "family" entertainment.
On his website this week, Chris Gore, the editor of Film Threat, wrote, "I am proud that Hollywood is exercising restraint in light of this tragedy. . . . I just hope that 50 years from now, if some new Jerry Bruckheimer decides to make a three-hour epic movie about this horrible moment in history, that it is made with some sensitivity to the real event. . . . Honestly, I hope I never see some TV movie or miniseries or epic film about Sept. 11, 2001. I just don't think I could take it." Again, you can sympathize with Gore's sentiments, but realistically, how long will the industry keep pricy movies like Collateral Damage on the shelf? One month, two, eight? How long will it be before violent spectacle again fills the screen? Perhaps more important, how long should it take? Has violence suddenly become immoral in Hollywood? Is there an expiration date on sensitivity, or is it just a matter of timing and shrewd public relations before Arnold re-materializes, locked and loaded?
Chris Gore may be proud of Hollywood, and there's no doubt real sentiment behind the industry's response. But this is, after all, an industry that has, for the past few decades, put spectacle and violence before complex characters and stories. Just ask any smart screenwriter how proud he is of an industry that routinely rejects projects that can't be summed up in a single sentence. (Hollywood executives say they're only giving the audience what it wants, and what it wants, apparently, is the opportunity to see the exact same movie that the rest of America is watching on 3,000 other screens.) Is it too much to ask that our movies, like our media and our government, start telling us fewer untruths? That our movies begin looking at other countries as something more than exotic locations, backdrops for American intrigue and tourism? I'm not looking for an end to action films or American films in general, but the creation of more thoughtful films, in which looking inward is every bit as important as looking out.
Five years ago, American audiences applauded and hooted as they watched trailers for the science-fiction film Independence Day in which the White House got blown to smithereens. Yet another riff on The War of the Worlds, the film made mindless pop fun out of the destruction of Earth by space invaders. Los Angeles is the first city to go, but the second is New York; after the attack, about all that remains of its iconic downtown skyline is one of the twin towers, damaged but standing. The highest-grossing feature of the year (Twister came in second), Independence Day opens with a shot of the American flag planted on the moon, followed by a pan down to a plaque ("We came in peace") co-signed by Richard M. Nixon. Thereafter, the movie goes more or less Earthbound, and the very first thing we hear is Michael Stipe singing, "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." In many respects, the whole movie is an extended-play version of the song, but that's not what made it popular. What made it popular was how the film embraced the words with more blithe cheer than irony. The end of the world? Whatever. We kicked butt.