NYTimes: American Culture after 9/11

In 10th Anniversary on September 10, 2011 at 7:36 am

“Outdone by Reality”

VIDEO: Artists Reflect on Sept. 11 »


Ten years ago Don DeLillo wrote that the attacks of Sept. 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 (yes, that’s how many of us watched movies back then) placed warnings on some films — “in light of the events of Sept. 11, please note that this product contains scenes that may be disturbing to some viewers” — but violent pictures continued to top most-rented lists. Despite rumors of their demise, black humor and satire, too, remained alive and well on “Saturday Night Live” and The Onion, which ran headlines like “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York.”

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 — like an increasingly toxic polarization in our politics, and an alarming impulse to privilege belief over facts — 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, and which magnified the forces of democratization, relativism and subjectivity.

Economic worries — sparked by 9/11 and amplified by the 2008 Wall Street meltdown — accelerated trends already in place, including the Internet’s undermining of old business models in music and publishing. Warier than ever of taking risks, Hollywood looked even harder for special-effects extravaganzas that could readily find a global audience, and Broadway doubled down on shows starring big-name celebrities that could guarantee advance box office.

In response to 9/11, the artistic community quickly mobilized. Jane Rosenthal, Craig Hatkoff and Robert De Niro put together the Tribeca Film Festival (which had its 10th anniversary this spring) to help revitalize 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” and Anne Nelson’s earnest play “The Guys.” Such works served useful purposes — cathartic commemoration, therapeutic expression, public rallying — 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” and David Hare’s “Stuff Happens”; unfortunately, a lot of it turned out to be obvious or shrill. Terrorist plots popped up on TV shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI: NY,” while new counterterrorism-themed shows like “The Unit,” “Sleeper Cell” and the forthcoming “Homeland” proliferated.

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; Gregory Burke’s haunting play “Black Watch,” based on interviews with soldiers who served in Iraq with a Scottish regiment; Amy Waldman’s novel “The Submission,” which explored the fallout of 9/11 on American attitudes toward Muslims; Donald Margulies’s play “Time Stands Still,” about the Iraq war’s effects on two journalists and their relationship; and Eric Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman,” a bronze sculpture commemorating those who fell or jumped to their deaths from the twin towers (it was removed from Rockefeller Center after complaints that it was too disturbing, too soon).

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,” or the sweep of Mr. DeLillo’s “Underworld,” which captured the entire cold war era. 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.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

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 this respect, it may be decades before larger narratives (concerning American vulnerability and American decline) surface as animating ideas in ambitious works of art. Then again, Picasso created “Guernica” in 1937, only weeks after the savage bombing of that town during the Spanish Civil War.

In the meantime, a lot of post-9/11 culture seems like a cut-and-paste version of pre-9/11 culture — or a more extreme version of it. 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 its march, 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. Even things thought, after 9/11, to be verboten — like blowing up New York for a big-screen thrill — soon made a comeback: In “Cloverfield” (2008), the Statue of Liberty is decapitated as a monster trashes the city.

For that matter, the last decade often seemed to be all about recycling. Old television shows (“Get Smart,” “Miami Vice”) and comic books (“Spider-Man,” “X-Men”) were recycled into films. Old movies (“Arthur,” “The Karate Kid”) were remade. Jukebox musicals were assembled onstage from old pop songs (“Jersey Boys” and “Rock of Ages”), and vintage soul and roots rock enjoyed a revival.

“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.” Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” features a hero named Oskar, who resembles the hero of the same name in Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum.” 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.” Why this eagerness to pour new content into old vessels? In “Retromania,” Mr. Reynolds suggests technology in the 2000s contributed to a “fading of the artistic imperative to be original.” In the case of 9/11 novels, familiar forms may also provide narrative strategies for artists trying to subdue an event that seemed to defy representation — one that reminds us of Philip Roth’s 1961 observation that American reality stupefies and infuriates the writer because it is “continually outdoing our talents.”

No doubt this is why many powerful works to emerge about 9/11 and its aftermath have been documentary or fact-based. In the past, with traumatic subjects like Vietnam and AIDS, this has been the trajectory over time: News accounts and witness testimony give way to memoirs, which in turn give way to more metaphorical works of the imagination.

