Symbols that bleed: Movies, reality collide

Though many s fail to distinguish between special effects and the monstrous horror of terrorism, Americans can tell the difference.


September 16, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In movies, symbolism is easy; reality is hard; and symbols that are imbued with and illuminate reality are close to miraculous.

When they were collaborating on the screenplay to The African Queen, the great critic and screenwriter James Agee told John Huston that Bogart and Hepburn's trip up the river could symbolize the act of love. Huston responded: "Oh, Christ, Jim, tell me something I can understand. This isn't like a novel. This is a screenplay. You've got to demonstrate everything, Jim. People on the screen [are already] symbols. You can't have symbolism within symbolism."

Huston's insight was profound -- and never more daunting than it is today. Movies' saturation with symbolism makes it difficult to talk of them in relation to atrocities like those of last Tuesday without trivializing the human cost and playing into the terrorists' game plan.

Third-world extremists have always inveighed against American "cultural imperialism." This time they made a direct hit.

With nihilistic sociopathy, the men who struck at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon planned on having Americans reel at their movie-derived symbolism as well as at their carnage.

They wanted us to regard them as a mixture of King Kong and the aliens of Independence Day and the slimy guerrillas who took over a high-rise and hijacked an airport in Die Hard and Die Hard 2. And they wanted us to feel we brought this on ourselves, not just because of any supposed Yankee atrocities, but also because of the violent entertainment that we've helped spread throughout the globe.

Real destruction

Luckily, only some pundits and terrorists believe that Americans can't distinguish between the destruction of beloved national symbols and the extinguishing of beloved citizens. Only some pundits and terrorists believe that Americans can't distinguish between the effects of pop mayhem and actual pain and suffering.

Remember the sorrow that swept through the nation after the Challenger catastrophe? Years of watching space ships blow up on cellulloid didn't inure us to the awful sight of the space shuttle burning up seconds after liftoff. And years of watching terrorists portrayed as cartoon villains and our landmarks treated as comic-book targets will not inure us to Tuesday's tragedies or nudge our outrage into panic or in any way sully the purity and depth of our grief and mourning.

One mainstream American movie did attempt in recent years to grapple seriously with terrorism. Unfortunately it was The Siege, a movie in which the effects of Arab-terrorist attacks on New York City were diverted into the side issue of government forces rounding up Arab-Americans the way they did Japanese-Americans in World War II.

The movie flopped partly because of its ludicrous premise. We know how grievous a mistake it was to intern Japanese-Americans; another roundup like that is not going to happen here. Indeed, Tuesday night, each time a government spokesman or a TV anchor referred to Arabs or Muslims, they hastened to specify that they were talking about radical or extremist elements among Islamic fundamentalists.

The genuine contribution moviemakers could make to adult audiences right now has nothing to do with political correctness and ethnic sensitivities. It would be, finally, to give us a look at terrorism that unflinchingly confronts all the human and material wreckage. Perhaps then moviemakers could bring home the difference between military action -- even military overkill -- and the arbitrary mass murder of civilians.

Killing innocents

When the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo made his masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, about the Algerian uprising of 1954-57, he set out to record the heroic sacrifices of Algerian revolutionaries. But he chillingly depicted both their ruthless infiltration of the Casbah and the French paratroopers' canniness and willingness to stop at nothing to prevent the overthrow of their colonial power.

London Guardian critic Derek Malcolm selected the film as one of his 100 best a year ago, noting: "In one scene, a group of ordinary people, French and Algerian, are enjoying coffee and conversation near the Casbah when a rebel bomb explodes among them. The shock of this sequence is even worse than the scenes of the French using torture." Malcolm sounds surprised; he shouldn't be. The slaughter of innocents is always more devastating than the battles and power games of military enemies, no matter how vile their tactics. The inclusion of this scene is what makes Pontecorvo an artist.

Near the end of World War II, when the documentation of Nazi atrocities began spilling out into newsreels, James Agee argued that showing them in theaters would be an anti-humanitarian act that would lead to the condemnation of all Germans as a people. Historically and morally, he was wrong.

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