The 9/11 Trope

I have seen very few of my favorite movies in the theater. This is just one of the realities that young cinephiles must accept. Even when I go see Chinatown or Blue Velvet in repertory cinemas, it isn't the first time I'm seeing those films. A lot of the magic happens on DVD.

United 93 gave me a magical theatrical experience, the likes of which I can only remember feeling twice in recent memory (Requiem for a Dream and Birth).

Going in to the Tribeca premiere, my expectations were occupied by the questions the trades have all been asking about the film: "Are audiences ready for a movie about 9/11?" and "How tasteful will the film be?" For me, the answer to both of these questions has to do with how "definitive" the film attempts to be - if it achieves the status of being the "definitive" 9/11 movie, then audiences are probably more likely to accept it. At the same time, it is precisely that aim for "definitiveness" that strikes me as distasteful.

Though the extra-textual United 93 marketing campaign will self-righteously try and paint the film as "the definitive 9/11 movie" (as Paramount will try to do later this year for Oliver Stone's World Trade Center), United 93 itself manages to avoid such self-importance in at least three ways. Read on...

One, it chooses a narrow focus. This is not the story of 9/11 as a whole, and even though we are granted access to information about the attacks on the Towers and the Pentagon, it is only through hearsay - through what the characters that we are focusing on see and hear, which is often very little.

Two, the movie creates an impressively un-Hollywood illusion of realism by using unknown actors, handheld camera, and overlapping sound. United 93 is closer to Gus Van Sant's Elephant than anything else in that it takes a very cold, detached view of the events - observing, rather than pontificating.

Finally, the movie avoids any claims to "definitiveness" by relocating the central problem/question to something altogether more interesting. That problem is the ethically dubious realization of a collective voyeur-fantasy: to see inside United 93, while remaining safe.

This is what many of us perversely wanted after 9/11: to know what it was like inside, without consequences. In imagining ourselves into such a nightmare-fantasy (movie), we naturally choose the United 93 adventure first and foremost because it allows us to be active protagonists, albeit unsuccessful ones. Viewing Paul Greengrass's film is a fulfillment of this fantasy, though it risks mass dissatisfaction since everyone will inevitably compare it to the movie that they themselves already produced in their minds.

But surprisingly, Paul Greengrass's movie is better than anyone else's. It's better than the Hollywood version because it is more realistic. But it's also better than the "documentary" version (this is hypothetical because, of course, there could be no documentary version by definition) because we want our fantasy to have drama. We want it to be told in a straight line from beginning to end (real-time), but with edits to cheat time. We want psychological realism: to be in the victim/martyr's shoes, but, of course, not... really.

The film is terrifying. But I was most terrified when I began to reverse-fantasize. I began to imagine that the movie theater was actually not safe. Maybe the terrorists were going to attack me here, in my safe haven. After all, this was the world premiere of the first 9/11 movie. After all, the act would be symbolic enough for al Qaeda - symbolic of the sin of mass reproduction; the sin of recreating their real images into fake ones; the sin of copyright infringement on the terrorists' intellectual property; the sin of the movies. After all, didn't some Chechnyen terrorists attack some Russian aristocrats in a theater? It wasn't entirely implausible that, sitting at Lincoln Square in the dark, I was in some kind of danger.

I began to think I should leave. I began to imagine how I'd feel if terrorists actually did jump OUT OF THE SCREEN with machine guns: trapped when I could have been free! (I knew it was going to happen!)

I began to somehow feel as though I were about to bite my way into some knowledge that I wasn't supposed to have: access to the innards of United 93. And I would have to pay the price. There can be no knowledge without death. (The wisdom of all horror films).

By inviting this kind of perverse viewership, as well as the subsequent feelings of insecurity and wanting "out" of the theater, United 93 literalizes the dilemma of movie-watching and the voyeur. Without ever employing modernist alienation/disruption techniques, the movie lures its audience into a narrative that - through the sheer power of its historical context - captures what it means to make and watch films.

This is not a 9/11 movie. It is so much more.

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