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“Lost in a Roman Wilderness of Pain”: Film and Television After 9/11




By Wheeler Winston Dixon.

“This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes again
Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free
Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand
In a desperate land
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane”
(The Doors, “The End”)

“I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell”
(Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella)

The title of this essay comes from The Doors’ determinedly fatalistic song “The End,” but as one can see from the quote above from the courtier poet Sir Philip Sidney, the idea of such nihilism is nothing new. Sidney wrote his poem sometime in the 1580s; Jim Morrison’s ode to despair dates from 1967. At the time of the song’s first appearance, it seemed out of place with the explosion of culture and optimism on both the East and West coasts of America, as part of the artistically vibrant 1960s era. But now, it seems that “The End” is an outlier, a harbinger of things to come, a prescient text, that despite its distinct limitations, nevertheless accurately sketches a world when individual ambition has vanished, corporate culture dominates discourse, and hope seems but a distant memory; indeed, as Marx would have it, “an illusion.”

Path to Paradise

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the films and television programs that followed in the wake of 9/11, especially in America, which is the central focus of this essay, and indeed, even in the televisual constructs that preceded this horrific event, as if anticipating the inevitability of eventual disaster in a nuclear world. Leslie Libman and Larry Williams’ HBO television movie Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of the World Trade Center Bombing (1997) documented the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and demonstrates exactly how easy it was for the bombers to gain access to the building. Near the film’s end, when the bombing has proved less than catastrophic, a frustrated terrorist utters as he looks at the World Trade Center towers: “Next time, we’ll bring them both down.” The film makes clear that the terrorists’ battle for the world’s attention is far from over, and that repeat assaults on the twin towers can be counted on as a natural consequence of world events; indeed, this is just what happened, and here, it seems that commercial art prefigured the events of 9/11.

Collerateral Damage

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, a number of forthcoming terrorist dramas had to be scrapped, shelved or reedited, including Andrew Davis’s Collateral Damage (2002), an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle; Deadline, a hijack film written for director James Cameron that never made it past the script stage; World War III, a proposed Jerry Bruckheimer film in which terrorist invaders drop nuclear bombs on Seattle and San Diego; Barry Sonnenfeld’s Big Trouble (2002), a Tim Allen “comedy” centered on a bomb on a passenger jet; and Nose Bleed, a never-made Jackie Chan comedy in which the veteran action star would have stopped “a terrorist plot to blow up the WTC” (Hoberman 2001).

And at least one Hollywood veteran saw all of this as nothing more or less than a prophecy fulfilled. The late Robert Altman told the Associated Press in an interview shortly after the World Trade Center attack that movies such as the ones discussed in the preceding lines “set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies. Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they’d seen it in a movie. […] I just believe we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it” (qtd. in Hoberman 2001). Not surprisingly, once the images of the September 11 disaster were an accomplished fact, duly videotaped from a variety of angles by both professional and amateur video recorders, they became fair game for a new series of pornographic disaster videos, not unlike the notorious Faces of Death (1978-) series.

CNN, CNBC, Fox News, and other US outlets broadcast and rebroadcast the images of the twin towers being hit over and over again like a porno loop, but in China, enterprising entrepreneurs went one step further, creating such instant DVD “disaster movies” as The Century’s Great Catastrophe, Surprise Attack on America, and America’s Disaster: The Pearl Harbor of the Twenty-First Century (all 2001). These hybrid productions, freely mixing pirated news footage with equally illegal clips from conventional Hollywood disaster movies, appeared fewer than 72 hours after the World Trade Center attack, and were sold throughout the world, but perhaps most ironically as bootlegs on the streets of Manhattan, as nearly instantaneous souvenirs of the disaster. Many of these DVDs, to boot, were critical of America’s policies throughout the world, and viewed the events of 9/11 as the result of dreams of global domination (Dixon 2003: 73). What these ersatz, fugitive productions presented was nothing less than the spectacle of death as entertainment. After the end of the Second World War, but before the turn of the 21st century, the arts before 9/11 dealt with many issues; birth, life, death, capitalism, love, nature, and celebrated the act of creation with an almost hedonistic abandon. Above all, the arts celebrated life.

