The evolving images of 9/11
It's in art and pop culture's peripheral vision that the disaster comes into clearest focus
Throughout "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "the Eye" (the Red Eye, the Evil Eye, the Lidless Eye, the Great Eye) is the image most often associated with Sauron.
"The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air."
Resonance lands hardest when it lands without warning.
A month later, Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre, had much the same reaction to a very different work, though the resonance was more anticipated this time: "I went to see Tony Kushner's 'Homebody/Kabul' (which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop that December, two miles north of ground zero), and though obviously he'd written it before Sept. 11, it was startling. It reminded you vividly of everything going on at the time. Just two months after the world exploded? It was arresting, to say the least."
Without intending to, "Homebody/Kabul," which begins with a monologue from a nervous housewife describing the strife and constant state of war in Afghanistan, then shifts to Afghanistan itself (where the woman has disappeared), was reflecting the uncertainty of its times. But then beneath the floorboards of many plays, movies, TV series and works of literature, it wasn't hard to stumble on uneasy subtexts, unhinged feelings or a sense that everything was unwittingly commenting on everything else. I remember driving through Ohio, past scores of restaurant marquees that all read "God Bless America." The words blurred together. Then I passed a sign that read "We have soup." In context, it seemed like an art installation. Or a wry response.
I was covering the Toronto International Film Festival when the attacks happened. I was in a screening of Mira Nair's ebullient "Monsoon Wedding" when cellphones throughout the theater began to beep and flash; for weeks afterward it felt preordained that during the attacks of course I would be watching a movie about the creeping influence of Western culture.
The next spring, Wilco's "Yankee Foxtrot Hotel" was released with Chicago's Marina City towers on the cover. This didn't go unnoticed, either; in its review, Entertainment Weekly saw the album (which also has a song titled "Ashes of American Flags") as pure 9/11 commentary, though it had been recorded before the attacks.
Leap forward a decade.
Did you bat an eye at the news that Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion," which tracks a pandemic around the world (and feels very much rooted in a 9/11-type anxiety), would open two days before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks? A couple of months ago, did you pause for even a moment during that scene in "Super 8" when the young hero finds a bulletin board overflowing with notices for missing dogs? Did you feel uncomfortable about that skyscraper toppling in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"? What about the buildings crumbling in 2010's "Inception"? Did any sliver of you get queasy at the vast destruction in "2012"?
Do you remember that the first "Spider-Man" movie lost a scene in which the hero strings a web between the towers of the World Trade Center? Do you recall that the TV series "Rescue Me," which just ended its seven-year run on the FX network, began as a drama about a New York City firehouse reeling from the loss of firefighters on 9/11?
"You know, I just went to the Air and Water Show and never once thought of it as a show of force or military might, or that those planes were flying so close to those buildings," said Michael Kutza, the founder of the Chicago International Film Festival. "Isn't that funny? Ten years later and I don't put two and two together."
Which, depending on how you see it, is either a sign that we are no longer as sensitive to 9/11 imagery as we were, or that the images of that day and the anxiety it set loose have burrowed so deeply into our pop milieu and taken up residence that, 10 years on, 9/11 subtexts are nowhere and everywhere, all at once.
That day is in the underpinnings of the first "Iron Man" movie, which begins in Afghanistan; it's in the "Call of Duty" video games, which featured an airport massacre initiated by rogue terrorists itching to destabilize the United States; it's in the premise of ABC's "Lost," which centered on a hard-to-define, unnamable threat and survivors trying to piece together a shattered reality. Its presence was felt in the strange, poetic symmetry between the release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2," in which our heroes finally destroyed Voldemort after a roughly decadelong saga, and the surprise vanquishing of Osama bin Laden after a decadelong manhunt.
And it's in the way that the image of the numbers 9-1-1 on a digital clock can give you pause, if only for a blink.
"Why hasn't (Steppenwolf) had works directly related to 9/11?" Lavey asked. "Not because of avoidance. I just like the big questions that were asked after 9/11 to reflect through a work that interrogates larger spheres of humor, thought and feeling. It's a more fruitful way of handling big topics, and it leads to works that endure."
Likewise, our greater awareness of Islamic and Middle Eastern art is an indirect byproduct of 9/11, said Stephanie Smith, chief curator of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. "But visual art that's dealt with 9/11 has been more metaphorical. I haven't seen much that's dealt specifically with the day itself; the ones that I have seen tended to be more traditional." For instance, Eric Fischl's bronze sculpture Tumbling Woman, which recalls the bodies falling from the towers. Smart installed the work in its sculpture garden for three years after the piece was abruptly removed from Rockefeller Center in 2002.
