Good long look in the mirror
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 back
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.
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