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'It Was Like a Movie': Atrocity and the Arts

'It Was Like a Movie': Atrocity and the Arts

10 Mins
October 14, 2010

November 2001 -- A article from the  Navigator Special: The Assault on Civilization, posted October 12, 2001. Published in the November 2001 Navigator.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," one of the eyewitnesses said, his clothes covered in soot, interviewed live on network TV just minutes after the second Twin Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. "There were people jumping from the top floors, and you could see the fire and the smoke just billowing up. And then the whole thing just started coming down." The camera zoomed in. "It was the most terrible thing you could ever imagine. It was like a movie."

Television viewers heard that final phrase repeated with uncannily little variation by person after person who had seen the melee firsthand: rescue workers and pedestrians, employees in nearby office buildings and workers who themselves had narrowly escaped the crumbling towers. On NBC's "Today Show," a seemingly dazed Katie Couric said, tellingly, "On some level it's hard to believe these events are really happening. It seems more like something we'd see in a movie."

The comment, to be sure, says a lot about the attacks. But it also says a lot about the movies. Who among us did not feel a disquieting sense of deja vu on viewing the explosions and collapses, a feeling we had seen this all before in a darkened theater or in front of the VCR? The terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., sound a wake-up call on many fronts: not only philosophical, geopolitical, and sociological, but also, I submit, aesthetic, for they have thrown into relief the relationship between "reel" violence and real violence, between the Hollywood carnage we clamor for and the true-life tragedies from which we recoil.

How does it bode for our culture, and in particular the state of the arts, when the phrase "like a movie" is synonymous with "the vilest, most horrific catastrophe of which the human mind can conceive"? My view as an artist and an American is that the ubiquitous comparison of the terrorist attacks to Hollywood blockbusters alerts us as no event ever has before to the numbing nihilism of contemporary cinema and literature and compels us to action. What sort of action? I will offer one answer in this essay.


So omnipresent in our arts is what author Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange) termed "ultraviolence"—so eagerly do we as moviegoers spend our money and time ogling various immolations played out in photorealistic special effects—and consequently so nonchalant have we grown to depictions of the cruelest inhumanities, that our contemporary cinema now stands as the most powerful negative currency we can invoke when we grasp for words to describe real evil. Armageddon, Apocalypse, Hell, Chaos, and the end of the universe have all ceded their symbolic claims to the ultimate cataclysm to our new nadir: the movies. Fifty-six years removed from the Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito they never knew, the Baby Boomers, Gen X, and now Gen Y have no personal experience with the nature of true evil on a massive scale and can only resort to their pre-eminent frame of reference: the fictions of cinema and literature. These art forms, far from portraying the world "as it could and should be," instead now deliver nightmare scenarios of gore and mass destruction that make Dante's and Bosch's infernal visions look like Mister Roger's Neighborhood.

"Like a movie," meant something different during the era film historians commonly call the Golden Age. To invoke the silver screen in that era of romance (and Romanticism) was to conjure visions of glamour and gentility personified by the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Frederic March, Claudette Colbert, the virtuosic choreographies of Busby Berkley, the tailcoat-clad Marlene Dietrich performing in a supper club, flirting with Gary Cooper. During that age, even films which portrayed the violent or macabre (Tod Browning's Dracula, starring the diabolically debonair Bela Lugosi, and Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with March in the double role, are two examples from 1931) did so subtly by employing the powers of suggestion and suspense, all the while in an environment of drawing rooms, tailcoats, and Continental manners. The milieu's overarching hallmark of gloss and glamour captured the imagination of a young Ayn Rand, filling her with dreams of escaping bleary Russia. "Like a movie" connoted the best within us then, back when gentility and sophistication were qualities to which we aspired, before the Sixties rendered formality passé and the Seventies ushered in cinematic naturalism with a spray of Bonnie and Clyde's blood.

