All as It Had Been

Hollywood Revises History, Joins the Good Fight

Nearly three months have passed and we're still talking about Armageddon—the day the volcano erupted, the asteroid crashed, the Martians landed, the Pacific fleet was destroyed, the big ship went down.

For everyone who saw the events on TV, movies offered the only possible analogy—blockbusters are what bring us together, all at once, around the world. The moving image and synchronized sound are how information is transmitted. The blockbuster's lingua franca is violent action, and since the collapse of the Soviet empire, those sounds and images have belonged overwhelmingly to the American-run multinational force conveniently designated "Hollywood." The movies are stamped on our DNA. Thus, the déjà vu of crowds fleeing Godzilla through Lower Manhattan canyons, the wondrously exploding skyscrapers and bellicose rhetoric of Independence Day, the romantic pathos of Titanic, the wounded innocence of Pearl Harbor, the cosmic insanity of Deep Impact, the sense of a world directed by Roland Emmerich for the benefit of Rupert Murdoch.

On September 11, the dream became reality. But what did that mean? As the German social critic Siegfried Kracauer was the first to argue, "the films of a nation reflect its mentality." Analyzing the popular movies of the Weimar Republic in the light of the Nazi rise to power, Kracauer wrote that "Germany carried out what had been anticipated by her cinema from its very beginning. It was all as it had been on the screen."

Illustration by Peter Scanlan

All as it had been on the screen. Was the terror attack then a prophetic fantasy come true? A form of perverse wish fulfillment? For over half a century, the United States had bombed nations from Japan to Vietnam to Iraq to Serbia, without itself ever suffering a single bomb falling on its own cities. But even more—and for longer—we had bombarded the globe with our images. Some reverends and mullahs were quick to attribute September 11 to divine retribution. Others understood the planet-transfixing Events as but one more spectacular world-dominating megabillion-dollar Hollywood superproduction, similarly organized—so some further imagined—by a conspiracy of Jews.

In his "Letter From China," published in the October 15 issue of The New Yorker, Peter Hessler describes the DVD quickies he discovered in Wenzhou video stores, displayed between the piles of Jurassic Park and Planet of the Apes: The cover of The Century's Great Catastrophe, put out by a government-run publisher, was appropriately garnished with a view of the twin towers aflame and portraits of the spectacle's rival stars, George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden—possibly the biggest media personality since Adolf Hitler. (Concerned about Bin Laden's charisma, our administration contrived to have his video removed from heavy TV rotation and his subsequent U.S. tele-appearances curtailed—except in the context of the Fox show America's Most Wanted.)

Astutely crediting Armageddon's Bruckheimer as the show's producer, authors of The Century's Great Catastrophe combined American TV news footage with Chinese commentary, using the menacing shark theme from Jaws to underscore the north tower's slo-mo collapse. Other Chinese videos—Surprise Attack on America and America's Disaster: The Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century—were even more outrageous in incorporating appropriate clips from Wall Street, Godzilla, and The Rock. From the detached Wenzhou point of view, the Events were a study in dialectics: Jihad vs. McWorld. Suddenly, the Chinese were us—enjoying the spectacle of cataclysmic mass destruction from a safe vantage point. Cool!

André Bazin termed this particular cinematic pleasure the "Nero complex," referring to the decadent Roman emperor who supposedly supplied his own musical soundtrack as his city burned. This rarefied aesthetic experience was democratized by motion pictures—which trafficked in disasters almost since the birth of the medium. As famously noted by Susan Sontag, movies—and now, of course, television and video games—offered the vicarious "fantasy of living through one's death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself."

Will the dozen years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the World Trade Center be perceived as a golden age? (Numerologists should note that the former occurred on 11-9 and the latter on 9-11.)

This happy epoch, imagined by some as the end of history, was characterized by the production of F/X action blockbusters, grandiose disaster flicks, and other big loud movies, ranging from George Bush's Desert Storm to Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. As Variety put it in one 1995 headline: EARTH TO H'WOOD: YOU WIN. What Sontag called the "imagination of disaster" was working overtime. While Titanic (with its unprecedented, albeit digital, representation of mass death) displaced Star Wars as the top-grossing movie of all time, the Clinton impeachment and Y2K panic proved to be the much hyped doomsday thrillers that never happened. In addition to the jihad terror of the first, 1993 WTC attack and the exploded federal building in Oklahoma City two years later, there was the "natural" terrorism of movies like Twister—not to mention "art" disaster films as varied as Tribulations 99, The Rapture, Schindler's List, The Ice Storm, Crash, The Sweet Hereafter, Saving Private Ryan, Magnolia, Thirteen Days, and Donnie Darko.

In the disaster cycle of the 1970s, calamity—like the loss of Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and the Oil Shock recession—typically arrived as a punishment for some manifestation of the boom-boom '60s. Some disaster movies even blamed the catastrophe on rapacious, environment-raping corporations and craven, inadequate leaders. In the '90s, however, it was as though America was being punished just for being its own ever-loving, arms-dealing, channel-surfing, trash-talking, butt-kicking, world-historical Number One self.

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