9/11 tests format of disaster films

Kyle Smith

Driving home through Minneapolis from an impromptu excursion to the North Dakotan wilderness for a weekend of football, heavy drinking and operating heavy machinery, I saw the second most interesting thing I’ve ever seen on highway pedestrian walkways.

The first most interesting thing was a man who threatened to jump off such a walkway over I-70 in Kansas City, compounding already hectic rush hour traffic. My father and I wondered why he was jumping at 5 p.m. on a Friday, rather than midnight, or even during early morning traffic. Anyway.

Over I-94, I kept seeing people waving American flags. A nice gesture, sure, but the term “flag-waver” has become a misnomer for zealous red-staters. Once-chic window decals have disappeared. Flag Day?

Funny how, just four years later, we already have “forgotten” Sept. 11, 2001. The discourse of that day and its aftermath was impossibly lofty – “Things will never be the same,” “The world is forever changed” and, worst of all, “Will we ever laugh again?”

I noted the decrescendo in the 9/11 “celebration” last year, when it came and went with mild acknowledgment. This year, amid the Hurricane Katrina disaster (which was itself a crisis of monumental media attention for two weeks until everybody seemed to get burned out), 9/11 was marked by newspaper articles that found ironic similarities between the situation in New Orleans and that in New York four years ago. The only similarity I see is that in both cases, people were upset that the death tolls took so long to calculate.

How do we “celebrate” disaster? Pearl Harbor has a day, Dec. 7, which only gets attention on anniversaries divisible by five. This is another interesting phenomenon: Why, exactly, is 50 years more notable than 51? Fewer syllables? T-shirt sales? The Oklahoma City bombing is usually remembered for being in that two-day hellhole that also includes the Columbine shooting and the Waco debacle. These days aren’t holidays, and we would make them days of mourning if we weren’t so afraid of looking weak.

So, naturally, we celebrate by making movies. There’s 1970’s ambitious “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and the maligned “Pearl Harbor” of the disaster by the same name. I remember a God-awful David Koresh TV-movie starring Tim Daly. The Columbine kids were echoed in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” And now we’ve got some 9/11 movies coming our way.

Movies have touched on 9/11 and its aftermath – everybody gasped when Spike Lee replaced his normal middle-finger antics with glaring shots of Ground Zero in “25th Hour.” But more fully recreating the events of that day, so famously “movie-like” when they happened, with big budgets and lunatics like Nicolas Cage, will start this fall when Oliver Stone (that protector of truth and the American way) tackles a film about the last two people to emerge from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

The story indicates an inside-out approach to the attacks, not a survey of destruction like, say, “Independence Day.” Stone is known for “controversy,” whatever that means; I think most people just think about “JFK” (still one of the most probing and inquisitive big-budget films ever made) and the hole in Robert Downey, Jr.’s hand in “Natural Born Killers,” but the guy really just makes things interesting.

There is a surreality in considering that Hollywood will test screen this film, hold meetings about advertising tactics, have focus sessions, send out Oscar tapes, bicker about budgets and paychecks and release dates, move it to avoid the same weekend as that Pixar movie, and so forth.

A lot of filmmakers and actors self-aggrandize during DVD feature interviews, stressing the importance of staying true to their subjects. With 9/11, even suggesting that you stay true to the events of the day is insulting. 9/11 is postmodern and impossible to comprehend. It’s bigger than you. It’s is a bad word; this is why we didn’t fall to our knees (or take to the streets?) two Sundays ago.

Moviemaking is imperfect representation. Apparently, we have become equally terrible at remembrance. We compare one disaster to the last; we talk a big game and donate but move on with our days and our lives, only to throw fits when important events in our lives (where were you when the towers fell?) become the subject of someone else’s fantasy.

Expressing true compassion, and not self-serving nostalgic grandstanding, may just come from those waving flags over the concrete river of 70-mph bullets.4

Communication senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]