On that Tuesday morning, I woke up to NPR and heard the words, ….plane….World Trade Center….Pentagon….crash… terrorists…, and like most people, could not quite comprehend what was happening nor the catastrophic enormity of the event. I turned on the television to confirm it was not a “Welles-ian” hoax—-an updated “War of the Worlds”—- only to be slapped again with the reality. To this moment, there remains a measure of denial—this is not happening. Commercial airlines do not crash into the tallest buildings in America, and those huge structures do not just collapse in on themselves and 6000 people die within fifteen minutes, except on the celluloid screen. It felt like I came in late to a movie— a bad movie.
Pitching September 11—The Movie.
I could imagine the writer pitching this scenario to a cynical Hollywood producer type, tracking a scene right out of ‘The Player'(1993). “It’s kind of a cross between the ‘Die Hard’ (1988) thing, where the high-rise building is taken over by terrorists, or ‘The Siege’ (1998), where arab terrorists attack New York, and that Wesley Snipes thing, ‘Passenger 57′ (1992), where he is a rebel cop/ passenger on a hijacked airliner. We can throw in a pinch of ‘Black Sunday'(1977)—about a terrorist plot to bomb the Super Bowl, just to show how the bad guys could easily infiltrate our security systems. You’d have diabolical ‘evil-doers’, heavy duty destruction, and big opportunity for special effects—all that makes for the kind of blockbuster that puts people in the seats and pushes up the gross.”
The terrorist/catastrophe film genre, has been around since the early 1970’s. It is an outgrowth and closely related to the Cold War spy film form that cropped up in the post World War II era, and featured diabolical geniuses in plots to destroy democracy and the American Way of Life. (The Ultimate Movie Thesaurus, Christopher Case, Henry Holt, Publ., N.Y. 1996) They ran the full gamut from reasonably taut dramas like, ‘The Day of the Jackal (1973), to the cartoon-like James Bond thrillers. These movies effectively play on Americans’ fears of outsiders and reinforce our tendency toward isolation. The films assuage our sense of vulnerability about a shadowy, elusive and deceitful enemy by giving the bad guy a face—we may not know who they are in real life, but we do in the movies. And, the United States being a Christian nation, the enemy must necessarily be the Anti-Christ—the Devil incarnate—and we know how to fight evil. In the emerging script of ‘September 11–The Movie,’ if Osama bin Laden did not exist, we would have to create him.
Recounting films scripts seems trivial and maybe even somewhat insensitive in the wake of the events of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. But as The New Yorker movie critic, Anthony Lane, comments poignantly, watching those events, “it is hard to make the switch, the fireball of impact was so precisely as it should be, and the breaking waves of dust that barrelled down the avenues were so absurdly recognizable… . …(Our) imaginations that had been schooled in the comedy of apocalypse were forced to reconsider the same evidence as tragic.” (“This Is Not A Movie,” The New Yorker, Sept. 24, 2001, p. 79) The only difference is that in all the movies the terrorists’ plots are foiled and the good guys win—-on this day, real life departed from the script.
Movies and Reality
On reflection, however, the comparison of the real life events to a movie script may be more important and useful than might be at first apparent. Movies, in our culture, have become more than mere entertainment and escapism. Movies reflect—and often construct—the beliefs and myths we have about the world we live in. They deal with conflict, separation and loss, love and attachment, and ultimately, good and evil. Movies contribute to the sense of optimism or pessimism about our ability to manage conflict in our lives. (“The Movies—Constructions of Reality and Sources of Metaphors”, R. D. Benjamin, AFM-Mediation News, 1998, www.mediate.com, 2001.) Especially for Americans, movies form a frame of reference—”a folk memory”—in this case, of catastrophe. Where Europeans have events to remember—the bombing of London, or Dresden, the D-Day invasion, or the Holocaust, we relate our lives to the movies. (A. Lane)
Films give us clues about ourselves and instruction about how we should respond to crisis. Lane suggests that the destruction of the World Trade Center could spell the end of the terrorist/catastrophe genre. I am not so sure it will or it should. At the very least they serve an important purpose: to make glaringly apparent our naivete about the nature of the terrorist threat and the dubiousness of our standard response. As well, there is the potential for future films to be more richly textured and to present a greater level of insight about the strange, foreign world of ideologues and fanatics and more effective responses.
Movies influence behavior; the lines between fantasy and reality, are often blurred and there is an ongoing interplay between the two. ‘Three Days of the Condor’ (1975), explores this ambiguity. It is about an covert CIA operation dedicated to monitoring fictional book plots that is ‘terminated’ because they have stumbled on one too close to the truth. Robert Redford plays a naive academic-type who is the lone survivor of the attack who is forced to come to terms with the reality of what would seem to be a fictional plot—-his own employer’s agents were out to kill him. Truth can be stranger than fiction; the interplay between reality and fantasy can be turned to our advantage. Film scripts that reflect the full complexity of our life circumstance holds dramatic tension that could rival the most advanced special effect and serve a useful purpose at the same time.
The Purpose of Violence.
