Before and After--The Movie

Home despot: Beverly Peterson's "71 West Broadway"
Beverly Paterson

The Walker Art Center's upcoming program of short films about September 11, September Eleventh: Eyewitnesses (screening Thursday, March 21 at 8:00 p.m. as part of the "Women With Vision" series), prompted me to consider some of those shorts along with other representations of the attacks--all of which seem to provoke the same questions about the limits of the representable, and the ethics of representing.

In no particular order:

1. "71 West Broadway" by Beverly Peterson (screening in the Walker program).

Despite its treasure trove of on-the-spot footage, all the DIY video in Eyewitnesses suffers from a decidedly non-epic, non-wisdom-imparting, open-mic-night tone. And Peterson's piece--a diary of her life down the street from the WTC--offers an especially grating amateurism, in part for its seemingly unconscious reflection of the very all-American solipsism for which we were chastised by lefties such as Susan Sontag and Michael Moore. After the attacks, we spend 15 minutes following Peterson and her husband as they...sift through city hall red tape and try to clean and repair their garden tools! (You wouldn't believe the ash out there! And the city's supposed to take care of that, right?) If you didn't know better, you'd think this threnody to minor aches in the aftermath of major agony might actually be an outtake from...

2. ...Storytelling by Todd Solondz (now playing at Lagoon Cinema).

Toward the end of Solondz's curt elegy for suburban misery, a character steps out of frame, and the camera stays on the distant skyline--revealing the intact Twin Towers, on which the director holds for an uncustomary several seconds. This is the "safe space" at the tail end of a shot, the space that a filmmaker leaves for himself before calling cut; Solondz very pointedly leaves it in. But why? Does he leave it there as a scary totem of the universal fatalism that is his hallmark? Or is he simply (and smart-assedly) tweaking the current trend in movies to digitally erase our homespun holocaust? Unlike those in almost all the Walker shorts, Solondz's WTC image is richly conflicted--and it leaves one deeply unresolved.

3. "Three Blind Mice" by Candy Kugel (at the Walker).

At Cal Arts, the progressive arts school in Valencia, California, the walls were plastered in the days following September 11 with images of Osama bin Laden as a rasta "buffalo soldier" and a beret-wearing Ché. Can rich kids really buy into the "liberating" quality of anybody their parents hate? This "enemy of my enemy is my friend" tack was taken, with an equal lack of persuasiveness, by Sontag/Moore et al., who presumed that the attacks were a conscious and coherent comment on American culture and policy. One feels compelled to note the comments of another decorated progressive, Noam Chomsky: "If you said the word globalism to Osama bin Laden, I guarantee that he would have no idea what you meant." Kugel's "Three Blind Mice" continues in the bin Laden-as-Robin Hood tradition by depicting the Al Qaeda leader, Saddam Hussein, and "Uncle Sam" as interchangeable, blood-spattered ninnies.

4. "To the Workers of the World" by Tami Gold (at the Walker).

In this offensive piece, former Windows on the World worker Tony Perlstein reads a letter to his deceased colleagues at the WTC restaurant that somehow links being an overworked hot-prep chef and being destroyed by a passenger aircraft. "As usual, working people have to pay the price for our leaders' misdeeds," recites Perlstein--while the viewer feels flabbergasted at a sentiment that misinterprets the obvious truth in so many different ways all at once. Perlstein uses the 9/11 holocaust as an occasion to say, "Workers of the world unite!" But against what, in this case? Against American support of the Saudi royal family? Against aid to Israel? Against anything that might irritate fundamentalist Islam? The mind boggles at the ways in which the Walker's eyewitnesses continually turn the focus away from the victims of September 11 and onto themselves.

5. Underworld by Don DeLillo.

On the morning of the attacks, when a friend called to wake me and send me to the TV, I couldn't restrain myself from saying, "It's like a Don DeLillo novel!" Minutes later, I glanced at the cover art for DeLillo's 1997 Underworld: the Twin Towers dissolving into mist. Considering the prescience of the author's recent Valparaiso, which anticipates the current airport hysteria and the near-entirety of the Daniel Pearl scenario, one wonders whether the great man is now afraid to pick up the pen.

6. "China Diary (911)" by Eva Ilona Brzeski (at the Walker).

The strongest of the Walker shorts, this one culminates in a classically DeLilloesque moment: The heroine, stuck in China while lower Manhattan burns, finds herself shocked by Chinese TV-news coverage of the conflagration--which is far more hysterical and horrified than any American news depiction. (And we see it, too--including a glimpse of the plane hitting the second tower that made me gasp with its slingshot-like violence.) Here, too, there's an overabundance of breathy voiceovers and diaristic hints of a classroom project--but the snapshot of global unconnectedness is crisp and pungent.

7. "Operation Enduring Freedom" (Topps Collectible Cards)

This trading-card series cries out for an egghead-scratching session in Artforum. Am I dreaming, or did they have Gulf War trading cards, too? Unless you count the spirited yammering of certain talking heads, "Operation Enduring Freedom" is the first example of turning of our "war on terrorism" into straight-up infotainment.

8. "Tornado" by Lynne Sachs (at the Walker).

Still more touchy-feely, pottery-circle material. "A tornado kills with abandon but has no will," we're told. And: "Last Tuesday, September 11th, I saw one of the two towers vomit black clouds...transformed into something unworthy of a breath." And: "Unable to comprehend the reality of death, my daughters mourned the death of the twins." I'll take a red-meat Fox TV movie (Chad Lowe as Todd Beemer!) over this faux-new-age handwringing any day.

9. "Tribute 9.11" by Monica Sharif (at the Walker).

If much of Eyewitnesses suggests the sweet-sad homeyness of a third grader's handmade get-well card, Sharif's homage to 9/11 heroes evokes your local TV station's treacly Merry Christmas spot.

10. John Waters at the El Rey Theatre (February 15, Los Angeles).

The Pope of Trash, in the middle of a sublime standup performance, stuck his toe in the waters of 9/11 humor--and quickly found it to be too cold. (One great line: "Honey, that dress is so September 10!") Will some modern Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce one day voice the taboo thoughts of this day that will live in infamy? Until then, we'll be straitened by an enforced correctness-kitsch: e.g., the gag-inducing image of the Budweiser Clydesdales on Super Bowl Sunday, bowing low and nuzzling the Sacred Earth of Ground Zero.

Allow me to ask: Why are there no Challenger-style jokes, no gallows gags from Mad magazine or Howard Stern? It isn't about patriotism, I think, but about a glimpse of mortality that pierced a body-crazed, youth-obsessed, never-age culture. In the grip of a consumerist ethos predicated on eternal life through spending, America was hit by an unforgettable wind. Hence the insane solipsism, the obsession with one's own neuroses, in almost all of Eyewitnesses. After all the talk about our "fear of the Other," will American artists--even the seemingly progressive ones who see bin Laden as Bob Marley--be able to look outside the fishbowl and view the unfolding drama as something other than the mirror image of themselves?

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