Life After People

In the years following 9/11, the arts have been transformed into a mirror of the fear, death, paranoia and uncertainty that now pervades American existence. The disaster of the Twin Towers has transformed the cultural landscape profoundly, inescapably, and forever; it’s one of those defining moments in which a culture is shaped anew by the social events that impact it. Fear, death, and paranoia are the new social currency. What is celebrated now is not art; it’s artifice. Our culture now reifies itself with unrelenting images of destruction, from such television series as Life After People (2008-2010), which predicted what might happen in a post-apocalyptic future; to films like Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011), in which life expectancy is a commodity to be bought and sold, and the rich have all the cards, including potential immortality.

New York, arguably the artistic hub of the United States, has become a museum of itself, seeking to recreate the past by selling off the totemic paintings, sculptures and other art works of the pre 9/11 era for outrageous prices to the stratospherically rich. The emptiness of every aspect of post 9/11 art, except where it deals with themes of pain, destruction and violence, is everywhere apparent; pop music – once a potent force for social change – has largely been transformed into mindless escapism, even as the digitization of culture wipes out record stores, bookstores, and video stores, as text, music, and images become streamed liked utilities – available for a price, stored in a cloud, accessed only by a continual outlay of cash by the consumer.

300

The more original and authentic arts are being attacked vigorously everywhere by the ruling classes throughout the world, because they are dangerous; they offer a voice to the individual, in a society that now seeks to rule by forced consensus. This is part of the conglomerization of art; it’s become a corporate commodity, a trophy, rather than something that an individual creates. More than ever, it seems true that the best artist is a dead artist, because there’s a limited supply of his or her work, which can be sold as a commodity, and the best celebrity spokesperson is also a corpse, because the iconic images of Kerouac, Bogart, Hepburn and Taylor can be used to sell anything, without the slightest risk of possible future scandal, or an unflattering headline. All their future is in the past, and thus it can be recycled, packaged, and used to sell new goods to those too young to remember the world the way it was. Spectacle, as in films such as Zack Snyder’s call to war, 300 (2007), has replaced content, and action has replaced thought. Music cues tell you how to feel; when to feel sad, when to rejoice. Everything is laid out in a clear, schematic design. The films of the 21st century are designed, because of their ever-increasing cost, for mass audiences, leaving no one behind.

Margin Call

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which I am in deep sympathy with, continually pounds home this simple theme, and yet those in power pretend to be mystified by the movement’s guiding principle: the rich are getting much, much richer, as seen in J.C. Chandor’s superb film Margin Call (2011), which effectively depicts the 2008 market meltdown, starting at Lehman Brothers, with unsparing accuracy. The semi-fictitious financial firm in Margin Call suddenly discovers that it’s deeply over-extended in mortgage derivatives, and sells off 93% of their position in a single day to avoid the company’s collapse, but at the expense of all who buy the worthless “equities” the company offers. Meanwhile, the top executives of the company, one of whom is played with brilliant sardonicism by Jeremy Irons, walk off with multiple millions in bonuses, while those directly beneath him sit in their offices doing nothing, collecting massive paychecks for simply staying off the street with the bad news. The traders, meanwhile, on the lowest level of the company, sell off the bad debts, and are then summarily fired. The whole scenario is all too true; in the 21st century, money rules, and everything else – all human communication, art, or interpersonal bonds – are entirely expendable.

Thoughtful, informed criticism has all but vanished in the wake of the web, and with everyone now qualifying her or himself as a cultural authority, any real value to the critical act has all but vanished. Damien Hurst makes art out of consumption, with a series of diamond studded skulls and other icons of consumerism; films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) and Margin Call, which deal honestly and forthrightly with the vicissitudes of our current existence, languish on the commercial sidelines, while escapist fare such as James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), which encourages audiences to believe they can abandon their damaged bodies and escape into a new, virtual world, rack up mind-boggling grosses; it offers the masses mindless escape.

Captain America

Joe Johnston’s Captain America: First Avenger (2011) is in many ways the perfect prototype of new millennial film; set in World War II, but concluding in the present, it offers Nazis as conveniently circumscribed villains, and deals resolutely in the past, but at the same time depicts a society relentlessly at war, much as we were, until recently, in Iraq. Thus, it asks audiences to participate in a wartime social environment, with this added bonus; it’s a war that the West decisively won. This time around, the lines are much more blurred. I call the Iraq the “silent war,” although it is anything but silent, and absolutely tangible, yet through length and repetition it became almost a phantom conflict. There were no bodies, just coffins, and images were carefully screened by the Pentagon and other authorities, especially under the Bush / Cheney / Rumsfeld regime. Unlike the Vietnam war, which wound up in everyone’s home on nightly television whether they liked it or not, and which polarized the nation precisely because of its visibility, the war in Iraq has largely been fought under cover, and the most recent iterations of it as a cinematic construct, such as The Hurt Locker, bear the burden of years of misdirection and misrepresentation in the media.

