Drawing light from concrete and smoke

Our appetite for works about Sept. 11 depends on how much pain we have to feel

2001 9/11 2006

Five Years

September 10, 2006|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,[Sun Reporter ]

Now every time I try to sleep I'm haunted by the sound Of firemen pounding up the stairs While we were running down. ...

-- from "The Bravest" by Tom Paxton

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."

Image vs. imagination

The more abstract the art form, the more distant from reality, the more quickly it may produce works that the public will want to see and hear.

"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 members of the public might accept films about Sept. 11 more slowly than they 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.

Ironically, that heightened reality is precisely why the flicks have such a massive 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 collective by United 93 during the first four weeks of their respective runs. (These figures were provided by the Internet Movie Database.)

But audiences didn't see Saving Private Ryan until 1998, a half-century after the Second World War that the movie so grittily depicts.

Films as metaphors

Dan Santoro, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, thinks we're surrounded with works of art and entertainment about Sept. 11 -- but we don't always know it, because the movies and songs deal with the attacks obliquely.

"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.

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