What Al Qaeda did to the movies


It is a truth universally acknowledged that “September 11 changed everything.†Unlike any other numerical combination, even 24/7, 9/11 has entered into the general language as a synonym for irreparable cataclysm. But triangles still contain three angles, Bismarck is still the capital of North Dakota, and cabbage still causes flatulence. If nothing else, the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon transformed discourse into bombast. In the neo-Manichaean partition of the planet into the armies of good and evil, absolute pronouncements have displaced equivocation. Vivid images of the obliteration of New York’s tallest towers provided a powerful lesson in the importance of being earnest. When the sky began falling on Manhattan, it marked “the end of the age of irony,†proclaimed editor Graydon Carter. “Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear.â€

However, irony is ageless, and skepticism—even, or especially, about the death of skepticism—is the grain of salt that guards us from collective goiter. To counter Carter’s claim, one need look no farther than his own glossy magazine, Vanity Fair, which continues to be a monthly celebration of the fringe and the frivolous. In 1873, the year of financial panic in New York and Vienna, Emily Dickinson, no prototype of Funny Girl, described “An Innuendo sear/ That makes the Heart put up its Fun/ And turn Philosopher.†The violent events of September 11, 2001, made many turn philosophical—for about three weeks. Jay Leno and David Letterman stopped poking fun, and songs thought insensitive or irreverent, such as “Sure Shot†by the Beastie Boys and “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane†by Peter, Paul, and Mary, were banned from broadcast. Professional baseball and football games were canceled. However, national solemnity lasted as long as it takes Donald Trump to fire an incompetent apprentice. Post-9/11 Americans are not single-minded enough to ignore Janet Jackson’s bosom or cease munching Krispy Kremes.

Though an invasion of Iraq was being plotted as soon as the Bushites came to power nine months before 9/11, the day’s effect on geopolitics was immediate and dramatic. A muddling president whose initial response to the attacks was confusion and flight was reinvented as the decisive leader of a righteous crusade against barbarism. The whole world became a theater of perpetual war between Civilization and its Discontents, the general populace not actors but audience. Americans became citizen-spectators of upheaval, in New York, Washington, Afghanistan, and Iraq, that seemed remarkably like a movie, because events arrived as sensational images packaged with martial music and cinematic titles such as “America Under Attack†and “America’s New War.†Observing planes smashing into buildings through a TV screen in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein remarked, “When we watched what was happening in America for the first time, we thought it might be another American movie. Later we found that it was a real movie.†Robert Altman responded to 9/11 by observing, “Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they’d seen it in a movie.†But Americans also came to feel like studio extras; defying the Constitutionally commissioned director was treasonous breach of contract.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor at the University of Nebraska, invited 11 other scholars to examine film and television in light—and dark—of September 11. How have the terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq been covered and represented on small and large screens? And how has Osama bin Laden altered production for movies and TV? In his Introduction, Dixon discusses alterations in the zeitgeist and surveys works that have been released since 9/11. Without systematic analysis of content and reception, it is impossible to determine whether the titles he mentions—a motley list including Gods and Generals, PBS’s “Heroes of Ground Zero,†MSNBC’s “Target Manhattan,†Bowling for Columbine, 8 Mile, “The Anna Nicole Show,†Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Barbershop, and Spy Kids 2—demonstrate an impulse toward escapism or engagement. Books, particularly those presented by university presses, tend to have longer gestation periods than TV shows, and Dixon notes that he writes his Introduction on September 11, 2002—one year after the Al Qaeda attacks and fully 18 months before Film and Television After 9/11 was finally published. He also acknowledges that, because of the lag in the time it takes to approve, produce, and release movie projects, the full impact of 9/11 on Hollywood would not be felt until 2003. So perhaps the full impact of 9/11 on book-length studies of its impact on movies will not be felt until 2005.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, as Dixon and several of his essayists note, Warner Brothers postponed release of Collateral Damage, in which firefighter Arnold Schwarzenegger takes revenge against drug lords for blowing up a building and killing his wife and child. It was also judged prudent to delay the opening of Big Trouble, a Tim Allen comedy in which a suitcase bomb is planted on a plane, as well as of WindTalkers, a World War II combat film starring Nicholas Cage. Scenes of the White House and much else being destroyed did not prevent Independence Day from becoming a blockbuster hit in 1996, but its scheduled TV broadcast was canceled in fall 2001. And several films, including Spider-Man, Zoolander, Serendipity, and Men in Black II, were re-edited or re-shot in order to eliminate potentially painful images of the New York skyline. However, by May 2002, the public appetite for violence was strong enough again to make a hit out of The Sum of All Fears, in which terrorists detonate a nuclear device in Baltimore. Recycled TV images of the devastation in lower Manhattan and later in Iraq shared the cultural ecology with such war movies as Behind Enemy Lines, Blackhawk Down, We Were Soldiers, and Hart’s War. It is not necessarily a contradiction that half of the 10 highest-grossing releases of 2002 were fantasy or children’s movies. Though projected into other times and other places, the graphic violence in Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, Master and Commander, The Passion of the Christ, and other recent features reflects interests and anxieties that exploded on September 11.

The historical date most frequently invoked as antecedent to 9/11/01 has been 12/7/41. And though Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor was released to hostile reviews and anemic attendance four months before the surprise attacks on New York and Washington, Marcia Landy analyzes the film for the light it sheds on a belief in American exceptionalism and innocence that shaped responses to 9/11. Murray Pomerance examines how, in the 1976 remake of King Kong, when the famous ape climbs up the World Trade Center, the transgressive alien prefigures the Middle Eastern strangers who would obliterate the structure 25 years later. Discussing Iranian director Mokhsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, the story of a woman’s journey back from Canada through Taliban Afghanistan in hopes of averting her sister’s suicide, Philip Mosley argues that that 2000 release must now be viewed within the changed template of a clash of civilizations. Juan A. Suarez surveys the genre of city films, particularly Manhattan (1921), in order to understand how the WTC came to embody the modernism of efficiency and control. It is remarkable how many of the contributors to Film and Television After 9/11 concentrate on film and television before 9/11.

Though most of the contributors seem critical of American hegemony, none, with the exception of Mosley on Kandahar and Dixon on the collective film 11’09’’01, pays any attention to responses to 9/11 outside the United States. A study of coverage by Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation would surely be enlightening. Rebecca Bell-Metereau notes that, “Most Americans have never seen a war story presented from the point of view of the enemies’ or women affected by wars, whether they are about World War II, Vietnam, or terrorism.†She observes that the militarism stimulated by 9/11, which provoked a sharp rise in gun sales, marginalized women and stigmatized concerns for civil liberties as “womanish.†She might have studied the masculine mystique of the brawny, valiant firefighter at Ground Zero, but she wrote too soon to analyze the media’s invention of Pfc. Jessica Lynch as both heroic Amazon and feminine victim.

Not mentioned in the volume is how media consolidation affected the way 9/11 was filtered to us, and how the pace of media consolidation has accelerated dramatically since the terrorist attacks. Nor does anyone comment on the proliferation of live and “reality†TV programming since the immediate non-stop coverage on September 11, 2001. By late that afternoon, there must have been a few benighted Americans who, having spent the day reading Goethe or gardening, were oblivious to the national trauma. “Reality†TV responds to the urgent new need post-9/11 to feel connected 24/7. Like much else on large and small screens, it is how Americans entertain themselves after the fall of the World Trade Center. Despite the limitations of Dixon’s book, film and television after 9/11 offer no end of ironies.

Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.