As I watch documentary recollections of 9/11, I remain of the opinion that it will be a nearly impossible task to contextualize the atrocity in any form of popular culture. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but to do so will require a master artist creating a work that transcends any living work.
Some may ask why it should even be necessary to do so. The reasons are plentiful. Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it. The human experience is intrinsically connected to the search for meaning, from which our collective purpose can be divined. In short, by seeking to understand, we become that much closer to each other and to God.
But there is a greater reason still. You’ll find much of it contained in David Milch’s discussion of his intriguing (though flawed) HBO series John From Cincinnati. Mr. Milch postulates that the media has abdicated its moral responsibility (fans of Big Journalism have known that for some time), and that television has created a surrogate existence for us, detaching us from emotional reality. Specifically:
I think that the media have infantilized the expectations of the audience because of the lack of some sort of transcendent informing vision. I believe that the surrogate existence that is provided by television has come to supplant the genuine emotional life of the populace…the assault on the collective sensibility of 9/11 was such as to give the audience so much fear that the only way that they could be placated was with a television series [The Iraq War…which had] everything to do with the habituation of the viewing public to the shaping of human experience in distorted forms for which the media is responsible…we wanted to be narcotized in our reaction to the assault on the World Trade Center…There is a different drama which is enacting itself in our country right now and it has to do with a failure to acknowledge the necessary moral and imaginative predicate that has become an entirely virtual existence, which is, you know, people spend more than half their waking hours watching television. Just think about that for a second. That has to shape the neural pathways…”
In other words, Neo, “free your mind”. We must reconnect with the emotional reality of our existence, and the emotional reality of 9/11. Regrettably, we have indeed become narcotized to it — because we understandably want to be. That alone permits our enemy to make further gains towards destroying us.
Thus, there is a necessity to find ways of reinterpreting the 9/11 experience into something we can make emotional sense out of.
But there’s a problem. As I’ve written before, there are considerable obstacles when attempting to depict true evil in film. Some horrific events so transcend the bounds of reason, or even reality, that they are literally impossible to put into words. How, then, could they put into pictures? Ah, but such is the power of art — high art, that is, not popular art.
It can be done, but it won’t be easy. How will we recognize it when it happens? As per my article, “Does Hollywood Create Art?“, we will recognize it when it has its own form rather than merely a shape; when it elicits a response as opposed to a reaction; when it expresses emotion rather than creates simple emotional associations; and if we truly find ourselves in the work as opposed to see ourselves reflected in it.
Although, thus far, only documentary films about 9/11 fit these criteria, I do believe a few filmmakers have the ability to tackle the subject. I’ll get to those in a moment. In the meantime, I consider it vital that every American seek out films, books, music, and television that strives to be high art concerning 9/11. I personally have seen very few. It is vital not simply to bear witness, and to let our tears mingle with those who have suffered, but to further get our hands around this unspeakable event and contextualize it.
In the meantime, I urge you to see these two extraordinary documentaries that are worlds apart from each other.
9/11: The Documentary
Two French filmmakers, the Naudet brothers, had intended to make a film about life in a NYC firehouse, Battalion 1. They found themselves doing that on September 11th. One of them was filming at the firehouse when the battalion was called in to assist. They went along. What follows is an extraordinary account of these heroes at the scene as everything unfolded. You got into the depths of the WTC along with them. You hear firemen’s accounts of that day. You witness some events you have never seen before. You will be moved like never before.
Man on Wire
This is not actually a film about 9/11 at all. Yet the events of that day inform every second of the film. It tells the exuberant and thrilling tale of how Frenchman Philippe Petit, and a small group on cohorts, arranged to string a wire between the Towers in 1974 — so he could perform a high-wire walk between them. The film is so expertly constructed that it unfolds almost like a heist movie, complete with the plan, suspense, things going wrong, and the most colorful mastermind you’ve ever seen. It is totally engaging, funny, charming, and utterly delightful.
The reason why you must see this movie, in regards to 9/11, is because it never makes a single mention of the Towers’ destruction. This is a movie that demonstrates the unlimited power of the human spirit. It speaks to mankind’s ability not merely to dream, but to transform those dreams into a reality. It is a reality not of fire, death, and rubble, but a reality of creation, of beauty, and of inspiration.
For me, Man on Wire accomplishes all the things that high art does. You will love it.
It is, for good reason, the best-reviewed movie at Rotten Tomatoes, earning a perfect score of 100 from 145 reviewers.
Where to from here?
Can any other cultural experience achieve what needs to be achieved in regards to 9/11? I believe so. We’ve seen glimmers of it. Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising comes close. There may be books or symphonies I am not aware of. As for filmed entertainment, I think only someone like Terrence Malick or David Lynch might be able to accomplish it, amongst a few others.
Despite detractors like our own John Nolte, Mr. Malick’s Tree of Life is arguably a masterpiece. More to the point, it creates an impressionistic experience — of memory, of life, of emotional reality — in a non-linear narrative that accomplishes far more than any traditional storytelling method would have. I’ll write more on this film when it comes out on DVD, but the approach Mr. Malick takes with that film, as well as with The Thin Red Line is arguably the only approach that could ever work in regards to 9/11.
I’m not hopeful. Hollywood doesn’t spend money on movies like that.