The difference between cinema then and now lies in the selectivity of the screenwriters' and directors' recreation of reality, a function of individual aesthetic choices as well as cultural Zeitgeist. In film, as in literature and the visual arts, Romanticism and Naturalism wage war in the battle for content and style. Romantic cinema presents as subjects heroes and heroines, gentlemen and ladies of cultivation and considerable charm engaged in either frothy pursuits (comedy) or suspenseful conflict (drama). By contrast, Naturalist films present "the folks next door," the so-called "Everyman," the protagonist rather than the hero, engaged in banalities or amoral actions, which lead to no consequences. Because Romantic drama is concerned with the purposeful, volitional acts of heroes overcoming evil, graphic violence is not necessary; because the selective focus of such art is on the good, the grisly details of evil acts and graphic violence are far less relevant than the hero's efforts to avenge them; as a result, violent acts often occur offscreen or in wide shot. But Naturalist art, with its contempt for heroic values, often presents the triumph of amorality or immorality over the good; to make this selective focus on moral inversion even more jarring, Naturalist film directors often linger over scenes of gore, bloodshed, torture, and murder.

The artist's core metaphysical question is: to selectively portray the good or the evil, the civilized or the uncivilized? In the era beginning with Rudolph Valentino and terminating, arguably, with Cary Grant, the movies largely brought us a world of civility, class, taste, and what I call the aristocracy of spirit—not the accident of noble birth, but the noblesse acquired through education, culture, travel, and connoisseurship. During that era, to invoke the movies was to invoke the best within us.


Today, by contrast, the phrase, "It was like a movie," connotes the worst of which we are capable, which is why it so ably describes the death and destruction of September 11. Perhaps our uneasy deja-vu that dark day came from the fact that some of us had read Tom Clancy's thriller, Executive Orders, in which terrorists commandeer a 747 and crash it into the U.S. Capitol, killing the President, members of Congress, and the Justices of the Supreme Court. Others among us may have recently rented the film, Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis, which revolves around a terrorist's attempts to blow up a high-rise building; or Die Hard 2, in which terrorists commandeer the flight tower at Washington's Dulles International Airport and crash a passenger jet, killing all aboard; or Independence Day, which features scene after scene of man-made landmarks being obliterated, climaxing with the blowing up of the White House, a scene that is supposed to make us laugh.

Watching Fight Club is like watching one of al-Qaeda's training films.

Or perhaps our queasy sense of recognition may have come from having read Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel, Fight Club, or watching the movie it spawned three years later, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. The book details an elaborate, highly trained network of (domestic) terrorists devoted to a diabolical plot called Project Mayhem. The terrorists' mastermind, a schizophrenic named Tyler Durden, explains Project Mayhem to his followers as an attempt to blast civilization back into "a cultural Ice Age." Central to his plot is the destruction of potent symbols of man's achievement. He regales his troops with the promise that one day they will hunt elk through the deserted canyons of what used to be Manhattan Island; that Rockefeller Center will lie in ruin, a primeval forest growing up around it; that the unlucky survivors of Project Mayhem will dig clams in Puget Sound beneath "the skeleton of the Space Needle leaning at a forty-five-degree angle;" that he and his troops will paint deserted office towers with grotesque tiki faces to frighten men into subjugation. In this brave, brutal new world, he promises, men and women who once planned mergers and conducted e-commerce will have to seek refuge in the cages of empty zoos from packs of wild dogs. It is a plot to destroy the very foundations of civilized life and reduce man to the level of an animal, spooked by leering totems and things that go bump in the night. Project Mayhem sprang from the mind of a fiction writer, but could Osama bin Laden have more succinctly articulated his destructive goals if he'd tried?

