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.”
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.
In the absence of the Communist menace, the foe was everywhere—just ask Pat Buchanan. For Hollywood, this “unspecified enemy,” in Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase, was variously visualized as Euro-terrorists in Die Hard (1988), narco-terrorists in Die Hard 2 (1990), neo-Nazi terrorists in Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), homegrown terrorists in Under Siege (1992), “international” terrorists in Under Siege 2 (1995), extraterrestrial terrorists in Independence Day (1996), micro-organic terrorists in Outbreak (1995), dino-terrorists in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Russian terrorists in Air Force One (1997), Bosnian terrorists in The Peacemaker (1997), and Islamic terrorists in True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), and The Siege (1998), a movie that, in dramatizing the wholesale roundup of Arab American suspects, can also be understood as prophetic.
Republican politicians and American jihadists argued that the real enemy was Hollywood itself—the movie industry spent the past decade carrying out a form of soft terrorism. What force was more pervasive? Or persuasive? By positing several billion casualties, Independence Day—to name but one blockbuster, extremely popular in the Middle East as everywhere else on earth—pretended to massacre nearly as many as paid to see it.
If Die Hard With a Vengeance, released only weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, was inspired by the first attack on the WTC, it’s also possible that the original Die Hard—in which Bruce Willis’s NYPD street cop battled international terrorists in an L.A. skyscraper—may have contributed to the 1993 WTC scenario. People get ideas. Who now can forget the stirring image of Independence Day good guy Will Smith fearlessly piloting his aircraft into the very citadel of alien power . . . kaboom!
The Hollywood response to September 11 was fascinating—but then magical thinking is what movies are all about. In the days following September 11, Warner Bros. postponed Collateral Damage, a movie in which Arnold Schwarzenegger—the biggest star in Beirut—plays a firefighter who wreaks cosmic vengeance when his wife and child die in a Los Angeles skyscraper blown up by narco-terrorists, changed by director Andrew Davis from the original script’s Arabs. (The screenwriters, David and Peter Griffiths, suffered another setback when Fox suspended their top-secret project, Deadline, a hijack drama written for James Cameron.) Jerry Bruckheimer decided that the time might not be right for World War III, which simulated the nuking of Seattle and San Diego.
Even comedies suffered some collateral damage. Disney put off the release of the Tim Allen vehicle Big Trouble, which involves a nuclear bomb smuggled aboard a jet plane; MGM shelved Nose Bleed, with Jackie Chan starring as a window washer who foils a terrorist plot to blow up the WTC. (“It represents capitalism,” one of the terrorists was to explain. “It represents freedom. It represents everything that America is about. And to bring those two buildings down would bring America to its knees.”) Scheduled telecasts of the X-Files movie and Independence Day were canceled, along with a Law & Order episode about bioterrorism in NYC. It was as though the future might be made safe by rewriting the past.
A new self-censorship was in place. The CBS show The Agency dropped a reference to Osama bin Laden. Sex and the City trimmed views of the twin towers; Paramount airbrushed them from the poster for Sidewalks of New York. Sony yanked their Spider Man trailer so as to eliminate images of the WTC and similarly ordered retakes on Men in Black 2 that would replace the WTC with the Chrysler Building. DreamWorks changed the end of The Time Machine, which rained moon fragments down on New York.
Hollywood felt guilty. Only days after the Trades fell, the studios eagerly reported that the FBI had informed them they could well be the terrorists’ next target. On September 21, Los Angeles was swept with rumors of an impending attack. That great whirring sound wasn’t the swallows returning to Capistrano but all those chickens coming home to roost. Not everyone was as blunt as director Robert Altman, who told the Associated Press, “The movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies. Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they’d seen it in a movie. . . I just believe we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it.”
As the Chinese videos suggested, the Events of September 11 would be hard to top. It was the end of the end of history, the beginning of the clash of civilizations, a powerful boost to the Greatest Generation Band of Brothers World War II revival. In the days following the disaster, the Los Angeles Times reported entertainment industry concern that “the public appetite for plots involving disasters and terrorism has vanished.”
