ReelThoughts: September 11, 2011

"The Day that Changed Little"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


NOTE: As I was writing this, it occurred to me that so much is being written about 9/11 on its tenth anniversary that there's little (if anything) I can add to the discussion. But, having penned an essay on each anniversary of the day since then (usually as part of my TIFF coverage), I saw no reason to stop this year. So what appears below represents a somewhat random collage of my thoughts about September 11, 2001 and September 11, 2011. Hopefully, it doesn't come across as too derivative of what has been written elsewhere.

Late in the afternoon on September 11, 2001, I sat in my hotel room in Toronto and reflected that the events of the day had likely changed life forever in North America. But human beings have short memories and, although things were significantly different in the short-term, all of the immediate good and bad that resulted from the terrorist attacks of that sunny September day has evaporated over the space of a decade. I can't decide if this is a testimony to the resilience of the species or a condemnation of our ability to maintain focus.

This is written with apologies to the families and friends of those who died on September 11 in New York, D.C., and Shanksville, and to those who have lost loved ones in the two wars that stemmed from the events of that day. For them, of course, life has tangibly, irrevocably changed. They have not forgotten. It is not possible for them to forget. For the rest of us, though, especially those living far from the East Coast, few things have been more certain than slipping back into the routines of daily existence.

When the plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., I was on Toronto's subway. When the plane hit the South Tower at 9:03, I had settled into a seat at the Cumberland Theater, awaiting the start of Joy Ride, which was scheduled for 9:15. Rumors began to filter in about the attack, but no one had a lot of information. I emerged from the theater around 11:00 to a changed world, or so it seemed at the time. Both WTC towers had collapsed, there was a smoking crater in western Pennsylvania, the Pentagon was ablaze, U.S. airspace had been closed, and chaos reigned. Toronto halted the festival in the afternoon as a sign of respect, with no screenings starting after 2:00. Things resumed on September 12 under a gloomy cloud.

The rest of the week was a blur. I spent about half my time watching TV news coverage in my hotel room, clicking back and forth from ABC to NBC to CNN, and half the time standing in line in the basement of some hotel near the Rogers Center getting new plane tickets. Originally, I was supposed to leave Toronto on September 14. When it became apparent that air travel would not be back to normal on that day, I exchanged my tickets for September 15, then later for September 16 and 17 (the day I actually left). Along the way, I caught a few screenings, but my heart wasn't in it. It was hard to get into a festive mood considering what was unfolding several hundred miles south. Without checking my 2001 festival log, I can name only one movie I know I saw after the attacks: Serendipity. Why remember that? Probably because the unaltered print shown at the festival had a shot of the Manhattan skyline that included the towers.

Hollywood reacted to the terrorist attacks by postponing movie openings that might have seemed insensitive under the circumstances (Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage being one example). Scripts that featured widespread disaster were placed into turnaround. For a while, it seemed that the disaster movie might be finished as a viable genre. It was no longer "escapist" to see cities and buildings demolished. On the contrary, such images too vividly evoked memories of 9/11. Films featuring images of the World Trade Center had the buildings digitally removed (including Serendipity). Whether or not this was a good idea remains open to debate. Ten years later, it hardly seems to matter. Several recent period pieces set in Manhattan between the mid-1970s and 2001 have used archival footage featuring the Towers and/or had them digitally added.

Patriotism abounded in the immediate wake of 9/11. People came together across the United States as one, with political, class, and other divides momentarily set aside. It often takes a tragedy to bind people to a common cause. It was a kumbaya moment the like of which I have not experienced before or since. On September 12, I wandered over to the U.S. Consulate in Toronto and was touched by the makeshift memorial that had sprung up. It dwarfed the one at the Princess of Wales Theater in September 1997.

One could argue that if September 11 was the United States' darkest hour in recent memory, the period immediately thereafter showed us at our brightest as a country. But all things fade.

