Sunday, September 03, 2006

September 11 at the Movies

An absolutely wonderful essay by Daniel Mendelsohn at the New York Review of Books, in contemplation of the recent September 11 movies in relation to ancient Greek history and the literary genre of tragedy. Here's a bit, but it's really worth going and reading the whole thing--highly intelligent criticism, beautifully well-written:

Using the real-life people in the movie [United 93] is a showy but ultimately hollow gesture; it advertises a certain kind of solemnity, even piety, about 'authenticity' that has great currency in an era in which, in so many popular entertainments, a great premium is placed on getting as close as possible to 'reality'-although in such entertainments the reality, of course, is an artfully constructed one. (An apparently growing confusion in mass culture about the differences among reality, truth, 'truthiness,' and fiction has, as we know, had effects beyond the world of entertainment. An artful admixing of reality and invention, never acknowledged as such, has characterized the government's attempt to 'sell' its response to the events of September 11.)

There can, therefore, be no useful aesthetic value in the decision to use real people, only a symbolic and perhaps sentimental one: by emphasizing such authenticity and realism, the film reassures its audience-which may well be anxious about its motives for paying to see a film about real-life violence and horror-that what they're seeing is not, in fact, 'drama' (and therefore presumably mere 'entertainment'), but 'real life,' and hence in some way edifying.

The problem with all this realness is that the film itself-like reality-has no structure: and without structure, without shaping, the events can have no large meaning. When United 93 first came out, I was struck by one enthusiastic critic's glowing comment, in a review entitled 'Brilliant, Brutal and Utterly Real,' that Greengrass's movie was 'gripping from first to last, partly because, like a Greek tragedy, we are only too aware of where everything is heading....'[2] But what makes Greek tragedy significant as art is precisely the way in which the foreordained trajectory of the events that take place on stage is made to seem part of a larger moral scheme; when (for instance) we see the horrible spectacle of the humbled king at the end of Persians, we know why he has been humbled (his greedy overreaching) and who has humbled him (the gods, the moral order that obtains in the cosmos).

All that United 93 can tell us, by contrast, is that many people are brave and some people are dastardly. (Well, many American people are brave: we're treated to a scene in which one of the passengers, who has a Central European accent of some kind, urges the others to cooperate with the hijackers.) If United 93 brings to mind any genre, it's not Greek tragedy, with its artfully wrought moral conundrums, but something much tinier: the innumerable made-for-television programs available on cable TV that are dedicated to reenactments of real-life crimes, complete with phony "realism." The stylistic hallmark of these shows is the same jittery hand-held camerawork that Greengrass uses to represent the violence in the cabin of Flight 93.

This isn't to say that the emotions evoked by United 93 aren't strong. But your feelings of horror while watching the hand-to-hand violence in United 93 don't derive from the way in which the action has been treated by the writer and the director, but rather from the prior historical knowledge you already bring to the occasion—it's only awful to watch because you know something like it happened to real people. If United 93 were a fictional TV movie of the week, you might watch it with friends, and then go out for pizza without thinking about it ever again, except perhaps to wonder why there was no real ending, or why you never really knew anything about the characters (and hence wondered why they act the way they do). As I left the theater after seeing it, it occurred to me that what I was feeling—the sorrow for the real people of whom the show's characters reminded me—was probably very much like what the audience felt as they left the first, and only, performance of The Capture of Miletus.

It's a funny thing about that Greek stuff: I was teaching the Iliad those weeks of September 2001, and indeed the description of Priam entreating Achilles for the return of Hector's body seemed to speak more deeply to the questions on my mind than almost anything else I read or saw in the months that followed.

Mendelsohn's book The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million will be published later this month, I must make sure to get hold of it; I liked The Elusive Embrace a great deal.

1 comment:

  1. I must check out Mendelsohn's books; they sound exactly like the kind of thing I love reading.