This winter, Smith and Michael Rakowitz, a Northwestern University instructor and artist, will bring one of Rakowitz's ongoing projects to Smart, a sort of performance art piece called "Enemy Kitchen," which invites people to cook with the Iraqi-Jewish artist. (They're even planning a related Iraqi-Jewish food truck.)
That's a byproduct, too.
Said John Freeman, editor of the literary journal Granta, which just published a "Ten Years Later" issue: "For the longest time we couldn't decide on the cover, because none of the images felt right. We had the twin towers for a while, but the ultimate use was The New Yorker's 2001 issue (from Art Spiegelman), with the black cover, black silhouetted towers. It's hard to think outside that framework, but also when you put those towers on a magazine cover, now you're talking about New York, and a decade on, what's obvious is how deep and far-reaching those attacks were, how it's much more complicated than any one image or place."
The image they went with? A full-body X-ray from an airport scanner, with soldier's pants on the bottom part of the image.
Though aside from a poem by Lawrence Joseph — which itself seems to trace the evolution of 9/11 imagery, starting with the "fiery avalanche headed right at us," only to lament "the memory of a memory of a remembered memory" — the "Ten Years Later" issue of Granta is free of direct recollections of 9/11, preferring instead byproducts, tangentially related tales, "ripples that have been felt since that day," Freeman said.
That's more than pop music has done. There was Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," Neil Young's "Let's Roll" and a few stray responses here and there. But "a near total failure to address it," is how critic Simon Reynolds described the industry's response to 9/11 — in fact, his new book, "Retromania," argues that an endemic unwillingness to engage the times, from hipsters to hip-hop alike, has left us with a decade of music that primarily recalls previous decades. You simply don't hear the uncertainty of the post-9/11 years in the decade's music.
Still, before you bemoan the lack of artistic engagement with the events of the date itself, consider: The trouble with art that conjures images of 9/11 is that eventually it must compete with what's in our heads: planes slamming into towers, clouds of smoke, buildings crumbling. A decade later, this may be why there is little iconic 9/11 art, and why literary fiction, for instance, which took its shot in works as varied as Don DeLillo's "Falling Man," Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" and Jay McInerney's "The Good Life," has yet to produce a solid 9/11 classic, while the 9/11-related nonfiction bookshelf has had several — starting with Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower." Indeed, if there's an artwork that shows any promise of becoming part of the 9/11 narrative, it's probably the new memorial on the site of the World Trade Center.
And perhaps one other work.
It's neither of Hollywood's big 9/11 works: Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," Paul Greengrass' "United 93," both from 2006. Or any of the decade's war movies, none of which found large audiences, including "The Hurt Locker." ("Home of the Brave," from 2006, with Samuel L. Jackson and rapper 50 Cent, grossed a remarkable $41,000.) It's not Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," with its poetic and queasy 9/11-esque imagery; or the documentary "Man on Wire," which recounted a 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, reminding us of their fantastic scale without once mentioning their destruction.
It's Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," which has nothing to do with 9/11, but nevertheless feels like the defining work of a post-9/11 America — a parable about fear that offers no solutions or comfort, and all the more effective for never once drawing a direct line to 2001 or borrowing on 9/11 imagery. What better from a 9/11 work than a work about uncertainty itself?
I thought about this a few weeks ago while I was at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. I thought about it, oddly enough, while I was seeing "The Fellowship of the Ring" for the first time since that initial 2001 screening. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the score, and families sprawled across the lawn, and couples reclined on blankets, their bottles of wine teetering in the grass beside them. The movie's stark opening, with Blanchett's troubled voice against that black screen, didn't carry the resonance it had a decade ago — not with the sun still setting and light left in the sky.
But at the end, when Frodo, our hero, stood at the shoreline, traumatized, uncertain of how to go on, the anxiety of the past decade rose up again, unexpectedly and insurmountable. Frodo remembered a conversation he had with Gandalf, the wizard. "I wish none of this had ever happened," he said. He didn't mention a war in Iraq or Afghanistan, political division, economic collapse, anthrax, Guantanamo or planes flying into buildings. And Gandalf didn't offer any solace or direction, but rather, the smartest words about living in a post-9/11 world that a post-9/11 work has given us. He said, "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."