In 2003, I asked my grandfather if he could compare public reaction on December 7, 1941 to September 11, 2001. He said it was much different. In 1941, people in New York learned about Pearl Harbor on the radio and the next day in the newspaper. And, even though Hawaii was a U.S. territory, it was so far away that there was no immediacy to the attack (at least in the East - there was widespread paranoia in California). Media coverage was slow and limited in that era. There was widespread outrage but no true sense of tragedy at the loss of life. September 11 was different because of the media saturation and because it impacted the East directly. Still, he felt that the importance of the date, like the feelings its mention evoked, would dramatically fade over time.

It didn't take Hollywood long to get back into the disaster film business. While the United States' appetite for destruction might have been temporarily sated by the real-life horror of 9/11, the mollifying effect of time's passage reawakened the desire to see big cities and recognizable monuments pulverized. Lately, Los Angeles has been the venue of choice, but New York and Washington D.C. have not been immune. In 2004's The Day After Tomorrow, New York was buried in ice and in 2012, the capitol city was engulfed by a tsunami. The kid gloves were off. So much for a kindler, gentler, more respectful cinema.

So, in the grand scheme of things, did 9/11 alter anything? Yes and no. Most of the changes are behind the scenes - how intelligence agencies share information, how emergency responders react to situations, and so forth. Not everyday things most Americans would notice. We would not have gone into Afghanistan (although I'm not sure about Iraq - we might have invaded anyway, since that was only peripherally about terrorism). The biggest difference is how inconvenient air travel has become. A week before 9/11, I met my then-girlfriend at her gate when she flew into Philadelphia - no hassle whatsoever. Now, flying requires an intrusiveness just short of a colonoscopy. It wouldn't be so bad if it actually meant something, but pretty much everyone knows it's all for show. But maybe there's a method to the madness. Inconvenience people sufficiently and maybe they'll be too pissed off to remember they're supposed to be nervous.

For most of us in our day-to-day lives things aren't that different than they were on September 10, 2001. That, more than anything else, indicates the terrorists didn't win. They dealt us a sore blow, to be sure. They kept us nervous and jumpy for a while. But we got up, dusted ourselves off, and returned to our lives. Another U.S.-based terrorist attack is not out of the question, but one of the magnitude of 9/11 seems increasingly unlikely. There hasn't been anything close in North American in a decade and, if it happens again, we'll likely react the way we did on that occasion. The lesson to take to heart is that it's good to remember but not good to obsess.

When I awoke on September 12, 2001, the world seemed strangely out-of-kilter, as if something previously thought secure had shifted. I often wonder if 9/11 would have left a less indelible impression had I been home, surrounded by familiar things and familiar people (and within line-of-sight distance of Ground Zero), rather than trapped in Toronto at a broken film festival with a bunch of strangers. That close to 9/11, the world seemed to be a strange and frightening place. The worry was not just about what had happened but what might yet be to come. Ten years later, the fear has been displaced by other, more immediate concerns. Every year on 9/11, I briefly wonder if "it" will happen again. That was especially true when I attended the Toronto Film Festival in 2002 and 2003. I hated being away from home on 9/11. But nothing happened and it became less of a concern as the years went by.

9/11 belongs to history. No one under 13 years of age has any recollection of it, and it's unlikely that anyone younger than college age has a clear memory. I wonder whether a 12-year old watching footage of the World Trade Center collapse can in any way connect with what that meant as it was occurring. Or is it just like the images in the movies? On more than one occasion, I stood at the base of one or the other tower and gazed up at its majesty, fighting vertigo to see the top. I always meant to visit the observation deck or Windows on the World, but never had the time. To remember the immensity of those towers and think of them as gone is hard to compute. They seemed as permanent as anything man could build. Yet down they came and, ten years later, another building rises from their ashes. In a few years it will be finished and this generation can stand at its base and gaze up its sides to the sky above. It too will come down some day but hopefully the means of its dismantling will be far different.

It's reassuring to consider that the recovery from 9/11 has been so complete. The scar, while still visible, is faint and seen only under careful observation. We think of 9/11 less frequently with each passing year, just as we think of December 7 only on that anniversary (or when reading a history book or watching a certain Michael Bay film). That's a comforting realization we'll need when the next event happens to shock the world and make us wonder if things will ever be the same again.


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