In large part, this vicarious observation was a product of necessity. I felt - self-servingly? - that it would be ghoulish to scramble up to a rooftop to see more directly. Besides, the smell of burning chemicals and paper permeated my apartment and neighborhood so thoroughly that images seemed almost redundant. I spent the period immediately following the attack in a daze, with the attention span of a fruit fly.
I don't think I'm alone in this either, nor do I blame television for it. For once, the format of TV news changed to accommodate the interim chaos. It was immediately evident that news channels didn't know how to react. New York's Time Warner-owned, all-local news cable Channel 1 ran amateur videos of the wreckage, accompanied by almost any soundbites they could get. The disjunction between video and image almost reached Godardian portions at times. No commercials were aired for the next few days.
TV news eventually returned to normal: confidence, commercials and all. But I had a reprise of this experience watching CNN and the CBC news while at the Vancouver International Film Festival when the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan. Sure, I had seen it coming, but didn't expect it so quickly. In this case, the daze took longer to kick in - the task of seeing three or four films a day kept me otherwise occupied.
When I arrived at New York's LaGuardia airport, I noticed that security guards were checking the trunks of all cars for suspicious items. When another passenger asked a guard why he was doing this, he replied "a lot of cab drivers are from the Middle East and Pakistan," rather than simply "we're worried about car bombs." After coming from a proudly cosmopolitan film festival in a country where multiculturalism is official government policy - in fact, on my cab ride to the Vancouver airport that morning, the Indian-born driver had praised Canada for being "safe and multicultural" - I knew I was back in the U.S.
The world seems to have both shrunk and expanded as a consequence of the 9/11 attack and subsequent war. As a writer who has always seen my cinephilia and film criticism as an act of rebellion against the notion that the universe revolves around mainstream American culture, it's scary. There's been a lot of ink spilled about the long-term changes this attack may bring to our culture, with several Hollywood blockbusters being delayed. Many cultural observers have speculated that we're likely to see a return to sweetness and comedy, with fewer violent films.
However, the 1940s brought us Val Lewton's sublimely terrifying horror films and the birth of film noir. The Vietnam War and the assassinations of the 1960s were reflected in a host of late 60s and 70s films, ranging from Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH to George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. What we may need right now is more violence in cinema, not less.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not calling for more films glorifying it or treating it as an excuse for cheap thrills. However, the example of other cultures suggests that it's possible to respond to trauma by exploring the roots and consequences of violence, rather than simply shying away from it. After the attack, I kept thinking of two films: Japanse director Kiyoshi Kuroswa's 1997 horror film CURE (released in the U.S. earlier this year), which may be an allegorical response to the Aum Shrinyiko subway gas attacks, and French director Bruno Dumont's 1999 HUMANITE.
The former revolves around a hypnotist who committs serial murder by proxy, thinking of himself as a therapist who allows his "patients" to find catharsis through violence. Going far beyond the typical serial-killer thriller, CURE suggests that violence is rooted in everyday vulnerability. Serial killers may be terrifying, but very few of us will be unlucky enough to run into one outside fiction. However, it's a certainty that our security and identity will be challenged at least a few times in our lifetime, much as America's sense of itself has been shaken up now. The really scary element in CURE is what happens after this security disappears: someone steps into exploit it and turn it towards violent ends, even though it's rooted in justifiable grievances and anger. Isn't this exactly what both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are masters at doing, or what's behind a civil-rights nightmare like the USA PATRIOT act?
HUMANITE tells the story of a cop ineptly investigating a murder in small-town France. An asexual, laconic man who responds to the world most passionately through the sense of touch, he discovers that death and evil are all around him. (In one of the most horrifying, uterrly unsanitized images of death I've ever seen, Dumont introduces a shot of a girl's corpse through a close-up of her bloodied vagina.) The ambiguous endings of both CURE and HUMANITE suggest a degree of complicity on the part of their investigators.
Here, they resonate with America's supposed loss of innocence. I suspect that what we really lost was naivete about our place in the world, not innocence: a quality our government and corporations never had in the first place. It's the same kind of naivete whose loss HUMANITE, which can be viewed as a Christian allegory about mankind's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, chronicles. So far, it's too early to say whether we've made the same mistake as the cops in these films, possibly perpetuating an ongoing chain of violence in the name of healing. If American filmmakers and other artists eventually get around to asking these crucial questions , I'd be a lot more confident that genuine patriotism and long-lasting generosity and humanism can emerge out of our present confusion.