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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

9/11: Fact is better than fiction

In the last ten years,some eloquent or daring works of art about 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eventually did emerge,but none were really game-changing

Written by New York Times |
September 11, 2011 3:42:26 am


Ten years ago Don DeLillo wrote that the attacks of September 11 would change “the way we think and act,moment to moment,week to week,for unknown weeks and months to come,and steely years.” The historian Taylor Branch spoke of a possible “turning point against a generation of cynicism for all of us,” and Roger Rosenblatt argued in Time magazine that “one good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony.”

They were wrong,of course. We know now that the New Normal was very much like the Old Normal,at least in terms of the country’s arts and entertainment. Blockbuster video stores placed warnings on some films—“in light of the events of September 11,please note that this product contains scenes that may be disturbing to some viewers”—but violent pictures continued to top most-rented lists.

Ten years later,it is even clearer that 9/11 has not provoked a seismic change in the arts. While there were shifts in the broader culture such developments have had less to do with 9/11 than with the ballooning of partisanship during the Bush and Obama administrations,and with unrelated forces like technology,which gave us the social media revolution of Facebook,Twitter and YouTube.

In response to 9/11,the artistic community quickly mobilised. Jane Rosenthal,Craig Hatkoff and Robert De Niro put together the Tribeca Film Festival (which had its 10th anniversary this spring) to help revitalise a ravaged Lower Manhattan. And musicians including Paul McCartney,Keith Richards,Mick Jagger,David Bowie,the Who and Jay-Z did a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden.

There was also an outpouring of art,like Bruce Springsteen’s,The Rising,Neil Young’s Let’s Roll. But in retrospect,many of them now feel sentimental or heavy-handed. Later on,anger over the war in Iraq and worries about the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush war on terror would produce a wave of politically engaged movies and plays —including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Terrorist plots popped up on TV shows like Law & Order and CSI: NY.

Some eloquent or daring works of art about 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eventually did emerge—most notably,Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing film The Hurt Locker,about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq; Amy Waldman’s novel The Submission,which explored the fallout of 9/11 on American attitudes toward Muslims; and Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman,a bronze sculpture commemorating those who fell or jumped to their deaths from the twin towers.

Compelling as such works are,however,none were really game-changing. None possess the vaulting ambition of,say,Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. Instead,these 9/11 works feel like blips on the cultural landscape—they neither represent a new paradigm nor suggest that the attacks were a cultural watershed. Perhaps this is because 9/11 did not really change daily life for much of the country. Perhaps it’s because our A.D.D. nation—after the assassinations of J.F.K.,R.F.K. and M.L.K. in the ’60s,and decades of violence on 24-hour news—has become increasingly inured to shock.


Some critics have argued that not enough time has passed for artists to gain sufficient perspective on 9/11. Tolstoy,after all,wrote about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia more than 50 years later.

In the meantime,a lot of post-9/11 culture seems like a cut-and-paste version of pre-9/11 culture. Indeed,pop culture has slid so far into the slough of celebrity worship and escapist fluff that the antics of the Kardashian sisters now pass as entertainment. Sensationalism continues,and so does the blurring between news and gossip. Reality shows,which took off in 2000 with Survivor,continued to snowball in popularity. James Patterson,Michael Crichton and John Grisham continued to dominate best-seller lists.

“Instead of being the threshold to the future,” the critic Simon Reynolds writes in his astute new book,Retromania,the 2000s “were dominated by the “re-” prefix: revivals,reissues,remakes,re-enactments.”

In fact,several prominent novels dealing with 9/11 drew heavily from earlier classics. Ian McEwan’s Saturday,which captures the precariousness of post-9/11 daily life,reads like a contemporary variation on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. And Mohsin Hamid’s chilling novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist—which recounts the effect 9/11 has on a successful Pakistani immigrant—borrowed the structure and central themes of Camus’s novel The Fall. Reynolds suggests technology in the 2000s contributed to a “fading of the artistic imperative to be original.”

The Power of Bare Facts

In terms of narrative scope and harrowing drama,no novel has yet to match The Looming Tower,Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction account of the events that led to 9/11. Terry McDermott’s book Perfect Soldiers drew a portrait of the real 9/11 hijackers that was far more compelling than the crude jihadi stereotype in John Updike’s novel Terrorist. Alex Gibney’s documentary Taxi to the Dark Side provided a more indelible portrait of the dark side of the war on terror than such fictional films as Rendition and Redacted. The straight-up documentary 9/11 possesses a raw power totally lacking in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center,which imposed a conventional Hollywood frame around the story of two survivors.