Essential Killing

Television has become an avalanche of shopping channels and “reality” programs, coupled with an embrace of nostalgia for a time that is now almost beyond authentic recall. In short, the arts after 9/11 embrace loss, death, the corporate ethos, and the reification of violence and torture as an everyday part of social intercourse. Jerzy Skolimowski’s 2010 film Essential Killing, which depicts the escape of a “rendered” captive in Eastern Europe, offers further proof of our current economy of images; shot for a pittance, with only one leading character, portrayed by Vincent Gallo, who never speaks during the entire film, we see what the war machine does to all sides, to all combatants; it’s the great dehumanizer, the leveler of all values, past and present. Gallo’s character in the film, Mohammed, has no comprehension of what’s happening to him, or why; he can’t understand the language of his captors, and much of the film is shot in first person POV, so that we feel as isolated as Mohammed does. But Essential Killing, though it won numerous awards at the Mar del Plata Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival – including Best Film and Best Actor – and elsewhere, never received anything more than a token release in the US.

That we even consider, as a society, the use of water boarding as a legitimate interrogation technique, doesn’t go down all that well even at Fox News, where one of the channel’s most visible hosts, Shepard Smith, when confronted with undeniable fact of the practice, was seemingly unable to contain his outrage. “We are America!” he shouted on April 22, 2009. “I don’t give a rat’s ass if it helps! We are America! We do not fucking torture. We just don’t do it!” – on live television; surprisingly, he wasn’t fired, and the clip immediately went viral on YouTube. And yet in many post 9/11 fictional entertainments, torture of one kind or another is part of the narrative construct. The videotaped execution of Moammar Khadafi is another example of 21st century visual “entertainment;” graphic video clips of his execution, and that of Saddam Hussein, have gotten millions of hits on the web. Also, there are the infamous “crush” videos, in which innocent small animals are crushed beneath the high heels of fashionable dominatrixes in graphic detail, which, too, have become sadly popular of late. Clearly, as a society, we do torture – and we love to do it. It offers, for those too inarticulate to express it otherwise, some fleeting relief from our own pain.

If one looks at our shared cinematic past, we can see that we have always been playing with disaster, fascinated by destruction. The nearly 3,000 victims of the September 11 disaster, who died simply because they showed up for work, and the 16 acres of damage at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, are a terrible, indelible outgrowth of a dream of annihilation that has fascinated society for centuries. Destruction has now come to us; not in a movie, but in real life. People really died, in a scene of brutal, horrific violence; society, especially in the United States, was changed forever. It is only in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the twentieth century, and now, most pronouncedly, in the twenty-first century, that we can give these horrific visions, faces, and sounds a sense of concrete actuality. The regime of CGI effects has made the illusion even more seamless. Where once matte lines and other technical imperfections in film created “limit zones” of visual reality that distanced us from the spectacle we witnessed, now CGI makes a tidal wave, an atomic blast, a hurricane, or a meteor impact seem as real as late afternoon sunlight spilling through a back porch window. There is no separation anymore, no zone of the real and the not real. The cinema of the twenty-first century makes our most violent dreams of self-destruction simultaneously mundane and instantly attainable.

Dr. Strangelove

In the post 9/11 world, the romance of Armageddon is being replaced by the specter of inevitable destruction, albeit on a smaller scale. Piece by piece, city by city, landmark by landmark, the delicate balance of post-World War II nuclear politics has given way to a new war, in which atomic bombs, capable of decimating an entire metropolis in just one blast, fit in suitcases. The global apocalypse depicted by Stanley Kubrick in 1964’s Dr. Strangelove now seems simultaneously remote and nostalgic; if only the lines of conflict were so simply drawn. But now, the threat is everywhere. The twenty-first century will be defined not by wars, but by terrorist incursions. Throughout its reign, the administration of George W. Bush seemed intent on upping the ante with each new pronouncement.

