Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Persistence of Memory

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

I feel it's unimportant for me to tell you where I was on September 11, 2001.  What I would like to share with you is of May 20, 1997.

My cousin George and I had gone to New York City to see the graduation of his sister, Sylvia.  As part of our New York journey, we saw all the sites, including the World Trade Center.  I remember the massiveness of the buildings.  They were so tall it hurt my back trying to get it all into frame for my video camera.  We rode to the top of the Observation Deck ($10, which horrified our cost-conscious West Texan minds), and saw the city and bay all below us.  It was a beautiful sight, and I recall having no fear, which was odd given I suffer from a slight case of acrophobia.  However, up there, I felt so calm and joyful, even frivolous, all emotions that were erased in the days immediately after September 11th.

It is good to reflect on how ten years have passed, but a decade is not long enough to erase the pain from all those murdered at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  A lifetime may not be enough time to bring full peace to the fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands, and wives left behind.  One can continue to pray for them and for the hope that the goodness within man will overcome the darkness within man.

I hope we remember that those murdered on this dark day were from all backgrounds: men, women, and children (the youngest victim was only three years old: Dana Falkenberg, aboard American Flight 77 that was rammed into the Pentagon), liberals and conservatives, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Jews (despite the insidious myth that they received a tip-off and called in sick en masse), Christians, and Muslims.  Despite the protestations of those who committed and planned the mass killing, they were as Islamic as the Nazis were Christian. Whatever compassion, whatever love, whatever respect for our fellow man God placed within us was lost on these men who deceived themselves into thinking they were doing the will of The Creator.

I digress to point out that the only Muslims I know personally are A.) politically liberal, B.) in a marriage where the wife appears to be the stronger partner, and C.) are passionate about Gossip Girl.  Not exactly jihadist material I'd argue.

All those who committed, planned, and supported the goals of the murderers are no different from the sad history of fascists everywhere, determined to impose their will on the world entire.  They can use the guise of religiosity to mask their sins, but in truth their worldview is that might makes right, they they are entitled to decide what is right and wrong, what is moral and immoral, with no discussion or recourse to anyone who disagrees with them.  The world they wish to build was that of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where music is banned, the only cheer allowed is the Takbir ("Allahu Akbar--God is Great"), and women can be executed for having painted their fingernails.  It is an insidious world, where the treasures of the past, such as the Bamyan Buddhas, could be destroyed merely because it was decreed 'idolatry' (despite the lack of Buddhists in Afghanistan).  How kite flying is offensive to God no one has yet answered.

This is an evil world, a dark world, one that must never come to be.

As this is a film review site, it should be remembered that the Taliban wished to destroy all traces of Afghan cinema, and it was only through courage and subterfuge that whatever remains of the film history of this troubled land still exists.  However, now I turn to the American cinema.

Even after ten years, is it too soon to make films about September 11, 2001?  I do not think so.  There was talk that United 93, the first feature film about September 11th and made in 2006, was made too soon after the events dramatized.  It should be noted that United 93 does not deal with the World Trade Center itself but with the only flight to not hit its intended target (either the Capital or the White House).    Both United 93 and World Trade Center (also in 2006), were restrained and respectful in dealing with their stories (granted, there are inaccuracies but there will always be in non-documentary films). 

In the realms of documentaries, those that deal with the events are some of the moving films made.  9/11, the film by brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, wasn't meant to be about the attacks.  In a twist of history, their film about the first year of rookie New York firefighters just happened to be there to capture the point of view from the first responders: the professionalism in which they handled this unbearable crisis, as well as the human pain inflicted on them and the civilians within the World Trade Center. 

Another brilliant film is the HBO documentary In Memoriam New York City 9/11/01.  Here, we get the stories of those on the ground, ranging from New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani (I digress to say that despite all his flaws and failings, his handling of this day and those immediately after was his finest hour), to his staff and other city officials.  I know a few New Yorkers, and they're a tough lot, but when push comes to shove they lean on each other and draw strength from their toughness and determination to make something better. 

Even a short film like Twin Towers (2003 Best Documentary Short Subject winner), the story of two brothers: a firefighter and a police officer on that day, still create an emotional impact that feature films may not because a documentary is more real than a fiction film. 