Fantasies and Forerunners

September 11 and the emotions it generated —fear,anger,a desire for revenge—also fuelled the success of several entertainment franchises. The hit counterterrorism show 24,its co-creator Joel Surnow told the New Yorker was “ripped out of the zeitgeist of what people’s fears are—their paranoia that we’re going to be attacked.” The series frequently used torture as a way of gathering intelligence; it depicted the fight against terrorism much as members of the Bush administration did: as a struggle for American survival that required all means necessary.

Fantasy epics—pitting good versus evil in stark Manichaean terms—dominated the box office in the last decade: among the top-grossing films were Avatar,two installments of The Lord of the Rings,three installments of Harry Potter and The Dark Knight. Superheroes like Spider-Man and Iron Man ruled,and so did vampires. Steven Spielberg said his 2005 remake of War of the Worlds reflected post-9/11 anxiety. Time’s Richard Corliss described the Joker in The Dark Knight as “the terrorist as improv artist.” And bloggers compared Voldemort and his Death Eaters in Harry Potter to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It’s too easy,however,to see every recent pop culture phenomenon as a metaphor for combating terrorism. Voldemort sprang from J. K. Rowling’s imagination well before 9/11. The Tolkien novels,like Batman,Spider-Man and many of their superhero brethren,predate 9/11 by decades.

At the same time,other artistic creations—unrelated to 9/11—took on new depth or new meanings. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s monumental project ‘The Gates,’ conceived in 1979 and only realised in 2005 with the support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg,threaded Central Park with 7,500 gates wrapped in saffron fabric,turning that great communal space into a work of art that was at once visionary and interactive,ephemeral and enduring. It became,for many New Yorkers,a symbol of hope,of transcendence,of healing after 9/11.

“It’s not that everything is different after 9/11; it’s more that we look at the same stuff through a different prism,” says Kate D. Levin,the city’s cultural affairs commissioner. In the case of ‘The Gates,’ she adds,something that had “nothing to do with 9/11,something that was completely about aesthetics” became “that much more profound.”MICHIKO KAKUTANI

In movies

Fahrenheit 9/11: This 2004 documentary by Michael Moore takes a look at what happened to the US after September 11 and the presidency of George W Bush.

The Hurt Locker: Directed by Kathryn Bigelow,this 2008 film offered an account of the lives of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. It earned six Oscars at the Academy Awards.

World Trade Center: Directed by Oliver Stone,this 2006 film stars Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as two Port Authority police officers who were among the rescuers who risked their own lives by rushing into the buildings.

United 93: This 2006 historical drama gives an account of the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93 which was hijacked during September 11 attacks.

Reign over me: Starring Adam Sandler,this 2007 film is about two friends who are reunited in post 9/11 New York city.

In books

102 Minutes: The Untold Story of The Fight To Survive Inside theTwin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn is a detailed account of people who were in and around the twin towers on

September 11.

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright has been described by Dexter Filkins in a review in The New York Times as a “thoughtful examination of the world that produced the men who brought us 9/11,and of their progeny who bedevil us today.”

Saturday by Ian McEwan centres around a single post-9/11 Saturday in London in the life of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne.

In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman is a comic book that combines Spiegelman’s personal experience of 9/11along with a commentary on US reaction to the event-all through a comic strip.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer has a 9-year-old narrator Oskar Schell. Two years before the story begins,Oskar’s father dies on September 11 and Oskar discovers a key that belonged to his father that inspires him to search New York for information about the key.

In songs

The Rising by Bruce Springsteen: This album released in the year 2002 was about Springsteen’s reflections on the September 11 attacks

Where were you (when the world stopped turning) by Alan Jackson was released in November 2001 and was dedicated to the victims and heroes of 9/11.

New York,New York by Ryan Adams was released as a part of his album Gold in 2001. It features him performing in front of the city’s skyline from Brooklyn and was filmed a few days before the September 11 attacks. A message was placed at the end of the video,dedicating it to those who lost their lives,and to “those who worked to

save them.”

Mosh by Eminem is an animated video that opens with Eminem reading to schoolchildren in the shadow of the World Trade Center on 9/11. It was released in 2006 and is about the aftermath of 9/11 and the Bush presidency.

Grand Central Station by Mary Chapin Carpenter was inspired by an iron worker’s story at Ground Zero who felt as if the souls of 9/11 victims could follow him to the station to catch trains home.

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