Good long look in the mirror
Innocence regained: American movies after 9/11
May 27, 2003
I heard of a group of Americans who calmly watched the live television
coverage of the events of 9/11 at a golf club in China thinking
it was the highlights from an upcoming disaster movie. Back home,
the images of collapsing WTC towers caused cognitive dissonance
and even guilt in many Americans as they brought back memories of
Friday night entertainment and popcorn.
The humorous magazine The Onion captured the disturbing
confluence of images in an article entitled "American Life
Turns into a Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie: In the movies when the
president says: 'It's war', that usually means the good part is
just about to begin... Why doesn't it feel that way now?... It feels
there's never going to be another good part again... One thing is
clear: No Austrian bodybuilder, gripping Uzis and standing striding
shirtless through the debris, will save us and make it all better.
Shocked and speechless, we are still waiting for the end credits
to roll. They aren't going to."
Guilt might have motivated many pundits to predict or promise a
sea change in American entertainment. Irony was supposed to have
received a mortal blow on that day. No more smirking at the serious
world, no more making light of images that we must fear and dread.
No more cheering when aliens vaporize the White House on Independence
Day or any other day.
Big budget B movies about real disasters were also grounded and
sent to the backyard shed of history. Never again would national
tragedies like Pear Harbor serve as backdrop for cheesy love triangles.
Bloody Tuesday was designated as the day when America lost its innocence,
and by Jove, Americans would act like grownups from that day forward.
A year and a half has passed and in Hollywood at least, America's
presumably lost innocence appears no worse for the wear. The flicks
that roll off the studio assembly lines of Hollywood don't seem
any less silly or ironic. The tree section of Hollywood hardly shows
a 9/11 ring. Disaster movies were shortly halted but they too are
In The Sum of All Fears (2002) a terrorist nuclear bomb
pulverizes the entire Baltimore area. Morgan Freeman, playing the
director of the CIA, bites the dust but a banged up and indignant
president (James Cromwell) survives to wage the final war against
the Russians. In a classic Hollywood ending, Ben Affleck (having
of course saved the world) is reunited with his fiancé (Bridget
Moynahan) for a salubrious picnic lunch on the White House lawn.
Before the camera pulls back for the final aerial long shot, a
Russian official billed as a mole inside the Kremlin (a humanitarian
mole with the best of intentions of course), shows up with a mysterious
smile and an engagement ring.
Psychologists would explain that disaster movies recreate such
terrifying possibilities as terrorists taking over airplanes (most
recently in Executive Decision, Passenger 57 and
Air Force One) against the safety of genre clichés
and the familiar cadence of the screenwriting conventions. Ersatz
catharses thus created soothe audiences and allay their subliminal
fears and anxieties
Because such movies deal with possible trajectories of the near
future, some are bound to appear prescient after the fact. The
Siege (1998) for instance, portrayed massive terrorist attacks
on New York triggering severe security measures against American
Muslims. The famous film critic Robert Ebert has commented on the
way the "pre-crime division" of Minority Report (2002)
foreshadows the department of Homeland Security's proactive policies.
Of course, it is not fair to judge the US through its popular-culture
industry -- regardless of its worldwide popularity and success.
Jerry Bruckheimer is not the only voice in America. Norman Mailer,
Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, and, given our subject,
Spike Lee, also have spoken for their nation. And yet, the sense
American intellectuals and artists have made of the September outrage
remains obscure both in America and abroad.
For exactly that reason Americans and non-Americans alike must
put Spike Lee's 25th
Hour on the top of their must-see movies of the year. Based
on a book and screenplay by David Bonioff, the movie is America's
quintessential artistic meditation on post-9/11 America.
Like a Jungian dream, Spike Lee's moody, elegiac film broods over
the complex fate of its main protagonist (Monty Brogan played by
Ed Norton) through the multiple voices of its four main characters.
Though a convicted drug dealer, Monty is not an ogre. Indeed the
movie opens with an act of Monty that borders on saintly: he saves
a wounded but fiercely defiant stray dog over the objections of
an armed and irate companion.
But Monty is also sure to have caused immense (if unseen) damage
to thousands of people through the sale of drugs. When he is betrayed,
arrested, tried and convicted to a long prison sentence he remains
true to the street's code silence. He is cool but not above wallowing
in self-pity and lashing out in forays of blame shifting.
Monty spends his last day of freedom in a Manhattan defanged and
scared by the loss of the twin towers. The film's long takes create
mise en scenes of misery in which Monty, his two friends
Jacob and Francis (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper)
and his live-in soul mate Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), engage in
protracted arguments and mutual and self-recriminations.
Why did Monty succumb to the lure of living off the wretchedness
of others? Why did his closest friends stand by rather than speak
truth to Monty? To what extent did their silent participation in
his posh lifestyle shaded into complicity?
In the most memorable soliloquy of the movie, Monty breaks out
into a series of racist tirades against the usual ethnic suspects
of New York before a moment of clarity when he finally points the
accusatory finger at his own image in the mirror. When disasters
befall us we naturally look around for the culprit. It is often
as helpful to take a good, long look in the mirror.
Ahmad Sadri, is the Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See
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