By Mary Carole McCauley
September 10, 2006
Tom Paxton wrote "The Bravest" on Sept. 24, 2001 - a mere 13 days after the Twin Towers fell.
That tune and its unforgettable refrain were played widely for weeks afterward. "The Bravest" became a kind of verbal breakwater for our grief. In just 270 words, it contained the uncontainable.
But audiences still aren't ready to embrace films that explicitly depict the tragedy. The box office receipts from Paul Greengrass' United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center have been lackluster.
So why the different reception? If emotional readiness is the issue, why were we as a society ready for "The Bravest" after two weeks, yet not ready for Flight 93 after five years? And what does that seeming contradiction imply about the likely failure or success in the next few years of other works of art and entertainment dealing with Sept. 11?
Partly, that's because some genres are inherently more concrete and visceral than others. A television show or film might punch viewers in the stomach, while a novel or song taps them on the shoulder. The answer also has to do with the type of story that the artworks choose to tell, and whether the way that story is told makes us more anxious and afraid or offers some hard-won comfort.
"I didn't want to write that song," recalls Paxton from his Alexandria, Va., home. "As I watched the events of that day unfold, I thought, 'This is over my head. I'm not going to touch this.' But, the chorus just came to me, and when it did, I thought, 'I guess I'd better write the verses.'"
No one disputes that the arts have a responsibility to help us cope with the bewildering and complex terrorist assault - sooner or later. Robert Thompson, past president of the International Popular Cultural Association, thinks there's no time like the present.
"Tragedy doesn't have to age like a fine wine before it can be ethically dealt with by art and storytelling," says Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.
"Whenever you've got a big event, there are various institutions that try to make sense of it. Journalists are the foot soldiers who march in and try to get a semblance of facts. Then historians try to put it in a larger perspective. But art can do things that neither journalism nor history can do by converting data into experience."
Yet, even Thompson put off going to see World Trade Center.
"I had to plan a time to submit myself to it," he says. "I kept saying, 'I'm not in the mood tonight.' ... But I didn't come out of it thinking that it had been released too soon."
"Music is so stylized," Thompson says. "Even if the lyrics are quite explicit, the listeners have to make the pictures in their heads."
As Paxton puts it, "A song is portable."
So the public might accept films about Sept. 11 more slowly than it would accept works in another medium. Paintings depict graphic images - think of Pablo Picasso's Guernica - but they are noiseless, odorless and enclosed in a frame. But there's no escaping the giant screens and surround sound in modern movie theaters.
"Movies eliminate most issues of abstraction," Thompson says.
That heightened reality is precisely why the flicks have such a huge following. When sufficient time has elapsed between the event and its rendering, audiences have an appetite for even the most graphic footage.
For instance, Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was hugely popular, and its explicit battle scenes won critical acclaim.
During the first four weeks after Ryan was released, it grossed more than $126 million - more than double the $57 million earned by World Trade Center and nearly seven times the $31 million collected by United 93 during the first four weeks of their respective runs, according to imdb.com.
But audiences didn't see Saving Private Ryan until 1998, a half-century after the Second World War that the movie so grittily depicts.
"I'm fascinated with films that are metaphors for different events," he says. "In the 1950s and '60s, you started getting the Godzilla movies, and they were a metaphor for the atomic bomb. During the Cold War, we had Invasion of the Body Snatchers and all these movies about being infiltrated by aliens.
"Right on the heels of United 93, we got Snakes on a Plane. I can't help thinking that is a metaphor for terrorism, for the passengers and crew struggling with all the people around them who are devoted to their purpose and kill without remorse.
"It's a way for us to deal with our fears without confronting them directly."
It's not surprising, then, that those television shows that merely refer to Sept. 11 have been more successful than have those attempting to re-create the terrorist attacks.
Several weekly series are set in a world on guard against terrorists, and two - 24 and The Unit - are among the top-rated shows.
But so far, no series have been produced that are directly about Sept. 11.
Perhaps that's because none of several television specials, including A&E's Flight 93 and the Discovery Channel's The Flight That Fought Back, has been a huge hit.
It's worth noting that Stone, who is known for his sweeping, mythological interpretations of historic events, departs from his usual formula in World Trade Center.
Instead, he focuses narrowly and without irony on particular acts of courage and endurance.
With his recent book, Terrorist, novelist John Updike became one of the few artists to begin delving into those larger issues.
Though his book is not explicitly about Sept. 11, it was inspired by that day. Terrorist is about an American-born Muslim teenager who is recruited for a suicide mission to blow up Manhattan's Lincoln Tunnel.
The novel stays mostly away from politics. Updike posits psychological motivations for 18-year-old Ahmad's attraction to violence. And yet, the novelist was criticized for making the teen too sympathetic.
"Right now, the only artistic treatments that people will accept are those that depict the survivors and the people killed as heroes," says Melanie Finney, associate professor of communications at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
"I don't think we're ready yet to have artworks that put the bad guys in a sympathetic light. People's emotions are still too raw. We are not ready yet to talk about why this happened in the first place, why the Americans are hated, and the problems we've created in the Middle East."
But she guesses that those sorts of explorations might start occurring in about three years, once the memorial at Ground Zero is dedicated.
"Memorials provide a sense of emotional closure," says Finney, who is writing a book called When Tragedy Strikes the Academy, about how universities have coped with multiple deaths on campus.
"People have something tangible to see and visit, and then they can go back to their regular lives. They can visit the memorial site and grieve, and move on."
When Anne Nelson was writing The Guys, she worried about how to craft the piece without traumatizing the audience.
The Guys, which began as a series of eulogies for 12 firefighters who died when the towers collapsed, became a grass-roots cultural phenomenon. In New York, the two-person play first was performed on Dec. 4, 2001, and attracted a rotating all-star cast that included Sigourney Weaver, Susan Sarandon, Anthony LaPaglia, Tim Robbins, Bill Murray and Helen Hunt. (A film released in 2002 stars Weaver and LaPaglia.) The Guys has been performed in 47 states.
"Most of what has been done about 9/11 stimulates the nervous system, but it leaves out the emotions that would help us to process it," Nelson says. "It was very important for me not to exploit either the firefighters or the audience. I wanted the play to evoke the range of emotions you get at a good Irish wake, from horror to laughter. To do the former recognizes how these men died, and to do the latter honors how they lived."
For the past five years, we have lived in a state of tension and hyper-alertness. The messages we've received from our political leaders have been "be vigilant." Those messages have not been, "Relax. Everything will be OK."
What words of reassurance we have had have come from ... artists and entertainers.
Jay Mechling thinks that explains why Fox's 24 has been such a hit. "The message of 24 is, 'Don't worry. You have good guys in power who can take care of the bad guys," says Mechling, an American history professor at the University of California, Davis.
In The Guys, Nelson creates the same effect in the opening monologue, when the author's stand-in, named Joan, describes her sadness and disbelief as she watches the second tower fall.
But just seven sentences later, Joan describes cuddling a 3-month-old baby.
"I needed to hold that baby," she says. "It was primal. That week, you could have scored big in the rent-a-baby trade."
The audience has permission to laugh. And it does.
"That monologue is about looking the audience in the eye and telling them that they will be safe," Nelson says. "It says: 'We are going to go into a bad place, but I will hold your hand. I won't let you be hurt.'"
What more can we ask from our artists than that?
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