Call 9/11: A decade that began with tragedy ends in a hail of George Clooney?

After Sept. 11, 2001, A Decade Found Its Way

B. Ruby Rich December 23, 2009

On September 13, 2001, I stood in a small park in downtown Toronto, shocked but confident, and spoke to Canadian television: From now on, movies would not be the same, Hollywood and indie films would change completely. Everything would be different. It had to be, didn’t it?

Well, no, as it turned out.

I was wrong.

Writing in The Nation the following month, I made bold predictions. I predicted a rise of paranoid film noir, noting The Manchurian Candidate as one likely model; well, we did get Jonathan Demme’s remake. I predicted a spate of films based on the actual incidents, pointing to the escape from the towers and the flight over Pennsylvania as likely choices; well, Paul Greengrass gave us United 93, Peter Markle did Flight 93 for television, and Oliver Stone cranked up his personal myth-making machine for World Trade Center, but that was about it. The more complex, thoughtful pieces–Antonia Bird’s Hamburg or Reno’s Reno 911 –seemed to go unnoticed. No new genre emerged to deal with a changed world order. Hollywood and independent filmmakers got back to business.

The most widely viewed and discussed piece reflecting on Sept. 11, 2001 was probably the always-expanding internet phenomenon by Dylan Avery (and produced by Korey Rowe and Matthew Brown) titled Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup. Periodically updated or expanded and sent out with new titles, released through the web with Google and YouTube taking the place of a distributor (until recently, when locally based Microcinema International took over), the series of films set a new standard for extreme low-budget, long-tail intervention. Loose Change combined theories generally categorized as the "conspiracy" type, archival footage, and a cadre of experts to supply its own narrative of what happened to the towers on that day. Hint: The mysterious burning of the Reichstag and the alleged attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Tonkin Gulf are touchstones. Linking hackers, internet activists, "divergent thinkers" and young people in its web of truth-seeking, it’s a new kind of documentary entirely. Despite my own ambivalence over its conspiratorial valences, it’s been phenomenally successful with college students and other young people, turning low-fi production once again into a watermark of authenticity. A phenomenon new to this decade, Loose Change shows the still undertapped potential of consumer media production and distribution tools, while it also raises anew the issues of veracity and data interpretation on the web.

I expected that there would be lots of romantic comedies, as Americans tried to set anxiety aside and lose themselves in big-screen reassurance. I was right on that one, but there was little risk: There are always romantic comedies. Sideways, anyone? The 40 Year Old Virgin? Lars and the Real Girl? What I hadn’t foreseen was that the ongoing wars and color-coded terrorist threats would lead to a cycle of romantic comedies in which men would become increasingly infantilized, weak and powerless. To balance that masculinity deficit, George Clooney has been called upon to star in more and more movies every year. Go, George, go. I didn’t predict that, either.

I was so wrong. I thought the decade would be characterized by films really coming to terms with the realities of the world in light of what happened on Sept. 11, a sort of cinematic globalization and cross-border explosion of interest and ideas. Ha. The decade has backed away from any such thing. Where have we ended up? Not just with denial, but in retreat.

Back in 2001, I predicted "diversion, revision, reinvention" as the places to look for a post-9/11 cinema. Frank Rich in the NY Times has characterized the century’s first decade as one of fraud and deception, linking Tiger Woods to Enron. In the SF Chronicle, Kevin Fagan looked at everything from air travel to Y2K to unemployment and declared that it’s been a decade of fear. Looking at the big screen, I’d characterize it as a decade of escapism. A retreat into both the past and the future. Anything to avoid looking too hard at the present. Hollywood has gone back to its age-old function of providing escape, just when we most need it to provide direction. And Sept. 11? As the decade gets reviewed in page after page of end-of-year articles in whatever journals or newspapers are still publishing and whatever websites are still worth reading, the day of infamy barely rates a mention. True, it’s the economy, stupid. And nobody seems to want to look too closely at how those two are linked. No, on the big screen, diversion has trumped most other functions.

Movies in the decade of 9/11 concentrate on the past and the future, but not the real past or the conceivable future. Instead, history steps aside for the past of fantasy: Lord of the Rings, on the one hand; the royals (Elizabeth,* Young Victoria*) on the other. Or the sexiest history of all, the fantasy version of the ’50s made for television sophistication: Mad Men; now there’s a past to retreat into! And then there’s the future, not a reality-based one focused on redistribution of resources or renegotiation of power, but the fantasy future of science fiction and utopian or dystopian dreaming: Children of Men, District Nine, Avatar. Cinema has gone back to its age-old function of providing escape, just when we most need it to provide direction. And into a medium that was barely a glimmer when the decade started: animation, the most glorious escape ever from mud-bound mortality. With Pixar and Dreamworks on board, it’s been a glorious revival. This year alone, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Where the Wild Things Are and Coraline have vied to reimagine childhood musings as places of terror and refuge where you can, in the nick of time, get home again. Funny, though: My favorite animation of the decade was Persepolis, the reality-based Iranian childhood memoir that says just the opposite. Of course, it wasn’t an American production.