The film version of Fight Club delves even deeper into this eerily prescient plot and presents further parallels between fictional apocalypse and real-life terror. Project Mayhem's minions don't just blow up buildings without any practice. They start small, building up gradually. They bulk-erase videotapes at Blockbuster. Cover BMWs with bird droppings. Cause a power outage at the local shopping mall. Reverse the tire shredders at parking garages, causing blowouts when cars drive in. Replace the flight safety manuals in airline seat pockets with phony fliers graphically depicting a plane crash. Torch a computer store. Pull a gun on a convenience store clerk, order the man to his knees, hold the barrel to his head, execution style, and make him beg for his life, just for the sadistic hell of it. For the fictional terrorists' penultimate project, something they call "Operation Latte Thunder," they blow up a massive sculpture at the base of an office building, sending the giant metal artwork crashing through the windows of a Starbucks-like coffee shop. The targets are clearly symbolic: BMWs, computers, and Starbucks connote wealth, information technology, and corporate America. It is capitalism in the crosshairs.

If there were any doubt of this, it is clarified explicitly in the film's final scene. As the main characters (heroes they are not) line up to view the simultaneous implosions of a dozen skyscrapers—all credit-card-company headquarter buildings—Tyler Durden explains: "Out these windows we will witness the collapse of financial history… If you erase the debt record, then we all go back to zero. You'll create total chaos… One step closer to economic equilibrium." Then, as Durden and his girlfriend hold hands, the skyscrapers explode and crash to the ground in slo-mo special effects, a hard-rock song by The Dust Brothers blaring in the soundtrack.

It's all meant to be great fun in that wink-wink, ironic, leftist, post-modern way: Watch those greedy rich dogs go down in their skyscrapers, whoa, check out that cool explosion, hey, this song rocks, dude, pass the popcorn. But the scene plays differently now, post-September 11, now that we have seen the real world's proudest symbols of capitalism reduced to rubble by madmen. Fiction has become fact: terrorists targeting the buildings most symbolic of free commerce, then bringing them to the ground in a dramatic statement of hatred for Enlightenment values. In retrospect, Fight Club reads like an Al Qaeda training manual.

Is it possible that actual terrorists might have gleaned some of their twisted ideas from twisted American movies and novels? If one were to suggest such a scenario, no skeptic could say, "Impossible" with complete certainty. Stranger things have happened—and indeed are happening—in the off-kilter world in which we find ourselves. At the very least, the attacks illustrate how very literally the arts have come to reflect our culture's nihilistic values, and vice versa.

Some might attempt to explain away our national obsession with violence—our predilection for art, which chronicles the grisly, exploits of serial killers and portrays our most cherished institutions being blown to smithereens—by dismissing such films as "mindless entertainment." More ambitious apologists might place these films in the long arc, with the Greeks and Shakespeare its twin apexes, of fictional works, which use murder and destruction as plot devices to drive action forward, intensify theme, and elicit catharsis.

These are copouts. Invoking Richard III to justify Die Hard 2 is like invoking Rachmaninoff to justify The Spice Girls, and just as disregarding of context. Serious, Romantic art, when portraying violence, does so in the context of an integrated plot with the aim of tying together concrete actions and abstract ideas; in doing so, it appeals to our conceptual faculty. Naturalist art—or worse, the even more bankrupt post-modern art which eschews any viewpoint, including a Naturalist one—portrays violence in order to shock and sicken us, and nothing more; it aims to "get a rise out of us" on a crude, perceptual level. As conceptual beings, we derive deeper value from art, which challenges our minds than from that which merely assaults the senses. Fortunately, we have the ability to discriminate between the two, if we will only use it.


Moral crusaders on the Right and Left, the Pat Robertsons and Joe Liebermans, have been warring against Hollywood for years, using phrases like "family values," "voluntary ratings system," and "V-chip" as code for "censorship." Their tactics are not ours. As civil libertarians, we have defended the arts against censorship countless times in the past. When the city fathers of Cincinnati decided photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic nudes went beyond the pale, we rallied, some of us reluctantly, to the artist's defense. When Tipper Gore and company went after "2 Live Crew" and other foul-mouthed rappers, we stood stalwart as defenders of First-Amendment rights. When Congress recently exerted pressure on Hollywood to tune down the sex and violence, we defended the studios' right to produce as much sex and violence as consumers demand. Although critical of government funding of the arts, we have nevertheless argued for artists' rights to display their art to whomever they can convince to view it, whether that art be The Last Temptation of Christ or the Virgin Mary in elephant dung. And we were right to do so on all accounts. Free markets require free speech and free thought. Ayn Rand and Ray Bradbury have shown eloquently enough what happens when the state dictates what its citizens should and should not read, write, watch, or listen to. Clearly, censorship is not the solution and will not rid us of the trash that both reflects and absorbs the nihilism of post-modern culture. (For further discussion of these issues, see Roger Donway's "Decline Demands Philosophers, Not Censors" and "Support the Media's Right to be Disgusting" in the January and February Navigator respectively.)