Violent films should not be censored or banned; there is no sense pretending or denying that the anger which fuels such aggression does not exist. Quite the opposite; that rage must be confronted and movies, like books and literature, are obliged to lance and expose even the most disturbing human emotions and feelings. In fact, what has been noticeably absent are any films that explore the world that breeds terrorists. Why is it that such a horrific event had to occur on our soil, in our faces, before we would hear the shrill level of resentment that is harbored against us by many in the world? Why do they hate us? Are they just crazy or devils incarnate? Why don’t ‘they’ appreciate all that America has done for the world? Film has proven itself to be one of the most effective art-forms to explore our illusions and self-delusions. Few modes can hit a nerve, touch our fears, and encourage reflection as effectively. The poignancy of ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993), dealing with the holocaust and negotiating with evil, ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ (1962) about confronting racism, and countless other films, are more than sufficient evidence.
The best movies draw the viewer in; they effectively create an illusion that allows the suspension of disbelief. He or she identifies with the characters and feels they are part of the drama. Watching the screen, you cannot help thinking about, “what would I do in the situation? how would I feel? how would I measure up? Watching the events of September 11th unfold, I careened from feeling the fear of joining the passengers who apparently fought the terrorists on one plane, to imagining the helplessness of being a fireman headed into a collapsing building, and then, what my final words would be to my wife in that one last cell-phone conversation. The experience remains overwhelming—like a movie, it draws me in and gnaws at me. This time, though, it is real—there is no popcorn and I cannot go home and forget about it.
What makes —or breaks— most movies, however, is the ending. While the terrorist/catastrophe movies of the past provided amusing distraction, the script endings left much to be desired. Virtually all of them end on a predictable, and unrealistic note. While the special effects are impressive, and potential for the events occurrence and the horrific destruction seem real enough, the leads invariably appear wooden, cut from the same cloth as the cartoon super-heros of the John Wayne/’Dirty Harry’ variety.
The myths and beliefs those movies have perpetuated have clearly done us a disservice. To state the obvious, the good guys don’t always win, in fact, good and bad become uncomfortably relative terms, and the strategies are so simplistic, they verge on being absurd. Most scripts appear to be largely unchanged since the early Cowboy and Indian movies of the silent era. Every movie ends with the good guy “smoking the scum-bags out of their cave and taken’em dead or alive.” Unfortunately, a steady diet of these movies has conditioned the belief that this simplistic approach to conflict is the only one ever devised. While some understand that conflict situations are considerably more complex than a movie script, many people, including some United States’ Presidents, appear to have limited their study of managing conflict to the movies.
Even though it continues to feel like a movie, the events of September 11th are not fictional, but a work in progress. There is no chance of re-writing the first part of this tragedy, but there is an opportunity to seize some control over the ending. We could alter the all-too predictable ‘shoot from the hip’ response and replace it with a script that is multi-layered and textured to properly reflect the complexities of the present world. If it is done right, we could conceivably head-off another cycle of violence, toward which we seem to be hurdling.
The script could even be successfully pitched to the most cynical producer. The premise: the dramatic tension between the urge to blindly strike back and the strength derived from a carefully crafted alternative course of action. It needs to be hard-hitting, practical, and realistic—not too humanistic and certainly not reliant on the Angel-in-the-wings thing. In Hollywood speak, it could have an element of ‘Ghost Dog'(1999), reflecting the discipline of a modern samurai warrior, crossed with ‘ the strategic planning of the Sixth Century B.C. Chinese general, Sun Tzu.
From the terrorist attack of September 11th, the United States appears to have drawn more moral authority and good will from countries around the world, than has been apparent since World War II. Even traditional antagonists— Cuba, Russia, and China —have joined the chorus of support. Note, for example, how this man-made catastrophe has had a scalding effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, almost obligating a cease fire. Possibly those ‘blood-feuding’ adversaries, and perhaps others around the world, were treated to a vision of the nightmare that awaits them if they continue their present course. Both the real life and film script could usefully reflect the twists and turns necessary to forge that force of momentum into a surgically sharp ‘weapon’ that could be effective as any missile in the undermining and neutralizing of terrorism.
Not blunt, direct force, but subtle tensile strength is required both in real life and for a good movie script. In negotiation, as in warfare, guerilla tactics can be used to good effect, not so much to defeat an enemy, but to assure we are not defeated. (“Guerilla Mediation: The Use of Warfare Strategies in the Management of Conflict,” R.D. Benjamin, www.mediate.com, 1999.) Sun Tzu relevantly observed, that, “…when you know the place and time of battle then you can join the fight from a thousand miles away…, and … those that are too bold, move forward recklessly and readily clash without knowing what is to their advantage.” ( Mastering the Art of War, trans. and edit. by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1989.
Movies are no more real than a reflection in the mirror. Like mirrors, however, movies reflect an image of our culture at a given point in time. Those movies have been typical Hollywood pablum with silly endings that appeal to many peoples’ desire for simple answers. They harbor the naive belief that the issuance of non-negotiable ultimatums backed by force, are effective responses and can purge the threat of violence and keep us safe. But just as movies have lent credence to over-simplistic thinking, so might they be recruited to encourage more effective and different responses to terrorist actions. Scripts could be written that are less subservient to special effects and more attentive to the high drama presented by the ambiguities and difficulties presented by complex issues. Maybe we could play down the “cowboy” mentality in our character scripting, just enough to reveal how most of us are tortured heros that hesitate to shoot for fear that we will hit our own foot, or worse, someone else’s. At their best, films offer a means to bring a measure of conscious intentionality to how we deal with the complex and intractable conflicts we will increasingly face as a society. This new century deserves a new genre of movies.