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Not a Movie 

Watching the unwatchable

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
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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 September 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 September 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,

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