No, if we are to find the roots of nihilistic art's current prominence, we must search within ourselves, engage our premises in a private Socratic dialogue: How "mindless" do we prefer our entertainment? How hilarious do we really find murder and genocide? How much graphic violence will we tolerate in the name of plot advancement or cheap thrills? How willing are we to invest the intellectual focus necessary to differentiate between the gore in, say, Oedipus Rex, and the gore in the latest teen slasher flick?

Once we have wrestled the answers from our psyches, it is our responsibility to exercise the right each of us has in a free society: to either support or not support any given artwork in accordance with our sovereign rational judgment; to vote with our wallets and pocketbooks. We must recognize trash when we see it. We must recognize—and not patronize—art that dehumanizes and demoralizes. Alternately, we must seek out art that speaks to the best within us.

Is it possible to produce or direct a film in which no one gets shot, stabbed, or caught up in a terrorist plot, a film without the obligatory car chases and fake-out endings where the dead serial killer turns out not to be dead after all? Director Richard Linklater created such a film with 1995's Before Sunrise, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, a delightful film about nothing more, and nothing less, than two attractive, young intellectuals exploring Vienna—and each other. This viewer, for one, did not miss the assorted chaos and carnage. Artistic tastes diverge in even the most kindred of spirits, so you might not care for Before Sunrise. I offer it as but one example of the wider cosmos beyond the brain-deadening black hole of mainstream cinema. Other examples abound, but they are hidden in the high-double-digit channels of cable television, in the video store's classic and foreign-film aisles, at the art house theater downtown, hanging on the gallery wall in the city fifty or a hundred miles away from you, and on the bookstore's fiction shelf—yes, even beyond those favorite titles of yours sandwiched between David Rabe and Anne Rice. It takes perseverance to root out good art, but it does exist, and it is there for our enjoyment, if only we are willing to make the effort.

This effort is key, for it takes a sustained application of consciousness to pass moral and aesthetic judgment upon a work of art. To the extent we wish to pass aesthetic judgments, each of us, with our sovereign rational judgment fully grounded in objective reality, must identify what is great, good, mediocre, middling, awful, or evil in a given artwork, and why. Just as in other matters, there can be honest disagreement between two rational men regarding the value of a work of art, but each should be ready to defend his position if he cares to enter a debate regarding aesthetic matters. Most significantly, in a capitalist society each man is at liberty to grant his financial and intellectual support to an artist or withhold it. In a culture such as our current one—rudderless on a sea of floating abstractions, torn between the false dichotomy of pre-Enlightenment versus anti-Enlightenment values—the prevailing art of the day reflects our cultural crisis. Why? Because millions of people make individual value judgments every day, consciously or subconsciously, in favor of trite, tasteless, or repugnantly violent television programs, films, and other forms of popular entertainment. In the culture in which we could and should live, that art would flourish which speaks to our noblest potential. If we are ever to reach such a culture, we must get there one value judgment at a time, one box-office dollar at a time, one Nielsen rating point at a time.


This hour of national tragedy and reflection gives us both pause and cause to check our premises, including our aesthetic ones. We all hope against hope that such a nightmare as we have recently weathered will never again sully our sacred soil. But if it should, if we in the future find ourselves surveying similar scenes of destruction, then may we search our minds and popular culture for the words to describe it—and find none, for no words can describe, and no movie ought serve as metaphor for, such indescribable horrors.

This article was originally published in the November 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.  

Richard Speer
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