Do movies have a meaning at a time like this?
I left my hotel room at 8:30 am this morning, headed for a screening of Joy Ride at the Cumberland theater. When the first plane smashed into the World Trade Center, I was on the Toronto subway, headed north. I was sitting in the theater when the second plane hit. Moments later, an acquaintance of mine from Philadelphia wandered into the theater and walked up to me. "Did you hear what happened?" he asked, then, when I replied in the negative, he informed me that planes had hit the Twin Towers. A little disturbed, but not overly concerned, I sat back to watch Joy Ride (which I will discuss in a later update). After all, the WTC had survived an attempt to bring it down in 1993.
By the time I emerged from Joy Ride, both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed. I heard about this from a radio that someone had turned up in the street behind the theater. I was stunned. Having been to the World Trade Center on numerous occasions, I had difficulty imagining the kind of force that could bring down two of the defining characteristics of the New York City skyline. Could just two planes bring down the towers? Then I visited the press room at the Park Hyatt and saw a television replay of what happened. These weren't just planes, they were jetliners. Suddenly, as the horror crystallized, the day became surreal...
My second screening of the day was From Hell, the Johnny Depp/Jack the Ripper movie. It was difficult to concentrate on the film with all that was going on elsewhere in the world. Rarely have I been this distracted, even after a death in the family. From Hell was strong enough, and intense enough, to hold my interest, but I occasionally found my attention wandering. As soon as the film ended, the lights in the theater came on and a representative of the festival moved to the microphone to read a message.
The management of the film festival had made the difficult decision to cancel all screenings for the rest of the day. It's hard to argue with this decision. On one level, it would be difficult to move forward with an event of pure entertainment when so much pain was being felt several hundred miles to the south. Also, like almost everyone else, I was anxious to get back to my hotel room and watch the coverage on television. Even though I am officially based out of Philadelphia, my home is less than 40 miles from the World Trade Center.
However, it is shortsighted to dismiss movies as valueless at the epicenter of tragedy. Films, especially those that show at a film festival like Toronto, are typically expressions of art and theme. They have meaning. They can affect us. They can move and teach us. Aspects of my personality have been shaped by motion pictures. They are not reality, but they give us shadows and echoes of reality. At a time like this, there is also a need to alleviate pain and escape from the grimness surrounding us. During World War II, President Roosevelt demanded that Major League Baseball continue playing its games. He argued that the people needed a form of recreation during a time of great trial. Such is the case on a day like this, when movies can take us away from a horror that the mind cannot fully comprehend.
So, do movies have a meaning at a time like this? Yes, I would argue - but nothing any director can put on the silver screen can ever diminish the images staring back at us from the television or efface the horror and pain they represent.
© 2001 James Berardinelli