|Andrew Lindemann Malone's Internet Playpen|
How Do We See What We Just Saw? Terrorism and the Action Film
Among the least significant effects of last Tuesday's terrorist attacks was the postponement of the releases of some movies. Most notable among these, from a cultural perspective, was "Collateral Damage," in which a terrorist blows up a Los Angeles skyscraper and Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only man who can stop him. This $100 million film was to have made its debut two weeks from this Friday; it may well now be unreleasable. Americans are in no mood to watch films about imaginary terrorist attacks when we have an all-too-real one to deal with.
Yet many of those who witnessed the planes flying into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon relied on films to help them describe what they had just seen. "It's like a movie" was a common comment, perhaps the most common comment. According to Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, the crashes and the devastation that followed were likened by witnesses to such films as "Independence Day," "Die Hard 2," and "Armageddon."
The common element among those films, besides the large explosions they feature, is the outstanding business they all did at the box office. Obviously, Hollywood moguls expected "Collateral Damage" to attract a large audience, or they wouldn't have spent $100 million to produce it.
Indeed, Tuesday's events probably would have been boffo if they had been carefully imagined for the big screen instead of unscheduled, dreadful facts on the little screen. A few hours after the terrorists attacked, an expert on CNN referred to their plan as "low tech/high concept" - "high concept" being a term normally used among Hollywood screenwriters to describe an especially clever and terse premise. Say it in twenty-five words or less: "Islamic terrorists hijack planes and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and southwestern Pennsylvania. Thousands of casualties. We fight back." As disgusting as it sounds now, a month ago that synopsis would have made a screenwriter some serious money.
The faults of action cinema - shoddy characterization, implausible plotting, pointless special effects wizardry - are often excused by action film lovers, me definitely included, on the grounds that these films are not intended to mirror the world but to provide an escape from it. Now, especially, it is fair to ask: What kind of escape can a film about a terrorist attack provide, even in the best of times? How can an imaginary story in which hundreds, even thousands of innocent people die provide any kind of respite from even normal daily life?
After all, we normally think of an escape as a move to a better place. The lovelorn find solace in tales of cute people meeting improbably and eventually giving in to romance. Outcasts of whatever stripe have any number of meek-to-mighty transformation films to cater to their fond hopes. But it's impossible to imagine action film devotees watching destruction and carnage onscreen and wishing the real world could be more like that.
And we don't. The escape in an action film comes not in its events, but its emotions. A good action film makes us temporarily forget the stupid little problems - demanding professors, annoying roommates, idiot supervisors, unrequited attractions - that normally plague our thoughts. It replaces them with broad, sweeping, uncomplicated feelings: ravenous sorrow, righteous anger, triumphant moral certainty, sheer exhilaration, and the final catharsis when the hero faces down the villain and, after a dramatic struggle, kills him. To be thus separated, even temporarily, from the annoyances, guilts and sadnesses that weigh us down is a giddily liberating experience, and it's why people show up at the theater with cash in hand.
Obviously, films about terrorism seem obscene now because all those who "die" in a film comes back the next day to pick up their paychecks, while we have to live with the echoing sadness that the murder of thousands has created. We cannot rationalize the deaths of our loved ones by saying that they will spur Arnold Schwarzenegger to greater heroism; they just sit there in our minds, dumb facts, making us scream and cry. Going to a movie theater now and pretending that mass killing can serve as a prelude to a good time is impossible for most of us, never mind loathsome. We all know that this situation will never turn out like a movie does; we have no invincible heroes, no quickly-dispatched villains, no easy catharsis.
Life is a tale told by an idiot not because it provides no plot, but because it never gets the ending right. Nevertheless, until we get some sort of ending, there will most likely be no more films about terrorism.
But that doesn't mean we won't have any more action films at all. The human urge to cast away our petty cares and pointless tribulations in favor of something big and powerful and overwhelming is as old as civilization itself. Indeed, while terrorist films are kept out of theaters, most of us saw these disasters not in person but on smaller screens, and we have swept aside everyday matters in the face of this disaster. In recent days, we have let ourselves fill with the ravenous sorrow, the righteous anger, the moral certitude. It's seemed pointless to concentrate on things we very recently devoted much of our lives to. We have rallied behind one common cause and we will let nothing stand in the way of achieving it.
We've been exhorted to return to "normal" life in the face of this disaster because, for most of us, the greatest act of defiance we can muster is to deny the terrorists their ultimate goal of eliminating normal life. But behind these exhortations is also a small but perceptible fear that even if we can, we might not want to return to normal life, because it feels better not to care about niggling worries but about matters far more momentous, and to feel emotions which are not tangled and questionable but simple and pure.
Although I am not particularly proud of it, I will admit that, in between attempting to locate friends and family in New York and downtown and simply reeling from the crushing shock of it all, I felt some amount of relief in not caring about problems which, hours ago, had seemed both pointless and unresolvable. President Bush's use of the phrase "dead or alive," with its cinematic associations, was particularly telling here: right now, we want an overwhelming certainty and rightness of purpose, similar to what we get when we watch action films. And some of us want the same overwhelming force.
Nevertheless, this ain't a movie. Action films relieve us because they are so uncomplicated. Watching them allows (some of) us to take on the more complicated and less easily solved problems of the real world with renewed energy and purpose and, perhaps, a recognition that these real problems are not so simple and not so easily solved. In fact, it would be best if people could figure out some way to get rid of the age-old desire for uncomplicated emotions when reacting to the events of last Tuesday. Despite the attacks' passing resemblance to cinema, the theater is the only place you'll ever find anything as uncomplicated as an action film.
All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.