In a speech at the US Military Academy at West Point on June 1, 2002, for example, Bush declared that “preemptive” military strikes may be necessary to “confront the worst threats before they emerge,” thereby creating a scenario in which attack becomes defense (Dixon 2003: 128). This policy of perpetual alarmism, it seems, to me, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as violent action thrillers and video games inspire those who become addicted to them to take the “games” to the next step: real weapons, real victims. Even a casual glance at the social landscape of contemporary America reveals that we have become a nation marked by outbursts of senseless violence. The numerous examples of random, often inexplicable shootings in the US, such as the July 20, 2012 murders of 12 innocent cinema patrons by a deranged gunman at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado, or the equally horrific event at Northern Illinois University on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2008, in which five students were killed and several more injured before the gunman, one Steven Kazmierczak, committed suicide at the scene of the crime, are ample proof of this (Coughlan and Fleeman 2012; Heher and Rousseau 2008).

The Sum of All Fears

The culture of guns, of death, of “kill or be killed” must inevitably lead to violence; is that not its message? Thus, in a post 9/11 cinematic landscape with such films and television shows as 24 – an almost immediate response to 9/11 – which ran on the Fox Network from November 6, 2001 to May 24, 2010, depicting a world of constant paranoia and violence, in which interrogation sequences often hinged on the torture, or the threat of torture, to extract information from the numerous terrorist suspects; Phil Alden Robinson’s The Sum of All Fears (2002), depicting the effect of a nuclear strike on the United States; Paul Greengrass’ United Flight 93 (2006), documenting the fate of the passengers on one of the hijacked jets that slammed into the World Trade Center; the ABC television miniseries The Path to 9/11 (2006), which tried to show how the plot was hatched and subsequently executed; Stephen Daldry’s sentimental Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011), based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same title; to say nothing of the Saw films (2003-2010), Hostel I (2005), II (2007) and now III (2011), among numerous other exemplars, we must fight to find a path towards an understanding of the new cinematic landscape in which violence and catastrophe are viewed as everyday events.

Some of these films seek to reassure us; others to make us feel that no matter how violent the carnage on the screen, we are safe from harm. In the face of such an unimaginable disaster as 9/11, those who witnessed the actual event often said that “it seemed just like a movie,” because it was so immediate, so uncontainable, and so brutally violent. And thus we, as a society, have become simultaneously sentimental and violent, longing for a more secure past when nuclear weapons weren’t so accessible, or better yet, didn’t even exist, while at the same time confronting the present with an uneasy mix of belligerence and incomprehension.

Hostel III

Many of the post 9/11 films deal with the concept of brutal, violent torture directly, and the genre of “torture porn” or “extreme filmmaking” has certainly flourished in the nascent 21st century. Scott Spiegel’s Hostel: Part III (2011), in particular, deals directly with torture as televisual entertainment. Focusing on a group of frat boy high rollers in Las Vegas, who are summarily kidnapped while gambling in a casino, the film offers the viewer the spectacle of these unfortunate victims being graphically tortured in a televised game entitled – and this is not a joke – “Wheel of Misfortune.” As multimillionaires sit luxuriously in chairs and are served drinks by submissive waitresses, the kidnap victims are brutally chopped, sawed, knifed, gouged and eviscerated for their, and by implication our, entertainment.

That this film even exists is almost a crime against humanity; along with Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2010) and The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) (2011), which offer the viewer the spectacle of a group of human beings sewn together into one extended body, forced to eat each other’s excrement as part of their shared food chain, and Srđan Spasojević’s equally repellent A Serbian Film (2010), which features graphic scenes depicting the rape of a newborn infant, it seems that all the presentational bounds of film have vanished, and that anything, literally anything, is fair game. Most, but not all, of these films have gotten an “R” rating from the MPAA, which still rates any films depicting consensual sex or nudity with a flat NC-17 (equivalent to an X) rating, while scenes of brutal violence get a pass. In this, we’re unique as a nation; in Europe, it’s the violence that’s censored; here, it is celebrated.

