The Funniest 9/11 Movie Ever: An Interview With The Makers Of Unclear Holocaust
Last year, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was approaching and the rest of America seemed to be preparing for a memorialization in keeping with the previous decade of jingoism and revenge, three young filmmakers were hard at work on a different sort of commemoration.
Calling themselves the Anti-Banality Union, they cut together scenes from 50 different Hollywood disaster movies, using them to retell a version of of the events of 9/11 and lay bare with encyclopedic thoroughness the bloody fantasy of the destruction of New York that Hollywood has nursed since long before the planes hit the towers.
The result, which you can watch in its entirety above, was Unclear Holocaust, a feature-length orgy of annihilation that is both strangely askew and deeply familiar. It is disturbing, hilarious, and, depending on your sensibilities, quite possibly profoundly offensive.
It's also smart. More than just a supercut of CGI explosions, Unclear Holocaust uses deft Situationist slight-of-hand to interrogate the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world.
We spoke with the members of the Anti-Banality Union recently about Unclear Holocaust and their next project, Police Mortality. Here's that conversation, condensed and edited for clarity:
You first screened Unclear Holocaust on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Did people freak out about that?
At the time it was a welcome counter-commemoration, particularly because everyone was dreading all of the press and flag-flying that they were seeing, the insistence on "unity" around New York.
What was your process for making the movie?
We compiled a list of New York-disaster films that was fairly informal, mostly gleaned from memory. Then we went out and stole as many of them as we could, and started identifying tropes, picking out particular analogies to 9/11 itself, and different structural regularities that coalesced into moments we felt were paradigmatic in the genre. We ended up using more than 50 different movies.
Did you watch the movies separately or together?
We were all living in the same room, on our separate computers with headphones on, having highly intense, violent, individual experiences. It was like being alone together for a month. We took it as a phenomenological experiment, seeing what prolonged exposure to this kind of cinema does to one's perception. It became very difficult to look at the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building without thinking that they looked CG.
Editing also took on this eschatological tenor. There was a hurricane and an earthquake while we were editing the tidal wave scene. Our building started shaking, the ceiling caved in, and we wondered: are we having a 4-D experience of this film? When we finally emerged from the stupor of editing, we were amazed to find that everything remained intact. Nothing had happened at all. The skyline was still there, somehow.
So what were some of the common themes that emerged from all these movies?
After paranoid pedagogy, a lot of them introduce a 'First Indication of Disturbance'. Something appears on the radar, something out of the normal. The slightest deviation from normality is an immense threat that has to be countered by all means. But it first has to be accounted for, so there's incredible confusion over some minor anomaly by the scientific establishment. That's almost immediately communicated to the military apparatus that makes a real object out of this discrepancy, and then sets to work to most effectively address this imaginary problem that has now taken on real substance. There's a lot of terminology that's interchangeable between the different scenarios. Talk about swarms, invaders, pathogens and masses.
The agent of destruction is often either a natural disaster, aliens, a theological necessity like the rapture - or terrorists. The idea was to remove the objective threat, leaving the various discourses that surround threats in general building and creating the center itself.
Right, there's no center there. It's all the reaction, which becomes the destruction.
There's a scene from Godzilla where we cut Godzilla out, so the military is just flying through New York blowing up buildings, without any adversary. That's why it's an "unclear" holocaust. There's no evident threat.
I liked the "Go to DEFCON Three" sequence, where, once the scientists have warned the government, that call goes out to the populace at large, to regular people in their bedrooms. It foreshadows the back half of the movie, which is so much about the post-disaster retrenchment and the solidification of the police state.
Right. 'Citizens! Put on your riot gear, and start impounding Muslims at your local stadium!'
And there are these multiple presidencies running in parallel, seemingly at odds.
At first we talked about it as a sort of regime war, where Bill Pullman was the president bent on self-destruction, and President Morgan Freeman is all about rebuilding. But then we realized that, just as in every election, the figures are interchangeable. The population doesn't recognize any inconsistency in different presidents addressing them at different times - the suit doesn't change.
Let's talk about Tom Cruise's function in the movie. He keeps showing up as this ephemeral spirit in the background, of bourgie comfort untouched by disaster.
He's always the image cut to when things become too unbearable. For example, when President Pullman is making a decision about nuclear detonation, he's watching Cocktail. Tom Cruise is the phantasm that occludes the horrible reality.
What about Nicolas Cage? He's a participant in the events, but he also spends a lot of time watching things unfold on TV. He stands in for the audience a lot. I took him to be projecting himself into the disaster in a Wizard of Oz kind of way.
He loses his mustache in 9/11 - that's his character development.
In the film we tried to create these ultra-elaborate systems of mediation where it was always indeterminable whether something was 'actually' happening, or being watched on a screen. On 9/11, one of us was in a flatiron-shaped building that pointed towards the World Trade Center, from which there was no way of seeing what was happening. We could only see all the people standing in the street, dumbstruck, watching something. We could only see reverse shots, so to speak, an impotent gaze mediated by these other impotent gazes. Otherwise we just sat and watched it on TV from noon until 11pm.
So much of people's experience of 9/11 was mediated through one interface or another. Through television showing it "over and over and over again", there's this immediate fatigue that sets in. The event is recuperated and reintegrated within the simple media narrative that's manageable, and it happens immediately. It almost comes before the event itself. With all this foreshadowing, everyone knows it's going to happen, so how can it be shown so people will be able to experience it and survive, make it through, tell themselves they've seen it before?