What then would movies be about? A prominent TV executive hastily assured The New York Times that entertainment, post-September 11, would be “much more wholesome” and that “we are definitely moving into a kinder, gentler time” (presumably 1988). A DreamWorks producer explained that the present atmosphere precluded his studio from bankrolling any more movies like The Peacemaker and Deep Impact: “We make the movies that reflect, in one way or another, the experiences we all have. There are just some movies that you can’t make from here on in.”
Really? According to the October 3 Washington Post, video stores were enjoying “huge rentals of heroic combat movies” with Rambo and Die Hard With a Vengeance “flying off Blockbuster shelves.” But the next day’s New York Times begged to differ. Despite the “huge surge” following the attacks, there was no significant difference in what customers were renting. The alleged interest in Independence Day was no more than “anecdotal” and, according to one Blockbuster executive, “never amounted to more than a hiccup among the larger number of new releases flying out of the stores.” Nor were audiences avoiding movies. Even before the Harry Potter juggernaut arrived last month, fall movie grosses were up.
In late October, Variety ominously cited a National Research Group survey that found 60 percent of people over 35 had no interest in going to the movies, “especially men who watch a lot of television news coverage.” Did they ever? Still, the studios moved up military films like Behind Enemy Lines (which tested even better post-September 11) and the Somalia combat film Black Hawk Down. (In keeping with the World War II revival, the latter is being spun not as the worst military disaster of Bill Clinton’s presidency but as an affirmative tale of American soldiers banded against a “Hitler-like” Somali warlord responsible for thousands of deaths.) Warner Bros., supposedly out beating the bushes for a new Rambo, could only regret having so hastily yanked the uncanny Collateral Damage—surely the season’s perfect movie.
Hollywood expected to be punished. Instead, it was drafted. Only days after the terror attacks, the Pentagon-funded Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California convened several meetings with filmmakers—including screenwriter Steven E. De Souza (Die Hard, Die Hard 2), director Joseph Zito (Delta Force One, Missing in Action), and wackier creative types like David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Mary Lambert. The proceedings were chaired by Brigadier General Kenneth Bergquist; the idea was for the talent to “brainstorm” possible terrorist scenarios and then offer solutions. (Why not? We live in a country where Steven Spielberg is called upon by Congress to offer insight into hate crimes and Tom Clancy was interviewed by CNN as an expert on terrorism.)
For the first time since Ronald Reagan left office, it has become all but impossible to criticize the movie industry. After George Bush’s late September suggestion that Americans fight terrorism by taking their families to Disney World, Disney chief Michael Eisner reportedly sent out an e-mail praising the president as “our newest cheerleader.” (Disney is returning the favor by rushing into production a new version of the treasured Texas tale of the last stand at the Alamo in time for next summer—to protect the president’s outreach to Latino voters, they can perhaps convert Santa Anna’s Mexican army into Martians).
Even Representative Henry Hyde has requested Hollywood input into a congressional hearing on how the U.S. might successfully address the “hearts and minds” of the Arab world. Unable to ignore the similarity between their religious fundamentalism and ours—thank you, Jerry Falwell—the administration now wants to promote the American values of “tolerance” and entertainment. Among their other crimes, the iconoclastic Savonarolas of the Taliban had proscribed the sale of television sets and banned all movies—even subjecting them to public burning. Hence the phenomenal photograph printed November 20 by The New York Times, page one above the fold, captioned “Kabul Cinema Opens to Joy and Chaos.” In an image that would do the professional hysteria-stokers of the Cannes Film Festival proud, a mob of smiling Afghan men were shown storming and even scaling the walls of the 600-seat Bakhtar Cinema to participate in Kabul’s first public movie screening in five years. Not since Independence Day . . .
Never mind that women were banned and that the Afghans were fighting to see the 1995 Uruj—a movie celebrating those same mujahideen heroes whose war against the Communist infidels had brought Bin Laden to Afghanistan in the first place. Shrek will surely follow—and maybe even Pearl Harbor. Kabul had rejoined our civilization.
Research assistance: Cecilia Sayad
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 4, 2001