Sunday, July 03, 2005

Is 9/11 no longer a movie taboo?

Warning: The following is likely to be controversial, and also discusses elements of at least two recently released major films that should definately by considered major spoiler material.

As we're all aware when it comes to movies, especially "mainstream" Hollywood releases, there are certain things that while not against any of the MPAA rules you're just "not supposed to do." For the last five years, the #1 top entry on that list has certainly been using 9/11 imagery as any kind of referential counterpoint. Exceptions exist, of course, for serious or topical films and even then ONLY in the most tasteful and sombre way.

Above all else, a certain "universal understanding" has prevailed: You're "not supposed to" use the visual touchstones of 9/11 as an element of emotional manipulation for a fictional onscreen event. Or, in plain english: It's been understood as "wrong" or "too soon" to deliberately render something in your movie in resemblance to 9/11 iconography in order to stir the audience's collective emotional memory to help the onscreen goings-on achieve a desired emotional effect. It would be "callous, too soon and grossly innapropriate," right? This is where we've, for the most part, been for a long time now.

But now, here we have "War of The Worlds," which BLUNTLY evokes the key iconography of 9/11 in tremendously powerful ways. There's been no official yes or no from Spielberg, of course, but LOTS of people are picking up on this and in my opinion there's simply no way most of this could be an accident: "WOTW" seems very obviously to base the "look and feel" of it's Alien attacks on the "look and feel" of 9/11 and it's aftermath, and it does so to (I think) striking dramatic effect.

Consider, first, the obvious parts: Unlike most big action spectacles where the visual keynote of mass-destruction is fiery explosions, WOTW is all about ash (from death ray blasted humans) and gray concrete dust. Amid the initial Alien attack, Cruise's Ray Ferrier is shown not so much as fleeing the Tripod itself, but fleeing the massive cloud of dust and ash it causes. I can't see how it can be overlooked or explained away, that the results serve to deftly mirror the ash-strewn streets and the crashing "wave of dust" we all remember from the captured footage of the day. Later, scenes showing hastily-assembled camps for refugee humans covered with colorful, hand-made signs seeking missing loved ones extremely reminiscient of the same purpose signs that covered much of NY post-attack. Finally, the film twice returns to the surreal image of empty human clothing drifting down from the sky in a manner that recalls the slow showers of office paper that continued long after the towers fell.

And then the more subtle possible inferences: The film never leaves the geography of a largely straight line between the New York and Boston areas... the destination and origin of the hijacked 9/11 planes. When the Ferrier family bunks down for the night in a basement, they awake to find huge sections of the neighborhood crushed by planes that have fallen from the sky. The big "this is bigger than we thought" reveal is that the Tripod war machines have been waiting buried underneath Earth's soil for a long time... "sleeper cells," perhaps?

I don't mean any of this as criticism, just observation. This is Speilberg's stock in trade after all, no? His ability to understand and use the visual and thematic touchstones of his audience's collective minds to increase emotional investment in his films. This is why "Schindler's List" looks like the b&w photographs by which most people already "know" the holocaust, and why "Saving Private Ryan's" battle scenes mirror the hand-held look of WWII-era archival footage. It's my arithmetic that "War of The Worlds" looks like 9/11 because 9/11 is now our #1 go-to mental picture of what we "know" mass-scale tragic devastation looks like.

What I'm asking is, since WOTW has now come out and seems well on the way to being a boxoffice success using this formula... does this mean that "thou shalt reference 9/11 for dramatic effect" commandment has now been retired? Will WOTW and Summer 2005 be remembered, then, as the movie and the year wherein in finally became "okay" to deal with the memory of 9/11 in abstract or even allegorical ways? If so, what does that mean? Will ash-clouds and softly-drifting debris now replace fireballs and clashing steel as the action-movie "ka-boom" effects of choice? Does it mean we're that much closer to films set around or in relation to the attacks or, even a 911 movie?

Come to think of it, we may have already crossed this line earlier this summer. What about some of the subtle post-911 era concepts at work in "Batman Begins?" Amid the main thrust of Batman's origin is a big villian plot with an eerily familiar ring to it: A shadow army of moralistic terrorists seek to destroy a "corrupt and decadent" Western city by instilling widescale panic among the citizens, a key element of which involves driving a hijacked mass-transport vehicle into a massive corporate tower that dominates the skyline. The terrorist mastermind behind the plot, it must be noted, hides out in a remote mountain range and even has an Arabic name: Ra's Al Ghul ("The Demon's Head.")

Anyway, thats what I think. I'd like to hear what some of you think: Am I seeing things that aren't there or am I onto something? And, if so, is this a good development? A bad one?

1 comment:

Wesley said...

I'm not really sure if it is a good thing or bad thing. People try to liken this to the countless parables and satires during the Vietnam era. Thing is it sure didn't hurt then. Now do films have the same skill as they did back then to make a good and subtle statement. We shall see.