When the terror came it was exactly as we imagined it would be, largely because the movies had prepared us. “It was like a movie,” people kept uttering blankly. The planes roaring into the World Trade Center, the fireball, the rescue mission, the grim presidential address, the awful devastation — all seemed plagiarized from a score of disaster movies.
The aftermath seemed familiar, too: the painstaking investigation and search for suspects, the arrests, the girding for military action. Even the terrorists’ faces were recognizable. We had seen them before on the screen screaming at terrified airplane passengers and shoving them around.
None of this may have been entirely accidental. The terrorists had their Al Qaeda manual for the logistics of the operation, but they had the movies for its images. They seemed to draw on those images, making their very own real-life movie, as if to say to Hollywood that after all those years of the American film industry creating entertainment out of terror, the chickens were coming home to roost. Making those images real was their sick and sickening joke. As I wrote last week in the New York Times, this was terror designed with an audience in mind.
But if the terrorists followed the Hollywood template with a kind of exactitude, the American people, and New Yorkers in particular, transcended it. In fact, there weren’t any movie models for them to follow. Ever since the film industry started chasing the all-mighty 18- to 24-year-old demographic, American movies have had a difficult time with sentiment. Contemporary Hollywood is largely about cynicism and superiority over emotion, not a concession to it.
So when firefighters and policemen from around the country began streaming into New York to aid in the rescue, when ordinary citizens lined up for blocks at blood banks or collected clothing and medicine and food or sent in donations while others cooked meals for the rescuers or opened their homes to those left homeless by the attack, the actions didn’t summon movie antecedents. Indeed, as plot elements, the acts of sacrifice would have seemed implausible if not foolhardy. In what movie would a fireman charge into a burning building fairly knowing that the odds of survival were virtually nil?
Nor was there any real Hollywood frame of reference for the scale of collective action in which Americans partook. Hollywood has always been the territory of the lone operator or, at best, the small team of operatives. It could never really capture the sense of an entire nation galvanized into action, a nation forged into a community. In effect, then, what we have gotten over the last three weeks has been the largest and most moving reality show of all, though not the show the terrorists had intended and not one contemporary Hollywood could have produced.
To those who hate the film industry, it may be tempting to use this disparity between the Hollywood-inspired terrorist “film” and the non-Hollywood “film” of national purpose both to hold Hollywood partially responsible for the Sept. 11 attack and to demonstrate how inadequately the film community has provided positive images for America. Surprisingly only Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have issued this criticism publicly and even that was indirect, aimed at secularism generally.
Such finger-pointing would also be spurious. Hollywood has usually handled violence better than it has handled emotion not because Hollywood loves violence so much — though filmmakers and young audiences apparently do — or because destruction looks so good on the screen — though it does — but because violence is so compatible with the medium in another, even more profound way.
As the literary scholar Michael Wood once explained in his book, America in the Movies, what our films have always done is present problems only to paper them over with easy solutions — a process that drives some intellectuals to distraction. Escapism, they sniff, with some justice. Our most popular movies do not purport to wrestle with reality any more than our most popular novels do. They are a displacement — a way of either distracting us from reality or, more often, of neutralizing it. Or put another way, our movies create nightmares only to transform them into dreams.
Disaster films and terrorist thrillers that trade in threats and destruction are perfectly suited for this function; films about personal sacrifice are not. The former entertain us by first terrifying us and then by removing the terror, usually through the agency of a hero. Justice triumphs. Order is restored. Our fear is purged. We leave the theater feeling empowered. When the terror becomes real, however, as happened on Sept. 11, that old mechanism is subverted because we know that no matter how much we may try to suspend our disbelief we cannot fully neutralize the destruction and loss of life lingering in our minds.
What in the movies is casual mass murder, provided to up the ante for the villains’ comeuppance, in real life is unspeakable tragedy. By using the imagery of the terror movie, the terrorists may have, at least temporarily, removed the catharsis from the genre — though at the same time, ironically, they may have put it in real life. Conditioned by the movies, we keep expecting a triumphant ending.
Still, the terror of terror places a new onus on Hollywood. In the short term, the formula of mass destruction, which has been the most reliable moneymaker for years, isn’t likely to be very entertaining. But there is now a new alternative: the movie of mass construction. We know because we’ve been watching it, starring ordinary Americans performing acts of extraordinary kindness and courage. This one may not play on your neighborhood screens. It has been playing out in life, and Hollywood is likely to find that it’s a very tough show to compete with.