Even for people who did witness 9/11 firsthand somehow, their first response was to go to a media source to counter the unknowability of what was happening. There was this sense of "I don't know what I'm looking at, I need someone to tell me." They needed narration, to look at it askance.
And yet for some time after 9/11, Hollywood actually backed off depicting the destruction of New York.
For about three years, it was a complete faux-pas to represent that in any way at all. It was edited out of Spider Man 2, The Time Machine, countless different films. Then with The Day After Tomorrow it becomes fair game again. And with the growth in special effects the destructions are now even more profound.
So, obviously this focus on the destruction of New York is a fixation of Hollywood's, and of our culture. You fuck with that elegantly, but what do you actually make of that fixation? What is it, and what are its consequences?
This came up at a recent screening: Someone asked "Do you think Hollywood caused 9/11?" This is a vulgar formulation. You can't say yes or no. It is involved in a complex of causes and effects. Either way, the desire is there. If it didn't cause 9/11, it wanted 9/11. It gave voice to a broader sort of death-drive on the part of capitalist culture.
Another mistake that that question commits is it places the movies and reality onto different planes. We don't see any discontinuity. If you could, as a sort of thought experiment, see Unclear Holocaust without being aware of the facts of how 9/11 played out, you wouldn't see any change in tone in the movie.
The World Trade Center was actually a total scourge on the skyline of New York. Everyone hated it until maybe the mid-90s, when it had enough tenure that it was just there, one had to accept it, it became a tourist icon.
There's a great Gordon Matta-Clark sketch called The Perfect Horizon - a little children's drawing of the Twin Towers, crossed out, with a sunset behind it. So when they were actually destroyed, it was this thing that everyone wants until they actually get it, and then it's too much, it's horrifying. Your desires scare the shit out of you, and you need security. Someone we spoke to who lives down by Battery Park told us that 9/11 was the worst thing that had happened to the neighborhood since the construction of the World Trade Center.
We were also talking about the film as a parody of the Truther discourse: "It was our government that did it!" That's a very vulgar understanding of geopolitics. Obviously 9/11 was caused in some way or another by the last 100 years in foreign policy, as well as our deep-seated drives. That's not any less true if it wasn't done by U.S. fighter jets with secret government operatives conspiring to confiscate all the surveillance footage.
It's also a fallacy to separate Independence Day from US foreign policy. Independence Day is US foreign policy. It is the most immediately apparent and visible foreign policy that the US has been exporting over the last 100 years.
Regardless of the agent of 9/11, what matters is how it's instrumentalized and the effects of that - most immediately the reintegration of New York within a national conception. It's no longer a leper colony of communists, queers, and gangs. You see a purging of the problematic elements. In every biblical apocalypse, it's the amoral city dwellers that are the victims of the wrath of God. The first victims in these movies are the faceless proletarians, they're the body count. Is this a conscious thesis of Hollywood? To re-present us with this concept that in global conflict the working class is always the main victim?
It also translates to an intrapersonal level. The woman reporter in Godzilla is this incredibly frivolous person, but that decadent element of her character is progressively purged until by the end she's this very pragmatic and austere person who buckles down and accepts sacrifice. The whole episode ultimately is an element in her career trajectory and in Matthew Broderick's love-life.
Can you talk about why you're attracted to this kind of detournement? What is your strategy?
Detournement in its classic formulation is all about using the master's tools to say something you already wanted to say. There's a pre-formulated statement or slogan that simply has to be routed through an existing framework.
What we're doing is different. We summarized our strategy in one sentence: letting the integrated spectacle speak for itself. We weren't trying to formulate some positive analysis or statement about what's happening, but simply manipulate what is already occurring to make it reveal certain secrets about itself that might not be admissible.
So there's a faith on your part that holding the fun-house mirror up to the spectacle is sufficient?
It's a broad survey of how Hollywood sees, and how we've been subjectivated to see events. We want to pose that vision in a way that it becomes impossible for anyone to see that way any longer.
Tell me about what you're working on now, Police Mortality. You've said it's in part a reaction to your experiences around the policing of Occupy Wall Street.
The perfect summary appears in Electra Glide In Blue: "a precisely formulated conspiracy of police genocide."
We had the idea when we were waiting for a friend to get out of court last December. We were frustrated by a lot of the discourse we heard about police brutality, as if it were a specific moment within police activity and behavior that's isolable and excessive, a kind of excrescence that could be removed to heal the police apparatus. Also the humanism that justified the police activity around Zuccotti: "They're people too, just doing their jobs."
So we started to compile films in which police were objects of lethal force, and then police conspiracy films, in which all the crimes and assassinations are happening within the police force, and the population is this external element that suffers the consequences. And then police everyday-life movies in general. Some of the best films we watched were just chronicles of police existence - aimless drift movies: someone becomes a cop; their life falls apart; they lose their narrative thread, but they continue to survive that, until maybe they commit suicide. It's a wish-fulfillment project.
I imagine you've seen the latest Batman movie.
We're waiting for the DVD to come out before we finish this project. It's going to fit very well into the climax. That was another incredible thing during the occupations; seeing the recuperation machine at work, seeing them filming The Dark Knight Rises two blocks away from Zuccotti Park.
Or the 'Liberty Square' episode of Law and Order at Foley Square. That was a great anti-representational direct action: going into the tents on set and shutting down production.
Have you talked yet about a third project?
We've talked about Unclear Family, but that would involve the totality of Hollywood productions. We might not even do a movie for our next project. We're going to have a big Hollywood hangover.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.