Upon viewing Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I am reminded of the difficulty the American mind has in conceiving its own destruction, at least by the Other. When it attempts to imagine such destruction, it is cast in apocalyptic terms suggesting no other atrocity could match the suffering of the United States. Hence, this film, about a boy’s attempt to come to terms with his father’s death in the attacks of September 11, 2001 (always cast in the numerals “9/11,” to suggest a truly epochal event), wants to convey a totally paralyzing trauma – the notion of centering the narrative on a manic little boy suffering from Asperger’s syndrome seems apposite enough, since the shock of the event is meant to be so overwhelming any form of analysis or understanding of the moment, certainly any attempt at political discourse, is a fool’s errand.
But the trauma is not overwhelming enough to prevent the requisite happy ending, with the restoration of the bourgeois family, if in slightly tattered form. For a moment the film struck me as quite similar to films of the 1970s and 80s dealing with the restoration of patriarchal authority – I think of The Great Santini, Taps, Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People, An Officer and a Gentleman, and of course the first Star Wars films. The boy desperately needs his father (Tom Hanks, who has come to embody the aw-shucks-never-say-die temperament of the new Hollywood, as it works to find replacements for the Jimmy Stewarts and Gary Coopers), whose caring and wisdom easily eclipse that of the mother (Sandra Bullock), placed on the margins of the film until its coda. But the boy finds another patriarch to guide him, his shut-in grandfather (Max von Sydow – that this wonderful actor, one of the greatest of the last century, is reduced to such tripe is as clear an index as we have for where the industry is going). The grandfather carries the ball in helping the boy steady himself. But, lo and behold, in the final act the mother steps in. She has followed the boy, we are told, during his frantic journeys through the city. She continues the father’s games, and shoves aside whatever personality she had (what it was is unclear) to become the father, an instance of the phallicized woman of the domestic sphere (versus the gun-toting females of cinematic juvenilia).
The work of director Stephen Daldry has gone steadily downhill since the estimable if problematical The Hours, which might have been a fine representation of the woman’s melodrama (especially the Julianne Moore sequence), were it not for the tendency to portray the female as an emotional wreck, and to blame the mother for the suicide of the sensitive male artist, as we are instructed that actions have consequences.
When I mentioned the American mind and the difficulty it has in imagining its own demise, or even an assault upon it, I was thinking of all that goes unsaid in films like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, such as the atrocities committed by the U.S. against other nations. These atrocities can be imagined, but they are nuisances that somehow merely “happen,” and are then relegated to the dustbin of history. Sectors of the left have pointed to the “original” 9/11, the September 11, 1973 U.S.-backed coup against Chile and the democratically-elected government of socialist Salvador Allende, resulting in the bombing of the presidential palace, the death of Allende, and murder of countless thousands as the military dictatorship of Pinochet was imposed by the administration of President Richard Nixon. And there is the U.S. attack on Southeast Asia that lasted almost fifteen years, or Reagan’s murderous war against socialism in Central America. The coup against Allende is documented in the extraordinary films of Patricio Guzman, and in Costa-Gavras’s fine narrative film Missing, works that have vanished down the memory hole except for the interested few. But “9/11” films are plentiful as it remains the be-all and end-all of crimes against humanity for the current generation, a crime so enormous it cannot be adequately verbalized – especially since it became not the reason for a criminal investigation but the financial cornerstone of two ghastly wars.
See Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close if you want tears jerked. Otherwise see The Battle of Chile, Salvador Allende, and Nostalgia for the Light, films that treat the spectator as something other than an adolescent.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University, USA. He has written for Film International and other publications. He is currently listening to Bach cantatas under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner, and a range of industrial noise from Merzbow to Brighter Death Now, which he feels the most authentic representation of the viciousness of the disintegrating late capitalist state.