Lost in the Movies: 9/11


On September 11, 2001, I was 17 years old, a high school senior in New England. In my morning science class, the teacher was discussing global warming when a voice came over the intercom. It was the principal, who had a deep voice that only popped up when tragedy struck (that spring, he'd announced the death of a student who'd been ill). At this point it was already about 10:15 am, and he stated, as flatly (and terrifyingly) as possible that terrorists had hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I know a lot of my friends heard the news sooner, with the details building bit by bit, but for me it was like being hit with a ton of bricks. We all stared at each other, jaws dropped...was this real, or just a movie? One kid, a bit of an oddball who later joined the military to do psych ops proclaimed, "this is going to wipe Chandra Levy out of the news!" My science teacher, without missing a beat, pivoted in his anti-Bush argument vis a vis global warming, to attack the idea of a missile defense shield: "how the hell would a missile shield block airplanes?"

We just remained in our seats, stunned, until the bell rang. En masse, everybody moved downstairs into a lobby where there were TVs hanging from the ceiling. On them, one of the Twin Towers was collapsing, over and over again. A teacher nearby suddenly started babbling, hysterically: "They're gone? They're really GONE? They're not there?" One of my friends, a die-hard Democrat who later joined the Navy (I believe he's still serving) told us, "this is when I'm glad Bush is president, because he won't let them get away with this." I told my classmates it was probably that guy Omar Laden or something...I'd heard his name mentioned in the past few months. We sat in my history classroom and stared at the television. John McCain appeared on the commentary to say that we were at war. At the time this struck me as a strange notion. My initial thought that morning had not been, "We're at war and must defend ourselves," but rather "My God, the world is coming to an end."

I generally like to avoid personal stories on this blog; the Internet is fun for the way it confers anonymity and anyway, it all gets in the way of what I'm really doing here. Lest you think I'm departing from the blog's mission, this entry is not a recollection of what happened 7 years ago, but a review/reaction to the television film "9/11" aired, I believe, one year later (it may have premiered on the six-month anniversary but I saw it for the first time on 9/11/02, by which time I was living in New York). I open with my own memory, at once mundane and shocking in the way that everyone's memories of that day will always be shocking, as a reminder of how personally 9/11 struck everyone and how, with so much water under the bridge (yet so little accomplished) the emotions and sensations of the day can come rolling back instantly. And that's what "9/11" is about.

During the summer of 2001, two French filmmakers - brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet - proposed a documentary on a rookie firefighter. They chose the amiable Tony Benatatos, affiliated with Engine 7, Ladder 1 and followed him over several months as he awaited his first test, a big fire. On September 11 one of the brothers went out for camera practice. The firemen were investigating a leaky gas main when suddenly they heard a noise overhead. Jules Naudet lifted his camera up just in time to catch the first airplane crashing into the broad side of the World Trade Center in what is - I believe - the only known footage of the first impact, and thus a modern-day equivalent of the Zapruder film. What follows is even more upsetting, yet fascinating: Jules went inside the Trade Center with the firefighters and captured the ensuing confusion, fear, and grim fatalism as men march up the stairs to what will prove to be their death.

Most disturbing is what we don't see. A man is burning off-camera and Jules turns his camera away. Likewise - and this still makes my skin crawl - the sound of bodies hitting the ground outside is muted and once again, the lens is turned away. Meanwhile, Gedeon headed downtown to find his brother and is enveloped in smoke and ash as the towers collapse. That these are the very streets which today bustle once again with pedestrians is astounding. Eventually, the brothers are reunited, the firefighters all survive, and Tony has gone down to the site with a veteran chief to see what can be done. But the movie continues into that first night after and the disappointing rescue operations that proceed.

"9/11" could easily have been exploitative, but it's mostly too matter-of-fact to feel like it's milking anything. That said, too much is made of some of the dramatic arcs and at times it feels like a narrative has been imposed on the material. Matters are worsened by the presence of James Hanlon, one of the firefighters and also an actor, as the narrator. Partly because he is too inclined to play with his voice and take the narration in an overly dramatic direction, and partly because there should be no narration at all. The interviews sometimes articulate what's going on in the firefighters' heads as they race up those stairs, but the voiceover is too much, adding order and sanity to a piece which is really about naked terror and horror. "9/11" is gripping but extremely draining to watch.

And I should confess that, while I always watch the movie under discussion before writing my entries, I did not watch "9/11" tonight (though I saw it again in the past few months). I just didn't have time today, and though I could have watched it late and gotten a post out past midnight eastern-time, it felt necessary to publish this on September 11, though most of you will not be reading this until the next day. The impression of "9/11" lingers, not because it's great art, but because it's something else just as valuable - invaluable historical documentation. This is not to belittle the accomplishment in culling the material or presenting it (for the most part) tastefully - there is obviously craftsmanship on display here, and the Naudets' bravery in service of their craft is commendable. But what "9/11" does most valuably is to put us there, on the street, inside that building, amongst the people who were in the thick of it that day. And the story aspect does help in that it humanizes it, allowing us to see in these people's faces and actions the human toll of the day.

This is worth mentioning because tonight the History Channel was playing home videos of 9/11 and I could only watch for a few minutes. The one aspect that still hits hard after all the desensitization is the people standing on the tower and leaping off to their deaths. "9/11" doesn't show this but it shows the reactions of the people listening to them fall, which is just as awful in its own way. So why subject ourselves to it?

Let me close with another reminiscence, this from exactly one year ago. I still lived in New York and hadn't planned on doing any sort of commemoration of 9/11. Like most other Americans, the memory had faded in time. But I ended up going down to Ground Zero, which I hadn't seen for years, and was struck by how little it had changed. When I got on the subway, the sky was sunny but when I got out downtown everything was grey - it was cloudy overhead and dead leaves were everywhere, blowing over the gravestones on Church Street. I walked down the sidewalk and walked around the area, now entirely obscured by fence but with all the personal mementos which had adorned the site after 9/11 now long-gone. A few people were gathered around in silence as a small group intoned the names of the victims and read a little bit about them. Far outnumbering the mourners were those ubiquitous "Truthers" with their signs proclaiming, "9/11 was an inside job!" Most were white, with baseball caps and serious expressions, but a couple African-American guys walked by on their way to work and shouted, "I'm with you 100%! Bush did it!" and raised a fist in solidarity. Meanwhile, the names of the fallen echoed faintly in the distance and passerby walked through the area without acknowledgement.

What I was exposed to that day was an ignored, but still festering, bruise on New York's (and the nation's) psyche. I had the sensation of passing into an alternate universe, but one more real in its surreal unreality than the everyday banality of blissful ignorance a few blocks north and beyond. The usefulness of a movie like "9/11", along with our own memories, is that it reminds us of what happened and the emotional toll it took. Some of us don't need or want to be reminded, having lost too much that day already. I respect that. I also suspect that far more of us do need to be reminded and that we're still awaiting a cultural reckoning of what occurred - that is to say, a face-to-face acknowledgement and exploration of the national trauma. A few movies have touched on it, but so far only this documentary has peered all the way into the abyss. For that, it's worth recognizing on this day.

A year later, this was cross-posted on Wonders in the Dark, where you can read additional comments.

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