The much-discussed United 93 has been in general release for over a month, and so far no one has died from the shock of seeing its events recreated “too soon” after their occurrence. In August, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center will debut, and it has already begun previewing in theaters. Stone is of course renowned as a controversialist, but he has apparently made a film focusing not on politics but on the bravery of some Port Authority police officers on that day.
United 93 and World Trade Center, depicting as they do the responses of innocent Americans to terrorism, should be relatively uncontroversial. Yet just as the opening of United 93 prompted media hand wringing over the film’s timing, Stone’s film has already begun to arouse concern for the tender psyches of American audiences. According to an AP story, when the film’s trailer was released, “producers reportedly sent theater owners a warning that some members of their audiences might find the images upsetting.” Imagine that.
The American moviegoer’s typical evening at the multiplex features a staggering array of images of violence, sex, and criminality, a generous helping of political propaganda, and an unrelenting assault on what Hollywood derides as bourgeois values. Among the smart set, the more customary response to popular concerns about violent or disturbing content is to scoff at the rubes in the sticks and tell them to stay away from the theaters if they can’t handle it. Now the 9/11 films are coming, and their usually intrepid souls have turned to fluffernutter.
One doesn’t have to be a cynic to notice that the rare outbreaks of sensitivity on the part of critics seem to arise for only certain kinds of films. When Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, it caused a firestorm of controversy stemming not only from its portrayal of Jews, but also from its graphic, almost unbearable violence, which some critics compared to pornography (usually, critics are praising a film when they make such comparisons).
Later in 2004, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 prominently featured the attacks in its opening moments, when the roar of the planes’ engines and the sound of their impact into the Trade Center towers were heard against a blackened screen. While the film provoked a blizzard of commentary on the right and the left, I don’t recall Moore being criticized for insensitivity in using the 9/11 attacks to advance a political position. While he was called on the carpet by his critics for his fast and loose way with facts (and is now being sued for misrepresenting a veteran’s views), no one suggested that American audiences somehow couldn’t handle what he was dishing out.
Yet according to one recent news account, a moviegoer (in New York, no less) shouted out “too soon!” when a trailer was shown of United 93. Perhaps I am not giving this individual enough credit for independent thought, but I find it hard to believe that his outburst would have occurred without the media’s first giving currency to such an idea.
ALL OF THIS PUTS ME in mind of my most memorable experience in a movie theater, which provided valuable perspective on what constitutes “upsetting” content.
I saw The Passion one weekday afternoon not long after it opened, at a sparsely filled movie theater in suburban Michigan. Shortly before the coming attractions began, a half dozen elderly nuns in habits entered the theater and sat in the front row. I felt for them when the trailers started. Not only was the volume at decibel level, causing several of them to cover their ears, but the content was the usual Hollywood fare: exploding autos, guns, sex, drugs, crime, bathroom humor, and the rest. The nuns winced and turned away at several points — it seemed likely they hadn’t been inside a theater in years — while the rest of the audience sat unaffected.
Then the feature began, and the audience roles were reversed. Watching the cruelties inflicted on Christ caused many in the theater to turn away, bow their heads, or cover their eyes. A few people walked out. What were the nuns doing during all of this? They sat calmly without flinching, the way the rest of us had during the previews. For them, violence with context and religious meaning, even violence as brutal as that shown in The Passion, was not nearly so difficult to accept as violence devoid of both.
It often seems that American pop culture’s main function since September 11th is to strip meaning from our common experience of that day and sully every effort to draw resolve from its realities. At the same time, the culture holds up the trivial and the marginal as the worthy objects of our loyalties. We tend to yawn, or cheer, through stylized, ironic violence, but we flinch or cry “too soon!” when that violence reminds us that life is not trivial and the world we live in is filled with menace.
The memory of 9/11 has become something of a quasi-religion, and mostly it has a New Age flavor. We’re at home with endless memorial ceremonies, candles, and tears; they’re almost like the clean, neat face of Jesus on postcards. What the nuns knew about Christ, and what we’d best keep in mind about 9/11, is that the dirty side is what matters. That means the sound of the planes, the flames, the bodies falling. If a few filmmakers actually want to take us there, however imperfect their efforts, we should have at least enough spine not to flinch.
And if we can’t even do that, how on earth do we expect to acquire courage in the event of another attack?