Whether filmmakers believe the emotions surrounding September 11th are still too raw for viewers I do not know.  What I do see are two trends that trouble me.  I see in terms of documentaries, a perverse need to shift blame away from those actually responsible (Al-Qaeda and their associates and sympathizers) to those whom they think would be capable of such barbarism (the second Bush Administration/the United States itself).  The most insidious is Loose Change, which purports to tell "the truth" about the September 11th attacks as this mass conspiracy for financial gain.  Among some of its more bizarre claims is that United Flight 93 did not crash in Pennsylvania, but arrived safely in Cleveland. 

The effects of Loose Change and other 'documentaries' that purport to support the "9/11 Truthers" (whom I hold in as much contempt as I do the "Birthers", those convinced President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus an illegal/illegitimate President) is to cheapen the truth they say they are in search of.  Just as JFK has solidified in the minds of Americans that there was a mass conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy (as opposed to the actual truth that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone), Loose Change and their ilk encourages a mindset that the acts of that day weren't what we actually saw: that World Trade Center One and Two were brought down by controlled explosions (thus, they were detonated and it was an inside job) rather than by cold-blooded murderers using Islam as their twisted motive. 

I can only wonder if the people behind the 9/11 Truthers don't think out the logical conclusions to their beliefs.  They believe the American government, including their most hated nemesis, President George W. Bush, planned out a single-day mass murder of monstrous proportions.  It shouldn't be a surprise if they hold such thoughts as articles of truth (no pun intended), given such films as Bush Family Fortunes: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and the gold standard for anti-Bush tirades, Fahrenheit 9/11.  I'll let history judge President Bush, but when you start promoting your beliefs and prejudices as facts, we run the risk of passing myth as truth, and to my mind it is a disservice to those who died that day to declare that Bush knew ahead of time that people were going to be murdered (or worse, that he was a willing accomplice) or that people like Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham and the other passengers on United 93 didn't give their lives so that others might live but got to the Cleveland Airport alive and well. 

One more point on the documentary films involving September 11th.  There is the film Chile: The OTHER September 11 (emphasis mine).  It is about the coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende, putting General Augusto Pinochet in power.  My concern here is that there will be a parallel drawn between a violent overthrow of an elected government and the wholesale slaughter of civilians by jihadists.  Both acts were horrific, but while one has proof of American complicity, the other does not.

Finally, in regards to feature films of September 11th, I find that now the events are being used as more backdrop than about the horror and barbarism (as well as courage) of the day itself.  In Dear John, the attacks horrify our lovers, and in a perverse way appear to exist only to interrupt a "beautiful" love story.  In Remember Me, September 11th again only serves another love story, this time ending it.  Is there something wrong with such endeavours?  Well, I can say that many marriages and partnerships were cut short because of that day, but to my mind, it only brings to mind the Michael Bay film Pearl Harbor, which wasted so much time building itself up as this epic love story that when we got to the actual attack, the bombing of the naval base appeared to be almost incident to the overall story. 

A great film about September 11th is yet to be made.  We have no Bridge on the River Kwai, no All Quiet on the Western Front, no Mrs. Miniver or The Best Years of Our Lives or From Here to Eternity to capture the courage of those who went in as the towers burned, the tenacity of the American character, the hope that out of death there may come life, a better and more peaceful one for the world.  Perhaps that film will be made by the generation that follows those of us who lived it or lived through it, who may be able to see things from the distance of time.  It took nearly sixty years to make the definitive film about D-Day (Saving Private Ryan, though The Longest Day is hardly a bad film), and Schindler's List from 1993 is following in such films as Fred Zinneman's  The Search from 1948 and The Diary of Anne Frank from 1959.

I don't see anything wrong with tying fictional stories to September 11th.  We tie fictional stories to other terrible events from history, so why exclude this day?  Granted, a comedy will be extremely hard to make (let alone watch), but to never write or tell stories of that day would to me be a disservice to memory and history.  It is one of the most pivotal moments in history, and to not tell stories would to my mind be saying it didn't have an impact on us.  Silence is not respect.

It may all be too soon for us now to focus our cameras on September 11, 2001, but focus we must.  We cannot allow the various stories that need to be told to be forgotten.  It is easy to put that day aside.  Most of us were not directly affected in that we do not know anyone personally who was murdered that day.  However, we owe it to their memory to never allow ourselves to forget: both the evil man is capable of and the courage and kindness man is capable of. 

Now, ten years on, we see that time allows us to move.  We still laugh and sing and go on.  It is the way of life.  It is what we do.  I end my personal reflections on September 11, 2001 and on cinematic works about that day with this: I hope to live long enough to see a great and moving film about the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, and hope also to live long enough to see people truly see that the things that separate us are smaller than the things that unite us.


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