By the end of the decade, a considerable packet of war movies have piled up. Many are documentaries, probing Iraq but, dismally, never taking a position on the war itself; some are fiction, with The Hurt Locker taking the lead this year as it immerses viewers in the war through a purely visceral experience, too close to the bone and the nerve to acknowledge any bigger picture. Some retreat to the safety of the one good war, the old one against the Nazis, replaying yet again the only unambiguous battle, this time with all the ambiguity worthy of today (thanks, Quentin, for Inglourious Basterds; and Soderbergh, for The Good German).

I’ll be the first to admit that there are enough films around to construct just about any theory and make it stick. If nothing else, the 2000s have been the years of media proliferation. Did any blockbuster equal the viral reach of lonelygirl15? Did any multiplex have numbers like YouTube? It’s been the decade in which the future of all movies became as imponderable and fantastical as any future in any movie. Bigger or littler, on the screen or on the web or in the cloud, mobile or meta: Take your pick. In the meantime, the real meaning of the decade got reflected in the films that fit none of these rubrics but set about, instead, to make meaning on their own terms.

For me, those were virtually all documentaries or international (non-U.S.) productions, where the micro and the macro were closer together than here at home and where meaning was allowed to marinate, matriculate and mature. Michael Moore became less and less relevant as the decade wore on, his man-of-the-people act wearing thin as the limits of his own nostalgia and rhetorical address became increasingly threadbare. Simone Bitton, the French-Israeli-Moroccan filmmaker, favored understatement, depicting The Wall (Mur) with no editorializing necessary, and Rachel, her documentary on Rachel Corrie’s death, equally dispassionate and subtle until an unfortunate misstep, the inclusion of a white dreaded wannabe rapster spouting a heavy-handed version of her story that shakes viewers’ confidence in what’s come before. Udi Aloni used music in Local Angel to trace common histories of Israelis and Palestinians. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal placed their professionalism in the service of amateur truths in Trouble the Water to explore the man-made tragedy of the destruction of New Orleans. Jennifer Maytorena-Taylor captured the tribulations of being Muslim in America with New Muslim Cool, Alison Maclean focused on the families traumatized by round-ups in Persons of Interest, and my colleague Renee Tajima-Pe¤a spent years recording her husband’s family saga on both sides of the border in Calavera Highway.

New to this decade, however, were attempts to quash documentary altogether, and the more successful the documentary, the fiercer the attempt. Hubert Sauper’s extraordinary doc Darwin’s Nightmare bared the horrors and injustices of life and death in Tanzania. The result was a hate campaign orchestrated by the Tanzanian government and European trade interests, carried out on the web, in the press and in the French courts, with retaliation against everyone who appeared in his film. Finally victorious after two years of court cases, Sauper was discouraged by the time lost as well as the precedent. Since then, two other documentaries have encountered trouble: My Daughter the Terrorist in which the central character, a Sri Lankan mother, was assassinated after the film’s release, and Stolen, an expos‚ of slavery in Polisario refugee camps, which led to the filmmakers’ being deported and challenged at their Sydney premiere by their own subject, flown there by the Polisario to denounce the film. The 2000s may turn out to have been the decade when investigative documentary began to become impossible, as countries seized their own copyright, trademarking themselves.

This isn’t the place to talk about the many magnificent films made this decade, from In the Mood for Love to Brokeback Mountain, from Adaptation to La Cienaga, Tropical Malady to Les t‚moins (The Witnesses), and on and on and on. Magnificent auteurs have arisen and matured, as the individual is increasingly the unit of currency. Cut off from movements, they etch singular visions for our edification, inspiration, succor. I’m a diehard cinephile, so I watch for their names with all the attention I give to other brands that promise quality, satisfaction, pleasure.

But I haven’t forgotten the mission of this essay. What is different this decade? What responds to the 9/11 moment in any meaningful way? I consider the emergence of an extraordinary Palestinian cinema to be the signal trend of the decade. Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains), Rashid Mashawari (Ticket to Jerusalem, Waiting, Laila’s Birthday), Hany Abu-Assad (Ford Transit, Paradise Now), Kamal Aljafari (The Roof, Port of Memory) all have made remarkable films that tread an invisible line between fiction and documentary, hybridizing forms to represent a land that defines such signs and definitions. I couldn’t pick just one. Instead, I’d pick their body of work as an example of how filmmaking at its most brilliant can sketch the contours and hearts of a people, a nation, a moment, and a sensibility while serving, without contradiction or compromise, the highest masters of all: the gods of cinema. For the first decade of the new century–the ten years that I prefer to call the zeros than the oughts or noughties–I’d point to the maturation of a new Palestinian cinema as a true sign of the times.

As the decade closes, talk of technology frequently displaces talk of films: platform convergence, downloads, piracy, the iTunesification of the marketplace. To be sure, we are on the brink of a new kind of medium, a new kind of cinema, a different social network. Hope springs eternal: If only these online explosions can give us perspective, take us into other people’s lives and cultures and hearts, like the best of cinema has always done. I shiver in dread, though, that they will simply spin infinite versions of reality shows, minstrel shows of abjection, consumer giveaways, debt-inspiring supermarkets of desire, shabby formulas of recycled storylines. I fear, and yet I hope. I wait avidly to see what will transpire. To witness it all, and register my applause, and my horror, in print or on line or in whatever comes to take its place. This time around, though, I think I’ll hold off on predictions.

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