In a way, the dilemma facing pop-culture consumers in September 2021 is the same as it was after 9/11
|Toronto Star 12 Sep 2021 at 17:04|
In 2001, I was working as a stringer for a Toronto alt-weekly, covering new release movies in between film studies classes at the University of Toronto. It was a dream gig for a 20-year-old cinephile, and trying to drag subtext out of Hollywood blockbusters was one of the best parts of the job — a chance to extract and examine tissue samples of a popular culture that kept mutating in real time.
The other best part of the job was getting to interview some of my heroes. When I found out I would be talking to David Lynch at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I assumed there was no way things could get any more surreal. But 48 hours after my one-on-one with Lynch, the experience definitively got topped.
All week long, my mind had been preoccupied with processing Lynch’s dreamy masterpiece “Mulholland Drive.” Now other images were getting lodged in my unconscious — mine, and everybody else’s as well. Departing the amateur samurai’s place later that afternoon, I suddenly caught myself thinking about Lynch (who famously ended up commandeering a bus from Toronto back to Los Angeles after his TIFF premiere) and how his movies had always felt to me like escape hatches to other realms and realities. “Mulholland Drive” would open in a few weeks; I wondered when (or if) it would feel comfortable — or correct — to return down the rabbit hole.
“A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again,” read the front page of The Onion on Oct. 1, 2001 — a headline that, in the best tradition of America’s Finest News Source, drew a bead on piddling yet omnipresent Western anxieties about pop-cultural consumption in the shadow of catastrophe. “Allow yourself time for a gradual return to the petty, shallow, meaningless little life you led before this horrible tragedy,” advised the (fictional) therapist quoted therein. “Don’t go see ‘Zoolander’ unless you know you’re actually ready.”
The Onion’s reference to Ben Stiller’s fashion-world satire was apt: “Zoolander” was one of the first movies released in the wake of 9/11, and served however innocently (and incongruously) as a canary in the coal mine, not only for when, per The Onion, audiences might care about trivial entertainment again but of the collateral damage that the day’s events might have on the film industry as a whole. Exhibit B: the delayed opening and strategic re-editing of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie actually entitled “Collateral Damage,” whose subplot about a plane-hijacking terrorist was excised for reasons of good taste. With xenophobia raging out of control, studios were forced to keep up appearances of empathy, tact and political correctness while figuring out how to best capitalize on (and monetize) a shell-shocked zeitgeist.
This is how the impact of 9/11 on the world of film was felt initially: in delays, revisions and critical interpretations that transformed every new release into a vessel for discourse, whether or not the filmmaker had actually intended their work allegorically. By the American election year of 2004, though, such onscreen resonances in movies good, bad or ugly could no longer be seen as incidental. “Post-9/11 cinema” — which is to say, narratives unambiguously addressing the attacks and their physical and psychic aftermath, including George W. Bush’s shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq and the resultant partisan polarization in media, governmental and civilian circles — became a vast and multi-faceted subgenre encompassing everything from drama to comedy to horror to documentary.
That year at Cannes, the Palme d’Or went to Michael Moore’s lacerating, Bush-bashing agitprop “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a decision that jury president Quentin Tarantino insisted (unconvincingly) was “not political.” A few months later, a wooden, miniature avatar of Moore served as the villain of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet-infested War on Terror piss-take “Team America: World Police,” which yoked its censor-baiting outrageousness to a centre-right realpolitik. The script proposed, however jokingly, that U.S.’s tumescent military presence abroad was the lesser of two evils — three, if you count concerned liberal celebrities protesting the war.
Both “Fahrenheit” and “Team America” each in their way refuted Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s much-quoted postulation that 9/11 would be remembered, among other things, as marking the “death of irony.” Far from it: Moore’s snarky, proto-“Daily Show” montage — “Shiny Happy People” played over images of Bush Sr. and Junior meeting with Saudi oilmen — and the “South Park” team’s ridiculous Punch-and-Judy slapstick both attempted gamely to wring laughs out of international cataclysm. “It will be 9/11 times one hundred,” warns one of the hawkish heroes in “Team America.” “Basically, all the worst parts of the Bible.”
Meanwhile, on the small screen, Fox’s viciously jingoistic “24” offered up a more po-faced vision of the same scenario, which aligned nicely with its parent network’s paranoid style. Where “The West Wing” had attempted to extend the cut-rate Camelot of the Clinton years (with real-life superstar liberal Martin Sheen as a morally sacrosanct commander-in-chief), “24” recognized that the real source of power and intrigue was the deep state, exemplified in proudly reactionary fashion by Kiefer Sutherland’s super-operative Jack Bauer ready and willing to get his hands dirty.
It’s arguable that the television series that best captured post-9/11 anxieties about violence, loss and trauma was one that kept them in the background: lost amidst debates about what exactly happened to Tony at the end of “The Sopranos” was the fact that the character’s collusion with the FBI in the final season stemmed from an old-guard, homefront patriotism, giving up the names of his nephew Christopher’s Middle Eastern drug connections in an attempt to save his own neck (it was heavily implied that the show’s goombahs were all pro-Bush). Like “Zoolander” and “Spider-Man,” “The Sopranos” was re-edited for broadcast in its fourth season, losing a shot of the World Trade Center in its opening Jersey turnpike credit sequence; the same year, Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” — a sort of anthropological prequel to “The Sopranos,” mapping the tribalism of organized crime — ended on a time lapse shot of the Manhattan skyline designed to draw our eyes to the towers. In 2005, Spielberg doubled down on Scorsese’s gambit by ending his ’70s-set Israel-Palestine parable “Munich” on a similar image, as if suggesting that several decades later, that conflict’s chickens had come home to roost.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 altered America’s global image and Hollywood’s priorities in one fell swoop,a shift best exemplified by a pair of tonally disparate thrillers: the delirious, brain-damaged fantasy “White House Down,” with Jamie Foxx as a heroic, machine-gun-toting Obama manque repelling a right-wing coup, and the uber-realistic “Zero Dark Thirty,” which opened with audio of actual phone calls made by victims as the towers fell and ended with a depiction of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, staged clinically by director Kathryn Bigelow as a climax not only to the film’s action but an entire anguished chapter of early 21st-century American history. Whether “Zero Dark Thirty” represented an act of exploitation or catharsis remains hard to say, but it stands as probably the last major American movie explicitly about 9/11 (and a huge influence on “24”’s prime-time successor “Homeland,” which borrowed the idea of a brilliant, neurotic, crusading female protagonist).
The new Netflix drama “Worth,” starring Michael Keaton as a lawyer trying to allocate compensation funds to the families of 9/11 victims, represents an interesting intersection between eras; it’s an early-millennial period piece that will have to find its audience entirely online as a result of COVID. In a way, the dilemma facing pop-culture consumers in September 2021 is the same as it was 20 years ago — i.e. when it will feel right to head back out to movie theatres — albeit with a different set of stakes and variables. In the early days of lockdown, the most streamed movie in North America was Steven Soderbergh’s 2014 killer-virus shocker “Contagion,” which used the same fleet, procedural storytelling language as “Zero Dark Thirty” to dramatize a devastating global outbreak. In a way, “Contagion”’s sober, nightmarish prescience renders it as the definitive COVID movie in advance of anybody actually trying to make one, while theories of what post-pandemic cinema will look like remain as open (and unsettlingly speculative) as the pandemic itself.