We’re much more comfortable with torture, war and violence than with lovemaking as a culture, something that’s also evidenced in the equally violent videogames which now dominate the market. At the same time, saccharine entertainments such as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (both 2011), and Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (2012) represent the other end of the spectrum; feel good films in which everything turns out right in the end, because nothing was at risk in the first place. Teens dream of vampiric immortality in the Twilight series (2008-); for the boys, it offers the perpetual adolescence of being “undead,” for girls, the dream of romance without losing one’s virginity – a vision of stasis on all fronts. War Horse follows the adventures of Joey, a World War I draft horse caught up in the conflict, but presented in such a sentimentalized fashion that knowledgeable critics, such as Jim Hoberman, late of The Village Voice, in a review posted on December 21, 2011, cringed at the results:

War Horse

“Spielberg seeks to represent the horror of modern combat in human (or at least mammalian) terms. But since he’s a director largely incapable of understatement, War Horse is served up with a self-aggrandizing, distracting surplus of Norman Rockwell backlighting, aerial landscape shots designed to out-swoop David Lean’s, and an aggravated sense of doggone wonderment amplified by the director’s dependence on John Williams’ bombastic score. Dialogue is superfluous; in its way, War Horse is as much a “silent movie” as The Artist. Every triumph is pounded into your head and punctuated by a dolly-in close-up.”

It hopefully goes without saying that none of these visions of the world is realistic, but this is what the multiplexes now offer; horror almost beyond imagination, or escapism without a shred of credibility. It is an entirely new world we live in after 9/11; the stages of representation have been irrevocably altered. The world around us is now a dangerous place. How will we view, and be affected by, these new scenarios of imminent destruction?

Television “news” continually presents us with the possibility – often enhanced by computer graphics – of a nuclear holocaust. Yet the idea of nuclear terrorism is hardly new. E. B. White, in his 1949 study Here is New York, after celebrating the city’s multicultural heritage and magnificent urban sprawl, sounded a note of warning:

“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. Of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.” (qtd. in Dixon 2003: 17)

Thus, long before the prophets of disaster turned Armageddon into a pop culture pastime, the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little had a perfect fix on precisely what makes Manhattan so alluring: its vulnerability.

Today, such a scenario would be even easier. Is it any wonder that this nightmarish vision haunts us, and continues to play out in the popular media with ever-increasing frequency? For it seems that the day that White prophesied is coming closer all the time. Thus, we live in fear – fear that can be marketed, packaged and sold.

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) posits the reality of just such a future, and that’s perhaps the reason this prescient film was a relative failure at the box-office. England “soldiers on” as the posters within the film put it, as the rest of the world disintegrates into poverty and violence in a world in which human birth is, for reasons that are never explained, no longer possible. Perhaps the planet has decided that enough is enough, so to speak, and given up on humankind; but whatever the cause, pregnancy is impossible. Schools and universities are abandoned; who needs them when the youngest person is now 18, and no one else is coming along to repopulate the species? Not only is Children of Men resolutely Dystopian, envisioning a future in which rich and poor are utterly stratified, it also examines the racism, violence, and paramilitary extremism that must necessarily arise from such a police state. This atmosphere of all consuming terror thus opens up a host of opportunities for new products that may protect us from terrorist attacks, or then again, they may not. While the film ends on a potentially redemptive note, its vision of the future is anything but ameliatory.

In the early stages of the 2008 campaign, the politician and actor Fred Dalton Thompson, best known for his continuing role on the television series Law and Order, was running for the office of President of the United States. In Ben Goddard’s film Last Best Chance (2005), he had already attained that office, and is saddled with the unenviable task of preventing nuclear terrorism in the United States, working with a system so porous that failure is almost inevitable. Surrounded by a group of advisors who seem overwhelmed by their task, the fictional president portrayed by Thompson, one “Charles B. Ross,” fights to sift through an avalanche of conflicting reports, “chatter” on the Internet, and interdepartmental intrigues because, as he puts it, “I don’t want us sitting on our butts if something’s about to happen.”

But in the end, despite cooperation from the Russian government (a prospect that seems increasingly remote these days), all his vigilance is to no avail. Through a complex web of international negotiations, a group of terrorists manage to assemble a nuclear device in Canada, and then smuggle it across the border at an isolated location, right under the noses of customs officials. At the same time, bombs are smuggled in from other locations, and President Ross admits to his staff that “I don’t know how many there are, where they are, or what I can do to stop them.” The film ends with the implication that one or more of the devices will soon be detonated on U.S. soil.

