Friday, April 28, 2006

United 93: Art, film, and national trauma

Though I'm a great admirer of the TV show Law & Order, I've always found NBC's favorite teaser for that show's episodes, "Ripped from today's headlines," to have a crassness of tone considerably at odds with the quality of its writing. The show's appeal lies not in the fact that many of the show's plots are indeed based on cases that have recently occurred, but in the fact that, even years after our memory of the news accounts of those cases has faded, the show's treatment of that material still retains a weight, an oomph that, sorry, you AP wireservice writers out there, those news stories lost long ago. It's not the events but their telling that we remember and admire.

But Law & Order's narratives are about local matters, no matter how nationally- or culturally-pertinent their themes. National narratives, especially traumatic ones, are another matter entirely. Over at Cup o' Joel, a well-written blog worthy of your visits, fellow Kansan Joel Mathis recently posted a commentary on the soon-to-be released film United 93. Well, not so much the film as the context in which it's being released. I happen to agree with his sentiments; indeed, just before I read his post this morning, I had posted the following over on the House of Leaves boards, where a small discussion about the film has begun:

My wife and I saw a trailer for the film night before last--as we've been seeing them for the past couple of weeks now--and she asked me what I thought about "all that."

In principle I'm not opposed to the idea of making films about events such as this--I'm not sure about Marsjams' tone above, but I'll just say here that I do think some things are worth dying for and it's valuable to be reminded of that--but my own feeling is that in the case of this film, it's just too soon. Not that one can or should ever be truly objective and clinical in one's thinking about national traumas, but my personal sense of things is that we're still trying to clarify for ourselves just how that day has affected us as a nation and, even more important, what our proper response(s) should be to it. I have doubts that this or any film about that day, right now, will help in that process, and the making of money off this only makes "all this" more, not less, problematic.

And with regard to the appealing of the "R" rating and all that that implies: Here's a suggestion: if the makers and studio truly want to honor the event depicted, I propose they put their money where their collective mouth is and not charge admission. Show their film in stadiums and throw the doors open. What SHOULD matter for them is an audience, not a paying audience. What's the never-to-be-recovered expense of a few tens of millions of dollars compared to paying tribute to the never-to-be-recovered lives of the thousands of people who died that day?

Lurking about in all this, hard to see because of our constant associations between commercial film-making and money, is the question of what is, or should be, the place of Art in depicting moments of national trauma.

One of Joel's commenters notes that Art has the potential to clarify our thinking about such events and that this film might accomplish that--something that I sort of acknowledge without directly stating it above. But as I say above: the question is not the choice of subject matter; the question is its timing and whether it is too soon for this film to engage us emotionally without blinding us rationally. In other words: is it too soon to make effective Art out of the complex materials of this event?

Back in January, my good online friend Raminagrobis asks this same question regarding recent novels that use the events of 9/11 in his post "Too Loud and Too Close", and he intriguingly (given the literal meaning of "novel") reaches the following conclusion:
Though we no longer have to think of novels as totalities, fully realised worlds in which no element is otiose and all contributes to the perfection of the form, we retain the (perhaps outmoded) conviction that a novel should represent a unity, an aesthetic whole. I think that the intrusion of the present, in all its stupid, brute meaninglessness, fractures that unity irreparably. It is not only a problem of perspective – of our blindness towards outcomes distorting our view of things – it is a question of form. If vision is style (and it is: ‘Le style,’ wrote Flaubert (I think), ‘est une vision du monde.’), I might call this an astigmatism of form.

Grobie of course is more concerned with the novel-as-form here, but personally I'd give more weight in this matter to the audience's response to the intrusion of the present. Speaking for myself as a reader, there's something about the novel's written-ness that makes that intrusion seem more controlled, more mediated--more akin, in other words, to Wordsworth's definition for poetry: emotion recollected in tranquility. It's startling, that intrusion of the present, yes: but I'd argue that the novel can handle it; the question is whether the reader can.

Film, though, is another matter entirely, it seems to me: its text is image. It's a scripted and thus written image; but the audience's act of processing that image is a very different, much more direct one compared to the act of processing a written text. There have been no outcries against the novels Grobie mentions that I'm aware of. But much of the reluctance that many feel about United 93 has to do precisely with the nature of the medium itself, no matter how honorably its makers have depicted those events.

In a very real way, we won't be able to watch United 93 for a very long time. But I do think we're ready to read about it, if novelists are ready to write about it.

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Raminagrobis said...

Thoughtful post, there.

On the question of whether it is 'too soon' to make art out of this traumatic event: Tennyson wrote The Charge of the Light Brigade a matter of months after the event; Picasso painted Guernica immediately after the bombing. Those events were both national traumas, and the artistic responses to them were lasting, and important.

But I think you're right about the problems in this case. I must admit I haven't myself seen a trailer for this film, or anything about it really, but as I mentioned in the thread you refer to, I have some confidence in the director after his work on Bloody Sunday (a well-received film about a different national trauma). I don't necessarily think that the problem is with the filmic medium itself; it is with the Hollywood industry.

But perhaps this particular event is ultimately resistant to artistic representation, for many different reasons: we watched it live, we have all been exposed to those images, and we still don't know what to make of them; we still don't quite know how to define it, and we still don't know what that 'war' is for, or who the enemy is, or whether it is really going on...

I'll reserve judgement for now.

R. Sherman said...

What goes around . . . I just finished a book called Pacific Alamo by John Wukovits. It's about the fall of Wake Island to the Japanese in December 1941. Hollywood did a movie about it starring Robert Preston and William Bendix in 1942.

The purpose of the film, of course, was to galvanize support for the war.

My guess is, the purpose of United 93 is to make money.


poco said...

What constitutes "art" and/or purpose in film making? If it costs a lot to make, or if it makes alot of money, is the film then not art or not socially conscious?
If David Lynch made this film, would it then be art?

Regardless of how we feel about the commercialization of United 93, I think you are raising a bigger question here. If an art object is intended for mass consumption, does that lessen the work's artistic intent?

What about the audience's role? Has the film and content been "dumbed down" or simplified to accomodate the "average" viewer?

Sorry, I appear to have asked more questions than left answers. In any case, I'll be waiting until the DVD makes its way to Netflix before I see this film.

Joel said...

John: Thanks for the shout-out.

One thing I struggled with in all of this is that I don't want to engage in censorship -- if Paul Greengrass thinks now is the right time for "United 93," then by all means it's his right to do so, and far be it from me or anybody else to tell him not to.

But just because somebody makes something doesn't mean I have to consume it. (That's a crass word when it comes to artistic endeavours, but it's the best one I've got.) In this case, I'm not ready to do so.


R. Sherman said...

John, upon further reflection, I posted what started out as a lengthy comment to your post.