While writers struggled to find words to describe the unimaginable, photographers captured the devastation of 9/11 with visceral eloquence. “Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs,” a project that invited everyone from professional photographers to regular New Yorkers to share their images, created a choral portrait of the city through personal acts of bearing witness.

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” similarly 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” (using video shot that day by Jules and Gedeon Naudet) 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, trying to make a chaotic nightmare yield an inspirational story with the soothing illusion of closure.

In fact, 9/11 poses distinct challenges to the artist. As with Mr. Stone’s movie, there is the danger of trying to domesticate an overwhelming tragedy. There is also the question of presumption: How does one convey the enormity of the event without trivializing it? How does one bend art forms more often used for entertainment or artistic expression toward the capturing of history?

In “On the Transmigration of Souls,” the composer John Adams used taped sounds of New York to create what he called a “memory space” in which the audience could mourn. In his novel “The Zero,” Jess Walter used a Kafkaesque sense of the absurd to conjure the post-traumatic stress disorder the nation suffered. And in their TV series “Rescue Me,” Denis Leary and Peter Tolan looked directly at the post-9/11 lives of firefighters for whom “normal is dead and buried underneath ground zero.”

All too often, however, artworks keyed to 9/11 felt mercenary or narcissistic. Craig Wright’s play “Recent Tragic Events” was a slick romantic comedy about a blind date that takes place the day after 9/11, and Neil LaBute’s “The Mercy Seat,” also set on Sept. 12, used the attacks as an excuse for another of his cynical treatises on the venality of man. Novelists were equally solipsistic, using 9/11 as a plot point, as a mirror of their characters’ inner lives, or as a device to try to inject importance into otherwise slender stories. In Helen Schulman’s “A Day at the Beach,” 9/11 leads a hip downtown couple to reassess their marriage. And in Frédéric Beigbeder’s “Windows on the World,” a fictional storyline about a man and his sons caught in the World Trade Center on 9/11 is crassly intercut with the intellectual musings of a self-important narrator.

Fantasies and Forerunners

Sept. 11 and the emotions it generated — fear, anger, a desire for revenge — also fueled the success of several entertainment franchises. The hit counterterrorism show “24,” its co-creator Joel Surnow told the New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, 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.

In the case of the Syfy Channel’s remake of “Battlestar Galactica” — which depicted some humans who survive an attack by enemy robots — its executive producer Ronald D. Moore noted that many plot elements were “informed by the 9/11 experience and the war on terrorism.” Fans of Microsoft’s hugely popular video game “Halo,” in which humans face off against an alliance of alien species bent on holy war, have also pointed to parallels between the aliens and Al Qaeda.

For that matter, 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. There was a lot of intellectualizing about all this: arguments that the fantasy boom embodied Americans’ need for escapism after 9/11; that superhero sagas offered audiences a way to process the tragedy; that vampires, like terrorists, pose a deadly threat but often hide in plain sight. 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, as do the first “Star Wars” movies. Curiously, the best-known terrorist-themed movies remain ones made before 9/11, including “Air Force One” (1997), “True Lies” (1994), “Patriot Games” (1992) and “Die Hard” (1988). Some of the works of art that would prove the most resonant in the post-9/11 world also turn out to have been written before the attacks. Tony Kushner began work on his play “Homebody/Kabul,” which unfolds into an examination of the West’s relationship with Afghanistan, back in 1997. And such early Don DeLillo novels as “Mao II” (1991) did a more prescient job of conjuring the post-9/11 era — in which terrorists have changed “the rules of what is thinkable” — than the flimsy novels he wrote after the attacks.

It is another measure of how resistant 9/11 remains to artistic treatment that several of the more memorable artworks that captured the city’s sense of loss did so by indirection. Colum McCann’s novel “Let the Great World Spin” focuses on New York City in 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between the twin towers on a tightrope. And Ric Burns’s documentary “The Center of the World” and Camilo José Vergara’s photographs on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York make us re-experience the loss of the World Trade Center by recounting its history.

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 realized 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. The largest public art project in the city’s history, 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.”

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