Goldfinger

The age of innocence and technological primitivism posited by such films as Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964), in which the title character plans to nuke Fort Knox to increase the value of his own holdings in gold, is both remote and now even nostalgic. There is nothing comforting in the scenarios offered by Last Best Chance, The Sum of All Fears, and other contemporary nuclear thrillers that now proliferate on television, DVD, the Web and conventional theatre screens. Torture and death, as in the sardonic television program 1,000 Ways To Die (2008-) which bills itself as “docu-fiction,” graphically depicting one grisly demise after another with no narrative thread whatsoever, have become the staple entertainment norm of the new millennium. CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the other cable news channels have now become almost interchangeable, dealing in a steady diet of disaster, murder, destruction, violence and societal failure. Scandal has replaced news, and violence has supplanted entertainment. This is the end game, the next step down the road towards the failure of a traditional system of governments, checks and balances, assignable accountability, and identifiable combatants.

The War Game

When Peter Watkins directed the classic docudrama The War Game in 1965 depicting what would really happen in the event of an all out nuclear attack on Great Britain, the BBC refused to run it, asserting that it would disturb their viewers. Although not a single sequence in the film is authentic, the 47-minute featurette won an Academy Award for Best Documentary (my emphasis) in 1967, a tribute to its gritty cinema verité appearance. In Watkins’s film, which set the standard for the numerous depictions of nuclear conflict that were to follow, the bomb kills millions immediately, sets houses on fire, and sentences the rest of the population to a lingering death from radiation poisoning. In stark contrast to the “preparedness” films of the 1950s, Watkins demonstrates that no matter what precautions one takes, the loss of life will be enormous, governments will collapse, cities will crumble, and civilization as we conceive it will cease to exist. If anything, the current appetite for corporeal and spiritual destruction is nothing more than a manifestation of manic information overload. We now have access to everything, but the sheer quantity of information overwhelms us.

Yet all of it remains remote, carefully contained within a box of homicidal and genocidal dreams. When we view images in the darkness that prefigure our own end, we are trying to visualize our perfect death, to choreograph the end of time to our own personal advantage. When we cease to exist, the world ceases to exist because we can no longer apprehend it. And it is this moment that we fear and anticipate above all others because it represents the complete disintegration of the self. The visions offered by the cinema and television after 9/11 are but a part of the stakes of this new cinematic representationalism; what will happen next is anyone’s guess, but I would predict that the twin paths of pornographic violence and “feel good” escapism will continue to dominate.

It’s what the mainstream cinema wants. Live in fear, and consume; witness torture and violence as catharsis for one’s own pain, but at no risk to one’s own person; or be mollified by a picture-perfect world where no one’s house is being repossessed, the economic downturn of 2008 never happened, and the oft-cited “American Dream” is still intact. But, of course, it isn’t, and the gap between the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, the privileged and the marginalized is greater than ever. This is what these films seek to conceal; all is not well, so with “a feeling skill,” as Sidney would put it, they paint our hell.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University Press of Kentucky, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; revised 2nd edition published 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.

Suggested further reading: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, “Embracing The Apocalypse: A World Without People”

References

Coughlan, Maggie and Mike Fleeman (2012), “James Holmes Called Himself ‘The Joker’ after Batman Movie Massacre”, People, July 20.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston (2003), Visions of the Apocalypse, London: Wallflower.

Heher, Ashley M. and Caryn Rousseau (2008), “Police Investigate NIU Shooter’s Two Sides”, Associated Press, February 16.

Hoberman, Jim (2001) “All as It Had Been: Hollywood Revises History, Joins the Good Fight”, The Village Voice, December 4.

Hoberman, Jim (2011), “Spielberg and Fincher: Taming Creatures”, The Village Voice, December 21.

Note: Brief portions of this paper were first presented as “Not Whether But When: Post 9/11 Nuclear Terrorism,” at the 2008 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in Philadelphia, PA, on March 7, 2008; and also in the presentation “Not a Pretty Picture: Film and Television After 9/11,” as part of “The Arts after 9/11: A Tocqueville Symposium,” on February 9, 2012 at The University of Richmond, Virginia.

3 Comments for ““Lost in a Roman Wilderness of Pain”: Film and Television After 9/11”

  1. [...] I have a new piece out today in Film International, ”‘Lost in a Roman Wilderness of Pai… [...]

  2. [...] Here’s an article I published on film and television after 9/11 in Film International; above, … [...]

  3. [...] Film and TV post-9/11 by film writing machine Wheeler Winston Dixon. “Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they’d seen it in a movie.” [...]

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